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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 139. The Nestorians.


Jos. Sim. Assemani: De Syris Nestorianis, in his Bibliotheca Orientalis. Rom. 1719–1728, fol. tom. iii. P. ii. Ebedjesu (Nestorian metropolitan of Nisibis, † 1318): Liber Margaritae de veritate fidei (a defence of Nestorianism), in Ang. Mai’s Scrip. vet. nova collect. x. ii. 317. Gibbon: Chap. xlvii., near the end. E. Smith and H. G. O. Dwight: Researches in Armenia; with a visit to the Nestorian and Chaldean Christians of Oormiah and Salmas. 2 vols. Bost. 1833. Justin Perkins: A Residence of eight years in Persia. Andover, 1843. Wiltsch: Kirchliche Geographie u. Statistik. Berl. 1846, i. 214 ff. Geo. Percy Badger: The Nestorians and their Rituals. Illustrated (with colored plates), 2 vols. Lond. 1852. H. Newcomb: A Cyclopaedia of Missions. New York, 1856, p. 553 ff. Petermann: Article Nestorianer, in Herzog’s Theol. Encykl. vol. x. (1858), pp. 279–288.


While most of the heresies of antiquity, Arianism not excepted, have been utterly obliterated from history, and only raise their heads from time to time as individual opinions under peculiar modifications, the Christological heresies of the fifth century, Nestorianism and Monophysitism, continue in organized sects to this day. These schismatic churches of the East are the petrified remains or ruins of important chapters in the history of the ancient church. They are sunk in ignorance and superstition; but they are more accessible to Western Christianity than the orthodox Greek church, and offer to the Roman and Protestant churches an interesting field of missions, especially among the Nestorians and the Armenians.

The Nestorians differ from the orthodox Greek church in their repudiation of the council of Ephesus and of the worship of Mary as mother of God, of the use of images (though they retain the sign of the cross), of the doctrine of purgatory (though they have prayers for the dead), and of transubstantiation (though they hold the real presence of Christ in the eucharist), as well as in greater simplicity of worship. They are subject to a peculiar hierarchical organization with eight orders, from the catholicus or patriarch to the sub-deacon and reader. The five lower orders, up to the priests, may marry; in former times even the bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs had this privilege. Their fasts are numerous and strict. The feast-days begin with sunset, as among the Jews. The patriarch eats no flesh; he is chosen always from the same family; he is ordained by three metropolitans. Most of the ecclesiastical books are written in the Syriac language.

After Nestorianism was exterminated from the Roman empire, it found an asylum in the kingdom of Persia, whither several teachers of the theological school of Edessa fled. One of them, Barsumas, became bishop of Nisibis (435–489),15901590   Not to be confounded with the contemporary Monophysite abbot Barsumas, a saint of the Jacobites. founded a new theological seminary there, and confirmed the Persian Christians in their aversion to the Cyrillian council of Ephesus, and in their adhesion to the Antiochian and Nestorian theology. They were favored by the Persian kings, from Pherozes, or Firuz, onward (461–488), out of political opposition to Constantinople. At the council of Seleucia (498) they renounced all connection with the orthodox church of the empire. They called themselves, after their liturgical language, Chaldaean or Assyrian Christians, while they were called by their opponents Nestorians. They had a patriarch, who after the year 496 resided in the double city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and after 762 in Bagdad (the capital of the Saracenic empire), under the name of Yazelich (catholicus), and who, in the thirteenth century, had no less than twenty-five metropolitans under his supervision.

The Nestorian church flourished for several centuries, spread from Persia, with great missionary zeal, to India, Arabia, and even to China and Tartary, and did good service in scholarship and in the founding of schools and hospitals. Mohammed is supposed to owe his imperfect knowledge of Christianity to a Nestorian monk, Sergius; and from him the sect received many privileges, so that it obtained great consideration among the Arabians, and exerted an influence upon their culture, and thus upon the development of philosophy and science in general.15911591   The observations of Alex. von Humboldt, in the 2d vol. of his Kosmos (Stuttg. and Tüb. 1847, p. 247 E), on the connection of Nestorianism with the culture and physical science of the Arabians, are worthy of note: “It was one of the wondrous arrangements in the system of things, that the Christian sect of the Nestorians, which has exerted a very important influence on the geographical extension of knowledge, was of service even to the Arabians before the latter found their way to learned and disputatious Alexandria; that Christian Nestorianism, in fact, under the protection of the arms of Islam, was able to penetrate far into Eastern Asia. The Arabians, in other words, gained their first acquaintance with Grecian literature through the Syrians, a kindred Semitic race; while the Syrians themselves, scarcely a century and a half before, had first received the knowledge of Grecian literature through the anathematized Nestorians. Physicians who had been educated in the institutions of the Greeks, and at the celebrated medical school founded by the Nestorian Christians at Edessa in Mesopotamia, were, so early as the times of Mohammed, living, befriended by him and by Abu-Bekr, in Mecca.
   “ The school of Edessa, a model of the Benedictine schools of Monte Casino and Salerno, awakened the scientific search for materia medica in the mineral and vegetable kingdoms. When it was dissolved by Christian fanaticism under Zeno the Isaurian, the Nestorians scattered towards Persia, where they soon attained political importance, and established a new and thronged medical institute at Dschondisapur in Khuzistan. They succeeded in spreading their science and their faith to China towards the middle of the seventh century under the dynasty of Thang, five hundred and seventy-two years after Buddhism had penetrated thither from India.

