All posts by cloisterwalk

Life & Doctrine: Council of Chalcedon (451)

council-of-chalcedonOn May 23, 451, the Eastern emperor, Marcian, summoned an ecumenical council of bishops that he helped would “end disputations and settle the true faith more clearly and for all time.” They met at Chalcedon, just across the Bosporus from Marcian’s imperial capital of Constantinople. About 520 bishops attended, all but four from the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Nicaea had settled the momentous question of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father, but it raised questions regarding the relationships between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. The bishops met for fifteen arduous sessions between October 8 and November 10 and they came up with an answer that answered the question for which it had been called. And that answer has stood the test of time: Jesus was one person consisting of two natures. But before they came up with this time-tested answer, there was plenty of passionate controversy. In general, those theologians who were linked with Alexandria emphasized the deity of Christ; those sided with Antioch emphasized his humanity at the expense of his deity.

One controversial view that did injustice to Christ’s true humanity was developed by Appolinarius (c.310-c.390), rhetoric teacher and bishop of Laodicea. He developed this view when he was around age 60. Before this point, he was a good friend of Athanasius and a notable champion of orthodoxy. In order to avoid the undue separation of the human and divine natures of Christ, Apollinarius taught that Christ had a true body and soul but that his spirit was replaced by the logos. This logos as the divine element actively dominated the passive element, the body and soul, in the person of Christ. He stressed the deity of Christ but minimized his humanity. This view was officially condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

In contrast to this was the view developed by Nestorius (c.381-c.452), a scholarly monk who became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. He disliked the term theotokos (God-bearer) as a name for Mary, the mother of Jesus, because it seemed to exalt her unduly. He offered the term Christotokos, as an alternative, arguing that Mary was only the mother of his human side. By doing this, he made Christ out to be a man, in whom, in Siamese twin fashion, the divine and human natures were combined in a mechanical union rather than in an organic union of natures. Christ was in essence only a perfect man who was morally linked to deity. He was a God-bearer rather than the God-man. The leaders at the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned this doctrine. Yet the followers of Nestorius continued their work in the eastern half of the empire and carried their version of the gospel to Persia, India and even China in 635.

Enter into the fray, Pope Leo I also known as “the Great” due to his talent, seriousness, and dedication and because of his lasting importance in the history of Christian thought. His driving goal in doctrine as well as church order was to secure stability in an age of fragmentation. Leo’s response to this controversy, known as his Tome, took a straightforward response: Jesus was a single person with two natures. Leo walked a tightrope that many had fallen off of. Each form of Christ as God and man “carries on its proper activities in communication with the other.” With these words, Leo kept together distinctiveness of natures along with unity of person. This later became a cornerstone of the definition at Chalcedon.

After intense debate, the emperor Marcian himself read aloud the definition formulated on October 25, 451:

Following the holy fathers, we confess with one voice that the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, and that he has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father as God, he is also of one substance with us as man. He is like us in all things except sin. He has begotten of his Father before the ages as God, but in these last days and for our salvation he was born of Mary the virgin, the theotokos, as man. This one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten is made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of the nature in no way taken away by their union, but rather the distinctive properties of each nature are preserved. Both natures unite into one person and one hypostasis, that is substance. They are not separated or divided into two persons, but they form one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets of old have spoken concerning him and as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us and as the creeds of the fathers has delivered to us.

Chalcedon had important theological consequences. Of first importance was the way the balanced statement of Chalcedon articulated fundamental Christian doctrine. It reflected the teachings of the New Testament with commendable caution. In a way, it constructed a fence within which further reflection upon the person could continue. Whatever else might be said, it was always necessary to affirm Christ as one person with two natures. Getting questions right about the personhood of Jesus Christ was important because Christ and what he did were of immeasurable significance. Chalcedon preserved room for further thought on the person of Christ while it gave reassurance for the great work of salvation this Son of God  performed.

Second, Chalcedon marked the successful translation of the Christian faith out of its Jewish context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by the Old Testament) into the Hellenistic (Greek) context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by Greek thought and Roman might). For the Greek world, what occurred at the Council of Chalcedon could not be more important. Chalcedon showed that the heart of the gospel message could be preserved even in new conceptual language. The terms ousia, hypostatis, substantia, and persona are not found in scripture and the biblical world has very little connection to the conceptual worlds in which these terms arose. “Yet Chalcedon showed that the message of God becoming incarnate to effect the salvation of his people was a message that could be heard distinctly, adequately, and powerfully in precisely these extrascriptural terms and within that non-Judaic intellectual milieu.” (Noll)

Lastly, Chalcedon was not Pentecost. But because it faithfully synthesized scriptural history, the people of the Greek world could now hear the “wonders of God” in their own tongue. Because Chalcedon’s work faithfully translated scriptural teaching, Greeks would now express those wonders of the Lord God in its own conceptual terms. This synthesis and translation would need to happen again and again.

