Eliohs: Electronic Library of Historiography
Collane Catalogo Generale Altre Risorse Home



The Article of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, third edition 1788-1797

History, The Article of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, third edition 1788-1797
URL: <http://www.eliohs-unifi.it/testi/700/history3>
Html edition for ELIOHS by Silvia Sebastiani, sebastia@datacomm.iue.it and Mario Caricchio, caricchio@dada.it (December 1998)

General definition | Civil history | Ecclesiastical History | Composition of history | Historical Chart

SECT. II. Ecclesiastical History. [578-590]

50. Revolutions in religion seldom happen.

The history of religion, among all the different nations that have existed in the world, is a subject no less important and interesting than that of civil history. It is, however, less fertile of great events, affords an account of fewer revolutions, and is much more uniform, than civil history. The reason of this is plain. Religion is conversant about things which cannot be seen; and which of consequence cannot suddenly and strongly affect the senses of mankind, as natural things are apt to do. The expectation of worldly riches can easily induce one nation to attack another; but it is not easy to find any thing which will induce a nation to change its religion. The invisible nature of spiritual things, the prejudice of habit and early education, all stand in the way of changes of this kind. Hence the revolutions in religion have been but few, and the duration of almost any religion of longer standing than the most celebrated empires; the changes which have happened, in general have acquired a long time to bring them about, and history scarce affords an instance of the religion of any nation being essentially and suddenly changed for another.
With regard to the origin of religion, we must have recourse to the Scriptures; and are as necessarily constrained to adopt the account there given, as we are to adopt that of the creation given in the same book; namely, because no other hath made its appearance which seems in any degree rational, or consistent with itself. - In what manner the true religion given to Adam was falsified or corrupted by his descendants before the flood, doth not clearly appear from the Scripture. Idolatry is not mentioned: nevertheless we are assured that the inhabitants of the world were then exceedingly wicked; and as their wickedness did not consist in worshipping false gods, it may be concluded that they worshipped none at all; i.e. that the crime of the antediluvians was deism or atheism.


51. Origin of idolatry.


After the flood, idolatry quickly made its appearance; but what gave rise to it is not certainly known. This superstition indeed seems to be natural to man, especially when placed in such a situation that he hath little opportunity of instruction, or of improving his rational faculties. This seems also probable from a caution given to the Jews, lest, when they looked up to the sun, moon, and stars, and the rest of the host of heaven, they should be driven to worship them. The origin of idolatry among the Syrians and Arabians, and also in Greece, is therefore accounted for with great probability in the following manner by the author of The Ruins of Balbeck. "In those uncomfortable deserts, where the day presents nothing to the view but the uniform, tedious, and melancholy prospect of barren sands, the night discloses a most delightful and magnificent spectacle, and appears arrayed with charms of the most attractive kind. For the most part unclouded and serene, it exhibits to the wondering eye the host of heaven in all their variety and glory. In the view of this stupendous scene, the transition from admiration to idolatry was too easy to uninstructed minds; and a people whose climate offered no beauties to contemplate but those of the firmament, would naturally look thither for the objects of their worship. The form of idolatry in Greece was different from that of the Syrians; which perhaps may be attributed to that smiling and variegated scene of mountains, valleys, rivers, woods, groves, and fountains, which the transported imagination, in the midst of its pleasing astonishment, supposed to be the seats of invisible deities."
A difficulty, however, arises on this supposition; for if idolatry is naturally produced in the mind of uninstructed and savage man from a view of the creation, why hath not idolatry of some kind or other [579] taken place among all the different nations of the world? This certainly hath not been the case; of which the most striking examples are the Persians of old, and the Moguls in more modern times. Both these nations were strict deists; so that we must allow some other causes to concur in producing idolatry besides these already mentioned; and of these causes an imperfect and obscure notion of the true religion seems to be the most probable.


52. General account of the Heathen superstitions.


Though idolatry, therefore, was formerly very prevalent, it neither extended over the whole earth, nor were the superstitions of the idolaters all of one kind. Every nation had its respective gods, over which one more excellent than the rest was said preside; yet in such a manner, that this supreme deity himself was controlled by the rigid empire of the fates, or by what philosophers called eternal necessity. The gods of the east were different from those of the Gauls, the Germans, and the other northern nations. The Grecian divinities differed widely from those of the Egyptians, who deified plants, animals, and a great variety of the productions both of nature and art. Each people also had their own particular manner of worshipping and appeasing their respective deities, entirely different from the sacred rites of other countries. All this variety of religions, however, produced neither wars nor dissensions among the different nations; each nation suffered its neighbours to follow their own method of worship, without discovering any displeasure on that account. There is nothing surprising in this mutual toleration, when we consider, that they all looked upon the world as one great empire, divided into various provinces, over each of which a certain order of divinities presided; for which reason they imagined that none could behold with contempt the gods of other nations, or force strangers to pay homage to theirs. - The Romans exercised this toleration in the most ample manner; for though they would not allow any change to be made in the religions that were publicly professed in the empire, nor any new from of worship to be openly introduced, yet they granted to their citizens a full liberty of observing in private the sacred rites of other nations, and of honouring foreign deities as they thought proper.
The heathen deities were honoured with rites and sacrifices of various kinds, according to their respective natures and offices. Their rites were absurd and ridiculous; while the priests, appointed to preside over this stranger worship, abused their authority, by deceiving and imposing upon the people in the grossest manner.



53. State of religion at the appearance of Christ.


From the time of the flood to the coming of Christ, idolatry prevailed among almost all the nations of the world, the Jews alone excepted; and even they were on all occasions ready to run into it, as is evident from their history in the Old Testament. At the time of Christ’s appearance, the religion of the Romans, as well as their empire, extended over a great part of the world. Some people there were among the heathens who perceived the absurdities of that system; but being destitute of means, as well as of abilities, to effect a reformation, matters went on in their old way. Though there were at that time various sects of philosophers, yet all of them proceeded upon false principles, and consequently could be of no service o the advancement or reformation of religion. Nay, some, among whom were the Epicureans and Academics, declared openly against every kind of religion whatever.
Two religions at this time flourished in Palestine, viz. the Jewish and Samaritan; between whose respective followers reigned the most violent hatred and contempt. The difference between them seems to have been chiefly about the place of worship; which the Jews would have to be in Jerusalem, and the Samaritans on mount Gerizzim. But though the Jews were certainly right as to this point, they had greatly corrupted their religion in other respects. They expected a Saviour indeed, but they mistook his character; imagining that he was to be a powerful and warlike prince, who should set them free from the Roman yoke, which they bore with the utmost impatience. They also imagined that the whole of religion consisted in observing the rites of Moses, and some others which they had added to them, without the least regard to what is commonly called morality or virtue; as is evident from the many charges our Saviour brings against the Pharisees, who had the greatest reputation for sanctity among the whole nation. To these corrupt and vicious principles, they added several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, &c. which they had partly imbibed during the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the neighbours in Arabia, Syria, and Egypt. The principle sects among them were the Essenes or Essenians, Pharisees, and Sadducees. The Samaritans, according to the most general opinion, had corrupted their religion still more than the Jews.



