The Dark Side of Christian History
by Helen Ellerbe
The Dark Side of Christian History
by Helen Ellerbe
“Heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis meaning “choice” - Helen Ellerbe
The Christian church has left a legacy, a world view, that permeates every aspect of Western society, both secular and religious. It is a legacy that fosters sexism, racism, the intolerance of difference, and the desecration of the natural environment. The Church, throughout much of its history, has demonstrated a disregard for human freedom, dignity, and self-determination. It has attempted to control, contain and confine spirituality, the relationship between an individual and God.
Above the Law
Christians held attitudes that did little to endear them to Romans. Bishop Irenaeus, for example, declared, “We have no need of the law for we are already far above it in our godly behavior.”
Tax Free Priests
In 319 Constantine passed a law excusing the clergy from paying taxes or serving in the army and in 355 bishops were exempted from ever being tried in secular courts.
Bishop Irenaeus compiled the first list of biblical writings that resemble today’s New Testament around 180 C.E. By 393 and 397, Bishop Athanasius had a similar list ratified by the Church councils of Hippo and Carthage.9 By prohibiting and burning any other writings, the Catholic Church eventually gave the impression that this Bible and its four canonized Gospels represented the only original Christian view. And yet, as late as 450, Theodore of Cyrrhus said that there were at least 200 different gospels circulating in his own diocese.
The Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that “In all the departments forgery and interpolation as well as ignorance ignorance had wrought mischief on a grand scale.”
Even the four canonized Gospels contradict one another. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was an aristocrat descended from David via Solomon, whereas the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was from much more humble stock, and the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus was born to a poor carpenter. At his birth, Jesus was visited by kings according to Matthew, but according to Luke, he was visited by shepherds. And at Jesus’s death, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus’s last words were “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But according to Luke, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and in John he says simply, “it is finished.”
When a council at Ephesus in 431 implied that Mary could be safely worshiped, crowds burst into delirious celebrations, accompanied by torchlight processions and shouts of “Praised be the Theotokos (Mother of God)!”40 Older temples and sacred sites, once dedicated to pre-Christian goddesses, were rededicated or replaced with churches for Mary.
Healing the Sick?
After the plague, the Church dominated the formal discipline of medicine. The most common medical practice between the sixth and sixteenth centuries used for every malady became “bleeding.” Christian monks taught that bleeding a person would prevent toxic imbalances, prevent sexual desire, and restore the humors. By the sixteenth century this practice would kill tens of thousands each year.
Christian Love of Knowledge
The Christian church had similar impact upon education and learning. The Church burned enormous enormous amounts of literature. In 391 Christians burned down one of the world’s greatest libraries in Alexandria, said to have housed 700,000 rolls. All the books of the Gnostic Basilides, Porphyry’s 36 volumes, papyrus rolls of 27 schools of the Mysteries, and 270,000 ancient documents gathered by Ptolemy Philadelphus were burned. Ancient academies of learning were closed. Education for anyone outside of the Church came to an end. And what little education there was during the Dark Ages, while still limited to the clergy, was advocated by powerful kings as a means of providing themselves with capable administrators.
Pope Gregory the Great also condemned education for all but the clergy as folly and wickedness. He forbade laymen to read even the Bible. He had the library of the Palatine Apollo burned “lest its secular literature distract the faithful from the contemplation of heaven.”
The Fourth Council of Carthage in 398 forbade bishops to even read the books of gentiles. Jerome, a Church Father and early monastic in the fourth century, rejoiced that the classical authors were being forgotten. And his younger monastic contemporaries were known to boast of their ignorance of everything except Christian literature.
After Christians had spent years destroying books and libraries, St. John Chrysostom, the preeminent Greek Father of the Church, proudly declared, “Every trace of the old philosophy and literature of the ancient world has vanished from the face of the earth.”
