“Seventeen Centuries of Christianity,” Ensign, Sept. 1978, 51
The Restoration did not come without preparation—through the efforts of many good people whose works kept gospel embers burning through the centuries from John the Revelator to Joseph the Prophet. What was the gospel message like during this period? What was it like for many of our forebears who lived and believed during this time? An internationally prominent Latter-day Saint scholar of the Reformation discusses the centuries of Christianity during which the name of Jesus was kept before mankind, awaiting the day of restoration.
The story of Christianity is not simple to tell or easy to comprehend.
It contains cruelty as well as kindness, tragedy as well as triumph. It is the story of human endeavor to pursue a divine purpose without fully understanding what that purpose is: having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. (JS—H 1:19.) Many church leaders over the centuries were miscreants of the worst kind, sowing seeds of confusion and corruption in the church.
But many others were worthy people who paid attention to the “still small voice,” who understood at least in part the teachings of the Savior, and who promoted love, goodness, and obedience to God’s commandments. These are the ones who responded to the light they had received and helped prepare for the day when God would restore the priesthood and gospel in its fulness.
The primitive church of Christ, composed both of loyal Jews who had heard the message of the Savior and many gentiles converted to Christianity through the missionary labors of Paul and others, spread quickly around the perimeter of the eastern Mediterranean.
By the time of John’s exile to the Isle of Patmos, Christian communities existed in Syria and Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, North Africa, Greece, Macedonia, and Italy. The instructions of Jesus to his apostles to go forth and teach all nations were followed faithfully. The people of God no longer belonged to a single nation but to a universal church.
Expansion continued during the next century, and congregations of Christians were dispersed as far eastward as Arbela in Persia, and westward to Vienne and Lyon in Gaul (modern France). Obviously, the political, linguistic, and cultural diversity of these communities was enormous, and the problem of communication overwhelming. Yet they all had two things in common: a testimony of the resurrected Christ, and the perennial threat of persecution.
For three hundred years Christians were scorned and persecuted, first in Jerusalem by their Jewish countrymen and later by official proscription throughout the Roman Empire. Free exercise of the Jewish religion was permitted under Roman rule, and as long as Christians were considered as part of Judaism they were unmolested by Roman authorities. But it soon became evident, from their rejection by the Jews and the rapid influx of gentiles into their fold, that the followers of Christ were not included among the followers of the Mosaic law.
Christians’ refusal to worship and sacrifice to the Roman emperor condemned their faith to the status of an illicit religion under Roman law. Official state persecution began with Nero in the first century A.D. and was sporadically renewed and intensified under subsequent emperors. Besides physical persecution, Christians were also subjected to extreme social discrimination and continuous suspicion and hatred.
Despite all of these oppressions, Christianity continued to grow in strength and number. As it did, it encountered more pernicious threats from the infiltration of Eastern mystery cults and religious philosophies that seeped into Christianity during the second and third centuries A.D. Christians fought these influences, but similarities between them and Christian beliefs made it difficult at times to distinguish between the philosophies.
Had the people been able to seek the counsel and inspiration of prophetic leaders they might yet have maintained a constant course. But with the death of the apostles, general priesthood leadership was lost, and with it the vision of divine direction and purpose. Members and local leaders were left to their own resources to solve their mounting problems, although the channel of communication with God remained open for anyone who was worthy and willing to use it.
The original organization of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, bishops, and deacons underwent gradual change as situations and personnel altered and as people’s views and customs varied. Likewise, doctrines grew more diverse as conflicting opinions arose over the content and meaning of Christ’s teachings.
To arrest such tendencies, Christians tried to establish norms of belief and behavior. They began the search for authentic documents from the time of Jesus and the apostles to serve as guides. Even then disagreements arose as to the authenticity and propriety of many of the sources uncovered, and some were never found at all.
