History of the christian church

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These strangers from the Continent successfully repelled the Northern invaders; but being well pleased with the fertility and climate of the country, and reinforced by frequent accessions from their countrymen, they turned upon the confederate Britons, drove them to the mountains of Wales and the borders of Scotland, or reduced them to slavery, and within a century and a half they made themselves masters of England. From invaders they became settlers, and established an octarchy or eight independent kingdoms, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, Mercia, Bernicia, and Deira. The last two were often united under the same head; hence we generally speak of but seven kingdoms or the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.

From this period of the conflict between the two races dates the Keltic form of the Arthurian legends, which afterwards underwent a radical telescopic transformation in France. They have no historical value except in connection with the romantic poetry of mediaeval religion. 20

§ 10. The Mission of Gregory and Augustin. Conversion of Kent, a.d. 595–604.
With the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons, who were heathen barbarians, Christianity was nearly extirpated in Britain. Priests were cruelly massacred, churches and monasteries were destroyed, together with the vestiges of a weak Roman civilization. The hatred and weakness of the Britons prevented them from offering the gospel to the conquerors, who in turn would have rejected it from contempt of the conquered.1

But fortunately Christianity was re-introduced from a remote country, and by persons who had nothing to do with the quarrels of the two races. To Rome, aided by the influence of France, belongs the credit of reclaiming England to Christianity and civilization. In England the first, and, we may say, the only purely national church in the West was founded, but in close union with the papacy. "The English church," says Freeman, "reverencing Rome, but not slavishly bowing down to her, grew up with a distinctly national character, and gradually infused its influence into all the feelings and habits of the English people. By the end of the seventh century, the independent, insular, Teutonic church had become one of the brightest lights of the Christian firmament. In short, the introduction of Christianity completely changed the position of the English nation, both within its own island and towards the rest of the world."2

The origin of the Anglo-Saxon mission reads like a beautiful romance. Pope Gregory I., when abbot of a Benedictine convent, saw in the slave-market of Rome three Anglo-Saxon boys offered for sale. He was impressed with their fine appearance, fair complexion, sweet faces and light flaxen hair; and learning, to his grief, that they were idolaters, he asked the name of their nation, their country, and their king. When he heard that they were Angles, he said: "Right, for they have angelic faces, and are worthy to be fellow-heirs with angels in heaven." They were from the province Deira. "Truly," he replied, "are they De-ira-ns, that is, plucked from the ire of God, and called to the mercy of Christ." He asked the name of their king, which was AElla or Ella (who reigned from 559 to 588). "Hallelujah," he exclaimed, "the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts." He proceeded at once from the slave market to the pope, and entreated him to send missionaries to England, offering himself for this noble work. He actually started for the spiritual conquest of the distant island. But the Romans would not part with him, called him back, and shortly afterwards elected him pope (590). What he could not do in person, he carried out through others.3

In the year 596, Gregory, remembering his interview with the sweet-faced and fair-haired Anglo-Saxon slave-boys, and hearing of a favorable opportunity for a mission, sent the Benedictine abbot Augustin (Austin), thirty other monks, and a priest, Laurentius, with instructions, letters of recommendation to the Frank kings and several bishops of Gaul, and a few books, to England.4 The missionaries, accompanied by some interpreters from France, landed on the isle of Thanet in Kent, near the mouth of the Thames. 25 King Ethelbert, by his marriage to Bertha, a Christian princess from Paris, who had brought a bishop with her, was already prepared for a change of religion. He went to meet the strangers and received them in the open air; being afraid of some magic if he were to see them under roof. They bore a silver cross for their banner, and the image of Christ painted on a board; and after singing the litany and offering prayers for themselves and the people whom they had come to convert, they preached the gospel through their Frank interpreters. The king was pleased with the ritualistic and oratorical display of the new religion from distant, mighty Rome, and said: "Your words and promises are very fair; but as they are new to us and of uncertain import, I cannot forsake the religion I have so long followed with the whole English nation. Yet as you are come from far, and are desirous to benefit us, I will supply you with the necessary sustenance, and not forbid you to preach and to convert as many as you can to your religion." 26 Accordingly, he allowed them to reside in the City of Canterbury (Dorovern, Durovernum), which was the metropolis of his kingdom, and was soon to become the metropolis of the Church of England. They preached and led a severe monastic life. Several believed and were baptized, "admiring," as Bede says, "the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine." He also mentions miracles. Gregory warned Augustin not to be puffed up by miracles, but to rejoice with fear, and to tremble in rejoicing, remembering what the Lord said to his disciples when they boasted that even the devils were subject to them. For not all the elect work miracles, and yet the names of all are written in heaven. 27

King Ethelbert was converted and baptized (probably June 2, 597), and drew gradually his whole nation after him, though he was taught by the missionaries not to use compulsion, since the service of Christ ought to be voluntary.

