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Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for Americ

Who were called ministrae ex duabus ancillis

[1] _Heidenthum und Judenthum_, von Doellinger, p. 692. Regensburg, 1857. [2] MacMaster's _History of the United States_, vol. i, p. 102. [3] Statistics from _North American Review_, February, 1889, "Why am I a Missionary?" [4] _Deaconesses_, Rev. J. D. Howson, D.D., p. 236.



To understand the position of the deaconess with respect to the modern Church we must know something of the relation in which she stood to the early Church. Concisely as may be we must recall the story of the intervening centuries to the present, that we may learn the true position of deaconesses in modern times.

We have very little knowledge of the early Church. During the first century and the first half of the second century continued persecution compelled the religious communities of the new faith to live in almost complete seclusion. For the same reason little has been left on record of those years, and it is impossible to form clear conceptions of Church history during the period. The first trace which we find of the existence of deaconesses after the times of the apostles comes to us from an entirely outside source--from the official records of the Roman government. Shortly after the close of the first century the Emperor Trajan sent the younger Pliny as prefect

to Bithynia in Asia Minor. At the imperial command he began a persecution of the Christians, but interrupted it for a time to obtain further instructions from the emperor. His letter and the reply still exist. In the course of what he wrote Pliny says that he had sought to learn from two maids, who were called "ministrae" ("ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur," Book x, chap. xcvii), or helpers, the truth of what the Christians had said, and had even deemed it necessary to put them to torture, but could obtain evidence of nothing save unbounded superstition. Here is independent testimony of singular interest that deaconesses, followers of Phebe, were found in Christian communities of Asia Minor at the beginning of the second century, and that they kept the faith, when put to cruel martyrdom.

The clearest conceptions of the characteristics and duties of deaconesses of the early Church we obtain from the _Apostolic Constitutions_, a collection of ecclesiastical instructions that gradually grew up in the Eastern Church, and were gathered into one work in the fourth century. These instructions were of unequal antiquity, ranging from the earliest usages to the rules and practices last determined upon. Whether the _Apostolic Constitutions_ have all the authority that some claim for them is a question not here to be decided. If not genuine, they must have been written at a very early time, and from that fact possess a historical value of their own. "They prove beyond a doubt that there was a time in the history of the Church when a clear idea was held by some writer of the office of the female deacon as essential to the discipline of the Church."[5] From them we learn of three distinct types of women connected with the administration of the Church--deaconesses, widows, and virgins. Deaconesses and widows date from apostolic times, the Church virgins from a somewhat later period. The distinction between widows and deaconesses was not at first clearly maintained. By some Church fathers widows were called deaconesses, and deaconesses widows. It was only after the lapse of time that we find the classes clearly distinguished, and when that time is reached the deaconesses have become exalted in office, being regarded as belonging to the clergy,[6] while the widows have lost somewhat the honorable position first accorded to them. The deaconesses are active ministering agents, caring for the necessities of others; the widows have passed the period of active service, and having won the respect and protection of the Church are supported in old age from a fund set apart for that purpose. In the _Apostolic Constitutions_ the order of deaconesses stands forth independently, its many official activities are mentioned, and the importance of its service emphasized.

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