One of the most interesting inquiries which is suggested by history is, Why Christianity did not prevent the glory of the old civilization from being succeeded by shame? This is not only a grand inquiry, but it is mysterious. We are naturally surprised that literature, art, science, laws, and the perfect mechanism of government should have proved such feeble barriers against degeneracy, for these are among the highest triumphs of the human mind, and such as the world will not willingly let die. But a still more potent and majestic influence than any thing which proceeds from man still remained to the haughty masters of the ancient world. A new religion had been proclaimed with the establishment of the empire, which gradually broke down the old superstitions, conquered the hatred and prejudices of both Greeks and Romans, supplanted the old systems of Paganism, and went on from conquering to conquer, until it seated itself on the imperial throne, and proved itself to be the wisdom and the power of God.
But we see that as this wonderful religion gained ground, whether in changing the lives of individuals, or in allying itself with dominant institutions, the Roman Empire declined. When Christianity was first proclaimed, the Roman eagles surmounted the principal cities of antiquity, and the central despotism on the banks of the Tiber was the law of the world. When it was a feeble light on the mountains of Galilee, the glory of Rome was the object of universal panegyric, and the city of the seven hills rejoiced in a magnificence which promised to be eternal. But when Paganism yielded to Christianity, and when the latter had spread to every city and village in the empire, with its grand hierarchy of bishops and doctors, the proud empire was in ruins. It would even seem that its decline and fall kept pace with the triumphs of a religion it had spurned and persecuted.
[Sidenote: Society retrograded as Christianity spread.]
What is the explanation of this grand mystery? Why should society have declined as Christianity spread, if, as we believe, Christianity is the great conservative force of the world, and is destined to regenerate all government, science, and social life? If the stability of the empire rested on virtues, and was undermined by vices, virtue must have declined and vice increased. But how can we reconcile such a fact with the progress of a religion which is the mainspring of all virtue, and the destruction of all vice? We do know that Christianity did not prevent the empire from falling, but also we have the testimony of poets and historians to the exceeding wickedness of society when Christianity was fairly established.
[Sidenote: A mysterious fact.]
In presenting the strange phenomenon of a falling empire with an all- conquering religion, it is necessary to grapple with the gloomy problem. We have unbounded faith in the power of Christianity to save the world, and yet we see a mighty empire crumbling to pieces from vices which Christianity did not subdue. What a deduction might be drawn from this strange fact, that Christianity can, but did not, save. How mournful the future of modern Christian nations if the same fact should be repeated--if civilization should decline as Christianity achieves its triumphs! Is it possible that civilization, the triumph of human genius and will, may fade away as Christianity, which gives vitality to society, advances? Has civilization nothing to do with Christianity?
[Sidenote: Christianity not however a failure.]
But there can be nothing mournful in the developments of a divine religion--nothing discouraging in the conquests which seemed incomplete. Nor did it really, in any important task, prove a failure; but amid the ashes of the old world, as it disappeared, we see the new creation, and listen to melodious birth-songs. Indeed, the fall of the empire, when we profoundly survey it, instead of detracting from Christianity, only prepared the way for higher triumphs, and for a loftier development of civilization itself. Future ages have probably lost nothing by the ruin of Rome, while the world has gained by the establishment of Christianity, even by the seeds of truth planted by the early church.
Still, it cannot be questioned that, in the Roman empire, vices and corruptions spread with terrific and mournful rapidity even after Christianity was revealed--so rapidly, indeed, that Christianity opposed but a feeble barrier.
The history of Christianity among the Romans suggests these three inquiries:--
First, why it proved so feeble in arresting degeneracy; secondly, how far it conserved old institutions; and thirdly, how far it created a new and higher civilization.
[Sidenote: Christianity fails to check degeneracy.]
The first inquiry, on a superficial view, is discouraging. We see a sublime realism making quietly its converts by thousands, without seemingly checking ordinary vices. We are reminded of Socrates creating Platos, yet failing to reform Athens. We behold witnesses of the truth in every land, which gradually sinks deeper and deeper in infamy as the witnesses increase. And, when the land is about to be overrun by barbarians, when despair seizes the public mind, and desolation overspreads the earth, and good men hide in rocks, and dens, and caves, we see the church resplendent with wealth and glory, her bishops enthroned as dignitaries, princes doing homage to saints, and even the barbarians themselves bowing down in reverence and awe. How barren these ecclesiastical victories seem to a superficial or infidel eye! If Christianity is what its converts claim, why did it accomplish so little?
[Sidenote: Yet still a conquering religion.]
But, in another aspect, the victories do not seem so barren; and they even appear more and more majestic the more they are contemplated. There is something grand in the spread of new ideas which are unpalatable to the mighty and the wise. Considering the humble characters of the early Apostles and their disciples, their triumphs were really magnificent. It is astonishing that the teachings of fishermen should have supplanted the teachings of Jewish rabbis and Grecian philosophers, amid so great and general opposition. It is remarkable that their doctrines should have so completely changed the lives of those who embraced them. It is wonderful that emperors who persecuted and sages who spurned the religion of Jesus, should have been won over by a moral force superior to all the venerated influences of the old religion of which they were guardians and expounders. It is surprising that such relentless and bloody persecutions as took place for three hundred years should have been so futile. When we remember the extension of Christianity into all the countries known to the ancients, and the marvelous fruits it bore among its converts, making them brothers, heroes, martyrs, saints, doctors--a benediction and a blessing wherever they went; and when we see these little esoteric bands, in upper chambers or in catacombs, persecuted, tormented, despised, yet gaining daily new adherents, without the aid of wealth, or learning, or social position, or political power, until generals, senators, and kings came willingly into their fraternity, and bound themselves by their rules, and changed the whole habits of their lives, looking to the future rather than the present-- the infinite rather than the finite; blameless in morals, lofty in faith, heavenly in love; sheep among wolves, yet not devoured--we feel that Christianity cannot be too highly exalted as a conquering power.
But the point is, not that Christianity failed to conquer, but that it failed to save the Roman world. The conquests of the church are universally admitted and universally admired. They were the most wonderful moral victories ever achieved. But, while Christianity conquered Rome, why did she fail to arrest its ruin? Vice gained on virtue, rather than virtue gained on vice, even when the cross was planted on the battlements of the imperial palaces.
[Sidenote: Christianity too late to save.]
The victories of Christianity came not too late for the human race, but for the stability of the Roman empire. Had Christianity completely triumphed when Julius Caesar overturned the republic, the empire might have lasted. But when Constantine was converted, the empire was shaken to its foundations, and the barbarians were advancing. No medicine could have prevented the diseased old body from dying. The time had come. When the wretched inebriate embraces a spiritual religion with one foot in the grave, with a constitution completely undermined, and the seeds of death planted, then no repentance or lofty aspiration can prevent physical death. It was so in Rome. Society was completely undermined long before the emperors became Christians. The fruits of iniquity were being reaped when Chrysostom and Augustine lifted up their voices. The body was diseased, so that no spiritual influence could work upon it. Had every man in the empire been a Christian, yet, when, the army had lost its discipline and efficiency, when patriotism had fled, when centuries of vices had enfeebled the physical forces, when puny races had lost all martial ardor, and could present nothing but weakness and cowardice--all from physical causes, how could they have successfully contended with the new and powerful barbaric armies? Christianity saves the soul; it does not restore exhausted physical functions. The vices which had undermined were learned before Christianity protested, and were dominant when Christianity was feeble. The effects of those vices were universal before a remedy could be applied.