Augustin, by order of pope Gregory, was ordained archbishop of the English nation by Vergilius,8archbishop of Arles, Nov. 16, 597, and became the first primate of England, with a long line of successors even to this day. On his return, at Christmas, he baptized more than ten thousand English. His talents and character did not rise above mediocrity, and he bears no comparison whatever with his great namesake, the theologian and bishop of Hippo; but he was, upon the whole, well fitted for his missionary work, and his permanent success lends to his name the halo of a borrowed greatness. He built a church and monastery at Canterbury, the mother-church of Anglo-Saxon Christendom. He sent the priest Laurentius to Rome to inform the pope of his progress and to ask an answer to a number of questions concerning the conduct of bishops towards their clergy, the ritualistic differences between the Roman and the Gallican churches, the marriage of two brothers to two sisters, the marriage of relations, whether a bishop may be ordained without other bishops being present, whether a woman with child ought to be baptized, how long after the birth of an infant carnal intercourse of married people should be delayed, etc. Gregory answered these questions very fully in the legalistic and ascetic spirit of the age, yet, upon the whole, with much good sense and pastoral wisdom. 29

It is remarkable that this pope, unlike his successors, did not insist on absolute conformity to the Roman church, but advises Augustin, who thought that the different customs of the Gallican church were inconsistent with the unity of faith, "to choose from every church those things that are pious, religious and upright;" for "things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things."0 In other respects, the advice falls in with the papal system and practice. He directs the missionaries not to destroy the heathen temples, but to convert them into Christian churches, to substitute the worship of relics for the worship of idols, and to allow the new converts, on the day of dedication and other festivities, to kill cattle according to their ancient custom, yet no more to the devils, but to the praise of God; for it is impossible, he thought, to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; and he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, must rise by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. 31 This method was faithfully followed by his missionaries. It no doubt facilitated the nominal conversion of England, but swept a vast amount of heathenism into the Christian church, which it took centuries to eradicate.

Gregory sent to Augustin, June 22, 601, the metropolitan pall (pallium), several priests (Mellitus, Justus, Paulinus, and others), many books, sacred vessels and vestments, and relics of apostles and martyrs. He directed him to ordain twelve bishops in the archiepiscopal diocese of Canterbury, and to appoint an archbishop for York, who was also to ordain twelve bishops, if the country adjoining should receive the word of God. Mellitus was consecrated the first bishop of London; Justus, bishop of Rochester, both in 604 by Augustin (without assistants); Paulinus, the first archbishop of York, 625, after the death of Gregory and Augustin. 32 The pope sent also letters and presents to king Ethelbert, "his most excellent son," exhorting him to persevere in the faith, to commend it by good works among his subjects, to suppress the worship of idols, and to follow the instructions of Augustin.

§ 11. Antagonism of the Saxon and British Clergy.
Bede, II. 2; Haddan and Stubbs, III. 38–41.
Augustin, with the aid of king Ethelbert, arranged (in 602 or 603) a conference with the British bishops, at a place in Sussex near the banks of the Severn under an oak, called "Augustin’s Oak." 33 He admonished them to conform to the Roman ceremonial in the observance of Easter Sunday, and the mode of administering baptism, and to unite with their Saxon brethren in converting the Gentiles. Augustin had neither wisdom nor charity enough to sacrifice even the most trifling ceremonies on the altar of peace. He was a pedantic and contracted churchman. He met the Britons, who represented at all events an older and native Christianity, with the haughty spirit of Rome, which is willing to compromise with heathen customs, but demands absolute submission from all other forms of Christianity, and hates independence as the worst of heresies.

The Britons preferred their own traditions. After much useless contention, Augustin proposed, and the Britons reluctantly accepted, an appeal to the miraculous interposition of God. A blind man of the Saxon race was brought forward and restored to sight by his prayer. The Britons still refused to give up their ancient customs without the consent of their people, and demanded a second and larger synod.

