Then arose a fresh danger from without. It might well have been thought that in the wild storm of northern barbarian invasion the Church must perish. But it was not so written in the book of God's Providence. Those hero-hearts, refined by a true faith, were the necessary basis for modern civilisation. The Church's attitude toward them is best symbolised by those majestic scenes in which the violence of Attila the Hun was overawed by Leo III. at Ponte Molino, and of Genseric the Vandal at the gates of Rome. Already they had heard the name of Christ; already courageous missionaries had penetrated their savage forests and traversed their gloomy hills; and thus the fury of their onset was softened by the recognition of virtues more elevated than courage, and blessings more to be desired than strength. And thus Christianity was not only saved, but became herself the bulwark of all that was valuable in the ancient civilisations. When the degenerate Romans had melted down the statue of Virtus to pay their ransom to Alaric, her bishops earned the title of Defensores Civitatis. She saved the vanquished from extirpation, the victors from decay. Barbarians who had seen such types of noble excellence as an Ulphilas or a Severinus, or in later times a Boniface or an Olaf, saw in the priesthood an institution for which they felt a genuine reverence ; and this veneration was the means of fusing all that was valuable in two violently conflicting elements into one splendid, permanent, and progressive society. The churches of Christian Rome, built out of the marble of heathen temples, which had been levelled by barbarian hands, are at once a history and a symbol of the work which the Church did for the world.
One more external danger, and one alone, remained— the sudden and overwhelming growth of Mohammedanism. On religious grounds, indeed, the Church of Christ had nothing—and less than nothing—to fear. Strong only as a military theocracy, Islam as a creed was a mixture of fatal apathy with sensual hopes. Checked in Europe by a long line of Christian heroes from Charles Martel to John Hunniades, and from Hunniades to Sobieski, its aggressive power was broken. It now acts only as a gradual decay in every nation over which it dominates. The traveller in Palestine may be shocked to see even the fair hill of Nazareth surmounted by the white-domed wely of an obscure Mohammedan saint; but he will be reassured as he notices that in every town and village where Christians are there is activity and vigour, while all the places which are purely Islamite look as though they had been smitten, as with the palsy, by some withering and irreparable curse.
From this time forward Christianity had no external enemy to fear. From the fifth to the thirteenth century the Church was engaged in elaborating the most splendid organisation which the world has ever seen. Starting with the separation of the spiritual from the temporal power, and the mutual independence of each in its own sphere, Catholicism worked hand in hand with feudalism for the amelioration of mankind. Under the influence of feudalism slavery became serfdom, and aggressive was modified into defensive war. Under the influence of Catholicism the monasteries preserved learning, and maintained the sense of the unity of Christendom. Under the combined influence of both grew up the lovely ideal of chivalry, moulding generous instincts into gallant institutions, — making the body vigorous and the soul pure,—and wedding the Christian virtues of humility and tenderness to the natural graces of courtesy and strength. During this period the Church was the one mighty witness for light in an age of darkness, for order in an age of lawlessness, for personal holiness in an epoch of licentious rage. Amid the despotism of kings and the turbulence of aristocracies, it was an inestimable blessing that there should be a power which, by the unarmed majesty of simple goodness, made the haughtiest and the boldest respect the interests of justice, and tremble at the thought of temperance, righteousness, and the judgment to come.
But in the last three of these nine centuries, when the Church had achieved her destiny, the germs of new peril were insidiously developed. Faith and intellect began to be sundered, and violence was used for the repression of independent thought. The relations between the spiritual and temporal authorities were disturbed. Kings warred to the death with popes. Popes struggled to put their feet upon the necks of kings. The Avignonese captivity, followed as it was by the great schism of the papacy, shook to the ground the fabric so toilfully erected. Princes and nations successfully resisted a spiritual power which, by becoming ambitious, had become corrupt. Nations outgrew their spiritual nonage.
Then came the revival of learning, and that epoch which we call the Renaissance. Never, perhaps, was the Faith of Christ in more terrible danger than in the fifteenth century. It was a state of society remarkably glittering and surpassingly corrupt—radiant with outward splendour, rotten with internal decay. Christendom had practically ceased to be Christian. All seemed to be lost and dead, when the voice of Luther's indignation shook the world. The strength of the Reformers lay not only in their intrinsic grasp of the truths which they set forth, but also in the corruption, the avarice, the infidelity which they exposed. The Romish hierarchy fell, but Christian truth was saved. Sacerdotalism was ruined for ever; but the paramount authority of Scripture, the indefeasible right of individual judgment, the duty and the dignity of progress, the ultimate sovereignty of the race over the individual, the national independence from all centralised spiritual authority, were established on bases which, so long as the world lasts, can never be removed. The hollow majesty of an artificial unity was replaced by the vigour, freshness, and intensity of an individual faith.