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which excited universal admiration; and they furnished models and
examples to future generations, when Christians were subjected to bitter

We cannot but feel that martyrdom is one of the most impressive of all
human examples, since it is the mark of a practical belief in God and
heaven. And while we recognize it as among the most interesting among
spiritual triumphs, we are persuaded that the absence of its spirit, or
its decline, is usually followed by a low state of society. Epicureanism
is its antagonistic principle, and is as destructive as the other is
conservative. The moment men are unwilling to sacrifice themselves to a
great cause, they virtually say that temporal and worldly interests are
to be preferred to the spiritual and the future. The language of the
Epicurean is intensely egotistic. It is: "Soul, take thine ease; eat,
drink, and be merry;" to which God says, "Thou fool." Christianity was
sent to destroy this egotism, which undermined the strength of the
ancient world; and it created a practical belief in the future, and a
faith in truth. Without this faith, society has ever retrograded; with
it there have been continual reforms. It is an important element of
progress, and a mark of dignity and moral greatness.

Shall we seek a connection between their martyrdoms and civilization?
They bore witness to a religion which is the source of all true progress
upon earth; they attested to its divine truth amid protracted agonies;
they were illustrious examples for all ages to contemplate.

Perhaps the most powerful effect of their voluntary sacrifice was to
secure credence to the mysteries of Christianity. Socrates died for his
own opinions; but who was ever willing to die for the opinions of
Socrates? But innumerable martyrs exulted in the privilege of dying for
the doctrines of Him whose sacrifice saved the world. Nor to these had
death its customary terrors, since they were assured of a glorious
immortality. They impressed the pagan world with a profound lesson that
the future is greater than the present; that there is to be a day of
rewards and punishments. Amid all the miseries and desolations of
society, it was a great thing to bear witness to the reality of future
happiness and misery. The hope of immortality must have been an
unspeakable consolation to the miserable sufferers of the Roman Empire.
It gave to them courage and patience and fortitude. It inspired them
with hope and peace. Amid the ravages of disease, and the incursions of
barbarians, and the dissolution of society, and the approaching eclipse
of the glory of man, it was a great and holy mystery that the soul
should survive these evils, and that eternal bliss should be the reward
of the faithful. Nothing else could have reconciled the inhabitants of
the decaying empire to slavery, war, and pillage. There was needed some
powerful support to the mind under the complicated calamities of the
times. This support the death and exultation of the martyrs afforded. It
was written on the souls of the suffering millions that there was a
higher life, a glorious future, an exceeding great reward. It was
impossible to see thousands ready to die, exulting in the privilege of
martyrdom, anticipating with confidence their "crown," and not feel that
immortality was a certitude brought to light by the Gospel. And the
example of the martyrs kindled all the best emotions of the soul into a
hallowed glow. Their death, so serene and beautiful, filled the
spectators with love and admiration. Their sufferings brought to light
the greatest virtues, and diffused their spirit into the heart of all
who saw their indestructible joy. Is it nothing, in such an age, to have
given an impulse to the most exalted sentiments that men can cherish?
The welfare of nations is based on the indestructible certitudes of
love, friendship, faith, fortitude, self-sacrifice. It was not Marathon
so much as Thermopylae which imparted vitality to Grecian heroism, and
made that memorable self-sacrifice one of the eternal pillars which mark
national advancement. So the sufferings of the martyrs, for the sake of
Christ, warmed the dissolving empire with a belief in Heaven, and
prepared it to encounter the most unparalleled wretchedness which our
world has seen. They gave a finishing blow to Epicureanism and skeptical
cynicism; so that in the calamities which soon after happened, men were
buoyed with hope and trust. They may have hidden themselves in caves and
deserts, they may have sought monastic retreats, they may have lost
faith in man and all mundane glories, they may have consumed their lives
in meditation and solitude, they may have anticipated the dissolution of
all things, but they awaited in faith the coming of their Lord. Prepared
for any issue or any calamity, a class of heroes arose to show the moral
greatness of the passive virtues, and the triumphs of faith amid the
wrecks of material grandeur. Were not such needed at the close of the
fourth century? Especially were not such bright examples needed for the
ages which were to come? Polycarp and Cyprian were the precursors of the
martyrs of the Middle Ages, and were of the Reformation. Early
persecutions developed the spirit of martyrdom, which is the seed of the
church, impressed it upon the mind of the world, and prepared the way
for the moral triumphs of the Beckets and Savonarolas of remote
generations. Martyrdoms were the first impressive facts in the history
of the church, and the idea of dying for a faith one of the most signal
evidences of superiority over the ancient religions. It was a new idea,
which had utterly escaped the old guides of mankind.

