"And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These things saith the Son of God, who hath His eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass; I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall.know that I am He which searcheLh the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. But unto you I say, and unto th — rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth My works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and He shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." (Re 2:18-29.)
It requires but little spiritual discernment, we think, and a very moderate acquaintance with ecclesiastical history, to see the popery of the middle ages foreshadowed in this epistle. We saw in Ephesus the decline of first love, in Smyrna persecution from the Roman power, in Pergamos Balaam seducing the church and uniting her to the world; but things are even worse in Thyatira. Here we have the sad but natural consequences of this unhallowed union. How could it be otherwise, when all who merely submitted to the outward rite of baptism were regarded as born of God? The door was thus thrown open for the spoiler and the corrupter to enter the sacred enclosure of the church of God. All testimony was now gone as to her heavenly character and her place of separation from the world. She had falsified the word of the Lord which says of His disciples, "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." True, in appearance, Christianity had gained a victory. The cross was now arrayed in gold and precious stones; but this was the glory of the world, not of a crucified Christ. It was the world really that gained the victory, and the humiliation of the church was completed.
The Lord only could estimate the fearful consequences of such a state of things. His eye saw the corruption, the idolatries, and the persecutions of the so-called dark ages, of which the church in Thyatira was a remarkable foreshadow-ing. We will now glance briefly at the contents of the epistle.
1. The titles of the Lord are first to be noticed. They are full of the most suited instruction for the faithful few, when the general body of Christians are identified with this world. He introduces Himself as the Son of God, who has eyes like unto a flame of fire, and His feet like unto fine brass. When Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, He immediately added, "Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And now, in anticipation of all that was coming, He recalls the thoughts of His people to that immutable foundation on which the church is built. He also assumes the attributes of divine judgment. Fire is the symbol of penetrating judgment; eyes like unto a flame of fire, of all-searching judgment; and feet like burnished brass, of impending judgment.
Here then we have, in the character which the blessed Lord takes, the assurance of the perfect security of the faithful remnant, and the assertion of the unfailing judgment of the false prophetess, and her numerous brood of corrupt children — children of her seduction and corruption. Jezebel was not only a prophetess but a mother: she not only seduced God's people by her false doctrines, slaying many of them also; but a large class of the worst of men derived their existence from her corruption. This is painfully manifest all through the dark ages — the Jezebel-state of the church. She established herself within the church as in her own house, and published to all the world that she was infallible and to be implicitly obeyed in all matters of faith. To acquiesce in this blasphemous assumption was unfaithfulness to Christ; to oppose it was suffering and death.
"I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that
woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things
sacrificed unto idols." (Ver. 20.)
Notwithstanding the faithfulness of many earnest souls in Thyatira (or, in the mediaeval church), there was the public allowance of the spirit of evil: "Thou sufferest that woman Jezebel." This was the dark shade on the silver line: sometimes the latter seems completely obscured. But the Lord did not fail, as of old, to raise up suited witnesses for Himself. Just as there were saints in Caesar's household, an Obadiah in the house of Ahab, and a faithful remnant in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal, so the Lord was never left without a faithful witness all through the middle ages. Nevertheless there was an allowance of evil in the general state of things, which grieved the heart of the Lord and brought down His judgments.
"The woman," it may be well to observe, is used as a symbol of the general state; "the man," it is said, is a symbol of responsible activity. Balaam and Jezebel are symbolic names — a prophet and prophetess. The former acted as a seducer among the saints: the latter established herself within the professing church, and pretended to have absolute authority there. This was going much farther than even the wickedness of Balaam. But we all know what Jezebel was when she sat as queen in Israel. Her name has come down to us as swathed in cruelties and blood. She hated and persecuted the witnesses of God; she encouraged and patronized the idolatrous priests and prophets of Baal; she added violence to corruption: all was ruin and confusion. And this is the name which the Lord has chosen to symbolise the general state of the professing church during the middle ages. In Thyatira He, whose eyes were as a flame of fire, could see the germ of that which was to bear such evil fruit in after days, and so warns His people to hold fast that which they have already, even Himself. "I will put upon you none other burden; but that which ye have already, hold fast till I come." As the Jezebel-state continues to the end and can never get right, the Lord now directs the faith of the remnant to His own return — "Till I come." The bright hope of His coming is thus presented as a comfort to the heart in the midst of the general ruin; and His saints are relieved by the Lord Himself from vain attempts to set either the church or the world right. Most merciful deliverance! But poor human nature cannot understand this, and so tries, and tries again, to mend matters both in church and state.
4. We have evidently three classes of persons spoken of in this epistle.
(1.) The children of Jezebel — those who owe their christian name and place to her corrupt system. Unsparing judgment will overtake all such. Space had been given for repentance, but they repented not; therefore the full judgment of God falls upon them. "I will kill her children with death."
(2.) Those who are not her children, but make no stand against her; they are easy-going. This alas! is a large class in our own day. It characterises the public state of Christendom. Without conscience before God, they are content to float smoothly down the stream, in fellowship with some religious system, most agreeable to their own minds. As to whether it is agreeable to God's mind, they have never inquired. Still they are His children. The judgment of such is "great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds."
(3.) The faithful remnant, the "overcomers." They are here addressed as "the rest" or remnant; they will have power over the nations in association with Christ when He comes to reign.
