|The Story of the Middle Ages|
|by Samuel B. Harding|
|Relates the history of the Middle Ages simply, directly, and entertainingly. The material is well-arranged and the selection of topics is excellent. Special attention is given to presenting the life of the people—peasant, noble, and court. A unique and valuable book. Ages 11-14 |
GROWTH OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
N another book you may have read of the trials which
the early Christians had to endure under the Roman
rule;—of how they were looked upon with scorn and
suspicion; how they were persecuted; how they were
forced to meet in secret caves called catacombs, where
they worshiped, and buried their dead; and how at last,
after many martyrs had shed their blood in witness to
their faith, the Emperor Constantine allowed them to
worship freely, and even himself became a Christian.
After this, Christianity had spread rapidly in the
Roman Empire; so that by the time the German tribes
began to pour across the borders, almost all of the
people who were ruled by the Emperor had adopted the
Christian religion, and the old Roman worship of
Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva was fast becoming a thing of
When Christianity had become the religion of many
people, it was necessary for the Church to have some
form of organization; and such an organization speedily
began to grow. First we find some of the Christians set
aside to act as priests, and have charge of the
services in the church. We find next among
 the priests
in each city one who comes to be styled the "overseeing
priest" or bishop, whose duty it was to look after the
affairs of the churches in his district. Gradually,
too, the bishops in the more important cities come to
have certain powers over the bishops of the smaller
cities about them; these were then called
"archbishops." And finally, there came to be one out
of the many hundred bishops of the Church who was
looked up to more than any other person, and whose
advice was sought in all important Church questions.
This was because he had charge of the church in Rome,
the most important city of the Empire, and because he
was believed to be the successor of St. Peter, the
chief of the Apostles. The name "Pope," which means
father, was given to him; and it was his duty to watch
over all the affairs of the Church on earth, as a
father watches over the affairs of his family.
Of course, all this organization did not spring up at
once, ready made. Great things grow slowly; and so it
was only slowly that this organization grew. Sometimes
disputes arose as to the amount of power the priests
should have over the "laymen," as those who were
priests were called; and sometimes there were disputes
among the "clergy" or churchmen,
Sometimes these disputes were about power, and lands,
and things of that sort; for now the Church had become
wealthy and powerful, through gifts made to it by
rulers and pious laymen. More often the questions to be
settled had to do with the belief of the Church,—that
is, with the exact meaning of the teachings of Christ
and the Apostles, as they are recorded in the Bible and
in the writings of the early Christian teachers. Many
of the questions which were discussed seem strange to
us; but men were very much in earnest about them then.
And at times, when a hard question arose concerning the
belief of the Church, men would travel hundreds of
miles to the great Church Councils or meetings where
the matter was to be decided, and undergo hardships and
sufferings without number, to see that the question was
decided as they thought was right.
One of the questions which caused most trouble was
brought forward by an Egyptian priest named Arius. He
claimed that Christ the Son was not equal in power and
glory to God the Father. Another Egyptian priest named
Athanasius thought this was a wrong belief, or
"heresy"; so he combated the belief of Arius in every
way that he could. Soon the whole Christian world rang
with the controversy. To settle the dispute the first
great Council of the Church was called by the Emperor
Constantine in the year 325 A.D. It met at Nicæa, a
city in Asia Minor. There "Arianism" was condemned,
and the teaching of Athanasius was declared to be the
true belief of the Church. But this did not end the
struggle. The followers of Arius would not give up, and
for a while
 they were stronger than their opponents.
Five times Athanasius was driven from his position of
archbishop in Egypt, and for twenty years he was forced
to live an exile from his native land But he never
faltered, and never ceased to write, preach, and argue
for the belief which the Council had declared to be the
true one. Even after Arius and Athanasius were both
dead, the quarrel still went on. Indeed, it was nearly
two hundred years before the last of the "Arians" gave
up their view of the matter; but in the end the
teachings of Athanasius became the belief of the whole
One consequence of this dispute about Arianism was that
the churches in the East and West began to drift apart.
The Western churches followed the lead of the bishop of
Rome and supported Athanasius in the struggle, while
the Eastern churches for a time supported Arius. Even
after Arianism had been given up, a quarrel still
existed concerning the relation of the Holy Ghost to
the Father and Son. As time went on, still other
disputes arose between the East and West. The Roman
clergy shaved their faces and were not permitted to
marry, while the Greek clergy let their beards grow,
and married and had children. Moreover Rome and
Constantinople could not agree as to whether leavened
or unleavened bread should be used in the Lord's Supper.
Still less could the great bishop of Constantinople,
where the Emperor held his court, admit that the power
of the bishop of Rome was above his own. Each side
looked with contempt and distrust upon the other; for
the one were Greeks and the other Latins, and the
differences of race and
 language made it difficult for
them to understand one another.
Gradually the breach grew wider and wider. At last,
after many, many years of ill feeling, the two churches
broke off all relations. After that there was always a
Greek Catholic Church (which exists to this day) as
well as a Roman one; and the power of the Pope was
acknowledged only by the churches in the Western or
Latin half of the world.
The Church, of course, was as much changed by the
conquests of the Germans as was the rest of the Roman
world. The barbarians who settled in the lands of the
Empire had already become Christians, for the most
part, before the conquest, but they were still ignorant
barbarians. Worst of all, the views which they had
been taught at first were those held by the Arians; and
this made them more feared and hated by the Roman
Christians. Among the citizens of the Empire, as well
as among the barbarians, there was also much
wickedness, oppression, and unfair dealing. "The world
is full of confusion," wrote one holy man. "No one
trusts any one; each man is afraid of his neighbor.
