The origin of the Church of Rome, like the origin of the city, is buried in obscurity; and a very few facts constitute the whole amount of our information respecting it during the first century of its existence. About the time of Hyginus the twilight of history begins to dawn upon it. Guided by the glimmerings of intelligence thus supplied, we shall endeavour to illustrate tins dark passage in its annals. The following statements may contribute somewhat to the explanation of transactions which have hitherto been rarely noticed by modern ecclesiastical writers.
I. A change in the organization of the Church about the time of Hyginus, will account for the increase in the average length of the lives of the Roman bishops. [539:1] If the alteration, mentioned by Hilary, was now made in the mode of succession to the presidential chair, such a result must have followed. Under the new regime, the recommendation of large experience would still have much weight in the choice of a bishop, but he would frequently enter on his duties at a somewhat earlier age, and thus the ordinary duration of his official career would be considerably extended. [539:2]
II. The time of Hyginus exactly answers to the description of the period when, according to the testimony of Jerome, prelacy commenced. The heretics then exhibited extraordinary zeal, so that "parties in religion" were springing up all over the Empire. The Church of Rome is said to have hitherto escaped the contagion of false doctrine, [539:3] but now errorists from all quarters began to violate its purity and to disturb its peace. Valentine, Cerdo, Marcion, and Marcus appeared about this time in the Western capital. [540:1] Some of these men were noted for their genius and learning; and there is every reason to believe that they created no common ferment. They were assiduous in the dissemination of their principles, and several of them resorted to very extraordinary and unwarrantable expedients for strengthening their respective factions. An ancient writer represents them as conducting their adherents to water, and as baptizing them "in the name of the Unknown Father of the universe; in the Truth, the mother of all; and in Him who descended on Jesus." "Others again," says the same authority, "repeated Hebrew names to inspire the initiated with the greater awe." [540:2] These attempts at proselytism were not unsuccessful. Valentine, in particular, made many converts, and after his death, when Irenaeus wrote a refutation of his heresy, his disciples must still have been numerous. [540:3]
The account given by Jerome of the state of the Christian interest when it was deemed necessary to set up episcopacy, is not so completely supplemented by the condition of the Church at any other period. Never certainly did the brethren at Rome more require the services of a skilful and energetic leader, than when the Gnostic chiefs settled in the great metropolis. Never could it be said with so much truth of their community, in the language of the Latin father, that "every one reckoned those whom he baptized as belonging to himself and not to Christ;" [541:1] for, as we have just seen, some, when baptizing their disciples, used even new forms of initiation. Never, assuredly, had the advocates of expediency a better opportunity for pleading in favour of a decree ordaining that "one chosen from among the presbyters should be put over the rest, and that the whole care of the Church should be committed to him, that the seeds of schisms should be taken away." [541:2]
III. The testimony of Hilary, who was contemporary with Jerome, exactly accords with the views here promulgated as to the date of this occurrence. This writer, who was also a minister of the Roman Church, was obviously acquainted with a tradition that a change had taken place at an early period in the mode of ecclesiastical government. His evidence is all the more valuable as it contains internal proofs of derivation from an independent source; for, whilst it corroborates the statement of Jerome, it supplies fresh historical details. According to his account, "after that churches were erected in all places and offices established, an arrangement was adopted different from that which prevailed at the beginning." [541:3] By "the beginning" he understands the apostolic age, or the time when the New Testament was written. [541:4] He then goes on to say, in explanation, that it was found necessary to change the mode of appointing the chairman of the eldership, and that he was now promoted to the office by election, and not by seniority. [541:5] Whilst his language indicates distinctly that this alteration was made after the days of the apostles, it also implies a date not later than the second century; for, though it was "after the beginning," it was at a time when churches had been only recently "erected in all places, and offices established." The period of the spread of heresies at Rome, at the commencement of the reign of Antoninus Pius, and when Hyginus closed his career, answers these conditions.
