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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From the book, History of the Baptists in America and Other Parts of the World, 1848
As this is the first party of importance who were acknowledged to be sound in doctrine which withdrew from the established church, it is proper to give, a full account of the reasons which led to the separation, and also some of the leading facts of their history while they continued as distinct and independent churches.
Robinson, in his Ecclesiastical Researches, has given ample details on this subject, and my first selection will be from that work.
"The history of Novatian is long, and, like that of all others in his condition, is beclouded with fables and slander. The case in brief was this. Novatian was an elder in the Church of Rome. He was a man of extensive learning, and held the same doctrine as the church did, and published several treatises in defense of what he believed. His address was eloquent and insinuating, and his morals were irreproachable. He saw with extreme pain the intolerable depravity of the church.
“Christians, within the space of a few years, were caressed by one emperor, and persecuted by another. In seasons of prosperity, many rushed into the church for base purposes. In times of adversity they denied the faith, and ran back to idolatry again. When the squall was over, they came again to the church, with all their vices, to deprave others by their examples. The bishops, fond of proselytes, encouraged all this, and transferred the attention of Christians from the old confederacy for virtue, to vain shows at Easter, and other Jewish ceremonies, adulterated too with paganism.
“On the death of bishop Fabian, Cornelius, a brother elder, and a vehement partisan for taking in the multitude, was put in nomination. Novatian opposed him; but as Cornelius carried his election, and he saw no prospect of reformation, but on the contrary a tide of immorality pouring into the church, he withdrew, and a great many with him. Cornelius, irritated by Cyprian, who was just in the same condition, through the remonstrances of virtuous men of Carthage, and who was exasperated beyond measure by one of his elders, named Novatus, who had quitted Carthage, and had gone to Rome to espouse the cause of Novatian, called a council, and got a sentence of excommunication passed against Novatian.
“In the end Novatian formed a church, and was elected bishop. Great numbers followed his example, and all over the empire puritan churches were constituted, and flourished through the succeeding two hundred years. Afterward, when penal laws obliged them to lurk in corners, and worship God in private, they were distinguished by a variety of names and a succession of them continued till the Reformation."
"Novatian was the first anti-pope; and yet, at that time, there was no pope in the modern sense of the word. They call Novatian the author of the heresy of puritanism; and yet they know Tertullian had quitted the church near fifty years before for the same reason; and Privatus, who was an old man in the time of Novatian, had, with several more, repeatedly remonstrated against the alteration taking place and, as they could get no, redress, had dissented, and formed separate congregations.
“They tax Novatian with being the parent of an innumerable multitude of congregations of puritans all over the empire; and yet he had no other influence over any than what his good example gave him. People saw everywhere the same cause of complaint, and groaned for relief; and when one man made a stand for virtue, the crisis had arrived; people saw the propriety of the cure, and applied the same means to their own relief.
“They blame this man and all these churches for the severity of their discipline; yet this severe moral discipline was the only coercion of the primitive churches, and it was the exercise of this that rendered civil coercion unnecessary. Some exclaimed, it is a barbarous discipline to refuse to readmit people into Christian communion because they have lapsed into idolatry or vice.
“Others, finding the inconvenience of such a lax discipline, required a repentance of five, ten or fifteen years; but the Novatians said: ‘If you be a virtuous believer, and will accede to out confederacy against sin, you may be admitted among us by baptism; or, if any Catholic has baptized you before, by rebaptism; but, mark this, if you violate the contract by lapsing into idolatry or vice, we shall separate you from our community; and, do what you will, we shall never readmit you.
“God forbid that we should injure either your person, your property, or your character, or even judge the truth of your repentance and your future state; but you can never be readmitted to our community without our giving up the best and only coercive guardian we have of the purity of our morals.’ Whether these people reasoned justly or not, as virtue was their object, they challenge respect, and he must be a weak man indeed who is frightened out of it because St. Cyprian, the most intolerant of all saints, says they were the children of the devil. (Ecclesiastical History, Vol. I. p. 233)
Mr. Orchard's account of the origin and early operations of the Novatians goes more into detail, and will give a more distinct view of them to those unacquainted with ecclesiastical history than any which is before me:
"When Decius came to the throne, in A.D. 249, he required, by edicts, all persons in the empire to conform to pagan worship. Forty years' toleration had greatly increased professors, and they were found in every department of the government. They had been so long unaccustomed to trials, that the lives of many were unsuited to suffering. Decius' edicts rent asunder the churches, multitudes apostatized, and many were martyred. In two years the trial abated, when many apostates applied for restoration to Christian fellowship, and sanctioned their application by letters written by some eminent Christians who had been martyrs during the persecution.
