Some have an idea that the saintship of the early Christians was of a type altogether unique and transcendental. In primitive times the Spirit was, no doubt, poured out in rich effusion, and the subjects of His grace, when contrasted with the heathen around them, often exhibited most attractively the beauty of holiness; but the same Spirit still dwells in the hearts of the faithful, and He is now as able, as He ever was, to enlighten and to save. As man, wherever he exists, possesses substantially the same organic conformation, so the true children of God, to whatever generation they belong, have the same divine lineaments. The age of miracles has passed away, but the reign of grace continues, and, at the present day, there may, perhaps, be found amongst the members of the Church as noble examples of vital godliness as in the first or second century.
There was a traitor among the Twelve, and it is apparent from the New Testament that, in the Apostolic Church, there were not a few unworthy members. |Many walk,| says Paul, |of whom I have told you often, and now tell you, even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.| [312:1] In the second and third centuries the number of such false brethren did not diminish. To those who are ignorant of its saving power, Christianity may commend itself, by its external evidences, as a revelation from God; and many, who are not prepared to submit to its authority, may seek admission to its privileges. The superficial character of much of the evangelism now current appeared in times of persecution; for, on the first appearance of danger, multitudes abjured the gospel, and returned to the heathen superstitions. It is, besides, a fact which cannot be disputed that, in the third century, the more zealous champions of the faith felt it necessary to denounce the secularity of many of the ministers of the Church. Before the Decian persecution not a few of the bishops were mere worldlings, and such was their zeal for money-making, that they left their parishes neglected, and travelled to remote districts where, at certain seasons of the year, they might carry on a profitable traffic [313:1]. If we are to believe the testimony of the most distinguished ecclesiastics of the period, crimes were then perpetrated to which it would be difficult to find anything like parallels in the darkest pages of the history of modern Christianity. The chief pastor of the largest Church in the Proconsular Africa tells, for instance, of one of his own presbyters who robbed orphans and defrauded widows, who permitted his father to die of hunger and treated his pregnant wife with horrid brutality. [313:2] Another ecclesiastic, of still higher position, speaks of three bishops in his neighbourhood who engaged, when intoxicated, in the solemn rite of ordination. [313:3] Such excesses were indignantly condemned by all right-hearted disciples, but the fact, that those to whom they were imputed were not destitute of partisans, supplies clear yet melancholy proof that neither the Christian people nor the Christian ministry, even in the third century, possessed an unsullied reputation.
Meanwhile the introduction of a false standard of piety created much mischief. It had long been received as a maxim, among certain classes of philosophers, that bodily abstinence is necessary to those who would attain more exalted wisdom; and the Gentile theology, especially in Egypt and the East, had endorsed the principle. It was not without advocates among the Jews, as is apparent from the discipline of the Essenes and the Therapeutae. At an early period its influence was felt within the pale of the Church, and before the termination of the second century, individual members here and there were to be found who eschewed certain kinds of food and abstained from marriage. [314:1] The pagan literati, who now joined the disciples in considerable numbers, did much to promote the credit of this adulterated Christianity. Its votaries, who were designated ascetics and philosophers [314:2] did not withdraw themselves from the world, but, whilst adhering to their own regimen, still remained mindful of their social obligations. Their self-imposed mortification soon found admirers, and an opinion gradually gained ground that these abstinent disciples cultivated a higher form of piety. The adherents of the new discipline silently increased, and by the middle of the third century, a class of females who led a single life, and who, by way of distinction, were called virgins, were in some places regarded by the other Church members with special veneration. [314:3] Among the clergy also celibacy was now considered a mark of superior holiness. [314:4] But, in various places, pietism about this time assumed a form which disgusted all persons of sober judgment and ordinary discretion. The unmarried clergy and the virgins deemed it right to cultivate the communion of saints after a new fashion, alleging that, in each other's society, they enjoyed peculiar advantages for spiritual improvement. It was not, therefore, uncommon to find a single ecclesiastic and one of the sisterhood of virgins dwelling in the same house and sharing the same bed! [315:1] All the while the parties repudiated the imputation of any improper intercourse, but in some cases the proofs of profligacy were too plain to be concealed, and common sense refused to credit the pretensions of such an absurd and suspicious spiritualism. The ecclesiastical authorities felt it necessary to interfere, and compel the professed virgins and the single clergy to abstain from a degree of intimacy which was unquestionably not free from the appearance of evil.