IV. As Rome was the head-quarters of heathenism, it was also the place where the divisions of the Church must have proved most disastrous. There, the worship of the State was celebrated in all its magnificence; there, the Emperor, the Pontifex Maximus of the gods, surrounded by a splendid hierarchy of priests and augurs, presided at the great festivals; and there, thousands and tens of thousands, prompted by interest or by prejudice, were prepared to struggle for the maintenance of the ancient superstition. Already, the Church of Rome had often sustained the violence of persecution; but, notwithstanding the bloody trials it had undergone, it had continued steadily to gain strength; and a sagacious student of the signs of the times might even now have looked forward to the day when Christianity and paganism, on nearly equal terms, would be contending for mastery in the chief city of the Empire. But the proceedings of the heretics were calculated to dissipate all the visions of ecclesiastical ascendency. If the Roman Christians were split up into fragments by sectarianism, the Church, in one of its great centres of influence, would be incalculably injured. And yet, how could the crisis be averted? How could heresy be most effectually discountenanced? How could the unity of the Church be best maintained? In times of peril the Romans had formerly been wont to set up a Dictator, and to commit the whole power of the commonwealth to one trusty and vigorous ruler. During the latter days of the Republic, the State had been almost torn to pieces by contending factions; and now, under the sway of the Emperors, it enjoyed comparative repose. It seems to have occurred to the brethren at Rome that they should try the effects of a similar change in the ecclesiastical constitution. By committing the government of the Church, in this emergency, almost entirely into the hands of one able and resolute administrator, they, perhaps, hoped to contend successfully against the dangers by which they were now encompassed.
V. A recent calamity of a different character was calculated to abate the jealousy which such a proposition might have otherwise awakened. It appears that Telesphorus, the immediate predecessor of Hyginus, suffered a violent death. [543:1] Telesphorus is the first bishop of Rome whose title to martyrdom can be fairly established; and not one of his successors during the remainder of the second century forfeited his life for his religion. The death of the presiding pastor, as a victim to the intolerance of heathenism, must have thrown the whole Church into a state of confusion and perplexity; and when Hyginus was called upon to occupy the vacant chair, well might he enter upon its duties with deep anxiety. The appearance of heresy multiplied the difficulties of his office. It might now be asked with no small amount of plausibility -- Is the presiding presbyter to have no special privileges? If his mind is to be harassed continually by errorists, and if his life is to be imperilled in the service of the Church, should he not be distinguished above his brethren? Without some such encouragement will not the elders at length refuse to accept a situation which entails so much responsibility, and yet possesses so little influence? Such questions, urged under such circumstances, must have been felt to be perplexing.
VI. As there was now constant intercourse between the seat of government and all the provinces of the Empire, it would seem that the Church of the metropolis soon contrived to avail itself of the facilities of its position for keeping up a correspondence with the Churches of other countries. [544:1] In due time the results became apparent. Every event of interest which occurred in any quarter of the Christian world was known speedily in the capital; no important religious movement could be well expected to succeed without the concurrence and co-operation of the brethren at Rome; and its ministers gradually acquired such influence that they were able, to some extent, to control the public opinion of the whole ecclesiastical community. On this occasion they, perhaps, did not find it difficult to persuade their co-religionists to enter into their views. In Antioch, in Alexandria, in Ephesus, and elsewhere, as well as in Italy, the heretics had been displaying the most mischievous activity; [544:2] and it is not improbable that the remedy now proposed by the ruling spirits in the great city had already suggested itself to others. During the summer months vessels were trading to Rome from all the coasts of the Mediterranean, so that Christian deputies, without much inconvenience, could repair to head-quarters, and, in concert with the metropolitan presbyters, make arrangements for united action. If the champions of orthodoxy were nearly as zealous as the errorists, [544:3] they must have travelled much during these days of excitement. But had not the idea of increasing the power of the presiding pastor originated in Rome, or had it not been supported by the weighty sanction of the Church of the capital, it is not to be supposed that it would have been so readily and so extensively adopted by the Churches in other parts of the Empire.
