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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
AUTHORSHIP CONTINUED. — MY COMPENDIUM OF ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY. — MOTIVES FOR UNDERTAKING THE WORK, TO MAKE A BOOK FOR THE PEOPLE; TO GIVE THE FRAME-WORK OF CHURCH HISTORY; TO BRING OUT MORE FULLY AND FAVORABLY THE HISTORY OF THE DONATISTS AND OTHER REPUTED HERETICS. — ON THE TERM PURITAN. — MISCELLANEOUS MATTERS.
AT an early day my thoughts were directed to a work of this kind, and my argument for it was, that so large and costly are our standard works on church history that but few of our common readers feel able to purchase them, nor can they find time to peruse them. There was another consideration of some weight with me in this undertaking, which was to present to plain readers the naked facts of history, free from false miracles, and to bring out more fully and favorably the accounts of large parties of reputed heretics of the early ages than had hitherto been done by any author but Neander, and very briefly by him. I soon found that my epitome would lead me into the Fathers and others, in addition to all my former acquisitions of historical knowledge from the works in common use by English readers, for in order to make summary statements with any degree of confidence the whole ground must be surveyed.
As most of the authors of our standard works on church history have belonged to national churches, and have sympathized with the church of Rome in all her conflicts with dissenting parties, I, at an early period, began to suspect that as a general thing, these authors had not done full justice to these parties, but that they repeated the accounts of old Catholic writers whose prejudices were very strong against them without a thorough examination as to their correctness. High churchmen are apt to think that the affairs of non-conformists are of but little account. While thinking of this matter I read some candid expositions of Neander, respecting the real sentiments of a portion of these people in opposition to the unfavorable testimony of Augustine, and others, who copied from these authors. This first suggested to me the idea of going into a thorough examination from original sources of the genuine history of the Donatists and kindred parties of the early ages.
The Manichees also I found had been most grossly misrepresented, according to their own accounts, as given by Augustine. They frankly acknowledged the errors of their system, and wherein they differed from other professors of the Christian religion. The most prominent of these errors was a denial of the real humanity of Jesus Christ, as they held that he was born, lived, and died in appearance only. This
view of the character of Christ, they openly avowed and zealously defended by Scripture passages and other arguments. This theory came down from the Gnostics; it was adopted by many other parties, and some of the Fathers, it was supposed, were more or less tinctured with it. But the doctrine of the government of the world by two beings, good and bad, which was laid to the charge of this people, they vehemently denied. The unity of God they unequivocally maintained, as I have shown very clearly in my account of them. The Manichees not only very often and very loudly complained of being falsely accused on many matters pertaining to their faith and manners by Augustine, their most bitter opponent, but they made light of his story of having been one of them, as he professed to have been, for about ten years.
And as to the Donatists, all church historians close their accounts of them by referring to an undefined company of rude adherents, called Circumcellians, or at least, they have always said something about this rough appendage of the Donatist party. Mosheim says these lawless men were the soldiery of the followers of Donatus, and fought their battles for them. This old story I have sifted to the bottom and find it a mere fabrication of the bishop of Hippo; and by the many passages which I have quoted from his own
writings, in which he has given full accounts of his controversies with this people, I make it plainly appear that they positively denied any connection with, or even knowledge of, the men in question.
But the challenges and disclaimers above referred to are entirely omitted by ecclesiastical writers, except Neander, and a few others; they have repeated the impeachments of Augustine, as if they had never been denied; and in some cases they have made them worse than they are in their original form, or than a true version of the original language will sustain, with no intimations whatever of any adverse statements having been made by the adverse parties, and recorded by the accuser himself, in his own works. What he gave out as current rumors, they report as sober certainties; and they assert as undisputed facts what he did not pretend to have proved.