By the close of the second century, however, agreement was fairly widespread that the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with a number of Paul’s epistles and some from James, Peter, and John, should be recognized as the New Testament. In 367 A.D. the present collection of twenty-seven books was accepted.
Another attempt to conserve the faith appeared in the so-called Apostles’ Creed, a concise statement of doctrinal belief in God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, intended specifically to repudiate some of the tenets of Marcionism, another Eastern religion with similarities to Christianity.
In the meantime, several individuals rose to defend the faith against heretical influences. In so doing they introduced such philosophical subtleties and hair-splitting definitions that it became difficult for ordinary Christians to comprehend even basic beliefs. Among these well-meaning but misleading early church fathers was Tertullian of Carthage (Circa 150–220 A.D.), a learned lawyer whose definition of the Trinity as three in person but one in substance initiated the Christian confusion over the Godhead. Others included Clement of Alexandria (Circa 150–215 A.D.), who employed Greek philosophy to describe the nature of Christ (the Logos, or Word, always existed as the “face” of God); and Clement’s prize pupil, Origen (Circa 185–254 A.D.), a pious and brilliant teacher who held that Christ is the Logos in flesh, coeternal with but subordinate to the Father and associated in dignity with the uncreated Holy Ghost.
Dissension continued, particularly concerning Christ’s nature and his relationship to the Father, until these controversies led to a major schism among Christians. Arius (Circa 250–336), a priest in the church of Alexandria, believed and taught that although God is without beginning or end, the Son had a beginning and is therefore neither God nor man, being a creation of God. Arius’s views spread rapidly into the eastern part of the empire where violent controversy quickly followed.
Emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity in 312 A.D. and lifted the imperial ban against Christians, feared that the Arian controversy might divide the empire he had so recently united. He convened the first general council of the church in Nicaea, near Constantinople, in 325 A.D. The council did not end doctrinal strife, but it did condemn Arianism and issued the Nicene Creed, which declared universal belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, … begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.” Despite this pronouncement, the controversy continued to plague the church as the Nicene Creed was alternately accepted and rejected by subsequent emperors.
These myopic gropings emphasize the futility of comprehending spiritual matters without the gift of the Spirit. They also underline the doctrinal and regional fragmentation of the church during the decay and breakup of the Western Roman Empire between 300 and 600 A.D. By 787 A.D., no fewer than seven councils had convened to try to solve the theological arguments.
The theology of the Western portion of Christendom was strongly influenced by four men of the fourth and early fifth centuries: Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, known collectively as the Latin Fathers.
As bishop of Milan, Ambrose (Circa 340–397) struggled to proclaim and maintain the independence of the church from the encroachments of the state.
Jerome (Circa 345–420) is remembered as the scholarly ascetic who translated the Bible into the Latin version (the Vulgate) that is still used by the Roman Catholic Church.
After years as a monk, John Chrysostom (347–Circa 407) became the most eloquent preacher in the early church (Chrysostom meaning “golden mouth”).
Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote several works: The Confessions, revealing his own life in the light of God’s grace; The City of God, setting forth his philosophy of history as the dichotomy between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God; and On the Trinity, giving final form to the Western church’s teaching of the divine Trinity. Heavily influenced by paganism, Augustine expounded a view of man and God that was hardly complimentary to either.
For five hundred years after the death of Augustine the Western church was ravaged and desolated by the decay of the protective Roman Empire, by the ensuing invasions from the north (Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Franks, and Vikings), and by the conquests of a vigorous new religion from the Middle East—Islam. Carried throughout Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, North Africa, and into Europe through the Iberian peninsula, Islam spread until, by the middle of the eighth century, half of Christendom had come under Islamic rule. Christianity survived, however, though weakened and reduced, and began the slow process of recovering its losses and conquering the conquerors. Step by step, the barbarian invaders were converted to Christianity: the Franks first, then the Anglo-Saxons, the Frisians, and the other Germans. Goths, Lombards, and Burgundians were assimilated into Latin Christendom, as were the vagrant Norsemen. By the end of the eleventh century, Christian crusaders were returning to the East to “redeem” the Holy Land.
