Wednesday, July 23, 2014

John Nelson Darby and the Secret Rapture of the Church by Chris White

J. N. Darby

You have probably heard of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth or Lahaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind series or maybe you even own a Scofield Reference Bible, but chances are you’ve never heard of the man behind the theology upon which each of these well-known books are based.  I’m not speaking of Jesus, or Saints Peter and Paul, but rather John Nelson Darby an Irish cleric whose method of Bible interpretation in the 19th century became the most widely accepted approach to understanding future prophecy among evangelical Christians in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Who was this man and why after 18 centuries of Christianity did he see something so many others had missed or misunderstood?

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was born to an aristocratic family that were distant relatives of the famous English Navy Admiral Lord Nelson in 1800.  At age 14 he was enrolled in university studies and achieved a degree in Law.  Around age 20 Darby has what would be properly termed a radical conversion experience and amid much opposition from his wealthy father, he gave up law to pursue a call to ministry.  He was disowned and disinherited by his father, but a wealthy uncle befriended him and patronized his ministerial studies.

Upon ordination he worked as a curate (priest) in the Church of Ireland.  After several years Darby became quite disillusioned with the established church and began to align himself with those of a separatist (those Christians outside the established church) mindset.   His disillusionment was largely over the gap he saw between the spiritual orientation of the church in the Bible versus the more worldly orientation of the visible church that is aligned with the state.  Although he remained in the state church for several more years, eventually he made a break joining with other Christians in forming a fellowship called The Brethren. 
Hal Lindsey

The Brethren formed chapters in Plymouth England and Dublin Ireland and because the larger group was found in England, they were named by outsiders the Plymouth Brethren.  Darby later in life would have a strong doctrinal disagreement with the leadership and broke away from them forming another sect of Brethren known to some as the Darbyites.  Brethren theology was in full agreement with most tenets of Protestant theology but did have two distinctions that have always tended to keep them a smaller denomination.  First of all they held the belief that the office of pastor is Biblically unwarranted and that all believers in a church should be free to preach if led by the Spirit to do so.  This is certainly true in the sense that Christianity does not teach an exclusive priesthood by dint of proper ordination (as is believed by churches holding to the doctrine of apostolic succession) but the pastoral epistles of Timothy and Titus do in fact anticipate and suggest a trained and paid teaching ministry in the church.  Secondly, there is a belief called “the ruin of the church.”  This suggests that the visible church on earth is largely corrupt and beyond hope of revival.  What true Christians should do is come out of their corrupt denominational churches and seek the fellowship and encouragement of those walking in the truth of God’s word.  The true Church is not to be confounded with its visible manifestations on earth but rather is composed as a spiritual body of all true Christians who are in union with Christ no matter what their denomination.

Darby and the others in this movement did live in an environment where the visible church, such as the Church of England and Ireland, was corrupted by its relationship to the government.  But Darby was quite surprised to find in America that very few people felt they were involved in a corrupt denomination.  But the American experience was vastly different since there never was the connection between church and state.  Dependence on growth from disaffected Christians along with holding an identity of being the purest strain of Christianity led to many divisions and offenses which have conspired to keep this denomination small even today. 

This brings us to Darby’s unique theological contribution to the evangelical church.  There is no written evidence of exactly when J. N. Darby came to his conclusions, but what is known is that during his 1840 Lausanne lectures on a mission to Switzerland he really developed his theology in a systematic way.  Darby accepted all  the main tenets of Protestantism and was Calvinistic in many things.  He is credited with introducing a wider audience to dispensationalism—where salvation history is divided into separate periods where God deals with humanity in varying ways.  Darby did not invent dispensational thought but did much to popularize it.  There is a bit of negativity to dispensational thinking for in each dispensation man does not succeed in carrying out what God has ordered him to do.  Maybe this isn’t negative so much as giving men no reason for optimism about their spiritual state before a holy God.  If it were not for the grace and patience of God, we would all be toast.

How this touches on Darby’s innovative thought is two-fold.  First of all it was long held by Catholics and most Protestants that because Israel rejected Jesus as their messiah in the 1st century, all the promises and blessings of that covenant were nullified forever in favor of the new covenant with the church.  Darby was very much aware of this thought but saw it differently when looked at through the lens of dispensationalism.  Christ had during his earthly sojourn had a two-fold ministry.  He was fully offering Himself as Israel’s Messiah while simultaneously offering Himself as the Lord of Church knowing that he would be rejected.

