CHAPTER XIV. THE LEGACY OF THE EARLY CHURCH TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.
The great idea of Christian equality struck at the root of that great system of slavery which was one of the main causes of the ruin of the empire. Christianity did not break up slavery; it might never have annihilated it under a Roman rule, but it protested against it so soon as it was clothed with secular power. As in the sight of heaven there is no distinction of persons, so the idea of social equality gained ground as the relations of Christianity to practical life were understood. The abolition of slavery, and the general amelioration of the other social evils of life, are all a logical sequence from the doctrine of Christian equality, - that God made of one blood all the nations of the earth, that they are equally precious in his sight, and have equal claims to the happiness of heaven. All theories of human rights radiate from, and centre around, this consoling doctrine. That we are born free and equal may not, practically, be strictly true; but that the relations of society ought to be viewed as they are regarded in the Scriptures, which reveal the dignity of the soul and its glorious destinies, cannot be questioned; so that oppression of man by man, and injustice, and unequal laws militate with one of the great fundamental revelations of God. Impress Christian equality on the mind of man, and social equality follows as a matter of course. The slave was recognized to be a man, a person, and not a thing. Whenever he sat down, as he did once a week, beside his master, in the adoration of a common Lord, the ignominy of his hard condition was removed, even if his obligations to obedience were not abrogated. As a future citizen of heaven, his importance on the earth was more and more recognized, until his fetters were gradually removed.
From the day when Christian equality was declared, the foundations of slavery were assailed, and the progress of freedom has kept pace with Christian civilization, although the Apostles did not directly denounce the bondage that disgraced the ancient world. It was something to declare the principles which, logically carried out, would ultimately subvert the evil, for no evil can stand forever which is in opposition to logical deductions from the truths of Christianity. Moral philosophy is as much a series of logical deductions from the doctrine of loving our neighbor as ourself as that great network of theological systems which Augustine and Calvin elaborated from the majesty and sovereignty of God. Those distinctions which Christ removed by his Gospel of universal brotherhood can never return or coexist with the progress of the truth. A vast social revolution began when the eternal destinies of the slave were announced. It will not end with the mere annihilation of slavery as an institution; it will affect the relations of the poor and the rich, the unlucky and the prosperous, in every Christian country until justice and love become dominant principles. What a stride from Roman slavery to mediaeval serfdom! How benignant the attitude of the church, in all ages, to the poor man! The son of a peasant becomes a priest, and rises, in the Christian hierarchy, to become a ruler of the world. There was no way for a poor peasant boy to rise in the Middle Ages, except in the church. He attracts the notice of some beneficent monk; he is educated in the cloister; he becomes a venerated brother, an abbot, perhaps a bishop or a pope. Had he remained in service to a feudal lord, he never could have risen above his original rank. The church raises him from slavery, and puts upon his brow her seal and in his hands the thunderbolts of spiritual power, thus giving him dignity and consideration and independence. Rising, as the clergy did in the Middle Ages, in all ages, from the lower and middle classes, they became as much opposed to slavery as they were to war. It was thus in the bosom of the church that liberty was sheltered and nourished. Nor has the church ever forgotten her mission to the poor, or sympathized, as a whole, with the usurpations of kings. She may have aimed at dominion, like Hildebrand and Innocent III., but it was spiritual domination, control of the mind of the world. But she ever sympathized with oppressed classes, like Becket, even as he defied the temporal weapons of Henry II. The Jesuits, even, respected the dignity of the poor. Their errors were trust in machinery and unbounded ambition, but they labored in their best ages for the good of the people. And in our times, the most consistent and uncompromising foes of despotism and slavery are in the ranks of the church. The clergy have been made, it is true, occasionally, the tools of despotism, and have been absurdly conservative of their own privileges, but on the whole, have ever lifted up their voices in defense of those who are ground down.