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Century VI, Chapter VII

Gregory's Conduct with respect to England.

This also has been a source of much accusation against the Roman prelate. Protestant writers, in.their zeal against popery, have censured his domineering spirit with acrimony, as if the British christians had been protestants, and the Roman christians papists, accurately speaking. But Gregory was no pope, nor had the Britons separated from the general church, and formed a purer establishment of their own. Superstition and ecclesiastical power, in the excess, adhered indeed to the conduct of the Roman prelate, as the fault of the age, not of his temper; and if he had perfectly avoided the fashionable evils of his time, he would have been, I had almost said, more than human. But the ideas, peculiarly popish, were not yet matured in the churches. Dissenting writers, I find, have been seduced by the same sort of prejudices as divines of the church of England, and it is curious to observe, how different writers can find, in the features of the British church, the very figure of their own denomination. I ought to profit by the mistake of others; that is, to forget my own times and connexions; to transplant myself into the age of which I write; to make liberal allowances for its customs and prejudices, and to - enable the reader, from facts themselves, to form his own judgment.

For near a century and a half the gospel of Christ

• Phocas took away the title of universal bishop from the prelate of Constantinople, and granted it to Boniface III. the next successor but one to Gregory. After Phocas's death the prelate of the east reassumed the tide. The two bishops each preserved it, and with equal ambition strove for the preeminence. For Gregory, who abhorred all views of secutar ambition. had now departed this life.

had been declining in Britain, and for the greatest part of that time had been, as we have seen, confined to Wales and Cornwall, or to the mountains of Scotland. Ireland too still preserved something of the light, while the Angles or Saxons, our ancestors, destroyed every evangelical appearance in the heart of the island. No barbarians were ever more ferocious or more idolatrous; and the Britons, who escaped their ravages, oppressed one another with civil broils. Being favoured with some cessation from their wars with the Saxons, they lost by degrees all traces of former piety, though the form of christianity still remained. One proof among others, which the old historian Gildas gives of their intire want of christian zeal, is, that they took not the least pains for the conversion of the Saxons. Seven Saxon kingdoms, called the Heptarchy, were now formed, altogether ignorant and idolatrous, while the few British churches were inattentive to the propagation of christian truth in the island. And the Saxons continued, some of them for a century, others more than two centuries, immersed in darkness.*

One cannot form any agreeable idea either of the piety or of the knowledge of the British christians, from these circumstances. Nor are the excuses, which our protestant historians are inclined to make for their want of zeal, at all satisfactory. It has been said that, " the hostilities of the Angles would make such attempts to be arduous;" but let the reader only reflect how such difficulties were surmounted by zealous and charitable christians in former ages.f I cannot but therefore subscribe to the testimony of our ancient historians,:): " that much worthier pastors were sent by the divine goodness, through whom, those, whom God had foreknown, might believe to salvation." A testimony as evangelical in its language, as it is solid in fact.

It was about 150 years after the arrival of the Sax

* Bcde. f See Warner's Eccl. Hist. towards the beginnnig. i Bede.

pns in Britain, that Gregory sent his famous mission into our island, toward the close of the sixth century. It was no sudden thought, but the effect of much deliberation. Even before his consecration at Rome, walking one day in the forum, he saw some very handsome youths exposed to sale. Asking of what country they were, he was informed they were of the island of Britain. " Are the inhabitants of that island christians or pagans?" They are pagans, was the reply. Alas! said he, deeply sighing,* that the prince of darkness should possess countenances so luminous, and that so fair a front should carry minds destitute of eternal grace. What is the name of the nation? Angli, it was said, " In truth they have angelic countenances, and it is a pity they should not be coheirs with angels in heaven. What is the province from which they come?" Deira, that is Northumberland, he was told. It is well, said he, De ira, snatched from the wrath of God, and called to the mercy of Christ. " What is the name of their king?" Ella, was the answer. Playing upon the name, " Alleluia should be sung to God in those regions. "* Impressed with the importance of the object, he earnestly entreated the then Roman bishop to send a mission to the island, offering himself as one ready for the task. Nothing but the officious benevolence of the Roman citizens prevented the work at that time. Gregory was too much beloved at Rome, to be allowed to leave it.