Another great idea which was promulgated by the church long before the
empire fell, was that of benevolence. Charities were not one of the
fruits of paganism. Men may have sold their goods and given to the poor,
but we have no record of such deeds. Hospitals and eleemosynary
institutions were nearly unknown. When a man was unfortunate, there was
nothing left to him but to suffer and die. There was no help from
others. All were engrossed in their schemes of pleasure or ambition, and
compassion was rare. The sick and diseased died without alleviation.
"The spectator who gazed upon the magnificent buildings which covered
the seven hills, temples, arches, porticoes, theatres, baths and
palaces, could discover no hospitals and asylums, unless perchance the
temple of Aesculapius, on an island in the Tiber, where the maimed and
sick were left in solitude to struggle with the pangs of death." But the
church fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner,
and lodged the stranger. Charity was one of the fundamental injunctions
of Christ and of the Apostles. The New Testament breathes unbounded
love, benevolence so extensive and universal that self was ignored.
Self-denial, in doing good to others, was one of the virtues expected of
every Christian. Hence the first followers of our Lord had all things in
common. Property was supposed to belong to the whole church, rather than
to individuals. "Go and sell all that thou hast" was literally
interpreted. It devolved on the whole church to see that strangers were
entertained, that the sick were nursed, that the poor were fed, that
orphans were protected, that those who were in prison were visited. For
these purposes contributions were taken up in all assemblies convened
for public worship. Individuals also emulated the whole church, and gave
away their possessions to the poor. Matrons, especially, devoted
themselves to these works of charity, feeding the poor, and visiting the
sick. They visited the meanest hovels and the most dismal prisons. But
"what heathen," says Tertullian, "will suffer his wife to go about from
one street to another to the houses of strangers? What heathen would
allow her to steal away into the dungeon to kiss the chain of the
martyr?" And these works of benevolence were not bestowed upon friends
alone, but upon strangers; and it was this, particularly, which struck
the pagans with wonder and admiration - that men of different countries,
ranks, and relations of life, were bound together by an invisible cord
of love. A stranger, with letters to the "brethren," was sure of a
generous and hearty welcome. There were no strangers among the
Christians; they were all brothers; they called each other brother and
sister; they gave to each other the fraternal kiss; they knew of no
distinctions; they all had an equal claim to the heritage of the church.
And this generosity and benevolence extended itself to the wants of
Christians in distant lands; the churches redeemed captives taken in
war, and even sold the consecrated vessels for that purpose on rare
occasions, as Ambrose did at Milan. A single bishop, in the third
century, supported two thousand poor people. Cyprian raised at one time
a sum equal to four thousand dollars in his church at Carthage, to be
sent to the Manichaean bishops for the purposes of charity. Especially in
times of public calamity was this spirit of benevolence manifested, and
in striking contrast with the pagans. [Footnote: Neander, vol. i.
Section 3.] When Alexandria was visited with the plague during the
reign of Gallienus, the pagans deserted their friends upon the first
symptoms of disease; they left them to die in the streets, without even
taking the trouble to bury them when dead; they only thought of escaping
from the contagion themselves. The Christians, on the contrary, took the
bodies of their brethren in their arms, waited upon them without
thinking of themselves, ministered to their wants, and buried them with
all possible care, even while the best people of the community,
presbyters and deacons, lost their own lives by their self-sacrificing
generosity. [Footnote: Eusebius, 1. vii. chap. 22.] And when Carthage
was ravaged by a similar pestilence in the reign of Gallus, the pagans
deserted the sick and the dying, and the streets were filled with dead
bodies, which greatly increased the infection. No one came near them
except for purposes of plunder; but Cyprian, calling his people together
in the church, said: "If we do good only to our own, what do we more
than publicans and heathens." Animated by his words, the members of the
church divided the work between them, the rich giving money, and the
poor labor, so that in a short time the bodies which filled the streets
were buried.