   “The seed of Western culture, scattered in Persia by educated monks, and by the philosophers of the last Platonic school of Athens who were persecuted by Justinian, took beneficent root among the Arabians during their first Asiatic campaign. Feeble as the science of the Nestorian priests may have been, it could still, with its peculiar medical and pharmaceutic turn, act genially upon a race which had long lived in free converse with nature, and had preserved a more fresh sensibility to every sort of study of nature, than the people of Greek and Italian cities. What gives the Arabian epoch the universal importance which we must here insist upon, is in great part connected with the trait of national character just indicated. The Arabians, we repeat, are to be regarded as the proper founders of the physical sciences, in the sense which we are now accustomed to attach to the word.”
Among the Tartars, in the eleventh century, it succeeded in converting to Christianity a king, the priest-king Presbyter John (Prester John) of the Kerait, and his successor of the same name.15921592   On this fabulous priest-kingdom, which the popes endeavored by unsuccessful embassies to unite to the Roman church, and whose light was quenched by the tide of the conquests of Zengis Khan, comp. Mosheim: Historia Tartarorum Eccles. Helmst. 1741; Neander: Kirchengesch. vol. v. p. 84 ff. (9th part of the whole work, 2d. 1841); and Ritter: Erdkunde, part ii. vol. i. pp. 256, 283 (2d ed. 1832). But of this we have only uncertain accounts, and at all events Nestorian Christianity has since left but slight traces in Tartary and in China.

Under the Mongol dynasty the Nestorians were cruelly persecuted. The terrible Tamerlane, the scourge and the destroyer of Asia, towards the end of the fourteenth century almost exterminated them. Yet they have maintained themselves on the wild mountains and in the valleys of Kurdistan and in Armenia under the Turkish dominion to this day, with a separate patriarch, who from 1559 till the seventeenth century resided at Mosul, but has since dwelt in an almost inaccessible valley on the borders of Turkey and Persia. They are very ignorant and poor, and have been much reduced by war, pestilence, and cholera.

A portion of the Nestorians, especially those in cities, united from time to time, under the name of Chaldaeans, with the Roman church, and have a patriarch of their own at Bagdad.

And on the other side, Protestant missionaries from America have made vigorous and successful efforts, since 1833, to evangelize and civilize the Nestorians by preaching, schools, translations of the Bible, and good books.15931593   Dr. Justin Perkins, Asahel Grant, Rhea, Stoddard, Wright, and other missionaries of the American Board of Commisioners for Foreign Missions. The centre of their labors is Oormiah, a city of 25,000 inhabitants, of whom 1,000 are Nestorians. Comp. on this subject Newcomb, l.c. 556 ff., especially the letter of Dr. Perkins of 1854, p. 564 ff., on the present condition of this mission; also Joseph P. Thompson: Memoir of the Rev. David Tappan Stoddard, missionary to the Nestorians, Boston, 1858; and a pamphlet issued by the American B.C. F. M.: Historical Sketch of the Mission to the Nestorians by Justin Perkins, and of the Assyrian Mission by Rev. Thomas Laurie, New York, 1862. The American Board of Foreign Missions look upon the Nestorian and Armenian missions as a means and encouraging pledge of the conversion of the millions of Mohammedans among whom Providence has placed and preserved those ancient sects, as it would seem, for such an end.

The Thomas-Christians in East India are a branch of the Nestorians, named from the apostle Thomas, who is supposed to have preached the gospel on the coast of Malabar. They honor the memory of Theodore and Nestorius in their Syriac liturgy, and adhere to the Nestorian patriarchs. In the sixteenth century they were, with reluctance, connected with the Roman church for sixty years (1599–1663) through the agency of Jesuit missionaries. But when the Portuguese power in India was shaken by the Dutch, they returned to their independent position, and since the expulsion of the Portuguese they have enjoyed the free exercise of their religion on the coast of Malabar. The number of the Thomas-Christians is said still to amount to seventy thousand souls, who form a province by themselves under the British empire, governed by priests and elders.



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