Perhaps the most significant change during those “dark ages” was the complete split between the Eastern and Western churches, and the rise of a professional, hierarchical clergy in the West, culminating in the powerful papacy.
The growth of papal power was slow but inexorable. In Constantine’s time, the bishop of Rome was only one of many bishops, with no more authority in the church as a whole than the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, or Constantinople. But by the thirteenth century, as pope, he boldly proclaimed his supremacy over all the world and its kingdoms.
Constantine and each of his immediate successors had been head of the church—making it an imperial theocracy that continued in the East until 1453. The bishops of Rome, however, contested the imperial supremacy and pronounced their own “primacy” on the ground that Rome was the “Apostolic See,” the center established by the apostle Peter.
In the fifth century Roman bishops began using the title pope (father) to emphasize their superiority to other bishops, a position strongly asserted by Leo I “The Great” (440–61) and expanded by several strong-willed successors. By the middle of the eighth century, when Pope Stephen II sought and received the protection of the Frankish king, the papacy had fully freed itself from imperial authority and resumed its climb to Europeanwide power.
The medieval church was governed by an intricate hierarchical system consisting of the pope at the top, archbishops and bishops in the middle, and parish priests at the bottom. In addition to their jurisdictional functions, priests administered seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, eucharist, and extreme unction). These sacraments were believed to be the channels by which divine grace was imparted to man.
Separate from these ecclesiastical officers was another group who provided educational and social services and encouraged certain ascetic and personal expressions of Christian piety. These were the orders of monks and nuns, whose lives were regulated by their respective orders, and who took upon themselves formal vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Medieval monasticism had evolved through a long history, beginning in the third century with early hermits like St. Anthony, who took literally Christ’s injunction to the rich young man to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” (Matt. 19:21.) Later monks lived communally in monasteries under strict rules, attempting to live in the world but not be of it.
Another kind of religious order, the mendicant friars, came into being in the thirteenth century. Rather than secluding themselves in monasteries, they sought to carry the Christian message by teaching and good deeds.
The first of these orders was the Franciscan, or Friars Minor, founded in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226). Francis’s own life was one of simple and sensitive devotion to God and unselfish service to mankind. A kind-hearted and gentle man, he urged others to love God and neighbors, to forgive freely, and to abstain from all vices of the flesh.
The Dominican Order, or Friars Preachers, was founded by a Spanish priest and student, St. Dominic (Dominic de Guzman, 1170–1221). The mission of this order was to preach to the weak in spirit, to convert the non-Christians, and to teach repentance to the wayward.
Many wayward souls did respond to Dominic’s efforts, but others believed the church possessed neither the true gospel nor the authority of God. Such a religious group was the Cathari (“pure ones”) of southern France (known also as Albigenses, after the city of Albi which was their center).
The Cathari, like the earlier Manichaeans, believed the material world was evil and only the spiritual realm was good. They accepted the New Testament (being from God), but they rejected the Old Testament (inspired by Jehovah, creator of the wicked world) along with many teachings and interpretations of the Roman church, including the sacraments. They sharply criticized the growing wealth and power of the clergy. Politics and economic jealousies soon entered the picture until a full-scale crusade was launched against them in 1209.
Another movement branded as heretical was the Waldenses, followers of Peter Waldo (Valdez) of Lyon. The Waldenses, like the Cathari, also spread across southeastern France, northern Spain, northern Italy, and southern Germany. They went in simple garb, two by two without purse or script, teaching their version or the gospel to all who would listen. Forbidding oaths and rejecting masses and prayers for the dead, they soon came under condemnation, and like the Cathari (with whom they disagreed), they suffered persecution and death.
