Cyprian, Thascius Cæcilius

, a principal father of the Christian church, was born at Carthage in Africa, about the beginning of the third century. We know nothing more of his parents, than that they were heathens; and he himself continued such till the last twelve years of his life. He applied himself early to the study of oratory; and some of the ancients, Lactantius in particular, informs us, that he taught rhetoric at Carthage with the highest applause. Tertullian was his master; and Cyprian was so fond of reading him, that, as St. Jerome tells us, seldom a clay passed without his saying to his amanuensis, “Da magistrum,” Give me my master. Cyprian, however, far excelled Tertullian as a writer.

In the year 246 Cyprian was prevailed on to embrace Christianity, at Carthage, by Cæcilius, a priest of that church, whose name Cyprian afterwards took; and between whom there ever after subsisted so close a friendship, that Csecilius at his death committed to Cyprian the care of his family. Cyprian was also a married man himself; but as soon as he became a Christian, he resolved upon a state of continence, which was thought a high degree of piety, as being yet not become general. This we learn from his deacon Pontius, who has left us memoirs of his life, which are prefixed to his works, but are not so ample in information as might have been expected from one who knew him so well. It was now incumbent upon | him to give the usual proof of the sincerity of his conversion, by writing against paganism, and in defence of Christianity. With this view he composed his piece “De gratia Dei, or, concerning the grace of God,” which he addressed to Donatus. It is a work of the same nature with the Apologetic of Tertullian, and the Octavius of Minutius Felix; and it is remarkable, that Cyprian has not only insisted upon the same arguments with those writers, but frequently transcribed their words, those of Minutius Felix especially. In the year 247, the year after his conversion, he composed another piece upon the subject, entitled “De idolorum vanitate, or, upon the vanity of idols” in which he has taken the same liberties with Tertulliau and Minutius Felix. His Oxford editor, bishop Fell, endeavours to excuse him from the charge of plagiarism upon this occasion; because, says he, having the same points to treat as all the apologists had before, namely, the truth and excellency of Christianity, and the falsehood and vanity of heathenism, he could not well avoid making use of the. same topics.

Cyprian’s behaviour, both before and after his baptism, was so highly pleasing to the bishop of Carthage, that he ordained him priest a few months after, although it was rather irregular to ordain any person in his noviciate: But Cyprian was so extraordinary a person, and thought capable of doing such singular service to the church, that it might seem allowable in his case to dispense a little with the form and discipline of it. Besides his known talents as a man of learning, he had acquired a high reputation of sanctity since his conversion; having not only separated himself from his wife, which in those days was thought an extraordinary act of piety, but also consigned over all his goods to the poor, and given himself up entirely to the things of God; and on this account, when the bishop of Carthage died the year after, that is, in the year 248, none was judged so proper to succeed him as Cyprian. Cyprian himself, as Pontius tells us, was extremely against it, and kept out of the way on purpose to avoid being chosen; but the people insisted upon it, and he was forced to comply. The quiet and repose which the Christians had enjoyed for the last forty years, had, it seems, greatly corrupted their manners; and therefore Cyprian’s first care, after his advancement to the bishopric, was to correct disorders and reform abuses. Luxury was prevalent among | them; and many of their women were remarkable indecorous in the article of dress. This occasioned him to draw up his piece, “De habitu virginum, or, concerning the dress of young women;” in which, besides what he says on that particular head, he inculcates many lessons of modesty and sobriety.

In the year 249, the emperor Decius began to issue out very severe edicts against the Christians, which particularly affected those living upon the coasts of Africa; and in the beginning of the year 250, the heathens, in the circus and amphitheatre at Carthage, loudly insisted upon Cyprian’s being thrown to the lions: a common method, as is well known, of destroying the primitive Christians. Cyprian upon this withdrew from his church at Carthage, and fled into retirement, to avoid the fury of the persecution; which step, how justifiable soever in itself, gave great scandal, and seems to have been considered by the clergy of Rome, in a public letter written upon the subject of it to the clergy of Carthage, as a desertion of his post and pastoral duty. It is no wonder, therefore, to find Cyprian himself, as well as his apologist, Pontius, the writer of his life, so solicitous to excuse it; which they both endeavour to do by affirming, in the true spirit of the times, “that he was commanded to retire by a special revelation from heaven; and that his flight was not the effect of any other fear but that of offending God.” It is remarkable, that this father was a great pretender to visions. For instance, in a letter to Caecilius, he declares, “that he had received a divine admonition, to mix water with wine in the sacrament of the eucharist, in order to render it effectual.” In another to the clergy, concerning certain priests, who had restored some lapsed Christians too hastily to the communion of the church, he threatens them to execute “what he was ordered to do against them, in a vision, if they did not desist.” He makes the same threat to one Pupianus, who had spoken ill of him, and withdrawn himself from his communion. In a letter likewise to the clergy and the people, he tells them, “how he had been admonished and directed by God to ordain one Numidicus a priest.” Dodwell, in his “Dissertationes Cyprianicae,” has made a large collection of these visions of Cyprian, which he treats with more reverence than they seem to deserve.

