Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Centurion and the Stenographer

One of my favorite movies over the last few years is Gladiator with Russel Crowe. For those unfamiliar with it, it is the story of a Roman General who finds himself stripped of his rank, his family murdered, sold into slavery as a gladiator in the games all because he stands in opposition to a cruel and unworthy emperor. It calls to mind another member of Rome's military, this one a centurion, who also took a stand against his emperor; and the integrity of a very uncommon man who stood with him.

We're not sure when he was born, but there is good reason to believe that Marcellus was born in Arzas in the province of Galicia in what is now northern Spain. Hoping to gain a large fortune and Roman citizenship, he entered into the military life. He proved able at his chosen career, rising in the ranks to centurion (officer over a hundred men), serving as a captain in the legion of Trajan. He married a young woman named Nona and she bore him twelve children. His rank and income would have allowed him to own a small farm which would have sustained his family while he was off on a campaign - of which there were many.

It was on one such campaign in North Africa that the birthday of Emperor Maximian Herculeus came about in the year 298. It was the tradition in those days for members of the military to celebrate the emperor's birthday with extraordinary feasting and solemn religious rites that included the offering of sacrifices to various gods, particularly those deemed to be favorites of the emperor himself.

This left Marcellus with a decision to make, because a few months earlier he had heard the preaching of a holy bishop from the church of Leon, the region of Mauritania (Spain) where his wife was from and where his family now lived. His heart was stirred and his entire family had converted to Christianity. The teachings of the church, of course, led him to the belief that the emperor was no god, or even a friend of the gods, but rather a mere man. He could not bring himself to enter into the celebrations as he once did. Neither could he stay silent.

Without warning, he stood and in front of all his men, he removed his military Phalerae (belt of honors) and threw it down. "I serve Jesus Christ the Eternal King," he is reported to have said loudly. He then threw down his vine-switch, a short length of polished vine branch, that was the symbol of his authority over his troops, sort of a poor man's scepter.

"Henceforward I cease to serve your Emperors, and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such be the terms of service that men are forced to offer sacrifice to gods and Emperors, behold I cast away my vine-switch and phalerae, I renounce the standards, and refuse to serve." The words struck those listening like a fist.

To their ears Marcellus had committed treason, insubordination, treachery and blasphemy. There was no greater insult than to cast down the emblems of his rank and command. (The Phalerae with its medallions depicting the emperor and his heirs is pictured in a period costume at right. The vine-switch is in the actor's left hand.) They seized their now 'former' commander and brought him before the local governor Anastasius Fortunatus. He was ordered thrown into prison until the celebrations were complete.

When that time came Marcellus was brought before the governor again. "What did you mean by removing your military gear in violation of military discipline and throwing away your phalerae and vine-switch?"

Marcellus did not hesitate in his reply, "...I made answer openly and in a loud voice that I was a Christian and that I could not serve under this allegiance, but only under the allegiance of Jesus Christ the Son of God the Father Almighty."

Roman law did not allow Fortunatus the option of ignoring the insubordinate conduct. He was required to report the matter to higher authorities. The judge had hoped to lay his case before Maximian and Constantius, the latter of which was known to be friendly toward Christians. However, Marcellus was taken to the deputy Praetorian prefect Aurelius Agricolan instead. When Agricolan had heard the evidence he asked, "What madness possessed you to cast away the signs of your allegiance, and to speak as you did?"

Marcellus answered, "There is no madness in those who fear the Lord."

After more arguments and a series of threats that seeming fell on Marcellus' deaf ears, Agricolan dictated this verdict: "Marcellus, who held the rank of centurion of the first class, having admitted that he has degraded himself by openly throwing off his allegiance, and having besides put on record, as appears in the official report of the governor, other insane expressions, it is our pleasure that he be put to death by the sword."

You may wonder how it is we know the details of his testimony? Well, even back then there were court stenographers whose job it was to record all that was said, so it could be proven to the families of the condemned that everything was on the up and up. According to an appendix attached to Marcellus' court records, the stenographer at his trial was a man by the name of Cassian. I know, given the title of this article you were hoping for something a little juicier - shame on you. Don't bail on me though; this is where it gets interesting!

You see, to Cassian the verdict seemed criminally unfair. So much so that he threw down his pen, and with an exclamation apparently not suitable to be included in the records, refused to write another word. Agricolan ordered him thrown into prison, too. Marcellus' sentence was carried out later that day, October 30, 298. Cassian was held until he could face his own trial.

The Christian centurion's children followed their father's example; all lost their lives for the defense of the Gospel. Three of the boys were hanged and then decapitated at Leon. Their mother bought back their bodies for money and buried them secretly; they were later transferred to a church built in their honor in the city of Leon.

As for Cassian, his trial came about a month later. He refused to recant his criticism of Marcellus' sentence and openly declared that he too was a Christian. He was also sentenced to death, and was beheaded for his faith on December 3, 298 - 1,709 years ago this week.


1. St. Marcellus the Centurion, Internet scared Text Archive, <>
2. Marcellus and Cassian, Christian History Institute, <>
3. Photo credit: Roman Army Reenactment, Centurion page, <>

Other events this week in church history:

December 4, 1093: Anselm, called "the founder of Scholasticism" and the greatest scholar between Augustine and Aquinas, is consecrated archbishop of Canterbury.

December 5, 1484: Pope Innocent VIII issues a bull giving two German inquisitors jurisdiction over prosecuting witchcraft. Though the pope didn't intend for it to be anything major, the Germans used it to promote their book, Hammer of Witches. Its publication led to the fervent, but often exaggerated witch hunts of the next two centuries.

December 6, 345 (traditional date): Don't let the little kids find out, they might misunderstand, but St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, one of the most popular saints in the Greek and Latin churches—and believed by many to be the original Santa Claus — dies on this date.

December 7, 521: Irish monk Columba, missionary to Scotland and founder of Iona and many other monastic communities, is born in Donegal.

December 8, 1934: American missionaries John and Betty Stam are beheaded by Chinese communists. The couple had met while attending Moody Bible Institute and married just the year before their deaths. Publication of their biography prompted hundreds to volunteer for missionary service.

December 9, 1843: The first Christmas cards—actually more like postcards—are created and sold for a shilling. (A shilling from the mid 1800s had about the same purchasing power as $8 CDN today. Courtesy Measuring )

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Shoeless John de Yepes

Recently, my pastor was preaching about the long dry periods we sometimes experience in our spiritual lives. He, of course, mentioned the 'dark night of the soul", a common reference for this subject and referred to by a few of the more famous in the Christian world who have experienced it, such as Mother Theresa. As he spoke (you can hear what he had to say here ) I could not help but think about the life of John de Yepes, the Christian mystic and poet who coined the phrase. Let me tell you a little about him.

The de Yepes family was not a wealthy Spanish family. They might have been except that John's father Gonzalo had chosen to marry the common woman he loved, Catalina, instead of someone his noble father might have chosen for him. As a result he was disinherited and the young couple found themselves struggling to survive as silk weavers. Gonzalo passed away soon after John was born in 1542, leaving Catalina to struggle even harder to raise her boys. In an effort to find work she moved to Medina de Campo.

Though John studied well at the "poor school" he attended, when he was apprenticed out to a local artisan, it seemed he was incapable of learning anything. Exasperated, his master loaned him out to a Jesuit school where John divided his time between his studies and serving in the hospital for the impoverished. Over the next seven years John felt the call of God grow ever stronger upon him, but not just any call. John was convinced that he was to become a friar in the strictest traditions of the old desert fathers. John felt that 'modern' orders had grown soft allowing themselves far too many of life's pleasures - like shoes.

No... I'm not kidding! John joined the Carmelite order in 1563 taking the name John of St. Mathias. The order had historically been very strict, taking their example from the prophet Elijah. John felt that by embracing poverty and going without food, he would grow closer to God. But he soon decided the Carmelites were not strict enough and made the decision to transfer his allegiance to the Carthusians. Then he met Teresa of Avila.