The presence of these and other heresies in the medieval church gave added incentive to the development of “scholastic” arguments for refuting doctrinal error and unbelief. Scholasticism developed in conjunction with the rise of the universities and provided a broad philosophical base for the verification of church dogmas.
This introduction of reason and logic into Christian theology, to serve as an adjunct rather than an enemy to faith, was one of the triumphs of medieval thought. The greatest of the schoolmen was Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), a Dominican teacher whose Summa Theologica, a masterpiece of scholastic reasoning making great use of Aristotelian logic, overcame the apparent conflicts between natural and revealed thought and provided logical proofs of Christian doctrines for the people of the time.
But logic was no more effective than the sword in maintaining religious unity when the leadership of the church itself was steeped in error and engrossed in sin. Of course, not all of the clergy were unworthy. Many priests and monks were sincere, hard-working, and honest; but too many of them were not. By the fourteenth century clerical corruption and abuse were widespread. Absenteeism, venality, concubinage, and slothfulness were common among prelates at every level.
Unfortunately, involved as it was with “high politics,” competing with the secular rulers, the papacy did little to retard this process of deterioration. When Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull (or edict) Unam Sanctum in 1302, which reiterated the papal claim to universal supremacy, he not only infuriated the French king but also alienated many others. Consequently, the Roman see was abolished and the papacy was transplanted to Avignon, in France, where the King could keep a close watch on it. Seventy years later the Great Schism began—a succession of rival popes at Avignon and Rome each denouncing and excommunicating the other, while corruption and confusion ran rampant.
Meanwhile, most honest believers were bewildered and disillusioned. The church was an integral part of their lives and promised the only recognizable path to their salvation. Yet in many ways it was a remote, even hostile, stranger to them.
In a very real sense there were three Catholic churches, and only one of these touched the lives of people in a meaningful way. There was the church of the upper clergy (especially the bishops and cardinals), vying for influence and prestige in a world of power and violence. There was the church of the scholastics and monks, where doctrines were more highly esteemed than morals. And there was the devotional church of the fifty million lay members whose contact with religion came through the mass and other sacraments, and through pilgrimages, prayers, rosaries, relics, and intercessional appeals to the Virgin Mary and to early saints.
During the Renaissance (from about 1350–1550), pressures mounted to reform the church and reduce its abuses. This was not the first genuine attempt at reformation. In the tenth century, a revitalization of the monastic system was triggered at the monastery of Cluny, north of Lyon. The cluniac reforms, stressing service, obedience, and piety, had a wide effect which was renewed two hundred years later by Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians.
Even the papacy felt these fresh winds of reform under the indomitable Hildrebrand (Pope Gregory VII, 1073–85), but it did not last. Frequently during the next four centuries pious and well-meaning clergy tried to eliminate abuses within their own jurisdictions, but the problems were usually too interrelated to be successfully attacked piecemeal. Churchwide action was needed but was not forthcoming.
Many people turned to mysticism both for personal catharsis and for churchwide spiritualization. Some formed into societies, such as the Friends of God in the Rhineland and the Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands. From one of these groups came the most influential devotional book of the Renaissance, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.
Some of these mystics were sainted (St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, San Bernardino of Siena, and San Giovanni Capistrano), while others were charged with heresy. John Wyclif of Oxford and John Hus of Prague were among the latter.
During the final years of the Great Schism (1378–1415), as the divided papacy continued to degenerate, the cry was increasingly heard to convene a general council of the church. This movement gained momentum until it boldly asserted that the supreme governing body of the church was not the pope but a general council representing all Christendom.
The Council of Constance thus convened in 1414. During the next three years it deposed all three rival popes; chose a new one of its own (intended to be a figurehead); charged, heard, condemned, and then brutally killed John Hus; and hesitatingly approached the task of reforming the church “in head and members.”
Yet it did not accomplish its goals. A newly established Renaissance papacy quickly regained its position of primacy. The execution of Hus, instead of ending heresy, caused the Hussites to take up arms for the next half century, devastating much of central and eastern Europe. For the council, reform of the church soon became a dead issue.
