Ecclesiastical History

Alvan Lamson

Berry Street lecture, 1842


delivered before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 25, 1842


            The topic on which I am to address you, at this time, — "The Value of Ecclesiastical History to the Minister,” — is not one of my own selection, nor can I hope to invest it with any attractions. Ecclesiastical History, I believe, is not a favorite study with the profession, nor is there any department of human knowledge more neglected by the public. I am not much surprised that it is so. The subject, as usually treated, is dry, dull, and repulsive in the extreme. I can conceive of nothing more so. It is a study attended with peculiar difficulty on account of the obscurity of many of its records, often clouded by passion and prejudice, darkened by inconsistency, and too frequently bearing marks of credulity, carelessness, and fraud, which justify the remark of Jortin, that "Ecclesiastical History is a sort of enchanted land, where it is hard to distinguish truth from false appearances, and a maze which requires more than Ariadne's clue.”


            Then the topics to which it invites our attention are often of the most forbidding kind, or such as can awaken no interest in refined and cultivated intellects, —controversies about verbal distinctions and trifles, dialectic subtleties, and barren questions of scholastic theology and metaphysics. Besides, it introduces us to many disgusting, views of human nature. It presents this nature under some of its worst and most degrading aspects, actuated by the basest and most detestable passions, and exhibiting proofs of the melancholy perversion of all its finer sensibilities and instincts. It shows us the weakness and littleness of man under such vivid portraiture, and with such convincing evidence, as almost to make us forget, for the time, his greatness and his strength. It makes us acquainted with some of his saddest aberrations of intellect. As we turn over its pages, the eye is arrested by the superstition, which has paralyzed his faculties and narrowed and dwarfed his best virtues ; by his exclusiveness, his bigotry, his persecutions; the prostration of his understanding manifested in his mistaken piety, his adoration of objects more worthless than the divinities of Egypt, his veneration for relics, and faith in lying miracles, pilgrimages, indulgences, legends of pretended saints; his suppression of freedom of thought and inquiry; his pious forgeries; with the whole catalogue of usurpations, infallibilities, inquisitions, tyrannies, follies, contradictions, and absurdities, which, in past ages, have been incorporated with the religion of the cross, and have so disfigured and obscured it, that scarcely a trace of its heavenly origin and beauty has remained visible.


            It is not surprising that from such a picture men should have turned away in disgust, and believing the whole subject barren alike of rational use and interest, regarding the study of it as fitted neither to gratify a liberal curiosity, to purify the feelings, or add to the stores of intellectual affluence, they should have abandoned it for fields of inquiry and thought, which have opened more pleasing views and promised a richer harvest.


            The nature and intrinsic difficulty of the subject has not been all. Another cause of the indifference and disgust alluded to has been the tasteless manner in which Ecclesiastical History has usually been written, and the false principles which have governed the narrative. One of these is, that whatever makes for the advantage of believers is to be told, and if with a little rhetorical exaggeration, so much the better, and whatever tells against them is to be passed over in silence; that suppression of truth in such a case, far from being a blemish in a historian, is a virtue. It is needless to say that history, written on this principle, necessarily loses the greater part of its value, by ceasing to be just. The principle came in with Eusebius, the father of Ecclesiastical History, and he has had abundance of imitators, among whom one of the most conspicuous is the old English worthy, Cave, who has been justly censured for writing panegyrics under the name of history.


            Another principle, nearly allied to the former, has been, that nothing is too good to say of the orthodox, and nothing too bad to say of heretics. This principle and its applications are well illustrated by Le Clerc, in a lively, but somewhat sarcastic description of the manner in which a person, if he values his reputation for orthodoxy, or looks for promotion, must proceed in writing an Ecclesiastical History. He must, says be, "adhere inviolably to this maxim, that whatever can be favorable to heretics is false, and whatever can be said against them is true; while, on the other hand, all that does honor to the orthodox is unquestionable, and everything that can do them discredit is surely a lie. He must suppress too with care, or at least extenuate as far as possible, the errors and vices of those whom the orthodox are accustomed to respect, whether they know anything about them or no, and must exaggerate, on the contrary, the mistakes and faults of the heterodox to the utmost of his power. He must remember that any orthodox man is a competent witness against a heretic, and is to be trusted implicitly on his word, while a heretic is never to be believed against the orthodox, and has honor enough done him, in allowing him to speak against his own side.”[1]



            On these principles the greater part of Ecclesiastical History has been written. The old fathers so wrote perpetually, and the moderns have not been slow to profit by so worthy an example.


            But independently of the falsehood which has pervaded nearly all ecclesiastical writings, and to a greater extent, I believe, than any other, the needed helps have been wanting. We have no Christian histories which are good in other respects. The story of Christianity has not been written with the philosophical power, critical research, and discrimination, which mark other productions of the historic muse. Gibbon's chapters, exceptionable as they are, — in addition to his usual faults of style, reflecting everywhere the hues of his own mind, and tending to mislead by the false coloring and drapery, which he has artfully thrown over his pictures, which constitutes the great charge against him, rather than falsification of facts or insufficient research,— are still read with more interest than the work of any professedly Christian historian relating to the same period.

We possess no history of religion which is entitled to rank as a standard work. Nor is there any prospect of a speedy remedy. The task of writing a faithful Christian history, which shall prove ordinarily attractive, is a gigantic one, and requires a rare combination of qualities, and the study of a life for its successful execution. And out of Germany there are now no students of Ecclesiastical History. England is doing nothing in this department, in which she has never distinguished herself; and we, on this side the water, have scarcely yet begun to think of the subject. Little importance is attached to it in a preparation for the ministry; we have no teachers of it properly qualified, and few books, even had we the leisure and disposition to read them. Nor in fact does the state of society and general tone of thinking and feeling among us, at the present time, tend greatly to the encouragement of theological learning of any kind ; and our scholars are driven to seek laurels in other fields.


