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--Spiritual Revival Throughout Christendom, And Especially In The Church Of Spain.

The heroic discovery of America, at the close of the fifteenth century after Christ, has compelled the generous and just admiration of the world; but the grandeur of human enterprise and achievement in the discovery of the western hemisphere has a less claim on our admiration than that divine wisdom and controlling providence which, for reasons now manifested, kept the secret hidden through so many millenniums, in spite of continual chances of disclosure, until the fullness of time. 


How near, to "speak as a fool," the plans of God came to being defeated by human enterprise is illustrated by unquestioned facts. The fact of medieval exploration, colonization, and even evangelization in North America seems now to have emerged from the region of fanciful conjecture into that of history. That for four centuries, ending with the fifteenth, the church of Iceland maintained its bishops and other missionaries and built its churches and monasteries on the frozen coast of Greenland is abundantly proved by documents and monuments. Dim but seemingly unmistakable traces are now discovered of enterprises, not only of exploration and trade, but also of evangelization, reaching along the mainland southward to the shores of New England. There are vague indications that these beginnings of Christian civilization were extinguished, as in so many later instances, by savage massacre. With impressive coincidence, the latest vestige of this primeval American Christianity fades out in the very year of the discovery of America by Columbus.[2:1]

By a prodigy of divine providence, the secret of the ages had been kept from premature disclosure during the centuries in which, without knowing it, the Old World was actually in communication with the New. That was high strategy in the warfare for the advancement of the kingdom of God in the earth. What possibilities, even yet only beginning to be accomplished, were thus saved to both hemispheres! If the discovery of America had been achieved four centuries or even a single century earlier, the Christianity to be transplanted to the western world would have been that of the church of Europe at its lowest stage of decadence. The period closing with the fifteenth century was that of the dense darkness that goes before the dawn. It was a period in which the lingering life of the church was chiefly manifested in feverish complaints of the widespread corruption and outcries for "reformation of the church in head and members." The degeneracy of the clergy was nowhere more manifest than in the monastic orders, that had been originally established for the express purpose of reviving and purifying the church. That ancient word was fulfilled, "Like people, like priest." But it was especially in the person of the foremost official representative of the religion of Jesus Christ that that religion was most dishonored. The fifteenth century was the era of the infamous popes. By another coincidence which arrests the attention of the reader of history, that same year of the discovery by Columbus witnessed the accession of the most infamous of the series, the Borgia, Alexander VI., to his short and shameful pontificate.

Let it not be thought, as some of us might be prone to think, that the timeliness of the discovery of the western hemisphere, in its relation to church history, is summed up in this, that it coincided with the Protestant Reformation, so that the New World might be planted with a Protestant Christianity. For a hundred years the colonization and evangelization of America were, in the narrowest sense of that large word, Catholic, not Protestant. But the Catholicism brought hither was that of the sixteenth century, not of the fifteenth. It is a most one-sided reading of the history of that illustrious age which fails to recognize that the great Reformation was a reformation _of_ the church as well as a reformation _from_ the church. It was in Spain itself, in which the corruption of the church had been foulest, but from which all symptoms of "heretical pravity" were purged away with the fiercest zeal as fast as they appeared,--in Spain under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic,--that the demand for a Catholic reformation made itself earliest and most effectually felt. The highest ecclesiastical dignitary of the realm, Ximenes, confessor to the queen, Archbishop of Toledo, and cardinal, was himself the leader of reform. No changes in the rest of Christendom were destined for many years to have so great an influence on the course of evangelization in North America as those which affected the church of Spain; and of these by far the most important in their bearing on the early course of Christianity in America were, first, the purifying and quickening of the miserably decayed and corrupted mendicant orders,--ever the most effective arm in the missionary service of the Latin Church,--and, a little later, the founding of the Society of Jesus, with its immense potency for good and for evil. At the same time the court of Rome, sobered in some measure, by the perilous crisis that confronted it, from its long orgy of simony, nepotism, and sensuality, began to find time and thought for spiritual duties. The establishment of the "congregations" or administrative boards, and especially of the _Congregatio de Propaganda Fide_, or board of missions, dates chiefly from the sixteenth century. The revived interest in theological study incident to the general spiritual quickening gave the church, as the result of the labors of the Council of Trent, a well-defined body of doctrine, which nevertheless was not so narrowly defined as to preclude differences and debates among the diverse sects of the clergy, by whose competitions and antagonisms the progress of missions both in Christian and in heathen lands was destined to be so seriously affected.

An incident of the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth century--inevitable incident, doubtless, in that age, but none the less deplorable--was the engendering or intensifying of that cruel and ferocious form of fanaticism which is defined as the combination of religious emotion with the malignant passions. The tendency to fanaticism is one of the perils attendant on the deep stirring of religious feeling at any time; it was especially attendant on the religious agitations of that period; but most of all it was in Spain, where, of all the Catholic nations, corruption had gone deepest and spiritual revival was most earnest and sincere, that the manifestations of fanaticism were most shocking. Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic were distinguished alike by their piety and their part in the promotion of civilization, and by the horrors of bloody cruelty perpetrated by their authority and that of the church, at the instigation of the sincere and devout reformer Ximenes. In the memorable year 1492 was inaugurated the fiercest work of the Spanish Inquisition, concerning which, speaking of her own part in it, the pious Isabella was able afterward to say, "For the love of Christ and of his virgin mother I have caused great misery, and have depopulated towns and districts, provinces and kingdoms."

The earlier pages of American church history will not be intelligently read unless it is well understood that the Christianity first to be transplanted to the soil of the New World was the Christianity of Spain--the Spain of Isabella and Ximenes, of Loyola and Francis Xavier and St. Theresa, the Spain also of Torquemada and St. Peter Arbues and the zealous and orthodox Duke of Alva.




[2:1] See the account of the Greenland church and its missions in Professor O'Gorman's "History of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States" (vol. ix. of the American Church History Series), pp. 3-12.

Source: A History of American Christianity chapter 1, by Leonard Woolsey Bacon etext available at the Project Gutenberg website