Like John himself, Teresa felt the order had grown far too soft; however, instead of leaving she was urging Carmelites to return to the original strict poverty of their order. John embraced Teresa's plan, and along with two other men, he moved into a farmhouse which was in such bad shape that even Teresa did not think anyone could live in it. He renamed himself John of the Cross and became the spiritual leader of the new movement.

As a symbol of the strictness of their devotion they adopted the "discalced" discipline (from the Latin for without shoes). This discipline requires it's followers to go unshod, that is barefoot, as a testament to their devotion. The practice was introduced by Francis of Assisi when shoes were considered a luxury item. The followers of the discipline, devoted to a life of poverty either eschewed shoes entirely or limited themselves to simple sandals when conditions warranted - such as in winter.

Sometime later, Teresa invited John to come to Avila and serve as director and confessor to the convent of the Incarnation, of which she had been appointed prioress. During the five years he remained there the reform spread rapidly, and soon those in higher authority began to take a great deal of notice.

Because the movement did not have the official sanction of the powers that be, John was ordered to return to the house of his profession, that is the monastery on Medina. He refused to do so, and soon found himself in prison for resisting commands from a superior. In prison, he was scourged. But after nine months, he managed to escape and reappeared as leader of another community at Ubeda. He spent the rest of his life there, passing away on December 14, 1591.

While in prison, John began writing "Dark Night of the Soul", a commentary on a poem he had written.

On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed, my house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure...

Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me more surely than the light of noonday...

Oh, night that guided me, oh, night more lovely than the dawn...

The poem, called "The Ascent of Mount Carmel" (where Elijah met the priests of Baal) was extensive, originally intended to take up four books; but it breaks off part way through the third. In it and his other writings he sets forth the axiom that the soul must empty itself of self in order to be filled with God, that it must be purified of the last traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. In the application of this simple maxim he shows the most uncompromising logic. For this reason St. John is often portrayed as a fairly grim character; but personally I've never thought that to be true. He was indeed austere in the extreme, but from his writings I see in him a man overflowing with charity and kindness, a poet deeply influenced by all that is beautiful in God's creation.

John of the Cross moved into that dilapidated farm house, giving birth to the Discalced Carmelite Order on November 28th, 1568 - 439 years ago this week.


1. St John of the cross, Benedict Zimmerman. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. < >
2. Carmelite Order Official Website: Our Saints - St. John of the Cross < >
3: Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Other events that happened this week in Church history:

November 26, 1862: President Abraham Lincoln meets Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of Uncle Tom's Cabin and daughter of prominent minister Lyman Beecher. "So," Lincoln said upon meeting her, "you're the little woman that wrote the book that made this great war!"

November 27, 1095: In an effort to end hostilities between waring factions within the church by giving them a common enemy, Pope Urban II addresses the public to proclaim the First Crusade. The goals were to defend Eastern Christians from Muslim aggression, make pilgrimages to Jerusalem safer, and recapture the Holy Sepulcher. "God wills it! God wills it!" the crowd shouted in response.

November 29, 1847: Missionary physician Marcus Whitman, his wife, and 12 others are killed by Cayuse Indians in Washington's Walla Walla valley. Whitman had recently returned from a 3,000-mile journey to convince the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions not to close down one of his three mission stations. He was successful, and returned with a fresh group of immigrants—and the measles virus. Many Cayuse died of the disease, some of them because Whitman gave them vaccinations. Two years after the massacre, five Cayuse elders voluntarily gave themselves up, in order to end further retribution against their tribe. Their leader, Tiloukaikt, said on the gallows, "Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people."

November 30, 1554: Recently crowned Queen of England, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, restores Roman Catholicism to the country. Nearly 300 Protestants would be burned at the stake by "Bloody Mary," including Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley. Nearly 400 more died by imprisonment and starvation.

December 1, 1170: Banished earlier by king Henry II because he sided with the church against the crown, archbishop of Canterbury Thomas a Becket returns, electrifying all of England. Henry orders his former friend's execution, and Becket is slain by four knights while at vespers December 29. (T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral is a fascinating exploration of the event.)

December 2, 1980: Three American nuns and a lay churchwoman are killed by death squads in El Salvador. Some 70,000 Salvadorans are estimated to have died because of terrorists or civil war during the 1980s, including many Catholic clergy.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Archbishop of Oregon Came From Quebec

When Francois Norbert Blanchet was growing up on his parents farm in rural 19th century Quebec, I wonder if he ever dreamed he would one day travel to almost every corner of the world!

Born in September of 1795, near Saint-Pierre, Francois attended the village school for only three years before he and his brother Augustin were packed off to the Seminary of Quebec in 1810. He was ordained a priest 9 years later, and after serving in the cathedral for a year was sent to Richibucto, New Brunswick, as pastor of the Micmac Indians and Acadian settlers. The novice priest had to learn both the native languages and English in order to serve his diverse flock - which also included a small community of Irish settlers. He spent the next seven years traveling by canoe, dog sled, horse, and snow-shoe, enduring poverty, isolation, and innumerable hardships. He risked his own health tending the sick when a cholera epidemic struck the region.

In 1837 he was recalled to Montreal by Archbishop Signay and appointed vicar-general for the Oregon mission, a vast territory never before visited by a priest, that embraced over 375,000 square miles ranging from California all the way North to Alaska, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Blanchet set out from Lachine, Quebec on 3 May, 1838, traveling with the annual express of the Hudson's Bay Company, bound for Fort Vancouver. Their journey covered a distance of about 5,000 miles, and employed canoes, portages, barges, horses and mules (with and without wagons), and small boats. In Red River, they were joined by Father Modeste Demers, who would assist Father Blanchet in his duties. They spent nine days crossing the Rocky Mountains, on the summit of which, at three o'clock in the morning of October 16th, Father Blanchet celebrated Mass. They arrived at Fort Vancouver almost 40 days later.

As he had in New Brunswick, Blanchet took to his duties with a zeal and determination that won the respect and admiration of the majority of the locals. Demers was no slouch either. Over the next four years, working virtually on their own, the two men managed a monumental workload, riding from settlement to settlement, winning new converts and calling lapsed Catholics back to the faith. They established their first mission the year they arrived, the second in 1840, just north of the Columbia River in the disputed territory. Unlike New Brunswick, where his efforts had won Blanchet the thanks and gratitude of even the Protestant population, their success in the west led to bitter charges by angry Methodist missionaries. In 1842 the workload eased some as he was finally joined by two other priests from Canada, the great missionary, Father De Smet, with four other Jesuit priests, three lay brothers, and six Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

In August, 1844, he received letters from Rome confirming his appointment as the regions first bishop. To be consecrated he needed to return to Montreal; however, because it would be several months before the Hudson Bay's next trip east, on December 5th Blanchet boarded a steamer on the Columbia River, which docked at Honolulu, doubled* Cape Horn, finally landing at Dover, England. From there he went by rail to Liverpool, booked passage on a vessel to Boston and once again boarded a train which took him to Montreal, a journey of 22,000 miles.

He was consecrated in the same cathedral, where he had served his first year, on July 25th, 1845. He soon began the voyage back to the Oregon mission by way of Europe, visiting Rome, France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria serving the interests of his diocese. On the way he gathered additional workers, including six priests, four Jesuits, three lay brothers, and seven Sisters of Notre Dame. They sailed from Brest, France in February, 1847, and reached the Columbia River in August. The region was elevated to a province on July 1st, 1846 and Bishop Blanchet was made Archbishop of Oregon City; his brother became Bishop of Walla Walla, and Father Demers Bishop of Vancouver Island.

Arch-Bishop Francois Blanchet was no less zealous about his new office than any of his previous incarnations. The list of his activities would take some time to list; numerous councils, consecration of bishops, a book about his adventures in the fledgling Northwest, and a two-year trip to South America and, after the Jubilee Anniversary (50th) of his ordination, a trip back across Canada from Vancouver to Montreal, this time by the luxury of a steam-powered train.