At the second Conference, seven bishops of the Britons, with a number of learned men from the Convent of Bangor, appeared, and were advised by a venerated hermit to submit the Saxon archbishop to the moral test of meekness and humility as required by Christ from his followers. If Augustin, at the meeting, shall rise before them, they should hear him submissively; but if he shall not rise, they should despise him as a proud man. As they drew near, the Roman dignitary remained seated in his chair. He demanded of them three things, viz. compliance with the Roman observance of the time of Easter, the Roman form of baptism, and aid in efforts to convert the English nation; and then he would readily tolerate their other peculiarities. They refused, reasoning among themselves, if he will not rise up before us now, how much more will he despise us when we shall be subject to his authority? Augustin indignantly rebuked them and threatened the divine vengeance by the arms of the Saxons. "All which," adds Bede, "through the dispensation of the divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted." For, a few years afterwards (613), Ethelfrith the Wild, the pagan King of Northumbria, attacked the Britons at Chester, and destroyed not only their army, but slaughtered several hundred 34priests and monks, who accompanied the soldiers to aid them with their prayers. The massacre was followed by the destruction of the flourishing monastery of Bangor, where more than two thousand monks lived by the labor of their hands.

This is a sad picture of the fierce animosity of the two races and rival forms of Christianity. Unhappily, it continues to the present day, but with a remarkable difference: the Keltic Irish who, like the Britons, once represented a more independent type of Catholicism, have, since the Norman conquest, and still more since the Reformation, become intense Romanists; while the English, once the dutiful subjects of Rome, have broken with that foreign power altogether, and have vainly endeavored to force Protestantism upon the conquered race. The Irish problem will not be solved until the double curse of national and religious antagonism is removed.

§ 12. Conversion of the Other Kingdoms of the Heptarchy.
Augustin, the apostle of the Anglo-Saxons, died a.d. 604, and lies buried, with many of his successors, in the venerable cathedral of Canterbury. On his tomb was written this epitaph: "Here rests the Lord Augustin, first archbishop of Canterbury, who being formerly sent hither by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the city of Rome, and by God’s assistance supported with miracles, reduced king Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ, and having ended the days of his office in peace, died on the 26th day of May, in the reign of the same king." 35

He was not a great man; but he did a great work in laying the foundations of English Christianity and civilization.

Laurentius (604–619), and afterwards Mellitus (619–624) succeeded him in his office.

Other priests and monks were sent from Italy, and brought with them books and such culture as remained after the irruption of the barbarians. The first archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of most of the Southern sees were foreigners, if not consecrated, at least commissioned by the pope, and kept up a constant correspondence with Rome. Gradually a native clergy arose in England.

The work of Christianization went on among the other kingdom of the heptarchy, and was aided by the marriage of kings with Christian wives, but was more than once interrupted by relapse into heathenism. Northumbria was converted chiefly through the labors of the sainted Aidan (d. Aug. 31, 651), a monk from the island Iona or Hii, and the first bishop of Lindisfarne, who is even lauded by Bede for his zeal, piety and good works, although he differed from him on the Easter question.6 Sussex was the last part of the Heptarchy which renounced paganism. It took nearly a hundred years before England was nominally converted to the Christian religion. 37

To this conversion England owes her national unity and the best elements of her civilization.8

The Anglo-Saxon Christianity was and continued to be till the Reformation, the Christianity of Rome, with its excellences and faults. It included the Latin mass, the worship of saints, images and relics, monastic virtues and vices, pilgrimages to the holy city, and much credulity and superstition. Even kings abdicated their crown to show their profound reverence for the supreme pontiff and to secure from him a passport to heaven. Chapels, churches and cathedrals were erected in the towns; convents founded in the country by the bank of the river or under the shelter of a hill, and became rich by pious donations of land. The lofty cathedrals and ivy-clad ruins of old abbeys and cloisters in England and Scotland still remain to testify in solemn silence to the power of mediaeval Catholicism.
§ 13. Conformity to Row Established. Wilfrid, Theodore, Bede.
The dispute between the Anglo-Saxon or Roman, and the British ritual was renewed in the middle of the seventh century, but ended with the triumph of the former in England proper. The spirit of independence had to take refuge in Ireland and Scotland till the time of the Norman conquest, which crushed it out also in Ireland.

Wilfrid, afterwards bishop of York, the first distinguished native prelate who combined clerical habits with haughty magnificence, acquired celebrity by expelling "the quartodeciman heresy and schism," as it was improperly called, from Northumbria, where the Scots had introduced it through St. Aidan. The controversy was decided in a Synod held at Whitby in 664 in the presence of King Oswy or Oswio and his son Alfrid. Colman, the second success or of Aidan, defended the Scottish observance of Easter by the authority of St. Columba and the apostle John. Wilfrid rested the Roman observance on the authority of Peter, who had introduced it in Rome, and on the universal custom of Christendom. When he mentioned, that to Peter were intrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the king said: "I will not contradict the door-keeper, lest when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven, there should be none to open them." By this irresistible argument the opposition was broken, and conformity to the Roman observance established. The Scottish semi-circular tonsure also, which was ascribed to Simon Magus, gave way to the circular, which was derived from St. Peter. Colman, being worsted, returned with his sympathizers to Scotland, where he built two monasteries. Tuda was made bishop in his place.9

Soon afterwards, a dreadful pestilence raged through England and Ireland, while Caledonia was saved, as the pious inhabitants believed, by the intercession of St. Columba.