            Mere learning, indeed, I am not disposed to rate very high. To encumber one's mind with other men's notions, which are often mere lumber and rubbish, — not to separate, to combine, to originate, to put forth no intellectual power, is little better than solemn trifling.


            But to be a well informed theologian, it is not necessary that a person should be nothing beside. He may read to stimulate thought, and furnish it with materials to work upon, to add to his stores of illustration and intellectual wealth, just as he becomes an observer of nature or of man for the same purpose. It is not necessary that his mind should be crushed under the weight of other men's ideas, or that its power of forming new combinations, of creating, diversifying, and adorning, of rising to the highest heaven of invention, of pouring forth thoughts that breathe in words that burn, should be lost. The poet and the orator cull from all regions of nature and art, and make all history and science tributary to their purpose; still their thoughts are fresh and original; they are true makers, and enlarged culture adds compass, force, and beauty to their work, and enables them occasionally to gather flowers from the most unpromising soil.


            The Christian minister deals with the highest truths, with the deepest feelings, and most enduring interests of man. It is his province to lay his hand on that many-stringed instrument, the human heart, to control its various moods, and awaken all its sweeter melodies. He is brought into contact with all sorts of minds, and he must have in his armory weapons which will reach all; and it is difficult, therefore, to conceive how any species of knowledge, or any variety of intellectual culture, can be wholly useless to him.

But what is the special use to him of Ecclesiastical History? The reply to this question must depend very much on what he proposes to himself, and what it is desirable that he should be; — what should he his aim, and with what he should be satisfied.


            What does he look forward to? What should be his ambition? The mere preaching, from Sunday to Sunday, of discourses which shall prove acceptable to his hearers, which they shall be pleased even to commend, which they shall talk of as brilliant performances, or what is more, which shall really move their hearts for the time, and touch their consciences, which shall send them away thinking of themselves rather than of the preacher? Is this, together with a tolerably careful discharge of pastoral duty, his sole aim? Is he to look only at immediate and visible effects, or to measure his usefulness by the plaudits of an admiring audience?


            If so, a knowledge of Ecclesiastical History will be of little direct use to him, though to the faithful minister its indirect uses will be very considerable. It will not, however, help him much in the writing of sermons. A brilliant, glowing, and varied style, dealing somewhat largely in picturesque imagery, abounding in familiar comparisons, and powerfully appealing to the religious sentiment and to the feelings, and demanding no very profound thought on the part of the hearer, will always ensure a preacher popularity, for the time at least. Historical learning will add nothing to the effect of such a style. In this country, and among ourselves, the appeal to authority and prescription is not allowed, nor are historical subjects often treated in sermons. And as for illustration and ornament of discourse, modern researches and discoveries, and the observation of nature and life, furnish resources to which the preacher will resort with more advantage than to Christian antiquity, the study of which, after all, will afford him less aid in becoming a popular and effective pulpit orator, than an acquaintance with the current literature of the day. This reflects, in some measure, the tastes and feelings of the age, and of these he cannot safely be ignorant. He must know what men are thinking and doing, if he would be heard by them with patience. Without this knowledge he may come loaded with the richest spoils of the past; but he will speak in vain. Persons now care little for the past, except a few classical enthusiasts, who are fast dying out. We are too utilitarian and practical for that. A disquisition on the Tariff, or the latest political pamphlet, is more valued than the poems of Homer; and a spinning jenny would not be given for the recovery of the best ode of Pindar, or of Sappho, with all the lost books of the historians thrown in; and as to the musty tomes of the Fathers, it would be thought charity to give them a place among the dust and rubbish of a garret.


            In truth the most celebrated preachers have owed little to treasures of historical lore. It is true, some of them have been learned men, and their sermons have borne ample testimony to their erudition. But they were not indebted for their chief celebrity to this circumstance. Origen and Chrysostom, among the ancients, were both of them popular and admired preachers, and both learned men; but it was their ardor and rapidity of style, their originality, freshness, and vigor, united with great copiousness of thought and illustration, and not their erudition, which gave them the mastery over the spirits of their age.


            Of the giants of the English pulpit in the seventeenth century, whose writings are still occasionally read, Barrow, Taylor, and South, the two first were learned; but Barrow, with all his wonderful affluence and comprehensiveness, was regarded as a somewhat tedious preacher, and Taylor's learning, varied and beautiful as it is, must have appeared, I think, to his hearers, as it certainly appears to the reader of the present day, often misplaced, and must have impeded, rather than heightened, the effect of his naturally surpassing eloquence. The witty South, often found on the very verge of buffoonery, had little learning; but as a preacher, afforded, I believe, more delight in his day than either of the others.


            The French preachers, who at, or near the same period, in their sermons and funeral orations, carried the eloquence of the pulpit to a height it had never before attained, and which, allowing for national characteristics, it has seldom reached, and perhaps never surpassed, since, were, as a class, not remarkably learned; and an occasional passage from the Fathers, short and introduced without effort, was all which, in general, attested their familiarity with the writings of ecclesiastical antiquity.


            Luther was far less learned, certainly in the earlier part of his career, as well in Ecclesiastical History as in the writings of classical antiquity, than Erasmus; yet his earnest, but rude and artless eloquence struck a chord which vibrated through all Christendom. In his attacks on established errors he made at first very little use of history. He employed the strong language of common sense, and his appeals were effectual, and shook to their centre the citadels of canonized superstition.


            If we turn to examples of more recent times, and among ourselves, the authors of the most admired productions of the pulpit will tell you, that in the composition of their sermons they have derived little or no help from Ecclesiastical History, that it has been to them a barren field, that they have never loved, nor cultivated it, that they have never brought off from it a solitary flowret that was pleasing to the eye, or the least fruit that was inviting to the taste.


