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The community of goods, which had so agreeably amused the imagination of Plato, 128 and which subsisted in some degree
among the austere sect of the Essenians, 129 was adopted for a short time in the primitive church. The fervor of the first
proselytes prompted them to sell those worldly possessions, which they despised, to lay the price of them at the feet of the
apostles, and to content themselves with receiving an equal share out of the general distribution. 130 The progress of the
Christian religion relaxed, and gradually abolished, this generous institution, which, in hands less pure than those of the apostles,
would too soon have been corrupted and abused by the returning selfishness of human nature; and the converts who embraced the
new religion were permitted to retain the possession of their patrimony, to receive legacies and inheritances, and to increase their
separate property by all the lawful means of trade and industry. Instead of an absolute sacrifice, a moderate proportion was
accepted by the ministers of the gospel; and in their weekly or monthly assemblies, every believer, according to the exigency of
the occasion, and the measure of his wealth and piety, presented his voluntary offering for the use of the common fund. 131
Nothing, however inconsiderable, was refused; but it was diligently inculcated; that, in the article of Tithes, the Mosaic law was
still of divine obligation; and that since the Jews, under a less perfect discipline, had been commanded to pay a tenth part of all that
they possessed, it would become the disciples of Christ to distinguish themselves by a superior degree of liberality, 132 and to
acquire some merit by resigning a superfluous treasure, which must so soon be annihilated with the world itself. 133 It is almost
unnecessary to observe, that the revenue of each particular church, which was of so uncertain and fluctuating a nature, must have
varied with the poverty or the opulence of the faithful, as they were dispersed in obscure villages, or collected in the great cities of
the empire. In the time of the emperor Decius, it was the opinion of the magistrates, that the Christians of Rome were possessed
of very considerable wealth; that vessels of gold and silver were used in their religious worship, and that many among their
proselytes had sold their lands and houses to increase the public riches of the sect, at the expense, indeed, of their unfortunate
children, who found themselves beggars, because their parents had been saints. 134 We should listen with distrust to the
suspicions of strangers and enemies: on this occasion, however, they receive a very specious and probable color from the two
following circumstances, the only ones that have reached our knowledge, which define any precise sums, or convey any distinct
idea. Almost at the same period, the bishop of Carthage, from a society less opulent than that of Rome, collected a hundred
thousand sesterces, (above eight hundred and fifty pounds sterling,) on a sudden call of charity to redeem the brethren of Numidia,
who had been carried away captives by the barbarians of the desert. 135 About a hundred years before the reign of Decius, the
Roman church had received, in a single donation, the sum of two hundred thousand sesterce from a stranger of Pontus, who
proposed to fix his residence in the capital. 136 These oblations, for the most part, were made in money; nor was the society of
Christians either desirous or capable of acquiring, to any considerable degree, the encumbrance of landed property. It had been
provided by several laws, which were enacted with the same design as our statutes of mortmain, that no real estates should be
given or bequeathed to any corporate body, without either a special privilege or a particular dispensation from the emperor or from
the senate; 137 who were seldom disposed to grant them in favor of a sect, at first the object of their contempt, and at last of
their fears and jealousy. A transaction, however, is related under the reign of Alexander Severus, which discovers that the
restraint was sometimes eluded or suspended, and that the Christians were permitted to claim and to possess lands within the limits
of Rome itself. 138 The progress of Christianity, and the civil confusion of the empire, contributed to relax the severity of the
laws; and before the close of the third century many considerable estates were bestowed on the opulent churches of Rome, Milan,
Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, and the other great cities of Italy and the provinces.
Footnote 128: The community instituted by Plato is more perfect than that which Sir Thomas More had imagined for his Utopia.
The community of women, and that of temporal goods, may be considered as inseparable parts of the same system.
Footnote 129: Joseph. Antiquitat. xviii. 2. Philo, de Vit. Contemplativ.
Footnote 130: See the Acts of the Apostles, c. 2, 4, 5, with
Grotius's Commentary. Mosheim, in a particular dissertation, attacks the common opinion with very inconclusive arguments.
