Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (ch. 15)
The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers, and Condition of the Primitive Christians
(Excerpts From Chapter 15 by Edward Gibbon)
"The SCANTY and SUSPICIOUS materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the DARK CLOUD that hangs over the FIRST AGE of the church. The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native PURITY. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable MIXTURE of ERROR and CORRUPTION, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings."
"Yet even in their fallen state, the JEWS, still asserting their lofty and exclusive privileges, shunned, instead of courting, the society of strangers. They still insisted with inflexible rigor on those parts of the LAW which it was in their power to PRACTISE. Their peculiar distinctions of DAYS, of MEATS, and a variety of trivial though burdensome observances, were so many objects of disgust and aversion for the other nations, to whose habits and prejudices they were diametrically opposite. The painful and even dangerous rite of CIRCUMCISION was alone capable of repelling a willing proselyte from the door of the synagogue."
Christians Obeyed the Law of Moses
"Under these circumstances, Christianity offered itself to the world, armed with the strength of the MOSAIC LAW, and delivered from the weight of its fetters. An exclusive zeal for the truth of religion, and the unity of God, was as carefully inculcated in the new as in the ancient system: and whatever was now revealed to mankind concerning the nature and designs of the Supreme Being, was fitted to increase their reverence for that mysterious doctrine. The DIVINE AUTHORITY of MOSES and the PROPHETS was ADMITTED, and even ESTABLISHED, as the FIRMEST BASIS of CHRISTIANITY. From the beginning of the world, an uninterrupted series of predictions had announced and prepared the long-expected coming of the Messiah, who, in compliance with the gross apprehensions of the Jews, had been more frequently represented under the character of a King and Conqueror, than under that of a Prophet, a Martyr, and the Son of God. By his expiatory sacrifice, the imperfect sacrifices of the temple were at once consummated and abolished. The ceremonial law, which consisted only of types and figures, was succeeded by a pure and spiritual worship, equally adapted to all climates, as well as to every condition of mankind; and to the initiation of blood (CIRCUMCISION) was substituted a more harmless initiation of water (BAPTISM). The promise of divine favor, instead of being partially confined to the posterity of Abraham, was universally proposed to the freeman and the slave, to the Greek and to the barbarian, to the Jew and to the Gentile. Every privilege that could raise the proselyte from earth to heaven, that could exalt his devotion, secure his happiness, or even gratify that secret pride which, under the semblance of devotion, insinuates itself into the human heart, was still reserved for the members of the Christian church; but at the same time all mankind was permitted, and even solicited, to accept the glorious distinction, which was not only proffered as a favor, but imposed as an obligation. It became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends and relations the inestimable blessing which he had received, and to warn them against a refusal that would be severely punished as a criminal disobedience to the will of a benevolent but all-powerful Deity."
The enfranchisement of the church from the bonds of the synagogue was a work, however, of some time and of some difficulty. The Jewish converts, who acknowledged Jesus in the character of the Messiah foretold by their ancient oracles, respected him as a prophetic teacher of virtue and religion; but they OBSTINATELY ADHERED to the CEREMONIES of their ancestors, and were DESIROUS of IMPOSING THEM on the Gentiles, who continually augmented the number of believers. These JUDAIZING CHRISTIANS seem to have argued with some degree of plausibility from the DIVINE ORIGIN of the MOSAIC LAW, and from the IMMUTABLE PERFECTIONS of its great Author. They affirmed, that if the Being, who is the same through all eternity, had designed to abolish those sacred rites which had served to distinguish his chosen people, the repeal of them would have been no less clear and solemn than their first promulgation: that, instead of those FREQUENT DECLARATIONS, which either suppose or assert the PERPETUITY of the Mosaic religion, it would have been represented as a provisionary scheme intended to last only to the coming of the Messiah, who should instruct mankind in a more perfect mode of faith and of worship: that the Messiah himself, and his disciples who conversed with him on earth, instead of AUTHORIZING by THEIR EXAMPLE the most minute observances of the MOSAIC LAW, would have published to the world the abolition of those useless and obsolete ceremonies, without suffering Christianity to remain during so many years obscurely confounded among the sects of the JEWISH church. Arguments like these appear to have been used in the DEFENCE of the expiring cause of the MOSAIC LAW; but the industry of our learned divines has abundantly explained the ambiguous language of the Old Testament, and the ambiguous conduct of the apostolic teachers. It was proper gradually to unfold the system of the gospel, and to pronounce, with the utmost caution and tenderness, a sentence of condemnation so repugnant to the inclination and prejudices of the BELIEVING JEWS."