As soon as Cyprian had withdrawn himself, he was | proscribed by name, and his goods confiscated. He lay concealed, but not inactive; for he continued to write from time to time to the clergy and to the laity such letters as their unhappy situation and occasions required. He exhorted the clergy to take care of the discipline of the church, of the poor, and especially of those who suffered for the gospel; and he gave them particular directions upon each of these heads. He exhorted the people to be of good courage, to stand fast in the faith, and to persevere against all the terrors of persecution even unto death; assuring them, in the words of the apostle, that the present “afflictions, which were but for a moment, would work for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” When the persecution ceased, either in 251 or 252, Cyprian returned to Carthage, and appeared again at the head of his clergy. He had now much business upon his hands, which was occasioned in his absence, partly by the persecution, and the disorders attending it, and partly by divisions which had arisen among the Christians. The first thing that presented itself was the case of the lapsed, or those unhappy members of the church who had not been able to stand the fiery trial of persecution, but had been drawn by the terrors of it to renounce Christ, and sacrifice to idols; and for the settling of this, he immediately called a council at Carthage. The year after, he called another council, to sit upon the baptism of infants; and, in 255, a third, to debate concerning baptism received from heretics, which was there determined to be void and of no effect. All these points had produced great disputes and disturbances; and as to the last, namely, heretical baptism, it was so far from being fixed at Carthage to the satisfaction of the church, that Stephen, the bishop of Rome, and a great part of the Christian world, afterwards opposed it with the utmost violence.

These divisions and tumults among the Christians raised a second persecution against them, in 257, under the emperor Valerian. Cyprian was summoned to appear before Paternus, the proconsul of Carthage, by whom, after he had confessed himself a Christian, and refused to sacrifice to idols, he was condemned to be banished. He was sent to Curebis, a little town fifty miles from Carthage, situated by the sea, over against Sicily: and here Pontius says he had another vision, admonishing him of his death, which was to happen the year after, When he had | continued in tins place, where he was treated with kindness by the natives, and frequently visited by the Christians, for eleven months, Galerius Maximus, a new proconsul, who had succeeded Aspasius, recalled him. from his exile, and ordered him publicly to appear at Carthage. Galerius, however, being retired to Utica, and Cyprian having intimation that he was to be carried 1 thither, the latter absconded, and, when soldiers were sent to apprehend him, was not to be found. Cyprian excuses this conduct in a letter, by saying, that “it was not the fear of death which made him conceal himself, but that he thought it became a bishop to die upon the spot, and in sight of that flock over which he presided.” Accordingly, when the proconsul returned to Carthage, Cyprian came forth, and presented himself to the guards, who were commissioned and ready to seize him. He was carried to the proconsul, who ordered him to be brought again on the morrow. Cyprian being introduced, the proconsul put several questions to him, which he replying to with unchangeable fortitude, the former pronounced upon him the sentence of death; to which the martyr answered, “God be praised 1” He was then led away to the place of execution, where he suffered with great firmness and constancy; after he had been bishop of Carthage ten years, and a Christian not more than twelve. He died Sept. 14, 258.

The works of this father and confessor have been often printed. The first edition of any note was that of Rigaltius, printed at Paris in 1648; afterwards in 1666, with very great additions. This edition of Rigaltius was considerably improved by Fell, bishop of Oxford; at which place it was handsomely printed in 1682, with the “Annales Cyprianici” of bishop Pearson prefixed. Fell’s edition was reprinted at Amsterdam in 1700; after which a Benedictine monk published another edition of this father at Paris in 1727. The works of Cyprian have been translated into English by Dr. Marshal in 1717; for this reason chiefly, that of all the fathers none are capable of being so usefully quoted, in supporting the doctrines and discipline of our church, as he. His letters are particularly valuable, as they not only afford more particulars of his life than Pontius has given, but are a valuable treasure of ecclesiastical history. The spirit, taste, discipline, and habits of the times, among Christians, are strongly delineated; nor have we in all the third century any account. | to be compared with them. In his general style, he is the most eloquent and perspicuous of all the Latin fathers. 1

1

Cave.—Dupin.—Lardner.—Mosheim; but chiefly Milner’s Eccl. History, vol. I. 369, et seq.