Footnote 131: Justin Martyr, Apolog. Major, c. 89. Tertullian, Apolog. c. 39.
Footnote 132: Irenaeus ad Haeres. l. iv. c. 27, 34. Origen in Num. Hom. ii Cyprian de Unitat. Eccles. Constitut. Apostol. l. ii. c.
34, 35, with the notes of Cotelerius. The Constitutions introduce this divine precept, by declaring that priests are as much above
kings as the soul is above the body. Among the tithable articles, they enumerate corn, wine, oil, and wool. On this interesting
subject, consult Prideaux's History of Tithes, and Fra Paolo delle Materie Beneficiarie; two writers of a very different character.
Footnote 133: The same opinion which prevailed about the year one thousand, was productive of the same effects. Most of the
Donations express their motive, "appropinquante mundi fine." See Mosheim's General History of the Church, vol. i. p. 457.
Footnote 134: Tum summa cura est fratribus (Ut sermo testatur loquax.) Offerre, fundis venditis Sestertiorum millia. Addicta
avorum praedia Foedis sub auctionibus, Successor exheres gemit Sanctis egens Parentibus. Haec occuluntur abditis Ecclesiarum
in angulis. Et summa pietas creditur Nudare dulces liberos.
Prudent. Hymn 2.
The subsequent conduct of the deacon Laurence only proves how proper a use was made of the wealth of the Roman church; it
was undoubtedly very considerable; but Fra Paolo (c. 3) appears to exaggerate, when he supposes that the successors of
Commodus were urged to persecute the Christians by their own avarice, or that of their Praetorian praefects.
Cyprian, Epistol. 62.
Footnote 136: Tertullian de Praescriptione, c. 30.
Footnote 137: Diocletian gave a rescript, which is only a declaration of the old law; "Collegium, si nullo speciali privilegio subnixum
sit, haereditatem capere non posse, dubium non est." Fra Paolo (c. 4) thinks that these regulations had been much neglected since
the reign of Valerian.
Footnote 138: Hist. August. p. 131. The ground had been public; and was row disputed between the
society of Christians and that of butchers. Note *: Carponarii, rather victuallers. - M.
The bishop was the natural steward of the church; the public stock was intrusted to his care without account or control; the
presbyters were confined to their spiritual functions, and the more dependent order of the deacons was solely employed in the
management and distribution of the ecclesiastical revenue. 139 If we may give credit to the vehement declamations of Cyprian,
there were too many among his African brethren, who, in the execution of their charge, violated every precept, not only of
evangelical perfection, but even of moral virtue. By some of these unfaithful stewards the riches of the church were lavished in
sensual pleasures; by others they were perverted to the purposes of private gain, of fraudulent purchases, and of rapacious usury.
140 But as long as the contributions of the Christian people were free and unconstrained, the abuse of their confidence could not
be very frequent, and the general uses to which their liberality was applied reflected honor on the religious society. A decent
portion was reserved for the maintenance of the bishop and his clergy; a sufficient sum was allotted for the expenses of the public
worship, of which the feasts of love, the agapoe, as they were called, constituted a very pleasing part. The whole remainder was
the sacred patrimony of the poor. According to the discretion of the bishop, it was distributed to support widows and orphans, the
lame, the sick, and the aged of the community; to comfort strangers and pilgrims, and to alleviate the misfortunes of prisoners and
captives, more especially when their sufferings had been occasioned by their firm attachment to the cause of religion. 141 A
generous intercourse of charity united the most distant provinces, and the smaller congregations were cheerfully assisted by the
alms of their more opulent brethren. 142 Such an institution, which paid less regard to the merit than to the distress of the object,
very materially conduced to the progress of Christianity. The Pagans, who were actuated by a sense of humanity, while they
derided the doctrines, acknowledged the benevolence, of the new sect. 143 The prospect of immediate relief and of future
protection allured into its hospitable bosom many of those unhappy persons whom the neglect of the world would have abandoned
to the miseries of want, of sickness, and of old age. There is some reason likewise to believe that great numbers of infants, who,
according to the inhuman practice of the times, had been exposed by their parents, were frequently rescued from death, baptized,
educated, and maintained by the piety of the Christians, and at the expense of the public treasure. 144
Footnote 139: Constitut.