When the true religion was preached by the Saviour of mankind, it is not to be wondered at if he became on that account obnoxious to a people so deeply sunk in corruption and ignorance as the Jews then were. It is not here requisite to enter into the particulars of the doctrine advanced by him, or of the opposition he met with from the Jews; as a full account of these things, and likewise of the preaching of the gospel by the Apostles, may be found in the New Testament. - The rapid progress of the Christian religion, under these faithful and inspired ministers, soon alarmed the Jews, and raised various persecutions against its followers. The Jews, indeed, seem at first to have been everywhere the chief promoters of the persecution; for we find that they officiously went from place to place, wherever they heard of the increase of the gospel, and by their calumnies and false suggestions endeavoured to excite the people against the apostles. The Heathens, however, though at first they showed no very violent spirit of persecution against the Christians, soon came to hate them as much as the Jews themselves. Tacitus acquaints us with the causes of this hatred, when speaking of the first general persecution under Nero. That inhuman emperor having, as was supposed, set fire to the city of Rome, to avoid the imputation of this wickedness, transferred it on the Christians. Our author informs us that they were already abhorred on account of their many and enormous crimes. "The author of this name (Christians)," says he, "was Christ, who in the reign of Tiberius, was executed under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa. The [580] pestilent superstition was for a while suppressed: but it revived again, and spread, not only over Judæa, where this evil was first broached, but reached Rome, whither from every quarter of the earth is constantly flowing whatever is hideous and abominable amongst men, and is there readily, embraced and practised. First, therefore, were apprehended such as openly avowed themselves to be of that sect; then by them were discovered an immense multitude; and all were convicted, not of the crime of burning Rome, but of hatred and enmity to mankind. Their death and tortures were aggravated by cruel derision and sport; for they were either covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn in pieces by devouring dogs, or fastened to crosses, or wrapped up in combustible garments, that, when the day-light failed, they might, like torches, serve to dispel the darkness of the night. Hence, towards the miserable sufferers, however guilty and deserving the most exemplary punishment, compassion arose; seeing they were domed to perish, not with a view to the public good, but to gratify the cruelty of one man."
That this account of Tacitus is downright misrepresentation and calumny, must be evident to very one reads it. It is impossible that any person can be convicted of hatred and enmity to mankind, without specifying a number of facts by which this hatred showed itself. The burning of Rome would indeed have been a very plain indication of enmity to mankind; but of this Tacitus himself clears them, and mentions no other crime of which they were guilty. It is probable, therefore, that the only reason of this charge against the Christians, was their absolute refusal to have any share in the Roman worship, or to countenance the absurd superstitions of Paganism in any degree.

54. Tacitus's account of the first persecution by Nero.


55. Second persecution.


The persecution under Nero was succeeded by another under Domitian; during which the Apostle John was banished to Patmos, where he saw the visions, and wrote the book called his Revelations, which completes the canon of Scripture. This persecution commenced in the 95th year of the Christian era; and John is supposed to have written his Revelation the year after, or in the following one.
During the first century, Christian religion spread over a great number of different countries; but as we have now no authentic records concerning the travels of the Apostles, or the success which attended them in their ministry, it was impossible to determine how far the gospel was carried during this period. We are, however, assured, that even during this early period, many corruptions were creeping in, the progress of which was with difficulty prevented even by the Apostles themselves. Some corrupted their profession by a mixture of Judaism, others by mixing it with oriental philosophy; while others were already attempting to deprive their brethren of liberty, setting themselves up as eminent pastors, in opposition even to Apostles, as we learn from the epistles of St. Paul, and the third epistle of St. John. Hence arose the sects of the Gnostics, Cerinthians, Nicolaitans, Nazarenes, Ebionites, &c. with which the church was troubled during this century.
Concerning the ceremonies and method of worship used by the Christians of the first century, it is impossible to say any thing with certainty. Neither is the Church order, government, and discipline, during this period, ascertained with any degree of exactness. Each of those parties, therefore, which exists at this day, contends with the greatest earnestness for that particular mode of worship which they themselves have adopted; and some of the most bigotted would willingly monopolize the word church in such a manner as to exclude from all hope of salvation every one who is not attached to their particular party. It doth not however appear that, excepting baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the anointing sick with oil, any external ceremonies or symbols were properly of divine appointment. According to Dr. Mosheim, "there are several circumstances which incline us to think, that the friends and apostles of our blessed Lord either tolerated through necessity, or appointed for wise reasons, many other external rites in various places. At the same time, we are not to imagine, that they ever conferred upon any person a perpetual, indelible, pontifical authority, or that they enjoined the same rites in all churches. We learn, on the contrary, from authentic records, that the Christian worship was form the beginning celebrated in a different manner in different places; and that, no doubt, by the orders, or at least with the approbation, of the apostles and their disciples. In those early times, it was both wise and necessary to show, in the establishment of outward forms of worship, some indulgence to the ancient opinions, manners, and laws, of the respective nations to whom the gospel was preached."


56. History of the second century.


The second century commences with the third year of the emperor Trajan. The Christians were still persecuted; but as the Roman emperors were for the most part of this century princes of a mild and moderate turn, they persecuted less violently than formerly. Marcus Aurelius, notwithstanding the clemency and philosophy for which he is so much celebrated, treated the Christians worse than Trajan, Adrian, or even Severus himself did, who was noted for his cruelty. This respite from vigorous persecution proved a very favourable circumstance for the spreading of the Christians religion; yet, it is by no means easy to point out the particular countries through which it was diffused. We are, however, assured, that in the second century, Christ was worshipped as God almost through the whole east; as also among the Germans, Spaniards, Celtes, and many other nations: but which of them received the gospel in the first century, and which in the second, is a question unanswerable at this distance of time. The writers of this century attribute the rapid progress of Christianity chiefly to the extraordinary gifts that were imparted to the first Christians, and the miracles which were wrought at their command; without supposing that any part of the success ought to be ascribed to the intervention of human means, or secondary causes. Many of the moderns, however, are so far from being of this opinion, that they are willing either to deny the authenticity of all miracles said to have been wrought since the days of the apostles, or to ascribe them to the power of the devil. To enter into the particulars of this controversy is foreign to our present purpose; for which reason we must refer to the writers of polemic divinity, who have largely treated of this and other points of a similar nature.

57. Ceremonies multiplied.


[581] The corruptions which had been introduced in the first century, and which were almost coeval with Christianity itself, continued to gain ground in the second. Ceremonies, in themselves futile and useless, but which must be considered as highly pernicious when joined to a religion incapable of any other ornament than the upright and virtuous conduct of its professors, were multiplied for no other purpose than to please the ignorant multitude. The immediate consequence of this was, that the attention of Christians was drawn aside from the important moral duties of morality; and they were led to imagine, that a careful observance of the ceremonies might make amends for the neglect of moral duties. This was the most pernicious opinion that could possibly be entertained; and was indeed the very foundation of that enormous system of ecclesiastical power which afterwards took place, and held the whole world in slavery and barbarism for many ages.

58. Misteries introduced.


Another mischief was the introduction of mysteries, as they were called, into the Christian religion; that is, insinuating that some parts of the worship in common use had a hidden efficacy and power superior to the plain and obvious meaning assigned to them by the vulgar: and by paying peculiar respect to these mysteries, the pretended teachers of the religion of Jesus accommodated their doctrines to the taste of their heathen neighbours, whose religion consisted in a heap of mysteries, of which nobody knew the meaning.

59. The teachers assume a power over the people.


By these, and other means of a similar kind, the Christian pastors greatly abridged the liberty of their flock. Being masters of the ceremonies and mysteries of the Christian religion, they had it in their power to make their followers worship and believe whatever they thought proper; and this they did not fail to make use of for their own advantage. They persuaded the people, that the ministers of the Christian church succeeded to the character, rights, and privileges, of the Jewish priesthood; and accordingly the bishops considered themselves as invested with a rank and character similar to those of the high-priest among the Jews, while the presbyters represented the priests, and the deacons the Levites. This notion, which was first introduced in the reign of Adrian, proved a source of very considerable honour and profit to the clergy.