[Sidenote: Limited number of the converts.]
[Sidenote: Early Christians unimportant.]
Moreover, when Christianity itself was a vital and conquering force, the number of its converts formed but a small proportion of the inhabitants of the empire. Witnesses of the truth were sent into every important city in the world, but they simply protested in a dark corner. Their warning voice was unheeded except by a few, and these were unimportant people in a social or political or intellectual point of view. Even when Constantine was converted, the number of Christians in the empire, according to Gibbon, whose statement has not been refuted, was only one fifth of the whole population. And this accounts for the insignificant social changes that Christianity wrought. A vast majority was opposed to them even in the fourth century. There were doubtless large numbers of Christians at Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, and other populous cities, in the third century, and also there were powerful churches in the great centres of trade, where people of all nations congregated; but they were exposed to bitter persecutions, and they durst not be ostentatious, not even in those edifices where they congregated for the worship of Jehovah. For two centuries they worshiped God in secret and lonely places, exposed to persecution and scorn. Not only were the Christians few in number, when compared with the whole population, but they were chiefly confined to the humble classes. In the first century not many wise or noble were called. No great names have been handed down to us. Now and then a centurion was converted, or some dependent on a great man's household, or some servant in the imperial family; but no philosophers, or statesmen, or nobles, or generals, or governors, or judges, or magistrates. In the first century the Christians were not of sufficient importance to be generally persecuted by the government. They had not even arrested public attention. Nobody wrote against them, not even Greek philosophers. We do not read of protests or apologies from the Christians themselves. No contemporary historian or poet alludes to them. They had no great men in their ranks, either for learning, or talents, or wealth, or social position. In the cities they were chiefly artisans, slaves, servants, or mechanics, and in the country they were peasants. They were unlettered, plebeian, unimportant. If there were distinguished converts, we do not know their names. Ecclesiastical history is silent as to distinguished persons except as persecutors, or as great contemporaries. We read of the calamities of the Jews, of Herod Agrippa, of Philo, of Nero's persecution, of the emperors, but not of Christians. Eusebius does not narrate a single interesting or important fact which took place in the first century through the agency of a great man. We know scarcely more than what is contained in the New Testament. We read that Clement was bishop of Rome, but know nothing of his administration. We do not know whether or not he was a man of any worldly consideration. Nothing in history is more barren than the annals of the church in the first century, so far as great names are concerned. Yet in this century converts were multiplied in every city, and traditions point to the martyrdoms of those who were prominent, including nearly all of the Apostles.
[Sidenote: Obscurity of the early Christians.]
[Sidenote: Their intense religious life.]
In the second century there are no greater names than Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement Melito, and Apollonius--quiet bishops or intrepid martyrs--bishops who addressed their flocks in upper chambers, and who held no worldly rank--famous only for their sanctity or simplicity of character, and only mentioned for their sufferings and faith. We read of martyrs, some of whom wrote valuable treatises and apologies; but among them we find no people of rank, not even ladies like Paula and Marcella and Fabiola, in the time of Jerome, unless Symphorosa is an exception. It was a disgrace to be a Christian in the eye of fashion or power. Even the great Marcus Aurelius, so distinguished as a man and a philosopher, had supreme contempt of the new apostles of truth, and was one of their most unrelenting persecutors. The early Christian literature is chiefly apologetic, and the doctrinal character of the fathers of this century is simple and practical, showing no great acquaintance with the system of heathen thought. There were controversies in the church--an intense religious life--great activities, great virtues, but no outward conflicts, no secular history, nothing to arrest public notice. But the converts to Christianity, plebeian as they were, were yet of sufficient consequence to be persecuted. They had attracted the notice of government. They were looked upon as fanatics who sought to destroy a reverence for existing institutions. But they had not as yet assailed the government, or the great social institutions of the empire. In this century the polity of the church was quietly organized. There was an organized fellowship among the members: bishops had become influential, not in society, but among the Christians; dioceses and parishes were established; there was a distinction between city and rural bishops; delegates of churches assembled to discuss points of faith, or suppress nascent heresies; the diocesan system was developed, and ecclesiastical centralization commenced; deacons began to be reckoned among the higher clergy; the weapons of excommunication were forged; missionary efforts were carried on; the festivals of the church were created; Gnosticism--a kind of philosophical religion--was embraced by many leading minds; catechetical schools taught the faith systematically; the formulas of baptism and the other sacraments became of great importance; marriage with unbelievers was discouraged; and monachism became popular. The internal history of the church becomes interesting, but still the Christians had no great influence outside their own body; it was esoteric, quiet, unobtrusive; and it was a very small body of pure and blameless men, who did not aspire to control society.
[Sidenote: The empire in a hopeless state.]
While the church was thus laying the foundation of its future polity and power, but nothing more, and failed to attract the great, or men of ambitious views--those who led society--the empire was approaching a most fearful crisis. Hadrian had built a wall from the Rhine to the Danube to arrest the incursions of barbarians; the Roman garrisons beyond the Danube were withdrawn; the Goths had advanced from the Vistula and the Oder to the shores of the Black Sea; the Jews were dispersed; a chaos of deities was in the Roman Pantheon; Grecian philosophy had degenerated; the taste of the people had become utterly corrupt; games and festivals were the business and the amusement of the people; the despotism of the emperors had utterly annulled all rights; a succession of feeble and wicked princes ruled supreme; the empire was falling into a state of luxury and inglorious peace; the middle classes had become extinct; and disproportionate fortunes had vastly increased slavery. The work of disintegration had commenced.
[Sidenote: The church of the third century.]
The third century saw the church more powerful as an institution. Regular synods had assembled in the great cities of the empire; the metropolitan system was matured; the canons of the church were definitely enumerated; great schools of theology attracted inquiring minds; the doctrines of faith were systematized; Christianity had spread so extensively that it must needs be persecuted or legalized; great bishops ruled the growing church; great doctors speculated on the questions which had agitated the Grecian schools; church edifices were enlarged, and banquets instituted in honor of the martyrs. The church was rapidly advancing to a position which extorted the attention of mankind. But even so late as the close of the third century, there were but few Christians eminent for riches or rank. There were some great bishops like Cyprian, Hippolytus, Victor, Demetrius; some great theologians like Origen, Tertullian, and Clement; some great heretics like Hermogones, Sabellius, and Novatian--all marked men, immortal men; but of no great influence outside their ranks.
What could they do in a time of so much public misery and misfortune as marked the empire when it was ruled by monsters; when the barbarians had obtained a foothold in the provinces; when the capital was deserted by the emperors for the camp; and when signs of decay and ruin were apparent to all thoughtful minds?
[Sidenote: The church of the fourth century.]
It was not till the fourth century--when imperial persecution had stopped; when Constantine was converted; when the church was allied with the state; when the early faith was itself corrupted; when superstition and vain philosophy had entered the ranks of the faithful; when bishops became courtiers; when churches became both rich and splendid; when synods were brought under political influence; when monachists had established a false principle of virtue; when politics and dogmatics went hand in hand, and emperors enforced the decrees of councils--that men of rank entered the church, and the church had a visible influence on the state. It was not till the fourth century that such great names as Arius, Athanasius, Hosius, Eusebius, Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary of Poictiers, Martin of Tours, Diodorus of Tarsus, Ambrose of Milan, Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, Theophilus of Alexandria, Chrysostom of Constantinople, arose and made their voices heard in the council chambers of the great.
[Sidenote: The empire dismembered before the political triumphs of Christianity.]