The fusion of English Christians was completed in the age of Theodorus, archbishop of Canterbury (669 to 690), and Beda Venerabilis ( b. 673, d. 735), presbyter and monk of Wearmouth. About the same time Anglo-Saxon literature was born, and laid the foundation for the development of the national genius which ultimately broke loose from Rome.

Theodore was a native of Tarsus, where Paul was born, educated in Athens, and, of course, acquainted with Greek and Latin learning. He received his appointment and consecration to the primacy of England from Pope Vitalian. He arrived at Canterbury May 27, 669, visited the whole of England, established the Roman rule of Easter, and settled bishops in all the sees except London. He unjustly deposed bishop Wilfrid of York, who was equally devoted to Rome, but in his later years became involved in sacerdotal jealousies and strifes. He introduced order into the distracted church and some degree of education among the clergy. He was a man of autocratic temper, great executive ability, and, having been directly sent from Rome, he carried with him double authority. "He was the first archbishop," says Bede, "to whom the whole church of England submitted." During his administration the first Anglo-Saxon mission to the mother-country of the Saxons and Friesians was attempted by Egbert, Victberet, and Willibrord (689 to 692). His chief work is a "Penitential" with minute directions for a moral and religious life, and punishments for drunkenness, licentiousness, and other prevalent vices.0

The Venerable Bede was the first native English scholar, the father of English theology and church history. He spent his humble and peaceful life in the acquisition and cultivation of ecclesiastical and secular learning, wrote Latin in prose and verse, and translated portions of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. His chief work is his—the only reliable—Church History of old England. He guides us with a gentle hand and in truly Christian spirit, though colored by Roman views, from court to court, from monastery to monastery, and bishopric to bishopric, through the missionary labyrinth of the miniature kingdoms of his native island. He takes the Roman side in the controversies with the British churches.1

Before Bede cultivated Saxon prose, Caedmon (about 680), first a swine-herd, then a monk at Whitby, sung, as by inspiration, the wonders of creation and redemption, and became the father of Saxon (and Christian German) poetry. His poetry brought the Bible history home to the imagination of the Saxon people, and was a faint prophecy of the "Divina Comedia" and the "Paradise Lost."2 We have a remarkable parallel to this association of Bede and Caedmon in the association of Wiclif, the first translator of the whole Bible into English (1380), and the contemporary of Chaucer, the father of English poetry, both forerunners of the British Reformation, and sustaining a relation to Protestant England somewhat similar to the relation which Bede and Caedmon sustain to mediaeval Catholic England.

The conversion of England was nominal and ritual, rather than intellectual and moral. Education was confined to the clergy and monks, and consisted in the knowledge of the Decalogue, the Creed and the Pater Noster, a little Latin without any Greek or Hebrew. The Anglo-Saxon clergy were only less ignorant than the British. The ultimate triumph of the Roman church was due chiefly to her superior organization, her direct apostolic descent, and the prestige of the Roman empire. It made the Christianity of England independent of politics and court-intrigues, and kept it in close contact with the Christianity of the Continent. The advantages of this connection were greater than the dangers and evils of insular isolation. Among all the subjects of Teutonic tribes, the English became the most devoted to the Pope. They sent more pilgrims to Rome and more money into the papal treasury than any other nation. They invented the Peter’s Pence. At least thirty of their kings and queens, and an innumerable army of nobles ended their days in cloistral retreats. Nearly all of the public lands were deeded to churches and monasteries. But the exuberance of monasticism weakened the military and physical forces of the nation

Danish and the Norman conquests. The power and riches of the church secularized the clergy, and necessitated in due time a reformation. Wealth always tends to vice, and vice to decay. The Norman conquest did not change the ecclesiastical relations of England, but infused new blood and vigor into the Saxon race, which is all the better for its mixed character.

We add a list of the early archbishops and bishops of the four principal English sees, in the order of their foundation: 43











[Cedd in Essex












Wilfrid, consecrated 665, in possession


























Wilfrid again






Bosa again


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