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  • 1900
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paper sold as waste; parchment manuscripts were used to scour tubs and grease boots. Out of the wreck about a hundred and thirty thousand manuscripts have been saved. It must be admitted that the commissioners were not delicate in their labors; that they insulted many nuns, robbed the monks, violated the laws of decency and humanity, and needlessly excited the rage of the people and outraged the religious sentiments of the Catholics. They even used sacred altar-cloths for blankets on their horses, and rode across the country decorated in priestly and monkish garments. There seems to be some ground for the statement that Henry was ignorant, or at least not fully informed, of their unwarranted violence and gross sacrilege. The abbey of Glastonbury was one of the oldest and finest cloisters in England. It was a majestic pile of buildings in the midst of gardens and groves covering sixty acres; its aisles were vocal with the chanting of monks, who marched in gorgeous processions among the tall, gray pillars. The exterior of the buildings was profusely decorated with sculpture; monarchs, temple knights, mitered abbots, martyrs and apostles stood for centuries in their niches of stone while princes came and passed away, while kingdoms rose and fell. The nobles and bishops of the realm were laid to rest beneath the altars around which many generations of monks had assembled to praise and to pray. The royal commissioners one day appeared before the walls. The abbot, Richard Whiting, who was then eighty-four years of age, was at Sharphorn, another residence of the community. He was brought back and questioned. At night when he was in bed, they searched his study for letters and books, and they claimed to have found a manuscript of Whiting’s arguments against the divorce of the king and Queen Catharine; it had never been published; they did not know whether the venerable abbot had such intent or not. Stephen declares the spies themselves brought the book into the library. However, the abbot was chained to a cart and taken to London. The abbey had immense wealth; every Wednesday and Friday it fed and lodged three hundred boys; it was esteemed very highly in the neighborhood and received large donations from the knights in the vicinity. The abbot was accused of treason for concealing the sacred vessels; he was old, deaf, and sick, but was allowed no counsel. He asked permission to take leave of his monks, and many little orphans; Russell and Layton only laughed. The people heard of his captivity and determined “to deliver or avenge” their favorite, but Russell hanged half a dozen of them and declared that “law, order and loyalty were vindicated.” Whiting’s body was quartered, and the pieces sent to Wells, Bath, Chester and Bridgewater, while his head, adorned with his gray hairs clotted by blood, was hung over the abbey gate.

_The Report of the Commissioners_

The original report of the commissioners does not exist. Burnet declares that he saw an extract from it, concerning one hundred and forty-four houses, which contained the most revolting revelations. Many of the commissioners’ letters and various documents touching the suppression have been collected and published by the Camden Society. Waiving, for the present, the inquiry into the truth of the report, it was in substance as follows:

The commissioners reported about one-third of the houses to be fairly well conducted, some of them models of excellent management and pure living; but the other two-thirds were charged with looseness beyond description. The number of inmates in some cloisters was kept below the required number, that there might be more money to divide among the monks. The number of servants sometimes exceeded that of the monks. Abbots bought and sold land in a fraudulent manner; gifts for hospitality were misapplied; licentiousness, gaming and drinking prevailed extensively. Crime and absolution for gold went hand in hand. One friar was said to have been the proud father of an illegitimate family of children, but he had in his possession a forged license from the pope, who permitted his wandering, “considering his frailty.” Froude, in commenting upon the report, says: “If I were to tell the truth, I should have first to warn all modest eyes to close the book and read no farther.”

All sorts of pious frauds were revealed. At Hales the monks claimed to have the blood of Christ brought from Jerusalem, and not visible to anyone in mortal sin until he had performed good works, or, in other words, paid enough for his absolution. Two monks took the blood of a duck, which they renewed every week; this they put into a phial, one side of which consisted of a thin, transparent crystal; the other thick and opaque; the dark side was shown until the sinner’s gold was exhausted, when, presto! change, the blood appeared by turning the other side of the phial. Innumerable toe-parings, bones, pieces of skin, three heads of St. Ursula, and other anatomical relics of departed saints, were said to cure every disease known to man. They had relics that could drive away plagues, give rain, hinder weeds, and in fact, render the natural world the plaything of decaying bones and shreds of dried skin. The monks of Reading had an angel with one wing, who had preserved the spear with which our Lord was pierced. Abbots were found to have concubines in or near the monasteries; midnight revels and drunken feasts were pleasant pastimes for monks weary with prayers and fasting. While it would be unjust to argue that the existence of “pious frauds” affords a justification for the suppression of the monasteries, it must be remembered that they constituted one element in that condition of ecclesiastical life that was becoming repugnant to the English people. For several generations there had been a marked growth in the hostility toward various forms of superstition. True, neither Henry nor Cromwell can be accredited with the lofty intention of exterminating superstition, but the attitude of many people toward “pious frauds” helped to reconcile them to the destruction of the monasteries.

_The Action of Parliament_

The report of the commissioners was laid before Parliament in 1536. As it declared that the smaller monasteries were more corrupt than the larger ones, Parliament ordered the suppression of all those houses whose revenues were less than two hundred pounds per annum. By this act, three hundred and seventy-six houses were suppressed, whose aggregate revenue was thirty-two thousand pounds yearly. Movable property valued at about one hundred thousand pounds was also handed over to the “Court of Augmentations of the King’s Revenue,” which was established to take care of the estates, revenues and other possessions of the monasteries. It is claimed that ten thousand monks and nuns were turned out into the world, to find bed and board as best they could. In 1538, two years later, the greater monasteries met a similar fate, which was no doubt hastened by the rebellions that followed the abolition of the smaller houses. Many of the abbots and monks were suspected of aiding in the rebellion against the king’s authority by inciting the people to take up arms against him. Apprehending the coming doom, many abbots resigned; others were overcome by threats and yielded without a struggle. In many instances such monks received pensions varying from fifty-three shillings and four pence to four pounds a year. The investigations were constantly carried on, and all the foul stories that could be gathered were given to the people, to secure their approval of the king’s action. With remorseless zeal the king and his commissioners, supported by various acts of parliament, persevered in their work of destruction, until even the monastic hospitals, chantries, free chapels and collegiate churches, fell into the king’s hands. By the year 1545, the ruin was complete. The monastic institution of England was no more. The total number of monasteries suppressed is variously estimated, but the following figures are approximately correct: monasteries, 616; colleges, 90; free chapels, 2,374; and hospitals, 110. The annual income was about one hundred and fifty thousand pounds, which was a smaller sum than was then believed to be in the control of the monks. Nearly fifty thousand persons were driven from the houses, to foment the discontent and to arouse the pity of the people. Such, in brief, was the extent of the suppression, but a little reflection will show that these statements of cold facts convey no conception of the confusion and sorrow that must have accompanied this terrific and wholesale assault upon an institution that had been accumulating its possessions for eight hundred years. At this distance from those tragic events, it is impossible to realize the dismay of those who stood aghast at this ruthless destruction of such venerable establishments.

_The Effect of the Suppression Upon the People_

For months the country had seen what was coming; letters from abbots and priors poured in upon the king and parliament, begging them to spare the ancient strongholds of religion. The churchmen argued: “If he plunders the monasteries, will not his next step be to plunder the churches?” They recalled what Sir Thomas More had said of their sovereign: “It is true, his majesty is very gracious with me, but if only my head would give him another castle in France, it would not be long before it disappeared.” Sympathy for the monks, an inborn conservatism, a natural love for ancient institutions, a religious dread of trampling upon that which was held sacred by the church, a secret antipathy to reform, all these and other forces were against the suppression. But the report of the visitors was appalling, and the fear of the king’s displeasure was widespread; so the bill was passed amid mingled feelings of joy, sympathy, hatred, fear, anxiety and uncertainty. The bishops were sullen; Latimer was disappointed, for he wanted the church to have the proceeds.

Outside of Parliament there was much discontent among the nobles and gentry of Roman tendencies. Even the indifferent felt bitter against the king, because it seemed unjust that the monks, who had been sheltered, honored and enriched by the people, should be so rudely and so suddenly turned out of their possessions. A dangerously large portion of the people felt themselves insulted and outraged. At first, however, there were few who dared to voice their protests. “As the royal policy disclosed itself,” says Green, “as the monarchy trampled under foot the tradition and reverence of ages gone by, as its figure rose, bare and terrible, out of the wreck of old institutions, England simply held her breath. It is only through the stray depositions of royal spies that we catch a glimpse of the wrath and hate which lay seething under the silence of the people.” That silence was a silence of terror. To use the figure by which Erasmus describes the time, men felt “as if a scorpion lay sleeping under every stone.” They stopped writing, gossiping, going to confession, and sending presents for the most thoughtless word or deed might be tortured into treason against the king by the command of Cromwell.

The rebellion which followed the first attack upon the monasteries was not caused wholly by religious sentiments. The nobles regarded Cromwell as a base-born usurper and yearned for his fall, while the clergy felt outraged by his monstrous claims of authority in ecclesiastical affairs. In a sense the conflict that ensued was but a continuation of the long-standing struggle between the king, the barons, and the clergy for the supreme power. From the reign of Edward I., the people had commenced to assert their rights and the struggle had become a four-sided one.

These four factions were constantly shifting their allegiance, according to the varying conditions, and guided by their changing interests. At this time, the clergy, the nobles and the people in northern England, particularly, combined against the king, although the alliance was not formidable enough to overcome the forces supporting the king.

The secular clergy felt that they were disgraced and coerced into submission. They felt their revenues, their honors, their powers, their glory, slipping away from them; they joined their mutterings and discontent with that of the monks, and then the fires of the rebellion blazed forth in the north, where the monasteries were more popular than in any other part of England.

The first outbreak occurred in Lincolnshire, in the autumn of 1536. It was easily and quickly suppressed. But another uprising in Yorkshire, in northern England, followed immediately, and for a time threatened serious consequences. Some of the best families in that part of the country joined the revolt, although it is noteworthy that these same families were afterwards Protestant and Puritan; the rebel army numbered about forty thousand men, well equipped for service. Many prominent abbots and sixteen hundred monks were in the ranks. The masses were bound by oath “to stand together for the love which they bore to Almighty God, His faith, the Holy Church, and the maintenance thereof; to the preservation of the king’s person and his issue; to the purifying of the nobility, and to expel all villein blood and evil counsellors from the king’s presence; not from any private profit, nor to do his pleasure to any private person, nor to slay or murder through envy, but for the restitution of the Church, and the suppression of heretics and their opinions.” It is clear, from the language of the oath, that the rebels aimed their blows at Cromwell. The secular clergy hated him because he had shorn them of their power; the monks hated him because he had turned them out of their cloisters, and clergy and people loathed him as a maintainer of heresy, a low-born foe of the Church. The insurgents carried banners on which was printed a crucifix, a chalice and host, and the five wounds, hence they called themselves “Pilgrims of Grace.” The revolt was headed by Robert Aske, a barrister.

Cromwell acted most cautiously; he selected the strongest men to take the field. Richard Cromwell said of one of them, Sir John Russell, “for my lord admiral, he is so earnest in the matter that I dare say he could eat the Pilgrims without salt.” The Duke of Norfolk was entrusted with the command of the king’s forces.