In the meantime they have this sweet and precious promise: "And I will give him the morning star." This is conscious association with Himself even now. The mediaeval church was especially guilty of two things: she arrogantly and wickedly sought to possess supreme power over the nations; and she persecuted the faithful remnant of the saints, such as the Waldenses and others. But the saints, once so persecuted, shall yet possess the kingdom, and reign with Christ a thousand years; and the whole system of Jezebel shall be utterly and for ever rejected: "Strong is the Lord God who judgeth her."
5. There is only one other thing to notice in this sketch of the public state of Christendom since the commencement of the papal system. The exhortation to "hear" is placed after the special promise. This marks out the remnant as distinct and separate from the general body. In the first three churches the warning word — "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches" — comes before the promise; but in the four concluding churches we have the promise before the call to hear. The obvious meaning of this change is deeply solemn. In the first three the call to hear is addressed to the whole assembly, but in the last four only to the remnant. It would seem that none are expected to hear but the overcomers. The general professing body seem both blind and deaf through the power of Satan and the pollutions of Jezebel; fearful condition! We must also bear in mind, that the four states as represented by the last four churches run on to the end or to the coming of the Lord. May He keep us from all that savours of Jezebel, that we may duly appreciate our oneness with Himself, and His promised blessings to the "overcomers."
Having now briefly examined the divinely drawn picture of the Jezebel state of the church during the dark ages, we turn to the ample but dreary records of its history.
It is generally admitted that this period begins with the pontificate of Gregory the Great, 590, and ends with the Reformation in the early part of the sixteenth century. But before entering on the general history, we will endeavor to answer a question which has been asked, and which, we doubt not, is on the minds of many: When, and by what means, did the power fall into the hands of the Roman pontiffs, which led to their supremacy and despotism during the middle ages? The question is an interesting one, but to answer it fully would lead us beyond our limits. We can only point out a few facts in the chain of events which laid the foundation of the great power and sovereignty of the See of Rome.
From the time of the famous edict of Milan in 313 the history of the church changes in its character. She then passed from a condition of distress and persecution to the summit of worldly prosperity and honor: other questions besides those of Christianity were henceforth involved in her history. Having entered into an alliance with the State, her future path was necessarily formed by her new relations. She could no longer act simply in the name of the Lord Jesus, and according to His holy word. But complete amalgamation there could never be. The one was from heaven, and the other of this world. They are, in nature, opposed to each other. Either the church aspired to be the mistress of the State, or the State encroached on the province of the church and disregarded her inherent rights. This was exactly what took place. Soon after the death of Constantine the struggle between these two great powers, the church and the State, for the government of the world, commenced; and, in order to ensure success in this warfare, the Roman pontiffs had recourse to ways and means which we will not characterise here, as they will come before us in due course.
Before Constantine transferred the seat of empire to Byzantium and built Constantinople, Rome was the acknowledged metropolis, and her bishop the primate. But when Constantinople became the imperial city, her bishop was raised to the rank of patriarch, and soon began to lay claim to the dignity of the Roman pontiffs. This was the commencement of the Greek church as a separate communion, and of the long contest between the East and the West. There were now four patriarchs, according to the plan of the Emperor, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria. The rank of the bishop was governed by the superiority of the city in which he presided; and as Constantinople was now the capital of the world, her bishops would yield to none in honor and magnificence. The others were jealous, Rome complained, the strife began, the breach widened; but Rome never rested until she had gained the ascendancy over her feeble and less ambitious rival.
The court of Constantinople, although it may have encouraged the hopes and ambition of the bishops, affected to govern the church with despotic power, and to decide on religious controversies of the gravest kind. But in the West it was not so. The Roman pontiffs from this period showed the independent and aggressive spirit of popery which rose to such heights in after ages. The bishops of the East were thus placed at a disadvantage in consequence of their dependence on the court and of their quarrels with the emperors. Besides, the presence and grandeur of the Eastern sovereign kept the dignity of the bishop in a very secondary place. In Rome there were none left to dispute the rank or style of the pontiff.
The withdrawal of the emperors from Rome, as the royal residence,. was thus favorable to the development of the ecclesiastical power there; for, though deserted by her rulers, she was still venerated as the real capital of the world. Hence Rome possessed many advantages as the seat of the supreme bishop. But that which chiefly pushed on and consolidated the power of the Roman See was the growing belief, all over Christendom, that St. Peter was its founder. The Roman bishops denied that their precedence originated in the imperial greatness of the city, but in their lineal descent from St. Peter. This dogma was generally received about the commencement of the fifth century.
By such arguments the church of Rome established her right to govern the universal church. She maintained that Peter was primate amongst the apostles, and that his primacy is inherited by the bishops of Rome. But it may be well to notice here, the twofold aspect of Romanism — ecclesiastical and political. In both characters she claimed supremacy. Ecclesiastically she maintained,
1, that the bishop of Rome is the infallible judge in all questions of doctrine;
2, that he has the inherent right to supreme government in assembling general councils, and presiding over them:
3, that the right of making ecclesiastical appointments belongs to him;
4, that separation from the communion of the church of Rome involves the guilt of schism.
Politically she claimed, she aspired to, and gained preeminence and power over all European society as well as all European governments. We shall see abundant proof of these particulars in the course of her well-defined history, which we will now go on with.