            Nor is there anything singular in this. It is so with regard to ethical learning. A person may know little of ethics as a science, and may be wholly unacquainted with its history; he may be ignorant of the systems of the various authors who have written upon it, in ancient and modern times; yet the value of his preaching, viewed merely as preaching, may not be impaired. He may stand up in the pulpit and utter strains of the most thrilling eloquence, and the consciences of his hearers may bear testimony to the fidelity of his appeals. So far as his public addresses are concerned, he may be a very exciting and successful preacher, may have the power of a Whitfield to rouse attention, and stir up the soul to its inmost depths, though he may never have read a line of such writers as Butler, Hutcheson, Wollaston, or Price, or Smith, or Kant, or Jouffroy. He may have searched no further nor deeper for the foundation of morals, and sanction of morality, than the will of God revealed in the Bible, and may have no more theology than is needful to enable him to call Tillotson an atheist; yet he may for the time preach with as much effect, and to a common audience, with a great deal more, than a Bossuet or a Taylor.


            But is it well that he should be thus ignorant, or that he should be ignorant of Christian History? The question is one I need not ask. It is surely not desirable that a minister should limit his acquisitions to the knowledge he can turn to immediate account. I am not much of a utilitarian in my views on this subject. Or if I am a utilitarian, I would not confine my regard to mere present and palpable utility. I think we should all look beyond immediate and temporary effects—a mere ephemeral popularity. We should look to a permanent influence and usefulness. There is nothing which will sooner degrade the ministry than the resting content with just such a measure of attainments, as the present exigency demands, or as is necessary to please for the moment the popular ear, though the temptation to this was never greater than now.


            There are certain intellectual qualifications which it is important the clergy should possess, which will not benefit them directly and immediately, except so far as they are in themselves sources of gratification, and a pleasing self-consciousness, but which are necessary to secure to them the permanent respect of the community. They add to the high standing of the minister in society. They are not merely an ornament of the profession, but they dignify and elevate it, and in the end augment its power and usefulness. All intellectual accomplishments contribute to this effect; and for this reason, if for no other, a liberal and wide culture of the faculties is, I conceive, to be recommended to the ministers of religion.


            If this liberal culture be desirable in the minister, it would be superfluous, as it seems to me, to offer any argument to prove that the study of Ecclesiastical History should not be neglected. Of this a minister cannot with propriety be ignorant. From its very intimate connection with his profession, he may be expected to know something more about it than other well educated men in the community, just as the physician or lawyer is expected to be better acquainted than others, not simply with the practice of law or medicine, but with the past history of the art or science, —its fountains, growth, and the various revolutions it has passed through. Such knowledge may not perceptibly help their business, may not procure the lawyer more briefs, or the physician more patients; yet they rank higher in our esteem, and must rank higher in their own for possessing it, and we feel that the want of it is a blemish. Just so for the minister to be ignorant of the history of the religion he professes to teach, its character and fortunes in past ages, the phases it has assumed, the effects it has wrought on society, and the modifications it has itself received from the progress of intellect and the agency of human passions, must be felt to be a defect. It is discreditable to him. It involves, to say the least, a sort of indecorum. It does not, to use the old phraseology, harmonize with our idea of the nature and fitness of things; with our abstract conception of what a minister should be.


            But to descend from this position, which may be thought to savor a little too much of idealism for the present day, and to be seeking a footing in the clouds, (though such notions were current when I was young,) there are, if I mistake not, indirect, but substantial and positive benefits, which the minister will derive from the study of Christian history.


            An acquaintance with a few traditionary dogmas and a little sectarian divinity have been all, which have frequently, heretofore, until within a short period, been thought essential to the education of a preacher; I do not say universally, for there have been honorable exceptions. For some time past more liberal ideas have been gaining ground; but there is still room for advance. The character of the times, and the condition of knowledge and progress of intellect in other departments of human inquiry, and the direction which speculative minds are taking, are certainly such as require attention to the state of theological science, and should keep the mind alive to the importance of historical research. There are demands of the age which must be met, questions of deep import, some notice of which must be taken, which it will not do always to pass over in silent contempt, and a reply to which requires us to go back to the first elements of belief and knowledge in the human soul, to obviate objections and put an end to doubt.


            But independently of all considerations of this sort, and of all questions relating to the historical basis of Christianity, and its defense, the minister has no lack of motives to the study of the history of his religion. It is a history intrinsically important; so far as the subject, — the development of man's spiritual nature, during a period which has witnessed the extinction of ancient civilization, and the reorganization Of society in modern times, — is concerned, the noblest of all histories. And putting the study of it on the basis of a comprehensive utility merely, it has strong claims on his attention. A knowledge of it may not tell immediately, but it will tell in the course of a life of ordinary length. Occasions will occur on which its uses will be manifest.


            The minister must contend for the simplicity that is in Christ. He must preach the pure truths uttered by the founder of his religion. He must endeavor to form a just conception of these truths; he must separate them from human additions; he must labor to disengage them from the mass of error, by which they have been overshadowed and darkened in past ages. In doing' this he must become a reformer. He must remold the Christianity of his day, and bring it back to its original pure elements, and thus in some measure take the attitude of a controvertist. He must combat false doctrines grown venerable by age. He must lay his hand, gently but firmly, on time-hallowed associations, and expose abuses sanctioned by prescription, and the authority of some as great names as have ever adorned humanity. This is the least pleasant part of his duty, but it is sometimes necessary.