"The history of the church of Jerusalem affords a lively proof of the necessity of those precautions, and of the DEEP IMPRESSION which the JEWISH religion had made on the minds of its sectaries. The first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all CIRCUMCISED JEWS; and the congregation over which they presided UNITED the LAW of MOSES with the doctrine of Christ. It was natural that the primitive tradition of a church which was founded only forty days after the death of Christ, and was governed almost as many years under the immediate inspection of his apostle, should be received as the standard of orthodoxy. The distant churches very frequently appealed to the authority of their venerable Parent, and relieved her distresses by a liberal contribution of alms. But when numerous and opulent societies were established in the great cities of the empire, in Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome, the reverence which Jerusalem had inspired to all the Christian colonies insensibly diminished. The JEWISH converts, or, as they were afterwards called, the NAZARENES, who had laid the foundations of the church, soon found themselves OVERWHELMED by the increasing multitudes, that from all the various religions of POLYTHEISM enlisted under the banner of Christ: and the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had REJECTED the intolerable weight of the MOSAIC CEREMONIES, at length REFUSED to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice. The ruin of the temple of the city, and of the public religion of the Jews, was severely felt by the NAZARENES; as in their manners, though not in their faith, they maintained so intimate a connection with their impious countrymen, whose misfortunes were attributed by the Pagans to the contempt, and more justly ascribed by the Christians to the wrath, of the Supreme Deity. The NAZARENES retired from the ruins of Jerusalem to the little town of Pella beyond the Jordan, where that ancient church languished above sixty years in solitude and obscurity. They still enjoyed the comfort of making frequent and devout visits to the Holy City, and the hope of being one day restored to those seats which both nature and religion taught them to love as well as to revere. But at length, under the reign of Hadrian, the desperate fanaticism of the Jews filled up the measure of their calamities; and the Romans, exasperated by their repeated rebellions, exercised the rights of victory with unusual rigor. The emperor founded, under the name of Aelia Capitolina, a new city on Mount Sion, to which he gave the privileges of a colony; and denouncing the severest penalties against any of the Jewish people who should dare to approach its precincts, he fixed a vigilant garrison of a Roman cohort to enforce the execution of his orders. The NAZARENES had only one way left to escape the common proscription, and the force of truth was on this occasion assisted by the influence of temporal advantages. They elected Marcus for their bishop, a prelate of the race of the Gentiles, and most probably a native either of Italy or of some of the Latin provinces. At his persuasion, the most considerable part of the congregation RENOUNCED the MOSAIC LAW, in the practice of which they had PERSEVERED above a CENTURY. By this sacrifice of their habits and prejudices, they purchased a free admission into the colony of Hadrian, and more firmly cemented their union with the Catholic church."
"When the name and honors of the church of Jerusalem had been restored to Mount Sion, the crimes of heresy and schism were imputed to the obscure remnant of the NAZARENES, which refused to accompany their Latin bishop. They still preserved their former habitation of Pella, spread themselves into the villages adjacent to Damascus, and formed an inconsiderable church in the city of Beroea, or, as it is now called, of Aleppo, in Syria. The name of NAZARENES was deemed too honorable for those CHRISTIAN JEWS, and they soon received, from the supposed poverty of their understanding, as well as of their condition, the contemptuous epithet of EBIONITES (Rev. 2:9). In a few years after the return of the church of Jerusalem, it became a matter of doubt and controversy, whether a man who sincerely acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but who still continued to observe the LAW OF MOSES, could possibly hope for salvation. The humane temper of Justin Martyr inclined him to answer this question in the affirmative; and though he expressed himself with the most guarded diffidence, he ventured to determine in favor of such an imperfect Christian, if he were content to practise the MOSAIC CEREMONIES, without pretending to assert their general use or necessity. But when Justin was pressed to declare the sentiment of the church, he confessed that there were very many among the orthodox Christians, who not only excluded their JUDAIZING brethren from the hope of salvation, but who declined any intercourse with them in the common offices of friendship, hospitality, and social life. The more rigorous opinion prevailed, as it was natural to expect, over the milder; and an eternal bar of separation was fixed between the DISCIPLES OF MOSES and those of Christ. The unfortunate EBIONITES, rejected from one religion as apostates, and from the other as heretics, found themselves compelled to assume a more decided character; and although some traces of that obsolete sect may be discovered as late as the FOURTH CENTURY, they insensibly melted away, either into the church or the synagogue."
"From the acknowledged truth of the JEWISH RELIGION, the EBIONITES had concluded that it could NEVER BE ABOLISHED."