In this there emerges a dispensation hidden to the Old Testament prophets that is known as the church age.  This age is an indefinite pause in the prophetic time clock of Daniel (see Daniel chapter 9) where 70 weeks of years are decreed until all prophecy will be fulfilled and God’s plan for Israel will be brought to completion.  The day Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time marked the 69th week, but 1800 years have passed since that time and human history continues.  But both Daniel and Revelation speak of a final week of years where God will pour out his wrath upon the earth in judgment for sin and rebellion against Him and also to finally bring Israel to repentance that they might embrace Jesus Christ their messiah.  Therefore, this is a time of grace when the Gospel  of Christ is proclaimed among all nations before this final week (see Mark 16).

Depiction of the Rapture

Thus, Darby takes the Rapture (described in 1 Thessalonians 4) as an event only touching those faithful to Christ (in both Testaments) and as separate from Christ’s visible return to set up a world kingdom in Jerusalem in fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament.  It is a secret in that Christ does not come to earth but instead calls the church up to himself ending the church age and beginning the 70th week of Daniel which ends prophecy and ushers in the golden age of Christ ruling the earth directly.  Not seen by all people, the sudden disappearance of millions on the earth who are Christian, puts the world into chaos and sets the stage for the future development of a state run by the Antichrist.  Because the rapture does not depend on the fulfillment of any prophecy it can happen at any time.  A corollary of this is that events described in the book of Revelation are all future and entail events that will unfold after the rapture of the church.   Another implication of this from Darby’s perspective would have been a restored Israel, something we see in our time but he did not yet see in his.  The interpretive key it seems is that Darby was able to separate out the verses of the prophets and of Jesus that apply to Israel alone and the church alone.  In not confounding the two and thinking in terms of dispensations, Darby saw something that many others had not.

C. I. Scofield

Darby’s great success was not his work with the Brethren, but rather the broad reach of his ideas.  Evangelicals with a literal hermeneutic of the Bible readily adopted his theology.  These ideas were in turn popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, The Niagara Bible Conferences,  D. L. Moody, and many Bible Colleges and Seminaries.  Nearly all fundamentalists in the 20th century adhered to his basic doctrines and though somewhat modified are still  widely held by most evangelicals today.




“John N. Darby” Dictionary of Christian Biography.  Michael Walsh Ed.  (Collegeville : The Liturgical Press, 2001)
“John Nelson Darby”  New Dictionary of Theology.  Ferguson, Wright, and Packer Eds.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 1988)
“John Nelson Darby”  Who’s Who in Christianity.  Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok  Ed.  (London : Routledge Press, 1998)
Knight, Frances.  The Church in the Nineteenth Century.  (London : I.B. Tauris, 2008)
“Plymouth Brethren or Darbyites”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)
“J.N. Darby”  Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.  Larsen, Bebbington, and Noll Eds.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2003)
Olson, Roger E.  The Story of Christian Theology : Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 1999)
Sandeen, Ernest R.  The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930. (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1970)
Sweetnam, Mark and Crawford Gribben.  “J.N. Darby and the Irish Origins of Dispensationalism”.  Pp. 569-577.  Sept. 2009.  Web 07.2014
Woodbridge, John D. and  Frank A. James III.  Church History : From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bartolome' de las Casas and the Beginning of Human Rights by Chris White

Bartolome' de las Casas (1474-1546)

The concept of human rights is something most of us take for granted in western culture today but this idea is a relatively new one in human history and is surprisingly connected with Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonization of the New World through the Catholic bishop Bartolome’ de las Casas.  The story begins King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.  Both of them ardently desired to unify Spain and make it a thoroughly Roman Catholic kingdom.  For years they had been engaged in an effort known as the Reconquista which sought through military, legal, and religious means to take back the parts of Spain that were controlled primarily by Muslims who had fought their way across North Africa and the Strait of Gibraltar to become established there centuries before.  It just so happened that in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella were at last successful in their enterprise and decided to give this Italian explorer that had already approached them several times already another opportunity to make his case for their support of his venture to find a faster western passage to the far east.

Columbus and Ferdinand and Isabella

Columbus was an expert navigator and business man, but he also knew a bit about promotion.  Knowing  Spain had been exhausted financially in its successful re-conquest of its lands from Islam,  Columbus presented his case that Spain could rebuild its wealth if his voyage was successful.  Like Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus was very religious and saw a spiritual dimension to his voyage as well.  Not only would there be an opportunity to share Christianity with any of the new peoples he discovered, but if gold and precious stones could be found perhaps a new crusade could be financed and Jerusalem could one again be taken from Muslim control and be put back under Christian control.  In both of these aspects Columbus thought it possible that they would usher in the return of Jesus Christ.

