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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Early Christian Sects

Richard B. Cook

Taken from The Story of the Baptists, 1887

In the next place consider the various bodies of Christians who arose between the age of the apostles and that of the Reformation. Many of them, who, during those times, were stamped as heretics, were noble reformers who sought to resist the progress of apostasy and tried to bring the church back to the simplicity and purity of the Scriptures, or failing in this they separated from that church which had finally become hopelessly corrupt, and established churches of their own, after the gospel pattern.

These Christian people furnished the material for the rack, the dungeon, and the stake, during those dark days in which the apostate church took up the bloody sword of persecution, which had been wrenched from the cruel hand of Paganism. Some of these early sects held the divine truths which now characterize us as Baptists. They were not free from error. Some of them had their features greatly marred, but yet, in many respects, they bear a striking resemblance to the Baptists of our day.

They exalted the Scriptures above tradition and church authority; held to the doctrine that the church should be composed only of regenerate persons; believed that Christ is the only Head of the church; baptized believers only; rejected infant baptism; considered immersion as the baptism of the New Testament; and denounced the union of church and state.

Immersion was not the distinguishing principle of the true churches of those early times, for all the early churches practiced immersion; nor is it the most important doctrine of the Baptists of the present day. None of the early sects are to be claimed as Baptists, except those who held baptism as an ordinance binding on all believers and refusing it to all others.

The first of these early Christian sects, of which we have any distinct account, is the Montanists. They arose about the year 150 A. D., in Phrygia, and continued for five centuries. They were numerous in different parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. They looked upon themselves, alone, as the genuine Christians.

According to Neander, Tertullian is called "the Montanist," and is said to have belonged to that sect. He is described not only as a zealous opponent of infant baptism, but as one who could not imagine any efficacy of baptism without the conscious participation of the person baptized and his own individual faith.

The Novatians next invite our attention. They derived their origin as well as their name from Novatian of Rome, who lived about the middle of the third century, A. D. 250. He was a man of superior talents, of great excellence of character, and became a bold reformer. He was called the first Anti-pope, and the author of Puritanism, yet we know that Tertullian had quitted the church nearly fifty years before, for the same reason. He and his friends set themselves to work to reform the abuses of the church, but finding their efforts unsuccessful, they separated themselves and organized a new party. They grew rapidly in numbers and strength, and Novatian churches were formed all over the Roman Empire. They were the Puritans of their day, because they contended for a pure church; that is, a church composed only of converted persons.

Neander says that they regarded "purity and holiness as the essential marks of a true church."

And Mosheim; "They consider the Christian Church as a society where virtue and innocence reigned universally."

They flourished for about 300 years, and then, probably, became absorbed into other sects holding the same principles, but bearing different names.

The Donatists and Novatians very nearly resembled each other in doctrine and discipline, and indeed were charged by Crispin, a French historian, with holding, in common, the following things:

First. For purity of church members, by asserting that no one ought to be admitted into the church but such as are, visibly, true believers and true saints.

Secondly. For purity of church discipline.

Thirdly. For the independency of each church; and,

Fourthly. They baptized, again, those whose first baptism they had reason to doubt.

They were, consequently, termed rebaptizers and Anabaptists.

The Donatists arose about fifty years later than the Novatians, and continued for many centuries until absorbed into other churches, and lost under other names. They multiplied rapidly in Africa, in the northern part of which, at that time, there were civilized nations; and nearly equaled in number the so-called Catholic Church. Orchard describes them as correct in morals, simple in spiritual worship, scriptural in faith and practice. They were professed Anabaptists.

Some of them were distinguished for great learning and talents. One of their peculiar principles was the separation of church and state. When they were called upon to unite with the Catholic Church, and to submit the difference between them and their opponents, to the Roman emperor, they asked, "What has the emperor to do with the church?" "What have we Christians to do with kings, or what have bishops to do at courts?"

At times they were greatly reduced by fierce and bloody persecutions, waged against them by Mitre and Crown. A law was enacted that the person rebaptizing, and the person rebaptized, should be punished with death, in consequence of which, hundreds of bishops, and thousands of inferior clergy, were deprived of churches, while rights of citizenship and the exercise of religious worship were taken from them.

Benedict truthfully says; "For a thousand years after the rise of the Donatists, we find them spread along in all parts of Europe, under different names, but recognized by friends and foes, as substantially the same people, and in the middle of the seventeenth century, Fuller, the English ecclesiastical historian, says of the English Baptists, that they were Donatists, new dipped."

Before the Donatist name disappears from the page of history, another large and important sect makes its appearance, called the Paulicians, probably because they gave such prominence to the writings of Paul. About the year 653, Constantine, a young man living in an obscure town in Armenia, received from a traveling stranger, returning from captivity in Syria, whom he had entertained as a guest, the gift of two manuscripts, which were the four Gospels, and the Epistles of Paul.

This rare and costly treasure, was highly prized by Constantine, who studied it with great diligence, especially the letters of Paul. Being a man of talent, he taught others the truths which he drew from this pure fountain, and gathered a church founded on New Testament principles. But at length he was arrested by an officer of the Greek emperor, Simon by name, and the members of his church were offered pardon on condition that they would stone their pastor to death. They stood by silent; silent with horror at the thought of such an act, when an apostate among them, called Justus, like another Judas, became the bloody-handed executioner of his spiritual friend and guide. But the seed had been sown broadcast, and Paulician churches became very numerous, and existed for a long time, notwithstanding the efforts made to exterminate them.

One of the most distinguished Paulicians was Sergius, a young man of intelligence and education, but without religion, until met by a Paulician woman, in 810, who recommended to him the reading of Paul's writings. He, with others, deemed the reading of the Holy Scriptures not lawful for a layman, but only for the priests. Being convinced by her that he was mistaken, he applied himself to the reading, was converted and spent thirty-four years in preaching the gospel. He traveled all over Western Asia, calling upon the people to abandon a corrupt church and turn to the spiritual worship of God.

Multitudes were converted, and to stop the spread of God's work, the severest measures were used. In the reign of Theodore, over one hundred thousand were put to death. Nevertheless, untiring in their zeal, they penetrated into the very heart of Europe with the Word.