Henry preferred negotiation to battle, in accepting which the rebels were doomed. To wait was to fail. Their demands reduced to paper were: 1. The religious houses should be restored. 2. England should be reunited with Rome. 3. The first fruits and tenths should not be paid to the crown. 4. Heretics, meaning Cranmer, Latimer and others, should cease to be bishops. 5. Catharine’s daughter Mary should be restored as heiress to the crown. These and other demands, the granting of which would have meant the death of the Reformation, were firmly refused by the king, who marveled that ignorant churls, “brutes and inexpert folk” should talk of theological and political subjects to him and to his council.

After several ineffectual attempts to meet the royal army in battle, partly due to storms and lack of subsistence, the rebels were induced to disperse and a general amnesty was declared. But new insurrections broke out in various quarters, and the enraged king determined to stamp out the smoldering fires of sedition. About seventy-five persons were hanged, and many prominent men were imprisoned and afterwards executed. This effectually suppressed the rebellion.

The revolt showed the strength of the opponents to the king’s will, but it also proved conclusively that the monarchy was the strongest power in the realm; that the star of ecclesiastical domination had set forever in England; that henceforth English kings and not Italian popes were to govern the English people. True, the king was carrying things with a high hand, but one reform at a time; the yoke of papal power must first be lifted, even if at the same time the king becomes despotic in the exercise of his increased power. Once free from Rome, constitutional rights may be asserted and the power of an absolute monarchy judiciously restricted.

Following the Pilgrimage of Grace came the complete overthrow of the monastic system by the dissolution of the larger monasteries.

_Henry’s Disposal of Monastic Revenues_

What use did Henry make of the revenues that fell into his hands? As soon as the vast estates of the monks were under the king’s control, he was besieged by nobles, “praying for an estate.” They kneeled before him and specified what lands they wanted. They bribed Cromwell, who sold many of the estates at the rate of a twenty years’ purchase, and in some instances presented valuable possessions to the king’s followers. Many families, powerful in England at the present time, date the beginning of their wealth and position to the day when their ancestors received their share of the king’s plunder.

The following interesting passage from Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes, shows that Henry sought to quiet the fears of the people by making the most captivating promises concerning the decrease of taxes, and other magnificent schemes for the general welfare: “On the king’s behalf, the members of both houses were informed in Parliament that no king or kingdom was safe but where the king had three abilities: 1. To live of his own and able to defend his kingdom upon any sudden invasion or insurrection. 2. To aid his confederates, otherwise they would never assist him. 3. To reward his well-deserving servants. Now the project was, that if Parliament would give unto him all the abbeys, priories, friaries, nunneries, and other monasteries, that forever in time then to come he would take order that the same should not be converted to private uses, but first, that his exchequer, for the purpose aforesaid, should be enriched; secondly, the kingdom should be strengthened by a continual maintenance of forty thousand well-trained soldiers; thirdly, for the benefit and ease of the subject, who never afterwards (as was projected), in any time to come, should be charged with subsidies, fifteenths, loans or other common aids; fourthly, lest the honor of the realm should receive any diminution of honor by the dissolution of the said monasteries, there being twenty-nine lords of Parliament of the abbots and priors, … that the king would create a number of nobles.”

The king was granted the revenues of the monasteries. About half the money was expended in coast defences and a new navy; and much of it was lavished upon his courtiers. With the exception of small pensions to the monks and the establishment of a few benefices, very little of the splendid revenue was ever devoted to religious or educational purposes. Small sums were set apart for Cambridge, Oxford and new grammar schools. Not-withstanding the pensions, there was much suffering; it is said many of the outcast monks and nuns starved and froze to death by the roadside. Latimer and others wanted the king to employ the revenues for religious purposes, but Henry evidently thought the church had enough and refused. He did, however, intend to allot eighteen thousand pounds a year for eighteen new bishoprics, but once the gold was in his possession, his pious intentions suffered a decline, and he established only six, with inferior endowments, five of which exist to-day.

_Was the Suppression Justifiable?_

It is quite common to restrict this inquiry to a consideration of the report made by the commissioners against the monks, and to the methods employed by them in their investigations. The implication is that if the accusations against the monasteries can be discredited, or if it can be shown that the motives of the destroyers were selfish and their methods cruel, then it follows that the overthrow of the monasteries was a most iniquitous and unwarrantable proceeding. Reflection will show that the question cannot be so restricted. It may be found that the monastic institution should have been destroyed, even though the charges against the monks were grossly exaggerated, the motives of the king unworthy, and the means he employed despicable.

At the outset a few facts deserve mention. It is usual for Protestants to recall with pride the glorious heroism of Protestant martyrs, but it should be remembered that Roman Catholicism also has had its martyrs. Protestant powers have not been free from tyranny and bloodshed. That noble spirit of self-sacrifice which has glorified many a character in history is not to be despised in one who dies for what we may pronounce to be false.

It must also be granted that the action of the king was not dictated by a pure passion for religious reform. Indeed it is a fair question whether Henry may be claimed by the Protestants at all. Aside from his rejection of the pope’s authority, he was thoroughly Catholic in conviction and in practice. His impatience with the pope’s position respecting his divorce, his need of money, his love of power, and many other personal considerations determined his attitude toward the papacy.

It should also be freely conceded that the royal commissioners were far from exemplary characters, and that they were often insolent and cruel in the prosecution of their work.

“Our posterity,” says John Bale, “may well curse this wicked fact of our age; this unreasonable spoil of England’s most noble antiquities.” “On the whole,” says Blunt, “it may be said that we must ever look back on that destruction as a series of transactions in which the sorrow, the waste, the impiety that were wrought, were enough to make the angels weep. It may be true that the monastic system had worn itself out for practical good; or at least, that it was unfitted for those coming ages which were to be so different from the ages that were past. But slaughter, desecration and wanton destruction, were no remedies for its sins, or its failings; nor was covetous rapacity the spirit of reformation.”

Hume observes that “during times of faction, especially of a religious kind, no equity is to be expected from adversaries; and as it was known that the king’s intention in this visitation was to find a pretext for abolishing the monasteries, we may naturally conclude that the reports of the commissioners are very little to be relied upon.” Hallam declares that “it is impossible to feel too much indignation at the spirit in which the proceedings were conducted.”

But these and other just and honorable concessions in the interests of truth, which are to be found on the pages of eminent Protestant historians, are made to prove too much. It must be said that writers favorable to monasticism take an unfair advantage of these admissions, which simply testify to a spirit of candor and a love of truth, but do not contain the final conclusions of these historians. Employing these witnesses to confirm their opinions, the defenders of monasticism proceed with fervid, glowing rhetoric, breathing devotion and love on every page, to paint the sorrows and ruin of the Carthusian Fathers, and the abbots of Glastonbury and Reading. They ask, “Is this your boasted freedom, to slay these men in cold blood, not for immorality, but because they honestly did not acknowledge what no Protestant of to-day admits, viz.: that King Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church?” Having pointed out the exaggerations in the charges against the monks and having made us weep for the aged fathers of the Charterhouse, they skillfully lead the unwary to the conclusion that the suppression should never have taken place. This conclusion is illogical. The case is still open.

Furthermore, if one cared to indulge in historical reminiscences, he might justly express astonishment that Rome should object to an investigation conducted by men whose minds were already made up, or that she should complain because force was employed to carry out a needed reform. Did the commissioners take a few altar-cloths and decorate their horses? Did Rome never adorn men in garments of shame and parade them through streets to be mocked by the populace, and finally burned at the stake? Were the altar-cloths dear to Catholic hearts? Were not the Bibles burned in France, in Germany, in Spain, in Holland, in England, dear to the hearts of the reformers? But however justifiable such a line of argument may be, there is little to be gained by charging the sins of the past against the men of to-day. Nevertheless, if these facts and many like them were remembered, less would be said about the cruelties that accompanied the suppression of the monasteries.

Were the charges against the monks true? It seems impossible to doubt that in the main they were, although it should be admitted that many monasteries were beyond reproach. Eliminating gross exaggerations, lies and calumnies, there still remains a body of evidence that compels the verdict of guilt. The legislation of the church councils, the decrees of popes, the records of the courts, the reports of investigating committees appointed by various popes, the testimony of the orders against each other, the chronicles, letters and other extant literature, abound in such detailed, specific charges of monastic corruption that it is simply preposterous to reject the testimony. All the efforts at reformation, and they were many, had failed. Many bishops confessed their inability to cope with the growing disorders. It is beyond question that lay robbers were encouraged to perpetrate acts of sacrilege because the monks were frequently guilty of forgery and violence. Commenting upon the impression which monkish lawlessness must have made upon the minds of such men as Wyclif, Pike says: “They saw with their own eyes those wild and lawless scenes, the faint reflection of which in contemporaneous documents may excite the wonder of modern lawyers and modern moralists.” The legislation of church and state for a century before Henry VIII. shows that the monks were guilty of brawling, frequenting taverns, indulging in licentious pleasures and upholding unlawful games.

Bonaventura, the General of the Franciscan Order in its earliest days, and its palmiest, for the first years of a monastic order were always its best years–this mendicant, their pride and their glory, tells us that within fifty years of the death of its founder there were many mendicants roaming around in disorderly fashion, brazen and shameless beggars of scandalous fame. This unenviable record was kept up down to the days of Wyclif, who charged the begging friars with representing themselves as holy and needy, while they were robust of body, rich in possessions, and dwelt in splendid houses, where they gave sumptuous banquets. What shall one say of the hysterical ravings against Henry of the “Holy Maid of Kent,” whose fits and predictions were palmed off by five ecclesiastics, high in authority, as supernatural manifestations? What must have been the state of monasteries in which such meretricious schemes were hatched, to deceive silly people, thwart the king and stop the movements for reform?

Moreover, the various attempts to reform or to suppress the monasteries prior to Henry’s time show he was simply carrying out what, in a small way, had been attempted before. King John, Edward I. and Edward III., had confiscated “alien priories.” Richard II. and Henry IV. had made similar raids. In 1410, the House of Commons proposed the confiscation of all the temporalities held by bishops, abbots and priors, that the money might be used for a standing army, and to increase the income of the nobles and secular clergy. It was not done, but the attempt shows the trend of public opinion on the question of abolishing the monasteries. In 1416, Parliament dissolved the alien priories and vested their estates in the crown. There is extant a letter of Cardinal Morton, Legate of the Apostolic See, and Archbishop of Canterbury, to the abbot of St. Albans, one of the mightiest abbeys in all England. It was written as the result of an investigation started by Innocent VIII., in 1489. In this communication the abbot and his monks were charged with the grossest licentiousness, waste and thieving. Lina Eckenstein, in her interesting work on “Woman Under Monasticism,” says: “It were idle to deny that the state of discipline in many houses was bad, but the circumstances under which Morton’s letter was penned argue that the charges made in it should be accepted with some reservation.” In 1523, Cardinal Wolsey obtained bulls from the pope authorizing the suppression of forty small monasteries, and the application of their revenues to educational institutions, on the ground that the houses were homes neither of religion nor of learning.

What Henry did, every country in Europe has felt called upon to do in one way or another. Germany, Italy, Spain, France have all suppressed monasteries, and despite the suffering which attended the dissolution in England, the step was taken with less loss of life and less injury to the industrial welfare of the people than anywhere else in Europe[J].

[Footnote J: Appendix, Note J.]