60. Form of church government.


The form of ecclesiastical government was in this century rendered permanent and uniform. One inspector or bishop presided over each Christian assembly, to which office he was elected by the voices of the whole people. To assist him in his office, he formed a council of presbyters, which was not confined to any stated number. To the bishops and presbyters the ministers or deacons were subject; and the latter were divided into a variety of classes, as the different exigencies of the church required. During a great part of this century, the churches were independent of each other; nor were they joined together by association, confederacy, or any other bonds but those of charity. Each assembly was a little state governed by its own laws, which were either enacted, or at least approved of, by the society. But in process of time all the Christian churches of a province were formed into one large ecclesiastical body, which, like confederate states, assembled at certain times, in order to deliberate about the common interests of the whole. This institution had its origin among the Greeks; but in a short time it became universal, and similar assemblies were formed in all places where the gospel had been planted. These assemblies, which consisted of the deputies or commissioners from several churches, were called synods by the Greeks, and councils by the Latins; and the laws enacted in these general meetings were called canons, i.e. rules.

61. Changes produced by the institution of councils.


These councils, of which we find not the smallest trace before the middle of this century, changed the whole face of the church, and gave it a new form; for by them the ancient privileges of the people were considerably diminished, and the power and the authority of the bishops greatly augmented. The humility, indeed, and prudence, of these pious prelates hindered them from assuming all at once the power with which they were afterwards invested. At their first appearance in these general councils, they acknowledged that they were no more than delegates of their respective churches, and that they acted in the name and by the appointment of their people. But they soon changed this humble tone; imperceptibly extended the limits of their authority; turned their influence into dominion, their counsels into laws; and at length openly asserted, that Christ had empowered them to prescribe to his people authoritative rules of faith and manners. Another effect of these councils was the gradual abolition of that perfect equality which reigned among all bishops in the primitive times: for the order and decency of these assemblies required, that some one of the provincial bishops met in council should be invested with a superior degree of power and authority; and hence the rights of Metropolitans derive their origin. In the mean time, the bounds of the church were enlarged; the custom of holding councils was followed wherever the sound of the gospel had reached; and the universal church had now the appearance of one vast republic formed by a combination of a great number of little states. This occasioned the creation of a new order of ecclesiastics, who were appointed in different parts of the world as heads of the church, and whose office it was to preserve the consistence and union of that immense body, whose members were so widely dispersed throughout the nations. Such was the nature and office of the Patriarchs; among whom, at length, ambition, being arrived at its most insolent period, formed a new dignity, investing the bishop of Rome with the title and authority of the Prince of the Patriarchs.

62. Account of the Ascetics.


During the second century, all the sects continued which had sprung up in the first, with the addition of several others; the most remarkable of which were the Ascetics. These owed their rise to an error propagated by some doctors of the church, who asserted that Christ had established a double rule of sanctity and virtue for two different orders of Christians. Of these rules, one was ordinary, the other extraordinary; the one of a lower dignity, the other more sublime; the first for persons in the active scenes of life; the other for those who, in a sacred retreat, aspired after the glory of the celestial state. In consequence of this system, they divided in two parts all those moral doctrines and instructions which they had received either by writing or tradition. One of these divisions they called precepts, and the other counsels. They gave the name of precepts to those laws that were universally obligatory, [582] upon all orders of men; and that of counsels to those which related to Christians of a more sublime rank, who proposed to themselves great and glorious ends, and breathed after an intimate communion with the Supreme Being. - Thus were produced all at once a new set of men, who made pretensions to uncommon sanctity and virtue, and declared their resolution of obeying all the precepts and counsels of Christ, in order to their enjoyment of communion with God here, and also that, after the dissolution of their mortal bodies, they might ascend to him with the greater facility, and find nothing to retard their approach to the centre of happiness and perfection. They looked upon themselves as prohibited from the use of things which it was lawful for other Christians to enjoy; such as wine, flesh, matrimony, and commerce. They thought it their indispensable duty to extenuate their body by watchings, abstinence, labour, and hunger. They looked for felicity in solitary retreats, and desert places; where, by severe and assiduous efforts of sublime meditation, they raised the soul above all external objects and all sensual pleasures. They were distinguished from other Christians, not only by their title of Ascetics, Spoudaioi, Eklektoi, and philosophers, but also by their garb. In this century, indeed, those who embraced such an austere kind of life, submitted themselves to all these mortifications in private, without breaking asunder their social bands, or withdrawing themselves from mankind; but in process of time they retired into deserts, and after the example of Essenes and Therapeutæ, they formed themselves into certain companies.
This austere sect arose from an opinion which has been more or less prevalent in all ages and in all countries, namely, that religion consists more in prayers, meditations, and a kind of secret intercourse with God, than in fulfilling the social duties of life in acts of benevolence and humanity to mankind. Nothing can be more evident than that the Scripture reckons the fulfilling of these infinitely superior to the observance of all the ceremonies that can be imagined; yet it somehow or other happens, that almost every body is more inclined to observe the ceremonial part of the devotion than the moral; and hence, according to the different humours or constitutions of different persons, there have been numberless forms of Christianity, and the most virulent contentions among those who professed themselves followers of the Prince of Peace. It is obvious, that if the moral conduct of Christians was to be made the standard of faith, instead of speculative opinions, all these divisions must cease in a moment; but while Christianity, or any part of it, is made to consist in speculation, or the observance of ceremonies, it is impossible there can be any end of sects and heresies. No opinion whatever is so absurd, but some people have pretended to argue in its defence; and no ceremony so insignificant, but it hath been explained and sanctified by hot-headed enthusiasts; and hence ceremonies, sects, and absurdities, have been multiplied without number, to the prejudice of society and of the Christian religion. This short relation of the rise of the Ascetic sect will also serve to account for the rise of any other; so that we apprehend it is needless to enter into particulars concerning the rest, as they all took their origin from the same general principle variously modified, according to the different dispositions of mankind.
The Ascetic sect began first in Egypt, from whence it passed into Syria and the neighbouring countries. At length it reached the European nations; and hence that train of austere and superstitious vows and rites which totally obscured, or rather annihilated, Christianity; the celibacy of the clergy, and many other absurdities of the like kind. The errors of the Ascetics, however, did not stop here. In compliance with the doctrines of some Pagan philosophers, they affirmed, that it was not only lawful, but even praiseworthy, to deceive, and to use the expedient of a lie, in order to advance the cause of piety and truth; and hence the pious frauds for which the church of Rome hath been so notorious, and with which she hath been so often and justly reproached.




As Christians thus deviated more and more from the true practice of their religion, they became more zealous in the external profession of it. Anniversary festivals were celebrated in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ, and of the effusion of the Holy Ghost on the apostles. Concerning the days on which these festivals were to be kept, there arose violent contests. The Asiatic churches in general differed in this point from those of Europe; and towards the conclusion of the second century, Victor bishop of Rome took it in his head to force the eastern churches to follow the rules laid down by the western ones. - This they absolutely refused to comply with: upon which Victor cut them off from communion with the church of Rome; though, by means of the intercession of some prudent people, the difference was made up for the present.