From humble beginnings on a farm in very rural Quebec, this Canadian blazed a trail through largely uncharted territory to become one of the most significant names in the history of North American Christianity. That fateful day, when he and Demers first arrived at Fort Vancouver, was November 24th, 1838 - 169 years ago this week.


1. Francois Norbert Blanchet, Written by L.W. Reilley. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. Published 1907. < >
November 24, 1838 • Blanchet and Demers Arrived in Oregon ©2007, Christian History Institute, < >

Most people think Cape Horn is this jagged peninsula that juts out from the tip of South America. It isn't; it's actually the southern most island in an archipelago off the tip of the continent. Getting a square-rigged sailing ship around the tip of the continent involved finding a way through this group of islands as best one could given the weather and prevailing winds. Thus the goal was not "rounding" the Horn, but "doubling" it—in other words, sailing from 50 degrees south in one ocean to 50 degrees south in the other. Only then, hundreds of miles north of Cape Horn, could a ship be considered safely around.

Other events in Church history this week:

November 19, 1861: At the suggestion of her minister, abolitionist poetess Julia Ward Howe wrote "some good words to that tune" of the popular song "John Brown's Body." In February, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was published in the Atlantic Monthly and soon became exactly that.

November 20, 1541: In Switzerland, French reformer John Calvin, 32, established a theocratic government at Geneva, thereby creating a home base for emergent Protestantism throughout Europe.

November 21, 1638: A General Assembly at Glasgow abolishes the episcopal form of church government and establishes Presbyterianism, creating the Church of Scotland.

November 22, 1963: British scholar and author C.S. Lewis dies. Because of the popularity of his Narnia series of novels the world might have taken more notice of his passing, were it not for the fact that American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on this very same day.

November 23, 1654: French scientist and mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal experiences a mystical vision and converts to Christianity. The creator of the first wristwatch, the first bus route, the first workable calculating machine, and the creator of Pascal's law, which formed the basis for modern hydraulic operations, then turned his life to the examination of theology. In 1657 Pascal published his Provincial Letters which criticized the moral teaching of the Jesuits, the rationalism of Descartes, and Montaigne's skepticism; and which urged a return to Augustine's doctrines of grace. (Additional note: The computer language PASCAL is named in his honour.)

November 25, 2348 BC: According to Anglican Archbishop James Ussher's Old Testament chronology, Noah's flood began on this date.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kings Were His Pall Bearers

The legend of Robin Hood shows King Richard the Lion-heart and his brother John struggling over who should rule England. But while the story of the Thief of Sherwood is indeed fiction, the reality is there was a bit of a thorn in the side of these two members of the 12th century royal family. His name was Hugh of Lincoln.

Born to a knightly family in the Burgundy region Hugh Avalon's life changed dramatically due to his mother's death when he was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old (accounts vary). His mother was the shining light of his Father's existence. When she died he was so overcome with grief he abandoned his castle and took up life in a nearby monastery, taking young Hugh with him. When asked why, he responded, "I will have him taught to carry on warfare for God before he learns to live for the world."

After his father's death, he joined a The Carthusian Order, a community of hermits in the Chartreuse Mountains, living in a cave in strict silence on one loaf of bread a week and wearing a hair shirt. Like many hermits he became more enamored of the wildlife that occupied the forests around his cave than his fellow human beings. After ten years of strict devotion he was promoted to the office of procurator of the Great Chartreuse, head monastrey of the order, a post second only to that of the prior of the house (the order has no abbeys, hence no abbots). He likely would have been made prior when the time came, but God had other plans for Hugh.

Across the channel in England, harsh words against Thomas Becket by King Henry II inspired four of his knights to assassinate the Archbishop. Henry, appalled at his own actions, swore to build three abbeys as penance. In true kingly style he confiscated peasant land to build one of the abbeys at Witham, near Somerset. Those set in charge of the abbey however, had difficulty making it work. Since that particular abbey was the first Carthusian abbey, Henry turned to Chartreuse for help. The prior knew just the man to go to England and resolve the situation - Hugh of Avalon.

At first Hugh resisted, but his devotion to the order wouldn't let him do so for long. At his prior's insistence, he left for England. He was astonished to discover that Witham had not been paid for. Holding Christ's example before the king he made it plain that he would have nothing to do with the site until the peasants who had owned the land were fully compensated. Henry, knowing the monk's reputation for unassailable integrity, paid "to the last penny."

Even though Hugh became a trusted advisor to the king, he never lost his humility. In the royal courts he dressed as simply as he had as a monk. He won the love of the poor, of children, and of lepers. Always a friend to the oppressed, he often tended to lepers and even risked his own life to prevent the slaying of a group of Jews during a riot. Never afraid of hard work, no task was beneath him. Lincoln cathedral had been damaged in an earthquake the year before Hugh became bishop. Hugh founded the present building, and worked on it with his own hands.

Hugh lived up to the expectations of his superiors. During the ten years he was prior at Witham numerous difficulties vanished almost as soon as they appeared. In 1186, again with much resistance, he was made Bishop of Lincoln. Any hope of someday retiring to the religious calm of his beloved Carthusian cell disappeared with this appointment. True to his character, he brought all his determination and untiring energy to the duties of his new station. He travelled endlessly: holding synods and visitations, confirming children, consecrating churches and burying the dead. His sense of justice was legendary and three popes, as well as the King, made him judge over some of the most important legal cases of the time. He even excommunicated the king's own forester who had oppressed the poor. At first Henry was angry, but in the end saw justice and had the man flogged.

Hugh also wrestled with Richard Lionheart, refusing to raise money for his wars. Unable to persuade the determined monk, Richard said, "If all bishops were like my lord of Lincoln, not a prince among us could raise his head against them." Hugh also took Richard's brother, King John to task on a number of occasions, but John simply ignored him.

It should be mentioned that Hugh never lost his love of or affinity for nature. On the day of his installation at Lincoln, a swan took to following Hugh around the grounds, it soon became a beloved pet and even today when you see icons or paintings of St. Hugh, he will be accompanied by the swan. It is even said that after his death, in the year following that of King Richard, the bird pined for him the way swans are known to pine for a lost mate.

And the swan wasn't the only one. Though King John rarely followed Hugh's advice it did not mean John had no respect for the Bishop of Lincoln. Both remain royal brothers, King John of England and King William of Scotland, considered it an honor to be numbered among those carrying his coffin. Thus Hugh of Lincoln's pall bearers included two kings, and three archbishops, nine other bishops were also in attendance. St. Hugh was canonized by the Pope Honorius Ill, in 1220; and in 1280 his body was translated, with great ceremony, into the newly-built eastern part of the Lincoln Cathedral - the so-called "Angel Choir."

St. Hugh of Lincoln's funeral took place on November 16, 1200 - 807 years ago this week.


1. Britannia Biographies: St. Hugh of Lincoln. < >
2. The Catholic Encyclopedia, St. hugh of Lincoln, Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York < >
3. Photo Credit: The Grand Chartreuse: Official website of the Carthusian Order <>

Other events this week in Church history:

November 12, 1660: John Bunyan is arrested for unlicensed preaching and sentenced to prison. While incarcerated, he penned Pilgrim's Progess and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, the greatest Puritan spiritual autobiography.

November 13, 1618: The Dutch Reformed Church convenes the Synod of Dort to "discuss" the Arminian controversy. Of course, the synod's condemnation of Arminianism was a forgone conclusion—Arminians weren't even invited for another month. By April, 200 Arminian ministers (known as Remonstrants) were deposed by the Calvinist Synod, 15 were arrested, and one was beheaded for high treason.

November 14, 1976: The Plains (Ga.) Baptist Church, where then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was a member, votes to permit blacks to attend.

November 15, 1885: Mwanga, ruler of Buganda (now part of Uganda), beheads recent Anglican convert and royal family member Joseph Mukasa. Mukasa opposed the massacring of Anglican missionary bishop James Hannington and his colleagues in October. The bloodbath continued through January 1887 as the ruler killed Mukasa's Christian pages and other Anglican and Catholic leaders. Collectively, the martyrs of Uganda were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

November 17, 270 (traditional date): Gregory Thaumaturgus ("The Wonder Worker"), a well-loved bishop in Pontus and the author of the first Christian biography (on Origen) dies. A legend, from a generation later, about the Virgin Mary visiting him is the first account of an apparition of Mary.