Hooper, who was made a bishop in the reign of Edward VI., expressed the Protestant view of Henry’s reforms in a letter written about the year 1546. “Our king,” he says, “has destroyed the pope, but not popery…. The impious mass, the most shameful celibacy of the clergy, the invocation of saints, auricular confession, superstitious abstinence from meats, and purgatory, were never before held by the people in greater esteem than at the present moment.” In other words, the independence of the Church of England was secured by those who, if they were not Roman Catholics, were certainly closer in faith to Rome than they were to Protestantism. The Protestant doctrines did not become the doctrines of the Church of England until the reign of Edward VI., and it was many years after that before the separation from Rome was complete in doctrine as well as respects the authority of the pope.

These facts indicate that there must have been other causes for the success of the English Reformation than the greed or ambition of the monarch. Those causes are easily discovered. One of them was the hostility of the people to the alien priories. The origin of the alien priories dates back to the Norman conquest. The Normans shared the spoils of their victory with their continental friends. English monasteries and churches were given to foreigners, who collected the rents and other kinds of income. These foreign prelates had no other interest in England than to derive all the profit they could from their possessions. They appointed whom they pleased to live in their houses, and the monks, being far away from their superiors, became a source of constant annoyance to the English people. The struggle against these alien priories had been carried on for many years, and so many of them had been abolished that the people became accustomed to the seizure of monasteries.

Large sums of money were annually paid to the pope, and the English people were loudly complaining of the constant drain on their resources. It was a common saying in the reign of Henry III., that “England is the pope’s farm.” The “Good Parliament,” in 1376, affirmed “that the taxes paid to the church of Rome amounted to five times as much as those levied for the king; … that the brokers of the sinful city of Rome promoted for money unlearned and unworthy caitiffs to benefices of the value of a thousand marks, while the poor and learned hardly obtain one of twenty.” Various laws, heartily supported by the clergy as well as by the civil authorities, were enacted from time to time, aimed at the abuses of papal power. So steadfast and strong was the opposition to the interference of foreigners in English affairs, it would be possible to show that there was an evolution in the struggle against Rome that was certain to culminate in the separation, whether Henry had accomplished it or not. What might have occurred if the monks had reformed and the pope withdrawn his claims it is impossible to know. The fact is that the monks grew worse instead of better, and the arrogance of foreigners became more unendurable. “The corruption of the church establishment, in fact,” says Lea, “had reached a point which the dawning enlightenment of the age could not much longer endure…. Intoxicated with centuries of domination, the muttered thunders of growing popular discontent were unheeded, and its claims to spiritual and temporal authority were asserted with increasing vehemence, while its corruptions were daily displayed before the people with more careless cynicism.” In view of this condition of affairs, the existence of which even the adherents of modern Rome must acknowledge, one cannot but wonder that the ruin of the monasteries should be attributed to Henry’s desire “to overthrow the rights of women, to degrade matrimony and to practice concubinage.” Such an explanation is too superficial; it ignores a multitude of historical facts.

The monasteries had to fall if England was to be saved from the horrors of civil war, if the hand of the pope was to remain uplifted from her, if the insecure gains of the Reformation were to become established and glorious achievements; if, in fact, all those benefits accompanying human progress were to become the heritage of succeeding ages.

Whatever benefits the monks had conferred upon mankind, and these were neither few nor slight, they had become fetters on the advancement of freedom, education and true religion. They were the standing army of the pope, occupying the last and strongest citadel. They were the unyielding advocates of an ideal that was passing away. It was sad to see the Carthusian house fall, but in spite of the high character of its inmates, it was a part of an institution that stood for the right of foreigners to rule England. It was unfortunate they had thrown themselves down before the car of progress but there they were; they would not get up; the car must roll on, for so God himself had decreed, and hence they were crushed in its advance. Their martyrdom was truly a poor return for their virtues, but there never has been a moral or political revolution that has furthered the general well-being of humanity, in which just and good men have not suffered. It would be delightful if freedom and progress could be secured, and effete institutions destroyed or reformed, without the accompaniment of disaster and death, but it is not so.

The monks stood for opposition to reform, and therefore came into direct conflict with the king, who was blindly groping his way toward the future, and who was, in fact, the unconscious agent of many reform forces that concentrated in him. He did not comprehend the significance of his proceedings. He did not take up the cause of the English people with the pure and intelligent motive of encouraging free thought and free religion. He did not realize that he was leading the mighty army of Protestant reformers. He little dreamed that the people whose cause he championed would in turn assert their rights and make it impossible for an English sovereign to enjoy the absolute authority which he wielded. Truly “there is a power, not ourselves,” making for freedom, progress and truth.

Thus a number of causes brought on the ruin of the monasteries. Henry’s need of money; the refusal of the monks to sign the acts of supremacy and succession; the general drift of reform, and the iniquity of the monks. They fell from natural causes and through the operation of laws which God alone controls. As Hill neatly puts it, “Monasticism was healthy, active and vigorous; it became idle, listless and extravagant; it engendered its own corruption, and out of that corruption came death.”

Richard Bagot, a Catholic, in a recent article on the question, “Will England become Catholic?” which was published in the “Nuova Antologia,” says: “Though it is impossible not to blame the so-called Reformers for the acts of sacrilege and barbarism through which they obtained the religious and political liberty so necessary to the intellectual and social progress of the race, it cannot be denied that no sooner had the power of the papacy come to an end in England than the English nation entered upon that free development which has at last brought it to its present position among the other nations of the world.” Mr. Bagot also admits that “the political intrigues and insatiable ambition of the papacy during the succeeding centuries constituted a perpetual menace to England.”

The true view, therefore, is that two types of religious and political life, two epochs of human history, met in Henry’s reign. The king and the pope were the exponents of conflicting ideals. The fall of the monasteries was an incident in the struggle. “The Catholics,” says Froude, “had chosen the alternative, either to crush the free thought which was bursting from the soil, or to be crushed by it; and the future of the world could not be sacrificed to preserve the exotic graces of medieval saints.”

The problem is reduced to this, Was the Reformation desirable? Is Protestantism a curse or a blessing? Would England and the world be better off under the sway of medieval religion than under the influence of modern Protestantism? If monasticism were a fetter on human liberty and industry, if the monasteries were “so many seminaries of superstition and of folly,” there was but one thing to do–to break the fetters and to destroy the monasteries. To have succeeded in so radical a reform as that begun by King Henry, with forty thousand monks preaching treason, would have been an impossibility. Henry cannot be blamed because the monks chose to entangle themselves with politics and to side with Rome as against the English nation.

_Results of the Dissolution_

Many important results followed the fall of the monasteries. The majority of the House of Lords was now transferred from the abbots to the lay peers. The secular clergy, who had been fighting the monks for centuries, were at last accorded their proper standing in the church. Numerous unjust ecclesiastical privileges were swept aside, and in many respects the whole church was strengthened and purified. Credulity and superstition began to decline. Ecclesiastical criminals were no longer able to escape the just penalty for their crimes. Naturally all these beneficent ends were not attained immediately. For a while there was great disorder and distress. Society was disturbed not only by the stoppage of monastic alms-giving, but the wandering monks, unaccustomed to toil and without a trade, increased the confusion.

In this connection it is well to point out that some writers make very much of the poverty relieved by the monks, and claim that the nobles, into whose hands the monastic lands fell, did almost nothing to mitigate the distresses of the unfortunate. But they ignore the fact that a blind and undiscriminating charity was the cause, and not the cure, of much of the miserable wretchedness of the poor. Modern society has learned that the monastic method is wholly wrong; that fraud and laziness are fostered by a wholesale distribution of doles. The true way to help the poor is to enable the poor to assist themselves; to teach them trades and give them work. The sociological methods of to-day are thoroughly anti-monastic.

On the other hand, the infidel Zosimus, quoted by Gibbon, was not far wrong when he said “the monks robbed an empire to help a few beggars.” The fact that the religious houses did distribute alms and entertain strangers is not disputed; indeed it is pleasant to reflect upon this noble charity of the monks; it is a bright spot in their history. But it is in no sense true that they deserve all the credit for relieving distress. They received the money for alms in the shape of rents, gifts and other kinds of income. Hallam says, “There can be no doubt that many of the impotent poor derived support from their charity. But the blind eleemosynary spirit inculcated by the Romish church is notoriously the cause, not the cure, of beggary and wickedness. The monastic foundations, scattered in different countries, could never answer the ends of local and limited succor. Their gates might, indeed, be open to those who knocked at them for alms…. Nothing could have a stronger tendency to promote that vagabond mendicity which severe statutes were enacted to repress.”

It seems almost ungracious to quote such an observation, because it may be distorted into a criticism of charity itself, or made to serve the purposes of certain anti-Romanists who cannot even spare those noble women who minister to the sick in the home or hospital from their bigoted criticisms. Small indeed must be the soul of that man who permits his religious opinions to blind his eyes to the inestimable services of those heroic and self-sacrificing women. But even Roman Catholic students of social problems must recognize the folly of indiscriminate alms-giving. “In proportion as justice between man and man has declined, that form of charity which consists in giving money has been more quickened.” The promotion of industry, the repression of injustice, the encouragement of self-reliance and thrift, are needed far more than the temporary relief of those who suffer from oppression or from their own wrong-doing.

Some of those who deplore the fall of the monasteries make much of the fact that the modern world is menaced by materialism. “With very rare exceptions,” cries Maitre, a French Catholic, “the most undisguised materialism has everywhere replaced the lessons and recollections of the spiritual life. The shrill voice of machinery, the grinding of the saw or the monotonous clank of the piston, is heard now, where once were heard chants and prayers and confessions. Once the monk freely undid the door to let the stranger in, and now we see a sign, ‘no admittance,’ lest a greedy rival purloin the tricks of trade.” Montalembert, referring to the ruin of the cloisters in France, grieves thus: “Sometimes the spinning-wheel is installed under the ancient sanctuary. Instead of echoing night and day the praises of God, these dishonored arches too often repeat only the blasphemies of obscene cries.” The element of truth in these laments gives them their sting, but one should beware of the fervid rhetoric of the worshipers of medievalism. This century is nobler, purer, truer, manlier, and more humane than any of the centuries that saw the greatest triumphs of the monks. They, too, had their blasphemies, often under the cloak of piety; they, too, had their obscene cries. Their superstitions and frauds concealed beneath those “dishonored arches” were infinitely worse than the noise of machinery weaving garments for the poor, or producing household comforts to increase the happiness of the humblest man.

There is much that is out of joint, much to justify doleful prophecies, in the social and religious conditions of the present age, but the signs of the times are not all ominous. At all events, nothing would be gained by a return to the monkish ideals of the past. The hope of the world lies in the further development and completer realization of those great principles of human freedom that distinguish this century from the past. The history of monasticism clearly shows that the monasteries could not minister to that development of liberty, truth and justice, which constitute the indispensable condition of human happiness and human progress. Unable to adjust themselves to the new age, unwilling to welcome the new light, rejecting the doctrine of individual freedom, the monks were forced to retire from the field.

So fell in England that institution which, for twelve centuries, had exercised marvelous dominion over the spiritual and temporal interests of the continent, and for eight hundred years had suffered or thrived on English soil. “The day came, and that a drear winter day, when its last mass was sung, its last censer waved, its last congregation bent in rapt and lovely adoration before the altar.” Its majestic and solemn ruins proclaim its departed grandeur. Its deeds of mercy, its conflicts with kings and bishops, its prayers and chants and penances, its virtues and its vices, its trials and its victories, its wealth and its poverty, all are gone. Silence and death keep united watch over cloister and tomb. We should be ungrateful if we forgot its blessings; we should be untrue if, ignoring its evils, we sought to bring back to life that which God has laid in the sepulcher of the dead.