63. Contests concerning festivals.


64. Third century.


During most of the third century, the Christians were allowed to enjoy their religion, such as it was, without molestation. The emperors Maximinus and Decius, indeed, made them feel all the rigours of a severe persecution; but the reigns were short, and from the death of Decius to the time of Dioclesian the church enjoyed tranquillity. Thus vast multitudes were converted; but at the same time, the doctrine grew daily more corrupt, and the lives of professed Christians more wicked and scandalous. New ceremonies were invented in great numbers, and an unaccountable passion now prevailed for the oriental superstitions concerning demons, whence proceeded the whole train of exorcisms, spells, and fears for the apparition of evil spirits, which to this day are nowhere eradicated. Hence, also the custom of avoiding all connections with those who were not baptised, or who lay under the penalty of excommunication, as persons supposed to be under the dominion of some evil spirits. And hence the rigour and severity of that discipline and penance imposed upon those who had incurred, by their immoralities, the censures of the church. Several alterations were now made in the manner of celebrating the Lord’s supper. The prayers used on this occasion were lengthened, and the solemnity and pomp with which it was attended were considerably increased. Gold and silver vessels were used in the celebration; it was thought essential to salvation, and for that reason administered even to infants. Baptism was celebrated twice a year to such as, after a long course of trial and preparation, offered themselves candidates. [583] The remissions of sins was thought to be its immediate consequence; while the bishop, by prayer and imposition of hands, was supposed to confer those sanctifying gifts of the Holy Ghost that were necessary to a life of righteousness and virtue. An evil demon was supposed naturally to reside in every person, who was the author and source of all corrupt dispositions and unrighteous actions of that person. The driving out of this demon was therefore an essential requisite for baptism; and in consequence of this opinion, the baptized persons returned home clothed in white garments, and adorned with crowns, as sacred emblems, the former of their inward purity and innocence, and the latter of their victory over sin and the world. - Fasting began now to be held in more esteem than formerly. A high degree of sanctity was attributed to this practice; it was even looked upon as indispensably necessary, from a notion that the demons directed their force chiefly against those who pampered themselves with delicious fare, and were less troublesome to the lean and hungry who lived under the severities of a rigorous abstinence. - The sign of the cross also was supposed to administer a victorious power over all sorts of trials and calamities; and was more especially considered as the surest defence against the snares and stratagems of the malignant spirits: for which reason, no Christian undertook any thing of moment, without arming himself, as he imagined, with the power of this triumphant sign. The heresies which troubled the church during this century, were the Gnostics, (whose doctrines were new-modelled and improved by Manes, from whom they afterwards chiefly called Manicheans), the Hieracites, Noetians, Sabellians, and Novatians; for a particular account of which, see those articles.

65. Fourth century.


The fourth century is remarkable for the establishment of Christianity by law in the Roman empire; which, however, did not take place till the year 324. In the beginning of the century, the empire was governed by four chiefs, viz. Dioclesian, Maximian, Costantius Chlorus, and Galerius, under whom the church enjoyed a perfect toleration. Dioclesian, tho’ much addicted to superstition, had no ill-will against the Christians; and Costantius Chlorus, having abandoned polytheism, treated them with condescension and benevolence. This alarmed the Pagan priests, whose interests were so closely connected with the continuance of the ancient superstitions; and who apprehended, not without reason, that the Christian religion would at length prevail throughout the empire. To prevent the downfal of the Pagan superstition, therefore, they applied to Dioclesian and Galerius Cæsar, by whom a most bloody persecution was commenced in the year 303, and continued till 311. An asylum, however, was opened for the Christians in the year 304. Galerius having dethroned Dioclesian and Maximian, declared himself emperor in the east; leaving all the western provinces, to which great numbers of Christians resorted to avoid the cruelty of the former, to Costantius Chlorus. At length Galerius, being overtaken with an incurable and dreadful disease, published an edict ordering the persecution to cease, and restoring freedom to the Christians, whom he had most inhumanly oppressed for eight years. Galerius died the same year: and in short time after, Constantine the Great ascended the throne, the Christians were freed from any farther uneasiness, by his abrogating all the penal laws against them; and afterwards issuing edicts, by which no other religion than the Christian was tolerated throughout the empire.

66. Christianity established by Constantine.


67. Increase of its corruptions.


This event, however, so favourable to the outward peace of the church, was far from promoting its internal harmony, or the reformation of its leaders. The clergy, who had all this time been augmenting their power at the expence of the liberty of the people, now set no bounds to their ambition. The bishop of Rome was the first in rank, and distinguished by a sort of pre-eminency above the rest of the prelates. He surpassed all his brethren in the magnificence and splendor of the church over which he presided, in the riches of his revenues and possessions, in the number and variety of his ministers, in his credit with the people, and in his sumptuous and splendid manner of living. Hence it happened, that when a new pontiff was to be chosen by the presbyters and people, the city of Rome was generally agitated with dissensions, tumults, and cabals, which often produced fatal consequences. The intrigues and disturbances which prevailed in that city in the year 366, when, upon the death of Liberius, another pontiff was to be chosen in his place, are a sufficient proof of what we have advanced. Upon this occasion, one faction elected Damasus to that high dignity; while the opposite party chose Ursicinus, a deacon of the vacant church to succeed Liberius. This double election gave rise to a dangerous schism, and to a sort of civil war within the city of Rome; which was carried on with the utmost barbarity and fury, and produced the most cruel massacres and desolations. The inhuman contest ended in the victory of Damasus; but whether his cause was more just than that of Ursicinus, is not so easily determined.
Notwithstanding the pomp and the splendor which surrounded the Roman see, it is certain that the bishops of Rome had not yet acquired that pre-eminence of power and jurisdiction which they afterwards enjoyed. In the ecclesiastical commonwealth, indeed, they were the most eminent order of citizens; but still they were citizens as well as their brethren, and subject, like them, to the laws and edicts of the emperors. All religious causes of extraordinary importance were examined and determined, either by judges appointed by the emperors, or in councils assembled for that purpose; while those of inferior moment were decided in each district by its respective bishop. The ecclesiastical laws were enacted either by the emperor or councils. None of the bishops acknowledged that they derived their authority from the permission and appointment of the bishop of Rome, or that they were created bishops by the favour of the apostolic see. On the contrary, they all maintained that they were the ambassadors and ministers of Jesus Christ, and that their authority was derived from above. It must, however, be observed, that even in this century several of those steps were laid by which the bishops of Rome mounted afterwards to the summit of ecclesiastical power and despotism. This happened partly by the imprudence of the emperors, partly by the dexterity of the Roman prelates themselves, and partly by the inconsiderate [584] zeal and precipitate judgement of certain bishops. The imprudence of the emperor, and precipitation of the bishops, were remarkably discovered in the following event, which favoured extremely the ambition of the Roman Pontiff. About the year 372, Valentinian enacted a law, empowering the bishop of Rome to examine and judge other bishops, that religious disputes might not be decided by any profane or secular judges. The bishops assembled in council at Rome in 378, not considering the fatal consequences that must arise from this imprudent law both to themselves and to the church, declared their approbation in the strongest terms, and recommended the execution of it in their address to the emperor Gratian. Some think, indeed, that this law empowered the Roman bishop to judge only the bishops within the limits of his jurisdiction; others, that his power was given only for a certain time, and for a particular purpose. This last notion seems the most probable; but still this privilege must have been an excellent instrument in the hands of sacerdotal ambition.


68. Bishops of Rome and Constantinople rival each other.


By the removal of the seat of the empire to Constantinople, the emperor raised up, in the bishop of this new metropolis, a formidable opponent to the bishop of Rome, and a bulwark which threatened a vigorous opposition to his growing authority. For as the emperor, in order to render Constantinople a second Rome, enriched it with all the rights and privileges, honours and ornaments, of the ancient capital of the world; so its bishop, measuring his own dignity and rank by the magnificence of the new city, and its eminence as the residence of the emperor, assumed an equal degree of dignity with the bishop of Rome, and claimed a superiority over the rest of the episcopal order. Nor did the emperors disapprove these high pretensions, since they considered their own dignity connected in a certain measure with that of the bishop of their imperial city. Accordingly, in a council held at Constantinople in the year 381, by the authority of Theodosius the Great, the bishop of that city was, during the absence of the bishop of Alexandria, and against the consent of the Roman prelate, placed by the third canon of that council in the first rank after the bishop of Rome, and consequently above those of Alexandria and Antioch. Nectarius was the first bishop who enjoyed these new honours accumulated upon the see of Constantinople. His successor, the celebrated John Chrysostom, extended still farther the privileges of that see, and submitted to its jurisdiction all Thrace, Asia, and Pontus; nor were the succeeding bishops of that imperial city destitute of a servant zeal to augment their privileges and extend their dominion. By this unexpected promotion, the most disagreeable effects were produced. The bishops of Alexandria were not only filled with the most inveterate hatred against those of Constantinople, but a contention was excited between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople; which, after being carried on for many ages, concluded at last in the separation of the Greek and Latin churches.