The Definition of Chalcedon retains its momentous importance not just because it is such a skillful and well-balanced statement. It also faithfully represents the reality about which it speaks. We Christians can live in the world and for the glory of God we serve and worship, because the fact of one “person” can coexist with the fact of two “natures” because it really happened, as the apostle John attests, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

 

The Course of Empires: Whig View of History

John-Locke-Second-Treatise-of-Government-Cover-Page    The dissenters had a sharp and heightened view of political tyranny. We are talking about people who were sensitive to the abuse of power. By the 1720s, the Whigs were amassing a body of political thought that linked together political and ecclesiastical tyranny with the accumulation of executive power surrounding the monarch. Looking at the precedents of ancient Athens and Rome, they saw that republican governments tended to be subverted if that republic acquired an empire. The massive colonial administration would bring accumulation of power around an executive, and corruption would quickly set in. There would be buying and selling of offices and privileges. This is what happened to their native England. Its combination of monarchy and parliament was losing its balance of power towards growing executive power and arbitrary privilege. The wealthy Church of England was on the side of this executive power. When it comes to theology, they were not as strict as their Puritan predecessors, but they did share with the Puritans the belief that high-handed monarchial power is always supported by ecclesiastical privilege. Therefore these men of the commonwealth were the champions of the inalienable rights of humanity to life, liberty and property, in the footsteps of John Locke, and the inalienable rights of conscience in the traditions of English religious dissent.

George Marsden writes that “one could hardly overstate the importance of this Commonwealth heritage in shaping American revolutionary political thought.” Most Americans were dissenters. Even those who were Anglicans, like the Virginia gentry, were outsiders to royal privilege. Those who held political or social power in America stood to lose if the full-fledged English system was exported to the colonies. So when the English authorities, after 1763, began to take more interest in reorganizing her new expanded North American colonies, many colonists were understandably alarmed. And they stated their alarm in the terms and language of their Commonwealth or Real Whig heritage. This dissenting tradition would become the basis for the republican outlook that long dominated American political thought.

These fears were compounded by the militant anti-Catholic sentiments of many colonial revolutionaries. In a real sense of sad irony, those who were the champions of freedom and liberty did not extend these natural rights to those who they considered to be their mortal enemies. The Catholic population, who lived mostly in the middle colonies, was often discriminated against and generally tolerated. They were not the problem. Some Catholics, such as the influential Carroll family in Maryland, supported the Revolution and had hopes of making the American Catholic Church more republican. The real problem was that the thirteen English colonies were still Protestant enclaves in a mostly Catholic hemisphere. One could say a cold war mentality lingered. This was especially true in New England, home of the Congregationalists, the Puritans. On multiple occasions in the course of the eighteenth century, amidst much religious fanfare, the men of New England mobilized the militia for military action against French Catholics in Canada. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, they rejoiced that French Canada (Quebec) was finally in British i.e. Protestant hands. But the rejoicing soon ended and they were quite chagrined that the Quebec Act of 1774 the British government of Canada allowed for continued tax support of the Catholic Church and allowed for the continued spread of Catholicism in the trans-Appalachian west (upper Midwest).

Most of the American revolutionaries took for granted a republican (Whig) view of history that had grown out of the British religious and political experience. They associated tyranny with the Middle Ages and the marriage of ecclesiastical and royal power. “Thus,” as John Adams wrote, “was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to the pope and his subordinate tyrants.” Revolutionary thinkers like Adams saw Protestantism as crucial to the rise of freedom. According to this view, Protestantism opened the door for reason and common sense to challenge superstition and privilege. Here and elsewhere dissenting Protestant and Enlightenment views would blend more than they would disagree. Both parties saw superstition as the problem and common-sense reason as the answer. Both saw Catholicism (and to some degree Anglicanism) as defending monarchy and the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and dissenting Protestantism was on the side of liberty and freedom.

America: The Land of Dissenters

Image

 

The American Revolution followed closely on the heels of the Great Awakening. This momentous religious event contained seeds for potential social change. Now the Awakening did not cause the Revolution, but it did anticipate it in many ways including the assertion of the rights of individual in whatever social level to challenge the established authority. This country is a land of dissenters and it has been since its inception. 

The most important link with the Revolution and a much older tradition of Protestant dissent that the Awakening reinforced. This went back to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in the 1650s. The American colonies were populated mostly with people, especially New England Congregationalists and Scotch Irish Presbyterians, who thought of themselves as heirs to that valuable heritage. In their eyes, they were Dissenters rather than part of the powerful Anglican establishment. The Awakening intensified the dissenting tradition in America and increased their numbers. When the Revolution started, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists were almost invariably on its side.