“Where pleasant was the spot for men to dwell, Amid its fair broad lands the abbey lay, Sheltering dark orgies that were shame to tell, And cowled and barefoot beggars swarmed the way, All in their convent weeds of black, and white, and gray.

From many a proud monastic pile, o’erthrown, Fear-struck, the brooded inmates rushed and fled; The web, that for a thousand years had grown O’er prostrate Europe, in that day of dread Crumbled and fell, as fire dissolves the flaxen thread.”




All forms of religious character and conduct are grounded in certain cravings of the soul, which, in seeking satisfaction, are influenced by theoretical opinions. The longings of the human heart constitute the impulse, or the energy, of religion. The intellectual convictions act as guiding forces. As a religious type, therefore, the monk was produced by the action of certain desires, influenced by specific opinions respecting God, the soul, the body, the world and their relations.

The existence of monasticism in non-Christian religions implies that whatever impetus the ascetic impulses in human nature received from Christian teaching, there is some broader basis for monastic life than the tenets of any creed. Biblical history and Christian theology furnish some explanation of the rise of Christian monasticism, but they do not account for the monks of ancient India. The teachings of Jesus exerted a profound influence upon the Christian monks, but they cannot explain the Oriental asceticism that flourished before the Christ of the New Testament was born. There must have been some motive, or motives, operating on human nature as such, a knowledge of which will help to account for the monks of Indian antiquity as well as the begging friars of modern times. It will therefore be in order to begin the present inquiry by seeking those causes which gave rise to monasticism in general.

_Causative Motives of Monasticism_

Whatever the origin of religion itself, it is certain that it is man’s inalienable concern. He is, as Sabatier says, “incurably religious.” Of all the motives ministering to this ruling passion, the longing for righteousness and for the favor of God is supreme. The savage only partially grasps the significance of his spiritual aspirations, and dimly understands the nature of the God he adores or fears. His worship may be confined to frantic efforts to ward off the vengeful assaults of an angry deity, but however gross his religious conceptions, there is at the heart of his religion a desire to live in peaceful relations with the Supreme Being.

As religion advances, the ethical character of God and the nature of true righteousness are more clearly apprehended. But the idea that moral purity and fellowship with God are in some way associated with self-denial has always been held by the religious world. But what does such a conception involve? What must one do to deny self? The answer to that question will vastly influence the form of religious conduct. Thus while all religious men may unite in a craving for holiness by a participation in the Divine nature, they will differ widely in their opinions as to the nature of this desirable righteousness and as to the means by which it may be attained. Roman Catholicism, by the voice of the monk, whom it regards as the highest type of Christian living, gives one answer to these questions; Protestantism, protesting against asceticism, gives a different reply.

The desire for salvation was, therefore, the primary cause of all monasticism. Many quotations might be given from the sacred writings of India, establishing beyond dispute, that underlying the confusing variety of philosophical ideas and ascetic practices of the non-Christian monks, was a consuming desire for the redemption of the soul from sin. Buddha said on seeing a mendicant, “The life of a devotee has always been praised by the wise. It will be my refuge and the refuge of other creatures, it will lead us to a real life, to happiness and immortality.”

Dharmapala, in expounding the teachings of the Buddha, at the World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago, clearly showed that the aim of the Buddhist is “the entire obliteration of all that is evil,” and “the complete purification of the mind.” That this is the purpose of the asceticism of India is seen by the following quotation from Dharmapala’s address: “The advanced student of the religion of Buddha when he has faith in him thinks: ‘Full of hindrances is household life, a path defiled by passions; free as the air is the life of him who has renounced all worldly things. How difficult is it for the man who dwells at home to live the higher life in all its fullness, in all its purity, in all its perfection! Let me then cut off my hair and beard, let me clothe myself in orange-colored robes and let me go forth from a household life into the homeless state!'”

In the same parliament, Mozoomdar, the brilliant and attractive representative of the Brahmo Somaj, in describing “Asia’s Service to Religion,” thus stated the motives and spirit of Oriental asceticism: “What lesson do the hermitages, the monasteries, the cave temples, the discipline and austerities of the religious East teach the world? Renunciation. The Asiatic apostle will ever remain an ascetic, a celibate, a homeless Akinchana, a Fakeer. We Orientals are all the descendants of John the Baptist. Any one who has taken pains at spiritual culture must admit that the great enemy to a devout concentration of mind is the force of bodily and worldly desire. Communion with God is impossible, so long as the flesh and its lusts are not subdued…. It is not mere temperance, but positive asceticism; not mere self-restraint, but self-mortification; not mere self-sacrifice, but self-extinction; not mere morality, but absolute holiness.” And further on in his address, Mozoomdar claimed that this asceticism is practically the essential principle in Christianity and the meaning of the cross of Christ: “This great law of self-effacement, poverty, suffering, death, is symbolized in the mystic cross so dear to you and dear to me. Christians, will you ever repudiate Calvary? Oneness of will and character is the sublimest and most difficult unity with God.” The chief value of these quotations from Mozoomdar lies in the fact that they show forth the underlying motive of all asceticism. It would be unjust to the distinguished scholar to imply that he defends those extreme forms of monasticism which have appeared in India or in Christian countries. On the contrary, while he maintains, in his charming work, “The Oriental Christ,” that “the height of self-denial may fitly be called asceticism,” he is at the same time fully alive to its dangerous exaggerations. “Pride,” he says, “creeps into the holiest and humblest exercises of self-discipline. It is the supremest natures only that escape. The practice of asceticism therefore is always attended with great danger.” The language of Mozoomdar, however, like that of many Christian monastic writers, opens the door to many grave excesses. It is another evidence of the necessity for defining what one means by “self-mortification” and “self-extinction.”

Turning now to Christian monasticism, it will be found that, as in the case of Oriental monasticism the yearning for victory over self was uppermost in the minds of the best Christian monks. A few words from a letter written by Jerome to Rusticus, a young monk, illustrates the truth of this observation: “Let your garments be squalid,” he says, “to show that your mind is white, and your tunic coarse, to show that you despise the world. But give not way to pride, lest your dress and your language be found at variance. Baths stimulate the senses, and are therefore to be avoided.”

To keep the mind white, to despise the world, to overcome pride, to stop the craving of the senses for gratification,–these were the objects of the monks, in order to accomplish which they macerated and starved their bodies, avoided baths, wore rags, affected humble language and fled from the scenes of pleasure. The goal was highly commendable, even if the means employed were inadequate to produce the desired results.

All down through the Middle Ages, the idea continued to prevail that the monastic life was the highest and purest expression of the Christian religion, and that the monks’ chances of heaven were much better than those of any other class of men. The laity believed them to be a little nearer God than even the clergy, and so they paid them gold for their prayers. It will readily be understood that in degenerate times, so profitable a doctrine would be earnestly encouraged by the monks. The knight, whose conscience revolted against his conduct but who could not bring himself to a complete renunciation of the world, believed that heaven would condone his faults or crimes if in some way he could make friends with the dwellers in the cloister. To this end, he founded abbeys and sustained monasteries by liberal gifts of gold and land. Such a donation was made in the following language: “I, Gervais, who belong to the chivalry of the age, caring for the salvation of my soul, and considering that I shall never reach God by my own prayers and fastings, have resolved to recommend myself in some other way to those who, night and day, serve God by these practices, so that, thanks to their intercession, I may be able to obtain that salvation which I of myself am unable to merit.” Another endowment was made by Peter, Knight of Maull, in these quaint terms: “I, Peter, profiting by this lesson, and desirous, though a sinner and unworthy, to provide for my future destiny, I have desired that the bees of God may come to gather their honey in my orchards, so that when their fair hives shall be full of rich combs, they may be able to remember him by whom the hive was given.”

The people believed that the prayers of the monks lifted their souls into heaven; that their curses doomed them to the bottomless pit. A monastery was the safe and sure road to heaven. The observation of Gibbon respecting the early monks is applicable to all of them: “Each proselyte who entered the gates of a monastery was persuaded that he trod the steep and thorny path of eternal happiness.”

The second cause for monasticism in general was a natural love of solitude, which became almost irresistible when reinforced by a despair of the world’s redemption. The poet voiced the feelings of almost every soul, at some period in life, when he wrote:

“O for a lodge in some vast wilderness, Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumor of oppression or deceit, Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more.”

The longing for solitude accompanied the desire for salvation. An unconquerable weariness of the world, with its strife and passion, overcame the seeker after God. A yearning to escape the duties of social life, which were believed to interfere with one’s duty to God, possessed his soul. The flight from the world was merely the method adopted to satisfy his soul-longings. If such times of degeneracy and rampant iniquity ever return, if humanity is again compelled to stagger under the moral burdens that crushed the Roman Empire, without doubt the love of solitude, which is now held in check by the satisfactions of a comparatively pure and peaceful social life, will again arise in its old-time strength and impel men to seek in waste and lonely places the virtues they cannot acquire in a decaying civilization.

Even amid the delights of human fellowship, and surrounded by so much that ministers to restfulness of soul, it is often hard to repress a longing to shatter the fetters of custom, to flee from the noise and confusion of this hurrying, fretful world, and to pass one’s days in a coveted retirement, far from the maddening strife and tumult. Montalembert’s profound appreciation of monastic life was never more aptly illustrated than in the following declaration: “In the depths of human nature there exists without doubt, a tendency instinctive, though confused and evanescent, toward retirement and solitude. What man, unless completely depraved by vice or weighed down by care and cupidity, has not experienced once, at least, before his death, the attraction of solitude?”

While the motives just described were unquestionably preeminent among the causative factors in monasticism, it should not be taken for granted that there were no others, or that either or both of these motives controlled every monk. The personal considerations tending to keep up the flight from the world were numerous and active. It would be a mistake to credit all the monks, and at some periods even a majority of them, with pure and lofty purposes. Oftentimes criminals were pardoned through the intercession of abbots on condition that they would retire to a monastery. The jilted lover and the commercial bankrupt, the deserted or bereaved wife, the pauper and the invalid, the social outcast and the shirker of civic duties, the lazy and the fickle were all to be found in the ranks of the monastic orders. Ceasing to feel any interest in the joys of society, they had turned to the cloister as a welcome asylum in the hour of their sorrow or disappointment. To some it was an easy way out of the struggle for existence, to others it meant an end to taxes and to military service, to still others it was a haven of rest for a weary body or a disappointed spirit. Thus many specific, individual considerations acted with the general desires for salvation and solitude to strengthen and to perpetuate the institution.

_Beliefs Affecting the Causative Motives_

In the first chapter it was shown that a variety of views respecting the relation of the body and the soul influenced the origin and development of Christian monasticism. It will not now be necessary to repeat what was there said. The essential teaching of all these false opinions was that the body was in itself evil, that the gratification of natural appetites was inherently wrong, and that true holiness consisted in the complete subjection of the body by self-denial and torture. Jerome distinctly taught that what was natural was opposed to God. The Gnostics and many of the early Christians believed that this world was ruled by the devil. The Gnostics held that this opposition of the kingdom of matter to God was fundamental and eternal. The Christians, however, maintained that the antagonism was temporary, the Lord having given the world over to evil spirits for a time. The prevailing opinion among almost all schools was that a union with God was only possible to those who had extinguished bodily desires.