"The GENTILE converts, whose strongest objections and prejudices were directed AGAINST the LAW OF MOSES, could find admission into many Christian societies, which required not from their untutored mind any belief of an antecedent revelation. Their faith was insensibly fortified and enlarged, and the church was ultimately benefited by the conquests of its most inveterate enemies."
"But the established religions of Paganism were seen by the primitive Christians in a much more odious and formidable light. It was the universal sentiment both of the church and of heretics, that the DAEMONS were the authors, the patrons, and the OBJECTS of IDOLATRY. Those rebellious SPIRITS who had been degraded from the rank of angels, and cast down into the infernal pit, were still permitted to roam upon earth, to TORMENT the BODIES, and to SEDUCE the MINDS, of sinful men. The DAEMONS soon discovered and abused the natural propensity of the human heart towards devotion, and artfully withdrawing the adoration of mankind from their Creator, they USURPED the PLACE and HONORS of the SUPREME DEITY. By the success of their malicious contrivances, they at once gratified their own vanity and revenge, and obtained the only comfort of which they were yet susceptible, the hope of INVOLVING the HUMAN species in the PARTICIPATION of their GUILT and MISERY. It was confessed, or at least it was imagined, that they had distributed among themselves the most important characters of polytheism, one DAEMON assuming the name and attributes of Jupiter, another of Aesculapius, a third of Venus, and a fourth perhaps of Apollo; and that, by the advantage of their long experience and aerial nature, they were enabled to execute, with sufficient skill and dignity, the parts which they had undertaken. They lurked in the temples, INSTITUTED FESTIVALS and sacrifices, invented fables, PRONOUNCED ORACLES, and were frequently allowed to PERFORM MIRACLES. The Christians, who, by the interposition of evil spirits, could so readily explain every preternatural appearance, were disposed and even desirous to admit the most extravagant fictions of the Pagan mythology. But the belief of the Christian was accompanied with horror. The most trifling MARK OF RESPECT to the national worship he considered as a direct HOMAGE yielded to the DAEMON, and as an act of REBELLION against the majesty of God."
"In consequence of this opinion, it was the first but arduous duty of a Christian to preserve himself PURE and UNDEFILED by the practice of idolatry. The religion of the nations was not merely a speculative doctrine professed in the schools or preached in the temples. The innumerable deities and rites of polytheism were closely interwoven with every circumstance of business or pleasure, of public or of private life; and it seemed impossible to escape the observance of them, without, at the same time, RENOUNCING the COMMERCE OF MANKIND, and all the OFFICES and AMUSEMENTS of society. The important transactions of peace and war were prepared or concluded by solemn sacrifices, in which the magistrate, the senator, and the soldier, were obliged to preside or to participate. The public spectacles were an essential part of the cheerful devotion of the Pagans, and the gods were supposed to accept, as the most grateful offering, the games that the prince and people celebrated in honor of their PECULIAR FESTIVALS. The Christians, who with pious horror avoided the abomination of the CIRCUS or the THEATRE, found himself encompassed with infernal snares in every convivial entertainment, as often as his friends, invoking the hospitable deities, poured out libations to each other's happiness. When the bride, struggling with well-affected reluctance, was forced into hymenaeal pomp over the threshold of her new habitation, or when the sad procession of the dead slowly moved towards the funeral pile; the Christian, on these interesting occasions, was compelled to DESERT the persons who were the dearest to him, rather than CONTRACT THE GUILT INHERENT to those impious ceremonies. Every art and every trade that was in the least concerned in the framing or adorning of idols was polluted by the stain of idolatry; a severe sentence, since it devoted to eternal misery the far greater part of the community, which is employed in the exercise of liberal or mechanic professions. If we cast our eyes over the numerous remains of antiquity, we shall perceive, that besides the immediate representations of the gods, and the holy instruments of their worship, the elegant forms and agreeable fictions consecrated by the imagination of the Greeks, were introduced as the richest ornaments of the houses, the dress, and the furniture of the Pagan. Even the arts of MUSIC and PAINTING, of ELOQUENCE and POETRY, flowed from the same impure origin. In the style of the fathers, Apollo and the Muses were the organs of the infernal spirit; Homer and Virgil were the most eminent of his servants; and the beautiful MYTHOLOGY which pervades and animates the compositions of their genius, is destined to celebrate the glory of the DAEMONS. Even the common LANGUAGE of Greece and Rome abounded with familiar but impious expressions, which the imprudent Christian might too carelessly utter, or too patiently hear." ("By Jove", "Fortunate", "Good Luck")