Apostol. ii. 35.
Footnote 140: Cyprian de Lapsis, p. 89. Epistol. 65. The charge is confirmed by the 19th and 20th canon of the council of
Footnote 141: See the apologies of Justin, Tertullian, &c.
Footnote 142: The wealth and liberality of the Romans to
their most distant brethren is gratefully celebrated by Dionysius of Corinth, ap. Euseb. l. iv. c. 23.
Footnote 143: See Lucian iu Peregrin. Julian (Epist. 49) seems mortified that the Christian charity maintains not only their own,
but likewise the heathen poor.
Footnote 144: Such, at least, has been the laudable conduct of more modern missionaries, under the same circumstances. Above
three thousand new-born infants are annually exposed in the streets of Peking. See Le Comte, Memoires sur la Chine, and the
Recherches sur les Chinois et les Egyptians, tom. i. p. 61.
It is the undoubted right of every society to exclude from its
communion and benefits such among its members as reject or violate those regulations which have been established by general
consent. In the exercise of this power, the censures of the Christian church were chiefly directed against scandalous sinners, and
particularly those who were guilty of murder, of fraud, or of incontinence; against the authors or the followers of any heretical
opinions which had been condemned by the judgment of the Episcopal order; and against those unhappy persons, who, whether
from choice or compulsion, had polluted themselves after their baptism by any act of idolatrous worship. The consequences of
excommunication were of a temporal as well as a spiritual nature. The Christian against whom it was pronounced, was deprived
of any part in the oblations of the faithful. The ties both of religious and of private friendship were dissolved: he found himself a
profane object of abhorrence to the persons whom he the most esteemed, or by whom he had been the most tenderly beloved; and
as far as an expulsion from a respectable society could imprint on his character a mark of disgrace, he was shunned or suspected
by the generality of mankind. The situation of these unfortunate exiles was in itself very painful and melancholy; but, as it usually
happens, their apprehensions far exceeded their sufferings. The benefits of the Christian communion were those of eternal life;
nor could they erase from their minds the awful opinion, that to those ecclesiastical governors by whom they were condemned, the
Deity had committed the keys of Hell and of Paradise. The heretic, indeed, who might be supported by the consciousness of their
intentions, and by the flattering hope that they alone had discovered the true path of salvation, endeavored to regain, in their
separate assemblies, those comforts, temporal as well as spiritual, which they no longer derived from the great society of
Christians. But almost all those who had reluctantly yielded to the power of vice or idolatry were sensible of their fallen condition,
and anxiously desirous of being restored to the benefits of the Christian communion.
With regard to the treatment of these penitents, two opposite opinions, the one of justice, the other of mercy, divided the primitive
church. The more rigid and inflexible casuists refused them forever, and without exception, the meanest place in the holy
community, which they had disgraced or deserted; and leaving them to the remorse of a guilty conscience, indulged them only with
a faint ray of hope that the contrition of their life and death might possibly be accepted by the Supreme Being. 145 A milder
sentiment was embraced in practice as well as in theory, by the purest and most respectable of the Christian churches. 146 The
gates of reconciliation and of heaven were seldom shut against the returning penitent; but a severe and solemn form of discipline
was instituted, which, while it served to expiate his crime, might powerfully deter the spectators from the imitation of his example.
Humbled by a public confession, emaciated by fasting and clothed in sackcloth, the penitent lay prostrate at the door of the
assembly, imploring with tears the pardon of his offences, and soliciting the prayers of the faithful. 147 If the fault was of a very
heinous nature, whole years of penance were esteemed an inadequate satisfaction to the divine justice; and it was always by slow
and painful gradations that the sinner, the heretic, or the apostate, was readmitted into the bosom of the church. A sentence of
perpetual excommunication was, however, reserved for some crimes of an extraordinary magnitude, and particularly for the
inexcusable relapses of those penitents who had already experienced and abused the clemency of their ecclesiastical superiors.