George Marsden points out that one of the overlooked aspects of early America is its almost tribal ethnoreligious diversities. Politically, the most significant was the Scotch-Irish. During the reign of Elizabeth I, these Scots migrated to Ulster or Northern Ireland. As Scots, they disliked the English and as Presbyterians they disliked the Anglican church. During the course of the eighteenth century, they sailed in large numbers to the colonies, making up about one fourth of the population in Pennsylvania. They developed a strong animosity to the ruling Quakers, who were English and whose pacifist beliefs the gun toting Scotch-Irish saw as cowardly. They eventually brought Quaker rule to an end. Their even stronger hostility toward the English Anglicans, who were in control of the imperial government, was a major ingredient in the Revolution. Interestingly, the British sometimes referred to the American army as Presbyterian. But it was not just the Presbyterians. The Congregationalists in New England had a long and bitter history of antagonism with the Church of England. 

There was also a tradition of political dissent during the eighteenth century. The thought of English Dissenters was almost universally appropriated by the American revolutionaries. This thought first developed in the 1720s and it has been referred to as the Real Whig, or Commonwealth tradition. The commonwealth referred to the time of Puritan rule in England in the 1660s. These eighteenth century commonwealth men were heirs to this heritage because they belonged to nonconformist or dissenting denominations. 

Yet we most also recognize the importance and political implications in England of having an established church. Mirroring the practices of old Christendom, the Church of England was practically a department of the state and political power was tied to church membership. Other denominations were tolerated, but the memories of the Puritan takeover was recent enough that Anglicans were not ready to give up their political and social control. During the 1700s in England, if one were to hold public office or attend Oxford or Cambridge, one had to belong to the Church of England. 

This ties in to the most striking factor of religious dissent in the colonies was what one historian called the “Great Fear” or the fear of the American bishop. Anglicans in America operated at a considerable inconvenience by having no resident bishop by having no resident bishop since the church holds that the direct laying on of hands by a bishop was essential to ordination of clergy. Yet the same republican Americans, including many Anglicans, who opposed the new taxes for the empire were dead set against such an otherwise sensible proposal for an American bishop. They saw it as a major step toward imposing on the colonies the whole of the English hierarchical model for governing society.

Religion was a significant factor but it was not an isolated variable in the political events. Instead, the resurgence of dissenting religious heritages during the Great Awakening reinforced other ethnic and regional loyalties that contributed to the Revolution. Dissent was and is an important American tradition, whether it be religious or political. I spoke of the Whigs, they are one of the topics coming up, in particular, their view of history. 

 

The Birth of the Great American Republic: The Founding Fathers

As I write on the eve of the 237th anniversary of American independence, I thought I would take part of July to write on the Christianity and the birth of our republic. Let us start with the religion of the founding fathers. Too much has been written on the “Christian” origins of this great nation of ours and while there are some definite truths to this, we need to be careful we don’t take it too far; unfortunately it has been at times. It is important and practical to make sure the true story is told. I hope in the following posts to do just that.

Image

The founding fathers were a mixed lot, religiously speaking. They were generally Protestant. Some of them were quite orthodox Christians in Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Quaker, or Baptist persuasion. But others, like Thomas Jefferson, were the exact opposite, if they were to be judged by the standards of Christian orthodoxy. Jefferson did not believe in miracles or the deity of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholic, Jewish, or other religious convictions had little influence in early America. 

But whatever we can say about the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, there was another spirit that brought them together in the founding of the republic. This spirit arose from the humanism of the Renaissance which gave birth to seventeenth-century rationalism and to the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Without doubt, this was a religious spirit but the religion it inspired was a human-centered moral philosophy rather than a God-centered life of dependence upon God through his revelation. Majority of the founders gave evidence of the inner struggle between these dual spirits in their lives. 

On the one hand, orthodox and even some unorthodox Christians expressed a traditional private piety that would include prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, and testimony of personal faith in God. On the other hand, though, the quest for a stable and enduring political order on the part of these same men was being directed by the conviction that a common moral philosophy rooted simply in human reason could give the foundation for public community. The religion of our Founding Fathers was a synthesis of these two faiths. 

Franklin, for example, valued the influence of Christian churches, but had no use for a Philadelphia minister whose goal was “to make good Presbyterians rather than good citizens.” And George Washington, for all of his moral conviction, referred to God with language that was drawn more from nature and reason than from the Bible. This country’s father referred to God as Supreme Being, Providence, Grand Architect, Higher Cause, Great Ruler of Events, Great Creator, Supreme Ruler and Director of Human Events. 

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, is perhaps the best example of this common duality. His public philosophy (his religion) became the majority conviction that shaped the basic structure of American public life. To Jefferson, God was the benevolent Creator who preserves people in this life and judges them according to their moral worth and good deeds; not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; not the Lord and Sustainer of the Universe…..indeed a far cry from the God we find and know from the sacred scriptures.  