"The dangerous temptations which on every side lurked in ambush to surprise the unguarded believer, assailed him with redoubled violence on the days of solemn FESTIVALS. So artfully were they framed and disposed throughout the year, that superstition always wore the appearance of PLEASURE, and often of VIRTUE. Some of the most sacred festivals in the Roman ritual were destined to salute the new calends of January with vows of public and private felicity (New Year's Eve); to indulge the pious remembrance of the dead and living (Halloween); to ascertain the inviolable bounds of property; to hail, on the return of spring, the genial powers of fecundity (Easter); to perpetuate the two memorable aeras of Rome, the foundation of the city and that of the republic, and to restore, during the humane license of the Saturnalia, the primitive equality of mankind (X-Mas). Some idea may be conceived of the abhorrence of the Christians for such impious ceremonies, by the scrupulous delicacy which they displayed on a much less alarming occasion. On days of general festivity, it was the custom of the ancients to adorn their doors with lamps and with branches of laurel, and to crown their heads with a garland of flowers (May Day). This innocent and elegant practice might perhaps have been tolerated as a mere civil institution. But it most unluckily happened that the doors were under the protection of the household gods, that the laurel was sacred to the lover of Daphne, and that garlands of flowers, though frequently worn as a symbol of joy or mourning, had been dedicated in their first origin to the service of superstition. The trembling Christians, who were persuaded in this instance to comply with the fashion of their country, and the commands of the magistrate, labored under the most gloomy apprehensions, from the reproaches of his own conscience, the censures of the church, and the denunciations of divine vengeance."
Immortality of the Soul
"we discover that the doctrine of the IMMORTALITY of the SOUL is omitted in the law of Moses; it is darkly insinuated by the prophets; and during the long period which clasped between the Egyptian and the Babylonian servitudes, the hopes as well as fears of the Jews appear to have been confined within the narrow compass of the present life. After Cyrus had permitted the exiled nation to return into the promised land, and after Ezra had restored the ancient records of their religion, two celebrated sects, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, insensibly arose at Jerusalem. The former, selected from the more opulent and distinguished ranks of society, were strictly attached to the literal sense of the Mosaic law, and they piously rejected the IMMORTALITY of the SOUL, as an opinion that received no countenance from the divine book, which they revered as the only rule of their faith. To the authority of Scripture the Pharisees added that of tradition, and they accepted, under the name of traditions, several speculative tenets from the philosophy or religion of the eastern nations. The doctrines of fate or predestination, of angels and spirits, and of a future state of rewards and punishments, were in the number of these new articles of belief; and as the Pharisees, by the austerity of their manners, had drawn into their party the body of the Jewish people, the IMMORTALITY of the SOUL became the prevailing sentiment of the synagogue, under the reign of the Asmonaean princes and pontiffs. The temper of the Jews was incapable of contenting itself with such a cold and languid assent as might satisfy the mind of a Polytheist; and as soon as they admitted the idea of a future state, they embraced it with the zeal which has always formed the characteristic of the nation. Their zeal, however, added nothing to its evidence, or even probability: and it was still necessary that the doctrine of life and immortality, which had been dictated by nature, approved by reason, and received by superstition, should obtain the sanction of divine truth from the authority and example of Christ."
Millenium After 6000 Years
"The ancient and popular doctrine of the MILLENIUM was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ. As the works of the creation had been finished in SIX DAYS, their duration in their present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the prophet Elijah, was fixed to SIX THOUSAND YEARS. By the same analogy it was inferred, that this long period of labor and contention, which was now almost elapsed, would be succeeded by a joyful SABBATH of a THOUSAND YEARS; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection. So pleasing was this hope to the mind of believers, that the New Jerusalem, the seat of this blissful kingdom, was quickly adorned with all the gayest colors of the imagination. A felicity consisting only of pure and spiritual pleasure would have appeared too refined for its inhabitants, who were still supposed to possess their human nature and senses. A garden of Eden, with the amusements of the pastoral life, was no longer suited to the advanced state of society which prevailed under the Roman empire. A city was therefore erected of gold and precious stones, and a supernatural plenty of corn and wine was bestowed on the adjacent territory; in the free enjoyment of whose spontaneous productions, the happy and benevolent people was never to be restrained by any jealous laws of exclusive property. The assurance of such a MILLENIUM was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers from Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostles, down to Lactantius, who was preceptor to the son of Constantine. Though it might not be universally received, it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of the orthodox believers; and it seems so well adapted to the desires and apprehensions of mankind, that it must have contributed in a very considerable degree to the progress of the Christian faith. But when the edifice of the church was almost completed, the temporary support was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ's REIGN UPON EARTH was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism. A mysterious prophecy, which still forms a part of the sacred canon, but which was thought to favor the exploded sentiment, has very narrowly escaped the proscription of the church."