69. Form of church government established by Constantine.


Constantine the Great, in order to prevent civil commotions, and to fix his authority on a stable and solid foundations, made several changes not only in the laws of the empire, but also in the form of the Roman government. And as there were many important reasons which induced him to suit the administration of the church to these changes in the civil constitution, this necessarily introduced among the bishops new degrees of eminence and rank. The four bishops, of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, were distinguished by a certain degree of pre-eminence over the rest. These four prelates answered to the four prætorian prefects created by Constantine; and it is possible, that even in this century they were distinguished by the Jewish title of patriarchs. After these followed the exarchs, who had the inspection of several provinces, and answered to he appointment of certain civil officers who bore the same title. In a lower class were the metropolitans, who had only the government of one province; under whom were the archbishops, whose inspection was confined to certain districts. In this gradation the bishops brought up the rear; but the sphere of their authority was not in all places equally extensive; being in some considerable ample, and in others confined within narrow limits. To these various ecclesiastical orders we might add that of the chorepiscopi, or superintendents of the country churches; but this last order was in most places suppressed by the bishops, with a design to extend their own authority, and enlarge the sphere of their power and jurisdiction. The administration of the church itself was divided by Constantine into an external and internal inspection. The latter which was committed to bishops and councils, related to religious controversies, the forms of divine worship, the offices of priests, the vices of the ecclesiastical orders, &c. The external administration of the church the emperor assumed to himself. This comprehended all those things which related to the outward state and discipline of the church; it likewise extended to all contests that should arise between the ministers of the church, superior as well as inferior, concerning their possessions, their reputation, their rights and privileges, their offences against the laws, &c. but no controversies that related to matter purely spiritual were cognizable by this external inspection. In consequence of this artful division of the ecclesiastical government, Constantine and his successor called councils, presided in them, appointed the judges of religious controversies, terminated the differences which arose between the bishops and the people, fixed the limits of the ecclesiastical provinces, took cognizance of the civil causes that subsisted between the ministers of the church, and punished the crimes committed against the laws by the ordinary judges appointed for that purpose; giving over all causes purely ecclesiastical to the bishops and councils. But this famous division of the administration of the church was never explained with sufficient accuracy; so that both in the fourth and fifth centuries, there are frequent instances of the emperors determining matters purely ecclesiastical, and likewise of bishops and councils determining matters which related merely to the external form and government of the church.

70. Scandalous lives of the clergy.


After the time of Constantine many additions were made by the emperors and others to the wealth and honours of the clergy; and these additions were followed by a proportionable increase of their vices and luxury, particularly among those who lived in great and opulent cities. The bishops, on the one hand, contended with each other in the most scandalous manner [585] concerning the extent of their respective jurisdictions; while, on the other, they trampled on the rights of the people, violated the privileges of the inferior ministers, and imitated in their conduct and in their manner of living the arrogance, voluptuousness, and luxury of magistrates and princes. This pernicious example was soon followed by the several ecclesiastical orders. The presbyters, in many places, assumed an equality with the bishops in point of rank and authority. Many complaints are also made by the authors of this century about the vanity and effeminacy of the deacons. Those more particularly of the presbyters and deacons who filled the first stations of these orders, carried their pretensions to an extravagant length, and were offended at the notion of being placed on an equality with the colleagues. For this reason they not only assumed the titles of arch-presbyters and arch-deacons, but also claimed a degree of authority and power much superior to that which was vested in the other members of their respective orders.

71. Contests between the bishops of Rome, and Constantinople.


In the fifth century, the bishops of Constantinople having already reduced under their jurisdiction all the Asiatic provinces, began to grasp at still further accessions of power. By the 28th canon of the council held at Chalcedon in 451, it was resolved, that the same rights and honours which had been conferred on the bishop of Rome were due to the bishop of Constantinople, on account of the equal dignity and lustre of the two cities in which these prelates exercised their authority. The same council confirmed also, by a solemn act, the bishop of Constantinople in the spiritual government of those provinces over which he had usurped the jurisdiction. Leo the Great, bishop of Rome, opposed with vehemence the passing of these laws; and his opposition was seconded by that of several other prelates. But their efforts were vain, as the emperors threw in their weight into the balance, and thus supported the decisions of the Grecian bishops. In consequence, then, of the decisions of this famous council, the bishop of Constantinople began to contend obstinately for the supremacy with the Roman pontiff, and to crush the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria. About the same time, Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem, attempted to withdraw himself and his church from the jurisdiction of the bishop of Cæsarea, and aspired after a place among the first prelates of the Christian world. The high degree of veneration and esteem in which the church of Jerusalem was held among all other Christian societies (on account of its rank among the apostolical churches, and its title to the appellation of mother-church, as having succeeded the first Christian assembly formed by the Apostles), was extremely favourable to the ambition of Juvenal, and rendered his project much more practicable than it would otherwise have been. Encouraged by this, and likewise by the protection of Theodosius the younger, this aspiring prelate not only assumed the dignity of patriarch of all Palestine, a rank which rendered him independent of all spiritual authority; but also invaded the rights of the bishop of Antioch, and usurped his jurisdiction over the provinces of Phœnicia and Arabia. Hence arose a warm contest between Juvenal and Maximus bishop of Antioch; which the council of Chalcedon decided, by restoring to the latter the provinces of Phœnicia and Arabia, and confirming the former in the spiritual possession of all Palestine and in the high rank which he had assumed in the church.
In 588, John, bishop of Constantinople, surnamed the Faster, either by his own authority or that of the emperor Mauritius, summoned a council at Constantinople to enquire into the an accusation brought against Gregory, bishop of Antioch; and upon this occasion assumed the title of œcumenical or universal bishop. This title had been formerly enjoyed by the bishops of Constantinople without any offence; but now, Gregory the Great, at that time bishop of Rome, suspecting that John was aiming at the supremacy over all the churches, opposed his claim with the greatest vigour. For this purpose he applied by letters to the emperor, and others, whom he thought capable of assisting him in his opposition; but all his efforts were without effect; and the bishops of Constantinople were allowed to enjoy the disputed title, though not in the sense which alarmed the Roman pontiff.
Gregory, however, adhered tenaciously to his purpose, raised new tumults and dissensions among the clergy, and aimed at nothing less than an unlimited supremacy over the Christian church. This ambitious design succeeded in the west; while, in the eastern provinces, his arrogant pretensions were scarcely respected by any but those who were at enmity with the bishop of Constantinople. How much the people were at this time deluded by the Roman pontiffs, appears from the expression of Ennodius, one of the flatterers of Symmachus (who was a prelate of but ambiguous same), that the Roman pontiff was constituted judge in the place of God, which he filled as the vicegerent of the Most High. On the other hand, it is certain, from a variety of the most authentic records, that both the emperors and the nations in general were far from being disposed to bear with patience the yoke of servitude which the see of Rome was arrogantly imposing on the whole church.