            In performing this task he will be compelled to make use of the lights of Ecclesiastical History, that part of it particularly denominated in modern times the history of dogmatic theology, or history of the doctrines of Christianity. He must trace the origin and progress of the corruptions, under which the simple truths of the gospel have been buried and well nigh extinguished. He must point out their source in human weakness, ambition, and selfishness, in superstition and false philosophy, in the modes of thinking foreign from the principles of the religion of the humble Nazarene, which the converts from paganism, from time to time, took along with them in passing over to Christianity, and unconsciously blended with the new faith; for they could not be expected at once to emancipate themselves from all their former modes of thought, and all the philosophical notions in which they had been educated. Such a result was not possible.


            The advocate for the simple truths of the Gospel will find it indispensable sometimes to adopt this method, in order to meet the objections of his adversaries, for error is ever fond of entrenching itself behind the defenses of antiquity, and the general belief of the human mind. To illustrate what I mean by an example, the Trinitarian asserts that his faith is old, that it was from the beginning, that it has always been the faith of Christians, and this fact, he argues, affords a strong presumption that it was taught by Jesus and his Apostles; for bow else, he asks, can we account for its early and extensive prevalence? Now this objection is certainly entitled to a reply, and the answer must be sought in history. From this it is to be shown that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the doctrine formed no part of the belief of the primitive church; that it is clearly to be referred to the learned converts from heathenism; that the first distinct traces of it, found in any Christian writing of acknowledged antiquity and genuineness, appear in the Dialogue and Apologies of Justin Martyr, the earliest of those converts of whom we have any remains; that it had its origin in that confused mixture of the philosophy and traditions of nearly all nations, which, united with a spirit of allegorizing, and strongly tinctured with oriental mysticism, was taught in the schools of the Alexandrine Platonists in the second and third centuries, and with them passed into the Christian Church, where it received from time to time various modifications and additions, till it assumed the form, very nearly, which it has since retained.


            I am stating nothing which is not familiar to you. I take this instance simply as illustrating one of the uses to which a knowledge of Ecclesiastical History may be appropriated. It assists us to explain other errors which have cast a dark shade over the religion of the Son of Mary. Thus we trace the doctrines of modern Calvinism back to the stern old African, the bishop of Hippo, who found the germs of them in Manicheism, of which he was for some years a disciple, before be became an orthodox Christian, and of which he always seems to have retained a certain taint.


            The argument against Popery which proves most embarrassing to its supporters, if I may be pardoned an allusion to the subject here, is the historical one, because Popery ensconces itself in what it considers as the strong hold of tradition. The Oxford controversy is but a form of the Popish, and the combatants use weapons drawn from the armory of ancient Christian history. This controversy does not disturb us, in this vicinity, but there are parts of our country in which its influence is sensibly felt. It has rendered arrogant pretensions more arrogant; it has relighted a spirit of bigotry, and emboldened intolerance and exclusiveness.


            A writer in a recent number of one of our Literary Quarterlies, circulated somewhat extensively, I believe, and enjoying some reputation, I allude to the New York Review,[2] expressly, and in so many words, condemns the right ("fancied” right he calls it) of private judgment and religious freedom, pronounces the principle of the Congregationalists "arrogant dogma,” and contends strongly for the necessity of an authoritative church, and an authoritative interpreter of Scripture. These views connect themselves with the claims of Prelacy and the doctrine of apostolical succession, which have been of late urged with such frequency and obtrusiveness in portions of our country, from the pulpit, and in the leading Episcopal Journals, several of which are pledged to the support of the doctrines of the Oxford divines, that it has been found necessary to take the field, and already a goodly sized octavo, manifesting no little industry and research, has appeared, printed in this city, though written by a Presbyterian of the South, in refutation of these, as we are accustomed to consider, perfectly absurd and obsolete claims.[3] The whole constitutes a phenomenon of little importance in itself, but yet, as Carlyle would say, noteworthy in this our nineteenth century, and in our republican America.


            These are instances in which the uses of an acquaintance with Ecclesiastical History are manifest. True, the chief business of a minister should not be controversy. He may seldom be called to engage in it, perhaps never. He may preach what he conceives to be the unadulterated truths of Christianity, and never touch, if he can help it, on sectarian distinctions and differences. Still it is desirable that he should be able to defend his opinions when attacked. He will have more confidence in himself, and feel more at ease, and more self-possessed, in consequence of his familiarity with the past history of his religion, with the mode of its reception and administration by various minds and by different classes of Christians, with the foreign influences to which it has been subjected, and the traces they have left upon it, and which it still retains.


            None of this knowledge will be superfluous, and occasions may occur in which the want of it would be felt as a serious misfortune. Old controversies are from time to time revived, and new ones are continually springing up, and in neither of them will the lights of the past be wholly useless.


            A quarter of a century ago we were in the midst of an earnest controversy on nearly all the great questions which have divided the theological world, — the Trinity, Calvinism, and the power of the churches. And the controversy on some of these points, though the language we sometimes hear would lead us to the contrary supposition, still continues, and will long continue, where Unitarian societies exist in the bosom of orthodox communities, and in parts of our land remote from us, and well informed champions of truth, as well as eloquent preachers, are needed on all our frontier posts. The battle for liberty is not yet ended, — the time of protest is not yet past, nor will soon he past, beyond the boundaries of this little peninsula and its immediate vicinity, if even here.


