Imágenes de páginas
[ocr errors]

It was the renewed study of the Greek classics, of Roman law, and of the original teachings of Christianity, under more favorable circumstances, and after many new experiences for a thousand years, that gave birth to all our later improvements in religion, in government and in science. The Asiatic Jews gave us in Christianity, a pure and simple worship, and a system of public morality so perfect that no society has yet been able to embody it completely in practice, although it is now recognized, very generally, as the highest conceivable standard, to be constantly aimed at and conformed to as far as possible; the Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, gave us the first notions of science, and Roman law formed the base of modern legal practice.

6. The difficulties of progress are very great. It is not easier for nations to unlearn what they have learned amiss in their youth, than for individuals. No nation that has matured institutions has ever yet thoroughly reformed them. The best and most clear sighted minds discover their defects and show what is to be remedied; but the force of habit and the veneration men feel for what is old, offer so much resistance to complete reforms that it has been necessary to establish and build up institutions on new principles on fresh ground. So all the light and power of science, of the reformed religion, of a more complete system of law, the greater intelligence of the masses of men and the activity of commerce and trade did not suffice to do for modern Europe what has been done with ease in America. But Europe furnished the ideas which America worked out; and the sight of those principles embodied in institutions that greatly improved the condition of mankind has reacted on Europe, and bids fair, in time, to produce a novelty in human experience— a complete regeneration of old nations and governments. When Greece rose to power it subjected but lightly, and only superficially transformed, the nations of Asia ; Rome absorbed them both, and Christianity gave its simple and noble lessons to them all. But the slight influence of Greece, Rome and Christianity on the old nations

[ocr errors]

of western Asia is shown in the rise and permanence of Mohammedanism, so inferior, in all respects, to Christianity. After a career of more than twelve hundred years, it still rules many more millions than were contained in all the Roman Empire in its most prosperous days.

7. But the power of a progressive civilization constantly increases, and will, by and by, be equal to the thorough reform of even crystalized China. Without America, Europe would be still strnggling with the incipient stages of reform. With it, she has gone far toward correcting the imperfections which existed one hundred years ago, and will presently complete the process. With these general observations, we proceed to examine the influence of Christianity on the old civilization.



1. It was developed on the western borders of Asia, and was the completion or perfect development of the system of religion existing among the Jews from a very early period. Soon after Abraham, the father and grand patriarch of the Jews, had given his descendants the outlines of the system, they were led, by circumstances, to Egypt, and remained there for many generations. When they left Egypt, it was under the leadership of one of the greatest of the world's great men, who had been heir apparent of the Egyptian throne, and was consequently versed in all the mysterious wisdom of the priesthood of that country. That he became wiser than they is evident from the history of his contest with them before the king when endeavoring to gain his consent to the migration of his people from the country. Instructed in all the celebrated “wisdom of the Egyptians,” together with the reflections and additions of forty solitary years as a shepherd in Arabia, he produced a remarkable system of mingled theology and legislation which has come down as a sacred record to our day.

2. The Jews were, nine hundred years afterwards, transported as a nation to Babylon, remained there for more than two generations, and received such light as the Babylonian priests and Persian magi were able to give them. The conquest of Asia by the Greeks and the vicinity of Judea to commercial Tyre, furnished them all the aid these nations could give in the line of religious suggestion. A Jew produced, in the early days of the Roman Empire, the simple, yet sublime teachings of Christianity. It had the comprehensiveness and directness requisite to give it authority as a universal religion. In few, but plain and convincing words, it laid down the principles of human rights and of divine law. It defined the nature and stated the sanctions of virtue in the clearest terms; tore away every covering from vice and denounced without fear the favorite ambitions and follies of men.

It seems almost incredible that such a system should have had its origin even among a people like the Jews, and at the time when the Roman Empire represented the highest civilization of the world.

