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9. Of their Benevolence

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVIII. Domestic and Social Character of the Primitive Christians

9. Of their Benevolence

  1. Their care of the poor. One very remarkable way in which this love manifested itself, was in the care they took of their poorer brethren. Among them, as in every association of men, the needy and destitute were found. The duty of providing for these was not left to the gratuities of private individuals, whose situation gave them opportunities of ascertaining, and whose benevolence prompted them to relieve, their necessities. It devolved on the whole community of believers, who regarded it not as a burden, but a privilege, to minister to the wants of those who bore the image of Christ; and by their unwearied attentions to the discharge of this labor of love, they made the light of their liberality and benevolence so shine, as to command the admiration even of the cold and selfish heathens around them. As duly as the Sabbath returned, and as soon as they had brought their sacred duties to a close, the lists of the poor, the aged, the widow, and the orphans, were produced for consideration; and, as if each had been hastening to bring forth the fruits of faith, and to prove the sincerity of that love they had just professed to their Saviour by the abundance of their liberality to his people, they set themselves to the grateful task, with a zeal and enthusiasm, whose fresh and unabated vigor betrayed no symptoms of their having already been .engaged in a lengthened service. The custom was for every one in turn to bring under public notice the case of a brother or sister, of whose necessitous circumstances he had any knowledge, and forthwith a donation was ordered out of the funds of the church, which the voluntary contributions of the faithful supplied. No strong or heart-stirring appeals were necessary to reach the hidden source of their sympathies; no cold calculations of prudence regulated the distribution of their public alms; no fears of doubtful propriety suggested delay for the consideration of the claim; no petty jealousies as to the preference of one recommendation to another were allowed to freeze the genial current of their charity. By whomsoever the case was recommended, or in whatever circumstances the claim was made, the hand of benevolence had answered the call almost before the heart found words to express its sympathy, and with a unanimity surpassed only by their boundless love, they dealt out their supplies from the treasury of the church, whenever there was an object to receive, or a known necessity to require it. Where the poor in one place were numerous, and the brethren were unable from their limited means to afford them adequate support, they applied to some richer church in the neighborhood, and never was it known in those days of active benevolence, that the appeal was fruitlessly made, or coldly received. Though they had poor of their own to maintain, neighboring and foreign churches were always ready to transmit contributions in aid of the Christians in distant parts, and many and splendid are the instances on record of ministers and people, on intelligence of any pressing emergency, hastening with their treasures for the relief of those whom they had never seen, but with whom they were united by the strong ties of the same faith and hopes. Thus, when a multitude of christian men and women in Numidia had been taken captive by a horde of neighboring barbarians, and when the churches to which they belonged were unable to raise the sum demanded for their ransom, they sent deputies to the church that was planted in the metropolis of North Africa, and no sooner had Cyprian, who then was at the head of it, heard a statement of the distressing case, than he commenced a subscription in behalf of the unfortunate slaves, and never relaxed his indefatigable efforts, till he had collected a sum equal to nearly $4000, which he fowarded to the Numidian churches, together with a letter full of christian sympathy and tenderness.
  2. Their attentions to the sick. But the primitive Christians were not content with conveying their eleemosynary aid through the public channels of the church. To them it appeared a sacred duty to countenance the poor with their presence and their purse in their own homes, where they could make more minute inquiries into their wants, and tender them the comforts of christian sympathy and counsel, which, by the brethren both of high and low degree, were more highly prized than even the open-handed benevolence that ministered to their temporal necessities. This pious office was more especially delegated to the female members of the community, as it was thought, both from the delicate nature of the embassy, and from the jealous spirit of ancient society, they possessed facilities of access to the domestic privacy of all classes, denied to their brethren of the other sex. And exemplary was the prudence and fidelity with which they discharged their trust. Every moment they could spare from the prior claims of their own household, the christian matrons devoted to those errands of mercy; and while they listened to the widow's tale of other days, and her traits of the friend who had gone to his rest, – or saw the aged in their hut of poverty, bending under the weight of years, – or sat by the bedside of the afflicted, and those that were ready to die, – or found, as was frequently the case, the helpless babe, which the frigid heart of a pagan mother had exposed and forsaken in the lonely path, they provided for the wants of each, and administered appropriate comforts both for the body and the soul. But these were light and easy attentions compared with the duties which their charitable mission frequently imposed on them. In those days there were no public institutions for the reception of the poor, and for the medical treatment of the diseased, and as there were few or none among the heathen in private life, who ever thought of entering the abodes of poverty and sickness, and helping their neighbors, – such was the cold and unfeeling selfishness of the heathen world, – the Christians were never without objects, in every form of human wretchedness, towards whom their benevolence was required. Indeed it is almost incredible to what offices the ardor of their christian spirit led them to condescend. They, though all of them were women moving amid the comforts of domestic life, and some of them ladies of the highest rank never inured to any kind of labor, scrupled not to perform the meanest and most servile offices, that usually devolved on the lowest menial. Not only did they sit by the bedside of the sick, conversing with and comforting them, but with their own hands prepared their victuals, and fed them – administered cordials and medicine – brought them changes of clothing – made their beds – dressed the most repulsive and putrefying ulcers – exposed themselves to the contagion of malignant distempers – swaddled the bodies of the dead, and, in short, acted in the character at once of the physician, the nurse, and the ambassador of God. Their purse and their experience were always ready, and the most exhausting and dangerous services were freely rendered by these christian women. In process of time, however, as the christian society extended its limits, and the victims of poverty and sickness became proportionally more numerous, the voluntary services of the matrons were found inadequate to overtake the immense field, and hence, besides the deacons and deaconesses who, at a very early period of the church, were appointed to superintend the interests of the poor, a new class of office-bearers arose, under the name of Parabolani, whose province it was to visit and wait on the sick in malignant and pestilential diseases. These, whose number became afterwards very great – Alexandria alone, in the time of Theodosius, boasting of six hundred, – took charge of the sick and the dying, under circumstances in which, while it was most desirable they should have every attention paid to them, prudence forbade mothers and mistresses of families to repair to them; and thus, while the heathen allowed their poor and their sick to pine in wretchedness and to die before their eyes, uncared for, there was not in the first ages a solitary individual of the christian poor, who did not enjoy all the comforts of a temporal and spiritual nature that his situation required.