It was the character of Gregory to pursue with unwearied attention any plan or scheme of piety or discipline, which he had once conceived. After his conse- cration, in the year 595 he directed a presbyter, whom he had sent into France, to instruct some young Saxons of seventeen or eighteen years of age in christiani

* I leave to fastidious sceptics, such as the historian Hume, to sneer at Gregory's want of taste in these several allusions. The candid reader will impute them to the times, not to the man; and the devout and charitable will adore the goodness of God, which was beginning to provide such precious benefits for our country; benefits, which call for ceaseless gratitude to the Author of all good, and should endear the memory of the Roman prelate to our latest posterity.

ty. He intended to prepare them'for the mission into our island; and in the year 597 he actually sent missionaries thither. They were a number of monks, at the head of whom was one named Augustine. In obedience to Gregory's directions they proceeded on their journey; but their hearts failed them, when they reflected on the difficulties and dangers to which they thought themselves likely to be exposed. The faith and zeal and simplicity of a christian missionary were at this time grown rare in the world; and Augustine was sent back by the rest, to entreat Gregory to discharge them from the service. The prelate wrote exhortatory letters, advising them to proceed in confidence of divine aid. He informed them, thnt it had been better not to have begun a good work, than to recede from it afterwards. He entreated them not to be deterred by the labour of the journey, nor by the breath of malevolence. He set before them the heavenly prospects, and prayed that he himself might see the fruit of their labour in the eternal country. For though, says he, I cannot labour with you, may I at the same time be found in the joy of retribution, because I am willing to labour! Nor did he neglect any means proper to accommodate the missionaries: he recommended them to the attention of Etherius, bishop of Arles, and secured them all the assistance in France, that might expedite their passage into Britain, and every convenience which they needed. Thus animated, they arrived in Britain.*

There was, however, a remarkable concurrence of providential circumstances, which facilitated the work, and gave it a more expeditious success than might have been expected from appearances. It is very observable, how much the Lord has made use of women in the propagation of the gospel among idolaters. To former instances of this sort, we must add, that two queens were concerned in this work, one of whom was the infamous Brunehalt, whose correspondence

with Gregory has been noticed. Desirous to cover her vices by the appearance of religion, she had, at Gregory 's request, given the missionaries e very possible assistance. The other, a character on whom the mind will dwell with pleasure, was Bertha, the only daughter of Caribert, king of Paris, a descendent of Clovis. She had been married to Ethelbert, in his father's lifetime, who was now king of Kent, and one of the most wise and powerful of the Saxon princes. He had not been allowed to marry the French princess, but on the express stipulation, that she should be permitted to make free profession of christianity, in which she had been educated. She brought over with her a French bishop to the court of Dorobernium, now Canterbury. Her principles were firm and sound: her conduct was worthy of the christian name; and her influence over her husband was considerable. Her zealous piety was not inferior to that of the queen Clovis, which had been attended with such happy consequences in France, and every thing conspired to favour the missionaries.

Ethelbert assigned Augustine an habitation in the isle of Thanet. Here he remained at first with his associates, who were nearly forty. By the direction of Gregory, they had taken with them French interpreters, by whose means they informed the king, that they were come from Rome,* and brought him the best tidings in the world, eternal life to those who received them, and the endless enjoyment of life with the living and true God. After some days Ethelbert paid them a visit; but being apprehensive of enchantments, he took care to receive them in the open air, where he thought he should be safer than in an house. The missionaries met him, singing litanies for their own salvation, and that of those for whose sake they came thither.f Sitting down by the king's direction, they

• Bedc b. i. ep. 25, &c.

t As I write not the history of superstition, but of christian religion, I think not myself obliged to copy alt the accounts I meet with in ancient records which relate to the former. Justice, in the extreme, has been done to them by oiher writers.