November 18, 1874: The Women's Christian Temperance Union is founded in Cleveland. Claiming the power of the Holy Spirit, Protestant members would march into saloons and demand they be closed. It was the largest temperance organization and the largest women's organization in the U.S. before 1900.


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

An American Joseph?

I'm sure most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph, the Hebrew slave who, by his faithfulness to God, rose to become the most powerful man in the kingdom of Egypt. By his obedience, the people of God were preserved setting the stage for the creation of the nation of Israel. I'd like to tell you about another slave, who from humble beginnings, also rose to prominence because of his devotion to the same God that Joseph honoured.

Lott Carey was born into a slave family around 1780 on an estate located about 30 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. We know very little about his childhood, as the lives of slaves were not something their masters recorded, only their value and productivity. We do know that while his parents were illiterate, Lott's father was a respected member of the Baptist Church. And his mother, while not known to frequent any particular denomination, was regarded as a Godly woman.

Lott's recorded history begins about the age of 24, when as was often the custom, he was hired out by his owner, William A. Christian, to the Shockhoe tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Removed from the Christian influence of his father, he was soon given to drunkenness and profanity. However, the Lord obviously was watching over the young man as he came under the influence of one John Courtney, and in 1807 Carey converted and joined the Baptist church in Richmond.

The change in Lott was remarkable. He went from being an unreliable drunk, to a hard worker who could be left to his own devices without supervision. On hearing his pastor preach on the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, Carey became so intrigued by the story he determined to learn to read the passage for himself; it was not long afterward he learned to write and do fundamental arithmetic as well.

As time passed his efficiency, faithfulness and literacy earned him a promotion to shipping clerk in the tobacco warehouse. It became commonplace for merchants to tip him a five dollar note, a substantial amount for the day. In addition the owners of the warehouse allowed him to exercise his entrepreneurial spirit by letting him gather and process what was regarded as "waste" tobacco and sell it to his own customers. In this was Lott was able to amass a sum of $850 which he used to buy the freedom of himself and his two children. (His wife had died from illness a few years earlier.)

Carey continued to work at Shockhoe, only now, he got to keep his $800 annual wages instead of turning them over to his owner. He bought a house and was able to afford to educate his children. His value to the company and the community continued to grow. So much so that when he and a friend, Collin Teage (another free black), decided God was calling them to enter the mission field, the tobacco company offered him a raise of $200 a year to stay. He respectfully declined the offer.

In the early 1800's the U.S. government, in cooperation with the American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia. The idea was to provide a place for freed slaves who wished to return to Africa to settle and begin a new life. It was to this place that Carey and Teage wished to take the gospel message. They did so with the help of William Crane from New Jersey who assisted Lott in organizing a society to collect funds for mission work in Africa.

In 1822 Lott moved to Monrovia, capital of Liberia, about the same time as Jehudi Ashmun, a white man, who served as the colony's de facto governor. Ashmun was glad to see the two missionaries arrive and granted them permission to establish Providence Baptist Church--the first church in Liberia. Lott preached several times a week and gave religious instruction to native children, using his own money to maintain a charity school. He also established a school at Big Town in the Cape Mount region despite Muslim protests.

He also helped immigrants, mostly freed slaves from the U.S., to establish small farms where they could raise food for themselves. Determined to use the funds provided by the society back in the States for the mission work they were doing, he learned the coopers trade (barrel making) and used the income from this business to support himself. Things started out quite well.

About a year after the colony was founded the citizens of the colony had complaints about the manner in which land was being distributed. A resistance movement rose up against the colonial agent, Jehudi Ashmun, and instead of promoting calm and negotiation as Ashmun had hoped, Carey sided with the resistance. The U.S. sent an armed vessel to deal with the situation in the summer of 1824. After investigation, Jehudi Ashmun was kept on as the colonial agent; the Colonization Society withdrew Lott's license to preach. I know this sounds a little strange to us, but at this point in history every preacher had to be licensed to preach by a governing body almost everywhere in the world.

You might think that this was the end of Carey's involvement in the colony, but such was not the case. Even though he could no longer occupy the pulpit, he still proved his worth. Letters written by Ashmun to his contacts back in the U.S. indicate that he fully understood why Carey would take the stand he did. They also indicate that the colonial agent considered Lott Carey an invaluable resource. Which is why he and Lott quickly reconciled and got back to the task of making the colony work.

He made Carey his vice-agent, and assigned him the task of readying a local militia to protect the colony from the surrounding tribes and the Spanish slave-traders who objected to the existence of a free black anything. On one occasion, when a slave ship attempted to trade for food and water under the guise of a wheat ship, Carey fired a well placed cannon shot across the ships bow and gave its captain one hour to get out of the range of his guns. The captain did.

Carey proved himself to be something of a polymath, that is a person who succeeds at a number of divergent endeavours. Already proving himself to be an able businessman, preacher and administrator, he now took on the challenge of being a doctor.

When the ship Cyrus arrived from the U.S. with one hundred and five emigrants, seemingly in good health, and within four weeks, all were smitten with an unknown disease, Lott Carey stepped up. The colony did not have a permanent physician of its own. Wrote one observer, "in this deplorable state of things, the only individual who could act the part of a physician, was Lott Cary, whose skill resulted entirely from his good sense, observation, and experience. He had gained much knowledge of the human frame and of medicine, from scientific practitioners, who had, at various times, visited the colony. His attentions were rendered successful in the restoration of almost the whole number."

In 1828 Jehudi Ashmun returned to America, leaving Liberia's management in Lott's hands. Ashmun urged Lott to become the permanent agent for the colony. But before Lott could do so, he was mortally wounded in a munitions explosion, while preparing to undertake an expedition to rescue one of the outlying settlements from raids by hostile Muslims. He died two days later.

On hearing of Lott Carey's death, Jehudi returned to the colony and continued to govern it until his death in 1841. At this point Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the colony's first black governor took over. Liberia declared its independence from the United States in 1847. The American government officially recognized the new African Republic in 1862.

The munitions explosion that ended the life of Lott Carey, a man born a slave who rose to the second highest position in what would become a free and democratic republic, happened on November 10th, 1828 - 179 years ago this week.

1. Taylor, James B. Biography of Elder Lott Cary, Late Missionary to Africa. With an Appendix on the Subject of Colonization, by J.H.B. Latrobe, #p92. < >
2. "Liberia." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 7 Nov. 2007 <>.
3. Photo credit: <>

Other events this week in Church History:

November 5, 1605: Guy Fawkes who, with a number of others, sought to destroy the government of Britain by planting explosives in the basement of the House of Lords, is discovered and arrested before the plan can be carried out. A Catholic, Fawkes and his co-conspirators felt the Protestant domination of politics spelt the end of a free Britian. They hoped that by destroying parliament on the day of the throne Speech, they would send the nation into sufficient disarray that a Catholic coup might succeed.

November 6, 1935: American revivalist Billy Sunday, a baseball player who became one of America's most famous evangelists before Billy Graham, dies at age 73. More than 100 million people heard him speak at his evangelistic crusades, and about 300,000 of them became Christians.

November 7, 1837: Presbyterian minister and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy is murdered in Alton, Illinois. A newspaper editor whose press was destroyed by vandals three times, he was accused of inciting slaves to revolt when he defended a black man burned at the stake by a mob. When another mob tried to burn down his warehouse, Lovejoy was shot trying to save it. His death helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement.

November 8, 1308: John Duns Scotus, the hard-to-follow Scottish theologian who first posited Mary's immaculate conception (that she herself was born without original sin), dies in Cologne, Germany. Mary's immaculate conception was declared dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

November 9, 1522: Martin Chemnitz, theogian who drafted the Formula of Concord, a document that eased rifts between various factions of the Lutheran movement, thus saving Lutheranism from falling apart, is born.