72. Origin of the supremacy of the Pope.


In the beginning of the seventh century, according to the most learned historians, Boniface III engaged Phocas, emperor of Constantinople, to take from the bishop of that metropolis the title of œcumenical or universal bishop, and to confer it upon the Roman pontiff; and thus was first introduced the supremacy of the pope. The Roman pontiffs used all methods to maintain and enlarge this authority and pre-eminence which they had acquired from one of the most odious tyrants that ever disgraced the annals of history.
In the eighth century, the power of the bishop of Rome, and of the clergy in general, increased prodigiously. The chief cause of this, besides the superstition of the people, was the method at that time used by the European princes to secure themselves on their thrones. All these princes being then employed either in usurpation or in self-defence, and the whole continent being in the most unsettled and barbarous condition, they endeavoured to attach warmly to their interests those whom they considered as their friends and clients. For this purpose they distributed among them extensive territories, cities, and fortresses, with the various rights and privileges belonging to them; reserving only to themselves the supreme dominion, and the military service of these powerful vassals. For this reason it was by the European princes reckoned a high instance of political prudence to distribute among the [586] bishops and other Christian doctors the same sort of donations which had formerly been given to their generals and clients. By means of the clergy, they hoped to check the seditious and turbulent spirits of their vassals; and to maintain them in their obedience by the influence and authority of their bishops, whose commands were highly respected, and whose spiritual thunderbolts, rendered formidable by ignorance, struck terror into the boldest and most resolute hearts.
This prodigious accession to the opulence and authority of the clergy in the west, began at their head, viz. the Roman pontiff; from whence it spread gradually among the inferior sacerdotal orders. The barbarous nations who had received the gospel, looked upon the bishop of Rome as the successor of their chief druid of high priest: and as this tremendous druid had enjoyed, under the darkness of Paganism, a kind of boundless authority; so these barbarous nations thought proper to confer upon the chief bishop the same authority which had belonged to the chief druid. The pope received these august privileges with great pleasure; and lest, upon any change of affairs, attempts should be made to deprive him of them, he strengthened his title to these extraordinary honours by a variety of passages drawn from ancient history, and, what is still more astonishing, by arguments of a religious nature. This swelled the Roman druid to an enormous size; and gave to the see of Rome that high pre-eminence and despotic authority in civil and political matters, that were unknown to former ages. Hence, among other unhappy circumstances, arose that monstrous and pernicious opinion, that such persons as were excluded from the communion of the church by the pontiff himself, or any of the bishops, forfeited thereby, not only their civil rights and advantages as citizens, but even the common claims and privileges of humanity. This horrid opinion, which was a fatal source of wars, massacres, and rebellions, without number, and which contributed more than any thing else to confirm and augment the papal authority, was borrowed by the clergy from the Pagan superstitions. - Though excommunication, form the time of Constantine the Great, was in every part of the Christian world attended with many disagreeable effects; yet its highest terrors were confined to Europe, where its aspect was truly formidable and hideous. It acquired also, in the eighth century, new accessions of terror; so that from that period the excommunication practised in Europe differed entirely from that which was in use in other parts of Christendom. Excommunicated persons were indeed considered in all places as objects of hatred both to God and man; but they were not, on that account, robbed of the privileges of citizens, nor of the rights of humanity; much less were those kings and princes, whom an insolent bishop had thought proper to exclude from the communion of the church, supposed to forfeit on that account their crowns or their territories. But from this century it was quite otherwise in Europe. Excommunication received that infernal power which dissolved all connections; so that those whom the bishops, or their chief, excluded from church communion, were degraded to a level with the beasts. The origin of this unnatural and horrid power was as follows. On the conversion of the barbarous nations to Christianity, these ignorant proselytes confounded the excommunication in use among Christians with that which had been practised in the times of Paganism, and which was attended with all the dreadful effects above mentioned. The Roman pontiffs, on the other hand, were too artful not to encourage this error; and therefore employed all sorts of means to gain credit to an opinion so well calculated to gratify their ambition, and to aggrandize in general the episcopal order.


73. He becomes a temporal prince.


The annals of the French nation furnish us with the following instance of the enormous power which was at this time vested in the Roman pontiff. Pepin, who was the mayor of the palace to Childeric III king of France, and who in the exercise of that high office was possessed in reality of the royal power and authority, aspired to the titles and honours of majesty also, and formed a scheme of dethroning his sovereign. For this purpose he assembled the states in 751; and though they were devoted to the interests of this ambitious usurper, they gave it as their opinion that the bishop of Rome was previously to be consulted whether the execution of such a scheme was lawful or not. In consequence of this, ambassadors were sent by Pepin to Zachary, the reigning pontiff, with the following question, "Whether the divine law did not permit a valiant and warlike people to dethrone a pusillanimous and indolent prince who was incapable of discharging any of the functions of royalty; and to substitute in his place one more worthy to rule, and who had already rendered most important services to the state?" The situation of Zachary, who stood much in need of the succours of Pepin against the Greeks and Lombards, rendered his answer such as the usurper desired; and when this favourable decision of the Roman oracle was published in France, the unhappy Childeric was stripped of his royalty without the least opposition; and Pepin, without the smallest resistance stepped into the throne of his master and his sovereign. This decision was solemnly confirmed by Stephen II the successor of Zachary; who undertook a journey into France in the year 754, in order to solicit assistance against the Lombards. The pontiff at the same time dissolved the obligation of the oath of fidelity and allegiance which Pepin had sworn to Childeric, and violated by his usurpation in the year 751; and to render his title to the crown as sacred as possible, Stephen anointed and crowned him, with his wife and two sons, for the second time. This complaisance of the pope was rewarded with the exarchate of Ravenna and all its dependencies, as we have already related. See Civil History, n° 44 supra; and History of Italy.

74. His power still increases.


In the succeeding centuries, the Roman pontiffs continued to increase their power by every kind of artifice and fraud which can dishonour the heart of man; and, by continually taking advantage of the civil dissensions which prevailed throughout Italy, France, and Germany, their influence in civil affairs arose to an enormous height. The increase of their authority in religious matters was not less rapid. The wisest and most impartial among the Roman Catholic writers acknowledge, that from the time of Louis the Meek the ancient rules of ecclesiastical government were gradually changed in Europe by the counsels and instigation of [587] the church of Rome, and new laws substituted in their place. The European princes suffered themselves to be divested of the supreme authority in religious matters, which they had derived from Charlemagne; the power of the bishops was greatly diminished, and even the authority of both provincial and general councils began to decline. The popes, elated with their overgrown prosperity, and become arrogant beyond measure by the daily accessions that were made to their authority, were eagerly bent upon establishing the maxim, that the bishop of Rome was constituted and appointed by Jesus Christ supreme legislator and judge of the church universal; and that therefore the bishops derived all their authority from him. This opinion which they inculcated with the utmost zeal and ardour, was opposed in vain by such as were acquainted with the ancient ecclesiastical constitutions, and the government of the church in the earlier ages. In order to gain credit to this new ecclesiastical code, and to support the pretensions of the popes to supremacy, it was necessary to produce the authority of ancient deeds, in order to stop the mouths of such as were disposed to set bounds to their usurpations. The bishops of Rome were aware of this; and as those means were looked upon as the most lawful that tended best to the accomplishment of their purposes, they employed some of their most ingenious and zealous partisans in forging conventions, acts of councils, epistles, and such like records, by which it might appear, that in the first ages of the church the Roman pontiffs were clothed with the same spiritual majesty and supreme authority which they now assumed. There were not, however, wanting among bishops some men of prudent and sagacity, who saw through these impious frauds, and perceived the chains that were forging both for them and the church. The French bishops distinguished themselves eminently in this respect: but their opposition was soon quashed; and as all Europe was sunk in the grossest ignorance and darkness, none remained who were capable of detecting these odious impostures, or disposed to support the expiring liberty of the church.