The ascetic theory undoubtedly derived much support from the views held concerning the teachings of the Bible. The Oriental monks frequently quoted from their sacred books to justify their habits and ideals. In like manner, the Christian monks believed that they, and they alone, were literally obeying the commands of Christ and his apostles. This phase of the subject will receive attention when the three vows of monasticism are considered.

In the West, two conditions, one political and social, the other religious, set in motion all these spiritual desires and ascetic beliefs tending toward monasticism. One was the corrupted state, of Roman society and the approaching overthrow of the Roman Empire. The other was the secularization of the church.

Men naturally cling to society as long as there exists any well-founded hope for its regeneration, but when every expectation for the survival of righteousness yields to a conviction that doom is inevitable, then the flight from the world begins. This was precisely the situation in the declining days of Rome and Alexandria, when Christian monasticism came into being. The monks believed that the end of the world was nigh, that all things temporal and earthly were doomed, and that God’s hand was against the empire. “That they were correct in their judgment of the world about them,” says Kingsley, “contemporary history proves abundantly. That they were correct, likewise, in believing that some fearful judgment was about to fall on man, is proved by the fact that it did fall.”

So they fled to escape being caught in the ruins of society’s tottering structure,–fled to make friends with the angels and with God. If one cannot live purely in the midst of corruption, by all means let him live purely away from corruption, but let him never forget that his piety is of a lower order than that which abides uncorrupted in the midst of degenerate society. There is much truth in the observation of Charles Reade in “The Cloister and the Hearth”: “So long as Satan walks the whole earth, tempting men, and so long as the sons of Belial do never lock themselves in caves but run like ants, to and fro corrupting others, the good man that sulks apart, plays the Devil’s game, or at least gives him the odds.”

But the early Christian monks believed that their safety was only in flight. It was not altogether an unworthy motive; at least it is easy to sympathize with these men struggling against odds, of the magnitude of which the modern Christian has only the faintest conception.

The conviction that the only true and certain way to secure salvation is by flight from the world, continued to prevail during the succeeding centuries of monastic history, and it can hardly be said to have entirely disappeared even at the present time. Anselm of Canterbury, in the twelfth century, wrote to a young friend reminding him that the glory of this world was perishing. True, not monks only are saved, “but,” says he, “who attains to salvation in the most certain, who in the most noble way, the man who seeks to love God alone, or he who seeks to unite the love of God with the love of the world?… Is it rational when danger is on every side, to remain where it is the greatest?”

The Christian church set up an ideal of life which it was impossible to realize within her borders, and one which differed in many respects from the teachings of Jesus. Her demands involved a renunciation of the world, a superiority to all the enticements of bodily appetites, a lofty scorn of secular bonds and social concerns. A vigorous religious faith had conquered a mighty empire, but corruption attended its victory. The standard of Christian morals was lowered, or had at least degenerated into a cold, formal ideal that no one was expected to realize; hence none strove to attain it but the monks. When Roman society with its selfishness, lust and worldliness, swept in through the open doors of the church and took possession of the sanctuary, those who had cherished the ascetic ideal gave up the fight against the world, and the flight from the world-church began. They could not tolerate this union of the church with a pagan state and an effete civilization. In some respects, as a few writers maintain, many of these hermits were like the old Jewish prophets, fighting single-handed against corruption in church and state, refusing to yield themselves as slaves to the authority of institutions that had forsaken the ideals of the past.

Thus the conviction that the end of human society was nigh, and that the church could no longer serve as an asylum for the lovers of righteousness, with certain philosophical ideas respecting the body, the world and God, united to produce the assumption that salvation was more readily attainable in the deserts; and Christian monasticism, in its hermit form, began its long and eventful history.

_Causes of Variations in Monasticism_

Prominent among the causes producing variations in the monastic type was the influence of climatic conditions and race characteristics.

The monasticism as well as the religion of the East has always differed from the monasticism and the religion of the West. The Eastern mind is mystical, dreamy, contemplative; the Western mind loves activity, is intensely practical. Representatives of the Eastern faiths in the recent Parliament of Religions accused the West of materialism, of loving the body more than the soul. They affected to despise all material prosperity, and gloried in their assumed superiority, on account of their love for religious contemplation. This radical difference between the races of the East and West is clearly seen in the monastic institution. Benedict embodied in his rules the spirit and active life of the West, and hence, the monastic system, then in danger of dying, or stagnating, revived and spread all over Europe. Again, the hermit life was ill-adapted to the West. Men could not live out of doors in Europe and subsist on small quantities of food as in Egypt. The rigors of the climate in Europe demanded an adaptation to new conditions.

But aside from the differences between Eastern and Western monasticism, the Christian institution passed through a variety of changes. The growth of monasticism from the hermit stage to the cloistral life has already been described. To what shall the development of the community system be attributed? No religious institution can remain stationary, unaffected by the changing conditions of the society in which it exists. The progress of the intellect, and the development of social, political and industrial conditions, effect great transformations in religious organizations.

The monastic institution grew up amid the radical changes of European society. In its early days it witnessed the invasion of the barbarians, which swept away old political divisions and destroyed many of the heritages of an ancient civilization. Then the process of reconstruction slowly began. New states were forming; nations were crystallizing. The barbarian was to lay the foundations of great cities and organize powerful commonwealths out of wild but victorious tribes. The monk could not remain in hiding. He was brother to the roving warrior. The blood in his veins was too active to permit him to stand still amid the mighty whirl of events. Without entirely abandoning his cloistral life, he became a zealous missionary of the church among the barbarians, a patron of letters and of agriculture, in short a stirring participant in the work of civilization.

Next came the crusades. Jerusalem was to be captured for Christ and the church. The monk then appeared as a crusade-preacher, a warrior on the battle-field, or a nurse in the military hospital.

The rise of feudalism likewise wrought a change in the spirit and position of the monks. The feudal lord was master of his vassals. “The genius of feudalism,” says Allen, “was a spirit of uncontrolled independence.” So the abbot became a feudal lord with immense possessions and powers. He was no longer the obscure, spiritual father of a little family of monks, but a temporal lord also, an aristocrat, ruling wide territories, and dwelling in a monastery little different from the castle of the knight and often exceeding it in splendor. With wealth came ease, and hard upon the heels of ease came laziness, arrogance, corruption.

Then followed the marvelous intellectual awakening, the moral revival, the discoveries and inventions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The human mind at last had aroused itself from a long repose, or turned from a profitless activity into broad and fruitful fields. The corruption of the monasteries meant the laxity of vows, the cessation of ministration to the poor and the sick. Then arose the tender and loving Francis, with his call to poverty and to service. The independent exercise of the intellect gave birth to heresies, but the Dominicans appeared to preach them down.

The growth of the secular spirit and the progress of the new learning were too much for the old monasticism. The monk had to adapt himself to a new age, an age that is impatient of mere contemplation, that spurns the rags of the begging friar and rebels against the fierce intolerance of the Dominican preaching. So, lastly, came the suave, determined, practical, cultured Jesuit, ready to comply, at least outwardly, with all the requirements of modern times. Does the new age reject monastic seclusion? Very well, the Jesuit throws off his monastic garb and forsakes his cloister, to take his place among men. Are the ignorance and the filth of the begging friars offensive? The Jesuit is cultured, affable and spotlessly clean. Does the new age demand liberty? “Liberty,” cries the Jesuit, “is the divine prerogative, colossal in proportion, springing straight from the broad basin of the soul’s essence!”

Such in its merest outlines is the story of the development of the monastic type and its causes.

_The Fundamental Monastic Vows_

The ultimate monastic ideal was the purification of the soul, but when translated into definite, concrete terms, the immediate aim of the monk was to live a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Riches, marriage and self-will were regarded as forms of sinful gratification, which every holy man should abandon. The true Christian, according to monasticism, is poor, celibate and obedient. The three fundamental monastic vows should therefore receive special consideration.

1. The Vow of Poverty. The monks of all countries held the possession of riches to be a barrier to high spiritual attainments. In view of the fact that an inordinate love of wealth has proved disastrous to many nations, and that it is extremely difficult for a rich man to escape the hardening, enervating and corrupting influences of affluence, the position of the monks on this question is easily understood. The Christian monks based their vow of poverty upon the Bible, and especially upon the teachings of Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor. He said to the rich young man, “Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.” In commissioning the disciples to preach the gospel He said: “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses; nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, nor shoes.” In the discourse on counting the cost of discipleship, He said: “So therefore, whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” He promised rewards to “every one that left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands for my name’s sake.” “It is easier,” He once said, “for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” He portrayed the pauper Lazarus as participating in the joys of heaven, while the rich Dives endured the torments of the lost. As reported in Luke, He said, “Blessed are ye poor.” He Himself was without a place to lay His head, a houseless wanderer upon the earth.

The apostle James cries to the men of wealth: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl, for your miseries that shall come upon you.” John said: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

Whatever these passages, and many others of like import, may signify, it is not at all strange that Christians, living in times when wealth was abused, and when critical Biblical scholarship was unknown, should have understood Christ to command a life of poverty as an indispensable condition of true holiness.

There are three ways of interpreting Christ’s doctrine of wealth. First, it may be held that Jesus intended His teachings to be literally obeyed, not only by His first disciples but by all His followers in subsequent years, and that such literal obedience is practicable, reasonable and conducive to the highest well-being of society. Secondly, it has been said that Jesus was a gentle and honest visionary, who erroneously believed that the possession of riches rendered religious progress impossible, but that strict compliance with His commands would be destructive of civilization. Laveleye declares that “if Christianity were taught and understood conformably to the spirit of its Founder, the existing social organism could not last a day.” Thirdly, neither of these views seems to do justice to the spirit of Christ, for they fail to give proper recognition to many other injunctions of the Master and to many significant incidents in his public ministry. Exhaustive treatment of this subject is, of course, impossible here. Briefly it may be remarked, that Jesus looked upon wealth as tending oftentimes to foster an unsocial spirit. Rich men are liable to become enemies of the brotherhood Jesus sought to establish, by reason of their covetousness and contracted sympathies. The rich man is in danger of erecting false standards of manhood, of ignoring the highest interests of the soul by an undue emphasis on the material. Wealth, in itself, is not an evil, but it is only a good when it is used to advance the real welfare of humanity. Jesus was not intent upon teaching economics. His purpose was to develop the man. It was the moral value and spiritual influence of material things that concerned him. Professor Shailer Mathews admirably states the true attitude of Jesus towards rich men: “Jesus was a friend neither of the working man nor the rich man as such. He calls the poor man to sacrifice as well as the rich man. He was the Son of Man, not the son of a class of men. But His denunciation is unsparing of those men who make wealth at the expense of souls; who find in capital no incentive to further fraternity; who endeavor so to use wealth as to make themselves independent of social obligations, and to grow fat with that which should be shared with society;–for those men who are gaining the world but are letting their neighbors fall among thieves and Lazarus rot among their dogs.”