It was not till after the first council of Nice that the supremacy of the Romish bishops was generally allowed. The early bishops of Rome are scarcely known in ecclesiastical history. The accession of Innocent I., in the year 402, gave force and definition to this new tenet of the Latin church. Till this time there had been no legal recognition of the supremacy of Rome, though she was considered the principal church in the West, and had been frequently appealed to by the other great bishops for a spiritual judgment in matters of dispute. When the Greek church fell into Arianism, the Latin adhered firmly to the nicene creed, which raised her much in the opinion of all the West. "Upon the mind of Innocent," says Milman, "appears first to have dawned the vast conception of Rome's universal ecclesiastical supremacy; dim as yet and shadowy, but full and comprehensive in its outline."
We may proceed without interruption from the name of Innocent to that of Leo, who ascended the chair of St. Peter in the year 440, and occupied it for one-and-twenty years. He was remarkable for his political skill, theological learning, and great ecclesiastical energy. He maintained with the haughtiness of the Roman, and with the zeal of the churchman, that all the pretensions and all the practices of his church were matters of unbroken apostolical succession. But withal he seems to have been sound in the faith as to salvation, and zealously opposed to all heretics. The Eastern churches had lost the respect of Christendom, from their long and disgraceful controversies. Power, not subtleties, was the ambition of Rome. Leo condemned the whole race of heretics from Arius to Eutyches; but more especially the Manichaean heresy.
By his great exertions and extraordinary genius he raised the claims of the Roman bishop, as the representative of St. Peter, to a height before unknown. "The apostle," he says, "was called Petra, the rock, by which denomination he is constituted the foundation... In his chair dwelleth the ever living, the super abounding, authority. Let the brethren therefore acknowledge that he is the primate of all bishops, and that Christ, who denieth His gifts to none, yet giveth unto none except through him."
Making due allowance for the character of the times and for official and inherited opinions, we believe Leo was sincere in his convictions, and probably a Christian. At heart he cared for God's people, and more than once, by his prayers and political sagacity, saved Rome from the barbarians. When Attila, the most terrible of the foreign conquerors, with his countless hosts, was hovering over Italy, ready to fall upon the defenceless capital, Leo went forth to the "Destroyer" in the name of the Lord, and as the spiritual head of Rome; and so earnestly did he pray for his people, that the wild passions of the Hun were soothed, and, to the astonishment of all, he agreed to terms by which the city was saved from havoc and slaughter. But Leo's main object through life, and that which he fully accomplished, was to lay the groundwork of the great spiritual monarchy of Rome. During his pontificate he had the greatest name in the empire, if not in all Christendom. He died in the year 461.
The name of Justinian is so famous in history, and so connected with legislation both civil and ecclesiastical, that it would be unfair to our readers to pass it without a notice, though not immediately of the Latin church. He belonged to the East, and rather hindered the rise of the West.
In the year 527 Justinian ascended the throne of Constantinople, and occupied it for nearly forty years. The political and military affairs of the empire he committed to his ministers and generals, and devoted his own time to those things which he thought more important. He spent much of his time in theological studies, and in the regulation of the religious affairs of his subjects, such as prescribing what the priests and the people should believe and practice. He was fond of mixing in controversy and of acting as a lawgiver in religious matters. His own faith — or rather, slavish superstition — was distinguished by the most rigid orthodoxy, and a large portion of his long reign was spent in the extinction of heresy. But this led to many instances of persecution, both public and private.
In the mean time Justinian saw a new field opening for his energies in another direction, and immediately turned his attention to it. After the death of Theodoric the Great in 526 the affairs of Italy fell into a very confused condition, and the new conquerors were far from being firmly seated on their thrones. Rousing the national hostility of the Romans against the barbarians, the imperial army was united and determined;, and led by the able generals Belisarius and Narses, the conquests of Italy and Africa were achieved in a very short space of time. At the sight of the well-known eagles the soldiers of the barbarians refused to fight, and the nations threw off the supremacy of the Ostrogoths. The imperial generals now prosecuted an exterminating war. It is reckoned that during the reign of Justinian Africa lost five millions of inhabitants. Arianism was extinguished in that region; and in Italy the numbers who perished by war, by famine, or in other ways, is supposed to have exceeded the whole of its present population. The sufferings of these countries, during the revolutions of this period, were greater than they had ever endured in either earlier or later times. So that both the secular events of Justinian's reign and his own legislative labors had an important, but most unfortunate, bearing on the history of Christianity.
After erecting the church of St. Sophia, and twenty-five other churches in Constantinople, and publishing a new edition of his code, he died A.D.
565. We now pass on to the third great founder of the papal edifice.
We have now come to the close of the sixth century of Christianity. At this period the early history of the church ends, and the mediaeval begins. The pontificate of Gregory may be regarded as the line that separates the two periods. A great change takes place. The Eastern churches decline and receive but little notice; while the churches of the West, especially that of Rome, largely engage the attention of the historian. And as Gregory may be considered the representative man of this transitional period, we will endeavor to place him fairly before the reader.
Gregory was born at Rome about the year 540, his family being of senatorial rank, and himself the great-grandson of a pope named Felix; so that in his descent he blended both civil and ecclesiastical dignity. By the death of his father he became possessed of great wealth, which he at once devoted to religious uses. He founded and endowed seven monasteries; six in Sicily, and the other, which was dedicated to St. Andrew, in his family mansion at Rome. His costly robes, jewels, and furniture, he reduced to money, and lavished it on the poor. About the age of thirty-five he gave up his civil appointments, took up his abode in the Roman monastery, and entered on a strictly ascetic life. Although it was his own convent, he began with the lowest monastic duties. His whole time was spent in prayer, reading, writing, and the most self-denying exercises. The fame of his abstinence and charity spread far and wide. In course of time he became abbot of his monastery; and, on the death of the pope Pelagius, he was chosen by the senate, the clergy, and the people, to fill the vacant chair. He refused, and endeavored by various means to escape the honors and difficulties of the papacy; but he was forcibly ordained, by the love of the people, as the supreme bishop.
