CHAPTER XIV. THE LEGACY OF THE EARLY CHURCH TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.
Another great idea which was promulgated by the church long before the empire fell, was that of benevolence. Charities were not one of the fruits of paganism. Men may have sold their goods and given to the poor, but we have no record of such deeds. Hospitals and eleemosynary institutions were nearly unknown. When a man was unfortunate, there was nothing left to him but to suffer and die. There was no help from others. All were engrossed in their schemes of pleasure or ambition, and compassion was rare. The sick and diseased died without alleviation. "The spectator who gazed upon the magnificent buildings which covered the seven hills, temples, arches, porticoes, theatres, baths and palaces, could discover no hospitals and asylums, unless perchance the temple of Aesculapius, on an island in the Tiber, where the maimed and sick were left in solitude to struggle with the pangs of death." But the church fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner, and lodged the stranger. Charity was one of the fundamental injunctions of Christ and of the Apostles. The New Testament breathes unbounded love, benevolence so extensive and universal that self was ignored. Self-denial, in doing good to others, was one of the virtues expected of every Christian. Hence the first followers of our Lord had all things in common. Property was supposed to belong to the whole church, rather than to individuals. "Go and sell all that thou hast" was literally interpreted. It devolved on the whole church to see that strangers were entertained, that the sick were nursed, that the poor were fed, that orphans were protected, that those who were in prison were visited. For these purposes contributions were taken up in all assemblies convened for public worship. Individuals also emulated the whole church, and gave away their possessions to the poor. Matrons, especially, devoted themselves to these works of charity, feeding the poor, and visiting the sick. They visited the meanest hovels and the most dismal prisons. But "what heathen," says Tertullian, "will suffer his wife to go about from one street to another to the houses of strangers? What heathen would allow her to steal away into the dungeon to kiss the chain of the martyr?" And these works of benevolence were not bestowed upon friends alone, but upon strangers; and it was this, particularly, which struck the pagans with wonder and admiration - that men of different countries, ranks, and relations of life, were bound together by an invisible cord of love. A stranger, with letters to the "brethren," was sure of a generous and hearty welcome. There were no strangers among the Christians; they were all brothers; they called each other brother and sister; they gave to each other the fraternal kiss; they knew of no distinctions; they all had an equal claim to the heritage of the church. And this generosity and benevolence extended itself to the wants of Christians in distant lands; the churches redeemed captives taken in war, and even sold the consecrated vessels for that purpose on rare occasions, as Ambrose did at Milan. A single bishop, in the third century, supported two thousand poor people. Cyprian raised at one time a sum equal to four thousand dollars in his church at Carthage, to be sent to the Manichaean bishops for the purposes of charity. Especially in times of public calamity was this spirit of benevolence manifested, and in striking contrast with the pagans. [Footnote: Neander, vol. i. Section 3.] When Alexandria was visited with the plague during the reign of Gallienus, the pagans deserted their friends upon the first symptoms of disease; they left them to die in the streets, without even taking the trouble to bury them when dead; they only thought of escaping from the contagion themselves. The Christians, on the contrary, took the bodies of their brethren in their arms, waited upon them without thinking of themselves, ministered to their wants, and buried them with all possible care, even while the best people of the community, presbyters and deacons, lost their own lives by their self-sacrificing generosity. [Footnote: Eusebius, 1. vii. chap. 22.] And when Carthage was ravaged by a similar pestilence in the reign of Gallus, the pagans deserted the sick and the dying, and the streets were filled with dead bodies, which greatly increased the infection. No one came near them except for purposes of plunder; but Cyprian, calling his people together in the church, said: "If we do good only to our own, what do we more than publicans and heathens." Animated by his words, the members of the church divided the work between them, the rich giving money, and the poor labor, so that in a short time the bodies which filled the streets were buried.