Of the origin and early life of this remarkable man we are almost entirely ignorant.
We know not the period of his birth, nor the precise date of his death, nor the place of his nativity, although the epithet Brito
applied by his contemporaries has led to the belief that he was an Englishman, nor do we even know his real designation of which Pelagits (Πελαγίος
is supposed to be a translation, since the tradition that it was Morgan
seems to be altogether uncertain.
He first appears in history about the beginning of the fifth century, when we find him residing at Rome, not attached to any coenobitical fraternity, but adhering strictly to the most stringent rules of monkish self-restraint.
By the purity of his life and by the fervor with which he sought to improve the morals of both clergy and laity, at that epoch sunk in the foulest corruption, he attracted the attention and gained the respect of all who desired that religion should exhibit some better fruits than mere empty professions and lifeless ceremonies, while he dauntlessly disturbed the repose of the supine, and provoked the hostility of the profligate by the energy with which he strove to awaken them to a sense of their danger, and to convince them of their guilt.
In the year 409 or 410, when Alaric was threatening the metropolis, Pelagius accompanied by his disciple, friend, and ardent admirer Coelestius [COELESTIUS] passed over along with many other fugitives to Sicily, from thence proceeded to Africa, where he held personal friendly communication with Augustine, and leaving Coelestius at Carthage, sailed for Palestine.
The fame of his sanctity had preceded him, for upon his arrival he> was received with great warmth by Jerome, and many other distinguished fathers of the church. Although it must have been evident to every close observer that the speculative views of Pelagius differed widely from those advocated with so much applause by the bishop of Hippo, no one had as yet ventured openly to impugn the orthodoxy of the former.
But when Orosius, upon his arrival in the East [OROSIUS], brought intelligence that the opinions of Coelestius had been formally reprobated by Aurelius and the Africlan Church (A. D. 412), whose condemnation extended to the master from whose instructions these opinions were derived, a great commotion arose throughout Syria, in which Jerome, instigated probably by Augustine, assumed an attitude of most active, not to say virulent, hostility towards Pelagius, who was formally impeached first before John of Jerusalem, secondly before the Synod of Diospolis (A. D. 415), suntmoned specially to judge this cause, and fully acquitted by both tribunals. Soon afterwards, however, the Synods of Carthage and of Mileum, while they abstained from denouncing any individual, condemned unequivocally those principles which the followers of Pelagius and Coelestius were supposed to maintain, and at length, after much negotiation, Pope Innocentius was induced to anathemnatize the two leaders of what was now termed a deadly heresy, by a decree issued on the 27th of January, A. D. 417, about six weeks before his death; and this sentence, although at first reversed, was eventually confirmed by Zosimus [ZOSIMUS]. Of the subsequent career of Pelagius nothing has been recorded. Mercator indeed declares that he was brought to trial before a council in Palestine, found guilty, and sentenced to banishment; but this narrative is confirmed by no collateral evidence. So great however was the alarm excited by the progress of the new sect, that an appeal was made to the secular power, in consequence of which an imperial edict was promulgated at Constantinople in 418, threatening all who professed attachment to such errors with exile and confiscation, and the impression thus made was strengthened by the resolutions of a very numerous council, which met at Carthage in the course of the same year.
We need feel no surprise at the profound sensation created by the doctrines usually identified with the name of Pelagius, since unlike many of the frivolous subtleties which from time to time caused agitation and dissension in the Church, they in reality affect the very foundation of all religion, whether natural or revealed.
He is represented as denying predestination, original sin, and the necessity of internal Divine Grace, and as asserting the absolute freedom of the will and the perfectibility of humnan nature by the unaided efforts of man himself; in other words as refusing to acknowledge the transmission of corruption from our first parents, the efficacy of baptism as the seal of regeneration, the operation of the Holy Spirit as indispensable in our progress towards holiness, and the insufficiency of our natural powers to work out salvation.
But although the eager and probably ignorant Coelestius may have been hurried headlong forward in the heat of discussion into these or similar extravagant propositions, it is difficult to determine whether Pelagius ever really entertained or intended to inculcate such extreme views. Jerome and Augustine boldly charge him with cqevertly instilling this poison, but at the same time they both complain of the snake-like lubricity with which he uniformly evaded the grasp of his opponents when they sought to fix him down to any substantial proposition, and of the haze of subtle dialectics with which he enveloped every point in debate, obscuring and confounding the vision of his judges.
There can be no doubt, however, that although his speculations were of a most abstruse and refined character, their tendency was eminently practical; that he desired to banish all mysticism, to render religious truth an active power in the amelioration of the heart, and sought upon all occasions to demonstrate the inefficacy of mere nominal faith unaccompanied by works, to warn his hearers of the hazard they incurred by waiting passively for some manifestation of Divine favour, without making one effort to obtain it, and above all,to convince them that their justification depended in some degree upon themselves.
In forming an estimate of the real character of Pelagius, it must be remembered that his most bitter enemies freely admit the spotless purity of his life, and that he labours under this signal disadvantage, that his chief works are known to us only from the quotations of his adversaries.
But even from those which are extant we may without want of charity infer that the charge of duplicity, or at least reserve, was not altogether unfounded.