Jefferson advised his nephew, Peter Carr, to read the Bible to see if it stood the rational and moral test for truth. In a letter dated August 10, 1787, he wrote, “Do not be frightened from this inquiry. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel” in the exercise of virtue and “in the love of others which it will procure you.” But, on the other hand, if this leads to the belief that there is a God, then that faith will give you additional comfort and motivation. 

So for Jefferson the existence and identity of God was of only secondary importance. The primary concern for anyone was to find motivations to live a virtuous and moral life, whether that included the God of the Bible or not. God was only important if he was useful towards human virtue. 

This great human-centered moral philosophy, which served as the commonly held religion of this nation’s Founding Fathers, was not primarily concerned with private morality, but more for a public moral philosophy oriented towards the good of the society. To them, life was duty and the moral duty was to serve the society in which one lived. This was rooted in the classical Roman philosophy of Stoicism, particularly expressed by Cicero.

 

In sum, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and the other leading revolutionaries were “Deists,” who believed in a rational form of Christianity. They abandoned those parts of the Christian faith that were seen as irrational, but retained faith in a creator God since they thought it would be unreasonable to think that such an incredible universe appeared without an intelligent designer. They believed in a created moral order, reflecting the wisdom of the Supreme Being and necessary for the practical ordering of society. They greatly admired the moral teachings of Jesus, but did not think him to be God Incarnate. 

Perhaps the most important result of the religion of public morality was its victorious influence over orthodox, evangelical Christianity in the public square. It helped establish a civil religion in the United States as the newly born republic and the public faith matured. Evangelical Christians held on dearly to their doctrines and churches as matters of private faith. But at the same time, however, they came to accept a great deal of Jeffersonian public philosophy, seeing it as a good secular basis for a common public life. What these orthodox believers failed to recognize was that this new public philosophy was an all embracing religion, one that continues to dominate the republic, even among Christians. As Sidney Meade puts it, the United States of America is a “nation with the soul of a church.” Or as George Marsden writes, “The United States is both remarkably religious and remarkably secular.” 

Prayer & Work Together: The Rule of St. Benedict

St._Benedict_St. Benedict (540-604) lived in central Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries. He was born in the town of Nursia and as a young man he went to Rome for his education. The young Benedict was appalled by the secularism and hedonism that he saw. He then went into the mountains and spent some time as a hermit in a cave. His way of life and the healing miracles he performed attracted followers. Benedict was asked to be an abbot of a local monastery, but his strict rule soon led to the monks attempting to kill him. They first tried to poison his drink but when he picked up the cup the cup shattered. The monks then tried to poison his food but a raven flew in the window and snatched the bread and carried it off. The wise Benedict then left that monastery. This is most likely the reason why Benedict is some depicted with a raven.

He went on to found a string of twelve monasteries including Subiaco and most famously at Monte Cassino. It was at Monte Cassino that he wrote his famous Rule. Like earlier rules for monastic life, it depended on earlier sources such as the desert fathers but also benefited from his own wisdom and experience.

With genuine humility he called it ” a minimum Rule for beginners” and a “school for the service of the Lord” and he hoped that it would lead faithful disciples to the “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” of other monastic authorities. The wise and humble monk wrote nothing else. His contemporaries took no note of him, at least not enough for him to be mentioned in any document of the time. What we know of his life and work comes from Book II of the sixth century Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, which Gregory says came from the testimony of contemporaries and near contemporaries of the recently dead abbot saint.

When it comes to St. Francis, one is drawn by the stories told of him which are known to Franciscan and non-Franciscan alike. They are great stories about how he embraced the leper, stripped himself of his garments, rebuilt the ruined church, gathered disciples, journeyed to the Holy Land and received the stigmata. But stories is not how Benedict is known. Gregory tells how we are drawn to the abbot:

“With all the renown he gained by his numerous miracles, the holy man was no less outstanding for the wisdom of his teaching. He wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language. Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.”

Benedict was thoroughly immersed in the two hundred years of monastic tradition that preceded him and reflects it in his Rule. St. Benedict would not have seen himself as an innovator. His way was simply the monastic way. His work was to codify that way for his own community and other communities which might find his way helpful. Innovator or not, his version of the monastic tradition “was so imbued with his own wise personality that it won an acceptance which would eventually eclipse all other monastic rules.” Above all, his way was marked by moderation in all things. It was the simplicity of a life lived in common, reticence in speech, humble obedience to a spiritual master, the willingness to allow personal ambition and career to be set aside for the good of the community, work and prayer and a discipline known as lectio divina.