    It was not, however, only to the poor of their own churches that the benevolence of the primitive Christians showed itself. Never, perhaps, was the clear and lively principle of their character more strikingly exemplified than in the appearance of any of those calamities – famine or pestilence – with which the ancient world was so frequently visited. In the accounts that have reached us of those terrible catastrophes, mention is invariably made of a sad corruption of morals accompanying them, – the heathen became desperate and reckless amid the fearful ravages made in their ranks, their sensibilities were deadened, and a most unnatural and cold-blooded indifference shown to the claims of their nearest relatives and friends. In the midst of all these disorders, the benevolence of the Christians exhibited an extraordinary contrast to the unfeeling selfishness of their heathen neighbors. Thus, for instance, during the plague that so long and severely afflicted Carthage in the time of Cyprian, he and the rest of the Christians were indefatigable in their exertions for the relief of the afflicted; and while the heathen abandoned the sick and dying to their fate, – while the highways were strewed with corpses which no one had the courage or the public spirit to bury, and the hardened survivors were intent only on pilfering the clothes and the chests of the dead, the Christians were constantly facing the danger, busy on the streets or in the houses, distributing money or articles of food and clothing, and doing all in their power to alleviate the pangs of the sufferers, and soothe the last moments of the dying. Nor was their benevolence confined to the sick members of their own community, – they extended their attentions indiscriminately to all; and, while the heathen stood aloof and careless parents deserting their children, and children trampling on the unburied corpses of their parents, the Christians were assiduously employed in the pious labor of interring them, – the rich contributing their money, and the poor their labor, to clear the houses and the streets from the effluvia of the mouldering relics of mortality, and adopt the most prudent precautions to free the city from the further ravages of the pestilence.

