Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is universally acknowledged that the first Christians had neither temples, nor altars, nor tapers, nor incense, nor holy water, nor any of those rites which the prudence of pastors afterwards instituted, in conformity with times and places, but more especially with the various wants of the faithful.

We have ample testimony in Origen, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin, and Tertullian, that the primitive Christians held temples and altars in abomination; and that not merely because they could not in the beginning obtain permission from the government to build temples, but because they had a real aversion for everything that seemed to apply any affinity with other religions. This abhorrence existed among them for two hundred and fifty years, as is proved by the following passage of Minutius Felix, who lived in the third century. Addressing the Romans, he says:

Putatis autem nos occultare quod colimus, si delubra et aras non habemus. Quod enim simulacrum Deo fingam, quum, si recte existimes, sit Dei homo ipse simulacrum? quod templum ei exstruam, quum totus hic mundus, ejus opere fabricatus, eum capere non possit? et quum homo latius maneam, intra unam ædiculum vim tantæ majestatis includam? nonne melius in nostra dedicandus est mente, in nostro imo consecrandus est pectore?

“You think that we conceal what we adore, because we have neither temples nor altars. But what shall we erect like to God, since man himself is God’s image? What temple shall we build for Him, when the whole world, which is the work of His hands, cannot contain Him? How shall we enclose the power of such majesty in one dwelling-place? Is it not better to consecrate a temple to Him in our minds and in our hearts?”

The Christians, then, had no temples until about the beginning of the reign of Diocletian. The Church had then become very numerous; and it was found necessary to introduce those decorations and rites which, at an earlier period, would have been useless and even dangerous to a slender flock, long despised, and considered as nothing more than a small sect of dissenting Jews.

It is manifest that, while they were confounded with the Jews, they could not obtain permission to erect temples. The Jews, who paid very dear for their synagogues, would themselves have opposed it; for they were mortal enemies to the Christians, and they were rich. We must not say, with Toland, that the Christians, who at that time made a show of despising temples and altars, were like the fox that said the grapes were sour. This comparison appears as unjust as it is impious, since all the primitive Christians in so many different countries, agreed in maintaining that there was no need of raising temples or altars to the true God.

Providence, acting by second causes, willed that they should erect a splendid temple at Nicomedia, the residence of the Emperor Diocletian, as soon as they had obtained that sovereign’s protection. They built others in other cities; but still they had a horror of tapers, lustral water, pontifical habits, etc. All this pomp and circumstance was in their eyes no other than a distinctive mark of paganism. These customs were adopted under Constantine and his successors, and have frequently changed.

Our good women of the present day, who every Sunday hear a Latin mass, at which a little boy attends, imagine that this rite has been observed from the earliest ages, that there never was any other, and that the custom in other countries of assembling to offer up prayers to God in common is diabolical and quite of recent origin. There is, undeniably, something very respectable in a mass, since it has been authorized by the Church; it is not at all an ancient usage, but is not the less entitled to our veneration.

There is not, perhaps, a single ceremony of this day which was in use in the time of the apostles. The Holy Spirit has always conformed himself to the times. He inspired the first disciples in a mean apartment; He now communicates His inspirations in St. Peter’s at Rome, which cost several millions — equally divine, however, in the wretched room, and in the superb edifice of Julius II., Leo X., Paul III., and Sixtus V.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01