75. Extreme insolence of the popes.


This may serve as a general specimen of the character and behaviour of the pretended vicegerents of Jesus Christ to the 16th century. In the 11th century, indeed, their power seems to have risen to its utmost height. They now received the pompous titles of masters of the World, and Popes, i.e. universal fathers. They presided every where in the councils by their legates, assumed the authority of supreme arbiters in all controversies that arose concerning religion or church discipline, and maintained the pretended rights of the church against the encroachments and usurpations of kings and princes. Their authority, however, was confined within certain limits: for, on the one hand, it was restrained by sovereign princes, that it might not arrogantly aim at civil dominion; and on the other, it was opposed by the bishops themselves, that it might not arise to a spiritual despotism, and utterly destroy the privileges and liberty of synods and councils. From the time of Leo IX the popes employed every method which the most artful ambition could suggest to remove those limits, and to render their dominion both despotic and universal. They not only aspired to the character of supreme legislators in the church, to an unlimited jurisdiction over all synods and councils whether general or provincial, to the sole distribution of all ecclesiastical honours and benefices, as divinely authorised and appointed for that purpose; but they carried their insolent pretensions so far, as to give themselves out for lords of the universe, arbiters of the fate of kingdoms and empires, and supreme rulers over the kings and princes of the earth. Hence we find instances of their giving away kingdoms, and loosing subjects from their allegiance to their sovereigns; among which the history of John king of England is very remarkable. At last they plainly assumed the whole earth as their property, as well where Christianity was preached as where it was not; and therefore, on the discovery of America and the East Indies, the pope, by virtue of this spiritual property, granted to the Portuguese a right to all the countries lying eastward, and to the Spaniards all those lying to the westward, of Cape Non in Africa which they were able to conquer by force of arms; and that nothing might be wanting to complete their character, they pretended to be lords of the future world also, and to have a power of restraining even the divine justice itself, and remitting that punishment which the Deity hath denounced against the workers of iniquity.

76. Christianity greatly corrupted. Invocations of science, relics, purgatory, &c. introduced.


All this time the power of superstition reigned triumphant over those remains of Christianity which had escaped the corruptions of the first four centuries. In the fifth century began the invocation of the happy souls of departed saints. Their assistance was intreated by many fervent prayers, while none stood up to oppose this preposterous kind of worship. The images of those who during their lives had acquired a reputation of uncommon sanctity, were now honoured with a particular worship in several places; and many imagined that this drew into the images the propitious presence of the saints or celestial beings which they were supposed to represent. A singular and irresistible efficacy was attributed to the bones of martyrs, and to the figure of the cross, in defeating all the attempts of Satan, removing all sorts of calamities, and in healing not only the diseases of the body, but also those of the mind. The famous Pagan doctrine concerning the purification of the departed souls by means of a certain kind of fire, i.e. purgatory, was also confirmed and explained more fully than it had formerly been; and every one knows of how much consequence this absurd doctrine hath been to the wealth and power of the Romish clergy.



In the sixth century, Gregory the Great advanced an opinion, that all the words of the sacred writings were images of invisible and spiritual things; for which reason he loaded the churches with a multitude of ceremonies the most insignificant and futile that can be imagined; and hence arose a new and most difficult science, namely, the explication of these ceremonies, and the investigation of the causes and circumstances whence they derived their origin.
A new method was contrived of administering the Lord’s supper, with a magnificent assemblage of pompous ceremonies. This was called the canon of the mass. Baptism, except in cases of necessity, was administered only on the great festivals. An incredible number of temples were erected in honour of the saints.

77. Introduction of the mass.


The places set apart for public worship were also very numerous: but now they were considered as the means of purchasing protection [588] and favour of the saints; and the ignorant and barbarous multitude were persuaded, that these departed spirits defended and guarded against evils and calamities of every kind, the provinces, lands, cities, and villages in which they were honoured with temples. The number of these temples was almost equalled by that of the festivals, which seem to have been invented in order to bring the Christian religion as near the model of Paganism as possible.

78. Superstition still increases.


In the seventh century, religion seemed to be altogether buried under a heap of superstitious ceremonies; the worship of the true God and Saviour of the world was exchanged for the worship of bones, bits of wood (said to be of the cross), and the images of saints. The eternal state of misery threatened in Scripture to the wicked was exchanged for the temporary punishment of purgatory; and the expressions of faith in Christ by an upright and virtuous conduct, for the augmentation of the riches of the clergy by donations to the church and the observance of a heap of idle ceremonies. New festivals were still added; one in particular was instituted in honour of the true cross on which our Saviour suffered: and churches were declared to be sanctuaries to all such as fled to them, whatever their crimes might have been.
Superstition, it would seem, had now attained its highest pitch; nor is it easy to conceive a degree of ignorance and degeneracy beyond what we have already mentioned. If any thing can possibly be imagined more contrary to true religion, it is an opinion which prevailed in the eighth century, namely, that Christians might appease an offended Deity by voluntary acts of mortification, or by gifts and oblations lavished on the church; and that people ought to place their confidence in the works and merits of the saints. The piety in this and some succeeding ages consisted in building and embellishing churches and chapels; in endowing monasteries and basilics; hunting after the relics of saints and martyrs, and treating them with an absurd and excessive veneration; in procuring the intercession of the saints by rich oblation, or superstitious rites; in worshipping images, in pilgrimages to those places which were esteemed holy, particularly to Palestine, &c. The genuine religion of Jesus was now utterly unknown both to clergy and people, if we except a few of its general doctrines contained in the creed. In this century also, the superstitious custom of solitary masses had its origin. These were celebrated by the priests alone in behalf of souls detained in purgatory, as well as upon some other occasions. They were prohibited by the laws of the church, but proved a source of immense wealth to the clergy. Under Charlemagne they were condemned by a synod assembled at Mentz, as criminal effects of avarice and sloth. A new superstition, however, still sprung up in the tenth century. It was imagined, from Rev. xx. i. that Antichrist was to make his appearance on the earth, and that soon after the world itself would be destroyed. An universal panic ensued; vast numbers of people, abandoning all their connections in society, and giving over to the churches and monasteries all their worldly effects, repaired to Palestine, where they imagined that Christ would descend from heaven to judge the world. Others devoted themselves by a solemn and voluntary oath to the service of the churches, convents, and priesthood, whose slaves they became, in the most rigorous sense of that word, performing daily their heavy tasks; and all this from a notion that the supreme judge would diminish the severity of their sentence, and look upon them with a more favourable and propitious eye, on account of their having made themselves the slaves of his ministers. When the eclipse of the sun or moon happened to be visible, the cities were deserted, and their miserable inhabitants fled for refuge to hollow caverns, and hid themselves among the craggy rocks, and under the bending summits of steep mountains. The opulent attempted to bribe the saints and the Deity himself by rich donations conferred upon the sacerdotal tribe, who were looked upon as the immediate vicegerents of heaven. In many places, temple palaces, and noble edifices both public and private, were suffered to decay, nay, were deliberated pulled down, form a notion that they were no longer of any use, as the final dissolution of all things was at hand. In a word, no language is sufficient to express the confusion and despair that tormented the minds of miserable mortals upon this occasion. The general delusion was indeed opposed and combated by the discerning few, who endeavoured to dispel these terrors, and to efface the notion from which they arose in the minds of the people. But their attempts were ineffectual; nor could the dreadful apprehensions of the superstitious multitude be removed before the end of the century, and this terror became one of the accidental causes of the Crusades.
That nothing might now be wanting to complete that antichristian system of religion which had overspread all Europe, it was in the 11th century determined that divine worship should be celebrated in the Latin tongue, though now unknown throughout the whole continent. During the whole of this century, also, Christians were employed in the rebuilding and ornamenting their churches, which they had destroyed through the superstitious fear already taken notice of.
In much the same way with what is above related, or worse if possible, matters went on till the time of the reformation. The clergy were immersed in crimes of the deepest dye; and the laity, imagining themselves able to purchase pardon of their sins for money, followed the examples of their pastors without remorse.