Jesus was therefore not a foe to rich men as such, but to that antisocial, abnormal regard for wealth and its procurements, which leads to the creation of class distinctions and impedes the full and free development of our common humanity along the lines of brotherly love and cooeperation. A Christian may consistently be a rich man, provided he uses his wealth in furthering the true interests of society, and realizes, as respects his own person, that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” The error of monasticism consists in making poverty a virtue and an essential condition of the highest holiness. It is true that some callings preclude the prospect of fortune. The average clergyman cannot hope to amass wealth. The resident of a social settlement may possess capacities that would win success in business, but he must forego financial prospects if he expects to live and labor among the poor. In so far as the monks deliberately turned their backs on the material rewards of human endeavors that they might be free to devote themselves to the service of humanity, their vow of poverty was creditable and reasonable. But they erred when they exalted poverty as of itself commending them in a peculiar degree to the mercy of God.

2. The Vow of Celibacy. “The moral merit of celibacy,” says Allen, “was harder to make out of the Scripture, doubtless, since family life is both at the foundation of civil society and the source of all the common virtues.” The monks held that Christ and Paul both taught and practiced celibacy. In the early and middle ages celibacy was looked upon by all churchmen as in itself a virtue. The prevailing modern idea is that marriage is a holy institution, in no sense inferior in sacredness to any ecclesiastical order of life. He who antagonizes it plays into the hands of the foes to social purity and individual virtue.

The ideas of Jerome, Ambrose, and all the early Fathers, respecting marriage, are still held by many ecclesiastics. One of them, in defending the celibacy of existing religious orders, says: “Celibacy is enjoined on these religious orders as a means to greater sanctification, greater usefulness, greater absorption in things spiritual, and to facilitate readier withdrawal from things earthly.” He gives two reasons for the celibacy of the priesthood, which are all the more interesting because they substantially represent the opinions held by the Christian monks in all ages: First, “That the service of the priest to God may be undivided and unrestrained.” In support of this, he quotes I. Cor., 7: 32, 33, which reads: “But I would have you free from cares. He that is unmarried is careful for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord: but he that is married is careful for the things of the world, how he may please his wife.” And secondly, “Celibacy,” according to Trent, “is more blessed than marriage.” He also quotes the words of Christ that there are “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” He then adds: “It is desirable that those called to the ministry of the altar espouse a life of continence because holier and more angelic.”

It is generally admitted that the vow of celibacy was not demanded of the clergy in primitive Christian times. It was only after many years of bitter debate and in response to the growing influence of the monastic ideal, that celibacy finally came to be looked upon as the highest form of Christian virtue, and was enforced upon the clergy. As in the case of the vow of poverty, there certainly can be no reasonable objection to the individual adoption of celibacy, if one is either disinclined to marriage or feels that he can do better work unmarried. But neither Scripture nor reason justifies the imposition of celibacy upon any man, nor the view that a life of continence is holier than marriage. It may be reverently said that God would be making an unreasonable demand upon mankind, if the holiness He requires conflicted with the proper satisfaction of those impulses He himself has deeply implanted in human nature.

3. The Vow of Obedience. The monks were required to render absolute obedience to the will of their superiors, as the representatives of God. Dom Guigo, in his rules for the Carthusian Order, declares: “Moreover, if the Prior commands one of his religious to take more food, or to sleep for a longer time, in fact, whatever command may be given us by our Superior, we are not allowed to disobey, lest we should disobey God also, who commands us by the mouth of our Superior. All our practices of mortification and devotion would be fruitless and of no value, without this one virtue of obedience, which alone can make them acceptable to God.”

Thus a strict and uncomplaining obedience, not to the laws of God as interpreted by the individual conscience, but to the judgment and will of a brother man, was demanded of the monks.

“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs but to do and die.”

They were often severely beaten or imprisoned and sometimes mutilated for acts of disobedience. While the monks, especially the Friars and Jesuits, carried this principle of obedience to great extremes, yet in the barbarous ages its enforcement was sadly needed. Law and order were words which the untamed Goth could not comprehend. He had to be taught habits of obedience, a respect for the rights of others, and a proper appreciation of his duty to society for the common good. But while, at the beginning, the monastic vow of obedience helped to inculcate these desirable lessons, and vastly modified the ferocity of unchecked individualism, it tended, in the course of time, to generate a servile humility fatal to the largest and freest personal development. In the interests of passive obedience, it suppressed freedom of thought and action. Obedience became mechanical and unreasoning. The consequence was that the passion for individual liberty was unduly restrained, and the extravagant claims of political and ecclesiastical tyrants were greatly strengthened.

Such was the monastic ideal and such were some of the means employed to realize it. The ascetic spirit manifests itself in a great variety of ways, but all these visible and changing externals have one common source. “To cherish the religious principle,” says William E. Channing,” some have warred against their social affections, and have led solitary lives; some against their senses, and have abjured all pleasure in asceticism; some against reason, and have superstitiously feared to think; some against imagination, and have foolishly dreaded to read poetry or books of fiction; some against the political and patriotic principles, and have shrunk from public affairs,–all apprehending that if they were to give free range to their natural emotions their religious life would be chilled or extinguished.”



“We read history,” said Wendell Phillips, “not through our eyes but through our prejudices.” Yet if it were possible entirely to lay aside one’s prepossessions respecting monastic history, it would still be no easy task to estimate the influences of the monks upon human life.

In every field of thought and activity monasticism wrought good and evil. Education, industry, government and religion have been both furthered and hindered by the monks. What Francis Parkman said of the Roman Catholic Church is true of the monastic institution: “Clearly she is of earth, not of heaven; and her transcendently dramatic life is a type of the good and ill, the baseness and nobleness, the foulness and purity, the love and hate, the pride, passion, truth, falsehood, fierceness, and tenderness, that battle in the restless heart of man.”

A careful and sympathetic survey of monastic history compels the conclusion that monasticism, while not uniformly a blessing to the world, was not an unmitigated evil. The system presents one long series of perplexities and contradictions. One historian shuts his eyes to its pernicious effects, or at least pardons its transgressions, on the ground that perfection in man or in institutions is unattainable. Another condemns the whole system, believing that the sum of its evils far outweighs whatever benefits it may have conferred upon mankind. Schaff cuts the Gordian knot, maintaining that the contradiction is easily solved on the theory that it was not monasticism, as such, which has proved a blessing to the Church and the world. “It was Christianity in monasticism,” he says, “which has done all the good, and used this abnormal mode of life as a means of carrying forward its mission of love and peace.”

To illustrate the diversities of opinion on this subject, and incidentally to show how difficult it is to present a well-balanced, symmetrically fair and just estimate of the monastic institution as a whole, contrast the opinions of four celebrated men. Pius IX. refers to the, monks as “those chosen phalanxes of the army of Christ which have always been the bulwark and ornament of the Christian republic as well as of civil society.” But then he was the Pope of Rome, the Arch-prelate of the Church. “Monk,” fiercely demands Voltaire, “Monk, what is that profession of thine? It is that of having none, of engaging one’s self by an inviolable oath to be a fool and a slave, and to live at the expense of others.” But he was the philosophical skeptic of Paris. “Where is the town,” cries Montalembert, “which has not been founded or enriched or protected by some religious community? Where is the church which owes not to them a patron, a relic, a pious and popular tradition? Wherever there is a luxuriant forest, a pure stream, a majestic hill, we may be sure that religion has left there her stamp by the hand of the monk.” But this was Montalembert, the Roman Catholic historian, and the avowed champion of the monks. “A cruel, unfeeling temper,” writes Gibbon, “has distinguished the monks of every age and country; their stern indifference, which is seldom mollified by personal friendship, is inflamed by religious hatred; and their merciless zeal has strenuously administered the holy office of the Inquisition.” But this was Gibbon, the hater of everything monastic. Between these extreme views lies a wide field upon which many a deathless duel has been fought by the writers of monastic history.

The variety of judgments respecting the nature and effects of monasticism is partly due to the diversity in the facts of its history. Monasticism was the friend and the foe of true religion. It was the inspiration of virtue and the encouragement of vice. It was the patron of industry and the promoter of idleness. It was a pioneer in education and the teacher of superstition. It was the disburser of alms and a many-handed robber. It was the friend of human liberty and the abettor of tyranny. It was the champion of the common people and the defender of class privileges. It was, in short, everything that man was and is, so varied were its operations, so complex was its influence, so comprehensive was its life.

Of some things we may be certain. Any religious institution or ideal of life that has survived the changes of twelve centuries, and that has enlisted the enthusiastic services and warmest sympathies of numerous men and women who have been honorably distinguished for their intellectual attainments and moral character, must have possessed elements of truth and moral worth. A contemptuous treatment of monasticism implies either an ignorance of its real history or a wilful disregard of the deep significance of its commendable features.

It is also certain that while the methods of monasticism, judged by their effects upon the individual and upon society, may be justly censured, it is beyond question that many monks, groping their way toward the light in an age of ignorance and superstition, were inspired by the purest motives. “Conscience,” observes Waddington, “however misguided, cannot be despised by a reflecting mind. When it leads one to self-sacrifice and moral fortitude we cannot but admire his spirit, while we condemn his sagacity and method.”

_The Effects of Self-Sacrifice Upon the Individual_

Christianity requires some sort of self-denial as the condition of true Christian discipleship. Self-love is to yield to a love of others. In some sense, the Christian is to become dead to the world and its demoralizing pleasures. But this primal demand upon the soul needs to be interpreted. What is it to love the world? What is it to keep the body in subjection? What are harmful indulgences? To give wrong answers to these questions is to set up a false ideal; the more strenuously such false ideal is followed, the more disastrous are the consequences. One’s struggle for moral purity may end in failure, and one’s efficiency for good may be seriously impaired by a perversion of the principle of self-abnegation. Unnatural severity and excessive abstinence often produce the opposite effect from that intended. Instead of a peaceful mind there is delirium, and instead of freedom from temptation there are a thousand horrible fiends hovering in the air and ready, at any moment, to pounce upon their prey. “The history of ascetics,” says Martensen, “teaches us that by such overdone fasting the fancy is often excited to an amazing degree, and in its airy domain affords the very things that one thought to have buried, by means of mortification, a magical resurrection.” In attempting to subdue the body, many necessary requirements of the physical organism were totally ignored. The body rebelled against such unnatural treatment, and the mind, so closely related to it, in its distraction, gave birth to the wildest fancies. Men, who would have possessed an ordinarily pure mind in some useful occupation of life, became the prey of the most lewd and obnoxious imaginations. Then they fancied themselves vile above their fellows, and laid on more stripes, put more thorns upon their pillows, and fasted more hours, only to find that instead of fleeing, the devils became blacker and more numerous.

Self-forgetfulness is the key to happiness. The monk thought otherwise, and slew himself in his vain attempt to fight against nature. He never lifted his eyes from his own soul. He was always feeling his spiritual pulse, staring at his lean spiritual visage, and tearfully watching his growth in grace. An interest in others and a strong mind in a strong body are the best antidotes to religious despair and the temptations of the soul. Life in the monastery was generally less severe than in the desert’s solitude. There was more and better food, shelter, and comfort, but there were many unnecessary and unnatural restrictions, even in the best days of monasticism. There were too many hours of prayer, too many needless regulations for silence, fasting and penance, to produce a healthy, vigorous type of religious life.

_The Effects of Solitude Upon the Individual_.

It has already been shown that some solitude is essential to our richest culture. Our higher nature demands time for reflection and meditation. But the monks carried this principle to an extreme, and they overestimated its benefits. “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and inordinate desires,” says Montaigne, “do not leave us because we forsake our native country, they often follow us even to cloisters and philosophical schools; nor deserts, nor caves, nor hair shirts, nor fasts, can disengage us from them.”