Hatred of Creativity
Orthodox Christians expressed disdain for the flourishing creativity and declared supporters of the arts to be heathens and pagans. The outspoken fifteenth century Dominican prophet Girolamo Savonarola believed that classical poets should be banished and that science, culture and education should return entirely to the hands of monks.
Savonarola carried out his moral reforms in Florence using techniques characteristic of a police state: controlling personal morality through the espionage of servants and organizing bands of young men to raid homes of items that were inconsistent with orthodox Christian ideals. Books, particularly those of Latin and Italian poets, illuminated manuscripts, women’s ornaments, musical instruments, and paintings were burned in a huge bonfire in 1497, destroying much of the work of Renaissance Florence.
Under Lock and Key
The language of the Mass, which in the fourth century had been changed from Greek to Latin so as to be more easily understood, was by the end of the seventh century totally incomprehensible to most people, including many priests. As a result, services were often an unintelligible mumbling which was absolutely meaningless to the congregation.
In 1139 the Church began calling councils to condemn the Cathars and all who supported them. By 1179 Alexander III proclaimed a crusade against these enemies of the Church promising two years’ indulgence, or freedom from punishment for sins, to all who would take up arms, and eternal salvation for any who should die. While this set a precedent for providing the Church with a warlike militia to fight the Church’s private quarrels,74 it failed to rally force against the popular Cathars. Then in 1204 Pope Innocent III destroyed what remained of the independence of local churches when he armed his legates with the authority “to destroy, throw down, or pluck up whatever is to be destroyed, thrown down, or plucked up and to plant and build whatever is to be built or planted.”
The savagery of the thirty-year-long attack decimated Langedoc. At the Cathedral of St. Nazair alone 12,000 people were killed. Bishop Folque of Toulouse put to death 10,000. When the crusaders fell upon the town of Beziers and the commanding legate, Arnaud, was asked how to distinguish Catholic from Cathar, he replied, “Kill them all, for God knows his own!” Not a child was spared.
The Albigensian crusade killed an estimated one million people, not only Cathars but much of the population of southern France.
As the Inquisitor Francisco Pena stated in 1578, “We must remember that the main purpose of the trial and execution is not to save the soul of the accused but to achieve the public good and put fear into others.”
Greed is the Key
Inquisitors grew very rich. They received bribes and annual fines from the wealthy who paid to escape accusation. The Inquisition would claim all the money and property of alleged heretics. As there was little chance of the accused being proven innocent, there was no need to wait for conviction to confiscate his or her property. Unlike Roman law that reserved a portion of property for the convicted’s nearest heirs, canon and inquisitional law left nothing. Pope Innocent III had explained that God punished children for the sins of their parents. So unless children had come forth spontaneously to denounce their parents, they were left penniless. Inquisitors even accused the dead of heresy, sometimes as much as seventy years after their death. They exhumed and burned the alleged heretic’s bones and then confiscated all property from the heirs.
Ironically, inquisitors were most often chosen from Dominican and Franciscan orders, both of which originally professed vows of poverty.
Prohibition on Money-Lending
The Church stigmatized lending money at interest, which made funding economic ventures extremely difficult.
Calvin established a powerfully repressive, police-state theocracy in Geneva that is perhaps best remembered for burning the well-known physician, Michael Servetus, because of his dissenting views of Christianity. Calvin’s pupil, John Knox, condemned all other creeds. As Protestants fragmented, each new denomination laid claim to the sole divine truth, denouncing all others.
In keeping with their belief in an authoritarian God, both Protestants and Catholics advocated strict enforcement of their perception of God’s laws. The Catholic Church had already established the means with which to control society and enforce obedience.
Both Protestants and Catholics diminished the important role of the community, making it easier for the Church and state to have more direct control of the individual.