And this principle of benevolence has never been relinquished by the
church. It was one of the foundation-pillars of monastic life in the
Middle Ages, when monasteries and convents were blessed retreats for the
miserable and unfortunate, where all strangers found a shelter and a
home; where they diffused charities upon all who sought their aid. The
monastery itself was built upon charities, upon the gifts and legacies
of the pious. In pagan Rome men willed away their fortunes to favorites;
they were rarely bestowed upon the poor. But Christianity inculcated
everywhere the necessity of charities, not merely as a test of Christian
hope and faith, but as one of the conditions of salvation itself. One of
the most glorious features of our modern civilization is the wide-spread
system of public benevolence extended to missions, to destitute
churches, to hospitals, to colleges, to alms-houses, to the support of
the poor, who are not left to die unheeded as in the ancient world.
Every form of Christianity, every sect and party, has its peculiar
charities; but charities for some good object are a primal principle of
the common creed. What immeasurable blessings have been bestowed upon
mankind in consequence of this law of kindness and love! What a
beautiful feature it is in the whole progress of civilization!

The early church had set a good example of patience under persecution,
and practical benevolence extended into every form of social life which
has been instituted in every succeeding age, and to which the healthy
condition of society may in a measure be traced.

The next mission of the church was to give dignity and importance to the
public preaching of the Gospel, which has never since been lost sight
of, and has been no inconsiderable element of our civilization. This was
entirely new in the history of society. The pagan priest did not exhort
the people to morality, or point out their religious duties, or remind
them of their future destinies, or expound the great principles of
religious faith. He offered up sacrifices to the Deity, and appeared in
imposing ceremonials. He wore rich and gorgeous dresses to dazzle the
senses of the people, or excite their imaginations. It was his duty to
appeal to the gods, and not to men; to propitiate them with costly
rites, to surround himself with mystery, to inspire awe, and excite
superstitious feelings. The Christian minister had a loftier sphere.
While he appealed to God in prayer, and approached his altar with
becoming solemnity, it was also his duty to preach to the people, as
Paul and the Apostles did throughout the heathen world, in order to
convert them to Christianity, and change the whole character of their
lives and habits. The presbyter, while he baptized believers and
administered the symbolic bread and wine, also taught the people,
explained to them the mysteries, enforced upon them the obligations,
appealed to their intellects, their consciences, and their hearts. He
plunged fearlessly into every subject bearing upon religious life, and
boldly presented it for contemplation.