preached to him and his attendants the word of life. I cannot produce the smallest extract of the sermon; but that it explained the fundamentals, at least, of the gospel, there seems no reason to doubt. One may form some idea of it by the king's answer, which was to this effect. " They are fine words and promises, which ye bring, but because they are new and uncertain, I cannot afford my assent to them, nor relinquish those things, which for so long a time I have observed with all the English nation. But as ye are come hither from a great distance, and as I seem to discover, that ye are willing to communicate to us those things, which ye believe to be true and most excellent, we are not willing to disturb you, but rather to receive you in a friendly manner, and to afford you things necessary for your support; nor do we hinder you from uniting all, whom ye can persuade by preaching, to the faith of your religion. He gave them a mansion in the royal city of Canterbury, with all necessary accommodations, and the license of preaching the word. As they approached the city, they sang in concert this litany: We pray thee, O Lord, in all thy mercy, that thine anger and thy fury may be removed from this city, and from thy holy house, because we have sinned. Alleluia.

Certainly the human mind was in a debased and childish state at this time throughout a great part of the world. It had long been sinking in its powers and taste; and while paganism existed in the Roman empire, the heathen philosophers and orators appear no way superior to christian authors and pastors in the use and cultivation of the understanding. Such men as Gregory and his missionaries should not be compared with Cicero and Demosthenes, but with their own contemporaries; and had this been done by writers who treat them with perfect contempt, the injustice of that contempt would have appeared. It must be expected, that the work of divine grace in different ages, will, in its effects and manifestations, exhibit the complexion and colour of the objects with which it is surrounded. The subtilty of Satan will not fail to take every possible advantage of this circumstance; and I can believe that even more superstitions than those recorded by Bede attended the labours of the Roman missionaries. In our own times of refinement, evils far more plausible, but not less pernicious, accompany the same salutary work. I have not, however, observed any thing idolatrous or otherwise directly subversive of christianity to have yet prevailed in any of the fashionable superstitions. These things being premised, let us consider what most probably was the doctrine preached by Augustine; 1 say probably, since the wretched narratives from which I draw my information have given no account. That eternal salvation and forgiveness of sin by the blood of the Lamb, was his capital doctrine, seems evident in a great measure from Ethelbert's observation of the good news which they brought. I may still more confidently say, that his sermon was not a system of moral duties. For how could that be called good news? All the difficulty with Ethelbert was to believe what they promised; the very same difficulty which strikes all unrenewed minds at the first hearing of the gospel. And when to this we add what we certainly know of Gregory's sentiments, and consider Augustine as preaching according to his views, the evidence seems to rise even beyond probability. Ethelbert, a prudent and sensible prince, though, as yet at least, by no means convinced of the truth of christianity, sees no suspicious mask in the language and conduct of the preachers. The air of genuine sincerity is simple and above the possibility of imitation. Candid and intelligent minds perceive it almost intuitively. The king of Kent could see no selfish motive that was likely to influence these men. They spake with an earnestness that showed their own conviction of the excellency of their doctrine, and their desire of profiting their fellow creatures. Not an atom of gain was to be acquired to the see of Rome: the whole mission was disinterested. Hence the candid prince was induced to give them countenance; and the gospel appears to have been preached, and that with plainness and sincerity, by the missionaries.

Their conduct at Canterbury was correspondent to these beginnings. They prayed, fasted, watched, preached the word of life to all, as opportunity served: they lived as men above the world: received nothing from those whom they taught, except necessaries: they practised what they taught, and showed a readiness to suffer or even to die for the truth which they preached. Some believed and were baptized, admiring their innocent lives, and tasting the sweetness of their doctrine. Near the city there was an old church, built in the times of the Romans, in which queen Bertha was wont to pray. In this the missionaries first held their assemblies, sang, prayed, preached, and baptized, till the king himself being converted to the faith,* they obtained a larger license of preaching every where, and of building or repairing churches. When he himself, among others, delighted with the holiness of their lives, and the preciousness of gospel promises confirmed by many miracles,f believed and was baptized, numbers crowded to hear, and received the word. The king congratulating the new converts, declared that he would compel no man to become a christian; however he embraced those who did so with a more intimate affection as fellow heirs of the grace of life. For the missionaries had taught him, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not compulsive. He now gave to them a settlement in Canterbury, suited to their station, with all necessary accommodations.