The history of the Donatists cost me a great amount of labor, and the facts which I have collected from the writings of Optatus, Augustine, and the numerous editors of their works, respecting the character, the publications, the sufferings, and the number of this people, and also their influence in the support of evangelical principles, have far exceeded my most sanguine expectations. I had supposed that no vestiges remained of the literary productions of that large class of able men who are known to have existed
among the Donatists; but on this point I was agreeably disappointed, since I found in the works of Augustine an abundance of quotations from Donatist authors, in the veritable Latin in which they wrote, in defense of their own principles and pursuits, and in condemnation of the corruptions and persecutions of their Catholic opponents. These passages are spread out in detached portions by their adversary, for the purpose of refuting them, in the same manner that controversial writers manage at the present time. And that these quotations are correctly made appears highly probable from the fact, that from Augustine's own showing, the Donatists cut up his corrupt system of church building root and branch, and furthermore, that they were bold assailants of his plan, and sturdy defenders of their own. While the translations of the passages above referred to are incorporated in my narratives, a sufficient amount of the original matter is placed in foot notes, that those who can read them may see how clearly they reasoned, in support of their own scriptural plan of church building, in opposition to the loose system of their adversaries.
The main scope of my Compendium is to give my readers a summary view of the principal facts of church history as they are recorded in our more elaborate works on this subject. For this purpose I have labored to make myself about as well acquainted with
the affairs of the whole of Christendom, as I am with those of my own denomination; and to exhibit the most interesting facts in as brief a manner as possible, of whatever is recorded of all churches, sects and parties of all ages, and countries, and creeds, in an unsectarian manner.
Under proper heads I have described the state of things under the patriarchal and Jewish dispensations, during the first three centuries of the Christian economy, the ten great persecutions, the rapid progress of Christianity under them, the conversion of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, the good and the bad effects of his policy and patronage, the increasing corruptions of the gospel in the following ages, the conflicts among the great leaders in church concerns for preeminence and control before the rise of the papacy, the great splits and divisions of the dominant church, caused by the Arians; the Nestorians, and others; the eastern and western, or the Greek and Roman Churches; the history of the popes and patriarchs, general councils, and of those of Trent and Constance in particular; the Crusades, the Reformation in Germany, in Switzerland, in France, and England and elsewhere.
Interspersed with these narratives are the early apologies for the Christian religion, by Justin Martyr,
Minucius Felix, Tertullian and others, and copious details of Christian antiquities.
I have also given pretty full accounts of the dissenting parties in all ages and countries, which I claim as evangelical Christians, such as the Montanists, the Novatians, the Donatists, the Paulicians, the Paterines, the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Petrobrussians, the Picards, the Hussites and others.
And finally my aim has been, in my condensed accounts of ecclesiastical affairs, to present to those who may peruse my narratives intelligent views of all that pertains to this department. The term Puritan has been applied to many of the dissenting parties above named, but, as I have attempted to show in my accounts of them, it was in all cases used as a nick-name, by the way of reproach, by their adversaries, and was never originally adopted by themselves. This remark will be found correct as to the Novatians, the Donatists and other reformers of an early age. The same may be said of the Waldenses of different companies, and a large company of English reformers, many of whom never left the national church. All the parties now under consideration went for greater parity in their churches, at least as to their members, morals and worship, than they found in the worldly sanctuaries which they had
abjured. A church "without spot or wrinkle" was a favorite passage with the Donatists.
"Stand by thyself, I am holier than thou," was sneeringly said by their opponents, for the purpose of exciting popular odium against them. Augustine dealt much in this contemptuous language, in his comments on the reforming efforts of the Puritans of his day. But when he reasoned soberly with them, his principal argument was, that the plan of the Puritans was utterly impracticable; that a thorough sifting of the bad members from the good, would do more hurt than good, by the disturbance and ill-will it would occasion; and he zealously maintained that, to let them both grow together until the harvest, was a Bible doctrine. The condition of his own church, we must remember, was held in view, in his reasonings of this kind, which, he said, "the rough discipline of the Donatists would rend into a thousand schisms."
In reply to all this kind of reasoning, the Donatists stood firm to their favorite principles of church purity, both in their preaching and writings, and in defense of them they quoted from the prophets all those beautiful passages which foretold the highway of holiness which the unclean should not pass over, and all the descriptions of the genuine character of the church of Christ which the New Testament contains.
And while the character of the Old Testament rulers was highly extolled by their adversaries, God commissioned prophets, not kings, to preach his word, said the Donatists; and again, Jesus Christ sent fishermen, not soldiers and executioners, said they, to propagate his gospel.
On a review of the whole ground I have gone over in my researches for materials for the work now under consideration, I have formed a less favorable opinion of some men of great renown than I formerly entertained of them, and particularly of the famous Bishop of Hippo; and I advise those who wish to believe him an honorable opponent, a fair debater, and a friend of justice, not to examine very closely into his treatment of the Donatists and Manichees, and especially into their complaints of his misrepresentations and persecutions.
