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The Forgotten Literature of Early Christianity
  • Beauty
  • Early Christianity
  • Literature
Timothy Bartel

In the 1830s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a rookie professor at the relatively small Bowdoin College in Maine. Longfellow had not yet made a name for himself as one of the most important poets of the American nineteenth century. He was still merely a young teacher with an ambitious goal: to impart to his undergraduate students a winsome vision of literary history. He wanted to inspire in his students the a lifelong love of those books and authors that did the most to invent and establish modern European culture and literature. In Longfellow's Bowdoin lectures, we might expect him to hold up the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome as the key foundation stones of this vision and historical development. But as much as Longfellow appreciated the classical world, we find him saying this instead:

"The eloquence of the Christian fathers flowed from a purer fountain than the streams of classic poetry... bright with the glories of revelation and radiant with a more than earthly splendor." ("The Literary History of the Middle Ages") 

For Longfellow, it is not just that the Church Fathers wrote about more important topics than the pagan writers of the classical era, nor that they were more correct about those matters that are "more than earthly." It is also that the "eloquence" of the early Christian writers was itself superior to that of "classic poetry." 

Sadly, even in classical Christian education, we do not always see Longfellow's principle borne out in curriculum. We may say that the early Christian writers are important - that early Church history is important - but we often spend our time in Great Texts classes on every era except for that of the early Church. Too often we find classical literature curricula that moves from Homer and Virgil to Beowulf and Dante with little-to-nothing in between. Sometimes, if we want to be especially challenging to our students, we spare a little time for Augustine or Eusebius, but that is all. 

But if we are to take Longfellow seriously, this will not do. Let us look at how Longfellow backed up his stated principle with a curriculum to match it. We know from Longfellow's lectures that he introduced his literature students to a wide array of Christian authors from the 2nd through 6th centuries, including Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Marcus Minutius Felix, Cyprian of Carthage, Origen, Arnobius, Lactantius, John Chrysostom, Vincent of Lerins, and Boethius. 

Though we might expect Longfellow to focus on poetry primarily, he is more interested in the rhetorical qualities of most of these writers. Lactantius wrote poetry, but Longfellow focuses on the power of his prose writings on Christian doctrine. Longfellow is also fascinated by the socratic dialogue form which is employed by the early Christian writers who reimagined the dialogue form as a vehicle for Christian apologetics against paganism. The exception to this focus on prose is Longfellow's treatment of Boethius, whose poems - and their influence on Anglo-Saxon literature - are his primary concern. But whether poetry or prose, Longfellow took the early Christian writers very seriously and designed his curriculum so that students who came to his classes to study literature came away with an appreciation for them and their foundational role in the history of world literature. 

At Saint Constantine College, we seek to make sure that early Christian literature - both prose and poetry - is given a robust place in our curriculum, both in general education, and in our Orthodox Christian Studies major. BeowulfThe Divine ComedyBrothers Karamazov: these texts were made possible by the writings of the early Church, by the Christian men and women who first put pen to paper and crafted from a Christian imagination those first sermons, hymns, stories, and plays that adorned the world with that new and higher "radiance" of which Longfellow wrote. We must not forget these writers, nor their works. We are indebted to them, and to read, study, and converse with them is good work indeed.