Besides these passions, which the monks carried with them, their solitary life tended to foster spiritual pride, contract sympathy, and engender an inhumane spirit. True, there were exceptions; but the sublime characters which survive in monastic history are by no means typical of its usual effects. Seclusion did not benefit the average monk. Indeed there is something wanting in even the loftiest monastic characters. “The heroes of monasticism,” says Allen, “are not the heroes of modern life. All put together, they would not furnish out one such soul as William of Orange, or Gustavus, or Milton. Independence of thought and liberty of conscience, they renounced once for all, in taking upon them the monastic vow. All the larger enterprises, all the broad humanities, which to our mind make a greater career, were rigidly shut off by a barrier that could not be crossed. All the warmth and wealth of social and domestic life was a field of forbidden fruit, to be entered only through the gate of unpardonable sin.”

Thus self-excluded from a normal life in society, often the subject of self-inflicted pain, it is no wonder that the monk impaired all the nobler and manlier feelings of the soul, that he became strangely indifferent to human affection, that bigotry and pride often sat as joint rulers on the throne of his heart. He who had trampled on all filial relations would scarcely recognize the bonds of human brotherhood. He who heard not the prayer of his own mother would not be likely to listen to the cry of the tortured heretic for mercy. Man as man was not reverenced. It was the monk in man who was esteemed. As Milman puts it, “Bigotry has always found its readiest and sternest executioners among those who have never known the charities of life.”

Nor is it a matter of surprise that the monk was spiritually proud. He was supposed to stand in the inner circle, a little nearer the throne of God than his fellow-mortals. When dead, he was worshiped as a saint and regarded as an intercessor between God and his lower fellow-creatures. His hatred of the base world easily passed over into a sense of superiority and ignoble pride.

“True social life,” says Martensen, “leads to solitude.” This truth the monks emphasized to the exclusion of the converse, “true life in solitude leads back to society.” John Tauler, the mystic monk, realized this truth when he said: “If God calls me to a sick person, or to the service of preaching, or to any other service of love, I must follow, although I am in the state of highest contemplation.” The hermits of the desert, and too often the monks of the cloister, escaped from all such services, and selfishly gave themselves up to saving their own souls by contemplation and prayer. Ministration to the needy is the external side of the inner religious life. It is the fruit of faith and prayer. The monk sought solitude, not for the purpose of fitting himself for a place in society, but for selfish, personal ends. Saint Bruno, in a letter to his friend Ralph le Verd, eulogizes the solitude of the monastic cell, and among other sentiments he gives expression to the following: “I am speaking here of the contemplative life; and although its sons are less numerous than those of active life, yet, like Joseph and Benjamin, they are infinitely dearer to their Father…. O my brother, fear not then to fly from the turmoil and the misery of the world; leave the storms that rage without, to shelter yourself in this safe haven.”

Thus sinful and sorrowing humanity, needing the guidance and comfort that holy men can furnish, was forgotten in the desire for personal peace and future salvation.

Another baneful result of isolation was the strangulation of filial love. When the monk abandoned the softening, refining influence of women and children, one side of his nature suffered a serious contraction. An Egyptian mother stood at the hut of two hermits, her sons. Weeping bitterly, she begged to see their faces. To her piteous entreaties, they said: “Why do you, who are already stricken with age, pour forth such cries and lamentations?” “It is because I long to see you,” she replied. “Am I not your mother? I am now an old and wrinkled woman, and my heart is troubled at the sound of your voices.” But even a mother’s love could not cope with their fearful fanaticism., and she went away with their cold promise that they would meet in heaven. St. John of Calama visited his sister in disguise, and a chronicler, telling the story afterwards, said, “By the mercy of Jesus Christ he had not been recognized, and they never met again.” Many hermits received their parents or brothers and sisters with their eyes shut. When the father of Simeon Stylites died, his widowed mother prayed for entrance into her son’s cell. For three days and nights she stood without, and then the blessed Simeon prayed the Lord for her, and she immediately gave up the ghost.

These as well as numerous other stories of a similar character that might be quoted illustrate the hardening influence of solitude. Instead of cherishing a love of kindred, as a gift of heaven and a spring of virtue, the monk spurned it and trampled it beneath his feet as an obstacle to his spiritual progress. “The monks,” says Milman, “seem almost unconscious of the softening, humanizing effect of the natural affections, the beauty of parental tenderness and filial love.”

_The Monks as Missionaries_

The conversion of the barbarians was an indispensable condition of modern civilization. Every step forward had to be taken in the face of barbaric ignorance and cruelty. In this stupendous undertaking the monks led the way, displaying in their labors remarkable generalship and undaunted courage. Whatever may be thought of later monasticism, the Benedictine monks are entitled to the lasting gratitude of mankind for their splendid services in reducing barbaric Europe to some sort of order and civilization. But again the mixture of good and evil is strangely illustrated. It seems impossible to accord the monks unqualified praise. The potency of the evil tendencies within their system vitiated every noble achievement. Their methods and practical ideals were so at variance with the true order of nature that every commendable victory involved a corresponding obstacle to real social and religious progress. The justice of these observations will be more apparent as this inquiry proceeds.

_Monasticism and Civic Duties_

The withdrawal of a considerable number of men of character and talent from the exercise of civic duties is injurious to the state. The burdens upon those who remain become heavier, while society is deprived of the moral influence of those who forsake their civic responsibilities. When the monk, from the outside as it were, attempted to exert an influence for good, he largely failed. His ideals of life were not formulated in a real world, but in an artificial, antisocial environment. He was unable to appreciate the political needs of men. He could not enter sympathetically into their serious employments or innocent delights. Controlled by superstition, and exalting a servile obedience to human authority, he became a very unsafe guide in political affairs. He could not consistently labor for secular progress, because he had forsaken a world in which secular interests were prominent.

It may be true that in the early days of monasticism the monks pursued the proper course in refusing to become Roman patriots. No human power could have averted the ruin which overtook that corrupt world. Perhaps their non-combatant attitude gave them more influence with the conquerors of Rome, who were to become the founders of modern nations.

In later years, the abbots of the principal monasteries occupied seats in the legislative assemblies of Germany, Hungary, Spain, England, Italy, and France. In many instances they stood between the violence of the nobles and the unprotected vassal. Political monks, inspired by a natural breadth of vision and a love of humanity, secured the passage of wise and humane regulations. Palgrave says: “The mitre has resisted many blows which would have broken the helmet, and the crosier has kept more foes in awe than the lance. It is, then, to these prelates that we chiefly owe the maintenance of the form and spirit of free government, secured to us, not by force, but by law; and the altar has thus been the corner-stone of our ancient constitution.”

Although there is much truth in the foregoing observation, yet on the other hand, when the influence of the monastic ideal upon civilization is studied in its deeper aspects, it cannot be justly maintained that the final effects of monasticism minister to the development of a normal civilization. Industrial, mental and moral progress depend upon a certain breadth of mind and energy of soul. Asceticism saps the vitality of human nature and confines the activity of the mind within artificial limits. “Hence the dreary, sterile torpor,” says Lecky, “that characterized those ages in which the ascetic principle has been supreme, while the civilizations which have attained the highest perfection have been those of ancient Greece and modern Europe, which were most opposed to it.”

The monks did not hesitate to become embroiled in military quarrels, or to incite the fiercer passions of men when it suited their purpose. Their opposition to kings and princes was often not based on a love of popular freedom, but on an indisposition to share power with secular rulers. The legislative enactments against heretics, many of which they inspired, clearly show that they neither desired nor tolerated liberty of speech or conduct. They were the Almighty’s vicars on earth, before whom it was the duty of king and subject to bow down. Vaughan writes of the period just prior to the Reformation: “The great want was freedom from ecclesiastical domination; and from the feeling of the hour, scarcely any price would be deemed too great to be paid for that object.” The history of modern Jesuitism, against which the legislation of almost every civilized nation has been directed, affords abundant testimony to the inherent hostility of the monastic system, even in its modified modern form, to every species of government which in any way guarantees freedom of thought to its people. This stern fact confronts the student, however much he may be inclined to yield homage to the early monks. It must be held in mind when one reads this pleasing sentence from Macaulay: “Surely a system which, however deformed by superstition, introduced strong moral restraints into communities previously governed only by vigor of muscle and by audacity of spirit, a system which taught the fiercest and mightiest ruler that he was, like his meanest bondman, a responsible being, might have seemed to deserve a more respectful mention from philosophers and philanthropists.”

The general effect of monasticism on the state is, therefore, not to be determined by fixing the gaze on any one century of its history, or by holding up some humane and patriotic monk as a representative product of the system.

_The Agricultural Services of the Monks_

Europe must ever be indebted to Benedict and his immediate followers for their services in reclaiming waste lands, and in removing the stigma which a corrupt civilization had placed upon labor. Benedict came before the world saying: “No person is ever more usefully employed than when working with his hands or following the plough, providing food for the use of man.” Care was taken that councils should not be called when ploughing was to be done or wheat to be threshed. Benedict bent himself to the task of teaching the rich and the proud, the poor and the lazy the alphabet of prosperity and happiness. Agriculture was at its lowest ebb. Marshes covered once fertile fields, and the men who should have tilled the land spurned the plough as degrading, or were too indolent to undertake the tasks of the farm. The monks left their cells and their prayers to dig ditches and plough fields. The effect was magical. Men once more turned back to a noble but despised industry. Peace and plenty supplanted war and poverty. “The Benedictines,” says Guizot, “have been the great clearers of land in Europe. A colony, a little swarm of monks, settled in places nearly uncultivated, often in the midst of a pagan population–in Germany, for example, or in Brittany; there, at once missionaries and laborers, they accomplish their double service, through peril and fatigue.”

It is to be regretted that history throws a shadow across this pleasing scene. When labor came to be recognized as honorable and useful, along came the begging friars, creating, both by precept and example, a prejudice against labor and wealth. Rags and laziness came to be associated with holiness, and a beggar monk was held up as an ideal and sacred personage. “The spirit that makes men devote themselves in vast numbers,” says Lecky, “to a monotonous life of asceticism and poverty is so essentially opposed to the spirit that creates the energy and enthusiasm of industry, that their continued coexistence may be regarded as impossible.” But such a fatal mistake could not long captivate the mind, or cause men to forget Benedict and his industrial ideal. The blessings of wealth rightly administered, and the dignity of labor without which wealth is impossible, came to be recognized as necessary factors in the true progress of man.

_The Monks and Secular Learning_

For many centuries, as has been previously shown, the monks were the schoolmasters of Europe. They also preserved the manuscripts of the classics, produced numerous theological works, transmitted many pious traditions, and wrote some interesting and some worthless chronicles. They laid the foundations of several great universities, including those of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. For these, and other valuable services, the monks merit the praise of posterity. It is, however, too much to affirm, as Montalembert does, that “without the monks, we should have been as ignorant of our history as children.” It is altogether improbable that the human mind would have been unproductive in the field of historical writing had monasticism not existed during the middle ages. While, also, the monks should be thanked for preserving the classics, it should not be supposed that all knowledge of Latin and Greek literature would have perished but for them.

