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Women Of Early Christianity by Alfred Brittain

INTRODUCTION

WHEN the historian has described the rise and fall of empires and dynasties, and has recounted with care and exactness the details of the great political movements that have changed the map of continents, there remains the question: What was the cause of these revolutions in human society -- what were the real motives that were operative in the hearts and minds of the persons in the great drama of history that has been displayed? The mere chain of events as they have passed before the eye as it surveys the centuries does not give an explanation of itself. There must be a cause that lies behind these events, and of which they are but the effects. This cause, the true cause of history, lies in the minds and hearts of the men and nations. The student of the past is coming more and more to see that the only hope of making history a science, and not a mere chronicle, is to be found in the clear ascertainment and study of those psychological conditions which have made actions what they were. Foremost among those conditions have been the hopes, aspirations and ideals of men and women. These have been the greatest motive forces in the history of the world. These, quite as much as merely selfish considerations, have guided the conduct of the men who have made history, not merely those who have been leaders in the great movements of society, but the multitude of followers who have not attracted the attention of historians, but have, nevertheless, given the strength and force to the revolutions of the world.

The deepest interest in the history of Christian women lies in the way in which woman's status in society has been modified by the new religion. The chronicle of saintly life and deeds is a part of that history. But there are, also, women who have signally failed to attain those virtues for which their religion called. These, too, have their place, for both have either forwarded or retarded the realization of woman's place in society. Often the heathen spirit is but half concealed under the mask of Christianity. But the whole tone of society has been changed, nevertheless, by the ideas and ideals which that religion brought before men's minds in a new and vivid manner.

The position of woman has been more influenced by Christianity than by any other religion. This is not because there have not been noble sentiments expressed by non-Christian writers; for among the rabbinical writers, for instance, are many fine sentiments that could have come only from men who clearly perceived the place of woman in an ideal human society. Nor because in Christianity there have not been men whose conception of woman was more suitable to the adherents of those faiths that have regarded her as a thing unclean. But from the very nature of the appeal which Christianity has made to the world, the place of woman in society has been changed. The new faith appealed to all mankind in the name of the humanity which the Son of God had assumed, and consequently it was forced to treat men and women as on a spiritual equality. It was forced by the natural desire for consistency to break down any barriers that might keep one-half of the human race from the full realization of the possibilities of their natures, which were made in the image of God. It is in this relation of Christianity to the world, quite as much as in the sayings and precepts of its Founder and his Apostles, that has been found the ground for the great work of Christianity in raising the position of women in the world.

Christianity should in this respect be compared with the other religions that have attained prominence. Among those that were national religions, there has been no appeal to the world in general. They were bound up with the race, and their adherents were those of the race or nation in which they were to be found. Such religions have made no appeal to the individual. They had no propaganda. They did not extend to other nations. They were essentially national. In them there was no place for women. The father of the household represented his family, and although women had certain duties in connection with the household worship, it was only because they were under the power of some men. This is true of the religions of India, China, and the ancient religions of the Semitic race. In two of the great world-religions, those centring on Mahomet and Buddha, there has been no place for women as such. These religions are primarily the religion of men. But in the case of Christianity, the appeal has been to every human being, merely because of the human element. If there were to be no distinction on account of race or social condition, still less was there on account of sex. Male and female were alike in Christ. The Christian must be a believer for himself -- the faith of no one else could serve for him. Marriage made no difference in the religious position of anyone. Such sentiments applied day after day in the course of the world's life could not remain without their effect, and the change wrought by them has been profound and lasting.

That there has not yet been the full realization of the ideal of Christianity in the matter of the position of woman in society is no stranger than the non-realization of the ideals of that or any other faith. The eternal ideas of right are sometimes extremely slow in their operation. The forces they have to overcome are strongly intrenched. But slow as may seem the progress, the power of right steadily gains and the temporary success of evil is soon past. The ways in which the triumph of the Christian ideal has been brought nearer have been at times very varied. At one time it may seem that the leaders in the cause of social regeneration have been wholly blind to the full significance of the faith they professed. Fantastic forms of asceticism have banished women from the society of those who were trying to lead the perfect life. But the more sympathetic study of the extravagances of religious enthusiasm has been able to discover that even in ages in which ideals seemed to be wholly opposed to those of latter ages, there has been the same fundamental conception which has been constantly striving for realization in the world.

In the light of subsequent history, it appears fortunate that the position of woman in the new society was not more fully and carefully defined by the teachers of the new religion. If the early Christian teachers had given their followers minute rules regulating their life and conduct, there might easily have been a return to a legalism that would have been disastrous for the new faith. Even the few regulations that are to be found in connection with matters of order and discipline in the Apostolic Church, so far as they have concerned women, have been frequently misunderstood and misapplied. They have been made of lasting obligation by many, rather than considered as the expression for the times and circumstances in which the early Church was placed, of principles of propriety which might be very different from, if not indeed contrary to, the sentiments of another age. But by leaving the whole question open, with but a very few exceptions, the great working out of the freedom of the new faith was possible. Woman has been recognized by the world as man's helpmate. She is not his toy or his slave, but a sharer with him in the highest privileges of human nature. An appreciation of the tremendous responsibilities that have been put upon her by the fact of her womanhood has not separated her from man, but both are seen standing side by side in the New Kingdom.

JOSEPH CULLEN AYER, JR.

Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge.

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