As we know from the perspective of history, Columbus never made it to Asia but discovered the New World.  He did discover new peoples as well, but his idea of Christianizing them was largely a form of subjugation and mistreatment not directly but through the institutions they imported.  And gold was also discovered and this seemed to blunt the consciences of most people involved in this enterprise.  But it is often surprising who God places with whom.

On Columbus’ second voyage a merchant from Seville named Pedro de las Casas accompanied the explorer and 5 years later returned to Spain a very rich man.  His young son Bartolome’ was a university student at the time and was given a gift from his newly returned father: an Amerindian slave from the New World.  This proved to be the beginning of Bartolome’s calling to serve God.
At age 19, Bartolome’ travels with his father to Santo Domingo, Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic) and is so moved by the plight of the Indians there that he returns to Spain, enters the Dominican order and prepares to return for the purpose of missionary work.  In 1535 he returns to live in Santo Domingo and to enter a career of preaching to the Native population of Hispaniola.  Bartolome’ de las Casas was actually the first Catholic priest to be ordained in the New World and later one of its first Bishops.  As a member of the clergy, las Casas was part of the ruling class in Spanish society and as such was given by the administration of the colonies a land grant or what was known then as an encomienda.

The Encomienda system was basically the old Medieval Feudal system with a special built-in capacity for abuse of those under the lord.  In this system, a Spanish lord (member of the upper class) would be assigned land and a group of native peoples.  The people were to work the land and pay a tribute to their lord.  The lord was responsible for their protection and religious instruction. No doubt Bartolome’ as a priest dedicated to reaching the Amerindians would have been a benevolent lord, but unfortunately in most of the other encomiendas, little effort or consideration was ever given to the well-being of the people, spiritual or otherwise.  There was a lot of taking and very little giving.

Atrocities towards the Natives Changed Everything

There are two stories told about what formed the turning point in Bartolome’s career.  Neither contradict one another and so I will assume they are both true.  The first was his witnessing the cruel treatment of an Amerindian leader who was buried alive for not cooperating with the Spanish authorities.  This was not the only atrocity he witnessed, for Las Casas wrote an entire book about them late in life, but it is a focal event that illustrates what was happening around him.  The second story speaks of Bartolome’ preparing a sermon for Pentecost Sunday.  He reads a verse in the Bible that says to the effect that any offering made to God at the expense of injustice to another is a tainted offering.  Regardless of whether both or only one of them happened, Las Casas decides to renounce his encomienda and devotes the rest of his life advocating for the spiritual welfare and human rights of the Amerindians.

In 1535 and again in 1539 de las Casas returns to Europe and enlists the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the very same one that wanted to have Martin Luther killed) and secures orders from him to restrict some of their powers and activities towards the native population.  He returns both to Spain and the New World several times as the newly appointed “Protector of the Indians” informing government officials of the new laws enacted to curb abuses.
las Casas and Charles V

1544 he returns to Seville for his consecration as Bishop and returns with a team of missionaries to the Americas for evangelizing and defending their human rights.  Eventually de las Casas returns to Spain but labors the remainder of his life on behalf of Indian rights until his death in 1566.

So how does this relate to human rights?  In las Casa’s day there was a prevalent view which in part hearkens back to ancient times that conquered peoples are subject to their conquerers.  This primarily meant slavery, but also within the church since the Crusades, there was the idea that since Christianity is the true religion, those conquered who refuse to convert may be subjected to the sword.  A contemporary investigation of this period revealed (although possibly exaggerated) that at least 15 million natives were exterminated during the first 10 years of the Spanish presence in the New World.  This was in part due to atrocities inflicted by the Spaniards but it mustn’t be forgotten that the encounter between Europe and the New World was biologically catastrophic as neither group had the natural antibodies to fight the viruses to which each group was exposed.

But the work of las Casas and others had the effect of creating a crisis of conscience amongst those in academia, the clergy, and the ruling elite.  The old assumptions seemed wrong as did the perpetration of genocide against the Amerindians in Mesoamerica.  This eventually led to the 1550 debates in Valladolid which should probably be considered the first human rights conference in western history.