“The flagrancy of some apostates occasioned an opposition to their readmission. In the time of peace many had entered the church without calculating on trials; and when persecution arose, such persons revolted easily to idolatry, and, on trials subsiding, gained but too easy admittance again to communion.
“One Novatian, a presbyter in the Church of Rome, strongly opposed the readmission of apostates; but he was not successful. The choice of a pastor in the same church fell upon Cornelius, whose election Novatian opposed from his readiness to readmit apostates. Novatian consequently separated himself from the church, and from Cornelius' jurisdiction.
“Novatian, with every considerate person, was disgusted with the hasty admission of such apostates to communion, and with the conduct of many pastors, who were more concerned about numbers than purity of communion. Novatian was the first to begin a separate interest with success, and which was known for centuries by his name.
"It is evident that many persons were previously in such a situation as to embrace the earliest opportunity of uniting with churches whose communion was scriptural. Novatian became the first pastor in the new interest, and is accused of the crime of giving birth to an innumerable multitude of congregations of Puritans in every part of the Roman Empire; and yet, all the influence he exercised was, an upright example and moral suasion. These churches flourished until the fifth century.
"There was no difference in point of doctrine between the Novatianists and other Christians. Novatian had seen evils result from readmitting apostates; he consequently refused communion to all those who had fallen after baptism.
"They considered,” says Mosheim, “the Christian church as a society where virtue and innocence reigned universally, and none of whose members, from their entrance into it, had defiled themselves with any enormous crimes; and, of consequence, they looked upon every society which readmitted heinous offenders to its communion as unworthy of the title of a true Christian church. On account of the church's severity of discipline, the example was followed by many, and churches of this order flourished in the greatest part of those provinces which had received the gospel." (Hist. Ch. 3)
Learned men and historians have investigated the pretensions of these churches to puritanical character, and have conferred on them the palm of honor.
Dupin says: "Novatian's style is pure, clear, and polite; his expressions choice, his thoughts natural, and his way of reasoning just; he is full of citations of texts of Scripture, that are always to the purpose; and besides, there is a great deal of order and method in those treatises of his we now have; and he never speaks but with a world of moderation and candor." (Dupin, Ch. 3)
"Their manners," says Dr. A. Clark, "were, in general, simple and holy indeed, their rigid discipline is no mean proof of this."
We well know that the people called Pietists in Germany, and Puritans in England were, in general, in their respective times, among the most religious and holy people in both nations.
"They were," says Robinson, "Trinitarian Baptists."
These churches existed for sixty years under a pagan government, during which time the old corrupt interests at Rome, Carthage, and other places, possessed no means but those of persuasion and reproach, to stay the progress of dissent. During this period the Novatian churches were very prosperous, and were planted all over the Roman Empire. (Mosheim, Gill, Milner, Neal, Robinson and Jones, as quoted by Orchard, p.55)
"They were numerous," says Lardner, "in Phrygia, and a number of eminent men were raised up in the work of the ministry. It is impossible to calculate the benefits of their services to mankind. Their influence must have considerably checked the spirit of innovation and secularity in the old churches. Although rigid in discipline and schismatic in character, yet they were found extensive and in a flourishing condition when Constantine came to the throne (A.D. 306).
Their soundness in doctrine, evident unity among themselves, with their numbers, suggested to Constantine the propriety of uniting them with the Catholic Church, but this comprehension they refused. These churches with other dissenters, realized religious liberty in A.D. 313, from Constantine.
“In A.D. 331, he changed his policy towards these people, and they were involved, with other denominations, in distress and sufferings. Their books were sought for, they were forbidden assembling together, and many lost their places of worship. The orthodoxy of the Novatian party, with the influence of some of their ministers, is supposed to have procured some mitigation of the law. Constantine's oppressive measures prompted many to leave the scene of sufferings and retire into some more sequestered spots. Claudius Seyssel, the popish archbishop, traces the rise of the Waldensian heresy to a pastor named Leo, leaving Rome at this period for the valleys." (Facts Opp. To Fiction, p. 37)
"In A.D. 375, the Emperor Valens (this Valens, who required baptism for his dying son, sent eighty ministers into banishment; but before the vessel had got far from land, it was fired, and all of them perished) embraced the Arian creed. He closed the Novatian churches, banished their ministers, and probably would have carried his measures to extreme severity had not his prejudices and zeal been moderated by a pious man named Marcion. During this severe trial the benevolent feelings of the Novatians became so apparent as to extort admiration from their enemies.