Augustine returning into France received ordination, as the archbishop of the English nation, from the bishop of Arles, and returning into Britain, sent

* I hope Bede's expression (b. i. ep. 26.) is true in the proper sense of the words.

f What shall be said concerning these miracles? The credulity of \h*t age should nbt lead one to deny all that is said of them. It was a new scene: evangelists were preaching among pagans. Certain it is, that every one concerned in those scenes believed their reality.

Laurentius the presbyter, and Peter the monk, to acquaint Gregory with his success, and to receive answers to various questions. To his inquiries concerning the maintenance of the clergy, Gregory answered, that the donations made to the church were, by the customs of the Roman see, divided into four portions, one for the bishop and his family to support hospitality, a second to the clergy, a third to the poor, , a fourth to the reparation of churches: that as the pastors were all monks, they ought to live in common, with a remarkable exception, which proves that the absolute prohibition of marriage, one of the marks of antichrist,* was not yet enjoined the clergy, namely, that those of them who preferred the marriage state, might be allowed to marry, and receive their maintenance out of the monastery. To another question which related to the diversity of customs and liturgies in different churches, the answer of Gregory was liberal; namely, that the new bishop was not bound to follow the precedent of Rome, but that he might select whatever parts or rules appeared the most eligible, and best adapted to promote the piety of the infant church of England, and compose them into a system for its use. A number of other questions and answers are recorded likewise, too uninteresting to deserve a place here.f Yet amidst the childish superstition of the times, the enlightened mind of Gregory appears; and his occasional comment on St. Paul's words, concerning the law in his members warring against the law of his mind, in which the bishop understands the apostle as describing himself to be free and enslaved at the same time with a double respect to his natural and spiritual state, evinces the solidity of his evangelical knowledge.

Augustine having intimated, that the harvest was plenteous, but that the labourers were few, Gregory sent him more missionaries, and directed him to constitute a bishop at York, who might have other subor

• 1 Tim. iv. t Bede, b. i. c 27.

dinate bishops; yet, in such a manner, that Augustine of Canterbury should be metropolitan of all England. —Such were the rudiments of the English church. Gregory has been censured for being too eager in settling a plan of ecclesiastical government for places as vet not in the least evangelized: and it must be owned, that this extreme care of subordination and uniformity does seem premature; but the spirit of the times favoured such hasty external institutions.

Gregory thought long and deeply of this his favourite infant church; and wrote to Mellitus, one of the missionaries going to Britain, an account of the fruits of his meditation; which were,* that the idol temples being purged of their uncleanness, should be converted into churches for the use of the natives, in which they might worship God, according to the gospel. And reflecting that they had been wont to sacrifice to demons, and in their sacrifices to indulge themselves in feasts, he directs that, setting apart all sacrifices and Avhatever was connected with idolatry, they might be allowed on the day of the church's dedication, or on the martyrdom of saints, to make booths for themselves in the neighbourhood of the churches, and enjoyr themselves in temperate banquets. This latter direction appears dangerous: the reason he assigns for it, is, that the English, if they found their usual entertainments to be altogether prohibited, might be induced to relapse into idolatry. I cannot compare Gregory's compliances to the jesuitical artifices practised in after ages among the Chinese, because it appears that idolatry was absolutely prohibited, and the real christian religion taught in Britain: but a man, who knew human nature so well as this bishop did, might have foreseen the practical excesses which his license would encourage, and should have committed to God himself the success of his own cause among the English.

Hearing from Augustine of his miraculous powers, Gregory, who seems to have entertained no doubt of

their reality, cautions him excellently against pride and presumption on their account, informs him that they were given him more for the sake of the new converts than of himself, and teaches him the all important lesson of humility. He wrote also to Ethelbert, to congratulate, instruct, and exhort him, setting before him the example of the great Constantine, and pressing him to extend the propagation of the gospel.* His zeal was much animated by the near prospect which he himself had of the end of the world, and of which he faiied not to inform the king of Kent.t The latter - reigned fifty years, and died 6164 As a statesman he was great, as a christian greater still. And few princes in any age were richer blessings to their subjects than Ethelbert and Bertha.