Among the chief causes and instruments of all persecutions, I am inclined to mention the two following:
1. Misrepresentation, in its various forms, in religious concerns, has been the bane of the world, and has been more successfully employed than almost any other means, by designing and unprincipled men, against those whom they sought to injure or to destroy.
2. The priesthoods, of all ages and countries, as a
general thing, have set in motion all the religious persecutions which have been carried on in the name of secular men, whether under Pagan, Papal or Protestant rule, and the fear of loss, or the hope of gain, has been at the bottom of all those cruel and destructive measures, in the prosecution of which it may be truly said,
"Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn."
Civil rulers are so much occupied with worldly concerns of various kinds, their pleasures and ambitious schemes, that they would not meddle with religious matters, about which they generally know or care but little, were they not stimulated to it by the men who fear their craft is in danger.
Respecting a few subjects of ancient history, and two very eminent men, I have been somewhat disappointed as to the result of my inquiries.
The matters of history in question are,
1. The wide chasm or vacant space in the affairs of the Jews, from the latest of the prophets to the New Testament times. I well understood beforehand that this space was lurge, but I was disappointed in its unusual extent, and the impenetrable darkness that rests upon it. In making out my sketches of the earliest times, I went forward in a rapid manner
through the patriarchal ages, and in the same way I traced the history of the Jews till I came to the latest prophetic writings, and here I found a number of hundred years intervening before the New Testament history begins. I looked into Josephus and other Jewish writings, but darkness extended over the extended space. I have seen it intimated that some portion of this lost history has been found, but I have so little confidence in the account, that I have not looked after it.
2. In Christian history, I also found more darkness hanging over a few of the early centuries than I expected to find. Eusebius, Socrates, and a few others in the early part of the fourth century, have left some records in the form of church history. From the Apologies of Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others, and from Pliny and some other Pagan writers of early times, we learn something about the Christians during the ages now under review, as to their characterand condition, but still only very scanty accounts have come down to us respecting them.
The Apostolical Constitutions, so called, are quite minute in their details as to the Christian practices of the times in which they were written, and so far, they are valuable guides; but instead of being the work of the apostles, they were evidently composed as late as the fourth or fifth century.
When we come to any thing like church history, it is mostly occupied in the controversies of great bishops, and their scrambles for places of emolument and power, and very little is said of the vital principles of the gospel, except among the reputed heretics. I am inclined, however, to believe, and have so stated in my work, that these principles lived and flourished among the common people, outside of the great cities, long after they had sadly declined in them.
The two eminent men to whom I lately alluded, were the wise king of Israel, and the first Christian emperor.
Solomon, with all his glory and fame during his long life, became so unpopular at the close of it, with the great mass of his subjects, that there were but feeble lamentations at his death; and this change of feeling towards this illustrious man, it is said, was the result of the people being overtaxed for the cost of the temple at Jerusalem, and other public works, and for his own private mansions and family expenses, which must have been immensely great.
Such an unfavorable account of the close of the life of this very eminent man, was unexpected to me, and I was equally disappointed, when I made search for the offspring of this uxorious king, to find but two are ascribed to him in all the history of the Jewish kings, namely, a daughter, and Rohoboam, who by one rash
decision rent the nation asunder, and caused ten tribes to go off no one can tell where.
My disappointment in the history of Constantine was, as tradition affirms, that he went off to found Constantinople out of disaffection with Rome, where he was so unpopular that he was treated with much disrespect, and that his unpopularity arose principally from his severe measures towards some of his own family, which the best friends of the emperor have always regretted.
Once more, the dissenting parties of the better sort, from the early ages, and in the whole history of Christianity, I have found much more numerous than I had supposed, and the sentiments and influences which have been ascribed to these despised and persecuted people by their enemies, indicate an efficiency in the support of the pure principles of the gospel beyond my most sanguine expectations. Indeed, I have been led to think, that the number of real Christians was as great, if not greater, among the reputed heretics, than in the great national churches by which they have been despised and oppressed.
One thing is very plain, from all church history, the Catholic church has always had its hands fall of business, in its efforts to suppress the numerous parties of reputed heretics.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 264-276. -- jrd]
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