Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Altars of the Idols: Religion, Sacrifice, and the Early Modern Polity

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Altars of the Idols: Religion, Sacrifice, and the Early Modern Polity

Article excerpt

Christianity began by saying, not like that!1

-John Milbank

During the third century BCE, and facing the persecutions and forced conversions of the Roman emperor Decius, the future Saint Cyprian admonished the faint-hearted with this story:

Listen to what happened to my presence, before my very eyes. There was a baby girl, whose parents had fled and had, in their fear, rather improvidently left her behind in the care of a nurse. The nurse took the orphaned child to the magistrates before the idol. . . . Because it was too young to eat the flesh, they gave it some bread dipped in ... the wine offered by those who had already doomed themselves. Later, the mother recovered her child ... [and] brought her in with her while we were offering the Sacrifice . . . [but] when . . . the Deacon began ministering to those present, when its turn came to receive, it turned its little head away . . . , it closed its mouth, held its lips tight, and refused to drink from the chalice. The deacon persisted and . . . poured in some of the consecrated chalice. There followed choking and vomiting. The Eucharist could not remain in a body or mouth that was ...:. defiled; the drink which had been sanctified by the Lord's blood returned from the polluted stomach.2

Cyprian's De lapsis excoriated Decius and the pseudo-Christians-the sacrificati-who received "certificates" exempting them from persecution by worshiping at "that altar of the devil," and then later knocked at the door of their church, hoping for readmission. Even their bodies rejected reconciliation, Cyprian declared. Any participation in pagan rites excluded the sacrificati from the care of God and His church. Whether the lapsed believed was immaterial, since the very certificate was "a confession . . . that the Christian has renounced what he once was."' The innocent babe in arms was convicted as firmly as the most treasonous of the flock.

Decius's persecutions concerned few early modern scholars and antiquarians. But they did appear in one surprising spot, in a tale recounted by the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison, in his 1678 Of Idolatry. The story concerned a group of hapless English sailors in the far north of Canada. Bent on trade with the locals, the English "allured" the natives "by friendly embracings and signs of curtesy." The natives' response was peculiar. After watching the English, "one of them pointing up to the sun with his hand, would presently strike his breast so hard, that we might hear the blow. This he did many times. . . ." The English soon got the message, and the shipmaster then "stroked his breast and pointed to the sun after their order." This clever trick brought the natives to the bartering table and the English merchants soon collected their new canoes, skins, and wool. At the end of the day, the shipmaster-was pleased: the natives were "a very tractable people, void of craft or double dealing, and easy to be brought to any civility ... but we judge them to be Idolaters and to worship the Sun."4

Tenison was less pleased. His anger was directed not at the natives, however, but at the English, who gained their loot "at the expence of the most valuable thing, the Honour of God":

This Communion [of God's Church] he, in effect, renounceth, who pretending to the heart of a Christian, hath the tongue of a Biasphemer, or the gesture of an Idolater: who, whatsoever secret thoughts he entertaineth concerning God, saith openly of him, that he is not Supreme: or, what inward hatred soever he conceiveth against Idols, sitteth in their Temples and eateth of their Sacrifice.5

These modern-day sacrificati, the English traders, worshiped false gods and ate the bloody bread of the pagans in the name of utility. For Tenison, idolatry and sacrifice were not crimes of belief, but crimes of practice. No matter how much you love God and hate the idols, even the imitation of pagan worship breaks the ties that bind you to God. …

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