About the time that the advocates of |whatsoever things are of good report| were protesting against the improprieties of these spiritual brethren and sisters, Paul and Antony, the fathers and founders of Monachism, commenced to live as hermits. Paul was a native of Egypt, and the heir of a considerable fortune; but, driven at first by persecution from the abodes of men, he ultimately adopted the desert as the place of his chosen residence. Antony, in another part of the same country, guided by a mistaken spirit of self-renunciation, divested himself of all his property; and also retired into a wilderness. The biographies of these two well-meaning but weak-minded visionaries, which have been written by two of the most eminent divines of the fourth century, [316:1] are very humiliating memorials of folly and fanaticism. These solitaries spent each a long life in a cave, macerating the body with fasting, and occupying the mind with the reveries of a morbid imagination. In an age of growing superstition their dreamy pietism was mistaken by many for sanctity of uncommon excellence; and the admiration bestowed on them, tempted others, in the beginning of the following century, to imitate their example. Soon afterwards, societies of these sons of the desert were established; and, in the course of a few years, a taste for the monastic life spread, like wild-fire, over the whole Church.
It is a curious fact that the figure of the instrument of torture on which our Lord was put to death, occupied a prominent place among the symbols of the ancient heathen worship. From the most remote antiquity the cross was venerated in Egypt and Syria; it was held in equal honour by the Buddhists of the East, [316:2] and, what is still more extraordinary, when the Spaniards first visited America, the well-known sign was found among the objects of worship in the idol temples of Anahuac. [316:3] It is also remarkable that, about the commencement of our era, the pagans were wont to make the sign of a cross upon the forehead in the celebration of some of their sacred mysteries. [317:1] A satisfactory explanation of the origin of such peculiarities in the ritual of idolatry can now scarcely be expected; but it certainly need not excite surprise if the early Christians were impressed by them, and if they viewed them as so many unintentional testimonies to the truth of their religion. The disciples displayed, indeed, no little ingenuity in their attempts to discover the figure of a cross in almost every object around them. They could recognise it in the trees and the flowers, in the fishes and the fowls, in the sails of a ship and the structure of the human body; [317:2] and if they borrowed from their heathen neighbours the custom of making a cross upon the forehead, they would of course be ready to maintain that they thus only redeemed the holy sign from profanation. Some of them were, perhaps, prepared, on prudential grounds, to plead for its introduction. Heathenism was, to a considerable extent, a religion of bowings and genuflexions; its votaries were, ever and anon, attending to some little rite or form; and, because of the multitude of these diminutive acts of outward devotion, its ceremonial was at once frivolous and burdensome. When the pagan passed into the Church, he, no doubt, often felt, for a time, the awkwardness of the change; and was frequently on the point of repeating, as it were automatically, the gestures of his old superstition. It may, therefore, have been deemed expedient to supersede more objectionable forms by something of a Christian complexion; and the use of the sign of the cross here probably presented itself as an observance equally familiar and convenient. [318:1] But the disciples would have acted more wisely had they boldly discarded all the puerilities of paganism; for credulity soon began to ascribe supernatural virtue to this vestige of the repudiated worship. As early as the beginning of the third century, it was believed to operate like a charm; and it was accordingly employed on almost all occasions by many of the Christians. |In all our travels and movements,| says a writer of this period, |as often as we come in or go out, when we put on our clothes or our shoes, when we enter the bath or sit down at table, when we light our candles, when we go to bed, or recline upon a couch, or whatever may be our employment, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.| [318:2]
But whilst not a few of the Christians were beginning to adopt some of the trivial rites of paganism, they continued firmly to protest against its more flagrant corruptions. They did not hesitate to assail its gross idolatry with bold and biting sarcasms. |Stone, or wood, or silver,| said they, |becomes a god when man chooses that it should, and dedicates it to that end. With how much more truth do dumb animals, such as mice, swallows, and kites, judge of your gods? They know that your gods feel nothing; they gnaw them, they trample and sit on them; and if you did not drive them away, they would make their nests in the very mouth of your deity.