79. Extravagant behaviour of the reputed saints.


The absurd principle formerly mentioned, namely, that religion consists in acts of austerity, and an unknown correspondence with God, produced the most extravagant and ridiculous behaviour in the devotees and reputed saints. They non only lived among the wild beasts, but also after the manner of these savage animals; they ran naked through the lonely deserts with a furious aspect, and all the agitation of madness and frenzy; they prolonged their wretched life by grass and wild herbs, avoided the sight and conversation of men, remained almost motionless in certain places for several years exposed to the rigour and inclemency of the seasons, and towards the conclusion of their lives shut themselves up in narrow and miserable huts; and all this was considered as true piety, the only acceptable method of worshipping the Deity and attaining a share in his favour. - But of all the instances of superstitious frenzy which disgraced the times we now speak of, none was held in higher veneration, or excited more the wonder of the multitude, [589] than that of a certain order of men who were called Stilites by the Greeks, and Sancti Columnares, or pillar Saints, by the Latins. These were persons of the most singular and extravagant turn of mind, who stood motionless on the tops of pillars expressly raised for this exercise of their patience, and remained there for several years amidst the admiration and applause of the stupid populace. The inventor of this strange discipline was one Simeon a Syrian, who began his follies by changing the agreeable employment of a shepherd for the austerities of a monkish life. He began his devotion on the top of a pillar six cubits high; but as he increased in sanctity, he also increased the height of his pillar, till, towards the conclusion of his life, he had got up on the top of a pillar 40 cubits in height. Many of the inhabitants of Syria and Palestine, seduced by a false ambition and an utter ignorance of true religion, followed the example of this fanatic, though not with the same degree of austerity. This superstitious practice began in the fifth century, and continued in the east for 600 years. The Latins, however, had too much wisdom and prudence to imitate the Syrians and Orientals in this whimsical superstition; and when a certain fanatic, or impostor, named Wulsilaicus, erected one of these pillars in the country of Treves, and proposed to live on it after the manner of Simeon, the neighbouring bishops ordered it to be pulled down.
The practices of austere worship and discipline in other respects, however, gained ground throughout all parts of Christendom. Monks of various kinds were to be found in every country in prodigious numbers. But though their discipline was at first exceedingly severe, it became gradually relaxed, and the monks gave into all the prevailing vices of the times. Other orders succeeded, who pretended to still greater degrees of sanctity, and to reform the abuses of the preceding ones; but these in their turn became corrupted, and fell into the same vices they had blamed in others. The most violent animosities, disputes, and hatred, also reigned among different orders of monks; and, indeed, between the clergy of all ranks and degrees, whether we consider them as classed in different bodies, or as individuals of the same body. To enter into a detail of their wranglings and disputes, the methods which each of them took to aggrandise themselves at the expence of their neighbours, and to keep the rest of mankind in subjection, would require many volumes. We shall only observe, therefore, that even an external profession of the austere and absurd piety which took place in the fourth and fifth centuries, continued gradually to decline. Some there were, indeed, who boldly opposed the torrent of superstition and wickedness which threatened to overflow the whole world: but their opposition proved fruitless, and all of these towards the era of the reformation had been either silenced or destroyed: so that, at that time, the pope and clergy reigned over mankind without controul, had made themselves masters of almost all the wealth in every country of Europe, and many truly be said to have been the only sovereigns; the rest of the human race, ever kings and princes, being only their vassals and slaves.

80. Rise of Mahometanism.


While the Popish superstition reigned thus violently in the west, the absurd doctrines of Mahomet overspread all the east. The rise of this impostor is related under the article Arabia. His successors conquered in order to establish the religion of their apostle; and thus the very name of Christianity was extinguished in many places where it had formerly flourished. The conquests of the Tartars having intermingled them with the Mahometans, they greedily embraced the superstitions of that religion, which thus almost entirely overspread the whole continents of Asia and Africa; and, by the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, was likewise established throughout a considerable part of Europe.

81. State of religion in the beginning of the 16 th century and since that time.


About the beginning of the 16th century, the Roman pontiffs lived in the utmost tranquillity; nor had they, according to the appearance of things at that time, any reason to fear an opposition to their authority in any respect, since the commotions which had been raised by the Waldenses, Albigenses, &c. were now entirely suppressed. We must, not however, conclude, from this apparent tranquillity and security of the pontiffs and their adherents, that their measures were universally applauded. Not only private persons, but also the most powerful princes and sovereign states, exclaimed loudly against the tyranny of the popes, and the unbridled licentiousness of the clergy of all denominations. They demanded, therefore, a reformation of the church in its head and members, and a general council to accomplish the necessary purpose. But these complaints and demands were not carried to such a length as to produce any good effect; since they came from persons who never entertained the least doubt about the supreme authority of the pope in religious matters, and who, of consequence, instead of attempting themselves to bring about that reformation which was so ardently desired, remained entirely inactive, or looked for redress to the court of Rome, or to a general council. But while the so much desired reformation seemed to be at such a great distance, it suddenly arose from a quarter whence it was not at all expected. A single person, Martin Luther, a monk of the order of St. Augustine, ventured to oppose himself to the whole torrent of papal power and despotism. This bold attempt was first made public on the 30th of September 1517; and notwithstanding all the efforts of the pope and his adherents, the doctrines of Luther continued daily to gain ground. Others, encouraged by his success, lent their assistance in the work of reformation; which at last produced new churches, founded upon principles quite different from that of Rome, and which still continue. But for a particular account of the transactions of the first reformers, the opposition they met with, and the final settlement of the reformed churches in different nations in Europe, see the articles Luther and Reformation.
The state of religion in other parts of the world seems as yet to be but little altered. Asia and Africa are sunk in the grossest superstitions either of the Mahommedan or Pagan kinds. The southern continent of America, belonging to the Spaniards, continues immersed in the most absurd superstitions of Popery. The northern continent, being mostly peopled with colonies from the Great Britain, professes the reformed religion. At the same time it must be owned, that some kind of reformation hath taken place even in Popery and Mahommedanism themselves. The popes have no [590] longer that authority over states and princes, even those most bigoted to Popery, which they formerly had. Neither are the lives either of the clergy or laity so corrupt as they were before. The increase of learning in all parts of the world has contributed to cause men open their eyes to the light of reason, and this hath been attended with a proportional decrease of superstition. Even in Mahommedan countries, that furious enthusiasm which formerly emboldened the inhabitants to face the greatest dangers, hath now almost vanished; so that the credit of Mahomet himself seems to have sunk much in the estimation of his followers. This is to be understood even of the most ignorant and bigoted multitude; and the sensible part of the Turks are said to incline much towards deism. With regard to those nations which still profess Paganism, the intercourse of Europeans with them is so small, that it is impossible to say any thing concerning them. As none of them are in a state of civilization, however, it may be conjectured, that their religion is of the same unpolished cast with their manners; and that it consists of a heap of barbarous superstitions which have been handed down among them from time immemorial, and which they continue to observe without knowing why or wherefore.


General definition | Civil history | Ecclesiastical History | Composition of history | Historical Chart