The principle debaters were Juan Sepulveda and Bartolome’ de las Casas.  Sepulveda took the position that subjugation to slavery was justified in the New World because the natives were less than people.    Coercion to Christianity was justified because they were evil idolaters (which in some cases is hard to argue against as they did practice human sacrifice).  De Las Casas took the position that the natives of the New World were human beings descended as the Europeans were from Adam and Eve.  If this be true, they are not less than human, but rather humans with the capacity to know God and in need of gentle instruction and persuasion but certainly not coercion.  This is what de las Casas called “evangelical conquest” meaning persuasion of the heart by testimony and example, not at the end of a sword.  This debate transformed the laws of Europe to recognize that as they colonized, there was an obligation to recognize people of different cultures and religions are entitled to be treated with dignity and by the golden rule of Christ just because they are fellow human beings.
De Las Casas also changed the notion of barbarian vs. civilized society.  Barbarism, which originally was associated with inferiority (since Roman times), now had the connotation of inhumanity and cruelty.  By this standard both Europeans and Indigenous peoples were capable of being civilized and barbarous.

There is a persistent idea today that most of the atrocities that happened in the New World had behind them Christian missionaries.  It is true that some of them did evil, but most were people of good will.  Modern secularists fail to be nuanced enough in their thinking to separate the process of civilization from Christianization.  The record points squarely in the direction of government and commercial interests exploiting native populations far more than the church ever did.  Oftentimes the church was a force of ameliorating or completely stopping the abuses altogether as this story illustrates.

It seems that Las Casas does get credited (or rather blamed) for the idea of bringing Africans to the Caribbean.  However, his motives and idea have been greatly twisted.  Las Casas was acknowledging a reality that so many Amerindians had died off that there was no real population left to work the lands.  He wanted to do what he could to protect the remaining population from servitude and abuse.  Secondly, he did not look at Africans as racially inferior but rather more better suited for the climate and labors of the region.  Third, Las Casas did not envision the Africans as being slaves but paid employees.
Gentle persuasion not coercion

It is unfortunate that trust had been so broken by the colonizers that many of the Amerindians wanted nothing to do with Christianity.  Still, the witness of the many priests and monks was seen and admired.  Throughout Latin America, de las Casas is considered a saint and national hero and has been called the Apostle to the Indies.


“Bartolome’ de las Casas” Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)

Chidester, David.   Christianity: A Global History.  (New York : Harper San Francisco, 2000)

Hill, Jonathan.  What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us? : How It Shaped The Modern World.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2005)

Kane, J. Herbert  A Concise History of the Christian World Mission : A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1978)

Noll, Mark A.  A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.  (Grand Rapids : Ederdmann’s, 1992) 

Church History : From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day.   John Woodbridge and Frank A. James III Eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013)

Sampson, Philip J.  6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2001)

Williams, Eric.  From Columbus to Castro : The History of the Caribbean. (New York : Vintage Books, 1984)

Woods Jr., Thomas E.  How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. (Washington DC : Regnery Publishing, 2005)

Yates, Timothy.  The Expansion of Christianity. (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 2004)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

St. Simeon Stylites (c. 390-459 AD) : Somewhere between Heaven and Earth by Chris White

Egyptian Icon of St. Simeon
For 36 years a group of monks had tended to the bodily needs of their master by the means of ropes and ladders.  He was one of the most well known and popular ministers of his day.  Respected by kings, village leaders, men both great and small, when he spoke they listened and obeyed.  When he prayed, the infertile had children, the sick were healed, and those tortured by evil spirits were delivered.  But today was different.  Simon Stylites was seen kneeling on one knee and all who tended to him realized this holy man had passed away during the night.  Now they had another problem:  how to get a body down from a 60 tall pillar that had a platform less than 6 square feet. For St. Simon Stylites’ place of residence was a pillar erected on a mountainside where he stood 24 hours a day in the open air worshipping God, praying, and offering counsel and comfort to all who came to see him.

What would lead a saintly man to do such a seemingly odd thing with his life?  Most modern people would simply write off St. Simeon as someone who is mentally unhinged at best and someone with a penchant for self-immolation and an appetite for public attention at worst.  I believe St. Simeon Stylites was perfectly sane and a person of great spiritual and moral character.  That was how he was viewed by the public in his day which suggests that his story has a certain context that requires our understanding before we can appreciate it.  I will consider myself successful in this essay if I can shed some additional light on the subject of the pillar saint from Syria.