November 11, 1855: Danish Christian philosopher Síren Kierkegaard, regarded as the founder of existentialism, dies at age 42. Trying to "reintroduce Christianity to Christendom," he believed that Christianity was far more radical and difficult than did his Danish contemporaries.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

From Riches to Rags to Nobel Prize

There's been a lot of ranting on the Internet of late about Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm not going to enter that debate; but it does seem like a good time to tell you about the first person to receive the symbol of Nobel's legacy.

When you take into consideration the fact that Henri Dunant was born in Geneva in 1828, it is no surprise that he grew up to be a committed Calvinist. His father, a wealthy businessman, was also a dedicated humanitarian and Henri followed his father's example when he became a full time representative of the Swiss arm of the Young Men's Christian Association traveling throughout France, Belgium, and Holland.

At the age of twenty-six he began an apprenticeship with a company that had extensive holdings in northern Africa. When he finished his apprenticeship he conceived of a daring plan to develop agricultural operations on a huge tract of African land, but for his plan to succeed he needed a wheat mill and to build and operate a wheat mill he needed the water rights. Those water rights could only be obtained from one person - Napoleon III. Seems simple enough except that Napoleon III was in Northern Italy leading a Franco-Sardinian army in a war against the Austrians. But this did not deter Henri, he sought the audience anyway, and that is how he ended up being at the battle of Solferino, in Lombardy, in June of 1859.

Henri, like most people, had never seen a real battle before. He was stunned by the sight of 38,000 injured, dying and dead soldiers lying about after the battle was over. But what shocked him even more was how little was being done for those individuals. Using his own money he arranged for food and medical supplies, recruited and organized local volunteers, and began to tend to those who could be saved. It was a herculean effort, and one the like of which the world had never seen before.

After the conflict was over, he wrote a short book entitled, Un Souvenir de Solférino [A Memory of Solferino], and paid to have 1900 copies printed. The book had three main sections. The first was an account of the battle itself. The second detailed the battlefield after the fighting - its "chaotic disorder, despair unspeakable, and misery of every kind" and tells the story of caring for the wounded in the small town of Castiglione. The third was a plan; a plan to have the nations of the world form societies, co-ordinating the efforts of trained volunteers to provide care for the victims of war until they recovered. He spent the next two years traveling, at his own expense, to distribute the book to national and civic leaders all over Europe and promote his plan.

In 1863, the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, appointed a committee of five, including Dunant, to examine the practicalities of implementing the plan. Despite numerous conflicts, and attempts by some to derail Dunant and expel him from the committee, they did manage to create the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. One year later, on August 22, 1864, again despite the efforts of some to keep Dunant out of the process, twelve nations signed an international treaty, commonly known as the Geneva Convention, agreeing among other things, to guarantee during an armed conflict, neutrality to medical and relief personnel, to expedite supplies for their use, and to adopt a special identifying emblem - in virtually all instances a red cross on a field of white. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was born.

For a time Henri served as the organization's secretary, but with most of his energies and resources being directed to the cause, there was little of him or his resources left to run his company. The water rights he needed were never granted, his company was mismanaged by those he left in charge of it in Africa, and in 1867 he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The resulting scandal was too much for the board of directors in Geneva to handle, so he was also forced to resign not only as secretary but as a member of the society he had founded. Within a few years he was literally living at the level of the beggar. There were times, he says in a memoir, when he dined on a crust of bread, blackened his coat with ink, whitened his collar with chalk, and slept out of doors on benches in city parks.

After that, Henri Dunant all but disappeared. Staying briefly in various places, living off the generosity of friends and a few wealthy individuals who respected his humanitarian efforts, he eventually found himself too ill to travel any further and was given space in a hospice in the small Swiss village of Heiden. There, in Room 12, he spent the remaining eighteen years of his life, too ill to leave. It was also there that a journalist, Georg Baumberger, twenty-five years after the scandal in Geneva, discovered Dunant was still alive and wrote an article about him which, within a few days, was reprinted in the press throughout Europe. Messages of sympathy reached Dunant from all over the world, and overnight, the scandal long forgotten, his fame was restored.

In 1901, the very first Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Henri Dunant, and French pacifist Frédéric Passy, founder of the Peace League and active with Dunant in the Alliance for Order and Civilization. The official congratulations which he received from the International Committee was the crowning touch to the restoration of Dunant's honour and reputation:
"There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken."
Henri also received a number of other awards and accolades during those last few years, but he never spent any of the money on himself. He donated funds to make sure a "free bed" would always be available in the Heiden hospice for a poor citizen of the region and deeded some money to friends and charitable organizations in Norway and Switzerland. The remaining funds went to his creditors to partially pay the enormous debt left after his disastrous business venture.

Henri Dunant, Christian humanitarian, who changed forever the way the world responds to those who have suffered as a result of war, died in his sleep on October 30, 1910 - 97 years ago this week.


1. Huber, Max, «Henry Dunant», in Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, 484 (avril, 1959) 167-173. A translation of a brief sketch originally published in German in 1928.
2. "Dunant, Henri." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Oct. 2007
3. Henri Dunant biography, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) web site
4. Various Internet articles

Other events that happened this week in history...

October 29, 1837: Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper is born in Rotterdam, Holland. He became so popular and famous that on October 29, 1907, the whole nation celebrated his 70th birthday, declaring, "the history of the Netherlands, in Church, in State, in Society, in Press, in School, and in the Sciences the last forty years, cannot be written without the mention of his name on almost every page."

October 31, 1992: Pope John Paul II formally admits the Roman Catholic Church's error in condemning Galileo Galilei in 1633 for believing the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe, 350 years after the astronomers death. (I know, this was also the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the church, but I'm willing to bet you already knew that.)

November 1, 1512: After four years of work, Michelangelo Buonarroti unveils his 5,800-square-foot painting on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

November 2, 1533: Harried by Catholic authorities, John Calvin flees Paris by lowering himself out a window on a bedsheet rope. (Who knew anyone actually did this?) He then left town by disguising himself as a farmer, complete with a hoe over his shoulder. He spent three years as a fugitive before settling in Geneva.

November 3, 753: Pirminius, the first Abbot of Reichenau (Germany) dies. His pastoral instruction book, Scarapsus, contains the earliest evidence for the present form of the Apostles' Creed.

November 4, 1646: The Massachusetts Bay Colony makes it a capital offense to deny that the Bible is the Word of God.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Picking a Pope...

With the announcement of the death of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005, the process began to select the 264th successor to St. Peter (in accordance with Catholic tradition).

On Monday, April 18th 2005, after the official 9 days of prayer and mourning,
115 cardinals, from 52 countries and five continents, began the process of deliberation. Later that evening the Cardinals cast their first vote. This single ballot did not result in an election, and therefore the ballots were burned in a small stove at 8:04 p.m. Monday evening (2:04 EST) along with chemicals to colour the smoke black.

On Tuesday morning two additional votes were taken; neither resulted in an election, so once again black smoke rose from the chimney of the Conclave in the Sistine Chapel. Finally, about 4 pm, the fourth ballot of the Conclave, elected Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, and Prefect during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the highest office in the Roman Catholic Church. Since the smoke from the chapel at first burned grey, but never truly black, there was some confusion in the Square below. However, the ever more profuse, and ever more clearly white, smoke was confirmed about 6:04 by the ringing of the great bells of St. Peter's Basilica. At 6:43 p.m. (12:43 p.m. EST) on Tuesday, April 19th 2005, the Proto-Deacon of the College of Cardinals, Jorge Arturo Cardinal Medina Estévez, came onto the Loggia of St. Peter's Basilica and announced:

"Dear brothers and sisters. I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope. The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord, Lord Joseph, Cardinal of Holy Roman Church, Ratzinger, who has taken the name Benedict XVI."

This process of election of the pope by a select group of cardinals has been around in its current form (more or less) for about 1000 years. Before that things were a lot less organized, and the disputes about who was and wasn't pope were numerous and often violent. Let me tell you about one such case.