Life is Hell
Pleasure in any form was now to be repudiated. Grignon de Montfort, a Catholic missionary, denounced love songs, tales and romances “which spread like the plague... and corrupt so many people.” A prominent eighteenth century Augustinian priest repeatedly condemned public entertainment. “Public performances are inherently opposed to the spirit of Christianity.” “Plays give only dangerous lessons.” “Plays are the source of our time’s dissoluteness.” In seventeenth century New England where Puritans controlled much of society, warnings or actual punishment befell any youths caught sledding or swimming and any adults caught simply enjoying themselves when they might be better employed. To enjoy oneself on the Sabbath was considered a terrible offense. A Massachusetts law of 1653 prohibited Sunday walks and visits to the harbor as being a waste of time. Playing children or strolling young men and women were warned that they were engaging in “things tending much to the dishonor of God, the reproach of religion and the prophanation of the holy Sabbath.”
The pleasures of physical beauty and aesthetics were similarly disparaged. The seventeenth century bastion of Puritanism in New England frowned upon ornamentation of any sort. Furniture and dwellings were extremely austere. Beautiful clothing was considered considered sinful.
Clothing which revealed the female body was illegal. A 1650 New England law prohibited “short sleeves, whereby the nakedness of the arm may be discovered.” Christians came to believe that anything which focused attention upon the physical world was ungodly.
Hatred of Everything
Reformation. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, declared:
I am mere dung, I must ask our Lord that when I am dead my body be thrown on the dung-heap to be devoured by the birds and dogs...Must this not be my wish in punishment for my sins?
And Calvin wrote:
We are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes. We are full of it, we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and outside.
In the mid-1700’s Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist New England theologian, preached:
(You are) a little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect, that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of heaven and earth.
Earthliness is synonymous with sinfulness throughout much of the Bible. For example, Colossians states:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
The perceived separation of nature from God affected the treatment of animals. The canonized thirteenth century scholar, Thomas Aquinas, declared that animals have no afterlife, have no inherent rights, and that “by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our use.” Animals were often thought to be agents of the devil. In his 1991 book, Replenish the Earth, Lewis Regenstein writes that...in the ten centuries preceding the present one, there are accounts of the trials, torture and execution (often by hanging) of hundreds of animals, mainly by ecclesiastical courts acting under the assumption that animals can be used by the devil to do his work.
The Church spent centuries prohibiting displays of reverence that involved nature. Worship should take place indoors away from the natural elements. Christians destroyed outdoor temples and built churches with roofs in their stead. The Church condemned the veneration of trees and springs, where people would place candles or decorations.
The General Capitularies of Charlemagne in 789 decreed:
With regard to trees, and rocks and springs, wherever ignorant people put lights or make other observances, we give notice to everyone that this is a most evil practice, execrable to God, and wherever they are found, they are to be taken away and destroyed.
As the Augustinian priest and chaplain to the King of Poland declared:
Follow Our Lord’s example, and hate your body; if you love it, strive to lose it, says Holy Scripture, in order to save it; if you wish to make peace with it, always go armed, always wage war against it; treat it like a slave, or soon you yourself shall be its unhappy slave.
Not surprisingly, churchmen portrayed the healing woman as the most evil of all witches. William Perkins declared, “The most horrible and detestable monster...is the good witch.” The Church included in its definition of witchcraft anyone with knowledge of herbs for “those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.”
Beginning of the Horror Genre
The Inquisition spread the frightening belief in werewolves. And in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII officially ordered pet cats to be burned together with witches, a practice which continued throughout the centuries of witch-hunting.
The belief that animals were agents of the devil contributed to the breakdown in the natural control of rodents. Zealous Christians most frequently targeted cats, wolves, snakes, foxes, chickens and white cocks as animals to be eliminated. Since many of these animals helped control the population of crop-eating and plague-carrying rodents, their elimination intensified outbreaks of plague.
Slavery to Time
The pendulum clock was invented in 1657 as a testimony to the belief that minutes were uniform in duration. By 1714, the new concept of even, linear time had become familiar enough for a man to write in reference to the belief in lucky and unlucky days that “some weak and ignorant persons may perhaps regard such things, but men of understanding despise them...”