But this fine gold was not without some alloy! Before these events there existed, in Wales particularly, a British church. Augustine willing to establish an uniformity of discipline and customs in the island, invited

* Hume (chap. i. of his History of England) represents this exhortation to extend the propagation of the gospel as inconsistent with the conduct of Augustine, " who had thought proper in the eommcncement of his mission, to assume the appearance of the greatest lenity." Thus it is that men, more malignant than intelligent in christian history, pervert facts, and represent pious men as hypocritical in their moderate conduct The truth is, neither Constantine, nor Theodosius, nor Gregory, nor any of the ancients ever compelled any man to become a chi istian, cither in the beginning or progress of religion. Nor does any thing of the kind appear in Gregory's letter to Ethelbert. But he, like Theodosius, directed, that the worship of idols should be destroyed. Men were allowed to remain aloof all their days from christianity, if the) pleased. Forced conversions, like those of popery in after ages, were as yet unknown, and this other mark of antichrist, persecution, as yet existed not in the church. It is very possible, that the indifferent spirit of our times may be disgusted with that .part of the conduct of Theodosius and Gregory, which related to the destruction of idols, and call it persecution Be it so: 1 have (in chap. xvi. cent. 4.) examined this point with as much exactness as I can. But let not men of sincere piety and fervent charity for the good of souls, be represented as if they were hypocritical in their moderation at first, and as if they intended to establish tyranny afterwards. Their plan was, whether it b agreeable to present reigning maxims or not, to compel no man to receive christianity, and at the same time to render the practice of idola. try impracticable. I believe many, who have written against them as persecutors, have not distinctly understood this distinction. All I contend for here is this, they acted consistimlly and uprightly.

f Gregory had already wi itten to queen Bertha, and stimulated her zeal to labour for the conversion of her husband,

tide. 32.

the Welsh bishops to a conference, and began to admonish them to enter into christian peace and concord, that with hearts united they might join in evangelizing the pagans. The Britons observed Easter at a season different from that of the Roman church, and did many other things contrary to her customs. The conference proved fruitless; the Britons would hearken to no prayers or exhortations; and Augustine in the close had -ecourse to a miraculous sign.* A blind man was introduced to be healed. We are told that the Britons had no success; but that Augustine's prayers were heard, and his sight was restored. The Britons were induced to confess, that Augustine was sent of God, but pleaded the obstinacy of their people, as a reason for their noncompliance. A second synod was appointed, attended by seven British bishops, and many of their learned men, belonging to the famous monastery at Bangor, of which Dinoth was at that time the abbot. Before these came to the synod, they asked the advice of a person of reputed sanctity, whether.they should give up their own traditions on the authority of Augustine or not. Let humility, said he, be the test, and if you find, when you come to the synod, that he rises up to you at your approach, obey him; if not, let him be despised by you. On so precarious an evidence, it seems, did he rest the proof of humility. It happened, that Augustine continued sitting on their arrival, which might easily have taken place, without any intentional insult: the Britons were however incensed, and would hearken to no terms of reconciliation. Augustine proposed to them to agree with him only in three things, leaving other points of difference undecided, namely to observe Easter at the same time with the rest of the christian world, to administer baptism after the Roman manner, and to join with Augustine in preaching the gospel to the English. In all other things, says he, we will bear you with patience. The Britons were inexorable, and refused to acknow

Bed. b. ii. c.2.

ledge his authority. " If you will not have peace with brethren, said the archbishop of Canterbury, roused at length into an unbecoming warmth, you will have war with enemies; and if you will not preach to the English the way of life, you will suffer death at their hands." It happened afterwards, that, in an invasion of the pagan Saxons of the north, the Bangorian monks were cruelly destroyed, though long after the death of Augustine. He died in peaceable possession of the see of Canterbury, after having lived to see the gospel propagated with increasing success. He ordained Mellitus and Justus bishops; London was brought into the pale of the church, and the southern parts of the island found the benefit of his labours, and of those of his auxiliaries.