He does not appear to have possessed that straightforward courage which prompts a truly great mind boldly to proclaim what it deems a vital truth in defiance of obloquy and persecution. We are constantly struck with an indistinctness and ambiguity of phrase, which, after making very full allowance for the abstruse nature of the themes, cannot be altogether accidental, while his complex definitions and divisions, his six kinds of grace to take a single example, tend rather to perplex than to simplify his positions and his arguments. Hence he may have endeavoured to convey the essence of his system, while he abstained from spreading alarm by the open enunciation of what might appear at once strange and perilous, hoping in this manner to avoid those angry controversies from which a refined and contemplative mind would shrink with disgust.
In this project He might have succeeded had not his plans been frustrated by the impetuous sincerity of the more practical Coelestius, whose undisguised avowals first kindled against himself that flame of persecution which eventually involved his teacher also.
A very few only of the numerous and voluminous treatises of Pelagius have descended to us, and for a long period every one of these was supposed to be the work of his most bitter enenly.
in Epistolas Pauli Libri XIV., written at Rome, and therefore not later than A. D. 310.
These commentaries, which consist of short simple explanatory notes on all the Epistles of Paul, with the exception of that to the Hebrews, were at one period attributed to Gelasius, who was Bishop of Rome towards the end of the fifth century; they afterwards found their way into the MSS. of Jerome; and the admirers of that divine, considering it their duty to expunge every passage which seemed tinged with heresy, they have been transmitted to modern times in a state very different from that in which they issued from the hands of their composer, although his doubts with regard to original sin may still be very clearly traced, especially in the notes on the Epistle to the Romans. No doubt can exist with regard to their authenticity, which is established beyond dispute by the quotations of Augustine, Marius Mercator, and others.
They will be found in the Benedictine edition of Jerome, and in that by Vallarsi. See Garnier's edition of Mercator, Append. ad Diss. vi. p. 367.
Written in the East about 412, and addressed to a Roman lady of distinction, who had been induced by Augustine to abandon the pleasures of the world for a life of devout austerity.
This piece, which is of considerable importance, inasmuch as it contains clear indications of the sentiments of Pelagius with regard to the excellence of human nature, was, as well as the last-mentioned, assigned to Jerome, but the real author was ascertained from the quotations by Augustine in his De Gratia Christi
(capp. 22, 37, 38), and in the epistle to Juliana, the mother of Demetrias.
It will be found in the best editions of Jerome, and was published separately by Seliler, 8vo. Hal. Magd. 1775.
A formal confession of faith, forwarded to Rome in 417, which, along with the preceding, was included among the tracts of Jerome under the title Hieronymi Explanatio Symboli ad Daumasum;
and here likewise the mistake was corrected by the quotations in the De Gratia Christi.
It is to be found in all the best editions of Jerome.
See also Garnier's edition of Mercator, P. I. Dis s. v. p. 307.
Another letter inscribed Epistola ad Celantiam Alatronam de Ratione pie vivendi,
among the correspondence of Jerome, was supposed by Erasmus to belong to Paulinus of Nola, by Vallarsi to Sulpicius Severus, while Semler argues from the general tone and spirit with which it is imbued, as well as from the style, that it ought to be made over to Pelagius.
It is numbered. CXLVIII. in the edition of Jerome by Vallarsi.
Works known only through citations
The following works are known to us only from fragmentary citations:--
Designated by Gennadius as Eulogliarum pro actuali Conversatione ex Divinis Scripiuris Liber;
by. Ionorius as Pro actuali Vita Liber;
by Orosius as Testimoniorum Liber.
A collection of remarkable texts from Scripture in reference to practical morality, arranged and illustrated after the manner of the Testimonia
of Cyprian [CYPRIANUS,] p. 914]. (Hieronym. Dialog. advers. Pelag.
lib. i.; Augustin. c. duas Peluaicauorum epp.
4.8; De Gestis Pelagii,
100.1, 6. Comp. Garinier, ad M. Mercat. Append. ad Diss.
Augustine replied to this in his De Natura et Gratia.
The fragments have been collected by Garnier, l.c.
See Hieronym. Dialog. adv. Pelay.
lib. iii.; Augustin. de Gest. Pelag.
6; Garnier, ed. Mercator. l.c.
written after the Synod held in Palestine. (Augustin. de Gest. Pelay.
100.26; Garnier, ed. Mercat. l.c.
written after the Synod of Diospolis, and transmiitted by the deacon Carus.
Augustin. de Gest. Pelay.
100.30; Garnier, ed. Mercat. l.c.;
G. J. Voss. Histor. Controversiarum Pelagianarum
, 4to. Lug. Bat. 1618; H. Noris. Histor. Pelag.
fol. Lovan. 1702; Tillemont, Mémoires,
&c.; Schrick, Kirchengeschichte,
vol i. xiv.; Neander, Kirchengeschichte,
vol. ii.; Schönemann. Bib. Patrum Latinorum,
vol. 2.7; Bähr, Geschichte der Röm. Litterat.
Suppl. Band. 2te Abtheil. §§ 136-138.
See also the Dissertations of Wiggers and Geffken, &c., referred to at the end of the article CASSIANUS. A translation of the work by Wiggers, "Versuch einer Pragmatischen Darstellung des Augustinismus und Pelagianismus, &c." by Professor Emerson, was published at New York, 8vo. 1840.