VII. Though we know little of the early history of the Roman see, it would seem that, on the death of Hyginus, there was a vacancy of unusual length; and circumstances, which meanwhile took place, argue strongly in favour of the conclusion that, about this time, the change in the ecclesiastical constitution indicated by Jerome actually occurred. According to some, the interval between the death of Hyginus and the commencement of the episcopate of Pius, his immediate successor, was of several years' duration; [545:1] but it is clear that the chair must have been vacant for at least about a twelvemonth. [545:2] How are we to account for this interregnum? We know that subsequently, in the times of Decius and of Diocletian, there were vacancies of quite as long continuance; but then the Church was in the agonies of martyrdom, and the Roman Christians were prevented by the strong arm of imperial tyranny from filling up the bishopric. Now no such calamity appears to have threatened; and the commotions created by the heretics supply evidence that persecution was asleep. This long vacancy must be otherwise explained. If Hyginus had been invested with additional authority, and if he soon afterwards died, it is not to be wondered at that his removal was the signal for the renewal of agitation. Questions which, perhaps, had not hitherto been mooted, now arose. How was the vacant place to be supplied? Was the senior presbyter, no matter how ill adapted for the crisis, to be allowed to take quiet possession? If other influential Churches required to be consulted, some time would thus be occupied; so that delay in the appointment was unavoidable.
During this interval the spirit of faction was busily at work. The heretic Marcion sought admission into the Roman presbytery; [546:1] and Valentine, who appears to have been now recognized as an elder, [546:2] no doubt supported the application. The presbytery itself was probably divided, and there is good reason to believe that even Valentine had hopes of obtaining the presidential chair! His pretensions, at this period of his career, were sufficiently imposing. Though he may have been suspected of unsoundness in the faith, he had not yet committed himself by any public avowal of his errors; and as a man of literary accomplishment, address, energy, and eloquence, he had few compeers. No wonder, with so many disturbing elements in operation, that the see remained so long vacant.
Some would willingly deny that Valentine was a candidate for the episcopal chair of Rome, but the fact can be established by evidence the most direct and conclusive. Tertullian, who had lived in the imperial city, and who was well acquainted with its Church history, expressly states that "Valentine hoped for the bishopric, because he excelled in genius and eloquence, but indignant that another, who had the superior claim of a confessor, obtained the place, he deserted the Catholic Church" [546:3] The Carthaginian father does not, indeed, here name the see to which the heresiarch unsuccessfully aspired, but his words shut us up to the conclusion that he alluded to Rome. [546:4] And we can thus discover at least one reason why the history of this vacancy has been involved in so much mystery. In a few more generations the whole Church would have felt compromised by any reflection cast upon the orthodoxy of the great Western bishopric. [547:1] How sadly would many have been scandalized had it been proclaimed abroad that the arch-heretic Valentine had once hoped to occupy the chair of St Peter!
VIII. Two letters which are still extant, and which are supposed to have been addressed by Pius, the immediate successor of Hyginus, to Justus, bishop of Vienne in Gaul, supply corroborative evidence that the presiding pastor had recently obtained additional authority. Though the genuineness of these documents has been questioned, the objections urged against them have not been sufficient to prevent critics and antiquarians of all parties from appealing to their testimony. [547:2] It is not improbable that they are Latin translations from Greek originals, and we may thus account for a few words to be found in them which were introduced at a later period. [547:3] Their tone and spirit, which are entirely different from the spurious productions ascribed to the same age, plead strongly in their favour as trustworthy witnesses. The writer makes no lofty pretensions as a Roman bishop; he speaks of himself simply as at the head of an humble presbytery; and it would be difficult to divine the motive which could have tempted an impostor to fabricate such unpretending compositions. Though given as the veritable Epistles of Pius by the highest literary authorities of Borne, they are certainly ill calculated to prop up the cause of the Papacy. If their claims are admitted, they must be regarded as among the earliest authentic records in which the distinction between the terms bishop and presbyter is unequivocally recognized; and it is obvious that if alterations in the ecclesiastical constitution were made under Hyginus, they must have prepared the way for such a change in the terminology. In one of these Epistles Pius gives the following piece of advice to his correspondent: -- "Let the elders and deacons respect you, not as a greater, but as the servant of Christ." [548:1] This letter purports to have been written when its author anticipated the approach of death; and the individual to whom it is directed seems to have been just placed in the episcopal chair. Had Pius believed that Justus had a divine right to rule over the presbyters, would he have tendered such an admonition? A hundred years afterwards, Cyprian of Carthage, when addressing a young prelate, would certainly have expressed himself very differently. He would, probably, have complained of the presumption of the presbyters, have boasted of the majesty of the episcopate, and have exhorted the new bishop to remember his apostolical dignity. But, in the middle of the second century, such language would have been strangely out of place. Pius is writing to an individual, just entering on an office lately endowed with additional privileges, who could not yet afford to make an arbitrary use of his new authority. He, therefore, counsels him to moderation, and cautions him against presuming on his power. "Beware," says he, "in your intercourse with your presbyters and deacons, of insisting too much on the duty of obedience. Let them feel that your prerogative is not exercised capriciously, but for good and necessary purposes. Let the elders and deacons regard you, not so much in the light of a superior, as the servant of Christ."
