Church as Mother: Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)



Bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer. He was born around the year 200 in North Africa near Carthage. His father was a noble and a wealthy Roman officer of high rank who gave his son a good Greek education. Cyprian himself became a leading member of a legal fraternity in Carthage. He was an orator, “pleader in the courts,” and a teacher of rhetoric. He was well into middle age when he converted to Christianity and was baptized. The exact date of his conversion is unknown. But after his baptism, around 245-248, he gave a portion of his wealth away to the poor in Carthage, as befitted a man of his status.

After his conversion, he devoted himself to ascetic retirement and to the study of the scriptures and great men of the church, especially Tertullian, whom he highly admired. Soon after his conversion he became a deacon. In or around 248 or 249, after he had been a believer for a year, the church at Carthage made him a presbyter. The following year they prevailed upon him to fill the vacant position of bishop. This placed Cyprian as the head of the North African clergy. This was a popular choice among the poor but was opposed among a portion of the presbytery. Moreover, this opposition did not dissolve during his episcopacy. He administered his office with skill, wisdom and fidelity. 

Soon, the church community was put to a test. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for years and the church was assured and lax. Early in 250, the Decian persecution began. Measures were taken demanding that the bishops and church officers sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul went on circuit to administer the edict. But when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled in order to escape seizure. Under the onslaught of this persecution, many lapsed and denied the faith. Cyprian urged them to constancy. He continued in his office while in seclusion, writing to his presbyters, deacons and laymen, encouraging them to be faithful and true. He assured them that he would return as soon as God showed him it was his will. 

The church community was divided between those who persisted in civil disobedience and those who buckled and submitted to the civil authorities and received a ticket called a “libellus.” Cyprian’s secret departure was regarded by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity and they wasted no time accusing him at Rome. The Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian defended his decision stating that he fled in accordance with visions and divine command. 

The persecution was especially severe at Carthage, according to church sources. Many fell away and were referred to as “lapsi” but afterwards asked to be received again into the church. Their requests were granted early with no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and the faithful at Carthage who insisted upon earnest repentance. Indeed, when dealing with the lapsed, Cyprian was rigid, demanding confession and unmistakable evidence of penitence. But the confessors among the more liberal group intervened to allow hundreds of the lapsed to return to the church. Cyprian returned to Carthage in 251, after the persecution was over, having been in retirement for two whole years. He defended leaving his post in letters to other North African bishops and a tract “De lapsis,” and called a council at Carthage to deal with the issue of the lapsed. It was decided that pardon could be granted to the lapsed, but only after a proper period of penitence. 

During this time, Cyprian rose in favor with the people when they saw his self-denying devotion during a time of great plague and famine. He comforted his brethren in his writing exhorting them to active charity toward the poor, while he himself set the best pattern for his own life. He also defended Christianity against the reproach of the heathen who said that Christians were the cause of public calamities. 

In 256, yet another round of persecution of the church under the emperor Valerian. Cyprian courageously prepared his people and set an example himself when he was brought before the Roman proconsul on August 30, 257. He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Jesus Christ. He was banished to Curubis (modern day Korba) and there he comforted his flock the best he could. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. After a year he was recalled and was put under house arrest in his own villa. Soon a more stringent imperial edict arrived, demanding the execution of all Christian clerics, according to the reports of Christian writers at the time. 

On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned and the following day was examined for the final time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God!” The execution was carried out immediately in an open place near the city. A crowd followed him on his final trip. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself he was beheaded by the sword. 

The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution and over it, along with the site of execution, were churches built. But they were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones removed to France. 

Cyprian wrote a number of epistles and tracts. The most important being “De unitate ecclesiae.” In it he writes, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother…he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” and “nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.” He also declared that the unity of the church rested in the episcopate, making the bishops the representatives of the apostles, thus making the chair of St. Peter the center of episcopal unity. He gave Peter a primacy of honor in the church. 

His first writing starts out as a speech he made to his friends. It’s called “Ad Donatum.” It speaks out against the Roman government and gladiator shows. St. Cyprian remarks that the only refuge from these evils is the prayerful life of a Christian. He was the first great Latin writer in the Church. Until Jerome and Augustine, his writings had no rivals in the West. 

His feast day in the Anglican Communion is September 13. In the Catholic Church, it is September 16. 


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