His Rule is famous for its codifying vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum (continual conversion). It was noteworthy for its far-sighted concern for what it would take to keep individual monks and entire monastic communities on an even keel. It was also intentionally flexible and could be adapted to different conditions. Yet it was not a manual for slackers. It was clear that even younger members were to join in in the search for perfection. But it was stern for theological reasons. Benedict writes, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods of manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” His grouping of physical and mental labor together would open the way to the monks’ great contribution to learning that would be sustained almost from the first.

At its core foundation was a commitment to prayer. And the practice of prayer was to mold a life of prayerfulness: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent…This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” But a life of prayer, however, was not to be divorced from a life of service. There were injunctions to care for the visitor, the stranger and the sick. These laid seeds for future charitable work. From such humble beginnings would grow vast monastic enterprises attending to both the body and the soul.

The concluding words of the Rule speak to its judicious and Christ-centered character: “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little Rule written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them.”

Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian tribes. It was the spiritual sons and daughters of Benedict  who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland” and through the law of Christ “brought stability and development to public and private institutions.”

Benedict is still important for us in the modern day. Cardinal Basil Hume says, “The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that a sense of community has to be created and constantly worked at.” He also says that we are to be a “society of people with a shared interest in each other’s welfare.” This relates to what Benedict says about good zeal: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” And this applies to everyone. There were to be no elite or exclusiveness in the monastery. The abbot was not to show favoritism. Benedict wrote that the abbot “is to show equal love to everyone.” An abbot is to work for the good of the whole community. This also ties into the Benedictine virtue of hospitality: the monastery is to be open to all and all guests are to be welcomed as Christ himself. We are to have respect and reverence for one another. Brother Tvedten writes, “Being Benedictine means trying a little harder to show the courtesy of love for one another, to see Christ in the people with whom we live, work, and pray and to look for him even in the people with whom we disagree. The Rule has endured because it was written for people who want to dwell together in unity in the midst of their diversity. It was written for people who want to be family, community.”

In closing, there is a prayer that speaks well: “Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict. kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church; inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Great Evangelical Reformer: William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Image

Not much was expected out of the young sickly boy from Yorkshire. After the death of his father, he was farmed out to a pious Methodist aunt in Wimbledon outside London. But his mother was not impressed by the evangelical influence, so he she took him back to Hull in Yorkshire for safe keeping. No one would have predicted that the William Wilberforce would someday return to the suburbs of London, not as a neglected child, but as the champion of human rights in Parliament.

As he grew older, the young man Wilberforce would pursue a life of debauchery, gambling, clubbing and social folly. In 1776, when the Americans were declaring their independence, the young man entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, not to pursue an education but more of a right of passage. In those days, a place like Cambridge rewarded sons of wealth with beneficial connections. The deaths of his grandfather and uncle had left him independently wealthy and did not give him any inclination towards serious study. Instead, he immersed himself in the social circles and pursued a hedonistic lifestyle enjoying cards, gambling and late night drinking. Being witty, generous and an excellent conversationalist, he was a popular figure. He had numerous friends, including the more studious future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Despite his lack of serious study, he managed to pass his exams and graduated with a B.A. in 1781 and later in M.A. in 1788. Wilberforce would later regret not taking his studies more seriously.

Another influence at Cambridge was Professor Isaac Milner, who saw great hidden talent that was laying dormant in the unmotivated young man. He invited his gifted student to join him on holiday in Europe in 1784. The two would kill time between tourist stops by reading the Greek New Testament. Under Milner’s direction, the young Wilberforce blossomed spiritually. Upon returning to London, he sought the advice of John Newton of Amazing Grace fame. Newton’s vibrant combination of abolitionist reform along with strong Christian principles had a profound impact upon Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce had considered a political career while at Cambridge and in 1780, while still a student, was elected the MP for Kingston upon Hull. Later in 1784, he was elected the MP for Yorkshire, at the age of 24. Following his conversion, Wilberforce considered leaving public life. But Newton and Pitt both counseled him to stay in public life and Wilberforce resolved to do so “with increased diligence and conscientiousness.” He dedicated his life to the “suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners in England.” The political fight was not an easy one. There was significant opposition from conservative business interests in both houses of Parliament. But Wilberforce was convinced of the justice of the cause. In a speech in the House of Commons in 1791, he said:

“Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labor, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country.”

Having failed in convincing Parliament to pass legislation by presenting evidence of the evils of slavery, Wilberforce, Pitt and their allies changed tactics and started a broad grass roots campaign to arouse public opinion to force Parliament to act. The campaign drew the support of leaders such as John Wesley. In fact, the last letter Wesley wrote in 1791 was to Wilberforce urging not give up the fight against the slave trade.