In another portion of this letter a piece of intelligence is communicated, which, as coming from Pius, possesses peculiar interest. When the law was enacted altering the mode of succession to the presidency, it may be supposed that the proceeding was deemed somewhat ungracious towards those aged presbyters who might have soon expected, as a matter of right, to obtain possession of the seat of the moderator. The death of Telesphorus, the predecessor of Hyginus, as a martyr, was, indeed, calculated to abate an anxiety to secure the chair; for the whole Church was thus painfully reminded that it was a post of danger, as well as of dignity; but still, when, on the occurrence of the first vacancy, Pius was promoted over the heads of older men, he may, on this ground, have felt, to some extent, embarrassed by his elevation. We may infer, however, from this letter, that the few senior presbyters, with whose advancement the late arrangement interfered, did not long survive this crisis in the history of the Church; for the bishop of Rome here informs his Gallic brother of their demise. "Those presbyters," says he, "who were taught by the apostles, [549:1] and who have survived to our own days, with whom we have united in dispensing the word of faith, have now, in obedience to the call of the Lord, gone to their eternal rest." [550:1] Such a notice of the decease of these venerable colleagues is precisely what might have been expected, under the circumstances, in a letter from Pius to Justus.
IX. The use of the word bishop, as denoting the president of the presbytery, marks an era in the history of ecclesiastical polity. New terms are not coined without necessity; neither, without an adequate cause, is a new meaning annexed to an ancient designation. When the name bishop was first used as descriptive of the chief pastor, there must have been some special reason for such an application of the title; and the rise of the hierarchy furnishes the only satisfactory explanation.[550:2] If then we can ascertain when this new nomenclature first made its appearance, we can also fix the date of the origin of prelacy. Though the documentary proof available for the illustration of this subject is comparatively scanty, it is sufficient for our purpose; and it clearly shews that the presiding elder did not begin to be known by the title of bishop until about the middle of the second century. Polycarp, who seems to have written about that time,[550:3] still uses the terminology employed by the apostles. Justin Martyr, the earliest father who has left behind him memorials amounting in extent to anything like a volume, often speaks of the chief minister of the Church, and designates him, not the bishop, but the president. [551:1] His phraseology is all the more important as he lived for some time in Rome, and as he undoubtedly adopted the style of expression once current in the great city. But another writer, who was his contemporary, and who also resided in the capital, incidentally supplies evidence that the new title was then just coming into use. The author of the book called "Pastor," when referring to those who were at the head of the presbyteries, describes them as "THE BISHOPS, that is, THE PRESIDENTS OF THE CHURCHES." [551:2] The reason why he here deems it necessary to explain what he means by bishops cannot well be mistaken. The name, in its new application, was not yet familiar to the public ear; and it therefore required to be interpreted by the more ancient designation. Could we tell when this work of Hermas was written, we could also perhaps name the very year when the president of the eldership was first called bishop. [551:3] It is now pretty generally admitted that the author was no other than the brother of Pius of Rome, [551:4] the immediate successor of Hyginus, so that he wrote exactly at the time when, as appears from other evidences, the transition from presbytery to prelacy actually occurred. His words furnish a very strong, but an undesigned, attestation to the novelty of the episcopal regimen.