Many are the fleeces beneath which are concealed
innumerable wolves, so that one might live more safely
among enemies than among those who appear to be
The result of this was that man began to turn from the
world to God. Many went out into the deserts of Egypt,
and other waste and solitary places, and became
hermits. There they lived, clothed in rags or the
skins of wild beasts, and eating the coarsest food, in
order that they might escape from the temptations
the world. The more they punished their bodies, the
more they thought it helped their souls; so all sorts
of strange deeds were performed by them. Perhaps the
strangest case of all was that of a man named Simeon,
who was called "Stylites," from the way in which he
lived. For thirty years,—day and night, summer and
winter,—he dwelt on the top of a high pillar, so
narrow that there was barely room for him to lie down.
There for hours at a time he would stand praying, with
his arms stretched out in the form of a cross; or else
he would pass hours bowing his wasted body rapidly from
his forehead to his feet, until at times the people who
stood by counted a thousand bows without a single stop.
Such things as these happened more frequently in the
Eastern than they did in the Western Church. In the
West, men were more practical, and when they wished to
flee from the world, they went into waste places and
founded "monasteries," where the "monks," as they were
called, dwelt together under the rule of an abbot. In
the West, too, the power of the bishop of Rome became
much greater than that possessed in the East by the
bishop of Constantinople. It was because the Pope was
already the leading man in Rome that Leo went out to
meet the Huns and the
 Vandals, and tried to save Rome
from them. About one hundred and forty years later,
Pope Gregory the Great occupied even a higher position.
He not only had charge of the churches near Rome, and was
looked up to by the churches of Gaul, Spain and Africa
more than Leo had been; but he also ruled the land
about Rome much as an emperor or king ruled his
Gregory was born of a noble and wealthy Roman family.
When he inherited his fortune he gave it all to found
seven monasteries, and he himself became a monk in one
of these. There he lived a severe and studious life.
At length, against his own wishes, he was chosen by the
clergy and people to be Pope. This was in the very
midst of the Dark Ages. The Lombards had just come
into Italy, and everything was in confusion.
Everywhere cities were ruined, churches burned, and
monasteries destroyed. Farms were laid waste and left
uncultivated; and wild beasts roamed over the deserted
fields. For twenty-seven years, Gregory wrote, Rome
had been in terror of the sword of the Lombards. "What
is happening in other countries," he said, "we know
not; but in this the end of the world seems not only to
be approaching, but to have actually begun." The
rulers that the Eastern Emperors set up in Italy, after
it had been recovered from the East-Goths, either could
not or would not help. And to make matters worse,
famine and sickness came, and the people died by
So Gregory was obliged to act not only as the bishop of
Rome, but as its ruler also. He caused processions to
march about the city, and prayers to be said, to stop
the sickness. He caused grain to be brought and
to the people, so that they might no longer die of
famine. He also defended the city against the
Lombards, until a peace could be made. In this way a
beginning was made of the rule of the Pope over Rome,
which did not come to an end until the year 1871.
Gregory was not only bishop of Rome, and ruler of the
city. He was also the head of the whole Western
Church, and was constantly busy with its affairs.
Before he was chosen Pope, Gregory was passing through
the market-place at Rome, one day, and came to the spot
where slaves—white slaves—were sold. There he saw
some beautiful, fair-haired boys.
"From what country do these boys come?" he asked.
"From the island of Britain," was the answer.
"Are they Christians?"
"No," he was told; "they are still pagans."
"Alas!" exclaimed Gregory, "that the Prince of Darkness
should have power over forms of such loveliness."
Then he asked of what nation they were.
"They are Angles," replied their owner.
"Truly," said Gregory, "they seem like angels, not
Angles. From what province of Britain are they?"
"From Deira," said the man naming a kingdom in the
northern part of the island.
"Then," said Gregory, making a pun in the Latin, "they
must be rescued de ira [from the wrath of God]. And
what is the name of their king?"
"Ælla," was the answer.
"Yea," said Gregory, as he turned to go, "Alleluia must
be sung in the land of Ælla."
 At first Gregory planned to go himself as missionary to
convert the Angles and Saxons. In this he was
disappointed; but when he became Pope he sent a monk
named Augustine as leader of a band of missionaries.
By their preaching, Christianity was introduced into
the English kingdoms, and the English were gradually
won from the old German worship of Woden and Thor.
Gregory also had an important part in winning the
West-Goths and Lombards from Arianism to the true
faith. In all that he did Gregory's action seemed so
wise and good that men said he was counselled by the
Holy Spirit; and in the pictures of him the Holy Spirit
is always represented, in the form of a dove, hovering
about his head.
Gregory has been called the real father of the Papacy
of the Middle Ages. This is no small praise, for the
Papacy, in those dark ages, was of great service to
Christendom. In later ages, popes sometimes became
corrupt; and at last the Reformation came, in which
many nations of the West threw off their obedience.
But in the dark days of the Middle Ages, all the
Western nations looked up to the Pope as the head of
the Church on earth, and the influence of the popes was
for good. There was very little order, union, and
love for right and justice in the Middle Ages, as it
was; but no one can imagine how much greater would have
been the confusion, the lawlessness, and the disorder
without the restraining influence of the Papacy.
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