Babylon is Rome
"the epithet of BABYLON was applied to the city and to the empire of Rome."
"and the city of the seven hills, with her palaces, her temples, and her triumphal arches, should be buried in a vast lake of fire and brimstone."
"its deep caverns, beds of sulphur, and numerous volcanoes, of which those of Aetna, of Vesuvius, and of Lipari, exhibit a very imperfect representation."
Demons and Visions
"The condemnation of the wisest and most virtuous of the Pagans, on account of their ignorance or disbelief of the divine truth, seems to offend the reason and the humanity of the present age. But the primitive church, whose faith was of a much firmer consistence, delivered over, without hesitation, to eternal torture, the far greater part of the human species. A charitable hope might perhaps be indulged in favor of Socrates, or some other sages of antiquity, who had consulted the light of reason before that of the gospel had arisen. But it was unanimously affirmed, that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity."
"The DIVINE INSPIRATION, whether it was conveyed in the form of a waking or of a sleeping VISION, is described as a favor very liberally bestowed on all ranks of the faithful, on women as on elders, on boys as well as upon bishops. When their devout minds were sufficiently prepared by a course of prayer, of fasting, and of vigils, to receive the extraordinary impulse, they were transported out of their senses, and delivered in ecstasy what was inspired, being mere organs of the Holy Spirit, just as a pipe or flute is of him who blows into it. We may add, that the design of these VISIONS was, for the most part, either to disclose the FUTURE HISTORY, or to guide the PRESENT ADMINISTRATION, of the church. The EXPULSION of the DAEMONS from the bodies of those unhappy persons whom they had been permitted to torment, was considered as a signal though ordinary triumph of religion, and is repeatedly alleged by the ancient apoligists, as the most convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity. The awful ceremony was usually performed in a public manner, and in the presence of a great number of spectators; the patient was relieved by the power or skill of the exorcist, and the vanquished DAEMON was heard to confess that he was one of the FABLED GODS of antiquity, who had impiously usurped the adoration of mankind. But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind, can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect, that in the days of Iranaeus, about the end of the second century, the RESURRECTION of the DEAD was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event; that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them many years. At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers, who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy, and promised Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, that if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable, that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge."
"They felt, or they fancied, that on every side they were incessantly ASSAULTED by DAEMONS, COMFORTED by VISIONS, INSTRUCTED by PROPHECY, and surprisingly DELIVERED from danger, sickness, and from death itself, by the supplications of the church."
"The desire of PERFECTION became the ruling passion of their soul".
"Their serious and sequestered life, averse to the gay luxury of the age, inured them to chastity, temperance, economy, and all the sober and domestic virtues. As the greater number were of some trade or profession, it was incumbent on them, by the strictest integrity and the fairest dealing, to remove the suspicions which the profane are too apt to conceive against the appearances of sanctity. The contempt of the world exercised them in the habits of humility, meekness, and patience. The more they were persecuted, the more closely they adhered to each other."
White Garments and Beards
"Gay apparel, magnificent houses, and elegant furniture, were supposed to unite the double guilt of pride and of sensuality; a simple and mortified appearance was more suitable to the Christian who was certain of his sins and doubtful of his salvation. In their censures of luxury, the fathers are extremely minute and circumstantial; and among the various articles which excite their pious indignation, we may enumerate FALSE HAIR, GARMENTS of any color except WHITE, instruments of music, vases of gold or silver, downy pillows, (as Jacob reposed his head on a stone,) WHITE BREAD, FOREIGN WINES, public salutations, the use of WARM BATHS, and the practice of SHAVING the BEARD, which, according to the expression of Tertullian, is a LIE against our own faces, and an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator. When Christianity was introduced among the rich and the polite, the observation of these singular laws was left, as it would be at present, to the few who were ambitious of superior sanctity. But it is always easy, as well as agreeable, for the inferior ranks of mankind to claim a merit from the contempt of that pomp and pleasure which fortune has placed beyond their reach. The virtue of the primitive Christians, like that of the first Romans, was very frequently guarded by poverty and ignorance."
War and Military Service
"The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The DEFENCE OF OUR PERSONS and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries, and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults. Their simplicity was offended by the use of OATHS, by the pomp of MAGISTRACY, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to SHED the BLOOD of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of JUSTICE, or by that of WAR; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community. It was acknowledged, that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by anointed kings. The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the MILITARY DEFENCE of the empire. Some indulgence might, perhaps, be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of SOLDIERS, of MAGISTRATES, or of PRINCES. This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect. To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman empire, and the world itself, would be no more. It may be observed, that, in this instance likewise, the situation of the first Christians coincided very happily with their religious scruples, and that their aversion to an active life contributed rather to EXCUSE them from the service, than to exclude them from the honors, of the state and army."
