Christianity On and Beyond the Borders of the Empire


1. ARABIA. -- The nomadic life prevailing in a large part of this country was a great hindrance in the way of its thorough evangelization. Still some, the monks in particular, were able to win converts. In the latter part of the fourth century the Saracen queen Mavia inserted among the conditions of peace with the Romans the requirement that a certain monk by the name of Moses should be constituted the bishop of her people. [Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., ii. 6; Socrates, iv. 36; Sozomen, vi. 38; Theodoret, iv. 23.] According to Theodoret, the stylite Symeon had great celebrity among the Saracen nomads, and influenced many of them to accept of Christian baptism. [Hist. Relig., xxvi.]

In Arabia Felix, a work of some importance was accomplished by Theophilus, a native of the island Diu, but educated at Constantinople. Through his influence a prince embraced Christianity, and several churches were established. The good-begun work, however, finally succumbed to the opposition of the Jews, who were especially powerful in that region. [Philostorgius, Hist. Eccl., iii. 4, 5.]

2. ARMENIA AND ITS NEIGHBORHOOD. -- The efficient activity of the Armenian Gregory, beginning in the early part of the fourth century, secured quite a general spread of the gospel in his fatherland, and brought also the king to be numbered with the converts. Near the commencement of the fifth century, Miesrob gave the Armenians a Bible in their own language, and inaugurated a native Christian literature. The latter part of this century, however, was a period of disruption to the Armenian Church, on account of the invasions of the Persians, their policy of repression, and resulting commotions and wars of religion.

The origin of the Church among the Iberians, a people to the north of the Armenians, is one among many examples recorded of the power of humble means and seemingly chance incidents to spread the gospel. During the reign of Constantine, a Christian woman was carried into their country as a captive, and attracted attention by her pure and abstinent life. A peculiar custom of the country -- namely, that of carrying a sick child about to the houses of neighbors in order that they might prescribe remedies -- brought her still further to notice. Being solicited in such case, she replied that she had no remedy to prescribe, but that Christ, her God, was able to heal where man could not. She therefore simply prayed for the child, and its restored health was attributed to the virtue of her prayers. Later, the queen, who had heard of the incident, while suffering from a severe illness, summoned the Christian for her relief. The humble woman, not wishing to put herself forward as a wonder-worker, declined to go. The queen then ordered herself to be carried into her presence. The Christian prayed, and again recovery of the sick followed her petition. The queen now confessed her adherence to Christianity; the king was also converted soon after, and both turned themselves to the instruction of their people. The seed thus sown was fostered by teachers sent from the Roman Empire. [Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., i. 10. Compare Socrates, i. 20; Sozomen, ii 7; Theodoret, i. 24.]

3. PERSIA. --Christianity numbered a considerable body of adherents in Persia at the beginning of the fourth century. The conversion at this time of one of the most learned of the magi, and his writings and disputations against the Persian faith, gave a fresh impulse to the Christian cause. He was made, however, to atone for his zeal and success by the martyr death; and near the middle of the century the whole Church in Persia was subjected to a fierce ordeal, a persecution which in violence and persistence reminds of the attempts of Roman power to exterminate Christianity. Both political and religious motives were among the causes. Jealousy of the neighboring power of the Christian emperors led to questionings over the loyalty of the Persian Christians. At the same time the magi spared no pains to stir up hatred on religious grounds. Beginning with the imposition of an exorbitant tax, the king next issued an edict for the execution of the ministry of the first three ranks. The aged bishop Symeon, the most eminent among the clergy, and a hundred priests with him, were executed upon a single occasion. Then followed a decree commanding all Christians to be cast into chains, and to be capitally punished. Many, from all ranks, witnessed their devotion to Christ by their blood, during the forty years of this persecution. [Sozomen, ii. 9-14.]

A period of comparative tolerance followed; but in the year 418 the fanatical zeal of a bishop by the name of Abdas, in destroying a pyrœum, or temple dedicated to the worship of fire, caused another outbreak of persecution. "From this act of Abdas," says Theodoret "arose a tempest which raged with violence against all persons of piety, and which lasted no less than thirty years. Its violence and long duration were mainly occasioned by the magi." [Hist. Eccl.,v.39.]