What a grand theatre for the development of mind, for healthy
instruction and commanding influence, was opened by the Christian
pulpit. There was no sphere equal to it in moral dignity and force. It
threw into the shade the theatre and the forum. And in times when
printing was unknown, it was almost the only way by which the people
could be taught. It vastly added to the power of the clergy, and gave
them an influence that the old priests of paganism could never exercise.
It created an entirely new power in the world, a moral power, indeed,
but one to which history presents no equal. The philosophers taught in
their schools, they taught a few admiring pupils; but the sphere of
their teachings was limited, and also the number whom they could
address. The pulpit became an institution. All the Christians were
required to assemble regularly for public instruction as well as
worship. On every seventh day the people laid aside their secular duties
and devoted themselves to religious improvement. The pulpit gave power
to the Sabbath; and what an institution is the Christian Sabbath. To the
Sabbath and to public preaching Christendom owes more than to all other
sources of moral elevation combined. It is true that the Jewish
synagogue furnished a model to the church; but the Levitical race
claimed no peculiar sanctity, and discharged no friendly office beyond
the precincts of the temple. In the synagogue the people assembled to
pray, or to hear the Scriptures read and expounded, not to receive
religious instruction. The Jewish religion was as full of ceremonials as
the pagan, and the intellectual part of it was confined to the lawyers,
to the rabbinical hierarchy. But the preaching of the great doctrines of
Christianity was made a peculiarly sacred office, and given to a class
of men who avoided all secular pursuits. The Christian priest was the
recognized head of the society which he taught and controlled. In
process of time, he became a great dignitary, controlling various
interests; but his first mission was to preach, and his first theme was
a crucified Saviour. He ascended the pulpit every week as an authorized
as well as a sacred teacher, and, in the illustration of his subjects,
he was allowed great latitude in which to roam. It is not easy to
appreciate what a difference there was between pagan and Christian
communities from the rise of this new power, and we might also say
institution, since the pulpit and the Sabbath are interlinked and
associated together. Whatever the world has gained by the Sabbath, that
gain is intensified and increased vastly by public teaching. It placed
the Christian as far beyond the Jew, as the Jew was before beyond the
pagan. It also created a sacerdotal caste. The people may have had the
privilege of pouring out their hearts before the brethren, and of
speaking for their edification, but all the members were not fitted for
the secular office of teachers. Christianity claims the faculties of
knowledge, as well as those of feeling. Teaching was early felt to be a
great gift, implying not only superior knowledge, but superior wisdom and
grace. Only a few possessed the precious charisma to address profitably
the assembled people, [Greek: charisma didaskalias], and those few
became the appointed guides of the Christian flocks, [Greek: didaskaloi].
Other officers of the new communities shared with them the administration,
but the teacher was the highest officer, and he became gradually the
presbyter, whose peculiar function it was to discourse to the people on
the great themes which it was their duty to learn. And even after the
presbyter became a bishop, it was his chief office to teach publicly,
even as late as the fourth and fifth centuries. Leo and Gregory, the
great bishops of Rome, were eloquent preachers.