Church Government Became "Blind Obedience" to Men
"The ambition of raising themselves or their friends to the honors and offices of the church, was disguised by the laudable intention of devoting to the public benefit the power and consideration, which, for that purpose only, it became their duty to solicit. In the exercise of their functions, they were frequently called upon to detect the errors of HERESY or the arts of FACTION, to oppose the designs of PERFIDIOUS brethren, to STIGMATIZE their characters with deserved INFAMY, and to EXPEL them from the bosom of a society whose peace and happiness they had attempted to DISTURB. The ECCLESIASTICAL GOVERNORS of the Christians were taught to unite the wisdom of the serpent with the innocence of the dove; but as the former was refined, so the latter was insensibly corrupted, by the habits of government. If the church as well as in the world, the persons who were placed in any public station rendered themselves considerable by their eloquence and firmness, by their knowledge of mankind, and by their dexterity in business; and while they concealed from others, and perhaps from themselves, the secret motives of their conduct, they too frequently relapsed into all the turbulent passions of active life, which were tinctured with an additional degree of bitterness and obstinacy from the infusion of spiritual zeal. The GOVERNMENT of the CHURCH has often been the subject, as well as the prize, of religious contention. The hostile disputants of Rome, of Paris, of Oxford, and of Geneva, have alike struggled to reduce the primitive and apostolic model to the respective standards of their own policy. The few who have pursued this inquiry with more candor and impartiality, are of opinion, that the apostles declined the office of legislation, and rather chose to endure some partial scandals and divisions, than to exclude the Christians of a future age from the liberty of varying their forms of ECCLESIASTICAL GOVERNMENT according to the changes of times and circumstances. The scheme of policy, which, under their approbation, was adopted for the use of the first century, may be discovered from the practice of Jerusalem, of Ephesus, or of Corinth. The societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman empire, were united only by the ties of faith and charity. INDEPENDENCE and EQUALITY formed the basis of their internal constitution. The want of discipline and human learning was supplied by the occasional assistance of the prophets, who were called to that function without distinction of age, of sex, or of natural abilities, and who, as often as they felt the divine impulse, poured forth the effusions of the Spirit in the assembly of the faithful. But these extraordinary gifts were frequently abused or misapplied by the prophetic teachers. They displayed them at an improper season, presumptuously disturbed the service of the assembly, and, by their pride or mistaken zeal, they introduced, particularly into the apostolic church of Corinth, a long and melancholy train of disorders. As the institution of prophets became useless, and even pernicious, their powers were withdrawn, and their office abolished. The public functions of religion were solely intrusted to the established ministers of the church, the BISHOPS and the PRESBYTERS; two appellations which, in their first origin, appear to have distinguished the same office and the same order of persons. The name of PRESBYTER was expressive of their age, or rather of their gravity and wisdom. The title of BISHOP denoted their inspection over the faith and manners of the Christians who were committed to their pastoral care. In proportion to the respective numbers of the faithful, a larger or smaller number of these episcopal PRESBYTERS guided each infant congregation with equal authority and with united counsels."
"But the most perfect equality of freedom requires the directing hand of a SUPERIOR MAGISTRATE: and the order of public deliberations soon introduces the office of a PRESIDENT, invested at least with the authority of collecting the sentiments, and of executing the resolutions, of the assembly. A regard for the public tranquillity, which would so frequently have been interrupted by annual or by occasional ELECTIONS, induced the primitive Christians to constitute an honorable and perpetual magistracy, and to choose one of the wisest and most holy among their presbyterians to execute, during his life, the duties of their ECCLESIASTICAL GOVERNOR. It was under these circumstances that the lofty title of BISHOP began to raise itself above the humble appellation of PRESBYTER; and while the latter remained the most natural distinction for the members of every Christian senate, the former was appropriated to the dignity of its new president. The advantages of this EPISCOPAL form of government, which appears to have been introduced before the end of the first century, were so obvious, and so important for the future greatness, as well as the present peace, of Christianity, that it was adopted without delay by all the societies which were already scattered over the empire, had acquired in a very early period the sanction of antiquity, and is still revered by the most powerful churches, both of the East and of the West, as a primitive and even as a divine establishment. It is needless to observe, that the pious and humble PRESBYTERS, who were first dignified with the episcopal title, could not possess, and would probably have rejected, the power and pomp which now encircles the tiara of the Roman PONTIFF, or the mitre of a German prelate. But we may define, in a few words, the narrow limits of their original jurisdiction, which was chiefly of a spiritual, though in some instances of a temporal nature. It consisted in the administration of the SACRAMENTS and DISCIPLINE of the CHURCH, the superintendency of religious ceremonies, which imperceptibly increased in number and variety, the CONSECRATION of ecclesiastical ministers, to whom the bishop assigned their respective functions, the management of the PUBLIC FUND, and the DETERMINATION of all such DIFFERENCES as the faithful were unwilling to expose before the tribunal of an idolatrous judge. These powers, during a short period, were exercised according to the advice of the presbyteral college, and with the consent and approbation of the assembly of Christians. The primitive BISHOPS were considered only as the first of their equals, and the honorable servants of a free people. Whenever the episcopal chair became vacant by death, a new PRESIDENT was chosen among the PRESBYTERS by the suffrages (VOTING) of the whole congregation, every member of which supposed himself invested with a sacred and sacerdotal character."
