CHAPTER XXVIII, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

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THEY met in private rooms or small chapels, and organized themselves on the model of the synagogue. Each congregation was called an ekklesia – the Greek term for the popular assembly in municipal governments. Slaves were welcomed, as in the Isiac and Mithraic cults; no attempt was made to liberate them, but they were comforted by the promise of a Kingdom in which all could be free. The early converts were predominantly proletarian, with a sprinkling of the lower middle classes and an occasional conquest among the rich. Nevertheless, they were far from being the “dregs of the people,” as Celsus would claim; they lived for the most part orderly and industrious lives, financed missions, and raised funds for impoverished Christian communities. Little effort was made as yet to win over the rural population; these came in last, and it was in this strange way that their name pagani (villagers, peasants) came to be applied to the pre-Christian inhabitants of the Mediterranean states.

Women were admitted to the congregations, and rose to some prominence in minor roles; but the Church required them to shame the heathen by lives of modest submission and retirement. They were bidden to come to worship veiled, for their hair was considered especially seductive, and even angels might be distracted by it during the service; Saint Jerome thought it should be entirely cut off. Christian women were also to avoid cosmetics and jewelry, and particularly false hair; for the blessing of the priest, falling upon dead hair from another head, would hardly know which head to bless. Paul had instructed his communities sternly:

Women should keep quiet in church. They must take a subordinate place. If they want to find out anything they should ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church…. A man ought not to wear anything on his head in church, for he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory, while woman is a reflection of man’s glory. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man. That is why she ought to wear upon her head something to symbolize her subjection.

This was the Judaic and Greek view of woman, not the Roman; perhaps it represented a reaction against the license into which some women had debased their growing liberty. We may believe, from these very fulminations, that despite the lack of jewels and scents, and with the help of veils, Christian women succeeded in being attractive, and exercised their ancient powers in their subtle ways. For unmarried or widowed women the Church found many useful tasks. They were organized as “sisters,” performed works of administration or charity, and created in time the divers orders of those nuns whose cheerful kindliness is the noblest embodiment of Christianity. Lucian, about 160, described “those imbeciles,” the Christians, as “disdaining things terrestrial, and holding these as belonging to all in common.” A generation later Tertullian declared that “we” (Christians) “have all things in common except our wives,” and added, with his characteristic bite: “at that point we dissolve our partnership, precisely where the rest of men make it effective.” We should not take these statements literally; as another passage in Tertullian suggests, this communism meant merely that each Christian would contribute according to his means to the congregation’s common fund. The expectation of an early end to the existing order of things doubtless facilitated giving; the richer members may have been persuaded that they must not let the Last Judgment surprise them in the arms of Mammon. Some early Christians agreed with the Essenes that the prosperous man who does not share his surplus is a thief. James, “brother of the Lord,” attacked wealth with words of revolutionary bitterness:

Come, now, you rich people, weep aloud and howl over the miseries that shall overtake you! Your wealth has rotted, your clothes are moth-eaten, your gold and silver are rusted… and their rust will eat into your very flesh, for you have stored up fire for the last days. The wages you have withheld from the laborers who have reaped your harvests cry aloud, and their cries have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts…. Has not God chosen the world’s poor to possess the Kingdom?