But when the church had become a mighty and recognized power, when it had assailed social institutions, when it drew men of rank into its folds, when it was no longer an obloquy to be a Christian--then the seat of empire had been removed to the banks of the Bosphorus; then the Goths and Vandals had become most formidable enemies, and Theodosius, the last great emperor, was making a brave but futile attempt to revive the glories of Trajan and the Antonines. The empire was crumbling to pieces-- was dying--and even Christianity could not save it politically.
[Sidenote: The Christians form an imperfect barrier against corruption.]
[Sidenote: The Christians an esoteric band of worshipers.]
[Sidenote: Christians powerless outside their ranks.]
[Sidenote: The church powerless outside its circle.]
[Sidenote: Christianity itself corrupted.]
Thus, when Christianity was pure, and a truly renovating religion, it had no social influence on the leaders of rank and fashion. How could people of no political or social position, who were objects of ridicule and contempt, have effected great social or political changes? Until their conversion, they had not modified a law, and still less enacted one. How could they reach the ear of those who disdained, repelled, and persecuted them? They had no influence on the makers or the executors of laws. They could not call in the vast power of fashion, for they had no social prestige. They could not create a public opinion, for they were obliged to hide to save their lives. They had no learning to attract philosophers. They were not allowed to preach in public, and could not reach the people. They had no schools, nor books, nor colleges. They could not assail public institutions, for despotism was established and was irresistible. There was no liberty of speech by which they might have made converts above their rank. They could not subvert slavery without influencing those who controlled it. They could not destroy disproportionate fortunes, since the wealthy were protected by government. They could not interfere with games and demoralizing spectacles, for these were controlled by the emperor and his ministers, whose ear they could not reach, and upon whom all lofty arguments would have been wasted. The court, the army, the aristocracy, rushed with headlong eagerness into excesses and pleasures, which could not have been arrested by the wise and good of their own rank; much less by a class who were obnoxious and forgotten. The Christians could not even utter indignant protests without personal danger, to which they were not called. There was no possible way of presenting a barrier against corruption, outside their own ranks. Obscure men in these times can write books, but not under the empire; now they can lecture and preach, but not then. They were obliged to conceal their sentiments when there was danger of being suspected of being Christians. Those who have observed the resistless tyranny of fashion in our times--how even Christians are drawn into its eddies, not merely in such matters as dress, and houses, and education, but even in pleasures which are questionable, and in opinions which are false--what are we to think of the overwhelming influence of fashion at Rome, when society was still more artificial, when its leaders were kings and tyrants, and when all the propensities of human nature were in accordance with the customs handed down for centuries, and endorsed by all who were powerful in ordinary life. If Christians are so feeble in Paris, London, and New York, in suppressing acknowledged evils which come from the world, how could the early Christians prevent the ascendency of evils among those over whom they had no influence--perhaps those who did not feel them to be evils at all. If Christians who affect great social position in our cities cannot break up theatres and other demoralizing pleasures, how could the early Christians bring the games of the amphitheatre into disrepute? If social evils increase among us in spite of churches and schools and a free press and lectures, how could we expect them to decrease when no power was exerted to bring them into disrepute, and when the general tone of society was infinitely lower than in the worst capitals of modern times? What would wealthy senators, with their armies of clients and slaves, or the frivolous courtiers of godless emperors, or the sensual equestrians who composed a moneyed class, care for opposition to their pleasures from those whom they despised, and with whom they never associated, and who had no influence on public opinion? The Christians could not, and dared not, make their voices heard, to any extent, outside their own esoteric circle. They had an influence, or their circle could not have increased, but it was private and concealed. Artisans talked with artisans, servants with servants, soldiers with soldiers. They converted, quietly and unobtrusively, by private talk and blameless lives, those with whom alone they freely mingled. Thus their numbers multiplied, but their prestige did not increase, until these mechanics and laborers and slaves exercised some fortunate influence, by occasional entreaties, on their haughty masters. A favorite slave could sometimes gain the ear of the lady whose hair she dressed; or some veteran and trusted servant might persuade an indulgent master to listen to the new truths which were such a life to him. Thus the circle of the Christians gradually embraced some of the more candid and intellectual and fearless of the great. But it should be borne in mind that as the circle was enlarged, especially so as to embrace people whose lives had been egotistical and self-indulgent, the standard of morality was lowered. Also we should remember, as the circle increased, even of devout believers, that vice and degeneracy increased also outside the circle, and also as rapidly. The overwhelming current of corruption swept every thing away before it. What if the small minority were virtuous, when the vast majority were vicious. They were only witnesses of truth; they were not triumphant conquerors of error. If the state could have lasted a thousand years longer in peace and prosperity, then the leaven of the Gospel might have leavened the whole lump. But the barbarians could not wait for society to be renovated. They came when society was most enervated. When the Christians had gained sufficient influence to stop the games of the circus and the amphitheatre; when they had induced emperors to modify slavery; when they uttered protests against demoralizing amusements, the barbarians had advanced, and were becoming the new masters of the empire. The prayers of Augustine, the letters of Jerome, the sermons of Chrysostom, the ascetic example of Basil, could no more arrest the march of the avengers of centuries of misrule than the intercession of Abraham could stop the thunderbolts of God on the guilty inhabitants of Sodom. The Roman world, so long abandoned to every folly and sin, must reap the bitter fruit. It was no reproach to Christianity that it did not avert the consequences of sin, any more than it was a reproach to Jonah that he could not save Nineveh. If Christianity effects so little with us, when there are no opposing religions, and all institutions are professedly in harmony with it; when it controls the press and the schools and the literature of the country; when its churches are gilded with the emblem of our redemption in every village; when its ministers go forth unopposed, and have every facility of delivering their message, even to the wise and mighty; when philanthropy comes in with its mighty arm and knocks off the fetters of the slave, and sends the Gospel to every land--how could it affect society when every influence was against it. If religion wanes before the dazzling forces of a brilliant material civilization, and scarcely holds her own, when all profess to be governed by Christian truth, so that in a moral and spiritual view, society rather retrogrades than advances, I am amazed that it made so considerable a progress in the Roman empire, and increased from generation to generation until it shook the throne of emperors. And the example of the early church would seem to indicate that religion can only spread in a healthy manner, by constantly guarding and purifying those who profess it. It would seem that the true mission of the church is to elevate her own members rather than to mingle in scenes which have a corrupting influence. It is not easy to make the theatre a means of moral improvement, for it will be deserted when it rises above popular tastes, and the more it panders to these tastes the more it flourishes. The theatre may have been elevated at Athens, when the citizens who thronged to hear the plays of Sophocles were themselves cultivated. Racine may have been relished at Versailles, but only because the court of a great king composed the audience. The theatre never rises above the taste of those who patronize it. Christian teachings would have been spurned at Rome even had there been no persecution. The church flourished because it instructed its own members, and quietly gained an extension of its influence, not because it appealed to those who opposed it. The church, in those days, was not a philanthropical institution, or an educational enterprise, or a network of agencies and "instrumentalities" to bring to bear on society at large certain ameliorating influences or benignant reforms. These were beyond its reach. But it was a secret body of believers, a kind of freemasonry which aimed to control and reform those who belonged to it. Its rules were for members, not the outside world. Hence the history of the early church refers chiefly to its discipline, to its officers, to the management of dioceses, to councils, holydays, festivals, liturgies, creeds, bearing only on its own internal organization. The members of this secret society lived apart from the world, absorbed in their own spiritual interests, or seeking to save the souls of those with whom they came in contact. The true triumphs of Christianity were seen in making good men of those who professed her doctrines, rather than changing outwardly popular institutions, or government, or laws, or even elevating the great