            The advocates of religious inquiry and intellectual freedom are as yet by no means authorized to count on their enemies as finally extirpated, but must still sleep on their arms, ready to seize them, whenever the trumpet shall call, and go forth to do battle valiantly in the name of the God of truth. Surely we may say in regard to truth and freedom, that knowledge is power; it puts the weapons into our hands ; and if we resign them, the Philistines will be upon us, and the ark will yet be taken captive, and as a sect, or class of Christians, we shall be swept, not from this land merely, but from the earth; I say not within twenty years, if I may allude to the language of last evening,[4] but certainly in the end. The spirit of orthodoxy has continued the same from the days of Athanasius and Augustine to the present time, only occasionally modified by the protests and arguments of the friends of freedom and a more rational theology; and it is not now going to surrender without a contest. It is not yet in its death struggle. With comparatively few exceptions, if any, it yet closes its pulpits against you, and denounces you, and despises your sympathy, and laughs at your projects of amalgamation, and will continue to do so for a long time yet to come. Orthodoxy is not yet dead nor dying. Let it alone, cease to protest against it, and it will trample you in the dust, or drag you in triumph at its chariot wheels, before the end of fifty years. Such are the lessons taught us by the last fifteen centuries.


            We may think that there is no need of an appeal to history on questions of the kind alluded to, that the instinctive convictions of our own minds are enough to settle them. But we cannot always choose our weapons of attack and defense. There are some who will be embarrassed by the historical argument, and there are those who will insist on urging it, because with them authority is everything; and we must meet them on their own ground. It is often so in religious controversy. We are called on to prove that the sun shines in a clear day at noon, that black is black, and white is white. Melancholy enough, to be sure; but there is no help for it. It is not always sufficient to say that such a doctrine, or such a position, is intrinsically absurd or incredible. It may appear so to us, but not to another, and he will be convinced only when he sees the supports on which he rests sink under the blows of the adversary. Luther, as I said, began the Reformation without a knowledge of Ecclesiastical History, and with an appeal only to common sense; but in its progress he was compelled to call in the aid of historical learning, which he diligently sought, and which he wielded with great effect, beating down by means of it the last strong hold of the Potentate on the Seven Hills.


            But it is not in connection with the controversies which have agitated, or which may hereafter agitate, the church, that the Christian minister will take most pleasure in reading the past history of his religion, or will find the study of it of most value to him. He will read it that he may derive from it new impressions of the worth of Christianity itself, — that he may learn its power from its beautiful effects.


            I have said that Ecclesiastical History exhibits human nature under some of its worst and most degrading aspects. It also exhibits it under some of its noblest. It is a history of the religious sentiment, or capacity, and its manifestations for a succession of ages, and in connection with the highest revelations of truth and the law of love ever made to the world. As such it must not merely afford pleasure, but furnishes a subject by the study of which the teacher of religion especially can hardly fail to profit, and profit greatly.


            How much has Christianity done for the world. How has it connected itself with all the deep workings of the human intellect. What joy and hope has it lighted up in the breasts of millions of our sinning and sorrowing race. What power of endurance, of self-sacrificing benevolence, and sympathy has it awakened. What wonderful transformations has it wrought. What new life has it infused into the cold, dead heart. How has it stirred the conscience, and by its trumpet tones roused the spiritual slumberer. It has bent over the couch of the sick and dying, and stood by the martyr's stake. It has planted truths in the heart,—soul-awakening, hope-inspiring truths,— truths which address the spirit in language suited to all its varying moods of joy and sorrow, of devout aspiration and penitence,— truths which survive amid all changes, and of the value of which the experience of life, and gradual falling away of our earthly hopes, only serve to produce a new and growing conviction. The words of Christ uttered on the hill-sides of Judea, eighteen hundred years ago, in the streets, in the temple, in the dwellings of his friends, in Gethsemane, and on Calvary, — how wonderful their power! The seed, which was sown in darkness and amid tears, has sprung up and grown, and to multitudes of earthly pilgrims has yielded the healing fruits of life. Look for the greenest spots in the past, you find them where Christianity has been. When there has been elsewhere nothing on which the eye could rest with delight, but all has been moral barrenness, and deformity, and death, Christianity, like a beneficent stream, has flowed on, and along its secret, winding channel, on either side, verdure has sprung up to fringe its banks, and flowers have scented the air, and birds have sung in the branches.


            This power of Christianity, visible in its effects, it will become the most pleasing part of the employment of the minister of religion to trace, and he will derive benefit from the employment in different ways. There are, I suppose, in the life of every clergyman, moments of weariness and despondency, when the mind needs the lessons of the past to dissipate its gloom, and infuse into it new energy and hope. And it will not go back in vain to visit the mouldering relics and venerable images of the faith of former ages. It will not only come home refreshed and invigorated for the moment, but it will bring away something by which it may be rendered better and happier forever after. The imagination will be kindled, and the affections elevated, and the soul will be enriched with new germs of thought. As the ancient Christians visited the tombs of the martyrs, not only that they might honor the memory of the departed, but that they might derive courage and a quickening influence from meditating on their virtues, their patience, and their crown, so the preacher of religion will sometimes make excursions into the past, that by the monuments of its piety, which will everywhere greet the eye, as he travels on, his heart may be strengthened, and his devotions grow more warm, and the fruits of his ministry yet more abound.


            Again, the preacher must possess a knowledge of human nature and to obtain this knowledge perfectly, I hardly need say, that he must not only observe society as it exists around him; — "catch the living manners as they rise,” — but he must penetrate the domain of by-gone ages. He must call up the dead from their tombs, and again live over their lives with them, trace their passions as they exhibited themselves on the theatre of the world, and have been preserved in the pages of the faithful chronicler. The history of religion is the history of human nature, under relations which lead to some of the most extraordinary developments of character. Nowhere are the inconsistencies of man, the warring elements of his nature, the divine and the devilish in him, more strikingly manifested than in his religious history. What grotesque shapes do his virtues often put on, and to what miserable sophistry do his passions and vices frequently resort. What strange unions and contrasts are witnessed,— the true and the false, the beautiful and the deformed; springing up side by side,— worthless and parasitical plants attaching themselves to the noblest productions of the soil, sapping their vigor, and overlaying and crushing them by their pernicious growth.


