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The first great moral force, after martyrdom, which aroused the degenerate people of the old Roman world from the torpor and egotism and sensuality which were preparing the way for violence and ruin, was the Christian pulpit. Sacred eloquence, then, as impersonated in Chrysostom, “the golden-mouthed,” will be the subject of this Lecture, for it was by the “foolishness of preaching” that a new spiritual influence went forth to save a dying world. Chrysostom was not, indeed, the first great preacher of the new doctrines which were destined to win such mighty triumphs, but he was the most distinguished of the pulpit orators of the early Church. Yet even he is buried in his magnificent cause. Who can estimate the influence of the pulpit for fifteen hundred years in the various countries of Christendom? Who can grasp the range of its subjects and the dignity of its appeals? In ages even of ignorance and superstition it has been eloquent with themes of redemption and of a glorious immortality.
Eloquence has ever been admired and honored among all nations, especially among the Greeks. It was the handmaid of music and poetry when the divinity of mind was adored—perhaps with Pagan instincts, but still adored—as a birthright of genius, upon which no material estimate could be placed, since it came from the Gods, like physical beauty, and could neither be bought nor acquired. Long before Christianity declared its inspiring themes and brought peace and hope to oppressed millions, eloquence was a mighty power. But then it was secular and mundane; it pertained to the political and social aspects of States; it belonged to the Forum or the Senate; it was employed to save culprits, to kindle patriotic devotion, or to stimulate the sentiments of freedom and public virtue. Eloquence certainly did not belong to the priest. It was his province to propitiate the Deity with sacrifices, to surround himself with mysteries, to inspire awe by dazzling rites and emblems, to work on the imagination by symbols, splendid dresses, smoking incense, slaughtered beasts, grand temples. He was a man to conjure, not to fascinate; to kindle superstitious fears, not to inspire by thoughts which burn. The gift of tongues was reserved for rhetoricians, politicians, lawyers, and Sophists.
Now Christianity at once seized and appropriated the arts of eloquence as a means of spreading divine truth. Christianity ever has made use of all the arts and gifts and inventions of men to carry out the concealed purposes of the Deity. It was not intended that Christianity should always work by miracles, but also by appeals to the reason and conscience of mankind, and through the truths which had been supernaturally declared,—the required means to accomplish an end. Therefore, she enriched and dignified