It was not a dead issue, however, for all those who saw and were offended by the continuing corruption. Among the more outspoken of these were the Renaissance humanists, men whose devotion to the church was not compromised by their open criticism of its abuses.
Humanism was mainly a scholarly and literary movement whose admiration of classical languages and culture made it suspect in the eyes of many churchmen. The humanists were critical of scholasticism because of its irrelevance, and were vigorously opposed to the immoral lives of the clergy. “What point is there in your being showered with holy water if you do not wipe away the inward pollution from your heart?” chided Erasmus, the greatest of the humanists. “You venerate the saints and delight in touching their relics, but you despise the best one they left behind, the example of a holy life.”
Sir Thomas More echoed that sentiment in his Utopia and in other writings. The humanists held a more optimistic view of human nature and the dignity of man than did the theologians, and placed more trust in the words of scripture than in the subsequent commentaries of the scholastics. Yet they did not wish to harm the church nor divide it; they hoped to unite and strengthen it. To do that, they advocated study, prayer, and a thorough reformation of the lives of the clergy.
One of the clergy, an Augustinian monk and doctor of theology named Martin Luther, was less disturbed by the profusion of immoral conduct (although he condemned that too) than by what he called “the deliberate silence regarding the world of Truth, or else its adulteration.”
In a desperate endeavor to attain salvation through the conscientious performance of meritorious works prescribed by the church, Luther concluded that no man can merit salvation, that it is a gift of God given freely to whom he wills, not as a reward for good deeds but according to divine pleasure. By this simple pronouncement, Luther launched the Protestant Reformation and began the process that would lead first to a split and then a complete fragmentation of Christianity.
If mankind does not need works, indulgences, or sacraments for salvation, he reasoned, then the entire hierarchical system of the Roman church is superfluous and perverse. Indeed, he declared, the pope is not only a hoax, he is the very anti-Christ! Leaning heavily on Augustine’s definition of “original sin,” which declared all mankind to be wicked, depraved, lustful, and an enemy to God, Luther expounded the idea of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), whereby God chooses some, regardless of their works, to repentance, faith, and salvation through Jesus Christ. Thus redeemed from their own wickedness, the “true believers”—the invisible church of Christ—become righteous doers of good for the right reasons.
Lutheranism spread into many states of Germany and beyond into Scandinavia and eastern Europe. Others quickly took up the Bible to proclaim similar views. Luther believed that no matter how many people read the scriptures, they would all reach the same conclusion if they used good reason and followed their conscience.
But, alas, it was not so. Some groups refuted clerical and monastic vows, others destroyed images, while still others, such as the “Zwichau prophets,” declared the immediate advent of the Lord.
In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli renounced the tithe, repudiated clerical celibacy, and abolished the mass. In England Henry VIII rejected the pope and declared himself “the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England.”
John Calvin, a lawyer-theologian from France, carried Protestant doctrines to their logical extreme in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, unabashedly pronouncing the predestination of the elect to salvation and the rest to damnation. At Geneva he established a tightly organized theocracy from which ardent pastors and teachers carried Calvinism into France, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany, Bohemia, and Poland, thus providing the principal theological base of Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Dutch, French, and German Reformed faiths.
From the eddies of this Protestant upheaval other groups of reformers emerged. Some of these were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers) because they rejected the practice of infant baptism practiced by both Catholics and Protestants and proclaimed instead baptism by immersion, following conversion and repentance, as a sign of entrance into God’s kingdom.
They usually referred to themselves as “brethren,” or “saints.” Because they came largely from the lower classes, believed in a complete separation of church and state (including refusal to take civil oaths, bear arms, or pay taxes), and had extreme beliefs about the end of the world, they are frequently spoken of as the Radical Reformers. But for the most part they were peaceful and devout followers of Christ.