In the Christological controversies, the Persian Christians sided finally with the proscribed Nestorians. The separation thus caused between them and their brethren of the Roman Empire greatly modified the political motive for persecution, and so contributed to the security of the Church in Persia.

4. INDIA. -- The accounts of Christianity in India in this period are well nigh as unsatisfactory as those of the previous centuries. The term is still used to include very much territory beside India proper. Thus, Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret designate as India a country which is now commonly understood to have been Abyssinia. It is known, however, that commercial relations subsisted at this time between the more western countries and East India. There are also accounts of Persian Christians having penetrated into this region. It is possible, moreover, that the mission to Indian lands, which Philostorgius [Hist. Eccl.,iii. 5] ascribes to the Theophilus mentioned above, concerned the same region. If this supposition be accepted, it muse be concluded that the gospel reached India at quite an early period; for Theophilus represents that Christianity had long been established in the country to which he came. It would be still an open question, however, as to whether natives, as well as colonists and traders, composed the societies of Christians in that region.

5. ABYSSINIA. -- In the reign of Constantine, a philosopher from Tyre, by the name of Meropius, while on a voyage in the interest of science, touched upon the coast of Abyssinia. The hostile natives murdered him and his whole crew, with the exception of two youths, Frumentius and Edesius. By their superior ability, they established themselves in the friendship of the king, and were promoted to positions of trust and honor. Meanwhile, they were not forgetful of the faith of their early years, and used their opportunity to introduce Christianity. About 326, Frumentius found his way to Alexandria, and was there, by Athanasius, ordained Bishop of Abyssinia. [Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., i. 9; Socrates, i. 19; Sozomen, ii. 34; Theodoret, i. 23.] Thus originated a church which has given a home to Christianity in Abyssinia, though in a very corrupt form, until the present time.

6. THE REGION OF THE GOTHS. -- Before the time of Constantine, the warlike excursions of the Goths, especially into Cappadocia, and the captives whom they carried back with them, served in some degree to introduce Christianity among them. Already at the council of Nicæ we find a certain Theophilus who was styled Bishop of the Goths. But the most noted of the early laborers among this people was Ulfilas. Having served as a bishop in their land for several years about the middle of the fourth century, he was forced by persecution to flee across the Danube. By the favor of Constantius, a refuge on Roman soil was provided for him and the Goths who accompanied him. Later, the irruption of the Huns occasioned a new and larger Gothic influx. For forty years Ulfilas is said to have fulfilled the office of bishop among this people. One great monument of his life-work was his translation of the Bible into the Gothic language, the Books of Kings (including those of Samuel) excepted. According to Philostorgius, these books were omitted as being too agreeable to the warlike temper of the nation. [Hist. Eccl., ii. 5.] The persecution which drove out Ulfilas was renewed some years later, and Gothic devotion won its crown of martyrdom.

By Ulfilas and his school, Christianity was taught in the form of Arianism, or, more strictly speaking, semi-Arianism; but the orthodox faith also had its representatives among the Goths. Chrysostom took an especial interest in their Christian education. As Bishop of Constantinople, he designated a church for a Gothic service, and astonished the proud metropolitans by the spectacle of the barbarians expounding the mysteries of Holy Writ in their own language? [Theodoret, Hist. Eccl., v. 30.]