| [319:1] The Church of the first three centuries rejected the use of images in worship, and no pictorial representations of the Saviour were to be found even in the dwellings of the Christians. They conceived that such visible memorials could convey no idea whatever of the ineffable glory of the Son of God; and they held that it is the duty of His servants to foster a spirit of devotion, not by the contemplation of His material form, but by meditating on His holy and divine attributes as they are exhibited in creation, providence, and redemption. So anxious were they to avoid even the appearance of anything like image-worship, that when they wished to mark articles of dress or furniture with an index of their religious profession, they employed the likeness of an anchor, or a dove, or a lamb, or a cross, or some other object of an emblematical character. [319:2] |We must not,| said they, |cling to the sensuous but rise to the spiritual. The familiarity of daily sight lowers the dignity of the divine, and to pretend to worship a spiritual essence through earthly matter, is to degrade that essence to the world of sense.| [319:3] Even so late as the beginning of the fourth century the practice of displaying paintings in places of worship was prohibited by ecclesiastical authority. A canon which bears upon this subject, and which was enacted by the Council of Elvira held about A.D.305, is more creditable to the pious zeal than to the literary ability of the assembled fathers. |We must not,| said they, |have pictures in the church, lest that which is worshipped and adored be painted on the walls.| [320:1]
It has been objected to the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century that it exercised a prejudicial influence on the arts of painting and statuary. The same argument might have been urged against the gospel itself in the days of its original promulgation. Whilst the early Church entirely discarded the use of images in worship, its more zealous members looked with suspicion upon all who assisted in the fabrication of these objects of the heathen idolatry. [320:2] The excuse that the artists were labouring for subsistence, and that they had themselves no idea of bowing down to the works of their own hands, did not by any means satisfy the scruples of their more consistent and conscientious brethren. |Assuredly,| they exclaimed, |you are a worshipper of idols when you help to promote their worship. It is true you bring to them no outward victim, but you sacrifice to them, your mind. Your sweat is their drink-offering. You kindle for them the light of your skill.| [320:3] By denouncing image-worship the early Church, no doubt, to some extent interfered with the profits of the painter and the sculptor; but, in another way, it did much to purify and elevate the taste of the public. In the second and third centuries the playhouse in every large town was a centre of attraction; and whilst the actors were generally persons of very loose morals, their dramatic performances were perpetually pandering to the depraved appetites of the age. It is not, therefore, wonderful that all true Christians viewed the theatre with disgust. Its frivolity was offensive to their grave temperament; they recoiled from its obscenity; and its constant appeals to the gods and goddesses of heathenism outraged their religious convictions. [321:1] In their estimation, the talent devoted to its maintenance was miserably prostituted; and whilst every actor was deemed unworthy of ecclesiastical fellowship, every church member was prohibited, by attendance or otherwise, from giving any encouragement to the stage. The early Christians were also forbidden to frequent the public shows, as they were considered scenes of temptation and pollution. Every one at his baptism was required to renounce |the devil, his pomp, and his angels| [321:2] -- a declaration which implied that he was henceforth to absent himself from the heathen spectacles. At this time, statesmen, poets, and philosophers were not ashamed to appear among the crowds who assembled to witness the combats of the gladiators, though, on such occasions, human life was recklessly sacrificed. But here the Church, composed chiefly of the poor of this world, was continually giving lessons in humanity to heathen legislators and literati. It protested against cruelty, as well to the brute creation as to man; and condemned the taste which could derive gratification from the shedding of the blood either of lions or of gladiators. All who sanctioned by their presence the sanguinary sports of the amphitheatre incurred a sentence of excommunication. [322:1]
At this time, though an increasing taste for inactivity and solitude betokened the growth of a bastard Christianity, and though various other circumstances were indicative of tendencies to adulterate religion, either by reducing it to a system of formalism, or by sublimating it into a life of empty contemplation, there were still abundant proofs of the existence of a large amount of healthy and vigorous piety. The members of the Church, as a body, were distinguished by their exemplary morals; and about the beginning of the third century, one of their advocates, when pleading for their toleration, could venture to assert that, among the numberless culprits brought under the notice of the magistrates, none were Christians. [322:2] Wherever the gospel spread, its social influence was most salutary. Its first teachers applied themselves discreetly to the redress of prevalent abuses; and time gradually demonstrated the effectiveness of their plans of reformation. When they appeared, polygamy was common; [322:3] and had they assailed it in terms of unmeasured severity, they would have defeated their own object by rousing up a most formidable and exasperated opposition. It would have been argued by the Jews that they were reflecting on the patriarchs; and it would have been said by the Roman governors that they were interfering with matters which belonged to the province