mass of unbelievers. And it is more comforting to feel that the church was small and pure than that it was large and corrupt. And for three centuries there is reason to believe that the Christians, if feeble in influence and few in numbers when compared with the whole population, were remarkable for their graces and virtues--for their noble resistance to those temptations which enthrall so great a number of our modern believers. Insignificant in every public sense, they may not have lifted up their voices against the system of slavery which did so much to undermine the state; they may not have lectured against the despotic power of the imperator; they may have taken but little interest in politics, rendering unto Caesar whatever was due, whether taxes or obedience; they may not have formed schools or colleges or lyceums; they may not have meddled with any thing outside their ranks, except to preach temperance, justice, and a judgment to come, and a Saviour who was crucified, and a heaven to be obtained; but they did practice among themselves all the duties enjoined by Christ and his Apostles; they refused to sacrifice to the gods of pagan antiquity; they visited no shows; they attended no pageants; they gave no sumptuous banquets; they did not witness the games of the theatre and the circus; they did not play at dice, or take usury, or dye their hair, or wear absurd ornaments, or indulge in unseemly festivities: they detested astrologers and soothsayers, shrines, images, and idolatry; they kept the Sabbath, educated their children in the faith, settled their disputes without going to law, were patient under injuries, were charitable and unobtrusive, were full of faith and love, practicing the severest virtues, devout and spiritual when all were worldly and frivolous around them, ready for the martyr's pile, and looking to the martyr's crown. That Christianity should have rescued so many from the pollution of paganism in such general degeneracy, is very wonderful. That it should have extended its circle of sincere believers amid increasing degeneracy, is still more so, and is a most encouraging fact to the friends of religious progress. If it could not reach the fashionable and the worldly wise before society was undermined, and the provinces had become the prey of barbarians, it still could boast of a glorious army of martyrs, witnesses of the truth, whom all ages will hold in veneration, precious seed for future and better times. If Christianity, when it was a life,--a great transforming and renovating power, reforming what was bad, conserving what was good,--had but little influence beyond the circle of believers, still less could it save the empire when it was itself corrupted, when it was a mere nominal religion, however extensively it had spread. When it became the religion of the court and of the fashionable classes, it was used to support the very evils against which it originally protested, and which it was designed to remove.
[Sidenote: It adopts oriental errors.]
It first adopted many of the errors of the oriental philosophy. Gnosticism was embraced by many of the leading intellects of the church. It was the reaction of that old aristocratic spirit which had ruled the pagan world. It was an eclecticism of knowledge and culture which had originally despised the doctrines of the Cross. It united the oriental theosophy with the Platonic philosophy, both of which were proud, exclusive, disdainful. "It drew a distinction between the man of intellect, whose vocation it was to know, and the man who could not rise above blind and implicit faith." The early Christians were characterized for the simplicity of their faith. But with the triumphs of faith arose the cravings for knowledge among the more cultivated part of the converts.
[Sidenote: Attempts to reconcile reason with faith.]
Paul had seemingly discouraged all vain speculations, and the Grecian spirit of philosophy, believing that they would not avail to the explanation of the Christian mysteries, but rather prove a stumbling- block and a folly, since the realm of faith was essentially different from the realm of reason--not necessarily antagonistic, but distinct. This fundamental principle has ever been maintained by the more orthodox leaders of the church--by Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Pascal, Calvin--even as the fundamental principle of sound philosophy which Bacon advocated, that the world of experience and observation could not be explained by metaphysical deductions, has been the cause of all great modern progress in the sciences. The Gnostics, the men who aimed at superior knowledge, disdained the humbling doctrine of Paul, which made faith supreme over all forms of philosophy, and were the first to seek solutions of difficult points of theology by abstruse inquiries-- honorable to the intellect, but subversive of that docile spirit which Christianity enjoined. This tendency to speculation was unfortunate, but natural to those active minds who sought to discover a connection between the truths taught by revelation, and those which we arrive at by consciousness. Grecian philosophy, when most lofty, as expressed by Plato, was based on these mental possessions--these internal convictions reached by logic and reflection. What more harmless, and even praiseworthy, to all appearance, than was this earnest attempt to reconcile reason with faith? The finest minds and characters of the church entered into the discussion with singular intensity and ardor. They would explain the Man-God, the Trinity, the Word made flesh, and all the other points which grew out of grace and free will. A dialectical spirit arose, which combated or explained what had formerly been received with unquestioning submission. In the first century there was scarcely any need of creeds, for the faith of the Christians was united on a few simple doctrines, such as are expressed in the Apostles' Creed. In the second and third centuries agitations and speculations began, and with the Gnostics, that class who invoked the aid of Oriental and Grecian philosophies in the propagation of the new religion. It was to be made dependent on human speculation--a most dangerous error, since it reintroduced the very wisdom which knew not God, and which the Apostles ignored. It ushered in the reign of rationalism, which still refuses to abdicate her throne, and which is absolutely rampant and exulting in the great universities of the most learned and inquiring of European nations.
But Gnosticism partook more of the haughty and exclusive spirit of the eastern sages, than of the patient and inquiring nature of the Grecian schools. It soared into regions whither even Platonism did not presume to venture. It sought to subject even the Grecian mind to its wild and lofty flights. The doctrines which Zoroaster taught pertaining to the two antagonistic principles of good and evil--the oriental dualism-- Parsism had great fascination, especially to those who were inclined to monastic seclusion. The spirit of Evil, which seemed to be dominant on earth, and which was associated with material things, chained the soul to sense. The soul, longing for truth and holiness--for God and heaven-- panted to be free of the corrupting influences of matter, which imprisoned the noblest part of man. The oriental Christian, not fully emancipated from the spirit which Buddhism communicated to all the countries of the East--that is, the longing of the soul for the release from matter, its reunion with the primal power from which all life has flowed, and the estrangement from human passions and worldly interests-- sought repose and retirement where the mind would be free to dwell on the great questions which pertained to God and immortality. The dualistic principle, one of the chief elements of Gnosticism, harmonized with the prevailing temper of that age, even as the pantheistic principle rules the schools of philosophy in our own. All Christians were alive to consciousness of the power of evil. Gnosticism recognized it. Christianity triumphs over it by the power of the Cross which procures redemption. Gnosticism would work out salvation by abstractions, by ascetic severities, by a renunciation of the pleasures of the world. Hence it is the real father of monasticism--that spirit of seclusion and self-abnegation which became so prevalent in the third and fourth centuries, and which remained in the church through the mediaeval period. Gnosticism busied itself with the solution of insoluble questions respecting the origin of evil, which Christianity justly relinquished to the domain of useless inquiries--"the wisdom of the world." Gnosticism would acknowledge no limits to human speculation; Christianity accepts mysteries hidden from the wise and prudent, and yet revealed unto babes. Hence all sorts of crudities of belief crept into the church, such as the idea of the demiurge, and the different ways of contemplating the person of Christ. Moreover, the Gnostics subjected the New Testament to the boldest criticism, affirming it to be impossible to arrive at the true doctrines of Christ; and hence they sought to go beyond Christ, explaining difficult subjects by rationalistic interpretations. Cerinthus placed a boundless chasm between God and the world, and filled it up with different orders of spirits as intermediate beings. Basilides supposed an angel was set over the entire earthly course of the world. Valentine announced the distinction between a psychical and pneumatical Christianity. Ptolemaeus maintained that the creation of the world did not proceed from the supreme God. Bardesanes sought to trace the vestiges of truth among people of every nation. Carpocrates maintained that all existence flowed from one supreme original being, to whom it strives to return. Prodicus asserted that as men were sons of the supreme God, a royal race, they were bound by no law. Saturnine advanced a fanciful system on the creation. Tatian advocated the mortality of the soul. Marcion attempted to sunder the God of Nature and the God of the Old Testament from the God of the Gospel. It is difficult to enumerate all the fanciful theories propounded by the Gnostics, and which arose from the attempt to engraft Orientalism upon Christianity.