X. But, perhaps, the most pointed, and certainly the most remarkable testimony to the fact that a change took place in the constitution of the Roman Church in the time of Hyginus is furnished from a quarter where such a voucher might have been, least of all, anticipated. We allude to the Pontifical Book. This work has been ascribed to Damasus, the well-known bishop of the metropolis of the West, who flourished in the fourth century, but much of it is unquestionably of later origin; and though many of its statements are apocryphal, it is often quoted as a document of weight by the most distinguished writers of the Romish communion. [552:1] Its account of the early popes is little better than a mass of fables; but some of its details are evidently exaggerations, or rather caricatures, of an authentic tradition; and a few grains of truth may be discovered here and there in a heap of fictions and anachronisms. This part of the production contains one brief sentence which has greatly puzzled the commentators, [552:2] as it is strangely out of keeping with the general spirit of the narrative, and as it contradicts, rather awkwardly, the pretensions of the popedom. According to this testimony, Hyginus "ARRANGED THE CLERGY AND DISTRIBUTED THE GRADATIONS." [552:3] Peter himself is described by Romanists as organizing the Church; but here, one of his alleged successors, upwards of seventy years after his death, is set forth as the real framer of the hierarchy. [553:1] The facts already adduced prove that this obscure announcement rests upon a sound historical foundation, and that it vaguely indicates the alterations now introduced into the ecclesiastical constitution. If Hilary and Jerome be employed as its interpreters, the truth may be easily eliminated. At a synod held in Rome, Hyginus brought under the notice of the meeting the confusion and scandal created by the movements of the errorists; and, with a view to correct these disorders, the council agreed to invest the moderator of each presbytery with increased authority, to give him a discretionary power as the general superintendent of the Church, and to require the other elders, as well as the deacons, to act under his advice and direction. A new functionary was thus established, and, under the old name of bishop or overseer, a third order was virtually added to the ecclesiastical brotherhood. Hence Hyginus, who, no doubt, took a prominent part in the deliberations of the convocation, is said to have "arranged the clergy and distributed the gradations."
The change in the ecclesiastical polity which now occurred led to results equally extensive and permanent, and yet it has been but indistinctly noticed by the writers of antiquity. Nor is it so strange that we have no contemporary account of this ecclesiastical revolution. The history of other occurrences and innovations is buried in profound obscurity. We can only ascertain by inference what were the reasons which led to the general adoption of the sign of the cross, to the use of the chrism in baptism, to standing at the Lord's Supper, to the institution of lectors, acolyths, and sub-deacons, and to the establishment of metropolitans. Though the Paschal controversy agitated almost the whole Church towards the close of the second century, and though Tertullian wrote immediately afterwards, he does not once mention it in any of his numerous extant publications. [554:1] Owing to peculiar circumstances the rise of prelacy can be more minutely traced than that of, perhaps, any other of the alterations which were introduced during the first three centuries. At the time the change which it involved was probably considered not very important; but, as the remaining literary memorials of the period are few and scanty, the reception which it experienced can now only be conjectured. The alteration was adopted as an antidote against the growth of heresy, and thus originating in circumstances of a humiliating character, there would be little disposition, on the part of ecclesiastical writers, to dwell upon its details. Soon afterwards the pride of churchmen began to be developed; and it was then found convenient to forget that all things originally did not accord with existing arrangements, and that the hierarchy itself was but a human contrivance. Prelacy soon advanced apace, and every bishop had an interest in exalting "his order." It is only wonderful that so much truth has oozed out from witnesses so prejudiced, and that the Pontifical Book contains so decisive a deposition. And the momentous consequences of this apparently slight infringement upon the primitive polity cannot be overlooked. That very Church which, in its attempts to suppress heresy, first departed from divine arrangements, was soon involved in doctrinal error, and eventually became the great foster-mother of superstition and idolatry.
