Clement of Alexandria, “Letter to the Newly Baptized,” early 200s CE

Prof’s Notes:

Before you begin, please read the brief summary of Clement of Alexandria’s life and works provided by Wikipedia. The important points to note are that Clement was a convert to Christianity, he was very familiar with Greek philosophy, and his Christian training took place in Alexandria – a city that was still steeped in the influence of the Hellenistic World in the 200s CE. Clement was also highly influential on other early Christian thinkers and therefore played a significant role in shaping the theology and practice of Christians in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

Clement also lived through a period of intense persecution in the early 200s. While the Romans were often content to ignore Christians, some emperors and governors did systematically imprison and execute Christians. In the wake of the persecution of Christians in the early 200s across the empire, Clement wrote “Letter to the Newly Baptized” to encourage new members of Christian churches.

Clement’s audience consisted of men and women who converted to Christianity and formalized their commitment to the religion through the ritual of baptism. Baptism was a ceremony in which converts were immersed in or sprinkled with water by a church leader (often the bishop – a regional spiritual leader). This act symbolized cleansing from sickness and wrong-doing (sin, in Christian parlance) and it granted the converts full membership in the Church (including the right to participate in the communion/Eucharist rites, which were quite secretive in the early church). Copies of Clement’s letter would likely have been read aloud to these new members of local churches.

As you read, consider what sorts of behavior and mindsets Clement asked of his audience. How might his advice have been helpful on an individual level? How might it have been a response to the period of persecution he, and many others, survived?


Letter to the Newly Baptized

Cultivate quietness in word, quietness in deed, likewise in speech and gait; and avoid impetuous eagerness. For then the mind will remain steady, and will not be agitated by your eagerness and so become weak and of narrow discernment and see darkly; nor will it be worsted by gluttony, worsted by boiling rage, worsted by the other passions, lying a ready prey to them. For the mind, seated on high on a quiet throne looking intently towards God, must control the passions. By no means be swept away by temper in bursts of anger, nor be sluggish in speaking, nor all nervousness in movement; so that your quietness may be adorned by good proportion and your bearing may appear something divine and sacred. Guard also against the signs of arrogance, a haughty bearing, a lofty head, a dainty and high-treading footstep.

Let your speech be gentle towards those you meet, and your greetings kind; be modest towards women, and let your glance be turned to the ground. Be thoughtful in all your talk, and give back a useful answer, adapting the utterance to the hearer’s need, just so loud that it may be distinctly audible, neither escaping the ears of the company by reason of feebleness nor going to excess with too much noise. Take care never to speak what you have not weighed and pondered beforehand; nor interject your own words on the spur of the moment and in the midst of another’s; for you must listen and converse in turn, with set times for speech and for silence. Learn gladly, and teach ungrudgingly; never hide wisdom from others by reason of a grudging spirit, nor through false modesty stand aloof from instruction. Submit to elders just as to fathers. Honour God’s servants. Be first to practice wisdom and virtue. Do not wrangle with your friends, nor mock at them and play the buffoon. Firmly renounce falsehood, guile and insolence. Endure in silence, as a gentle and high-minded man, the arrogant and insolent.

Let everything you do be done for God, both deeds and words; and refer all that is yours to Christ; and constantly turn your soul to God; and lean your thought on the power of Christ, as if in some harbour by the divine light of the Saviour it were resting from all talk and action. And often by day communicate your thoughts to men, but most of all to God at night as well as by day; for let not much sleep prevail to keep you from your prayers and hymns to God, since long sleep is a rival of death. Show yourself always a partner of Christ who makes the divine ray shine from heaven; let Christ be to you continual and unceasing joy.

Relax not the tension of your soul with feasting and indulgence in drink, but consider what is needful to be enough for the body. And do not hasten early to meals before the time for dinner comes; but let your dinner be bread, and let earth’s grasses and the ripe fruits of trees be set before you; and go to your meal with composure, showing no sign of raging gluttony. Be not a flesh-eater nor a lover of wine, when no sickness leads you to this as a cure. But in place of the pleasures that are in these, choose the joys that are in divine words and hymns, joys supplied to you by wisdom from God; and let heavenly meditation ever lead you upward to heaven.

And give up the many anxious cares about the body by taking comfort in hopes towards God; because for you He will provide all necessary things in sufficiency, food to support life, covering for the body, and protection against winter cold. For to your King belongs the whole earth and all that is produced from it; and God treats the bodily parts of His servants with exceeding care, as if they were His, like His own shrines and temples. On this account do not dread severe diseases, nor the approach of old age, which must be expected in time; for even disease will come to an end, when the whole-hearted purpose we do His commandments.

Knowing this, make your soul strong even in face of diseases; be of good courage, like a man in the arena, bravest to submit to his toils with strength unmoved. Be not utterly crushed in soul by grief, whether disease lies heavily upon you, or any other hardship befalls, but nobly confront toils with your understanding, even in the midst of your struggles rendering thanks to God; since His thoughts are wiser than men’s, and such as it is not easy nor possible for men to find out. Pity those who are in distress, and ask for men the help that comes from God; for God will grant grace to His friend when he asks, and will provide succour for those in distress, wishing to make His power known to men, in the hope that, when they have come to full knowledge, they may return to God, and may enjoy eternal blessedness when the Son of God shall appear and restore good things to His own.


Footnotes

  1. The idea that the mind should control the passions is one we’ve seen before – in Epictetus especially. That Clement picks up the same idea shouldn’t surprise us. He’s writing just 70 years after Epictetus’s death and participating in a world where Greek philosophy remains highly influential.

  2. Hard to tell precisely what he means by a “dainty and high-treading footstep,” but it’s clearly connected to the “signs of arrogance” earlier in the sentence.

  3. The church leadership – locally, this would have been the deacons and presbyters who organized the church. Regional leaders (bishops) oversaw multiple churches and provided guidance for local leaders.

  4. The wording here is a bit confusing – Clement just means to tell readers don’t be slothful by sleeping when you ought to be praying

  5. He does not mean cannibalism. Rather, he’s arguing that new Christians should practice moderation (the opposite of gluttony, mentioned in the previous sentence) by abstaining from meat (“flesh”) and excessive consumption of wine.

  6. It’s worth paying attention to how the body is discussed in this source, if only because the relationship between body and mind or body and soul has been a matter of concern to many of our other sources (Epictetus, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita). Christian theologians and philosophers will likewise struggle to decide whether the body is a good or evil thing for much of Christian history.