A still greater attempt to blend Christianity with the religions of ancient Asia was made by Mani, a Persian, who especially attempted to fuse Zoroastrian with Christian doctrines. He aimed to produce the utmost estrangement from all mundane influences, since the evil principle held in bondage the elements springing out of the kingdom of light. Deliverance from this bondage he regarded as the great end and aim of life. His spirit was pantheistic, probably derived from Buddhism, which he had learned during his extensive journeys into India and China. He adopted the dualism of Zoroaster, and supposed two principles antagonistic to each other, on the one side God, the primal light, from whom all light radiates, on the other side Evil, whose essence is self- conflicting uproar, matter, darkness. Most nearly connected with the supreme God were Aeons,--the channels for the diffusion of light,-- innumerable in number and of surpassing greatness. The Aeon-mother of life generated the primitive man to oppose the powers of darkness. Hence man's nature is full of dignity, although he was worsted in the conflict with Evil. But the spirit raises him once more to the kingdom of light, and purifies his soul which sprung from the primitive man. The pure soul is Christ, enthroned in the sun, superior to all contact with matter, and incapable of suffering.
These were some of the features of that mystical philosophy which made Christ the spirit of the sun, giving light and life to the soul imprisoned in the kingdom of darkness. Man thus becomes a copy of the world of light and darkness, struggling against matter, elevated by the source of life--a soul living in the kingdom of light, and a body derived from the kingdom of darkness, and enticed by all the pleasures of sense, and thus drawn down to the world which is matter and evil, counteracted by the angel of light. This is the dualism which formed the essential element of the Manichean speculations, so congenial to the mystic theogonies of the East, and which was embraced by a portion of the eastern church, especially by those who were fascinated by the refinements and pretensions of a philosophy which aimed to solve the highest problems of existence--the nature of God, and the creation of man. These daring speculations, which led astray so many inquiring minds, were, however, too mystical and indefinite to reach the popular mind, and they pertained to questions which did not shock Christian instincts, like those which attacked the person or the offices of Christ. Gnosticism was viewed as a sort of Judaism, inasmuch as it did not rest its exclusiveness on the title of birth, but on especial knowledge communicated to the enlightened few. It was a philosophy whose esoteric doctrines soared above the comprehension of the vulgar; but it affected more than the surface of society; it poisoned the minds of those who aspired to lead the intelligence of the age. Its spirit was antagonistic to the simplicity of the faith, and so, as it prevailed, was an influence much to be dreaded, and called forth the greatest energies of the Alexandrian school, in order to defeat it and nullify it. But its dangerous seeds remained to germinate a rationalistic theology, especially when united with the Neo-Platonic philosophy.
[Sidenote: Adoption of oriental ceremonies and pomps.]
But the church was not only impregnated with the errors of pagan philosophy, but it adopted many of the ceremonials of oriental worship, which were both minute and magnificent. If any thing marked the primitive church it was the simplicity of worship, and the absence of ceremonies and festivals and gorgeous rites. The churches became, in the fourth century, as imposing as the old temples of idolatry. The festivals became authoritative; at first they were few in number, and purely voluntary. It was supposed that when Christianity superseded Judaism, the obligations to observe the ceremonies of the Mosaic law were abrogated. Neither the apostles nor evangelists imposed the yoke of servitude, but left Easter and every other feast to be honored by the gratitude of the recipients of grace. The change in opinion, in the fourth century, called out the severe animadversion of the historian Socrates, but it was useless to stem the current of the age. Festivals became frequent and imposing. The people clung to them because they obtained a cessation from labor, and obtained excitement. The ancient rubrics mention only those of the Passion, of Easter, of Whitsunday, Christmas, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. But there followed the celebration of the death of Stephen, the memorial of John, the commemoration of the slaughter of the Innocents, the feast of Epiphany, the feast of Purification, and others, until the Catholic Church had some celebration for some saint and martyr for every day in the year. They contributed to create a craving for an outward religion, which appealed to the senses and the sensibilities rather than the heart. They led to innumerable quarrels and controversies about unimportant points, especially in relation to the celebration of Easter. They produced a delusive persuasion respecting pilgrimages, the sign of the cross, and the sanctifying effects of the sacraments. Veneration for martyrs ripened into the introduction of images--a future source of popular idolatry. Christianity was emblazoned in pompous ceremonies. The veneration for saints approximated to their deification, and superstition exalted the mother of our Lord into an object of absolute worship. Communion-tables became imposing altars typical of Jewish sacrifices, and the relics of martyrs were preserved as sacred amulets.
[Sidenote: Monastic life.]
Monastic life ripened also into a grand system of penance, and expiatory rites, such as characterized oriental asceticism. Armies of monks retired to gloomy and isolated places, and abandoned themselves to rhapsodies and fastings and self-expiations, in opposition to the grand doctrine of Christ's expiation. They despaired of society, and abandoned the world to its fate--a dismal and fanatical set of men, overlooking the practical aims of life. They lived more like beasts and savages than enlightened Christians--wild, fierce, solitary, superstitious, ignorant, fanatical, filthy, clothed in rags, eating the coarsest food, practicing gloomy austerities, introducing a false standard of virtue, regardless of the comforts of civilization, and careless of those great interests which were intrusted them to guard. They were often men of extraordinary virtue and influence, and their lives were not assailed by great temptations. They abstained from marriage, and celibacy came to be regarded as the angelic virtue--a proof of the highest and purest Christian life. Vast numbers of men left the sanctities and beatitudes of home for a cheerless life in the desert, and their gloomy and repulsive austerities were magnified into extraordinary virtues. The monks and hermits sought to save themselves by climbing to Heaven by the same ladder that had been sought by the soofis and the fakirs,--which delusion had an immense influence in undermining the doctrines of grace. Christianity was fast merging itself into an oriental theosophy.
[Sidenote: Ambition and wealth of the clergy.]
Again the clergy became ambitious and worldly, and sought rank and distinction. They even thronged the courts or princes, and aspired to temporal honors. They were no longer supported by the voluntary contributions of the faithful, but by revenues supplied by government, or property inherited from the old temples. Great legacies were made to the church by the rich, and these the clergy controlled. These bequests became sources of inexhaustible wealth. As wealth increased, and was intrusted to the clergy, they became indifferent to the wants of the people, no longer supported by them. They became lazy, arrogant, and independent. The people were shut out of the government of the church. The bishop became a grand personage, who controlled and appointed his clergy. The church was allied with the state, and religious dogmas were enforced by the sword of the magistrate. An imposing hierarchy was established, of various grades, which culminated in the bishop of Rome. The emperor decided points of faith, and the clergy were exempted from the burdens of the state. There was a great flocking to the priestly offices when the clergy wielded so much power, and became so rich; and men were elevated to great sees, not because of their piety or talents, but influence with the great. What a falling off from the teachings of the original clergy, when bishops were the companions of princes rather than preachers to the poor, and when the clergy could live without the offerings of the people, and were appointed from favor and not from merit. The spiritual mission of the church was lost sight of in a degrading alliance with the state and the world. "Make me bishop of Rome," said a pagan general, "and I too would become a Christian."