When Bishop Liberius of Rome died in September of 366, there was no prescribed system for selecting a new pope, in fact they weren't even called popes at that time. Liberius had grown in popularity largely because of his stand resisting the heresy known as Arianism
, a theology that denied the divinity of Christ. He was even exiled for a time when Rome came under the control of Felix II (regarded as an anti-pope ) who was sympathetic to the Arian cause.

However, Liberius had many supporters, commoner and senator alike, who agitated for his return, and eventually
Emperor Constantinius restored Liberius to his position after he agreed to be lenient with the Arians. This caused Bishop Hilary of Poiters to declare "A curse on you, Liberius." Shortly after that, Liberius died!

Though there was no formal process for selecting a new Bishop of Rome, there was a election of sorts. All the citizens of Rome, laity and clergy, were able to make their voice heard, and by a large majority, Rome chose Damasus, a sixty-year-old deacon, to be their next bishop. He was consecrated by three other bishops, including the Bishop of Ostia, as was declared the official ordainer of the Bishop of Rome by Bishop St. Mark thirty years earlier. So by all accounts Damasus was the properly chosen successor to Liberius.

There was a problem however; remember Felix II, sympathetic supporter of the Arian Heresy? Well, Damasus was one of his bishops, and some followers of Liberius were u
nhappy to see a man who once worked for Felix sitting in Liberius' chair, so to speak. They chose their own bishop, a fellow by the name of Ursinus and had an old Bishop from Tibur consecrate him as the new Bishop of Rome.

Well, Damasus, and those who endorsed him, appealed to Juventius, then Prefect of Rome (chief city official), to deal with what they viewed as an usurper. The Prefect ordered Ursinus to leave Rome, which he did; but his followers did not give up that easily. They took up arms and proceeded to try and force Damasus to give up the bishop's pallium
(emblem of authority). Damasus gathered a number of his own men, armed them and launched a counter-attack on his rival's forces, who had taken refuge in the Liberian Basilica (a Roman church later renamed St. Mary Major). A three-day battle followed. The supporters of Damasus eventually assaulted the building by climbing onto the roof, where they tore aside the heavy roof tiles, and having made an opening, then dropped the heavy tiles onto the men trapped below.

When the smoke cleared, (pun intended) Damasus had won the day, but wi
th a heavy price - one hundred and thirty seven followers of Ursinus lay dead on the floor of the church. And yet, the battle was not over; in the days that followed Damasus would hire a number of gladiators to be his bodyguards due to repeated attacks in the streets.

When violence proved unsuccessful, his opponents attempted to overthrow him by making accusations of serious sin. What they were is not entirely clear, but eventually the emperor felt compelled to intervene and cleared Damasus of the charges. But the arguments and opposition continued. A full 11 years later, in 378, and again 3 years after that in 381, councils held in Rome and Aquileia both declared that Damasus was the true bishop.

The irony is, Damasus was never a true supporter of Felix II. He worked for him, but did not share his views regarding the Arian Heresy, as was borne out when the trouble eventually did simmer down and he was able to finally get around to the duties of being Bishop of Rome. He proved himself an enemy of the Arian heresy, putting a number of Arian bishops out of the church. He also issued twenty-four anathemas (curses) against false teachings about the Trinity and Jesus Christ.

Despite the violence associated with his election, Damasus was to become highly regarded by other Christian leaders of his day. A large part of the reason for this is Damasus proved to be a great promoter of martyrs. He restored many of their tombs, rebuilt their churches, and wrote poems about saints who had died because of their testimony for Christ.

You may be wondering why have I chosen to write about Damasus? There were plenty of popes who ascended to the papal see by unusual and violent means. Why choose him?

Well, one of the most fascinating things for me about Christian history is the story of how we got our Bible. And Damasus plays an important role in that process. Damasus was the first pope to issue an official list of the books which should be included in the Bible. He also persuaded his friend and secretary, Jerome, to make a new Latin translation of the Bible, using this list. Jerome did so, and his translation would become known as the Vulgate, the Bible of the Middle Ages. It was the Bible that priests, teachers, bishops, monks, and other scholars would use for much of the next one thousand years.

The three day battle, that would end with a victorious Damasus, without which the Vulgate might never have come into being, was won on October 26, 366 - one thou
sand, six hundred forty one years ago this week.

Photo: Page 2 of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus I dedicating the translation of the Vulgate.


1. Thomas J. Shahan. "Pope St. Damasus I", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
2. "Damasus I Saint." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 Oct. 2007 <>.
3. "Ursinus." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 Oct. 2007 <>.
4. Various Internet articles.

Other events that happened this week in church history:

October 22, 1844: Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 followers of Baptist lay preacher William Miller gathered in makeshift temples and on hillsides to "meet the bridegroom' on the "The Day of Atonement"—the day Jesus would return. Jesus didn't, and though Miller retained his faith in Christ's imminent return until his death, he blamed human mistakes in Bible chronologies for "The Great Disappointment." Several groups arose from Miller's following, including the Seventh-Day Adventists.

October 24, 1648: The Peace of Westphalia, after being delayed by Richelieu for 13 years, is finally signed and ends central Europe's Thirty Years War. The documents extended equal political rights to Catholics and Protestants (including religious minorities), and marked the first use of the term "secularization" in regard to church property that was to be distributed among the warring parties.

October 25, 1890:
Emma Whittemore, New York socialite and her husband Sydney, millionaire businessman, open the first 'Door of Hope' home for young women in New York City. The Whittemores encountered the emptiness of their lives on a visit to a street mission run by an ex-convict. they came away "with a holy determination, born of God himself, to henceforth live for his glory and praise. Within four years the home help 325 girls, by Emma's death in 1931 there were 97 homes in seven countries.

October 27, 1978: After 13 years work by over one hundred scholars from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the complete New International Version (NIV) of the Bible is published for the first time.

October 28, 312: According to tradition, on this date the 32-year-old Roman emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius at Milvian Bridge. Before the battle, Constantine had seen the symbol of Jesus, chi-rho, in a vision, accompanied with the words "By this sign conquer." He considered this a sign and emblazoned the symbol on his shield and banners before the battle. Regarded as Rome's first Christian emperor he honured Christian bishops and meddled in church affairs the rest of his life. He received his baptism on his deathbed in 337.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Don't Beat Yourself Up Over It.

Let's start with a little visual aid...

Monty Python & The Holy Grail: The Monks' Chant

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As the title said, this is a scene from the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." For those of you not versed in Latin or the 'Requiem', what the monks are chanting is 'pie jesu domine....donna eis requiem'. It is a prayer for the dead that roughly translates into "Merciful Lord Jesus....grant them rest." * But what's with the planks of wood?

It's called flagellation (from the Latin for 'to whip') and while most religious orders in the 13th century used it to one degree or another as punishment (who didn't), for a time self-flagellation (with a whip of some sort not a plank of wood) was considered a valid means of expressing repentance. The question is - why?

It began with Peter Damien. Peter was prior (2nd in command to the abbot) to Fonte-Avellana (an order of hermits) during the 11th century. Around 1042 he introduced the practice of penitential exercise as part of a monks self-discipline schedule. The idea was to 'lightly' scourge oneself with a small whip containing small bits of metal so as to identify with the flagellation of Jesus Christ on the night before his Crucifixion. Damien's notion was that this practice would increase the devotion of the religious community because they would have a better understanding of how much Christ suffered on our behalf.

Damien also believed the practice would serve to curb the lusts of the flesh, the avoidance of which was why many became hermits in the first place. The practice quickly spread throughout the monastic community. The zeal of some led to the introduction of a daily siesta so that it's practitioners could recover from their evening's 'exercise'. By 1045 that zeal had increased to the point that Damien had to moderate the custom due to the negative affect it was having on the number of monks available for other duties. (Yes, they were maiming themselves beyond the capacity to serve and a few had even died as a result of their injuries.) For a short time the practice abated in all but the most remote monasteries.