It may at first seem extraordinary that the ecclesiastical transformation was so rapidly accomplished; but, when the circumstances are more attentively considered, this view of the subject presents no real difficulty. At the outset, the principle now sanctioned produced very little alteration on the general aspect of the spiritual commonwealth. At this period a Church, in most places, consisted of a single congregation; and as one elder labouring in the word and doctrine was generally deemed sufficient to minister to the flock, only a slight modification took place in the constitution of such a society. The preaching elder, who was entitled by authority of Scripture [555:1] to take precedence of elders who only ruled, had always been permitted to act as moderator; but, on the ground of the new arrangement, the pastor probably began to assume an authority over his session which he had never hitherto ventured to exercise. In the beginning of the reign of Antoninus Pius the number of towns with several Christian congregations must have been but small; and if five or six leading cities approved of the system now inaugurated at Rome, its general adoption was thus secured. The statements of Jerome and Hilary attest that the matter was submitted to a synod; and the remarkable interregnum which followed the death of Hyginus can be best accounted for on the hypothesis that meanwhile the ministers of the great metropolis found it necessary to consult the rulers of other influential and distant Churches. If the measure had the sanction of these foreign brethren, they were of course prepared to resort to it at home on the demise of their presiding presbyter. Heretics were now disturbing the Church all over the Empire, so that the same arguments could be everywhere used in favour of the new polity. We find, too, that there was a vacancy in the presidential chair at Antioch about the time of the death of Hyginus; and that, in the course of the next year, a similar vacancy occurred at Alexandria. [555:2] If the three most important Churches then in Christendom, with the sanction of a very few others of less note, almost simultaneously adopted the new arrangement, the question was practically settled. There were probably not more than twenty cities to be found with more than one Christian congregation; and places of inferior consequence would speedily act upon the example of the large capitals. But unquestionably the system now introduced gradually effected a complete revolution in the state of the Church. The ablest man in the presbytery was commonly elevated to the chair, so that the weight of his talents, and of his general character, was added to his official consequence. The bishop soon became the grand centre of influence and authority, and arrogated to himself the principal share in the administration of all divine ordinances.
When this change commenced, the venerable Polycarp was still alive, and there are some grounds for believing that, when far advanced in life, he was induced to undertake a journey to Rome on a mission of remonstrance. This view is apparently corroborated by the fact that his own Church of Smyrna did not now adopt the new polity; for we have seen [556:1] that, upwards of a quarter of a century after his demise, it still continued under presbyterial government. Irenaeus was obviously well acquainted with the circumstances which occasioned this extraordinary visit of Polycarp to Rome; but had he not come into collision with the pastor of the great city in the controversy relating to the Paschal Feast, we might never have heard of its occurrence. Even when he mentions it, he observes a mysterious silence as to its main design. The Paschal question awakened little interest in the days of Polycarp, and among the topics which he discussed with Anicetus when at Rome, it confessedly occupied a subordinate position. [556:2] "When," says Irenaeus, "the most blessed Polycarp came to Rome in the days of Anicetus, and when as to certain other matters they had a little controversy, they were immediately agreed on this point (of the Passover) without any disputation." [557:1] What the "certain other matters" were which created the chief dissatisfaction, we are left obscurely to conjecture; but we may presume that they must have been of no ordinary consequence, when so eminent a minister as Polycarp, now verging on eighty years of age, felt it necessary to make a lengthened journey by sea and land with a view to their adjustment. He obviously considered that Anicetus was at least influentially connected with arrangements which he deemed objectionable; and he plainly felt that he could hope to obtain their modification or abandonment only by a personal conference with the Roman pastor. And intimations are not wanting that he was rather doubtful whether Anicetus would be disposed to treat with him as his ecclesiastical peer, for he seems to have been in some degree appeased when the bishop of the capital permitted him to preside in the Church at the celebration of the Eucharist. [557:2] This, certainly, was no extraordinary piece of condescension; as Polycarp, on various grounds, was entitled to take precedence of his Roman brother; [557:3] and the reception given to the "apostolic presbyter" was only what might have fairly been expected in the way of ministerial courtesy. [557:4] Why has it then been mentioned as an exhibition of the episcopal humility of Anicetus? Apparently because he had been previously making some arrogant assumptions. He had been, probably, presuming on his position as a pastor of the "new order," and his bearing had perhaps been so offensive that Polycarp had been commissioned to visit him on an errand of expostulation. But by prudently paying marked deference to the aged stranger; and, it may be, by giving a plausible account of some proceedings which had awakened anxiety; he appears to have succeeded in quieting his apprehensions. That the presiding minister of the Church of Smyrna was engaged in some such delicate mission is all but certain, as the design of the journey would not otherwise have been involved in so profound secrecy. The very fact of its occurrence is first noticed about forty years afterwards, when the haughty behaviour of another bishop of Rome provoked Irenaeus to call up certain unwelcome reminiscences which it must have suggested.