Such support from the Christian community was both effectual and vital. In 1792, Wilberforce called for petitions supporting his bill in the Commons to abolish the slave trade and the petitions gathered more than 300,000 signatures including 229,000 from Methodists alone. In 1807, the trafficking of slaves was abolished. But Wilberforce did not stop there; he and his fellow abolitionists wanted slavery outlawed completely in the British empire. Wilberforce gathered about 800 petitions with approximately 1 million signatures requesting that the British government to ban the slave trade run by Europeans. Due to the broad coalition of support, slavery ended in the colonial possessions by the Slavery Abolition Act just  a month before Wilberforce’s death in 1833. Nearly 800,000 African slaves were freed, the vast majority in the Caribbean.

Wilberforce suffered from declining health for most of his life and resorted to taking small amounts of opium to maintain his strength and political responsibilities. Despite these health problems, his gracious Christian testimony, affectionate nature, superior mental abilities and gift of mimicry made him popular even with his opponents. When this great evangelical reformer died in July 1833, all of London wept.

Wiilberforce had requested that he be buried with his sister and daughter in Stoke Newington, just north of London. But members of Parliaments urged that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. The family agreed and on August 3, 1833, the great statesman-saint was buried in the north transept, close to his lifelong friend William Pitt. His funeral was well attended by all of London. As people paid their respects and as Wilberforce was laid to rest, both houses of Parliament suspended their business as a mark of respect.

Wilberforce was also involved with other causes. Many philanthropic ventures attracted his attention. He was partially responsible for the foundation of the bishopric of Calcutta and for the founding and supporting of the Bible Society, Church Missionary Society and the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. He was a conspicuous member of the evangelical Clapham Sect. He generously supported various social, educational and missionary endeavors. He was also the founder of the Christian journal, the Christian Observer. 

William Wilberforce has been rightly viewed as a Christian hero, a statesman-saint who put his faith into action. There have been various memorials honoring him. In 1840, a seated statue of him by Samuel Joseph was erected with an epitaph praising his Christian character and his long work to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. In 2006, the University of Hull established the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in a building adjoining Wilberforce’s birthplace. Various churches within the Anglican Communion commemorate him in their liturgical calendars. In 1856, the first university owned by African Americans was founded in Ohio and is named in honor of the man who helped set so many African slaves free. It is historically a black college. And of course, in 2007, the film Amazing Grace was released for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This great evangelical statesman continues to inspire to this day.

A Wonderful Pope: Gregory the Great (540-604)

Image

He was one of the greatest popes who ever lived. Born into an old senatorial family in Rome and educated for government service and held the highest civil office in Rome, prefect of the city at age 30. A year later he decided to devote himself to God. When he inherited his father’s wealth, he converted his father’s home into a monastery under the patronage of St. Andrew in 575 and became a monk. He would go on to build six other monasteries in Sicily. He lived in such strict abstinence and austerity that he undermined his health. He would be chosen as one of the seven cardinal deacons of Rome. It was not too long before the pope appointed him the ambassador to the imperial court at Constantinople where he served from 578 to 585. When he returned to Rome he was made abbot of a monastery he had founded earlier; he also served as ambassador to Pope Pelagius who he would succeed in 590. He was unanimously elected by the senate, clergy and the people to become the next bishop of Rome. This marked the first time monasticism ascended to the papal throne.

Gregory was a great organizer and administrator who faced a host of problems. Rome was suffering from famine exacerbated by plague. He restructured the administration of the papal estates and used the money from their income to counteract the effects of poverty and pestilence. The Lombards invaded Italy in 568 and were ravaging the countryside; Gregory negotiated a peace in 592. He did much to make the Western church strong. There was no emperor in the West and Gregory became the strong man there.

He also did much to promote missions. He sent missionaries to convert the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul (France) and the Anglo-Saxons in England. It has been said that he had seen some English boys for sale in a slave market in Rome and was impressed by their beauty. He inquired as to where they came from. When he was informed they were Anglos, Gregory replied they were not Anglos but angels. He sent St. Augustine, a monk at St. Andrew’s monastery, as leader of the missions team to England in 596. The conversion of England was one of the greatest achievements of his pontificate.

The Pastoral Care, written in 591, which explained the office and duties of bishop, became a key text for the medieval church. He also wrote many noted homilies and commentaries. These made him one of the Doctors of the Church.

Gregory’s role as the patron saint of singers arises from his work with the liturgy. Gregorian chant is named after him. He concerned himself with creating a Latin liturgy and founded a school for singers in Rome. Gregory also composed a number of prayers.

Gregory suffered from poor health for most of his life and in his last years was inflicted with gout and gastritis. He died in 604 when Rome was once again in the grips of famine and plague. Gregory’s description of himself as the “servant of the servants of God” illustrated his great humility. The use of this motto by all popes since then reflects his key position in the history of the church and the papacy. Even John Calvin referred to him as the “last good pope.” Coming from a Protestant reformer, that is high praise.