Drawn from the quiet of a cloister and from his peaceful meditations there, Gregory now saw himself involved in the management of the most various and perplexing affairs of both Church and State. But he was evidently fitted for the great and arduous work which lay before him. We will notice first
The character of Gregory was distinguished by the fervor of his almsgiving. Though raised to the papal throne, he lived in a simple and monastic style. His palace was surrounded by the suffering poor, as his monastery had been, and relief was distributed with a liberal hand. Nor was he content to exercise his almsgiving alone; he powerfully exhorted his episcopal brethren to abound in the same. "Let not the bishop think," he said, "that reading and preaching alone suffice, or studiously to maintain himself in retirement, while the hand that enriches is closed. But let his hand be bountiful; let him make advances to those who are in necessity; let him consider the wants of others as his own; for without these qualities the name of bishop is a vain and empty title."
The wealth of the Roman See enabled him to exercise extensive charities. As administrator of the papal funds, Gregory has the reputation of being just, humane, and most laborious. But his biographers are so voluminous in their accounts of his good works that it is bewildering to attempt a brief sketch. However, as we can esteem him as a believer in Christ, notwithstanding the false position he was in, and his consequent blindness as to the true character of the church, we delight to dwell a little on his memory, and also to trace the silver line of God's grace in spite of the unhallowed mixture of secular and sacred things.
On the first Monday of every month he distributed large quantities of provisions to all classes. The sick and infirm were superintended by persons appointed to inspect every street. Before sitting down to his own meal, a portion was separated and sent to the hungry at his door. The names, ages, and dwellings of those receiving papal relief filled a large volume. So severe was the charity of Gregory, that one day, on hearing of the death of a poor man from starvation, he condemned himself to a hard penance for the guilt of neglect as steward of the divine bounty. But his active benevolence was not confined to the city of Rome; it was almost world-wide. He entered into all questions affecting the welfare of all classes, and prescribed minute regulations for all, lest the poor should be exposed to the oppression of the rich, or the weak to the strong. But this will more fully appear as we notice
The pastoral care of the church was evidently the main object and delight of Gregory's heart. This he believed to be his work, and fain would he have devoted himself entirely to it; for according to the superstitious credulity of the times, he had the deepest conviction that the care and government of the whole church belonged to him as the successor of St. Peter; and also, that he was bound to uphold the special dignity of the See of Rome. But he was compelled, from the disturbed state of Italy, and for the safety of his people — his dear flock — to undertake many troublesome kinds of business, altogether foreign to his spiritual calling. The Lombard invaders were at that moment the terror of the Italians. The Goths had been to a great degree civilized and Romanised; but these new invaders were remorseless and pitiless barbarians; though, strange to say, they were the avowed champions of Arianism. And the imperial power, instead of protecting its Italian subjects, acted only as a hindrance to their exerting themselves for their own defense. War, famine, and pestilence, had so wasted and depopulated the country, that all hearts failed, and all turned to the bishop as the only man for the emergency of the times; so firmly was the opinion of his integrity and ability established among men.
Thus we see that temporal power, in the first instance, was forced upon the Pope. It does not appear that he sought the position — a position so eagerly grasped by many of his successors; but rather that he entered with reluctance upon duties so little in accordance with the great object of his life. He unwillingly threw off the quiet contemplative life of the monk, and entered into the affairs of state as a duty to God and to his country. The direction of the political interests of Rome devolved for the most part upon Gregory. He was guardian of the city, and the protector of the population in Italy against the Lombards. All history bears witness to his great ability, his incessant activity, and the multiplicity of his occupations as the virtual sovereign of Rome.
But however unconscious Gregory may have been of what the effects would be of his great reputation, it nevertheless contributed much to the ecclesiastical and secular domination of Rome. The pre-eminence in his case, however sorrowful for a Christian, was disinterested and beneficially exerted; but not so with his successors. The infallibility of the Pope, spiritual tyranny, persecution for a difference of opinion, idolatry, the doctrine of the merit of works, purgatory and masses for the relief of the dead, which became the discriminating marks of the papacy, had not, as yet, a settled establishment at Rome; but, we may say, they were all in sight.
We must not, however, pursue this subject farther at present; we turn to one more interesting, and more congenial to our minds.
Notwithstanding the depression of the church, and of all classes of society, through the inroads of the barbarians, the blessed Lord was watching over the spread of the gospel in other countries. And surely it was of His great mercy, that the hosts of invaders which poured down on the provinces of the empire were soon converted to Christianity. They may have had very little understanding of their new religion, but it greatly softened their ferocity, and mitigated the sufferings of the vanquished. Gregory was most zealous in his endeavors to extend the knowledge of the gospel, and to bring over the barbarous nations to the Catholic faith. But his favourite scheme, and that which had been long on his heart, was the evangelisation of the Anglo-Saxons.