of the civil magistrate. They were obliged, therefore, to proceed with extreme caution. In the first place, they laid it down as a principle that every bishop and deacon must be |the husband of one wife,| [323:1] or, in other words, that no polygamist could hold office in their society. They thus, in the most pointed way, inculcated sound views respecting the institution of marriage; for they intimated that whoever was the husband of more than one wife was not, in every respect, |a pattern of good works,| and was consequently unfit for ecclesiastical promotion. In the second place, in all their discourses they proceeded on the assumption that the union of one man and one woman is the divine arrangement. [323:2] Throughout the whole of the New Testament, wherever marriage is mentioned, no other idea is entertained. It is easy to see what must have been the effect of this method of procedure. It soon came to be understood that no good Christian could have at one time more than one wife; and at length the polygamist was excluded from communion by a positive enactment. [323:3]
Every disciple who married a heathen was cut off from Church privileges. The apostles had condemned such an alliance, [323:4] and it still continued to be spoken of in terms of the strongest reprobation. Nothing, it was said, but discomfort and danger could be anticipated from the union; as parties related so closely, and yet differing so widely on the all-important subject of religion, could not permanently hold cordial intercourse. A writer of this period has given a vivid description of the trials of the female who made such an ill-assorted match. Whilst she is about to be engaged in spiritual exercises, her husband will probably contrive some scheme for her annoyance; and her zeal may be expected to awaken his jealousy, and provoke his opposition. |If there be a prayer-meeting, the husband will devote this day to the use of the bath; if a fast is to be observed, the husband has a feast at which he entertains his friends; if a religious ceremony is to be attended, never does household business fall more upon her hands. And who would allow his wife, for the sake of visiting the brethren, to go from street to street the round of strange and especially of the poorer class of cottages? ... If a stranger brother come to her, what lodging in an alien's house? If a present is to be made to any, the barn, the storehouse are closed against her.| [324:1]
The primitive heralds of the gospel acted with remarkable prudence in reference to the question of slavery. According to some high authorities, bondsmen constituted one-half [324:2] of the entire population of the Roman Empire; and as the new religion was designed to promote the spiritual good of man, rather than the improvement of his civil or political condition, the apostles did not deem it expedient, in the first instance, to attempt to break up established relations. They did not refuse to receive any one as a member of the Church because he happened to be a slave-owner; neither did they reject any applicant for admission because he was a slave. The social position of the individual did not at all affect his ecclesiastical standing; for bond and free are |all one in Christ Jesus.| [324:3] In the Church the master and the servant were upon a footing of equality; they joined in the same prayers; they sat down, side by side, at the same communion table; and they saluted each other with the kiss of Christian recognition. A slave-owner might belong to a congregation of which his slave was the teacher; and thus, whilst in the household, the servant was bound to obey his master according to the flesh, in the Church the master was required to remember that his minister was |worthy of double honour.| [325:1]
The spirit of the gospel is pre-eminently a spirit of freedom; but the inspired founders of our religion did not fail to remember that we may be partakers of the glorious liberty of the children of God, whilst we are under the yoke of temporal bondage. Whilst, therefore, they did not hesitate to speak of emancipation as a blessing, and whilst they said to the slave -- |If thou mayest be made free, use it rather;| [325:2] they at the same time declared it to be his duty to submit cheerfully to the restraints of his present condition. |Let every man,| said they, |abide in the same calling wherein he was called; for he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman.| [325:3] They were most careful to teach converted slaves that they were not to presume upon their church membership; and that they were not to be less respectful and obedient when those to whom they were in bondage were their brethren in the Lord. |Let as many servants as are under the yoke,| says the apostle, |count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren, but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit.| [325:4]
The influence of Christianity on the condition of the slave was soon felt. The believing master was more humane than his pagan neighbour; [325:5] his bearing was more gentle, conciliatory, and considerate; and the domestics under his care were more comfortable. [325:6] There was a disposition among pious slave-owners to let the oppressed go free, and when they performed such an act of mercy, and both parties were in communion with the Church, the congregation was assembled to witness the consummation of the happy deliverance. [326:1] Thus, multitudes of bondsmen in all parts of the Roman Empire were soon taught to regard the gospel as their best benefactor.