7. IRELAND. -- Christianity had made good progress among the Britons in England and on the southern border of Scotland, while yet the people of northern Scotland and of Ireland remained heathen. It was not till the fifth century that a thorough beginning was made of the evangelization of the Irish race. That beginning was due to the zeal and heroism of Patricius, or Patrick, the "Apostle of Ireland." To be sure, he was not the first regular missionary to the island. He had been preceded by a certain Palladius, who had entered upon the mission under the sanction of the Roman bishop Celestine. Little, however, is known of the work of Palladius. The results of his labors were probably not very great, and the honor of founding the Irish Church may well be accorded to his successor. The question of Patrick's birthplace is not very definitely answered. Professor Todd gives his verdict for Dumbarton, on the Firth of Clyde, as being decidedly favored by ancient traditions. [J. H. Todd, St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland.] Lanigan, on the other hand, from a consideration of the names contained in the writings of Patrick, makes out a very plausible case for Boulogne-sur-Mer, in northern France. [John Lanigan, Eccl. Hist. of Ireland, chap, iii.] According to the "Confession," and the "Epistle concerning Coroticus," both of which are considered genuine writings of Patrick, his father was a deacon, and, in civil standing, a decurion. While yet a youth, Patrick was taken captive by a plundering band and carried into the north of Ireland. "I was then," he writes in his "Confession," "nearly sixteen years old. I knew not the true God; and I was carried into captivity to Hiberio, with many thousands of men, according to our deserts, because we had gone back from God, and had not kept His commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who used to warn us for our salvation." Captivity proved a profitable discipline spiritually. While tending the cattle of the chief to whom he had been sold, Patrick felt his heart drawn out in prayer to God, and experienced the consoling sense of His presence. At length, after six years of exile and slavery, Providence prepared his deliverance. Following the direction of a voice which seemed to assure him in his sleep that the ship was ready which was destined to restore him to his own country, he hastened toward the coast, and made good his escape.

After a series of years, he felt a burden laid upon him to return to the land of his captivity and to labor for the salvation of its benighted people. His friends endeavored to dissuade him from such a project; but the Macedonian call sounding in his heart was too imperative to be neglected. "In the dead of night," he says, "I saw a man coming to me from Hiberio, whose name was Victoricus, bearing innumerable epistles. And he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of it which contained the words, 'The voice of the Irish.' And, whilst I was repeating the beginning of the epistle, I imagined that I heard in my mind the voice of those who were near the mood of Fochlut, which is near the Western Sea. And thus they cried: 'We pray thee, holy youth, to come, and henceforth walk amongst us.' And I was greatly pricked in heart, and could read no more; and so I awoke." [Confession.]

According to some quite early accounts, Patrick entered upon the Irish mission under the authority of the Roman bishop. But the evidence for this theory is unsatisfactory. In neither of the genuine writings referred to is there any mention by the missionary of a communication with Rome; whereas, especially in case of the Confession, there was a distinct occasion to refer to such a communication had it taken place. In this writing he mentions his call to the Irish mission, and defends himself against the charge of presumption in having entered upon so great a work. How natural in such a relation to have quoted the sanction of the Roman bishop, if that had been among the antecedents of his enterprise! An equal silence respecting any connection with Rome is also observed by some of the earliest productions relating to Patrick, such as the Hymn of St. Secundinus, the Hymn of St. Fiacc, and the Life in the Book of Armagh. There is ground, therefore, to hold under suspicion, if not positively to deny, the theory of Roman patronage in connection with the mission. As Dr. Todd suggests, certain facts belonging to the history of Palladius may have been transferred by uncritical and interested biographers to the life of Patrick. But, whatever the relations of Patrick himself may have been, the relations of the early Irish Church with the Roman see do not appear to have been very intimate; for we find the Irish, like the Britons across the channel, cherishing non-Roman customs. [W. D. Killen calls attention to the fact that in all the correspondence of Leo the Great, who was a contemporary of Patrick, there is no mention of Ireland. He adds: "It is acknowledged that for one hundred and fifty years after the death of Leo, the Church of Ireland continued to be in a very flourishing condition; and yet there is not a shadow of evidence that meanwhile any bishop of Rome addressed to any of its ministers so much as a single line of advice, warning, or commendation." (Eccl. Hist. of Ireland, i. 8, 9.)]

Ireland, with its Druids and its turbulent and war-like tribes, was a difficult field to bring under Christian cultivation. On more than one occasion the missionary found his life imperilled. Great success, nevertheless, attended his labors; and in his own person he accomplished much for that religious and intellectual regeneration of Ireland, which made this island a chief light in Europe in the period immediately following.

Authentic history says but little concerning Patrick, but it says enough to indicate the prominent traits in his character. We see in him a man distinguished by humility, simplicity, unselfish devotion, and large practical efficiency; a man very different from the pious monstrosity into which his image has been distorted by many ancient legends, and by some modern biographers who have overlooked the distinction between legend and history. A miscalculating fancy has clouded his fame in the attempt to magnify it by a list of ill-begotten marvels. So much the more, however, should the tribute be paid to him which is required by genuine history.

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