Though the journey of Polycarp betokens that he must have been deeply dissatisfied with something which was going forward in the great metropolis, we can only guess at its design and its results; and it is now impossible to ascertain whether the alterations introduced there encountered any very formidable opposition: but it is by no means improbable that they were effected without much difficulty. The disorders of the Church imperatively called for some strong remedy; and it perhaps occurred to not a few that a distracted presbytery, under the presidency of a feeble old man, was but ill fitted to meet the emergency. They would accordingly propose to strengthen the executive government by providing for the appointment of a more efficient moderator, and by arming him with additional authority. The people would be gratified by the change, for, though in Rome and some other great cities, where its effects would be felt most sensibly, they, no doubt, met before this time in separate congregations, yet they had still much united intercourse; and as, on such occasions, their edification depended mainly on the gifts of the chairman of the eldership, they would gladly join in advancing the best preacher in the presbytery to the office of president. At this particular crisis the alteration may not have been unacceptable to the elders themselves. To those of them who were in the decline of life, there was nothing very inviting in the prospect of occupying the most prominent position in a Church threatened by persecution and torn by divisions, so that they may have been not unwilling to waive any claim to the presidency which their seniority implied; whilst the more vigorous, sanguine, and aspiring, would hail an arrangement which promised at no distant day to place one of themselves in a position of greatly increased dignity and influence. Whilst all were agreed that the times demanded the appointment of the ablest member of presbytery as moderator, none, perhaps, foresaw the danger of adding permanently to the prerogatives of so potent a chairman. It was never anticipated that the day would come when the new law would be regarded as any other than a human contrivance; and when the bishops and their adherents would contend that the presbyters, under no circumstances whatever, had a right to reassume that power which they now surrendered. The result, however, has demonstrated the folly of human wisdom. The prelates, who were originally set up to save the Church from heresy, became themselves at length the abetters of false doctrine; and whilst they thus grievously abused the influence with which they were entrusted, they had the temerity to maintain that they still continued to be exclusively the fountains of spiritual authority.
It is not to be supposed that prelacy was set up at once in the plenitude of its power. Neither is it to be imagined that the system was simultaneously adopted by Christians all over the world. Jerome informs us that it was established "by little and little;" [559:1] and he thus apparently refers, as well to its gradual spread, as to the almost imperceptible growth of its pretensions. We have shewn, in a preceding chapter, [560:1] that in various cities, such as Smyrna, Caesarea, and Jerusalem, the senior presbyter continued to be the president until about the close of the second century; and there the Church seems to have been meanwhile governed by "the common council of the presbyters." [560:2] Evidence can be adduced to prove that, in many places, even at a much later period, the episcopal system was still unknown. [560:3] But its advocates were active and influential, and they continued to make steady progress. The consolidation of the Catholic system contributed vastly to its advancement. The leading features of this system must now be illustrated.