Thus the church gradually claimed the great prerogative of eloquence.
Eloquence was not born in the church, but it was sanctified, and set
apart, and appropriated to a thousand new purposes, and especially
identified with the public teaching of the people. The great mysteries,
the profound doctrines, the suggestive truths, the touching histories,
the practical duties of Christianity were seized and enforced by the
public teacher; and eloquence appeared in the sermon. In pagan ages,
eloquence was confined to the forum or the senate chamber, and was
directed entirely into secular channels. It was always highly esteemed
as the birthright of genius - an inspiration, like poetry, rather than an
art to be acquired. But it was not always the handmaid of poetry and
music; it was brought down to earth for practical purposes, and employed
chiefly in defending criminals, or procuring the passage of laws, or
stimulating the leaders of society to important acts. The gift of tongue
was reserved for rhetoricians, lawyers, politicians, philosophers; not
for priests, who were intercessors with the Divine. Now Christianity
adopted all the arts of eloquence, and enriched them, and applied them
to a variety of new subjects. She carried away in triumph the brightest
ornament of the pagan schools, and placed it in the hands of her chosen
ministers. The pulpit soon began to rival the forum in the displays of a
heaven-born art, which was now consecrated to far loftier purposes than
those to which it had been applied. As public instruction became more
and more learned, it also became more and more eloquent, for the
preacher had opportunity, subject, audience, motive, all of which are
required for great perfection in public speaking. He assembled a living
congregation at stated intervals; he had the range of all those lofty
inquiries which entrance the soul; and he had souls to save - the
greatest conceivable motive to a good man who realizes the truths of the
Gospel. All human enterprises and schemes become ultimately insipid to a
man who has no lofty view of benefiting mankind, or his family, or his
friend. We were made to do good. Take away this stimulus, and energy
itself languishes and droops. There is no object in life to a seeker of
pleasure or gain, when once the passion is gratified. What object of
pity so melancholy as a man worn out with egotistical excitements, and
incapable of being amused. But he who labors for the good of others is
never ennuied. The benevolent physician, the patriotic statesman, the
conscientious lawyer, the enthusiastic teacher, the dreaming author, all
work and toil in weary labors, with the hope of being useful to the
bodies, or the intellects, or the minds of the people. This is the great
condition of happiness. There is an excitement in gambling as in
pleasure, in money-making as in money-spending; but it wears out, or
exhausts the noble faculties, and ends in ennui or self-reproach and
bitter disappointment. It is not the condition of our nature, which was
made to be useful, to seek the good of others. They are the happiest and
most esteemed who have this good constantly at heart. There can be no
unhappiness to a man absorbed in doing good. He may be poor and
persecuted like Socrates; he may walk barefooted, and have domestic
griefs, and be deprived of his comforts - but he is serene, for the soul
triumphs over the body. Now, what motive so grand as to save the
immortal part of man. This desire filled the ancient Christian orator
with a preternatural enthusiasm, as well as gave to him an unlimited
power, and an imposing dignity. He was the most happy of mortals when
led to the blazing fire of his persecutors, and he was the most august.
The feeling that he was kindling a fire which should never be quenched,
even that which was to burn up all the wicked idols of an idolatrous
generation, unloosed his tongue and animated his features. The most
striking examples of seraphic joy, of a sort of divine beauty playing
upon the features, are among orators. In animated conversation, a person
ordinarily homely, like Madame de Stael, becomes beautiful and
impressive. But in the pulpit, when the sacred orator is moving a
congregation with the fears and hopes of another world, there is a
majesty in his beauty which is nowhere else so fully seen. There is no
eloquence like that of the pulpit, when the preacher is gifted and in
earnest. Greece had her Pericles and Demosthenes, and Rome her
Hortensius and Cicero. Many other great orators we could mention. But
when Greece and Rome had an intellectual existence such as that to which
our modern times furnish no parallel, in our absorbing pursuit of
pleasure and gain, and amid the wealth of mechanical inventions, there
were, even in those classic lands, but few orators whose names have
descended to our times; while, in the church, in a degenerated period,
when literature and science were nearly extinct, there were a greater
number of Christian orators than what classic antiquity furnished. Yea,
in those dark and miserable ages which succeeded the fall of the Roman
empire, there were in every land remarkable pulpit orators, like those
who fanned the Crusades. There was no eloquence in the Middle Ages
outside the church. Bernard exercised a far greater moral power than
Cicero in the fullness of his fame. And in our modern times, what
orators have arisen like those whom the Reformation produced, both in
the Roman Catholic church, and among the numerous sects which protested
against her? What orator has Germany given birth to equal in fame to
Luther? What orator in France has reached the celebrity of Bossuet, or
Bourdaloue, or Massillon? Even amid all the excitements attending the
change of government, who have had power on the people like a Lacordaire
or Monod? In England, the great orators have been preachers, with a very
few exceptions; and these men would have been still greater in the arts
of public speaking had they been trained in the church. In our day, we
have seen great orators in secular life, but they yield in fascination
either to those who are accustomed to speak from the sacred desk, or to
those whose training has been clerical, like many of our popular
lecturers. Nothing ever opened such an arena of eloquence as the
preaching of the Gospel, either in the ancient, the mediaeval, or the
modern world, not merely from the grandeur and importance of the themes
discussed, but also from the number of the speakers. In a legislative
assembly, where all are supposed to be able to address an audience, and
some are expected to be eloquent, only two or three can be heard in a
day. Only some twenty or thirty able speeches are delivered in Congress
or Parliament in a whole session; but in England, or the United States,
some thirty thousand preachers are speaking at the same time, many of
whom are far more gifted, learned, and brilliant than any found in the
great councils of the nation. Nor is this eloquence confined to the
Protestant church; it exists also in the Roman Catholic in every land.
There are no more earnest and inspiring orators than in Italy or France.
Even in rude and unlettered and remote districts, we often hear
specimens of eloquence which would be wonderful in capitals. What chance
has the bar, in a large city, compared with the pulpit, for the display

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 48 of 50)