During a dreadful plague in 1259, many preachers declared that God was angry at the world. Something had to be done to demonstrate to God how penitent they were and turn away his wrath. This was the motivation behind a resurgence in flagellation. Large groups of monks started gathering in public to flog themselves for their own sins and the sins of the world. Soon they were joined by laymen who stripped to the waist and marched in processions, sometimes numbering ten thousand penitents, whipping themselves until they bled. At first the practice was tolerated but by 1261 religious authorities realized they had to do something, so they publicly opposed the movement. It died out, but it refused to die completely.

When the Black Plague swept across Europe the call went out once again that people needed to demonstrate to God their fervent repentance. Bands of hysterical flagellants sprang up; this time not just men were involved. Along with the questionable penitent exercise other strange teachings began to rise among the practitioners such as uncontrollable dancing and the open hunting of Jews. But the most prevalent of these was the idea that the plague was the first step in the destruction of the world by Jesus Christ himself. However, the Virgin Mary had interceded and this great destruction could be avoided if enough people would join them for 33 days. As their blood flowed, they claimed it was mingling with Christ's blood to save the world.

Though the mania ended with the plague, the practice flourished among the religious into the fourteenth century. Following an outbreak of the whippings in France, the University of Paris appealed to the pope to suppress the exercise calling it heresy. Pope Clement VI sent letters to the bishops in Western Europe condemning the practice and teachings of the flagellants.

But even this measure did not fully succeed. Various groups of flagellants have appeared again and again over the centuries and in some areas of the world public flagellation occurs even today as part of specific religious rituals, particularly during the Easter season. Though the practice is still officially condemned by the Vatican, it is tolerated as long as it is restricted to specific feasts and celebrations.

That letter, condemning the practice of flagellation, was sent by Pope Clement VI on October 20th, 1349 - 658 years ago this week.

* The chant in the movie is a shortened version. The common chant goes like this...

Latin: Pie Jesu / Qui tollis peccata mundi / Donna eis requiem / Angus Dei / Donna eis requiem sempiternam /

English: Merciful Jesus / Who takest away the sins of the world / Grant them rest / Oh Lamb of God / Grant them eternal rest

1. "flagellation." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 16 Oct. 2007 <>.
"Flagellation", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909.
3. Various other Internet articles.

Video credit: (

Other events that happened this week in church history:

October 15, 1949: Billy Graham skyrockets to national prominence with an evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles

October 16, 1978: The Roman Catholic College of Cardinals chooses Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to be the new pope. Taking the name John Paul II, he became the first non-Italian pope in 456 years. By the time of his death in April 2005 he would be recognized as the most popular pope in modern history.

October 17, 108: According to tradition, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was martyred on this date. A disciple of the Apostle John, Ignatius wrote seven letters under armed guard on his way to Rome—some asking that the church not interfere with his "true sacrifice".

October 18, 1867: The United States purchases Alaska for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. Ten years later, after lax military administration had only worsened the territory's moral condition, an army private stationed in Alaska begged, "Send out a shepherd who may reclaim a mighty flock from the error of their ways, and gather them into the true fold." Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson answered the call and spent decades raising funds, building schools and churches, and crusading for better laws.

October 19, 1856: A Sunday evening service led by Charles Haddon Spurgeon turns tragic when someone shouts "Fire!" in London's enormous Surrey Hall. There was no fire, but the stampede left 7 people dead and 28 more hospitalized. Though the episode plunged Spurgeon into weeks of depression, it also catapulted him to overnight fame.

October 21, 1555: Finding that the recent martyrdom of bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer had intensified Protestant zeal, Catholic monarch Queen Mary (daughter of Henry VIII, who separated the church of England from Roman) launches a series of fierce persecutions in which more than 200 men, women, and children were executed.


Friday, October 12, 2007

A Tale of Two Olivers

I am occasionally asked, when people find out I write about history, why historians spend so much time talking about war. Well, with apologies to Mike Love, the history of war is the history of mankind. By and large human history rotates around moments of great change, and change rarely happens without conflict.

The history of the church, having also been made by humans, is no different. If it hasn't been a case of Christians warring with non-Christians, it's been Christians warring with Christians. And, as in the case of secular conflicts, war tends to bring out the worst in the children of God as well. There are many events for which the church and individuals will have to answer.

One of those events centers around an Irishman named Oliver Plunkett.

Plunkett was born in 1625 near Oldcastle, Ireland. He studied for the priesthood at the Irish College in Rome where his record was described as "particularly brilliant." Ordained a priest in 1654, Plunkett was selected by the Irish bishops to be their representative in Rome. On July 9th, 1669, he was appointed to the Archbishop of Armagh, he received the pallium on his arrival in England July 28th, 1670.

While Plunkett was in Rome, the other great Oliver of the day, Oliver Cromwell, invaded Ireland. Cromwell, as Lord protector of England, had enacted anti-Catholic legislation. Catholic priests were outlawed. Those who dared to administer the sacraments were hanged or transported to the West Indies. In Ireland, his usually well-controlled Protestant troops were permitted to inflict terrible atrocities upon Irish Catholics.

During his tenure Plunkett sought to improve the lot of his people. Taking advantage of a brief period in which the Penal Laws were slightly relaxed, he built schools for both the young and clergy and set about reorganizing the ravaged Church. He also tackled drunkenness among the clergy; true Christianity, Plunkett believed, sobers people and makes them more orderly. As an agent of Christ, Plunkett worked toward those ends. Records indicate he confirmed 48,655 people into the faith, and persuaded hundreds of couples who lived together without marriage to marry.

One incident merits special mention. There was a considerable number of displaced Catholics in the province of Ulster, most of whom had their property confiscated, who banded together and, as outlaws, lived by plundering those who lived around them. Anyone who sheltered them faced the death penalty by British law, anyone who refused them such shelter met with death at their hands. Plunkett went in search of them, facing great personal risk, and convinced them to renounce their career of plundering. He also managed to negotiate pardons for them so they could exile themselves to other countries rather than face the death penalty, and thus peace was restored throughout the whole province.

Nearly twenty years after the death of Cromwell, new outbreaks of anti-Catholicism forced Plunkett into hiding in 1673. Catholics were required to register for deportation at any seaport - failure to do so would have grave consequences. Plunkett refused. He continued however, to shepherd his flock. Many followed the example of their Archbishop and the underground Catholic church thrived despite the efforts of one Lord Shaftesbury.

Plunkett was finally arrested in Dublin in 1679. Shaftesbury, falsely accused Plunkett of plotting a French invasion of Ireland. He was tried at Dundalk for conspiring against the state by plotting to bring 20,000 French soldiers into the country, and for levying a tax on his clergy to support 70,000 men for rebellion. While awaiting trial in Dublin Castle, Plunkett showed his Christ-like character when, despite years of rivalry with Peter Talbot, archbishop of Dublin, over the question of who should be primate of Ireland, he forgave his fellow captive and administered to him the Catholic rite of absolution.

When a jury refused to convict Plunkett in Ireland, Shaftesbury, realizing the archbishop would never be convicted in Ireland had him moved to Newgate Prison, London. The first grand jury found no validity to the charges, but he was not released. The second trial was a kangaroo court; with two Franciscans bringing false testimony against him. Plunkett was found guilty of high treason on June, 1681 "for promoting the Catholic faith," and on July 1, 1681 was executed by being hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered. He was the last Catholic executed for his faith in England.

Even at the time many people were appalled at the manner in which Oliver Plunkett had been tried, convicted, and sentenced. Lord Campbell, writing of the judge, Sir Francis Pemberton, called it a disgrace to himself and his country. The bitterness of those days lives on in divided Ireland even today.

Oliver Plunkett was canonized and became Saint Oliver on October 12, 1975, only 32 years ago this week. But it should be noted that when Pope Paul VI canonized him he was the first Irishman in almost 700 years to receive the honor.


1. "Blessed Oliver Plunkett", Written by Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran. Transcribed by Marie Jutras. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
2. Various other Internet articles.