It is surprising that the literary men of the medieval period should have written so little of interest to the modern mind, or that helps us to an understanding of the momentous events amid which they lived. Unfortunately the monkish mind was concentrated upon a theology, the premises of which have been largely set aside by modern science. Their writings are so permeated by grotesque superstitions that they are practically worthless to-day. Their hostility to secular affairs blinded them to the tremendous significance of the mighty political and social movements of the age.

It is undeniable that the monks never encouraged a love of secular learning. They did not try to impart a love of the classics which they preserved. The spirit of monasticism was ever at war with true intellectual progress. The monks imprisoned Roger Bacon fourteen years, and tried to blast his fair name by calling him a magician, merely because he stepped beyond the narrow limits of monkish inquiry. Many suffered indignities, privations or death for questioning tradition or for conducting scientific researches.

So while it is true that the monks rendered many services to the cause of education, it is also true that their monastic theories tended to narrow the scope of intellectual activity. “This,” says Guizot, “is the foundation of their instruction; all was turned into commentary of the Scriptures, historical, philosophical, allegorical, moral commentary. They desired only to form priests; all studies, whatsoever their nature, were directed to this result.” There was no disinterested love of learning; no desire to become acquainted with God’s world. In fact, the old hostility to everything natural characterizes all monastic history. Europe did not enter upon that broad and noble intellectual development which is the glory of our era, until the right arm of monasticism was struck down, the dread of heresy banished from the human mind, and secular learning welcomed as a legitimate and elevated field for mental activity.

Hamilton W. Mabie, in his delightful essay on “Some Old Scholars,” describes this step from the gloom of the cloister to the light of God’s world: “Petrarch really escaped from a sepulcher when he stepped out of the cloister of medievalism, with its crucifix, its pictures of unhealthy saints, its cords of self-flagellation, and found the heavens clear, beautiful, and well worth living under, and the world full of good things which one might desire and yet not be given over to evil. He ventured to look at life for himself and found it full of wonderful dignity and power. He opened his Virgil, brushed aside the cobwebs which monkish brains had spun over the beautiful lines, and met the old poet as one man meets another; and lo! there arose before him a new, untrodden and wholly human world, free from priestcraft and pedantry, near to nature and unspeakably alluring and satisfying.”

The Dominicans and Jesuits set their faces like flint against all education tending to liberalize the mind. Here is a passage from a document published by the Jesuits at their first centenary: “It is undeniable that we have undertaken a great and uninterrupted war in the interests of the Catholic church against heresy. Heresy need never hope that the society will make terms with it, or remain quiescent … No peace need be expected, for the seed of hatred is born within us. What Hamilcar was to Hannibal, Ignatius is to us. At his instigation, we have sworn upon the altars eternal war.” When this proclamation is read in the light of history, its meaning stands forth with startling clearness. Almost every truth in science and philosophy, no matter how valuable it was destined to become as an agent in enhancing the well-being of the race, has had to wear the stigma of heresy.

It is an interesting speculation to imagine what the intellectual development of Europe would have been, had secular learning been commended by the monks, and the common people encouraged to exercise their minds without fear of excommunication or death. It is sad to reflect how many great thoughts must have perished still-born in the student’s cloister cell, and to picture the silent grief with which many a brilliant soul must have repressed his eager imagination.

_The Charity of the Monks_

In the eleventh century, a monk named Thieffroy wrote the following: “It matters little that our churches rise to heaven, that the capitals of their pillars are sculptured and gilded, that our parchment is tinted purple, that gold is melted to form the letters of our manuscripts, and that their bindings are set with precious stones, if we have little or no care for the members of Christ, and if Christ himself lies naked and dying before our doors.” This spirit, so charmingly expressed, was never quite absent from the monkish orders. The monasteries were asylums for the hungry during famines, and the sick during plagues. They served as hotels where the traveler found a cordial welcome, comfortable shelter and plain food. If he needed medical aid, his wants were supplied. During the black plague, while many monks fled with the multitude, others stayed at their posts and were to be found daily in the homes of the stricken, ministering to their bodily and spiritual needs. Many of them perished in their heroic and self-sacrificing labors.

Alms-giving was universally enjoined as a sure passport to heaven. The most glittering rewards were held out to those who enriched the monks with legacies to be used in relief of the poor. It was, no doubt, the unselfish activities of the monks that caused them to be held in such high esteem; the result was their coffers were filled with more gold than they could easily give away. Thus abuses grew up. Bernard said: “Piety gave birth to wealth, and the daughter devoured the mother.” Jacob of Vitry complained that money, “by various and deceptive tricks,” was exacted from the people by the monks, most of which adhered “to their unfaithful fingers.” While Lecky eloquently praises the monks for their beautiful deeds of charity, “following all the windings of the poor man’s grief,” still he condones in the strongest terms the action of Henry VIII. in transferring the monastic funds to his own treasury: “No misapplication of this property by private persons could produce as much evil as an unrestrained monasticism.”

It would be unjust, however, to censure the monks for not recognizing the evil social effects of indiscriminate alms-giving. While their system was imperfect, it was the only one possible in an age when the social sciences were unknown. It is difficult, even to-day, to restrain that good-natured, but baneful, benevolence which takes no account of circumstances and consequences, and often fosters the growth of pauperism. The monks kept alive that sweet spirit of philanthropy which is so essential to all the higher forms of civilization. It is easier to discover the proper methods for the exercise of generous sentiments, than to create those feelings or to arouse them when dormant.

_Monasticism and Religion_

No doctrine in theology, or practice of religion, has been free from monastic influences. An adequate treatment of this theme would require volumes instead of paragraphs. A few points, however, may be touched upon by way of suggestion to those who may wish to pursue the subject further.

The effect of the monastic ideal was to emphasize the sinfulness of man and his need of redemption. To get rid of sin–that is the problem of humanity. A quaint formula of monastic confession reads: “I confess all the sins of my body, of my flesh, of my bones and sinews, of my veins and cartilages, of my tongue and lips, of my ears, teeth and hair, of my marrow and any other part whatsoever, whether it be soft or hard, wet or dry.” This emphasis on man’s sinfulness and the need of redemption was sadly needed in Rome and all down the ages. “It was a protest,” says Clarke, “against pleasure as the end of life … It proved the reality of the religious sentiment to a skeptical age…. If this long period of self-torture has left us no other gain, let us value it as a proof that in man religious aspiration is innate, unconquerable, and able to triumph over all that the world hopes and over all that it fears.”

Thus the monks helped to keep alive the enthusiasm of religion. There was a fervor, a devotion, a spirit of sacrifice, in the system, which acted as a corrective to the selfish materialism of the early and middle ages. Christian history furnishes many sad spectacles of brutality and licentiousness, of insolent pride and uncontrolled greed, masked in the garb of religion. Monasticism, by its constant insistence upon poverty and obedience, fostered a spirit of loyalty to Christ and the cross, which served as a protest, not only against the general laxity of morals, but also against the faithlessness of corrupt monks. Harnack says: “It was always monasticism that rescued the church when sinking, freed her when secularized, defended her when attacked. It warmed hearts that were growing cold, restrained unruly spirits, won back the people when alienated from the church.” It may have been in harmony with divine plans, that religion was to have been kept alive and vigorous by excessive austerities, even as in later days it needed the stern and unyielding Puritan spirit, now regarded as too grim and severe, to cope successfully with the forces of tyranny and sin.

If it be true, as some are inclined to believe, that this age is losing a definite consciousness of sin, that in the reaction from the asceticism of the monks and the gloom of the Puritans we are in danger of minimizing the doctrine of personal accountability to God, then we cannot afford to ignore the underlying ideal of monasticism. In so far as monasticism contributed to a normal consciousness of human freedom and personal guilt, and maintained a grip upon the conscience of the sinner, it has rendered the cause of true religion a genuine and permanent service.

But the mistake of the monks was twofold. They exaggerated sin, and they employed unhealthy methods to get rid of it. Excessive introspection, instead of exercising a purifying influence, tends to distort one’s religious conceptions, and creates an unwholesome type of piety. Man is a sinner, but he also has potential and actual goodness. The monks failed to define sin in accordance with facts. Many innocent pleasures and legitimate satisfactions were erroneously thought to be sinful. Honorable and useful aspirations that, under wise control, minister to man’s highest development were selected for eradication. “Every instinct of human nature,” says W.E. Channing, “has its destined purpose in life, and the perfect man is to be found in the proportionate cultivation of each element of his character, not in the exaggerated development of those faculties which are deemed primarily good, nor in the repression of those which are evil only when their prominence destroys the balance of the whole.”

But the methods employed by the monks to get rid of sin afford another illustration of the fact that noble sentiments and holy aspirations need to be wisely directed. It is not enough for a mother to love her child; she must know how to give that love proper expression. In her attempt to guide and train her loved one she may fatally mislead him. The modern emphasis upon method deserves wider recognition than it has received.

The applause of the church that sounded so sweet in the ears of the monk, as he laid the stripes upon his body, proclaims the high esteem in which penance was held. But the monk cruelly deceived himself. His self-inflicted tortures developed within his soul an unnatural piety, “a piety,” says White, “that became visionary and introspective, a theology of black clouds and lightning and thunder, a superstitious religion based on dreams and saint’s bones.” True penitence consists in high and holy purposes, in pure and unselfish living, and not in disfigurements and in misery. Dreariness and fear are not the proper manifestations of that perfect love which casteth out fear.

The influence of monasticism upon the doctrine of atonement for sin was, in many respects, prejudicial to the best interests of religion. The monks are largely responsible for the theory that sin can be atoned for by pecuniary gifts. It may be said that they did not ignore true feelings of repentance, of which the gold was merely a tangible expression, but the notion widely prevailed that the prayers of the monks, purchased by temporal gifts, secured the forgiveness of the transgressor. The worship of saints, pilgrimages to shrines, and reverence for bones and other relics, were assiduously encouraged.

Thus the monkish conception of salvation and of the means by which it is to be obtained were at variance with any reasonable interpretation of the Scriptures and the dictates of human reason. “It measured virtue,” says Schaff, “by the quantity of outward exercises, instead of the quality of the inward disposition, and disseminated self-righteousness and an anxious, legal, and mechanical religion[K].”

[Footnote K: Appendix, Note K.]

The doctrine of future punishment reached its most repulsive and abnormal developments in the hands of the monks. A vast literature was produced by them, portraying, with vivid minuteness, the pangs of hell. Volcanoes were said to be the portals of the lower world, that heaved and sighed as human souls were plunged into the awful depths. God was held up as a fearful judge, and the saving mercy of Christ himself paled before the rescuing power of his mother. These fearful caricatures of God, these detailed, revolting descriptions of pain and anguish, could not but have a hardening effect upon the minds of men. “To those,” says Lecky, “who do not regard these teachings as true, it must appear without exception, the most odious in the religious history of the world, subversive of the very foundations of Christianity.”

Finally, the greatest error of monastic teaching was in its false and baneful distinction between the secular and the religious. Unquestionably the Christian ideal is founded on some form of world-renunciation. The teachings and example of Jesus, the lives of the Apostles, and the characters of the early Christians, exhibit in varying phases the ideal of self-crucifixion. The doctrine of the cross, with all that it signifies, is the most powerful force in the spread of Christianity. The spiritual nature of man needs to be trained and disciplined. But does this truth lead the Christian to the monastic method? Was the self-renunciation of Jesus like that of the ascetics, with their ecstasies and self-punishments? Is God more pleased with the recluse who turns from a needy world to shut himself up to prayer and