They believed in a restitution of the primitive church with its organization and communal life. They had no paid ministry, believed that every believer received divine help in understanding the word of God, and rejected the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone, teaching instead salvation by faith and works.
Because they were so different, and their theory of church and state considered dangerous to society, they were feared and ruthlessly persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike. Most of those who survived did so by fleeing to the east where, under the looser jurisdiction of the rulers of Moravia and Poland, they retained their unique identity and devotion.
Obviously, the Protestant Reformation did not reform the church; it fractured and divided it. Christendom was hopelessly fragmented by the middle of the sixteenth century. Recrimination, persecution, and bloodshed followed. Sincere Catholic reformers—men like Bishop Matteo Giberti and Cardinal Gasparo Contarini—could not prevent the Counter Reformation from over-reacting to the Protestant threat. The Inquisition was revived in a vain effort to wipe out heresy.
Even Ignatius Loyola’s new religious order, the Jesuits, founded in 1540 to teach the young and convert the heathen, was soon turned into an instrument for fighting Protestantism. The council of Trent (which ended in 1563) hardened the lines of religious division, and the Papal Index of Prohibited Books further constricted Christian thought. In a few years the spread of Protestantism was checked, but at an enormous cost.
Still the proliferation of new faiths within Protestantism continued. The rigors of Calvinism in the Netherlands soon generated a reaction there in the form of Arminianism, which tried to moderate the harshness of absolute predestination and “irresistible grace” with a more liberal interpretation of God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will.
In Germany, after the Thirty Years War (1618–48) had taken its gruesome toll, a movement known as Pietism deepened the spiritual life of many Lutherans by cultivating high moral standards and promoting organized works of charity and service.
And in England, George Fox (1624–91) founded the remarkable Society of Friends, known popularly as the Quakers, resembling the earlier Anabaptists in many ways: spiritual revelation, non-professional ministry, rejection of oaths, titles, and war. True Christians, they felt, will be known by their fruits—a consecrated, simple, spiritual life.
While all of these movements met with immediate distrust, anger, and violence, eventually even the fanaticism of religious war subsided and in the pluralism of post-Reformation Europe religious toleration began slowly to appear.
That progress toward toleration was aided in the eighteenth century by the spirit of the Enlightenment, particularly the rise of rationalism and “natural religion” (or Deism). According to Deist views, God exists; he created the world, which is then governed by its own natural laws. God should be respected and praised, and men should repent of their sins and do good to one another. The emphasis throughout was on virtue and conduct instead of theology. How foolish it is, noted Voltaire, the most famous of the French Deists, for men to torture and kill one another over the definition of a word or the phrasing of a creed,
Reason and morality were the watchwords of “Enlightened” society. Yet something essential to Christianity was missing in this rational religion: the intimacy of God and the divinity of Christ. Christianity without the miracles of the birth, Resurrection, and Atonement is not Christianity at all. The new humanitarianism can only be praised—for too long it had been ignored by partisan theologians—but the Deist rejection of theology, although making room for greater toleration of different Christian sects, was a criticism of Christianity itself.
Partly in response to the Deist influence came a wide-ranging evangelical awakening, especially in England. It stressed the fundamentals of Christian devotion and particularly the renewal and revitalization of life which results from a full commitment to Christ.
A notable product of this evangelicalism was a new society called Methodism, whose chief architects were John (1703–91) and Charles (1707–77) Wesley. Methodist emphasis upon “conversion” and cultivation of the Christian life, including service to others, contributed materially to a revival of Christianity and to the active promotion of social reforms, such as the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807.
And thus for seventeen centuries Christianity struggled through trials of every kind, from persecution to prosperity, from harmony to discord and disintegration, groping for answers to questions asked and unasked. As its proponents ignored or misunderstood the teachings of Christ and his apostles, Christianity foundered. As they responded to glimmers of that original light, Christianity during these centuries helped prepare men and nations for the fulness of the restored gospel.