God is Amongst the Pots and Pans: Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) was a humble and godly monk who lived in France during the seventeenth century. He was an ex-soldier who was wounded in Thirty Years War. After being wounded, he returned home to his parent’s house and while recovering he decided to pursue a more holy profession.

After he became a monk, he discovered a priceless secret of the Christian life: how to practice the presence of God. He wrote that “all we have to do is to recognize God as being intimately within us.” He served as a humble cook in the monastery kitchen. And he learned an important lesson through each of his daily chores: the time spent in prayer should be exactly the same as the time spent doing chores. He believed “it was a serious mistake to think of our prayer time as being different from any other. Our actions should unite us with God when we are involved in our daily activities, just as our prayers unite us with him in our quiet devotions.” He also wrote, “It isn’t necessary that we stay in church in order to remain in God’s presence. We can make our hearts personal chapels where we can enter anytime to talk to God privately.”

In the classic Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence shows us this most essential of Christian practices. He rightly points out that we have to know a person in order to love them and the same is true of God. The more we know God the more we will love them. God is always with us. It would be rude if you deserted a friend who was visiting you so why would we be disrespectful to God by leaving his presence?  He writes, “Do not forget him! Think of him often. Adore him ceaselessly. Live and die with him. That is the real business of Christians; in a word, it is our profession.” Such advice is just as true today as it was 300 years ago.

Health Reform: Seventh Day Adventists

Image

Health reform is nothing new and is not a product of the twentieth century. And if any church is known for being health conscious, it is the Seventh Day Adventists. Since the 1860s, when the church started, wholeness and health have been an emphasis of the Adventist church. The church is known for preaching a message of health that recommends vegetarianism and strict adherence to the kosher laws described in Leviticus 11. Obedience to these laws means abstinence from pork, shellfish, along with other foods that are considered “unclean.” The church discourages its members from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Some Adventists avoid coffee, tea, cola, and other drinks containing caffeine.

This emphasis on health goes back to its pioneering founder, Ellen G. White. On June 5, 1863, Ellen G. White, the 35-year-old spiritual leader of the fledgling Seventh-Day-Adventists, joined friends in rural Michigan for vespers. For years she had been suffering from ill health and her husband, James, was on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown. While she was praying, she went into an hypnotic trance and started to receive instructions from heaven regarding the preservation and restoration of health. Mrs. White learned that the people of God were to give up eating meat and other stimulating foods, shun alcohol and tobacco, and avoid drug-dispensing doctors. If ill, they were to rely on nature’s remedies: fresh air, sunshine, rest, exercise, proper diet, and above all, water.

Interestingly enough, such advice was nothing new. Since the 1830s, the Presbyterian evangelist and temperance lecturer, Sylvester Graham, famous today for his crackers, had been warning his fellow Americans of the dire consequences of flesh foods, drugs, corsets, stimulants and frequent sex.

Seventh Day Adventists believed in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. In one of White’s early visions, an angel explained that Jesus could not return to earth until the elect obeyed the Ten Commandments, especially the command regarding the Sabbath (fourth). By doing this, she elevated health reform from a physiological to a theological obligation, essential to salvation. From 1863 to her death in 1915, Ellen White proclaimed the gospel of health. As a result, many Adventists adopted a twice a day diet of fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts and gave up tea, coffee, meat, butter, eggs, cheese, rich substances, and “all exciting substances.” Such dietary requirements, White argued, not only caused disease but stimulated unholy sexual desires. According to a 2002 worldwide survey of the church, 35% of Adventists still practice vegetarianism.

The Adventist pioneers had much to do with the common acceptance of breakfast cereals into the Western diet and the modern commercial concept of cereal food originated among Adventists. John Harvey Kellogg was one of the early founders of Adventist health work. He was the leader of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, which became a world famous sanitarium. In his spare time, he invented corn flakes. His development of breakfast cereals as a health food led to the founding of Kellogg’s which made a fortune for his brother William. In both Australia and New Zealand, the church-owned Sanitarium Health Food Company is a leading manufacturer of health and vegetarian-related products, most prominently Weet-Bix.

Research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health has shown that the average Adventist in California lives 4 to 10 years longer than the average Californian. The research asserts that they live longer because they do not smoke or drink alcohol, have a day of rest every week, and maintain a healthy low-fat vegetarian diet that is rich in nuts and beans. The cohesiveness of the Adventists’ social networks has also been put forward as an explanation of their extended lifespan.

Despite White’s distrust of doctors, Adventists run a large number of hospitals and health-related institutions. Their largest medical school and hospital in North America is Loma Linda University and its attached medical center. Around the globe, the church runs a wide network of hospitals, clinics, lifestyle centers, and sanitariums. These play a role in the church’s gospel of health message and worldwide missions outreach. Adventist Health System is the largest non-profit Protestant multi-institutional healthcare system in the United States. It is sponsored by the church and cares for over four million patients yearly.