[Sidenote: The church conforms to the world.]
[Sidenote: Christianity produces witnesses, but is not all conquering.]
When Christianity itself was in such need of reform, when Christians could scarcely be distinguished from pagans in love of display, and in egotistical ends, how could it reform the world? When it was a pageant, a ritualism, an arm of the state, a vain philosophy, a superstition, a formula, how could it save, if ever so dominant? The corruptions of the church in the fourth century are as well authenticated as the purity and moral elevation of Christians in the second century. Isaac Taylor has presented a most mournful view of the state of Christian society when the religion of the cross had become the religion of the state. And the corruptions kept pace with the outward triumphs of the faith, especially when the pagans had yielded to the supremacy of the cross. The same fact is noticeable in the history of Mohammedanism. When it was first declared by the extraordinary man who claimed to be the greatest of the prophets of God, when it was a sublime theism, immeasurably superior to the prevailing religions of Arabia, and especially when it was promulgated by moral means, its converts were few, but these were lofty. When it was extended by an appeal to the sword, and to the bad passions of men, when it gave a promise of demoralizing joys, and was embraced by powerful classes and chieftains, it had rapidly extended over Asia and Africa, and even invaded Europe. Mohammedanism doubtless prevailed in consequence of its very errors, by adapting itself to the corrupt inclinations of mankind. If it prospered by means of its truths, why was its progress so slow when it was comparatively pure and elevated? The outward triumphs of a religion are no indications of its purity, since the more corrupt it is the more popular it will be, and the purer it is the less likely it is to be embraced, except by a few, whom God designs to be witnesses of his power and truth. Buddhism and Brahminism have more adherents than Mohammedanism, and Mohammedanism more than Christianity, and Roman Catholic Christianity has more than Protestantism, and Protestantism, when it is a life, is narrowed down to a very small body of believers. Christianity which is popular and fashionable, is not necessarily elevated and ennobling, and when it is fashionable or popular is very apt to assume the forms of an imposing ritualism, or to be blended with philosophical speculations, or to sink to the degradation of superstitious rites and ceremonies. When Christianity falls to the level of prevailing fashions and customs and opinions, it has not a very powerful renovating influence on human life. The Jesuits made great conquests in Japan and China, but how barren they have proved. The Puritans planted the barren hills of New England with stern and rugged believers in a spiritual and personal God, and they have extended their principles throughout the country. What renovating influence has the nominal Christianity of South America, or Spain, or Italy? The religion embraced by the wise and great is apt to become a rationalism, and that professed by the degraded populace to become a superstition. The reception of Christianity in the heart implies sacrifices and self-denial, and will not be cordially embraced except by a few thus far, in any age. The Lollards in England, in the time of Henry VII., were a feeble body, but they did more to infuse a religious life than the whole machinery and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. And as soon as the Church of England gained over the state, and became established, it began to degenerate, and had need of successive reforms. How feeble every form of dissent as a truly renovating power when it has become triumphant! What have the fashionable court religions of Europe done towards the real regeneration of society? Protestantism in Germany, when it was protesting, had a mighty life. When universities and courts accepted it, it became a poisonous rationalism, or a dead formula. Puritanism, established in New England just previous to the Revolution, was a very different thing from what it was when its adherents were exiles and wanderers. It spread and was honored, but retained chiefly its forms, its traditions, its animosities. How rapidly the Huguenots degenerated after the battle of Ivry! Even Jesuitism could not stand before its own triumphs. Its real life was in the times of Xavier and Aquaviva, not of Escobar and La Chaise. Any dominant faith will find its supporters among those whose practical lives are false to the original principles. Its powers of renovation depend upon its exalted doctrines, not upon the numbers who profess it, because, when dominant, men are drawn to it by ambition or interest. They degrade it more than it elevates them. Hence it would almost seem that Christianity, in this dispensation, is designed to call out witnesses of its truths, in every land, the elect of God, rather than to be a universally renovative power on human institutions. But if it is destined to be all-conquering, bringing government and science and social life in harmony with its spirit, as most people believe, and perhaps with the greatest evidence on their side, still its real conquests must be slow, without supernatural aid. It will spread, from its inherent life and power; it will become corrupted, and fail to exert as great a spiritual influence as was hoped; it will be reformed, after great debasements, when it is scarcely more than a nominal faith, except among the few witnesses; and the reforming party or sect will gain ascendency, and in its turn become degenerate and powerless as a renovating force. So history seems to indicate, from the times of Theodosius to our own, specially illustrated by the establishment of the different monastic orders, the great awakenings under Luther and Calvin and Knox, the successes of Jesuits and Jansenists, the triumphs of the Puritans, the Quakers, and the Methodists, the rise of Puseyism, or the Church of England. That Christianity remains vital in the world, and makes true advances from generation to generation, can scarcely be questioned. But these advances are slow and delusive. Spiritual power will pass away as the conquering party gains adherents from the world of fashion and of rank. It will not become extinct, but the difference between its true influence, when it is persecuted and when it is triumphant, is less than generally supposed. The spiritual cannot be measured by the material. Who can tell wherein true and permanent influence abides? Who can estimate the power of spiritual agencies? It is common to speak of enlarged spheres of usefulness; but a clergyman in a humble parish may set in motion ideas which will have more effect on the age in which he lives, and on succeeding times, than by any splendid position in a large and populous city. God seeth not as man seeth. To fill the sphere which Providence appoints is the true wisdom; to discharge trusts faithfully and live exalted ideas, that is the mission of good men.
[Sidenote: Reasons why Christianity did not save the empire.]
Christianity, then, in the fourth century was not more of a renovating power in consequence of its rapid extension and vast external influence. It was never more sublime than when it made martyrs and heroes of the few who dared to embrace its doctrines. There was more hope of its regenerating the world when it was a continually expanding circle of devout believers, uncompromising and aggressive, than when it numbered the wise and noble and mighty, with their old vices and follies. Its external triumphs rather diminished its spiritual power.
If Christianity failed as a gorgeous ritualism, armed with the weapons of the state, and allied with pagan philosophy, attractive as it was made to different classes, where is the hope of the renovation of this world from the effects of climate, soil, material wealth, and the other boasts of physical improvements and culture? What a poor basis for the hopes of man to rest upon is furnished by such guides as the Comtes, the Buckles, and the Mills? If a fashionable and popular religion could not save, how can a cold materialism which chains the thoughts to sense, and confines aspirations to worldly success.
Christianity, as it would seem, did not avert the ruin of the empire, because, when pure, it had but little influence outside its circle of esoteric believers, while society was rotten to the core, and was rapidly approaching a natural dissolution. When it was dominant it failed, because it was itself corrupted, and the ruin had begun. The barbarians were advancing to desolate and destroy, were routing armies and sacking cities and enslaving citizens, when the great fathers of the church were laying the foundation of a Christian state. The ruin of the empire was threatening when Christianity was a proscribed and persecuted faith; it was inevitable when it was grasping the sceptre of princes.
[Sidenote: True mission of the church.]
[Sidenote: The fall of the empire a necessity.]
[Sidenote: The creation which succeeds destruction.]
[Sidenote: What is truly valuable never perishes.]