"At the conclusion of the fourth century, the Novatianists had three, if not four, churches in Constantinople. They had churches also at Nice, Nicomedia and Cotiveus, in Phrygia, all of them large and extensive bodies; besides which, they were very numerous in the western empire. There were several churches of this people in the city of Alexandria in the beginning of the fifth century.
“In A.D. 412, Cyril was ordained bishop of the Catholic Church in this city. One of his first acts was to shut up the churches of the Novatianists, to strip them of all their sacred vessels and ornaments. One minister, Cyril, was deprived of everything he possessed. They experienced very similar treatment at Rome from Innocent, who was one of the first bishops to persecute the dissenters and rob them of their churches.
“In the fourth Lateran Council, canons were made to banish them as heretics, and these canons were supported by an edict in A.D. 413, issued by the emperors Theodosius and Honorius, declaring that all persons rebaptized, and the re-baptizers, should be both punished with death. Accordingly, Albanus, a zealous minister, with others, was punished with death for rebaptizing.
“The edict was probably obtained by the influence of Augustine, who could endure no rival, nor could he bear with any who questioned the virtue of his rites, or the sanctity of his brethren, or the soundness of the catholic creed; and these points, being disputed by the Novatianists and Donatists—two powerful and extensive bodies of dissidents in Italy and Africa—they were consequently made to feel the weight of his influence. These combined modes of oppression led the faithful to abandon the cities and seek retreats in the country, which they did, particularly in the valleys of Piedmont, the inhabitants of which began to be called Waldenses.
"The Novatianists had hitherto flourished mightily in Rome, having a great many places of worship and large congregations; but the rising power of the Catholic interests, its union with the sword, the ambitious character of its officers, with the tyrannical spirit of its bishops, prompted them to crush every opposing interest. They consequently robbed the Novatianists of all their churches, and drove them into obscurity.
“About this time some epistles appeared against them, written by different individuals, which had a baneful influence at this period on the interests of this people. One individual, whose hostility was felt by the Novatianists, was Celestine, one of Innocent's successors, A.D. 932. He took possession of all their churches in the city of Rome, and compelled them to worship in private houses in the most obscure places. A council was convened at Arles and at Lyons, in A.D. 455, in which the views of the Novatianists on predestination were controverted, and by which name they were stigmatized.” (Mezaray, p. 19, Clovis, as quoted by Orchard, p. 61)
"These holy people now retired from public notice ; yet, it is pretty manifest that, while some of them sought asylums in other kingdoms, many of these despised people continued in Italy, and a succession of them will be found under another name.” (Mosheim, Hist. in many places)
"In A.D. 476, on the twenty-third day of August, a period was put to all persecution in Italy by the subjection of that kingdom to the Goths, whose laws breathed the purest spirit of equal and universal liberty. The state of religion out of the Catholic Church is not made apparent. This civil and religious liberty continued for about three centuries, during which time the dissidents, no doubt, greatly increased.
“The accounts given of the Novatianists by Eusebius and Socrates in their histories are decided proofs of their extensive influence. That they subsisted towards the end of the sixth century is evident from the book of Eulogius, bishop of Alexandria. Dr. Lardner remarks, ‘The vast extent of this sect is manifest from the names of the authors who have mentioned or written against them, and from several parts of the Roman Empire in which they were found. It is evident, too, that these churches had among them some individuals of note and eminence.’
"The rise of those puritans at so critical a period, their soundness in the faith, their regard to character and purity of communion, their vast extent and long success, must have had a powerful influence in all the vicinity of their churches, in checking the ambition and secularity of the established clergy, and in shedding a moral auspice on benighted provinces. These sealed witnesses (Rev. 7:3) were the first dissenters from assuming hierarchies; and it is most gratifying to be able to prove ourselves the successors of a class of men who first set the example of contending for the purity and simplicity of Christian worship, and a firm adherence to the laws of the King of Zion.” (Robinson’s Ec. Res., Ch.8; Jones’ Lect., 25)