According to the circumstances or the number of the guilty, the exercise of the Christian discipline was varied by the discretion of
the bishops. The councils of Ancyra and Illiberis were held about the same time, the one in Galatia, the other in Spain; but their
respective canons, which are still extant, seem to breathe a very different spirit. The Galatian, who after his baptism had
repeatedly sacrificed to idols, might obtain his pardon by a penance of seven years; and if he had seduced others to imitate his
example, only three years more were added to the term of his exile. But the unhappy Spaniard, who had committed the same
offence, was deprived of the hope of reconciliation, even in the article of death; and his idolatry was placed at the head of a list of
seventeen other crimes, against which a sentence no less terrible was pronounced. Among these we may distinguish the inexpiable
guilt of calumniating a bishop, a presbyter, or even a deacon. 148
Footnote 145: The Montanists and the Novatians, who adhered to this opinion with the greatest rigor and obstinacy, found
themselves at last in the number of excommunicated heretics. See the learned and copious Mosheim, Secul. ii. and iii.
Footnote 146: Dionysius ap. Euseb. iv. 23. Cyprian, de Lapsis.
Footnote 147: Cave's Primitive Christianity, part iii. c. 5. The admirers of antiquity regret the loss of this public penance.
Footnote 148: See in Dupin, Bibliotheque Ecclesiastique, tom. ii. p. 304 - 313, a short but rational exposition of the canons of those
councils, which were assembled in the first moments of tranquillity, after the persecution of Diocletian. This persecution had been
much less severely felt in Spain than in Galatia; a difference which may, in some measure account for the contrast of their
The well-tempered mixture of liberality and rigor, the judicious dispensation of rewards and punishments, according to the maxims
of policy as well as justice, constituted the human strength of the church. The Bishops, whose paternal care extended itself to the
government of both worlds, were sensible of the importance of these prerogatives; and covering their ambition with the fair
pretence of the love of order, they were jealous of any rival in the exercise of a discipline so necessary to prevent the desertion of
those troops which had enlisted themselves under the banner of the cross, and whose numbers every day became more
considerable. From the imperious declamations of Cyprian, we should naturally conclude that the doctrines of excommunication
and penance formed the most essential part of religion; and that it was much less dangerous for the disciples of Christ to neglect
the observance of the moral duties, than to despise the censures and authority of their bishops. Sometimes we might imagine that
we were listening to the voice of Moses, when he commanded the earth to open, and to swallow up, in consuming flames, the
rebellious race which refused obedience to the priesthood of Aaron; and we should sometimes suppose that we hear a Roman
consul asserting the majesty of the republic, and declaring his inflexible resolution to enforce the rigor of the laws. * "If such
irregularities are suffered with impunity," (it is thus that the bishop of Carthage chides the lenity of his colleague,) "if such
irregularities are suffered, there is an end of Episcopal Vigor; 149 an end of the sublime and divine power of governing the
Church, an end of Christianity itself." Cyprian had renounced those temporal honors, which it is probable he would never have
obtained; * but the acquisition of such absolute command over the consciences and understanding of a congregation, however
obscure or despised by the world, is more truly grateful to the pride of the human heart, than the possession of the most despotic
power, imposed by arms and conquest on a reluctant people.
Footnote *: Gibbon has been accused of injustice to the character of
Cyprian, as exalting the "censures and authority of the church above the observance of the moral duties." Felicissimus had been
condemned by a synod of bishops, (non tantum mea, sed plurimorum coepiscorum, sententia condemnatum,) on the charge not
only of schism, but of embezzlement of public money, the debauching of virgins, and frequent acts of adultery. His violent menaces
had extorted his readmission into the church, against which Cyprian protests with much vehemence.
Footnote 149: Cyprian Epist. 69.
Footnote *: This supposition appears unfounded: the birth and the talents of Cyprian might make us presume the contrary.
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 495-502.