            Whatever is most singular and fantastic in man, as well as what is most constant and uniform, exhibits itself in connection with religion. Over his religious history we alternately weep and smile, feel reverence, or pity, or disgust, and without an acquaintance with it, our knowledge of him must be very imperfect, and imperfect in those very points in regard to which it most concerns us, as Christian ministers, to know him,— his susceptibility of religious influences and his conduct under them.


            Such are some of the general uses of Ecclesiactical History to the minister. There are others which are more specific, one or two of which I will endeavor to illustrate by examples.


            One of the effects of reading the history of Christianity should be to teach us not to dogmatize,—not to attach too much importance to difference of opinion, or make our own intellects and theological attainments a Procrustes-bed, by which to measure those of all others. This lesson we derive not simply from the evils of bigotry and exclusiveness, of which it furnishes so many revolting pictures, but, what is more pleasing, from examples of liberty, —from the latitude of opinion and of discussion, which was allowed in what are usually considered as among the purest and best ages of Christianity. This liberty (of individual opinion) continued in the church, though not without being subject to occasional attack, for about three centuries. Origen and his school furnish the most striking illustrations and most splendid examples of it. The fame of this Father was great in the East, and the influence of his name and writings secured the existence of freedom of thought and speculation in the church, long after it would otherwise have become extinct. With the decline of his school in the East, and the triumph of the Athanasians and Augustinian in the West, all liberty of opinion died out, and the world was reduced to a state of spiritual bondage, from which it is yet but partially emancipated.


            Of the latitude of thought and discussion, allowed in those times, I will produce two or three specimens, which contrast strangely with the narrowness of subsequent ages.

I will take as my first the manner in which the Fathers of the period alluded to were accustomed to express themselves in regard to the Old Testament writings.


            I will not insist on the example of the Manicheans, because they were reputed heretics, though on certain difficult points they scarcely expressed themselves with more freedom than the Fathers deemed orthodox, and there were among them some of the best and noblest spirits and finest geniuses of the age; and many of them possessed no ordinary degree of critical sagacity and skill. They were among the Spiritualists of the day, and the Materialism of the Old Testament was one of the circumstances which inspired in their minds a disgust for it. It contains, say they, no revelation of eternal life, and the temporal promises, of which it is full, are suited only to nurture men's worldly and sensual propensities. They complained, too, that the ideas of the Deity taught in the sacred books of the Jews were impure, and in some respects false and injurious to, the Divine Being; that the morality of these books was imperfect; that the Mosaic worship and ceremonies were unworthy of God ; the history of the Creation and Fall, false and absurd; and finally, that it is not true that the Hebrew prophets uttered any predictions of the Christian Savior.[5]


            These were Manichean opinions. But on several of the points involved some of the most eminent of the Fathers, whose orthodoxy passed unquestioned in their day, were almost equally latitudinarian.


            How, ask the Manicheans, are we to attribute anger, revenge, jealousy, repentance, and similar passions and affections, to the one infinite and all-perfect Being? How could an evil spirit come from him, the source of all good, to trouble Saul? How could he command the Hebrews, under a false pretence, to borrow and carry off the jewels and vestments of the Egyptians; or to massacre the inhabitants of Canaan without distinction of age or sex? A multitude of other difficulties were suggested by free inquirers and heretics. And how did Christians treat them? There were some, it appears, who, to dispose of all objections at once, contended for the right of purifying the record, on the ground that Moses did not write the law, that he only delivered his precepts orally to the chiefs of the people, and that, both before and after they were reduced to writing, some things were changed, and not a few were added, and falsehood became blended with truth.[6]


            I am not aware that this hypothesis was assumed by any of the more eminent of the Fathers, certainly not without very important modifications. But Origen expresses views which, traced to their consequences, will to some appear little less startling, when he says, speaking of the Jewish laws, that if we take the language in which they are delivered in its literal sense, or as it is commonly understood, and as the Jews interpret it, that is, if we do not explain it by allegory, or some rule of mystical interpretation, he must blush to own that God had given such laws to the Israelites; that the laws of the Romans, the Athenians, and the Lacedemonians were more rational.[7] This same Father, who was the great doctor of the East, and the flail of heretics, as he was called, pronounces the Mosaic account of the Creation and Paradise, taken to the letter, too absurd for belief. "What man of sense,” says he, "will ever persuade himself that there was a first, a second, and a third day, each having its morning and evening, when there was neither sun, moon, nor stars? And who so foolish as to believe that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden, and placed in it a tree of life, a visible and palpable tree, so that he who should eat of its fruit, with his bodily teeth, would receive life?”[8] The account of the Temptation and Fall is with him a sublime apologue.


            The severe, the rigid Augustine treads in his steps. Writing against the Manicheans, after he had forsaken their ranks, he does not think it safe to insist on the literal and historical meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis, lest in so doing he should attribute to them a sense unworthy of God and offensive to piety.[9] To preserve the credit of Moses and his history, he says, we must have recourse to allegory and enigmatical interpretations, there being no other escape from impiety and profaneness. Truly this, as it has been said, is virtually to abandon both Moses and the Old Testament, though such was not the good Father's intention; nor was it Origen’s.


            Such freedom was then taken with the Mosaic narrative. Yet all this and much more passed without censure, such was the liberty of speculation and inquiry in those days. No one was thought any the worse Christian for so expressing himself.

Take one or two other points; the question of human inspiration, for example. On this subject the language of the Fathers is not very precise, and it is difficult always to ascertain with certainty their meaning; but it is easy to see that they did not confine inspiration within any very narrow limits. They attribute it, in fact, to every pure mind, heathen and Christian.