    In like manner, when the Roman empire, especially that part of it that lay in the east, was overtaken, in the reign of Gallienus, by the simultaneous calamities of plague, famine, and earthquake, the calm fortitude and unswerving resignation of the Christians, – their indefatigable benevolence towards all who were seized by the dreaded sickness, and the kind sympathising attentions they bestowed on them, at the risk of their own lives, were very strikingly exemplified in Alexandria, the chief seat of the disasters. In a letter of Dionysius, who was then pastor of the church in that city, a most impressive account is given, of which we subjoin a translation: – That pestilence appeared to the heathen as the most dreadful of all things, – as that which left them no hope; not so, however, did it seem to us, but only a peculiar and practical trial. The greater part of our people, in the abundance of their brotherly love, did not spare themselves; and, mutually attending to each other, they cheerfully visited the sick without fear, and ministered to them for the sake of Christ. Many of them died, after their care had restored others from the plague to health. The best among our brethren, priests and deacons, and some who were celebrated among the laity, died in this manner; and such a death, the fruit of great piety and strong faith, is hardly inferior to martyrdom. Many who took the bodies of their christian brethren into their hands and bosoms, closed their mouth and eyes, and buried them with every attention, soon followed them in death. But with the heathen matters stood quite differently; at the first symptom of sickness, they drove a man from their society, they tore themselves away from their dearest connections, they threw the half dead into the streets, and left thousands unburied, – endeavoring by all the means in their power to escape contagion, which, notwithstanding all their contrivances, it was very difficult for them to accomplish.

  3. Their charities to those who were persecuted for righteousness' sake. The benevolence of the primitive Christians being thus readily, and on all occasions exerted in the cause of suffering humanity, it need not surprise us that the most frequent and distinguished objects of it were the sufferers for righteousness' sake. Many of these were immured in prisons, and no sooner did Fame spread abroad the sad intelligence that one of them was lying in the dungeons of a city, than the Christians of the place flocked in crowds to the doors of the cell, begging admission. Patiently did they bear the caprice and rebuffs of the surly guards and jailors; anxiously did they resort to every means of conciliation, by persuasions, entreaties, and bribes; – often, when all proved fruitless, did they lie for days and nights together outside the walls of a dungeon, praying for the deliverence or for the happy and triumphant exit of the imprisoned confessor. If admitted, as they sometimes were, these Christians, most of whom were always women, carried with them beds, materials of food, clothing, and fuel, – they kissed their chains, washed their feet, and rendered them all the most tender and endearing offices they could think of. Witness the well known case of the impostor Peregrinus. This person, who lived in the second century, had been obliged to flee from his native country, Armenia, on account of some great crime, and having settled in Judea, became acquainted with the principles of the Gospel, appeared an illustrious penitent, and made public profession of the faith. His fame as a Christian spread far and wide, and when his religious tenets brought him the distinction of imprisonment, the Christians, deeply afflicted at his fate, made extraordinary efforts to procure his release. These, however, proving unsuccessful, they strove to mitigate the evils of confinement by loading him with every attention. At break of day, numbers of old women, widows, and orphans, were seen surrounding the walls of the prison, their hands filled with every delicacy, and even with large sums of money, which the liberality of foreign Christians had sent to them for their support.

    But many of the sufferers for the cause of religion, instead of being thrown into prison, were sent to labor, like slaves, in distant and unwholesome mines. Thither the benevolence of their brethren followed them, and never were contributions more frequently and liberally made by the Christians, than when they were destined for the relief of the mutilated martyrs, who labored amid the darkness and noxious vapors of these subterranean dungeons. Nay, many even undertook long and toilsome pilgrimages, in order to comfort and support those victims of oppression with their christian sympathy; and, in the performance of these pious journeys, encountered perils, amid which, nothing but benevolence of the purest and most exalted character could have preserved their resolution firm and unshaken. A party of Christians, for instance, set out from Egypt in the depth of winter, to visit their brethren in the mines of Cilicia. Some of them, when the object of their journey became public, were arrested on their arrival at Cesarea, and had their eyes pulled out, and their feet dislocated. Others shared a worse fate at Ascalon, being burnt or beheaded. Various companies, who successively went from different quarters, on the benevolent errand of expressing their sympathy with the interesting miners, prosecuted their undertaking amid similar dangers. But nothing could repress the ardent wish to pour the balm of consolation into .the hearts of men, who were suffering the worst species of slavery for the sake of the truth. And highly were those honored who lived to tell the tale that they had seen the martyrs in the mines, – to describe how they toiled, and wrought, and bore the chain, – and to carry, above all, the glad tidings of the fortitude, the patience, resignation, and christian joy with which they endured their hard lot.