Moreover, we take a low and material view of Christianity when we wonder why it did not save the empire. It was sent to save the world, not the institutions of an egotistical people. Why should we grieve that it failed to perpetuate such an organization or government as that wielded by the emperors? What was a central and proud despotism, with vast military machinery, and accompanying aristocracies and inequalities, and the accumulated treasure of all ages and nations on the banks of the Tiber, compared with a state more favorable for the development of a new civilization? What does humanity care for the perpetuation of Roman pride? Providence attaches but little value to human sorrows and sacrifices, to the melting away of delusions, pomps, vanities, and follies, compared with the spread of those indestructible ideas on which are based the real happiness of man. If the empire had withstood the shock of barbarians, a state would have existed unfavorable to the higher and future triumphs of the cross. Where was hope, when imperial despotism, and disproportionate fortunes, and slavery, and the reign of conventional forms and traditions, and the tyranny of foolish fashions were likely to be perpetuated? How could Christianity have subverted these monstrous evils without producing revolutions more blasting than even barbaric violence? There seem to be some evils so subtle, poisonous, and deeply-rooted that nothing but violence can remove them. How long before slavery would have been destroyed in the United States by any moral means? How could slavery be destroyed when the most eloquent of Christian teachers were its defenders, and all its kindred institutions were upheld by the church? So of slavery in the Roman Empire. There were sixty millions of slaves, not of the posterity of Ham, but of Shem and Japhet. Every prosperous person was eager to possess a slave, nor had Christianity openly and signally rebuked such a gigantic institution. Where was the hope of the abolition of such an evil when Christianity adapted itself to prevailing fashions and opinions, and only thought of alleviating some of its worst forms? Would slaves decrease when worldly men became the overseers of the church, and emperors presided at councils? Where were the hopes of its abolition when the whole world was its theatre, and every rich man its defender; where, instead of four millions, there were sixty millions, and where the general level of morality and intelligence was lower than it is at present? So of disproportionate fortunes. They were a hopeless evil. If aristocratic institutions keep their ground in the best country of Europe, what must have been the grasp of nobles in the Roman world? Abandonment to money-making was another social evil. If we in America cannot weaken its power, even in the most Christian communities; if we cannot prevent the tyranny of money in our very churches, where we are reminded every Sunday that it is the root of all evil, yea, when we have Bibles in our hands,--what could a corrupted Christianity do with it when material pleasures were more prized than they are with us, and when philanthropic institutions were unborn? If the whole power of the Gallican Church was exerted to prop up the feudal privileges of the French noblesse, and there was needed a dreadful and bloody revolution to destroy them, much more was a revolution needed at Rome to destroy the inherited powers of a still prouder and more powerful aristocracy. If the rights of women are so slowly recognized among the descendants of chivalrous nations, with all the moral forces of the Gospel, how hopeless the elevation of women among peoples where woman for thousands of years was regarded as a victim, a toy, or a slave? When we remember the inherited opinions of Orientals, Greeks, and Romans as to the condition and duties and relations of the female sex, it seems as if no ordinary instruction could have broken the fetters of woman for an indefinite period. The institutions of the pagan world were too firmly rooted to afford hope to Christian teachers, if ever so enlightened. The great cardinal principle of the common brotherhood of man could only be applied under more favorable circumstances. The unity of the empire did facilitate the outward triumphs and spread of Christianity, and perhaps that was the great mission which the Roman empire was designed by God to promote. But the social and political institutions of the Romans were exceedingly adverse to a healthy development of Christian virtue. The teachers of the new religion originally aimed entirely at the salvation of the soul. It was to save men from the wrath to come, and publish tidings of great joy to the miserable populace of the ancient world, that apostles labored. They did not attack political or great organized systems of corruption openly and directly. It was enough to promise Heaven, not to change the structure of society. For four centuries neither the condition of woman nor of the slave was radically improved. Christianity could not, without miraculous power, bear its best fruit on a Roman soil. It could not do its best work on degenerate and worn-out races. How many centuries would it take for Christianity, even if embraced by all the people of Japan or China, to make as noble Christians as in Scotland or New England? There must be a material to work upon. There was not this material in the Roman empire. A dreadful revolution was necessary, in which new and uncorrupted races should obtain ascendency, and on whom Christianity could work with renewed power. In such a catastrophe, the good must suffer with the evil, the just with the unjust. A Gothic soldier would not spare a cloister any sooner than a palace, or a palace sooner than a hut, a philosopher more readily than a peasant. Christians as well as pagans must drink the bitter cup, for natural law has no tears to shed and no indulgence to give. The iniquities of the fathers were visited upon the children, even to the third and fourth generation. And what if there was suffering on the earth? Tribulation is generally a blessing in disguise. Men are not born for undisturbed happiness on earth, but for a preparation for heaven. Whatever calls the thoughts from a lower to a higher good is the greatest boon which Providence gives. The monstrous calamities of the fourth and fifth centuries had a marked influence in opening the portals of the church, even for the barbarians themselves-- for they were not converted until they became conquerors. A new life, in spite of calamities, was infused into the empire, tottering and falling. It was among the new races that the new creation began, and it is among their descendants that the loftiest triumphs of civilization have been achieved. So it was ultimately a good thing for the world that the empire and all its bad institutions were swept away. Creation followed destruction, and the death-song was succeeded by a melodious birth-song. All suffering and sorrow were over-ruled. Future ages were the better for such sad calamities. Temples were destroyed, but the sublime ideas of beauty and grace by which they were erected still survive. Armies were annihilated, but military science was not lost. Libraries were burned, but models of ancient style survived to incite to new creation. Anarchy prevailed, but new states arose on the ruins of the old provinces. Men passed away, but not the fruits of the earth, nor the relics of genius. The new races gave a new impulse, when fairly established, to agriculture, to commerce, and to art. The fall of the empire was the destruction of fortunes and of farms, the change of masters, the dissolution of the central power of emperors, the breaking up of proconsular authority, the dissipation of conventionalities and fashions; but these were not the ruin of human hopes or the bondage of human energies. Genius, poetry, faith, sentiment, and piety, remained. Nor was the earth depopulated; it was decimated. All the substantial elements of greatness were moulded into new forms. A fresh and beautiful life arose among the simple and earnest people who had descended from the Oder and the Vistula. Entirely new institutions were formed. The old fabric was shattered to pieces, but of the ruins a new edifice was constructed more calculated to shelter the distressed and miserable. The barbarians seized the old traditions of the church and invested them with poetical beauty. The Teutonic civilization, more Christian than the Roman, surpassed it in all popular forms, and became more adapted to the wants of man. Probably nothing really great in civilization has ever perished, or ever will perish. I don't believe in "lost arts." They are only buried for a time, like the glorious sculptures of Praxiteles or Lysippus, amid the debris of useless fabrics, to be dug up when wanted and valued, as models of new creations. I doubt if any thing really valuable in even the Egyptian, or Assyrian, or Indian civilization has hopelessly passed away, which can be made of real service to mankind. It is, indeed, a puzzle how the capstones of the Pyramids were elevated-- such huge blocks raised five hundred feet into the air; but I believe the mechanical forces are really known, or will be known, at the proper time, and will be again employed, if the labor is worth the cost. We could build a tower of Babel in New York, or a temple of Carnac, or a Colosseum, and would build it, if such a structure were needed or we could afford the waste of time, material, and labor. There is nothing in all antiquity so grand as a modern railroad, or the Great Eastern steamship, or the Erie Canal. Nebuchadnezzar's palace would not compare with St. Peter's Church or Versailles, nor his hanging gardens with the Croton reservoirs. Gibraltar or Ehrenbreitstein is more impregnable than the walls of Babylon, which Cyrus despaired to scale or batter down. Every succeeding generation inherits the riches and learning of the past, even if Rome and Carthage are sacked, and the library of Alexandria is burned. The barbarians destroyed the monuments of former greatness--temples, palaces, statues, pictures, libraries, schools, languages, and laws. These they did not restore, but they were restored by their descendants, as there was need, and new creations added. The Parthenon reappears in the Madeleine; the Golden House of Nero in the Tuileries and the Louvre; Jupiter of Phidias in the Moses of Michael Angelo; the Helen of Zeuxis in the Venus of Titian; the library of Alexandria in the Bibliotheque Imperiale; the Academy of Plato in the University of Oxford; the orations of Cicero in the eloquence of Burke; the Institutes of Justinian in the Code Napoleon. In addition, we have cathedrals whose architectural effect Vitruvius could not have conceived; pictures that Polygnotus could not have painted; books which Aristotle could not have imagined; universities before which Zeno would have stood awestruck; courts of law that would have called out the admiration of Paul and Papinian; houses which Scaurus would have envied; carriages that Nero would have given the lives of ten thousand Christians to possess; carpets that Babylon could not have woven; dyes surpassing the Tyrian purple; silks, velvets, glass mirrors, sideboards, fabrics of linen and cotton and wool, ships, railroads, watches, telescopes, compasses, charts, printing-presses, gunpowder, fire-arms, photographs, engravings, bank-notes, telegraphic wires, chemical compounds, domestic utensils, mills, steam-engines, balloons, and a thousand other wonders of a civilization which no ancient race attained. We have lost nothing of the old trophies of genius, and have gained new ones for future civilization. The Romans, if left in possession of the provinces they had conquered for two thousand years longer, would never, probably, have made our modern discoveries and inventions. They would have been more like the modern inhabitants of China. A new race was required to try new experiments and achieve new triumphs. The Greeks and Romans did their share, fulfilled a great mission for humanity, but they could not monopolize forever the human race itself.