The beautiful story of the incident which first directed Gregory's mind to the conversion of Britain, is too pleasing, not to find a place in our "Short Papers." In the early days of his monastic life, at least before his elevation to the papacy, his attention was arrested one day by seeing some beautiful fair haired boys exposed for sale in the market-place. The following conversation is said to have taken place. He inquired from what country they came. "From the island of Britain," was the reply. "Are the inhabitants of that island Christians or Pagans? ... They are still Pagans."
"Alas!" said he, "that the prince of darkness should possess forms of such loveliness! That such beauty of countenance should want that better beauty of the soul." He then asked by what name they were called. "Angles," was the reply. Playing on the words, he said, "Truly they are Angels! From what province? " "From that of Deira" — Northumberland. "Surely they must be rescued de ira" — from the wrath of God, and called to the mercy of Christ. "What is the name of their king? " "Ella," was the answer. "Yea," said Gregory, "Alleluia must be sung in the dominions of that king."
"To be the first missionary to this beautiful people," says Milman, "and to win the remote and barbarous island, like a christian Caesar, to the realm of Christ, became the holy ambition of Gregory. He extorted the unwilling consent of the Pope; he had actually set forth and traveled three days' journey, when he was overtaken by messengers sent to recall him. All Rome had risen in pious mutiny and compelled the Pope to revoke his permission." But although he was thus prevented from executing this mission in person, he never lost sight of his noble object. From this time he was not allowed to return to his monastery. He was forced to embark in public affairs, first as a deacon, then as supreme pontiff. But all this was compulsory dignity to Gregory. His heart was set on the salvation of the fair-haired youths of England, and he would a thousand times rather have undertaken a journey to our island, with all its hardships and unknown dangers, than be crowned with the honors of the papacy. But such was the character of his mind, that he pursued with unwearied attention and devotion any scheme of piety which he had once planned. Hence it was that, after he was raised to the papal chair, he was enabled to furnish and send forth a band of forty missionaries to the shores of Britain. But before speaking of the character and results of this mission, it will be interesting to glance briefly at the history of the church in the British Isles from the beginning.
Far back in the early days of apostolic simplicity, the cross of Christ, we believe, was planted in our island. There is fair historical evidence for believing that "Claudia," mentioned by Paul in his Second Epistle to Timothy, was the daughter of a British king, who married a distinguished Roman, named "Pudens." This circumstance will not seem unlikely if we bear in mind that, during the whole period of the Roman dominion in this country, there must have been many opportunities for the spread of Christianity; and that these would be readily embraced by those who loved the Lord Jesus and the souls of men. Besides, it was the custom at that time for the British kings and nobles to send their sons to Rome for education; and this practice, it is said, prevailed to such an extent, that a mansion was established expressly for them, and a tax of one penny was levied on every house in England for its support.
Another witness for the early planting of Christianity in this country is the testimony of the Fathers. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, who wrote in the second century, affirm, that in every country known to the Romans there were professors of Christianity — from those who rode in chariots, or were houseless, there was no race of men amongst whom there were not prayers offered in the name of a crucified Jesus. We have also the testimony of later Fathers. The historic chain seems to be carried down by the mention of British bishops as having attended several of the general councils in the fourth century; and their orthodoxy throughout the Arian controversy has been attested by the weighty evidence of Athanasius and Hilary. It is also worthy of note that Constantine — who had spent some time with his father in Britain — when writing to the churches of the Empire about a dispute concerning Easter, quoted the British church as an example of orthodoxy. The Pelagian heresy, it is said, was introduced into Britain by one Agricola in the year 429, and found much acceptance; but in a conference at St. Albans the heretical teachers were defeated by the orthodox clergy.
Although the British church had acquired such credit for orthodoxy, we have very little reliable information as to its rise and progress, or as to the means by which this was effected. There are many traditions, but they are scarcely worth repeating, and are unsuitable for a brief history. There is ample evidence, however, that in the early part of the fourth century, and at least two hundred years before the arrival of the Italian monks, the British church had a complete organisation, with its bishops and metropolitans.
According to the testimony of both ancient and modern historians, the doctrines and the ritual of the old church were of the simplest character compared with the Greek or Roman, though a long way from the simplicity of the New Testament. They taught the oneness of the Godhead; the Trinity, the divine and human nature of Christ, redemption through His death; and the eternity of future rewards and punishments. They regarded the Lord's supper as a symbol, not a miracle; they took the bread and wine as our Lord commanded these should be taken — in remembrance of Him — and they did not refuse the wine to the laity. Their hierarchy consisted of bishops and priests, with other ministers, and that a particular service was employed at their ordination. Marriage was usual among the clergy. There were also monasteries with monks living in them, sworn to poverty, chastity, and obedience to their abbot. That churches were built in honor of martyrs; each church had many altars; and the service, which was performed in the Latin tongue, was chanted by the priests. Disputes were finally settled by provincial synods, held twice a year, beyond which, on matters of discipline, there was no appeal. So that we see the doctrines of the old church were characterized by a true apostolic simplicity, and as an institution it was free and unfettered.
It is matter of unfeigned thankfulness that the early church of our own country has left so fair a name behind her, compared with the superstitions and corruptions of the East and the West. But, alas! her existence as a separate establishment was not of long duration. She scarcely survived the middle of the seventh century. Her calamities were brought on by three successive steps, and these outside of her own jurisdiction — the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain; the Saxon Conquest; and the Augustinian Mission. We will now briefly glance at each step, and its effects.