  4. Their love for the souls of men. This was another manifestation of the benevolence of the primitive Christians, that deserves a particular notice. It was a remarkable feature of their character, and though inseparable from the anxiety they displayed on every occasion to promote the best interests of men, it yet occupied exclusively the minds of some of them, and gave rise to exertions which nothing but interests of eternal moment could have originated. Not to speak of those who dedicated themselves to the preaching of the Gospel, there were many in private life, who expended everything they could spare from the bare support of life on the purchase of Bibles, and on every suitable occasion, distributed them to the poor, – a gift, the value of which cannot be estimated, without taking into consideration the scarcity and the immense price which in those days a single copy of the Scriptures cost. But besides this excellent species of charity, which many of the wealthier Christians devised for themselves, there were others, who voluntarily submitted to the most extraordinary sacrifices, with the generous view of bringing men from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. One man, for instance, is recorded to have sold himself into the family of a heathen actor, and continued for years cheerfully performing the most servile offices, till having been the honored instrument of converting the husband and wife, and whole family to Christianity, he received from the grateful converts the reward of his liberty. And not long after, during a visit to Sparta, the same individual learning that the governor of that city had fallen into dangerous errors, offered himself again as a slave, and continued for two years in that humble and ignominious situation, when his zealous efforts for the conversion of his master being crowned with fresh success, he was treated no longer as a servant, but a brother beloved in the Lord.

    Time would fail us "to enumerate all the various channels through which the benevolence of the primitive Christians flowed. Some dedicated themselves to the task of searching out desolate orphans, helpless widows, unfortunate tradesmen, and heathen foundlings – in those times the most numerous class of unfortunates. Some carried their charity so far as to sit on the highways, or hire persons whose office was to perambulate the fields, for the purpose of directing wanderers, and especially benighted travellers, into the way; while others delighted to lead the blind, to succor the bruised, and to carry home such as were lame, maimed, and unable to walk.

    Various were the sources whence the Christians drew the ample means necessary to enable them to prosecute so extensive a system of benevolence. The most steady and available fund was the common treasury of the church, which was supplied every Sabbath by the voluntary contributions of the faithful, and out of which there was a weekly distribution of alms to multitudes of widows, orphans, and old people, who were stated pensioners on her bounty. In cases of great or public calamity, fasts were appointed, which by the saving effected in the daily expenses of all, even of the poor, were an approved and certain means of raising an extraordinary collection, and when that was found insufficient to meet the emergency, it not unfrequently happened that the pastors sold or melted the gold and silver plate that had been presented to their churches for sacred purposes. Many persons too, were in the habit of observing in private, quarterly, monthly, or weekly fasts, on which occasions, they either took little food or none at all, and transmitted the amount of their daily expenditure to the funds of the church, while others voluntarily bound themselves to set aside a tenth part of their income for the use of the poor, and placed it, in like manner, in the church's treasury. Besides, there were many wealthy individuals who, on their conversion to Christianity, from a spirit of ardent gratitude to the Saviour, sold their estates, and betaking themselves to manual labor or to the preaching of the Word, devoted the price of their property to benevolent purposes. Others, who gave up their patrimony to objects of christian benevolence, chose to retain the management in their own hands; as for example, a rich merchant who with part of his money built a spacious house, and with the rest of it entertained all strangers travelling in his neighborhood, took charge of the sick, supported the aged and infirm, gave staled alms to the poor, and on every Saturday and Sabbath caused several tables to be furnished for the refreshment of all who needed his bounty.


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