            The universality of divine illumination, in some sense, indeed, is an old doctrine, and was long anterior to Christianity. The Christian Fathers held the same, somewhat modified by Jewish ideas. They spoke of the human reason as an emanation of the Divinity, and a partaker of the divine reason, or logos which lightens every man that comes into the world. So far did the Fathers go on this subject, as almost totally to annihilate the distinction between natural religion and revealed. Justin Martyr says, that Christ was "in part known to Socrates,”[10] because he is that light which is in all men. He speaks of him as the logos, or "reason of which the whole human family participates.”[11] "All who have lived according to reason,” he tells us, "were Christians, though reputed atheists, as Socrates, Heraclitus,”[12] and others; and he says the same of those then living, "they are Christians,” — a very liberal definition, certainly, liberal enough, I suppose, to satisfy any one of us.


            This reason, or logos, the same, he says, which inspired the Jewish prophets, and imparted to the Gentile philosophers whatever right notions they possessed of God and of human nature, in the relation in which it stands to him, Justin calls the "seed of reason implanted in the whole race of man,” the "implanted,” or inborn, "reason,” — "the divine seminal reason,” — "whence come the germs of truth to all.”[13]


            The Gentiles enjoyed the higher as well as the lower, or common inspiration. There were genuine prophets among them. So taught Justin, and generally the more eminent of the early Fathers. Nor did they hesitate to assert, what indeed was implied in their views of the inspiring reason, that Christianity was as old as the creation.[14]


Again, in regard to the nature of God, history shows us that the early Christian Fathers were as far from being unanimous as we moderns are. The philosophical converts to Christianity appear to have retained, in a great measure, the views of their heathen masters on the subject. The corporeity of God was openly asserted.


            It is confidently affirmed, as you know, that Descartes was the first who distinctly taught the strict immateriality of the thinking principle. Before his time, it has been said, that all, whether philosophers or theologians, regarded the soul as having body and extension. They attributed them to God himself. Parts of this statement seem a little too broad.[15] Augustine at least, among the Fathers, would appear to have been an exception. Yet certain it is, that the notion of a purely immaterial substance was not familiar to the ancient Christians.[16] Tertullian believed God to possess body and form,[17] and so did many others, perhaps most Christians of his time. Melito wrote a treatise, now lost, with the title, "God is Corporeal.” Origen, in some parts of his writings at least, goes with Tertullian. The term incorporeal, he observes, is not found in the Scriptures.[18] Those passages in the Bible which teach that God is a spirit, so far from proving that he is absolutely incorporeal, in the opinion of some of that age, proved directly the reverse. The observation of the Saviour, "God is a spirit,” is one of the passages they quote to prove him corporea1,[19] for however inconsistent with the modern idea, it was then believed that all spirit had body and shape,—length, breadth, and height,— not body composed of gross, earthly particles, but of a subtle, attenuated substance, somewhat resembling air, ether, or fire. Such was all spirit. Such a substance was God, infinitely extended, according to some, while human souls and angels had only finite extension.[20] The difficulty of forming a conception of a purely spiritual substance, which the Cartesians acknowledged, and which, I suppose, all, who have speculated or thought much on the subject, must have felt, seems to have presented itself to the minds of the Fathers, and to have induced them the more readily to clothe the Deity with an etherial and finely attenuated body.


            I state these facts out of many others, which might be presented, as illustrating the free range of opinion and speculation, which was allowed among the Christian Fathers of what are generally termed the best ages of the Church. I have purposely selected those which have a bearing, more or less direct, on the speculations which now engage the attention of theologians, both as possessing more interest for us at the present time, and as showing that the difficulties, which now perplex the inquirer, are such as have been felt in other ages, and which, at certain periods of the world, and in certain intellectual states of society, are reproduced, and probably will always continue to be. They are not new, — difficulties which have recently sprung up. The question of inspiration has always been an embarrassing one; and the nature of the Divine Being has always presented difficulties, one of the chief of which is, to keep the middle point, if we can, between Anthropomorphism, on one side, and a sort of Pantheism, or impersonal Deity, amounting to little more than a metaphysical abstraction, on the other. Towards one or the other of these extremes the human mind has always oscillated.


            I know of no new facts, or objections, which have been recently presented on subjects of theological inquiry. New theories there have been; for example, theories of the Life of Jesus, and the origin of bur present Gospels. But the objections and difficulties, which these theories are meant to meet and obviate, are all, I believe, old. There is scarcely one of them, indeed, which belongs even to modern times. Most of them belong to a very remote period of Christian antiquity.


            As to novel speculations, or such as pass for novel, but which to the student of the past will seldom appear such in reality, I do not think that Ecclesiastical History teaches us that much danger is to he apprehended from them, if the right course be pursued. The lesson it conveys, I think, is that the utmost freedom of thought is to be allowed. Freedom of thought is not to be repressed. For more and worse evils come, and have come from the attempt to suppress it, than from its injudicious exercise. Even the extravagances, which grow out of such exercise of it, may lead on to good, just as true science was promoted by the follies of astrology, and the search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life.


            This is the result in all instances, and it will be, I am confident, in the present; certainly so, if, as I said, the right course be pursued. And this, if I read history aright, is to admit great latitude of private speculation; to consider the individual alone as responsible for his conclusions, and not to convert every opinion, we may deem unsound, fanciful, or extravagant, which may be thrown out upon the public, into a question of party; but either calmly to discuss it, if we think proper, — first, however, taking care that we comprehend it, and seize the author's stand-point, — or else to let it alone, and leave it to die out of itself, which it will probably do before long, if it be what we take it to be, a really unsound opinion, or mere visionary absurdity.