I shall close the story of English affairs with the death of Augustine, which happened early in the 7th century. And as the ground I am now upon has been disputed, I am willing to lay open all the information which antiquity can give us. Let us hear some other accounts of these transactions.

Writers, who have been studious of the honour of our country, tell us, that when Augustine came into England, he found seven bishops and an archbishop supplied with godly governors and abbots, and that the church was in goodly order, at Bangor particularly: that Dinoth the abbot showed Augustine, that they owed him no subjection: that their bishops had been independent of Rome: that the bishops of Rome had no more right to their obedience than other christians had, and that the bishop of Caerleon upon Usk was their proper superior;* and that in revenge for this honest assertion of their independency, the Kentish king procured the invasion and slaughter of the British monks mentioned above.

How christianity was afterwards propagated in our island, and how the disputes between the Roman and British churches terminated, will properly fall under

• Galfridus Monometcnsis, b. iv. c. 12. Sec Nicholls on the Common Prayer.

our consideration hereafter. In the mean time the injustice of a certain writer* to the memory of Gregory, in accusing him of exercising tyranny over the British church, is very glaring. We have, by an early association of ideas, been so habituated to condemn every thing that is Roman in religion, that we are not easily open to conviction on this subject. It should, however, be remembered, that not the least revenue could accrue to Gregory from the conversion of Britain; nor did he suggest or intimate any lucrative plan? directly or indirectly. If there were any improper steps taken, they must not be charged to a selfish or interested spirit, such as that which has since animated the papacy. The doctrines avowedly and earnestly taught by Gregory and his followers were the doctrines of grace; and though no account of the faith of the Welsh monks is given us, there is great reason, on account of the pelagian leaven of our island, to fear it was not so truly christian as that of Gregory. That they were uncharitable, appears incontestable from their neglect of the Saxon pagans, and their obstinate refusal to hearken to any advice on that head. And the reader has already had a view of their manners, very different from the flattering account of Galfridus. The extent, however, of the British church, before the arrival of Augustine, was so inconsiderable, that when Gregory planned the hierarchy for this island, it is probable he knew little of the very existence of such a church. The fault of ambitious encroachment must, therefore, be laid to Augustine. Seduced he undoubtedly was, according to the common superstition of the age, by an excessive zeal for uniformity. And that admirable method of uniting zeal for establishments with a spirit of toleration, which was discovered toward the close of the last century, was as yet unknown. The Britons had been independent, and they had a right to continue so; but I believe, from all appearances, that Augustine wished

• Bower's Lives of Popes, vol. ii. Gregory.

them to form a connexion with the Romans from charitable views.

What could be the meaning of his wishing the Britons to baptize after the Roman manner? This question has exercised the critical talents of authorsAfter all, as baptism by trinal immersion was then the Roman mode, this seems to give the most natural account of the circumstance.

The charge of Galfridus, in accusing the Romans of employing the pagans to murder the British, is too absurd to merit any serious notice. Augustine died long before it happened. Gregory himself was deceased before the controversies between Augustine and Dinoth took place. He has been accused of extreme inconsistency, in being imperious toward heretics, and indulgent toward pagans* and Jews. But a more exact acquaintance with cases would enable men to form a better judgment. Gregory, like all real good men, was averse to use violent methods in proselyting; he knew that conversion, if sincere, must be voluntary. But when men once have been received into the christian pale, the same zeal, which laboured for their conversion, is studious for their uniform attachment to christian fundamentals. It was no breach of charity in Gregory to attempt to hinder the promotion of a donatist in the christian church in Africa; and such an attempt was very consistent with that charity which forbade the persecution of Jews.

On the whole, Gregory's conduct with respect to our island appears one of the most shining efforts of christian charity. His missionaries, in general, acted laudably; and the real establishment of christianity was, under God, effected by their means. There was a stain of rivalry and jealousy, as we have seen, which appeared in their conduct; but they were men.

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