Let’s begin with the basic story of St. Simeon Stylites and then from there put this story within its natural context.  Simeon was a shepherd boy who followed in the occupational footsteps of his father.  He was born near Cilicia in Asia Minor which was also the region where St. Paul the Apostle grew up several centuries before.  We are told by one of his disciples, later one of three biographers, that the occasion of his conversion was quite simple.  In the winter of his thirteenth year a heavy snowfall allowed Simeon a day off from his shepherd duties.  It being a Sunday, Simeon felt pulled in the direction of attending a worship service at the church nearby their home.  The Gospel reading that particular morning was the Beatitudes of Jesus.  Simeon was so taken with the force of Jesus’ words that in his heart he became a disciple and shortly thereafter left home to join a monastery hoping for a vocation of prayer and seeking to have a pure heart before God.

During his years at the monastery Simeon had friends but proved through his actions that he had less of a monastic calling and was more wired to be a hermit.  Monks usually all live in community while hermits tend to live alone and apart from a community.  Both are seeking a greater union with God but follow different paths with the monastic vocation being one that requires a more regulated life.

Simeon’s actions were not in the category of “does not play well with others” but rather “does not play by the rules”.  He was always taking the spiritual disciplines of the community to the extreme.  For example, in his community there was a dedication to fasting.  As a group they usually ate three times a week choosing to use the energy directed towards eating for prayer and contemplation.  Simeon would eat only once a week.  During the season of Lent before Easter, Christians of every denomination will frequently fast from something for 40 days as a means of disciplining their bodies.  Food was taken regularly but perhaps meat or wine would be left out of the diet during Lent.  Simeon would just not eat anything at all for 40 days.  His worse transgression however was finding a coarse rope one day and wrapping it tightly around his legs and back and then covering it with his regular robes.  Monks would wear coarse clothing on purpose as a means physical buffeting of their bodies (something akin to self-flagellation) and identifying with the suffering Jesus underwent in his earthly life but Simeon wanted to take this to an extreme wanting coarser underneath the coarse.  What ends up happening is his entire body becomes infected and covered with vermin and he gets caught because he smells so bad that the abbot (the leader of the monastery) demands he explain why no one in the monastery will go near him.  When Simeon exposes his misdeed, the abbot orders the rope removed (which was an ordeal so disgusting I will not speak of it here) and Simeon almost dies requiring him to be nursed back to health.  Finally the abbot of the monastery, concerned that Simeon has some sort of death wish and that he is unable to live by the regulations of the order, sends him away for fear that his example will take hold with the other monks.  Cut loose (literally and figuratively) from the monastery, Simeon continues his pursuit of God as a solo act.

St. Simeon and those who imitated his path

Simeon soon finds a like-minded hermit in a nearby village where he goes to live.  He builds for himself a small rock hut to live in and for the next few years gains the reputation as a holy man as he continues his austerities and lives as one who has completely broken from the system of the world.

Now we get to the interesting (or weird part) of St. Simeon’s story.  For reasons that are never spoken of by Simeon or any of his disciples he makes the decision to live in the open air chained to a rock on the side of Mt. Telanisissas.  A year later, Simeon transfers from the rock to a 6 foot tall pillar.  As time progresses the pillar is built up first to 40 feet and eventually topping out at 60 feet tall.

There are hints given us by Simeon’s biographers that suggest that God gave Simeon the vision of living out in the weather on the rock but because of his personal popularity with the local people, going vertical was the only way of achieving some modicum of solitude.  Another points to the pillar’s ability to make Simeon part of the world but really not of it.  From this disinterested position he was used by God to be a judge of righteousness and mediator of peace among the people.  Finally, Simeon mentions himself that God has called him to be like the prophets of old declaring righteousness and the glory of God to humanity.  One does not have to dive too deeply into the Old Testament to find prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel who were told by God to do things that would be a public spectacle and within the spectacle was the message of God’s intent.

Whatever the exact reasons for Simeon living on a pillar it is undeniable that the pillar was on a mountainside that border a major trade and travel route through Syria.  Anyone who traveled by would find their attention arrested seeing a man standing on a pillar with his arms out praying and looking at a distance like a human cross.  It is also known and recorded that people throughout the world made the pilgrimage to see and hear St. Simeon and to possibly get his counsel or blessing.  Kings, nobleman, the rich and poor, the sick and those disturbed by demons, village leaders, church leaders, even school children streamed from the area and as far away as Spain and Britain to be in his presence.  In the city of Rome, Simeon was a popular figure with the people or more specifically a figurine.  Apparently in the 5th century you would have been hard pressed to find a shop in Rome that didn’t have a miniature of Simeon on his pillar displayed as a means of warding off evil (and if you have ever owned a small business, you know you need all the help you can get!).

