Providential Preparations For Th


The heroic discovery of America, at the close of the fifteenth century

after Christ, has compelled the generous and just admiration of the

world; but the grandeur of human enterprise and achievement in the

discovery of the western hemisphere has a less claim on our admiration

than that divine wisdom and controlling providenc
which, for reasons

now manifested, kept the secret hidden through so many millenniums, in

spite of continual chances of disclosure, until the fullness of time.

How near, to speak as a fool, the plans of God came to being defeated

by human enterprise is illustrated by unquestioned facts. The fact of

medieval exploration, colonization, and even evangelization in North

America seems now to have emerged from the region of fanciful conjecture

into that of history. That for four centuries, ending with the

fifteenth, the church of Iceland maintained its bishops and other

missionaries and built its churches and monasteries on the frozen coast

of Greenland is abundantly proved by documents and monuments. Dim but

seemingly unmistakable traces are now discovered of enterprises, not

only of exploration and trade, but also of evangelization, reaching

along the mainland southward to the shores of New England. There are

vague indications that these beginnings of Christian civilization were

extinguished, as in so many later instances, by savage massacre. With

impressive coincidence, the latest vestige of this primeval American

Christianity fades out in the very year of the discovery of America by


By a prodigy of divine providence, the secret of the ages had been kept

from premature disclosure during the centuries in which, without knowing

it, the Old World was actually in communication with the New. That was

high strategy in the warfare for the advancement of the kingdom of God

in the earth. What possibilities, even yet only beginning to be

accomplished, were thus saved to both hemispheres! If the discovery of

America had been achieved four centuries or even a single century

earlier, the Christianity to be transplanted to the western world would

have been that of the church of Europe at its lowest stage of decadence.

The period closing with the fifteenth century was that of the dense

darkness that goes before the dawn. It was a period in which the

lingering life of the church was chiefly manifested in feverish

complaints of the widespread corruption and outcries for reformation of

the church in head and members. The degeneracy of the clergy was

nowhere more manifest than in the monastic orders, that had been

originally established for the express purpose of reviving and purifying

the church. That ancient word was fulfilled, Like people, like priest.

But it was especially in the person of the foremost official

representative of the religion of Jesus Christ that that religion was

most dishonored. The fifteenth century was the era of the infamous

popes. By another coincidence which arrests the attention of the reader

of history, that same year of the discovery by Columbus witnessed the

accession of the most infamous of the series, the Borgia, Alexander VI.,

to his short and shameful pontificate.

Let it not be thought, as some of us might be prone to think, that the

timeliness of the discovery of the western hemisphere, in its relation

to church history, is summed up in this, that it coincided with the

Protestant Reformation, so that the New World might be planted with a

Protestant Christianity. For a hundred years the colonization and

evangelization of America were, in the narrowest sense of that large

word, Catholic, not Protestant. But the Catholicism brought hither was

that of the sixteenth century, not of the fifteenth. It is a most

one-sided reading of the history of that illustrious age which fails to

recognize that the great Reformation was a reformation of the church

as well as a reformation from the church. It was in Spain itself, in

which the corruption of the church had been foulest, but from which all

symptoms of heretical pravity were purged away with the fiercest zeal

as fast as they appeared,--in Spain under the reign of Ferdinand and

Isabella the Catholic,--that the demand for a Catholic reformation made

itself earliest and most effectually felt. The highest ecclesiastical

dignitary of the realm, Ximenes, confessor to the queen, Archbishop of

Toledo, and cardinal, was himself the leader of reform. No changes in

the rest of Christendom were destined for many years to have so great

an influence on the course of evangelization in North America as those

which affected the church of Spain; and of these by far the most

important in their bearing on the early course of Christianity in

America were, first, the purifying and quickening of the miserably

decayed and corrupted mendicant orders,--ever the most effective arm in

the missionary service of the Latin Church,--and, a little later, the

founding of the Society of Jesus, with its immense potency for good and

for evil. At the same time the court of Rome, sobered in some measure,

by the perilous crisis that confronted it, from its long orgy of simony,

nepotism, and sensuality, began to find time and thought for spiritual

duties. The establishment of the congregations or administrative

boards, and especially of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or board

of missions, dates chiefly from the sixteenth century. The revived

interest in theological study incident to the general spiritual

quickening gave the church, as the result of the labors of the Council

of Trent, a well-defined body of doctrine, which nevertheless was not so

narrowly defined as to preclude differences and debates among the

diverse sects of the clergy, by whose competitions and antagonisms the

progress of missions both in Christian and in heathen lands was destined

to be so seriously affected.

An incident of the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth

century--inevitable incident, doubtless, in that age, but none the less

deplorable--was the engendering or intensifying of that cruel and

ferocious form of fanaticism which is defined as the combination of

religious emotion with the malignant passions. The tendency to

fanaticism is one of the perils attendant on the deep stirring of

religious feeling at any time; it was especially attendant on the

religious agitations of that period; but most of all it was in Spain,

where, of all the Catholic nations, corruption had gone deepest and

spiritual revival was most earnest and sincere, that the manifestations

of fanaticism were most shocking. Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic

were distinguished alike by their piety and their part in the promotion

of civilization, and by the horrors of bloody cruelty perpetrated by

their authority and that of the church, at the instigation of the

sincere and devout reformer Ximenes. In the memorable year 1492 was

inaugurated the fiercest work of the Spanish Inquisition, concerning

which, speaking of her own part in it, the pious Isabella was able

afterward to say, For the love of Christ and of his virgin mother I

have caused great misery, and have depopulated towns and districts,

provinces and kingdoms.

The earlier pages of American church history will not be intelligently

read unless it is well understood that the Christianity first to be

transplanted to the soil of the New World was the Christianity of

Spain--the Spain of Isabella and Ximenes, of Loyola and Francis Xavier

and St. Theresa, the Spain also of Torquemada and St. Peter Arbues and

the zealous and orthodox Duke of Alva.