            History is full of such examples. Opinions and hypotheses have their day; they produce a temporary impression; they slightly agitate men's minds for a time, as a pebble thrown into the lake causes a gentle ripple, and are then engulfed and forgotten, or give place to others equally ephemeral. This has often happened, and will happen again, not in theology merely, but in other things; and the result is to produce, in philosophical minds, a distrust or even skepticism in regard to whatever contradicts, or seems to contradict, the experience of the past, which is to be overcome only by the most decisive evidence. This evidence may exist, or the suspected or condemned opinion may contain in it some portion, at least, of truth; and if so, that truth will stand, and we should rejoice that it is so. It is our consolation to believe that no great thought, or sublime principle, once proclaimed to the world, will finally perish. It may be buffeted or rejected for a time, but like the downy seed, it will be at length wafted to a congenial soil, where it will vegetate, and strike root, and yield fruit a hundred fold. Truth may be smothered for a while, but it is not in the power of man to destroy it. Truth never dies. But time soon dissipates the illusions of imagination, brings a remedy to imperfect and half views, and sobers extravagance. If it sometimes canonizes falsehood, in its further progress it unmasks it, and shows us that the divinities we have worshipped are but painted wood. We bow to it not as time the Corrupter, but time the Purifier.


            But I must bring my remarks, already too far extended, to a close. You will perceive, that I do not rate very high the immediate and direct benefits the minister will derive from the study of Ecclesiastical History, in the ordinary discharge of his official duty, though, as I have endeavored to show, these are worth something. He will derive some light from it, which will guide him in questions of a practical nature, which will be continually presenting themselves. But viewed in reference to its indirect and more remote effects, as part of a liberal culture, of which a minister cannot well be destitute, if he would hold a high rank in his profession, and of which he should not be willing to be destitute, if he could, I certainly do attribute no small importance to the study. I think that many species of knowledge, and many intellectual accomplishments, are to be sought by the minister, which he cannot turn to any present and visible account, though he will turn all to account in the end.


            There are many evils attending a partial culture and slender attainments in the minister. He will be in danger of sooner exhausting himself, and breaking down, in consequence, or will find himself in some way cramped and impeded in his exertions. On many subjects he will be apt to exhibit a one-sidedness or dogmatism, which are not desirable, and the chance is that he will, at one time or another, see cause to regret his deficiencies, or his friends will for him. The present, surely, is not the period in which high culture can be dispensed with. Many of the questions of the day, questions in which not the theologian merely, but the minister, must take an interest, upon which he can hardly avoid, at some time, and in some way, touching, require in their discussion a wide survey of the past history of the human mind. Some of the problems, which present themselves for solution, carry us back into remote ages. We must call on the past to surrender its facts. We must examine and interrogate those facts, that we may separate reality from illusion, history from fable, divine truth from its earthly envelope and mere time-vesture. The manifestation of the religious element in our nature, and revelations of truth to the human soul, are as old as the existence of man on earth ; and there is no fact connected with their history, which may not have its use, and which will not have its use, with the reflecting mind, and often in a manner least anticipated.


[1]Parrhasiana, T.I. p. 168, ed. 2d. I have given the version of the Hallam (Hist. Lit. II. 83), with only a slight change, which fidelity to the original required.

[2] For Jan. 1842.

[3] The Prelatical Doctrine of Apostolical Succession Examined, and the Protestant Ministry Defended against the Assumptions of Popery and High Churchism, in a series of lectures. By Thomas Smith, Pastor of the 2nd Presbyterian Church, Charleston, S.C. Boston, 1841.

[4] The Annual Meeting of the American Unitarian Association.

[5] Beausobre, Histoire de Manichée it du Manicheisme, T.I. p. 270.

[6] Clement. Hom. I and II.

[7] Hom. In Levit. vii. n. 5.

[8] De Princ. L. iv. n. 16.

[9] De Genesi ad Manichæos, L. II. c. 2. et Retract. L. I. c. 18.

[10] Apol. II.

[11] Apol. I.

[12] Apol. I.

[13] Apol. I

[14] This Clement of Alexandria is at great pains to show, in opposition to the objection, which was frequently urged, that it was new,—the mushroom growth of yesterday, — an institution which had suddenly sprung up, and which now showed its arrogance by boldly attacking the time-honored religions and philosophy of the old world. Not so, says Clement, — Christianity is not new, — it dates far back in the ages,— before the birth of the oldest of the sages, or of the world itself. A portion of its rays had flowed in upon the minds of the Greeks, imparting to them some knowledge of the truth, "for a certain divine effluence distils upon all men, hut chiefly those who employ themselves in rational inquiry.”— See Christian Examiner, Vol. V. pp. 142--145, 3d series.

[15] Cudworth (Intell. Syst. p. 767, et seq. ed. 1678) has brought together a variety of passages from the philosophers, having a bearing, more or less intimate, on this subject; but the result is unsatisfactory. So also Stewart's Elements, Vol. I. p. 449, ed. Bost., and Diss. I. Part I. p. 138. Hallam, Hist. Lit. Vol. III. p. 141. Beausobre, Hist. Man. T. I. p. 481, et seq. Petavius has also treated of the subject in his Dogmata Theologica. Priestley will not allow that even Descartes taught the strict immateriality of the soul, but thinks that he finds the first direct assertion of it in Sir Kenelm Digby. Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit, Vol. I. p. 259.

[16] I am not aware that the Docetæ were an exception. Three is no evidence, I believe, that their idea of spirit was more refined than that of others of their age, or who preceded or followed them, whether philosophers or Christians.

[17] "Quis enim negabit Deum corpus esse?” Adv. Prax. C. VII.

[18] De Princ. Præf.

[19] De Princ. L. I. c. I.

[20] Still God was frequently said to be incorporeal. It is difficult to say precisely what idea was meant to be conveyed by this term. "In the language of the philosophers,” and of course, of the philosophical Christians, this word, says Beausobre "excludes neither extension, nor body, taken in a philosophical sense.”