If not the most original health reformer, White is certainly among the most influential. When she died at the age of eighty-seven, she left behind a string of 33 sanitariums and countless treatment rooms on six continents, a medical school in Loma Linda, California, and 136,000 disciples to preach the gospel of health in the twentieth century. The work continues today and one may say the Ellen G. White would be proud of the church she founded.

 

 

Church and State: Wigtown Martyrs

Image

Church and state and religious freedom..it’s the never ending story. And on this day, May 11, we remember two martyrs who died in name of religious freedom. Margaret Wilson was a young Scottish Covenanter, from Wigtownshire in Scotland, executed  by drowning to swear an oath declaring James VII as head of the church. Her death became part of the martyrology of Presbyterian churches, and she was commemorated as the most famous of the Wigtown Martyrs.

From February 6, 1685, James II of England (1633-1701) was King of England and Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII. James wanted to proceed quickly to his coronation and was crowned with his wife at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1685. Margaret Wilson was granted a reprieve by the Scottish Parliament one week later. James was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over Great Britain and Ireland. The political and religious elite opposed him for being pro-French and pro-Catholic and for his plans to become an absolute monarch. When he produced an heir, tensions rose dramatically, and the leading nobles called on William III of Orange (his son-in-law and nephew) to land an invasion army from the Netherlands.

The Covenant movement was a movement to maintain the reforms of the Scottish Reformation and it came to the fore with the signing of the National Covenant of 1638 in opposition to the royal control of the church, promoting Presbyterianism as a form of church government rather than the rule of bishops appointed by the Crown. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Covenants were declared treasonable and the rule of bishops was restored. In southwestern Scotland, the ministers refused to submit. Barred from their churches, they held open air field assemblies called conventicles which the authorities suppressed using military force.

Margaret Wilson was born at Glenvernoch, a farm near Newton Stewart  in Penninghame,Wigtownshire. Her parents were dutiful Anglicans, but her older brothers were among the Covenanters. By 1684 they were hiding from the authorities in the hills and increasingly government action had ended the large conventicles. Small gatherings were still held indoors, but failure to take a test of allegiance to the king, which required renouncing the Covenant, met with the death penalty, as did even attending a conventicle or harboring Covenanters. Despite these risks, Margaret started attending conventicles with her younger brother, Thomas. On occasion they took along their younger sister Agnes.

In February 1685 Thomas Wilson left to join other Covenanters in the hills. The Wilson sisters went on a secret visit to Wigtown to visit friends, including an elderly widow Margaret McLachlan. The sisters were arrested, possibly after refusing to drinking the king’s health and were put into the “thieves’ hole.” They refused to take the Abjuration Oath renouncing the Covenant. The following Sunday Margaret McLachlan was arrested and placed in the theives’ hole along with the girls. The three were taken before the local assizes of the government commissioners for Wigtownshire. On the 13th of April, 1685 they were indicted as being guilty of the Rebellion of Bothwell Bridge, Aird’s Moss, 20 field conventicles and 20 house conventicles. They were found guilty on all charges and were sentenced to tied to palisades fixed in the sand within the floodmark of the sea and there to stand till the flood overflowed them.

The father of the girls, Gilbert Wilson, went to Edinburgh and made a plea to the Privy Council of Scotland for clemency for all three, presenting a petition which claimed that Margaret McLachlan had recanted. Agnes was granted freedom on bond of 100 pounds and reprieve was granted for the two Margarets on April 30, 1685. Urging that the two had been officially granted reprieve by His Majesty’s Privy Council, Mark Napier insisted that its agents should not have dared flout the Council’s decree. Grieson of Lag, nevertheless chose to do so. A contemporary wrote that “over zeal was no crime in 1685.”

On May 11, 1685, eleven days after being granted reprieve, Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were chained to stakes on the Solway Firth. At the last moment, choking on the salt water, Wilson was allowed to offer a prayer to the king, which she did. Yet she still refused to abjure the covenant. This wasn’t good enough for her accusers and she was forcibly thrust beneath the waves. It has been said that, as the tide rose, she defiantly quoted from the Psalms and the epistles and sang until she drowned. Another contemporary, Robert Wodrow later wrote that the murderers should have been prosecuted for ignoring the reprieve.

Margaret Wilson was only 18 years old when she died and was buried together with her friend Margaret McLachlan, in the churchyard of Wigtown. The above picture is of the monument that was built in memory and honor of these Wigtown Martyrs. And let us follow in their footsteps and continue to exercise our religious freedom, a right that was given to us by God and which no man or king can take away even on pain of death. As the Apostle Peter remarked to the ruling Jewish leaders, “We must obey God rather than man.” May we also be brave enough to die for such freedom!