"Such was the mild and equal constitution by which the Christians were governed more than a HUNDRED YEARS after the death of the apostles. Every society formed within itself a separate and independent republic; and although the most distant of these little states maintained a mutual as well as friendly intercourse of letters and deputations, the Christian world was not yet connected by any SUPREME AUTHORITY or legislative assembly. As the numbers of the faithful were gradually multiplied, they discovered the advantages that might result from a closer union of their interest and designs. Towards the end of the second century, the churches of Greece and Asia adopted the useful institutions of provincial synods, and they may justly be supposed to have borrowed the model of a representative council from the celebrated examples of their own country, the Amphictyons, the Achaean league, or the assemblies of the Ionian cities. It was soon established as a custom and as a law, that the BISHOPS of the INDEPENDENT CHURCHES should meet in the capital of the province at the stated periods of spring and autumn. Their deliberations were assisted by the advice of a few distinguished PRESBYTERS, and moderated by the presence of a listening multitude. Their decrees, which were styled CANONS, regulated every important controversy of faith and discipline; and it was natural to believe that a liberal effusion of the Holy Spirit would be poured on the united assembly of the delegates of the Christian people. The institution of synods was so well suited to private ambition, and to public interest, that in the space of a few years it was received throughout the whole empire. A regular correspondence was established between the provincial councils, which mutually communicated and approved their respective proceedings; and the CATHOLIC CHURCH soon ASSUMED the FORM, and acquired the strength, of a great FOEDERATIVE REPUBLIC."
"As the legislative authority of the particular churches was insensibly SUPERCEDED by the use of councils, the bishops obtained by their alliance a much larger share of executive and ARBITRARY POWER; and as soon as they were connected by a sense of their common interest, they were enabled to attack with united vigor, the original RIGHTS of their CLERGY and PEOPLE. The prelates of the third century imperceptibly changed the language of exhortation into that of COMMAND, scattered the seeds of future usurpations, and supplied, by scripture allegories and declamatory rhetoric, their deficiency of force and of reason. They exalted the unity and power of the church, as it was represented in the Episcopal Office, of which every bishop enjoyed an equal and undivided portion. Princes and magistrates, it was often repeated, might boast an earthly claim to a transitory dominion; it was the episcopal authority alone which was derived from the Deity, and extended itself over this and over another world. The BISHOPS were the VICEREGENTS of Christ, the successors of the APOSTLES, and the mystic SUBSTITUTES of the high priest of the Mosaic law. Their exclusive privilege of conferring the sacerdotal character, invaded the FREEDOM both of clerical and of POPULAR ELECTIONS; and if, in the administration of the church, they still consulted the judgment of the presbyters, or the inclination of the people, they most carefully inculcated the merit of such a VOLUNTARY condescension. The bishops acknowledged the supreme authority which resided in the assembly of their brethren; but in the government of his peculiar diocese, each of them exacted from his flock the same implicit obedience as if that favorite metaphor had been literally just, and as if the shepherd had been of a more exalted nature than that of his sheep. This OBEDIENCE, however, was not IMPOSED without some efforts on one side, and some resistance on the other. The democratical part of the constitution was, in many places, very warmly supported by the zealous or interested opposition of the inferior clergy. But their patriotism received the ignominious epithets of faction and schism; and the episcopal cause was indebted for its rapid progress to the labors of many active prelates, who, like Cyprian of Carthage, could reconcile the arts of the most ambitious statesman with the Christian virtues which seem adapted to the character of a saint and martyr."
