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By Rev. Irah Chase, D.D., Boston, Mass.
Τ Η Ε :
NO, XCI.-JANUARY, 1858.
ART. I.-CHRISTIAN WOMEN OF THE FIRST THREE
Hiere. The principles of virtue taught by our Saviour were eminently pure and lofty. They enjoined upon all a benevolence the most disinterested, a zeal for the truth the most ardent, a sanctity the most unspotted, and a courtesy the most refined. The white robes worn by the newly baptized were emblematical of that life which they were called to live; a life unsoiled by malice, or guile, or selfishness; a life of integrity, beneficence and self-denial; a life controlled by reason and conscience, ornamented by deeds of charity, and beaming with the first rays of a lustrous moral day; a life which pronounced itself at every stage to be but the shadow of a glory to come. Christianity summoned her votaries to relinquish earthly distinction and repose, the gilded joys of wealth, and the shining garments of fashion, to forego immediate and captivating pleasures for the sake of a remote and invisible good, to choose lowliness and scorn during the present life, for the weal of the soul and the spiritual delights of a world unseen.
It might therefore have been presumed, that man, calm, thoughtful, calculating, would be most inclined to the new religion, and, of all men, that philosophers trained to reasoning, superior to appetite and passion, able to think deeply and decide wisely, would soonest embrace a faith so well authenticated, so comprehensive, and so elevating. But it must be recorded to the honor of woman, that her
readiness to adopt this holy religion was greater than man's, her heart was truer than the philosopher's head, and a large proportion of the early Church consisted of devout and gentle females. Most of them, it is true, were from the lower ranks of society. Poor, illiterate, oppressed, familiar with toil, and strangers to luxury, they greeted with joy the doctrine of a world to come, in which all inequalities are to be compensated, and “all odds made even.” Many such, with no silk or pearls for outward adorning, were beautiful in the sight of angels, for they wore " the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.” They possessed a true delicacy and elevation of soul, which raised them above their social position, and made them superior in virtue and womanly grace to all their pagan sisters. " What wives these Christians have !” was the envious but admiring exclamation of a heathen philosopher in view of excellence which surpassed his comprehension.
But all Christian females at this early period were not of plebeian origin. Some were connected by birth or marriage with the first nobility. We are told by Tertullian, that matrons of the highest rank in Carthage were ready to die for their faith. Alexandria was the home of rich and accomplished females who allied themselves to the best cause. Eusebius reckons the Empress Mamæa among the faithful; and Origen was summoned from Egypt into Syria, that she might hear the truth from his lips. Alexander Severus knew certain very distinguished women to be of this sect, and not only refrained from doing them injury, but also honored them with a testimony in their favor, and openly withstood the people raging for their blood. According to Lactantius, when Diocletian began to persecute the Church, “his rage was directed not merely against his domestics, but against all, and especially against Valeria, his daughter, and Prisca, his wife, both of whom he compelled to offer sacrifice.” Without doubt many of Cæsar's household, many a high-born maiden of Rome, was a friend to Jesus. But for such a one to desert the august worship of paganism, and choose the creed of a new and up-start community; for a woman tenderly nurtured and guarded to haz
ard the loss of wealth and protection, and perhaps of life; for a sensitive female, moving in the first circles of Rome, or Athens, or Alexandria, to exile herself from patrician society, and embrace the fellowship of a "sect everywhere spoken against,”—was no slight proof of strong integrity, far-sighted discernment, and unwavering love. Yet many took this course, and illustrated these virtues. - Rich and poor met together,” in the primitive Church. For the sake of a common hope, the high-born and fair walked softly down into the valley of humiliation, and cast in their lot with those of meaner name and coarser vestments. Affinity of spirit drew together and united in sympathy those whom every other force would separate most widely and inevitably. For no higher barriers or broader intervals divided the women of ancient times than those which noble and ignoble parentage, or the various grades of social rank, interposed and maintained.
But there was a readiness on the part of woman, in the period of which we speak, not only to receive the truth, but also to diffuse it. She was not content with personal safety, but longed to have others share in the good which she had proved. Paul makes honorable mention of several females who co-operated with him in the Gospel. Apollos, the eloquent orator, was taught the way of God more perfectly by Priscilla as well as Aquila. From the primitive records of our faith, we learn that many widows were set apart to the service of Christ and the Church. All their time was employed in ministering to the sick, in providing homes for the outcast, or in visiting those of their own sex who were prevented by pagan relatives from conversing with their pastor. And it should here be remembered, that in all the Roman Empire, well nigh absolute authority was granted to a husband over his wife, and to a father over his children. Nor does the fact deserve less attention, that when morals degenerate and vice increases, men are liable to become suspicious, and guard their domestic circle with jealous tyranny. On both accounts—at the introduction of Christianity-wives and daughters were frequently denied the privilege of social worship, and of inviting the bishop
to their homes. And therefore, females who possessed the requisite qualifications were entrusted with a sacred office, and called to impart counsel and comfort where others might not appear. Engaging with their accustomed earnestness in so divine a work, they could half forget the loneliness of widowhood, and make their experience in affliction a blessing to the saints. Many a Roman wife was encouraged by their counsel to bear with patience the harshness of her lord, and was made strong in spirit by the heavenly manna which they brought to her dwelling. But intelligence was prerequisite to the wise discharge of this service; and therefore at the very outset did our holy religion honor the mind, as well as the heart of woman, and begin to prophecy and foreshadow her present social elevation. The spirit of paganism was adverse to female education. The daughters of noble blood in ancient Greece or Rome were taught the arts of weaving and embroidery, and trained up to preside in the kitchen and adorn the body; but they were strangers to the honey of literature and the sweet wine of philosophy. A famous poet, who flourished in the first century after Christ, satirizes a familiar acquaintance with grammar, logic or history on the part of a Roman matron-"Sit non doctissima conjux.” “Save me from a learned wife,” prays another servant of the muses ; adding, by way of justification, “that I may have sleep at night and peace by day;" just, forsooth, as if mental culture would destroy the gentleness of woman. But the spirit of Christianity, from the beginning, has been friendly to female education and influence. It has asserted the inherent dignity of woman, and has given her a position in society not a whit lower than man’s. We are bound, however, to infer, from the anxious particularity with which the Fathers caution females chosen to a religious office against loquacity, that their social tendencies could not be freely indulged without hazard to the peace of families and the cause of truth. At this point lurked their strongest foe.
But the benevolence of these individuals found still other modes of activity. The heart of many an outcast and or