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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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In the Roman church, the remains of the bodies or clothes of saints or martyrs, and the instruments by which they were put to death, devoutly preserved, in honour to their memory; kissed, revered, and carried in procession. The respect which was justly due to the martyrs and teachers of the Christian faith, in a few ages, increased almost to adoration; and at length adoration was really paid both to departed saints, and to relics of holy men or holy things. The abuses of the church of Rome with respect to relics, are very flagrant and notorious; for such was the rage for them at one time, that, as F. Mabillon, a Benedictine, justly complains, the altars were loaded with suspected relics; numerous spurious ones being every were offered to the piety and devotion of the faithful. He adds, too, that bones are often consecrated, which, so far from belonging to saints, probably do not belong to Christians. From the catacombs numerous relics have been taken, and yet it is not known who were the persons interred therein. In the eleventh century, relics were tried by fire, and those which did not consume were reckoned genuine, and the rest not.

Relics were, and still are, preserved on the altars whereon mass is celebrated; a square hole being made in the middle of the altar big enough to receive the hand; and herein is the relic deposited, being first wrapped in red silk, and enclosed in a leaden box. The Romanists plead antiquity in behalf of relics; for the Manichees, out of hatred to the flesh, which they considered as an evil principle, refused to honour the relics of saints; which is reckoned a kind of proof that the Catholics did it in the first ages. We know, indeed, that the touching of linen clothes, or relics, from an opinion of some extraordinary virtue derived therefrom, was as ancient as the first ages, there being a hole made in the coffins of the forty martyrs at Constantinople expressly for that purpose. The honouring the relics of saints, on which the church of Rome afterwards founded her superstitious and lucrative use of them, as objects of devotion, as a kind of charms, or amulets, and as instruments of pretended miracles, appears to have originated in a very ancient custom that prevailed among Christians, of assembling at the cemeteries or burying places of the martyrs, for the purpose of commemorating them, and of performing divine worship. When the profession of Christianity obtained the protection of civil government, under Constantine the Great, stately churches were erected over sepulchres, and their names and memories were treated with every possible token of affection and respect.

This reverence, however, gradually exceeded all reasonable bounds; and those prayers and religious services were thought to have a peculiar sanctity and virtue which were performed over their tombs: hence the practice which afterwards obtained of depositing relics of saints and martyrs under the altars in all churches. This practice was then thought of such importance, that St. Ambrose would not consecrate a church because it had no relics; and the council of Constantinople in Trullo ordained, that those altars should be demolished under which there were found no relics. The rage of procuring relics for this and other purposes of a similar nature became so excessive, that in 386, the emperor Theodosius the Great was obliged to pass a law, forbidding the people to dig up the bodies of the martyrs, and to traffic in their relics. Such was the origin of that respect for sacred relics, which afterwards was perverted into a formal worship of them, and became the occasion of innumerable processions, pilgrimages, and miracles, from which the church of Rome hath derived incredible advantage. In the end of the ninth century it was not sufficient to reverence departed saints, and to confide in their intercessions and succours; to clothe them with an imaginary power of healing diseases, working miracles, and delivering from all sorts of calamities and dangers; their bones, their clothes, the apparel and furniture they had possessed during their lives, the very ground which they had touched, or in which their putrefied carcasses were laid, were treated with a stupid veneration, and supposed to retain the marvellous virtue of healing all disorders, both of body and mind, and of defending such as possessed them against all the assaults and devices of the devil.

The consequence of all this was, that every one was eager to provide himself with these salutary remedies; consequently great numbers undertook fatiguing and perilous voyages, and subjected themselves to all sorts of hardships; while others made use of this delusion to accumulate their riches, and to impose upon the miserable multitude by the most impious and shocking inventions. As the demand for relics was prodigious and universal, the clergy employed the utmost dexterity to satisfy all demands, and were far from being nice in the methods they used for that end. The bodies of the saints were sought by fasting and prayer, instituted by the priest, in order to obtain a divine answer, and an infallible direction; and this pretended direction never failed to accomplish their desires: the holy carcass was always found, and that always in consequence, as they impiously gave out, of the suggestion and inspiration of God himself. Each discovery of this kind was attended with excessive demonstrations of joy, and animated the zeal of these devout seekers to enrich the church still more and more with this new kind of treasure. Many travelled with this view into the eastern provinces, and frequented the places which Christ and his disciples had honoured with their presence; that with the bones and other sacred remains of the first heralds of the Gospel, they might comfort dejected minds, calm trembling consciences, save sinking states, and defend their inhabitants from all sorts of calamities.

Nor did these pious travellers return home empty: the craft, dexterity, and knavery of the Greeks, found a rich prey in the stupid credulity of the Latin relic-hunters, and made a profitable commerce of this new devotion. The latter paid considerable sums for legs and arms, skulls, and jaw-bones (several of which were Pagan, and some not human, ) and other things that were supposed to have belonged to the primitive worthies of the Christian church; and thus the Latin churches came to the possession of those celebrated relics of St. Mark, St. James, St. Bartholomew, Cyprian, Pantaleon, and others, which they show at this day with so much ostentation. But there were many, who, unable to procute for themselves these spiritual treasures by voyages and prayers, had recourse to violence and theft; for all sorts of means, and all sorts of attempts, in a cause of this nature, were considered, when successful, as pious and acceptable to the Supreme Being. Besides the arguments from antiquity, to which the Papists refer in vindication of their worship of relics, of which the reader may form some judgment from this article, Bellarmine appeals to Scripture in support of it; and cites the following passages, viz. Exodus 13:19 . Deuteronomy 34:6 . 2 Kings 13:21 . 2 Kings 23:16-18 . Isaiah 11:10 . Matthew 11:20-22 . Acts 5:12; Acts 5:15 . Acts 19:1-41 . The Roman Catholics in Great Britain do not acknowledge any worship to be due to relics, but merely a high veneration and respect, by which means they think they honour God, who, they say, has often wrought very extraordinary miracles by them. But, however proper this veneration and respect may be, its abuse has been so great and so general, as fully to warrant the rejection of them altogether. Relics are forbidden to be used or brought into England by several statutes; and justices of peace are empowered to search houses for popish books and relics, which, when found, are to be defaced, and burnt, &c. 3 Jac. I. cap. 26.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Relics'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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