"Instead of an absolute sacrifice, a moderate proportion was accepted by the ministers of the gospel; and in their weekly or monthly assemblies, every believer, according to the exigency of the occasion, and the measure of his wealth and piety, presented his voluntary offering for the use of the common fund. Nothing, however inconsiderable, was refused; but it was diligently inculcated; that, in the article of TITHES, the Mosaic LAW was still of DIVINE OBLIGATION; and that since the Jews, under a less perfect discipline, had been commanded to pay a TENTH PART of all that they possessed, it would become the disciples of Christ to distinguish themselves by a SUPERIOR degree of liberality, and to acquire some merit by resigning a superfluous treasure, which must so soon be annihilated with the world itself."
First Tithe; Second Tithe & Third Tithe
"A decent portion was reserved for the maintenance of the bishop and his CLERGY; a sufficient sum was allotted for the expenses of the public worship, of which the FEASTS of love, the agapae (2 Pet. 2:13; Jude 12), as they were called, constituted a very pleasing part. The whole remainder was the sacred patrimony of the POOR. According to the discretion of the bishop, it was distributed to support WIDOWS and ORPHANS, the lame, the sick, and the aged of the community; to comfort strangers and pilgrims, and to alleviate the misfortunes of prisoners and captives, more especially when their sufferings had been occasioned by their firm attachment to the cause of religion. A generous intercourse of charity united the most distant provinces, and the smaller congregations were cheerfully assisted by the alms of their more opulent brethren. Such an institution, which paid less regard to the merit than to the distress of the object, very materially conduced to the progress of Christianity. The Pagans, who were actuated by a sense of humanity, while they derided the doctrines, acknowledged the benevolence, of the new sect. The prospect of immediate relief and of future protection allured into its hospitable bosom many of those unhappy persons whom the neglect of the world would have abandoned to the miseries of want, of sickness, and of old age. There is some reason likewise to believe that great numbers of infants, who, according to the inhuman practice of the times, had been exposed by their parents, were frequently rescued from death, baptized, educated, and maintained by the piety of the Christians, and at the expense of the public treasure."
"It is the undoubted right of every society to EXCLUDE from its communion and benefits such among its members as reject or violate those regulations which have been established by general consent. In the exercise of this power, the censures of the Christian church were chiefly directed against scandalous sinners, and particularly those who were guilty of MURDER, of FRAUD, or of INCONTINENCE; against the authors or the followers of any HERETICAL OPINIONS which had been condemned by the judgment of the episcopal order; and against those unhappy persons, who, whether from choice or compulsion, had polluted themselves after their baptism by any act of IDOLATROUIS WORSHIP. The consequences of EXCOMMUNICATION were of a temporal as well as a spiritual nature. The Christian against whom it was pronounced, was deprived of any part in the oblations of the faithful. The ties both of religious and of private friendship were dissolved: he found himself a profane object of abhorrence to the persons whom he the most esteemed, or by whom he had been the most tenderly beloved; and as far as an expulsion from a respectable society could imprint on his character a mark of disgrace, he was SHUNNED or suspected by the generality of mankind. The situation of these unfortunate exiles was in itself very painful and melancholy; but, as it usually happens, their apprehensions far exceeded their sufferings. The benefits of the Christian communion were those of eternal life; nor could they erase from their minds the awful opinion, that to those ecclesiastical governors by whom they were condemned, the Deity had committed the keys of Hell and of Paradise. The heretics, indeed, who might be supported by the consciousness of their intentions, and by the flattering hope that they alone had discovered the true path of salvation, endeavored to regain, in their separate assemblies, those comforts, temporal as well as spiritual, which they no longer derived from the great society of Christians. But almost all those who had reluctantly yielded to the power of vice or idolatry were sensible of their fallen condition, and anxiously desirous of being restored to the benefits of the Christian communion."
Not Many Wise Men
"Such is the constitution of civil society, that whilst a few persons are distinguished by RICHES, by HONORS, and by KNOWLEDGE, the body of the people is condemned to OBSCURITY, IGNORANCE and POVERTY. The Christian religion, which addressed itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater number of proselytes from the LOWER than from the SUPERIOR ranks of life. This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved into a very odious imputation, which seems to be less strenuously denied by the apologists, than it is urged by the adversaries, of the faith; that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the DREGS of the populace, of PEASANTS and MECHANICS, of BOYS and WOMEN, of BEGGARS and SLAVES, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to which they belonged. These obscure teachers (such was the charge of malice and infidelity) are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds, whom their age, their sex, or their education, has the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors."