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SECOND SERIES, NO IX.-WHOLE NO, XLI.
THE NESTORIAN CHRISTIANS.
By Rev. Justin Perkins, Missionary of the A. B. C. F. M., Ooroomiah, Persia.
The interest with which we contemplate a people is often in great disproportion to its numbers. The little states of Greece stand unrivalled on the pages of history, as the early instructers and civilizers of the human species. The small community of the Waldenses, pent up in the narrow valleys of Piedmont, was the repository of that inestimable treasure, the vitality of our holy religion, during the long night which veiled the rest of Europe. The few thousands of the Moravians have gained a place on the records of the church, by the vigor of their zeal and the energy of their efforts to extend the triumphs of the gospel, which great Christian nations might worthily covet. Ånd the small island of Britain is now exerting an influence on the condition and destinies of the world, which the vast extent and the unnumbered myriads of China have never known, and never will know till her broad territory and her countless inhabitants shall be illumined by the light of science, and controlled by the spirit of Christianity.
The obscure people, named at the head of this article, possess a humble claim to illustrate the statement I have made. The SECOND SERIES, VOL. V. NO. I.
Nestorian Christians are the small, but venerable remnant of a once great and influential church. They are the oldest of Christian sects; in their better days they were numerous through all the vast regions from Palestine to China; and they carried the gospel into China itself. Their history is a checkered one. Sometimes, as under the tolerant policy of Gengis Khan and his descendants, they were raised to high places in the camp and at the court; while at other times, as by the crushing arm of the bloody Tamerlane, they were cut down and swept away, till scarce a vestige remained, save in the fastnesses of inaccessible mountains. But in prosperity and adversity, during a period of more than one thousand years, they furnish the brightest examples of persevering toil and self-denial, and often of heroic martyrdom, cheerfully encountered in the profession and zealous promulgation of the gospel,* that are to be found on the records of Christianity, since the days of the apostles.
My object is not to sketch a history of this venerable people; but merely to make a few statements relative to their present position, number, circumstances, character and prospects. I do this in compliance with a repeated request of the former worthy editor of the Repository, and in the hope that its readers may thereby become better acquainted with the people for whose salvation I am laboring, and more interested to co-operate, by prayer and effort, for the advancement of this object.
Before noticing the Nestorians in the particulars proposed, I may remark, that their lineal origin, like that of most eastern nations, is hid in the mists of uncertainty. Common, and perhaps universal tradition among themselves claims the Jews as their ancestors. As evidence of this descent, they urge the resemblance which exists between the Hebrew language and their own. They also adduce their deep abhorrence of the use of images and pictures in religious worship, while all other eastern Christians, descended from heathen ancestors, still retain their strong attachment to idolatry. The curious inquirer might find many other proofs that the Nestorians are descendants of the Jews. Nor is there any absurdity in the supposition, that their remote ancestors may have been some portion of the Israelites, who were carried away captive by the kings of Assyria, as
* See an interesting article on the “Missions of the Nestorian Christians, in Central and Eastern Asia," in the Missionary Herald for August, 1838.
mentioned in 1 Chron. 5: 26, and 2 Kings 15: 29, into places probably not distant from the regions now occupied by the Nestorians. But to attempt to demonstrate as certain the Jewish origin of this people, must be very difficult and unsatisfactory
Their conversion to Christianity, the Nestorians refer to Thomas, one of the twelve apostles ; with whom Adai (Thaddeus), and Mari, one of the seventy, are said to have been associated. Oral tradition and the ancient writings of the Nestorians are united in support of this opinion. And as several of the Christian Fathers inform us that Thomas travelled eastward, even to India, preaching the gospel through the countries intervening, we may regard this claim of the Nestorians as not
ble. This opinion is also confirmed by the fact, that their ritual, composed by ancient ecclesiastics, contains commemorations of Thomas, in the form of thanksgivings to God, for his zealous labors among their ancestors and other eastern nations. At this day, the Nestorians are particularly fond of naming their churches, in honor of that apostle, Mar Thoma, i. e., St. Thomas.
The origin of the Nestorians, as a Christian sect, is matter of authentic history.* Nestorius, from whom the sect derives its name, was born and educated in Syria, was a presbyter at Antioch, and was made bishop of Constantinople, A. D. 428. The conspicuousness of his station—that city being the seat of empire—his boldness in attempting to correct some popular superstitions, and perhaps his rashness in theological specular tion, drew upon him the envy and hostility of contemporary bishops, particularly of the ambitious Cyril, then bishop of Alexandria. Having been arraigned for heresy, Nestorius was excommunicated at Ephesus, by the third general council, A.D. 431. First banished to Arabia Petræa, and subsequently transported to one of the oases of Lybia, he finally died in Upper Egypt.
* See Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, by Murdock, Vol. I. p. 395 and 428, et passim. A full account of the origin and progress of Nestorianism may also be found in Asseman's * Bibliotheca Orientialis Clementino-Vaticanu,” Vol. IV., in general very correct, save that it savors strongly of papal prejudice. A brief, but interesting account of the Nestorians also occurs in the "Researches” of Messrs Smith and Dwight, Vol. II. p. 201.
One charge on which the august council decreed his excommunication, by ex parte management, was, that he refused to apply to the Virgin Mary the epithet, Mother of God (Osoróxos). This charge he evaded; though Protestants would certainly have thought none the worse of him, had he frankly pleaded guilty. His motives in attempting to check the prevalent superstition of paying idolatrous homage to a departed mortal, were undoubtedly honest. Another principal charge was, that in his theological belief he invested Christ with two persons, as well as two natures. This charge he perseveringly denied; and whatever novelties his speculating genius may have led him to broach on that mysterious subject, his views, for aught that appears, may have been correct in the main.
The cause of Nestorius being regarded as the cause of an injured, persecuted man, created extensive sympathy, and found numerous and efficient advocates. It was warmly espoused by his countrymen in the East, particularly in the celebrated Syrian school of Edessa (modern Orfa), in Mesopotamia, in which great numbers of Christian youth were at that time educated. This first Christian sect, thus severed from the general church by prejudice and oppression, taking firm root in that central position, spread rapidly in all directions. It soon became powerful, especially in Persia; and in all its vicissitudes, it has remained, from that day to this, in some of the regions now occupied by Nestorian Christians.
With the Nestorians, should not be confounded two other sects, with whom they are sometimes associated—the Jacobites and the Chaldeans. The former are monophysite Syrians, who hold to but one nature in Christ. They are quite numerous in Mesopotamia, and were related to the Nestorians, originally, as fellow countrymen, speaking the same language, the ancient Syriac. But the two sects are divided by the bitterest rancor; and most of the Jacobites now speak the Arabic language instead of the modern Syriac, and are thus cut off from the last tie of sympathy with their kindred, the Nestorians. The Chaldeans are that portion of the Nestorian Christians, who have been converted to the Romish faith, principally within the last two centuries, by the indefatigable efforts of Jesuit missionaries. Most of these Čatholics are found in and about the valley of Mesopotamia, where they have become quite numerous. Indeed, very few Nestorians now remain on the western side of the Koordish mountains, who have not yielded to the intrigues