3. The Jews, as a nation, however, rejected and bitterly persecuted it, and the Romans, who were, on principle, extremely tolerant of all foreign religions, soon became extremely hostile. It was humble, unostentatious, very simple in all its forms, carefully refrained from all interference with established government, and presented many new and consoling truths, with great force. It would have seemed that it had only to speak to gain a hearing and take a leading place at once in the work of the future. The few unprejudiced among the great, and thousands of the poor and oppressed whom the cruel power of the Romans had deprived of nationality, property and personal liberty, and many whose minds recoiled from the vices, crimes and skepticism of the age, heard and embraced it with joy. But it rebuked with most severity the ambitions, the injustice and the love of luxury that were most prevalent in that age and that were most distinctly Roman. It was peculiarly severe against all other systems of religion,

and that formed the strongest barrier against its immediate spread over the pagan world at large. It was, therefore, persecuted with the greatest rigor for three hundred years.

4. But persecution called public attention to it and won it sympathy, and it continually spread beneath the surface of society. The brutal features of Roman character were gradually softened ; very gradually, indeed, for Roman manners and morals were an Augean stable which it was a more than herculean task to cleanse ; but after a time, the gigantic crimes of a Marius, a Sylla, a Nero, or Domitian became impossible, and the horrors of the theatre, where gladiators killed each other and men were thrown to wild beasts for the amusement of the populace, became rare. Atrocious crimes awakened a disgust that showed a different view and a new standard of judgment in the community. Christianity created a purer moral atmosphere even in Rome, and while it was persecuted with the utmost barbarity.

5. It is then no matter of surprise that Christianity did not at once meet with general acceptance, and did not fully reconstruct Roman society and manners.

The marvel is that it could be produced at all by an age to whose whole spirit it was so absolutely contrary. It was the doctrine of peace proclaimed among nations who knew no occupation so glorious as war; whose institutions all rested on conquest; whose dominant race

admired as much as feared - was the very genius and embodiment of martial force arrayed against the independence of all nationalities by an organization the most complete. It proclaimed the rights of man and the equality of all classes and persons before the Divine Law, to a people who had plunged in a common ruin Carthage and Corinth, the Republics of Greece, and the absolute rulers of monarchica? Asia. It scorned equally gorgeous ceremonies of worship, the subtleties of an imperfect philosophy and pride of place

and power.

It is not possible to imagine a greater contrast to all the modes of habit and thought prevalent in those times. The

most sensnal of all races it exhorted to spirituality, to the most cruel and insolent it preached meekness and forbearance. It placed the slave to whom the recognized laws of war left no rights, beside the master who gloriec in setting his foot on the neck of the prostrate; and recognized as egna.s the great and the small, the ignorant and the wise, the bond and the free.

We cannot be surprised that it did not obtain immediate currency, that it was everywhere scorned and cast out, that it aroused unheard of persecutions, and that it could only obtain a triumph when the old Roman inflexibility and fierceness had died out of its degenerate children, and the spirit of the ancient world was burned out in the hot fires of its own passions. Character does not change in a day, and the ruling impulses of a race can be modified only by slow degrees. Such is the supreme raw which has ruled all history.

6. From all these causes Christianity was slow in penetrating society and moulding institutions; but it spread so extensively that a clear sighted emperor at length found it politic to profess Christianity in order to gain the support of so large and vigorous an element against his rivals in power. Constantine was victorious and proceeded to make Christianity the state religion. It had maintained its growth by its real superiority and ever after remained the most powerful and productive among the influences that aided the progress of mankind. It was actively aggressive and had made the barbarians who overthrew Rome converts to the faith before the invasion, and thus broke the force and diminished the disastrous effects of that event. In after times, no sooner did a barbarian tribe appear and establish itself in any part of the old empire than Christianity commenced the work of teaching and proselyting, which aided much in restoring order and repairing ruin. Hari Christianity preserved its purity its usefulness and power would have been much greater.

7. But as it gained in numbers and in position it lost inter. nal strength. Both Oriental and Greek philosophy tainted its simple doctrines and introduced in various forms the hurtful

« AnteriorContinuar »