Photo credit: St. Oliver Plunkett - courtesy

Other events that happened this week:

October 8, 451: The Council of Chalcedon opens to deal with the questions of Christ's nature. Two groups, the Eutychians and the Apollinarians, believed Jesus could not have two natures. His divinity, they believed, swallowed up his humanity "like a drop of wine in the sea." The council condemned the teaching as heresy and created a confession of faith which affirmed the Nicene Creed.

October 9, 1000: Leif "the Lucky" Eriksson is reported to have been the first European to reach North America on this date. What is not widely reported is that he would later evangelize Greenland also making him the first to bring the gospel to North America. But while he was certainly a member of an early Viking voyage to "Vinland" (probably Nova Scotia), it's doubtful he led the initial expedition.

October 10, 1821: Law student Charles Finney goes off for a walk in the woods near his home to settle in his own mind the question of his standing before God. That night, at the age of 29, he experienced what he would later describe as "waves of liquid love throughout his body." He emerged from the woods fully convinced of the reality of the gospel message and before long became American history's greatest revivalist purportedly responsible for the conversion of as 500,000 people.

October 11, 1521: In responce to his tract "The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments," written against Martin Luther, Pope Leo X conferred the title "Fidei Defensor" (Defender of the Faith) upon England's Henry VIII. Three popes and 13 years later, when Henry couldn't get the church to grant him a divorce or annulment from his first wife, the infamous British monarch severed all ties with Rome, making the Church of England a separate church body.

October 13, 1836: Lutheran pastor Theodor Fliedner opens the first deaconess training centre in Kaiserswerth, Germany. The centre was opened despite the fact he had no curriculum and no teachers. Seven days later Gertrude Reichardt, the 48-year old daughter of a physician, applied for deaconess training. After her interview Theodor saw her as the answer to prayer and put her in charge of the centre.

October 14, 1066: William the Conqueror leads the Normans to victory over the English Saxons in the Battle of Hastings. William is also considered one of England's most important religious reformers; he spent his last days in intense Christian devotion.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Elusive Marcus of Rome

There is a dynamic that arises in researching church history that does not arise in the history of other cultures. During periods of fervor and persecution an 'end-time mindset' comes into play that keeps history from being recorded. The attitude that develops is simple, since Jesus is going to return at any moment, there is no sense recording these events as once He does return, history will be over and no one will care what happened previously. That may or may not have been the case shortly after the rise of Constantine, but it is one possible explanation. Whatever the reason, hardly anyone was writing anything down.

In the early 4th century Constantine the Great was ruler of the Roman Empire and the persecution of the Christian church had ceased. And yet despite this new peace there is little recorded of the churches activities during this period. It is no stretch to imagine that the church's coming out from under the reign of persecution would yield some i
nteresting sequences of events. But we'll never know, since few records of the church's activities at this time were made.

One of the big unknowns from this period is the life of the bishop of Rome, St. Mark (no, not the gospel writer). I should note here that 'pope' is a title that was not applied to the bishop of Rome at this time, that would come later; however, the term is now applied to all who have held the office .

We have no idea where or when he was born, though we are fairly certain Mark (Marcus?) was a Roman. The identity of his mother remains a mystery, but we know that his Father's name was Priscus. And that, gentle reader, is the sum total of all we know about his personal life. It's almost as if his life didn't begin until he was consecrated Bishop of Rome (pope) on January 18, 336. St. Mark only served as pope for 10 months, and while that isn't a lot of time I found myself intrigued by three undertakings that he did manage to get done in this short period.

First of all, it seems that St. Mark realized nobody was recording much history and so he undertook to correct the situation. He sought to compile stories of the lives of martyrs and bishops before his time. If someone had thought to follow his example we might know a little more about him. History is full of many things and one of the most abundant is irony.

Secondly, there are two churches in the area of Rome with pretty good arguments for having been founded by him, both built on land gifted by Emperor Constantine. One of them is named for him, the Church of San Marco. Renaming a church founded by a bishop after the bishop is a fairly common habit. The other church was located at the Catacomb of Balbina, the cemetery where St. Mark would eventually be buried.

The third task is one over which there is some debate. According to some sou
rces it was St. Mark who decreed that the Bishop of Ostia (a port near Rome) should be the one to consecrate the Bishops of Rome. Mark is also said to be the one who declared that the Bishop of Ostia would do so by bestowing a pallium upon the new Bishop of Rome. The pallium is a white wool sash that symbolizes the authority of the Pope, and anyone upon whom a pallium is bestowed shares in that authority. According to the Roman Church tradition, that authority comes in a direct line from the apostles themselves. However, some argue that since it will be almost two centuries later before there is a reliable record of a pope bestowing the pallium on someone else, it is unlikely St. Mark started the ceremony. Others argue that given the aforementioned spotty record keeping, the anecdotal evidence is as good a reason as any to give him credit.

Why was Mark Bishop of Rome declared a saint? Like so much else about the man, we just don't know, although the use of the term appears on the list quite early. The character of a bishop elevated to saint can usually be found in the descriptions of him found in the
writings of his peers, but again so few of these exist.

A person named Mark associated with the church in Rome is mentioned in one of Constantine's letters from the time before he became pope, but there is nothing to confirm that the bishop is the man. There is also little evidence to suggest that a fragment of an old poem refers to Mark despite some scholars belief that it is. The poem reads, "filled with the love of God, despised the world . . . the guardian of justice, a true friend of Christ." If that is our man Mark, it is one of the greatest compliments that can be paid a servant of God, but again, there is no real evidence. Even the one piece of evidence we thought we could be sure of, a letter St. Mark was alleged to have written to Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria who battled for the proper understanding of Christ's nature, has been shown to be a forgery.

These days, the chance of having a dearth of information regarding modern ch
urch events is highly unlikely. With all the various media tracking everything just about everybody does, not to mention the vast number of amateur historians recording their perspective on the Internet, the challenge facing future students of history will be sorting out the real from the imaginary from the downright deceptive. Personally, I'd rather be searching for the needle in a desert than in the haystack.

As stated earlier, we are certain of the date that St. Mark was consecrated Bishop of Rome. The other event we are absolutely certain of is the day of his death. Pope St. Mark died of natural causes, at an uncertain age, on October 7th, 336 -
1,671 years ago this week.


1. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. &lt <>

Photo credit: Pope Benedict XVI receives the pallium from
Archbishop Piero Marini - CNN.


Other Events that Happened This Week:

October 1, 1529: The Colloquy of Marburg convenes. The gathering was intended to find common ground on which to unite the two main Reformation movements, those of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. There were 15 items of contention between the two groups; 14 would be resolved. The 15th, the Lutheran doctrine of the Eucharist (consubstantiation) was a point neither side was willing to compromise. The colloquy ended on the 4th in failure. As a result Switzerland stayed Reformed, Germany stayed Lutheran, and all hopes of a united Protestant front against Roman Catholicism died.

October 2, 1792: A dozen young ministers from the district of Kettering, England, form the Baptist Missionary Society "for the propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen, according to the recommendations of [William] Carey's Enquiry." It would be the first foreign missionary society created by the Evangelical Revival of the last half of the eighteenth century. In short order other missionary societies were established, and a new era in missions began.

October 3, 1789: George Washington names November 26 as a day of national thanksgiving for the ratification of the Constitution. On the same date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln designates the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

October 4, 1890: The "mother of the Salvation Army," Catherine Booth, dies of cancer. Besides preaching as a Salvation Army minister, she persuaded her husband, William, to include in the Orders and Regulations of the Salvation Army that "women must be treated as equal with men in all intellectual and social relationships of life" and "have the right to equal share with men in the work of publishing salvation."

October 5, 1744: David Brainerd, kicked out of Yale for criticizing a tutor and attending a forbidden revival meeting, begins missionary work with Native Americans along New Jersey's Susquehannah River. Jonathan Edwards's biography of Brainerd was key in promoting Christian missions and was counted by William Carey (see Oct. 2nd above) as one of his most influential reads.

October 6, 1536: English reformer William Tyndale is strangled to death and then his body is burned at the stake for the crime of translating and publishing the New Testament into the English language. It is of some smaller significance that Tyndale's translation was the first to be mechanically-printed in England.