[Sidenote: Every age has a peculiar mission.]
Every great nation and age has its work to do in the field of undeveloped energies; but the field is inexhaustible in resources, for the intellect of man is boundless in its reserved powers. No limit can be assigned to the future triumphs of genius and strength. We are as ignorant of some future wonders as the last century was of steam and telegraphic wires. Nor can we tell what will next arise. The wonders of the Greeks and Romans would have astonished Egyptians and Assyrians. The Oriental civilization gave place to the Hellenic and the Roman; and the Hellenic and Roman gave place to the Teutonic. So the races and the ages move on. They have their missions, become corrupt, and pass away. But the breaking up of their institutions, even by violence, when no longer a blessing to the world, and the surrender of their lands and riches to another race, not worn out, but new, fresh, enthusiastic, and strong, have resulted in permanent good to mankind, even if we feel that the human mind never soared to loftier flights, or put forth greater and more astonishing individual energies than in that old and ruined world.
[Sidenote: How far Christianity conserved.]
How far Christianity conserved the treasures of the past we cannot tell. No one can doubt the influence of Christianity in reviving letters, in giving a stimulus to thought, in creating a noble ambition for the good of society, and producing that moral tone which fits the soul to appreciate what is truly great. It was the church which preserved the manuscripts of classical ages; which perpetuated the Latin language in chants and litanies and theological essays; which gave a new impulse to agriculture and many useful arts; which preserved the traditions of the Roman empire; which made use of the old canons of law; which gave a new glory to architecture in the Gothic vaults of mediaeval cathedrals; which encouraged the rising universities; which gave wisdom to rulers and laws to social life. The monasteries and convents, in their best ages, were receptacles of arts, beehives of industry, schools of learning, asylums for the miserable, retreats for sages, hospitals for the poor, and bulwarks of civilization which rude warriors dared not assail. What did not the Christian clergy guard and perpetuate?
[Sidenote: The real triumphs of Christianity.]
That the Teutonic nations would have arisen to as lofty a platform as the ancient Greeks or Romans, without Christianity, is probable enough. There is no limit to the intellect of a noble race until corrupted. Without Christianity, society might still have possessed our modern discoveries, since the Gothic races have shown a distinguishing genius in mechanical inventions. I apprehend that Christianity has not much to do with many of the wonders of our present day; and I find some classes of men who have made great attainments in certain channels in antagonism to Christianity. I question whether a spiritual religion has given an impulse to steam navigation, or rifled cannons, or electrical machines, or astronomical calculations, or geological deductions. It has not created scientific schools, or painters' studios, or Lowell mills, or Birmingham wares, or London docks. Material glories we share with the ancients; we have simply improved upon them. In some things they are our superiors. We do not see the superiority of modern over ancient civilization in material wonders, so much as in immaterial ideas. What is really greatest and noblest in our civilization comes from Christian truths. Certainly, what is most characteristic is the fruit of spiritual ideas, such as paganism never taught,--never could have conceived; such, for instance, as pertains to social changes, to popular education, to philanthropic enterprise, to enlightened legislation, to the elevation of the poor and miserable, to the breaking off the fetters of the slave, and to the true appreciation of the mission of woman. Nor was the Roman empire swept away until the seeds of all these great modern improvements, which raise society, were planted by the sainted fathers and doctors of the church. They worked for us, for all future ages, for all possible civilizations, as well as for their own times. They are, therefore, immortal benefactors of the human race, since they were the first to declare great renovating ideas. The early church is the real architect of European civilization. She laid the foundation of the noble edifice under which the nations still shelter themselves against the storms of life. Christianity not only rescued a part of the population of the Roman empire from degradation and ruin; it not only had glorious witnesses or its transcendent power and beauty in every land, thus triumphing over human infirmity and misery as no other religion ever did; but it has also proved itself to be a progressively conquering power by the great and beneficent ideas which were planted in the minds of barbarians, as well as oriental Christians, and which from time to time are bearing fruit in every land, so as to make it evident to any but a perverted intellect, that Christianity is the source of what we most prize in civilization itself, and that without it the nations can only reach a certain level, and will then, from the law of depravity, decline and fall like Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome. If we had no Christianity, we should be compelled, so far as history teaches us lessons, to adopt the theory of Buckle and his school, of the necessary progress and decline of nations--the moving round, like systems of philosophy, in perpetual circles. But, with the indestructible ideas which the fathers planted, there must be a perpetual renovation and an unending progress, until the world becomes an Eden.
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REFERENCES.--The reader is directed only to the ordinary histories of the church. The great facts are stated by all the historians, and few new ones have been brought to light. Historians differ merely in the mode of presenting their subject. The ecclesiastical histories are generally deficient in art, and hence are uninteresting. The ablest and the most learned of modern historians is doubtless Neander. He is also the fullest and most satisfactory; but even he is unattractive. Mosheim is dry and dull, but learned in facts. Dr. Schaff has most ably presented primitive Christianity, and his recent work is both popular and valuable. Milman is the best English writer on the church, and he is the most readable of modern historians. Tillemont and Dupin are very full and very learned. But a truly immortal history of the church, exhaustive yet artistic, brilliant as well as learned, is yet to be written. The ancient historians, like Eusebius and Socrates and Zosimus, are very meagre. The genius and spirit of the early church can only be drawn from the lives and writings of the fathers.