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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Copts

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a denomination of Monophysite Christians in Egypt. Some writers derive the name from Coptos, once a great city in Upper Egypt (Wilkins; Pococke), but it is generally taken as an abbreviation of the word Αἴγυπτος . The native Christians of Egypt chose this name when the Monophysite doctrines became prevalent among them, and they, on this account, fell out with the court of Constantinople. The Monophysites chose their own patriarch, while the imperial court sustained an orthodox patriarch at Alexandria. The Monophysites called themselves Egyptian or Coptic Christians, and gave to their opponents the nickname Melchites, i.e. Imperial Christians (from Melek, king; see Neander, Ch. Hist. vol. 3).

I. History. The Copts are not an unmixed race. Their ancestors in the earlier times of Christianity intermarried with Greeks, Nubians, and Abyssinians. After the condemnation of Monophysitism by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), the Copts were oppressed so grievously that, from hatred of the Greeks, they facilitated the conquest of Egypt by the Mohammedans. We know from the Arabic historian Macrizi (see below) that at that time there were in Egypt only about 300,000 Jacobites, but several millions of Copts. Persecution and intermarriages with the Moslems greatly reduced their numbers in the course of time, and laid waste many of their churches and convents. It was not until the reign of Mehemet All, in the beginning of the 19th century, that they ceased to be a despised race. Some of them have since been raised to the rank of beys. The sad condition of the Coptic Church induced the Church Missionary Society of England in 1825 to send two German missionaries to Cairo for the purpose of awakening among them a new spiritual life. They established several schools and a small theological seminary for the training of priests, where, among others, also the present abuna of the Abyssinian Church was educated.

The patriarch for some time seemed to favor the missionaries, and to aid their efforts for the education of the clergy and the circulation of the Bible, numerous copies of which have been repeatedly supplied by the Bible Society (500 in 1859, at the request of Dr. Tattam). The mission was subsequently transferred to the care of the United Presbyterian Church of the United States, and has since then greatly increased in extent and importance. Several native congregations have been constituted, and have been organized into the Missionary Presbytery of Egypt, in connection with the General Assembly of the Church in the United States. At the General Assembly for 1867 the following statistics of the Presbytery of Egypt were reported: ministers, 9; congregations, 3; families, 46; communicants, 126. Besides a number of valuable mission-schools, there is a theological school for training theological students in Osioot. For several years the mission has received a contribution of £1000 annually from the maharajah Dhuleep Singh, besides occasional liberal donations, the maharajah having met his wife in one of the mission-schools at Cairo. The maharajah also presented the missionaries at Cairo with a printing-press, which, up to 1867, has issued a selection of the book of Psalms and 3000 copies of Brown's Short Catechism. The Coptic patriarch instituted a fierce persecution against all the Copts associating with the missionaries, causing their children to be beaten and withdrawn from the schools, and burning all the Bibles and other religious books he could lay hands on. The Mussulman authorities at first countenanced these proceedings, but finally stopped them, in consequence of the representations of the American consul general.

II. Doctrines. It has already been remarked that the Copts are Monophysites (q.v.). They hold seven sacraments. They postpone the baptism of male children forty days, and that of girls eighty days, and administer it only in church. In case of emergency, they substitute baptism for anointing. They agree with the Greek Church in using trine immersion, and also in the doctrine and administration of the Lord's Supper. Confession among them is rare, and is generally followed by unction. Unction in general is used among them very extensively in the case of sickness, and is administered not only to the sick, but also to the by- standers and to the dead. They invoke the saints, pray for the dead, and venerate images and relics, but they reject all sculptured representations except the cross. Their fasts are long, frequent, and rigorous. They observe four Lents-one before Easter, which commences nine days earlier than in the Latin Church; a second after the week of Pentecost, which lasts thirteen days; a third after the feast of Assumption, lasting fifteen days; and a fourth before Christmas, which lasts forty-three days for the clergy and twenty-three for the people.

III. Worship. They have three liturgies, called after St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Cyril of Alexandria, (See LITURGY), which are translated into Coptic from the original Greek. They continue to use the Coptic language, though but few persons, even among the priests, understand it. The liturgical books have been translated into Arabic. The reading of homilies from the fathers is generally substituted for preaching. Instead of seats, the congregations are provided with crutches, on which they rest themselves during the service. One part of the worship is celebrated with the clangor of cymbals, in imitation of David's rejoicing before the Lord. The conduct of the priests at divine service is described by all travelers as careless, if not indecorous. In private, it is said, they abide more strictly than other Orientals by the prescribed daily services, which, in reference probably to David's resolution (Psalms 119:164), are seven in number. The full form enjoins the recital of one seventh part of the book of Psalms at each service; but there is a shorter form for the lower classes, containing in each of the seven daily prayers the "Pater" seven, and the "Kyrie Eleison" forty-one times a string of so many beads being used for the purpose. This service may be gone through while a person is walking, or riding, or pursuing any ordinary employment.

IV. Present Condition and Ecclesiastical Statistics. In some parts of Upper Egypt there are still villages exclusively inhabited by Copts, and in every village of moderate size is a moallim (a title given to all Copts except those of the poor class or peasants), who keeps the register of the taxes. Most of the Copts in Cairo are employed as secretaries and accountants or tradesmen. They are the chief employees in the government offices; and as merchants, goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, architects, builders, and carpenters, they are generally considered more skillful than the Moslems. In the villages they are employed in agriculture, like the rest of the peasantry. Petty causes among them are judged of by their clergy and the patriarch, but appeal may be made to the cadi. They bear a hatred to other Christian denominations, and are not permitted by their Church to intermarry with them. The clergy, on the whole, are poor and ignorant. At the head of the clergy stands the patriarch of Alexandria, who resides, however, in Cairo. His jurisdiction extends also over Nubia and Abyssinia, for which latter country he has the right of consecrating the abuna (q.v.). He himself is always chosen from among the monks of the convents of St. Macarius, in the desert of Scete. It is customary for the patriarch elect to decline the dignity, and only to yield to apparent force. Besides the patriarch, there are four metropolitans (Cairo, Lower Egypt, Codus, Mounoufia) and eleven bishops. They are appointed by the patriarch, and generally chosen among laymen who are widowers. Their income consists of tithes, which they collect for themselves and for the patriarch. The priests are generally simple mechanics, and, although they are at liberty to marry, they live mostly in celibacy. The number of churches and convents is said to amount to about 150. A few years ago Tattam and Curzon discovered in some of these convents a number of the most valuable manuscripts. The population is estimated from 150,000 to 250,000, of whom about 10,000 reside in Cairo. The number of Copts who have acknowledged the authority of the pope (United Copts since 1732) is about 10,000. In 1855 the pope appointed one of their priests vicar apostolic and bishop in partibus. Makrizii Historia Coptorum Christianorum in AEgypto, Arab. et in linguam Lat. translata, ab H. J. Wetzer (Solisbaci. 1828); Schaff, History of the Christian Church, § 145; Stanley, Eastern Church, Lect. 1; Churchman's Calendar for 1867, p. 163; Evangelical Repository, July, 1867.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Copts'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/c/copts.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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