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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 103. Summary of Moral Reforms.


Christianity represents the thoughts and purposes of God in history. They shine as so many stars in the darkness of sin and error. They are unceasingly opposed, but make steady progress and are sure of final victory. Heathen ideas and practices with their degrading influences controlled the ethics, politics, literature, and the house and home of emperor and peasant, when the little band of despised and persecuted followers of Jesus of Nazareth began the unequal struggle against overwhelming odds and stubborn habits. It was a struggle of faith against superstition, of love against selfishness, of purity against corruption, of spiritual forces against political and social power.

Under the inspiring influence of the spotless purity of Christ’s teaching and example, and aided here and there by the nobler instincts and tendencies of philosophy, the Christian church from the beginning asserted the individual rights of man, recognized the divine image in every rational being, taught the common creation and common redemption, the destination of all for immortality and glory, raised the humble and the lowly, comforted the prisoner and captive, the stranger and the exile, proclaimed chastity as a fundamental virtue, elevated woman to dignity and equality with man, upheld the sanctity and inviolability of the marriage tie, laid the foundation of a Christian family and happy home, moderated the evils and undermined the foundations of slavery, opposed polygamy and concubinage, emancipated the children from the tyrannical control of parents, denounced the exposure of children as murder, made relentless war upon the bloody games of the arena and the circus, and the shocking indecencies of the theatre, upon cruelty and oppression and every vice infused into a heartless and loveless world the spirit of love and brotherhood, transformed sinners into saints, frail women into heroines, and lit up the darkness of the tomb by the bright ray of unending bliss in heaven.

Christianity reformed society from the bottom, and built upwards until it reached the middle and higher classes, and at last the emperor himself. Then soon after the conversion of Constantine it began to influence legislation, abolished cruel institutions, and enacted laws which breathe the spirit of justice and humanity. We may deplore the evils which followed in the train of the union of church and state, but we must not overlook its many wholesome effects upon the Justinian code which gave Christian ideas an institutional form and educational power for whole generations to this day. From that time on also began the series of charitable institutions for widows and orphans, for the poor and the sick, the blind and the deaf, the intemperate and criminal, and for the care of all unfortunate,—institutions which we seek in vain in any other but Christian countries.

Nor should the excesses of asceticism blind us against the moral heroism of renouncing rights and enjoyments innocent in themselves, but so generally abused and poisoned, that total abstinence seemed to most of the early fathers the only radical and effective cure. So in our days some of the best of men regard total abstinence rather than temperance, the remedy of the fearful evils of intemperance.

Christianity could not prevent the irruption of the Northern barbarians and the collapse of the Roman empire. The process of internal dissolution had gone too far; nations as well as individuals may physically and morally sink so low that they, are beyond the possibility of recovery. Tacitus, the heathen Stoic in the second century, and Salvianus, the Christian presbyter in the fifth, each a Jeremiah of his age, predicted the approaching doom and destruction of Roman society, looked towards the savage races of the North for fresh blood and new vigor. But the Keltic and Germanic conquerors would have turned Southern Europe into a vast solitude (as the Turks have laid waste the fairest portions of Asia), if they had not embraced the principles, laws, and institutions of the Christian church.


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