We have seen something of the decline and approaching fall of the Roman Empire. In consequence of the heavy calamities which befell the city and provinces of Rome, the troops were gradually withdrawn from this island for the protection of the seat of dominion. And the Romans, finding that they could no longer spare the forces necessary for a military establishment in Britain, took their final departure from our island towards the middle of the fifty century, and about four hundred and seventy-five years after Julius Caesar first landed on its shores. The government then fell into the hands of a number of petty princes, who, of course, quarrelled. Civil wars, national weakness, and demoralization soon followed, with their usual judgments.
The withdrawal of the Roman troops necessarily exposed the country to the inroads of invaders, especially the Picts and Scots. The British chiefs, unable to resist these audacious robbers and spoilers, appealed in their distress to Rome. "The barbarians," they said, "break through our walls, like wolves into a sheep-fold, retire with their booty, and return every succeeding year." But however much the Romans might pity their old friends, they were now unable to help them. Disappointed of aid from Rome, and despairing of their ability to defend themselves against the desolating tribes of the North, the Britons turned to the Saxons for help.
About the middle of the fifth century the Saxon ships reached the British coast, and under their leaders, Hengist and Horsa, a few hundred fierce and desperate warriors disembarked. These famous leaders immediately took the field at the head of their followers, and completely defeated the Picts and Scots. But the remedy proved worse than the disease. One great evil was averted, but another and a greater followed. The Saxons, finding the country they had been hired to defend possessed a more genial climate than their own, and eager to exchange the bleak shores of the North for the rich fields of Britain, invited fresh bodies of their countrymen to join them; and thus, from being the defenders, they became the conquerors and masters of the ill-fated Britons. The Angles and other tribes poured in on the country; and although the British did not yield without a severe struggle, the Saxon power prevailed, and reduced the natives to entire submission, or drove them to seek shelter in the mountains of Wales, Cornwall, and Cumberland. Many emigrated, and some settled in Armorica, now Brittany, in the northwest of France.
But the Saxons and Angles were not only wild warriors, they were savage merciless pagans. They exterminated Christianity wherever they conquered. According to the "venerable Bede," the bishops and their people were indiscriminately slaughtered with fire and sword, and there was no one to bury the victims of such cruelty. Public and private buildings were alike destroyed, priests were everywhere murdered at the altar; some who had fled to the mountains were seized, and slain by heaps; others, worn out with hunger, surrendered themselves, embracing perpetual slavery for the sake of life; some made for regions beyond the sea, and some led a life of poverty among mountains, forests, and lofty rocks.
Britain, after this event, relapsed into a state of obscure barbarism, was withdrawn from the view of the civilised world, and was sunk down to the depths of misery and cruelty; and yet these are the very people whom the Lord had laid on the heart of Gregory to win over to Himself by the gospel of peace. How could a few poor monks, without fleet or army, we may well exclaim, venture on such a shore, far less hope to gain the hearts and subdue the lives of such savages to the faith and practice of the gospel of peace? It is the Same gospel that triumphed over Judaism, Orientalism, and Heathenism, and by the same divine power, was soon to triumph over the fierce barbarism of the Anglo-Saxons. How weak and foolish is the infidelity that questions its divine origin, power, and destiny! We will now watch the progress of the mission.
In the year 596, and about 150 years after the arrival of the Saxons in Britain, Gregory's famous mission left Italy for our island. A company of forty missionary monks, under the direction of Augustine, were sent to preach the gospel to the benighted Anglo-Saxons. But hearing of the savage character and habits of the people, and being ignorant of their language, they became seriously discouraged, and were afraid to proceed. Augustine was sent back by the others to entreat Gregory to discharge them from the service. But he was not the man to abandon a mission of that kind. He had not done it in haste; it was the result of much prayer and deliberation. He therefore exhorted and encouraged them to go forward, trusting in the living God, and in the hope of seeing the fruit of their labors in eternity. He gave them letters of introduction to bishops and princes, and secured for them all the assistance in his power. Thus animated they pursued their journey, and, travelling by way of France, they arrived in Britain.
The forty-one missionaries, having landed on the Isle of Thanet, announced to Ethelbert, king of Kent, their arrival from Rome, and their errand with glad tidings of great joy to himself and all his people. Circumstances greatly favored this remarkable mission. Bertha, the queen (daughter of Clotaire the First, king of the Franks), was a Christian. Her father stipulated in her marriage settlement that she was to be allowed the free profession of Christianity, in which she had been educated. A bishop attended her court, several of her household were Christians, and divine service was conducted after the Romish form. The Lord in this instance made use of a woman, as He often did, for the propagation the gospel among the heathen. These favourably contrast with the Jezebel class of women, and preserve the silver line of God's grace in these dark ages. Bertha was of the house of Clovis and Clotilda.
Ethelbert, influenced by his queen, received the missionaries kindly. Augustine and his retinue were allowed to proceed to Canterbury, the residence of the king. He consented to an interview, but in the open air for fear of magic. The monks approached the royal party in the most imposing manner. One of their number, bearing a large silver cross with the figure of the Savior, led the procession; the others followed, chanting their Latin hymns. On reaching the oak appointed for the place of conference, permission was given to preach the gospel to the prince and his attendants. The king was then informed that they had come with good tidings, even eternal life to those that received them, and the enjoyment of the blessedness of heaven for ever. The king was favourably impressed, and gave them a mansion in the royal city of Canterbury, and liberty to preach the gospel to his court and his people. They then marched to the city, singing in concert the litany; "We pray thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that Thine anger and Thy fury may be removed from this city, and from Thy holy house, because we have sinned. Alleluia."