So what was a day like on the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites?  The platform on top of the pillar was too small for him to sit or lie down and so 24 hours a day he remained standing.  A pole on top of the pillar enabled Simeon to be tied up to it so that if he did fall asleep, he wouldn’t fall to his death.  It is said he never slept but apart from some miraculous intervention by God, this simply is not possible as eventually lack of sleep causes your body to shut down.  More likely Simeon took “catnaps” at night between his prayer vigils which began at dusk and continued until 9 am.  At 9 am every day and later at 3pm, Simeon would preach a sermon to whoever was present.  Then during the remainder of the day he would address the visitors and crowds.  The monks that attended him would bring him notes from the people which stated their business and he would reply either in writing or would speak from his lofty perch.

An ancient historian considers St. Simeon Stylites

People that had legal disputes and community leaders between warring villages often came seeking Simeon’s mediations.  Often what he said alone had great power over the people, but Simeon often had peace treaties and legal documents drawn up and stored at the base of his pillar.

Simeon wore a long beard and hair and wore animal hide clothing.  He would often worship the Lord and bow to him spontaneously during the day.  One contemporary tried to count how many times he did this in a day and lost count at 1,200 times.  The point is, Simeon was more than a spectacle, he was an active minister of the Gospel and sought a change of heart and mind in all his visitors.

Like many other hermits, St. Simeon was fairly long-lived.  He died at age 69 which was quiet aged at the time and no small feat for someone who lived in the elements year round and rarely ate or slept.  It is believed what took his life was an infected ulcer on his foot that never healed because he was always standing on it.

With that as a brief outline, let me close out the story of St. Simeon with some historic context which might help us put this unusual saint into perspective.  First of all, I do find it a bit incredible that those of us who daily see people dressed up in costume by the side of the road and constantly waving signs for a mattress sale or a $5 pizza special would think of Simeon Stylites as eccentric and weird.  In a sense, St. Simeon was doing the same thing at a more advanced level and he actually had a very important message to tell his audience.  But that aside, let’s consider what Simeon’s last name means.  Stylite means “column dweller” and thus his name speaks not a family heritage but a category of holy men.

 The pillar was a fairly common feature in the Near East of Antiquity.  There are evidences of pagan religions in this region of the world that had holy pillars.  Once a year the priest of the religion would climb to the top and commune with the local god for a week.  Then he would come down and tell the people what he learned.  As the Near East became increasingly Christian (and it did so rapidly) the community memory of the custom would remain and it’s practical purpose of being an oracle of the spirit world.  If this be true then what might be happening here is that Simeon was taking a local tradition and Christianizing it.  This public spectacle opens the door for his preaching.  We should not be surprised at this for the God of the Bible knows well all the particulars of a local society and often inspires His servants to exploit them for a greater purpose.

Simeon is also what Delahaye and others refer to as a stationary saint.  Although pillar dwelling was fairly uncommon, many hermits (both male and female) were known as anchorites which meant they lived in a purposeful confinement seeking God alone and having people come to them rather than going to the people.  Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena are but two other notable examples of this phenomena.  Certainly their lives were quite constricted, but this was a constriction which enabled a constant communion with God.  I believe this has its corollary in the academic and literary world where no great work is done apart from being chained to a writing desk.

Finally, it should be noted that St. Simeon was not singular in his vocation.  In his lifetime he inspired others who in turn became pillar saints and this hardly died out in antiquity.  The practice of pillar saints is known to have continued all the way into the 19th century.  Pillar saints were not without controversy and eventual regulation by the bishops of the church occurred in the 5th century.

When he died his pillar was surrounded by and enclosed by 4 churches and monasteries the remains of which stand today as witness to the saint who served God’s people stationed somewhere between heaven and earth.
Remains of Simeon's Pillar today


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Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 AD.  (New York : Harper and Row, 1975)

“Pillar Saints”.  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)

“St. Simeon Stylites” Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church Vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity AD 311-600.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 1910)

The Lives of Simeon Stylites.   Robert Doran Trans. (Spencer : Cistercian Publications, 1992)