Whilst Christianity, in the spirit of its Great Founder, was labouring to improve the tone of public sentiment, and to undo heavy burdens, it exhibited other most attractive characteristics. Wherever a disciple travelled, if a church existed in the district, he felt himself at home. The ecclesiastical certificate which he carried along with him, at once introduced him to the meetings of his co-religionists, and secured for him all the advantage of membership. The heathen were astonished at the cordiality with which the believers among whom they resided greeted a Christian stranger. He was saluted with the kiss of peace; ushered into their assembly; and invited to share the hospitality of the domestic board. If he was sick, they visited him; if he was in want, they made provision for his necessities. The poor widows were supported at the expense of the Church; and if any of the brethren were carried captive by predatory bands of the barbarians who hovered upon the borders of the Empire, contributions were made to purchase their liberation from servitude. [326:2] To those who were without the Church, its members appeared as one large and affectionate family. The pagan could not comprehend what it was that so closely cemented their brotherhood; for he did not understand how they could be attracted to each other by love to a common Saviour. He was almost induced to believe that they held intercourse by certain mysterious signs, and that they were affiliated by something like the bond of freemasonry. Even statesmen observed with uneasiness the spirit of fraternity which reigned among the Christians; and, though the disciples could never be convicted of any political designs, suspicions were often entertained that, after all, they might form a secret association, on an extensive scale, which might one day prove dangerous to the established government.
But Christianity, like the sun, shines on the evil and the good; and opportunities occurred for shewing that its charities were not confined within the limits of its own denomination. There were occasions on which its very enemies could not well refuse to admit its excellence; for in seasons of public distress, its adherents often signalised themselves as by far the most energetic, benevolent, and useful citizens. At such times its genial philanthropy appeared to singular advantage when contrasted with the cold and selfish spirit of polytheism. Thus, in the reign of the Emperor Gallus, when a pestilence spread dismay throughout North Africa, [327:1] and when the pagans shamefully deserted their nearest relatives in the hour of their extremity, the Christians stepped forward, and ministered to the wants of the sick and dying without distinction. [327:2] Some years afterwards, when the plague appeared in Alexandria, and when the Gentile inhabitants left the dead unburied and cast out the dying into the streets, the disciples vied with each other in their efforts to alleviate the general suffering. [327:3] The most worthless men can scarcely forget acts of kindness performed under such circumstances. Forty years afterwards, when the Church in the capital of Egypt was overtaken by the Diocletian persecution, their pagan neighbours concealed the Christians in their houses, and submitted to fines and imprisonment rather than betray the refugees. [328:1]
The fact that the heathen were now ready to shelter the persecuted members of the Church is itself of importance as a sign of the times. When the disciples first began to rise into notice in the great towns, they were commonly regarded with aversion; and, when the citizens were assembled in thousands at the national spectacles, no cry was more vociferously repeated than that of |The Christians to the lions.| But this bigoted and intolerant spirit was fast passing away; and when the state now set on foot a persecution, it could not reckon so extensively on the support of popular antipathy. The Church had attained such a position that the calumnies once repeated to its prejudice could no longer obtain credence; the superior excellence of its system of morals was visible to all; and it could point on every side to proofs of the blessings it communicated. It could demonstrate, by a reference to its history, that it produced kind masters and dutiful servants, affectionate parents and obedient children, faithful friends and benevolent citizens. On all classes, whether rich or poor, learned or unlearned, its effects were beneficial. It elevated the character of the working classes, it vastly improved the position of the wife, it comforted the afflicted, and it taught even senators wisdom. Its doctrines, whether preached to the half-naked Picts or the polished Athenians, to the fierce tribes of Germany or the literary coteries of Alexandria, exerted the same holy and happy influence. It promulgated a religion obviously fitted for all mankind. There had long since been a prediction that its dominion should extend |from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth;| and its progress already indicated that the promise would receive a glorious accomplishment.