By these preparatory steps the missionaries' way was now plain and easy. The approval of the monarch inspired his subjects with confidence, and opened their hearts to the teachers. Converts, such as they were, multiplied rapidly. On the Christmas-day of the year 597 no fewer, it is said, than ten thousand heathen were gathered into the fold of the Catholic church by baptism. Ethelbert also submitted to baptism, and Christianity, in the Romish form, became the established religion of his kingdom. This was Rome's first footing in England. She now determined on subduing the British church to the papacy, and establishing her authority in Great Britain, as she had done in France. She set to work in this way.
Gregory, on hearing of the great success of Augustine, sent him more missionaries, who carried with them a number of books, including the Gospels, with church plate, vestments, relics, and the pallium which was to invest Augustine as Archbishop of Canterbury. He also directed him to consecrate twelve bishops in his province; and, if he should see it advantageous to the propagation of the faith, to establish another metropolitan at York, who should then have authority to nominate twelve other bishops for the northern districts of the island. Such were the rudiments of the English church, and such the excessive eagerness of Gregory for ecclesiastical supremacy, that he settled a plan of government for places before they had been visited by the evangelist.
"In the ecclesiastical view of the case," says Greenwood, "the Anglo-Saxon church was the genuine daughter of Rome. But, beyond the limits of that establishment, no right of parentage can be assigned to her within the British islands. A numerous christian population still existed in the northern and western districts, whose traditions gave no countenance to the Roman claim of maternity. The ritual and discipline of the British, Welsh and Irish churches differed in many points from those of Rome and the Latins generally. They celebrated the Easter festival in conformity with the practice of the Oriental churches; and in the form of their tonsure, as well as in that of the baptismal rite, they followed the same model: differences which of themselves seem sufficient to preclude all probability of a purely Latin pedigree."
Augustine, now at the head of a hierarchy composed of twelve bishops, immediately made the bold attempt to bring the ancient British church under the Roman jurisdiction. Through the influence of Ethelbert he obtained a conference with some of the British bishops at a place which from that time was called Augustine's oak, on the Severn. There the Roman and the British clergy met for the first time; and Augustine's first and imperious demand was, "Acknowledge the authority of the bishop of Rome." "We desire to love all men," they meekly replied, "and whatever we do for you, we will do for him also whom you call the Pope." Surprised and indignant at their refusal, Augustine exhorted them to adopt the Roman usages as to the celebration of Easter, the tonsure, and the administration of baptism, that a uniformity of discipline and worship might be established in the island. This they positively refused to do. Having received Christianity at first not from Rome but from the East, and never having acknowledged the Roman church as their mother, they looked upon themselves as independent of the See of Rome. A second and a third council were held, but with no better results. Augustine was plainly told that the British church would acknowledge no man as supreme in the Lord's vineyard. The archbishop demanded, argued, censured, wrought miracles; but all to no purpose — the Britons were firm. At last he was plainly told that they could not submit either to the haughtiness of the Romans, or to the tyranny of the Saxons. Aroused to wrathful indignation at their quiet firmness, the angry priest exclaimed, "If you will not receive brethren who bring you peace, you shall receive enemies who bring you war. If you will not unite with us in showing the Saxons the way of life, you shall receive from them the stroke of death." The haughty archbishop withdrew, and is supposed to have died soon after (A.D. 605); but his ill omened prophecy was accomplished soon after his decease.
Edelfrid, one of the Anglo-Saxon kings, still a pagan, collected a numerous army, and advanced towards Bangor, the center of British Christianity. The monks fled in great alarm. About twelve hundred and fifty of them met in a retired spot, where they agreed to continue together in prayer and fasting. Edelfrid drew nearer, and happening to see a number of unarmed men, inquired who they were. On being told that they were the monks of Bangor, who had come to pray for the success of their countrymen, "Then," he cried, "although they have no weapons, they are fighting against us;" and he ordered his soldiers to fall upon the praying monks. About twelve hundred, it is said, were slain, and only fifty escaped by flight. Thus did the dominion of Rome commence in England, which continued for nearly a thousand years.
Whether Augustine had really anything to do with the murder of the monks, it seems hard and is difficult to say. Those who take a strong Protestant view of the case plainly affirm that his last days were occupied in making arrangements for the accomplishment of his own threatening. Others, who take an opposite view, deny that there is any evidence that he influenced the pagans to the dreadful tragedy. But, be that as it may, a dark suspicion must ever rest on the policy of Rome. Augustine's own revengeful words, and her whole history, confirm the suspicion. Such was the nature of the intolerant Jezebel — when argument failed, she appealed to the sword. Henceforth Romanism was characterized by arrogance and blood. The ancient church of Britain, which was limited to the mountainous districts of Wales, gradually diminished and died away.
Augustine is spoken of by some historians as a devout Christian, and his missionary enterprise as one of the greatest in the annals of the church. But, without wishing to detract in the least degree from the greatness of the man or his mission, we must not forget that scripture is the only true standard of character and works. There we learn that the fruit of the Spirit is "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." And certainly the great churchman did not manifest towards his brethren, the British Christians, the grace of love, peace, or conciliation; on the contrary, he was proud, imperious, haughty, and vainglorious.
