One Year After Dobbs, Christians Need to Remember the Past
In May, 2022, the U.S. Senate rejected an abortion "rights" bill. As a response to the leak about the Supreme Court possibly overturning Roe v. Wade, the proposed bill would have guaranteed the legal right to abortion up until birth. This flies in the face of any arguments about the “viability” of an unborn child, and exposes our culture’s true view about infanticide.
One year after the Dobbs decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, conservative Christians need to remember how counter-cultural valuing all human life is. We need to remember the radical, and revolutionary, stance of the early Church if we are to continue to stand for unborn lives.
In the year 1 BC, a Roman soldier named Hilarion wrote a tender and domestic note to his wife:
Know that I am still in Alexandria; and do not worry if they [the army] wholly set out, I am staying in Alexandria. I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is a male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out. You have told Aphrodisias, “Do not forget me.” But how can I forget you? Thus I’m asking you not to worry.
This shocks modern readers now. Save the boy, but leave the baby girl to die? In the first century, this was accepted practice.
If unwanted infants in the Greco-Roman world were not directly killed, they were frequently abandoned–tossed away, so to speak. In the city of Rome, for instance, undesirable infants were abandoned at the base of the Columna Lactaria, so named because this was the place the state provided for wet nurses to feed some of the abandoned children.
In Sparta when a child was born, it was taken before the elders of the tribe, and they decided whether the child would be kept or abandoned.
Both infanticide and child abandonment were defended by philosophers and intellectuals who are otherwise revered as foundational for the Western tradition. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared.” Other luminaries of the classical world who approved of disposing of deformed or sickly infants include Cicero and Seneca.
Early Christians were unanimous in their condemnation of infanticide and child abandonment. In this, they were radically counter-cultural. According to historian Larry Hurtado: “So far as we know, the only wide-scale criticism of the practice, and the only collective refusal to engage in infant exposure in the first three centuries AD, was among Jews and then also early Christians.”
Christian authors like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Lactantius denounced child abandonment. Lactantius wrote: “It is as wicked to expose as it is to kill” (Divine Institutes 1.6).” In addition, a “sixth-century canon of the church called parents who abandoned children "murderers" (Patri Graeco-Latina 88:1933).Later, in 374, Bishop Basil of Caesarea helped persuade the Roman emperor Valentian to outlaw infanticide.
But the early church was not content to sit on the sidelines and condemn the brutality of the pagans. They didn’t simply focus on gaining influence in the halls of power and passing laws. They got their hands dirty and they got busy saving, rescuing, and loving unwanted children:
Callistus of Rome gave refuge to abandoned children by placing them in Christian homes. Benignus of Dijon (late second century), who like his spiritual mentor Polycarp was martyred, provided protection and nourishment for abandoned children, some of whom were deformed as a result of failed abortions. Afra of Augsburg (late third century) was a prostitute in her pagan life, but after her conversion to Christianity she “developed a ministry to abandoned children of prisoners, thieves, smugglers, pirates, runaway slaves, and brigands.” Christian writings are replete with examples of Christians adopting throw-away children.
Schmidt here is drawing on the work of George Grant’s Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present. Grant’s book is essential reading as we continue to navigate the ramifications of the Dobbs decision.
As the Christian church confronts the aftershocks of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, we must recommit ourselves to the urgency of this moment and the radically pro-life position and practice of the early church. We need a legion of leaders and faithful front-line workers to care for mothers in crisis, to mentor young fathers, and to adopt babies if necessary.
Living 2,000 years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are sometimes tempted to forget how radically the rag tag band of followers of this crucified Messiah have changed and impacted cultures. Forgetfulness of history is perhaps a defining trait of our times, but Christians, of all people, cannot forget. Though the historical record of the church is not perfect, in their efforts to follow the Lord of Love, Christians have shown love and compassion to those typically rejected by the surrounding culture. That is our Christian heritage, and it should inspire us to courageous action in our current cultural crisis.
Earlier versions of this article appeared on the Bible Mesh blog and The SoderBlurb newsletter. It is republished here with permission.
 Letter of Hilarion, Oxyrhynchus Papyri (ed. B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt), 4:744. Quoted in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 34.
 Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 52.
 Schmidt, 52.
 Poetics 7.4.10 (Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 264), 623. Quoted in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, 34.
 Schmidt, 49.
 Schmidt, 51, citing the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.
 Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 148. See also George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc.: 1991), 17-32.
 Schmidt, 53.
 Schmidt, 51, citing Codex Theodosius 9.41.1.
 Schmidt, 53.Gregory Soderberg
Ph.D., teaches and mentors students of all ages at Logos Online School, Kepler Education, the Bible Mesh Institute, and Redemption Seminary. He writes at gregorysoderberg.substack.com and gregorysoderberg.wordpress.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/the-christian-compassion-revolution