These serious defects in his character were not unknown to Gregory, as he says, in a letter addressed to himself: "I know that God has performed, through you, great miracles among that people; but let us remember that when the disciples said with joy to their divine Master, "Lord, even the devils are subject to us through Thy name,' He answered them, 'Rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven." While God thus employs your agency without, remember, my dear brother, to judge yourself secretly within, and to know well what you are. If you have offended God in word or deed, preserve those offenses in your thoughts to repress the vainglory of your heart, and consider that the gift of miracles is not granted to you for yourself, but for those whose salvation you are laboring to procure." In another letter he cautioned him against "vanity and personal pomp;" and reminded him "that the pallium of his dignity was only to be worn in the service of the church, and not to be brought into competition with royal purple on state occasions."
He was most unsuited for a mission which required patience, and a tender consideration of others. The British church had existed for centuries, her bishops had taken part in great ecclesiastical councils and signed their decrees. The names of London, York, and Lincoln are found in the records of the Council of Arles (A.D. 314), so that we cannot but respect in the Britons their desire to adhere to the liturgy transmitted from their ancestors, and to resist the foreign assumption of the spiritual supremacy of Rome. Augustine utterly failed to profit by the lessons of humility which he received from his great master, and has less claim upon our esteem and admiration.
The great prelate, like his great missionary, did not long survive the spiritual conquest of England. Worn out at length by his great labors and infirmities, he died in the year 604, assuring his friends that the expectation of death was his only consolation, and requesting them to pray for his deliverance from bodily sufferings.
The conduct of Gregory, during the thirteen years and six months that he was bishop of Rome, displays a zeal and a sincerity which have scarcely been equalled in the history of the Roman church. He was laborious and self-denying in what he believed to be the service of God, and in his duty to the church and to all mankind. The collection of his letters, nearly eight hundred and fifty in number, bears ample testimony to his ability and activity in all the affairs of men, and in every sphere of life. "From treating with patriarchs, kings, or emperors on the highest concerns of Church and State, he passes to direct the management of a farm, or the relief of some distressed petitioner in some distant dependence of his See. He appears as a pope, as a sovereign, as a bishop, as a landlord. He takes measures for the defense of his country, the conversion of the heathen, the repression and reconciliation of schismatics," etc.
But notwithstanding the varied excellencies of Gregory, he was deeply infected with the principles and spirit of the age in which he lived. The spirit of Jezebel was evidently at work, though yet in its youth. We look in vain for anything like christian simplicity in the church of God at this time. The piety of Gregory himself we cannot doubt; but, as an ecclesiastic, what was he? Poisoned to the heart's core by the gross delusion of the universal claims of the chair of St. Peter, he could brook no rival, as we see in his determined and bitter opposition to the pretensions of John, bishop of Constantinople; and, what was darker still, we see the same spirit in his triumphing over the murder of the Emperor Maurice and his family by the cruel and treacherous Phocas, merely because he suspected Maurice of what he called heresy. It appears that Maurice countenanced what Gregory thought the usurpation of John in assuming the title of universal bishop. But even to sanction such a claim was no small crime in the mind of a Roman pontiff. And so it was with Gregory. When the intelligence of the bloody tragedy reached him, he rejoiced; it appeared to him in the light of a providential dispensation for the deliverance of the church from her enemies. The very well-springs of charity seem to have been dried up in the hearts of all who ever sat on a papal throne, towards all ecclesiastical rivals. Justice, candor, humanity, and every right feeling of Christianity, must yield to the dominant claims of the false church. Even Gregory bowed before, and was fearfully corrupted by, "that woman Jezebel."
Ambition, mingled with humility; and superstition, mingled with faith, characterized the great pontiff. This strange mixture and confusion was no doubt the result of his false position. It is difficult to understand how a man of such sound sense could be so debased by superstition as to believe in the working of miracles by means of relics, and to have recourse to such things for the confirmation of the truth of scripture. But the sad truth is, that he was blinded by the one great absorbing object, the interests of the church of Rome, in place of being devoted to the interests of Christ. Paul could say, "One thing I do;" another said, "One thing I know." First, we must know that we are pardoned and accepted; then, to do the things that please Christ is the high and heavenly calling of the Christian.
"That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death... But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are
behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in
Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3.)
Such was, and ever ought to have been, the spirit and breathings of Christianity. But what do we find at the close of the sixth century? What was the one thing Gregory had in view? Clearly not the claims of a heavenly Christ, and conformity to Him in His resurrection, sufferings, and death. We may safely affirm, that the one great object of his public life was to establish beyond dispute the universal bishopric of Rome. And to this end, in place of leading souls to delight in the ways of Christ, as well as in Himself, which Paul ever did, he sought to advance the claims of the Romish See by idolatry and corruption. Neither was the spirit of persecution altogether absent.
Monasticism, under the patronage of Gregory, especially according to the stricter rules of Benedict, was greatly revived and widely extended. The doctrine of purgatory, respect for relics, the worship of images, the idolatry of saints and martyrs, the merit of pilgrimages to holy places, were either taught or sanctioned by Gregory, as connected with his ecclesiastical system; all which we must own to be the unmistakable features of the activity of Balaam and the corruption of Jezebel.
But we are now in the seventh century. The dark ages are at hand, and dark indeed they are. The papacy begins to assume a definite form. And as we have reached in our history the close of one age of Christianity and the commencement of another, we may profitably pause for a moment and take a general survey of the progress of the gospel in different countries.
Chapter 14 - The Spread of Christianity Over Europe