The Life and Teaching
of St. Morgan of Wales
by the late Bishop+ Taoiseach Thomas Faulkenbury
Saint Morgan was, primarily, a Christian ethicist and moralist who sought practical applications of the Christian virtues to daily life. His theological concepts are grounded in attempting to balance faith and works in that way which is reflected in the Epistle of St. James and epitomized and by the life of Christ. Learn more about this remarkable Celtic contemporary of Augustine of Hippo who dares to challenge the notion of "original sin".
Early Life and Education
St. Morgan of Wales is more commonly known by his Latin name Pelagius Britto -- indicating his association with the sea and Celtic British origins. He was born around 360 A.D. in South Wales in Bangor-is-y-coed or Caerlleon-ar-wsyg near the Severn estuary. He came from a Christian romanized Celtic background, the son of a decurion.
Morgan received a Latin education and was taught Holy Scriptures, inheriting the Celtic tradition which had links with the Church of Gaul and the Eastern Church. An emphasis was placed on faith and good works, on the holiness of all life, and on the oneness-of-all.
In 380 Morgan went to Rome to study law but soon abandoned his law career for the Church, becoming a monk. In doing so, he was to become the firstknown major Celtic writer and theologian.
Morgan was a big, enthusiastic man -- strong, broad-shouldered and stout. His physical stature was compared to that of Milo the wrestler. He had a ram-like jutting forehead and a preference for going bareheaded. He walked with a slow, plodding gait, "at the pace of a turtle." While his opponents portrayed him in uncomplimentary language their descriptions reveal a man of deliberateness, confidence, and keen mind.
It was Morgan's habit of strolling from crossroads to street corners in public squares throughout Rome, talking to people and exhorting them to follow better ways. With an astute knowledge of Holy Scriptures he would discuss theology, ethics, and doctrine with everyone he encountered -- from the lowliest of work-women to the most educated men. He openly proclaimed that women should be taught Holy Scriptures.
Morgan became the spiritual advisor to many and moved about successfully in Roman Christian circles, emerging as a theologian of note and as a man of personal sanctity, moral fervour, and charisma. He became a major religious and intellectual force of his time, pointedly showing that his ideas had solid foundation in the Holy Scriptures and in the writings of the Church Fathers.
Conflict with the Roman Church
It would be naive to believe that great theological debates are not influenced by events at a more personal level. Such events erupted into a great controversy in the Roman Church beginning around 410. Morgan faced the opposition of major leaders of the Latin Church and the civil authority of the Roman Empire.
The causes of this opposition are rooted in Morgan's role as a Christian ethicist and moral theologian. Morgan was appalled by the laxity of Christian discipline among religious and secular leaders in Rome. He chastised the wealthy and powerful, including Emperor Honorius, for their abuses of property and privilege, exhorting them to the Christian virtues of mercy and charity.
He also came in conflict with the two major personalities of the Latin Church - - Augustine of Hippo and Jerome of Dalmatia. Augustine was considered the preeminent of the Latin Church theologians. A former Manichaean, he had converted to Christianity in 387. As a Christian theologian, he promulgated the doctrines of original sin as a congenital disease passed on at birth and of predestination and election. Morgan believed such doctrines were un- Scriptural and were not supported by the writings of the
Early Church Fathers. He speculated that Augustine's theology was laced with his previous Manichaeism -- which taught a radical dualism between spirit and matter, and a hierarchical division between the elect and the unsaved.
Morgan believed that these teachings had crept into Augustine's work and were responsible for the perpetuation of abuses in Rome. Morgan was of the opinion that Augustine's concepts of original sin and election contributed to a Christian fatalism which denied human responsibility for sin and granted divine sanction to a hierarchical society.
Jerome was considered the greatest of Latin Church grammarians and linguists. He was responsible for the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible and he wrote several important commentaries on Scriptures. Although ordained a priest he never said Mass. Despite his many achievements, Jerome was known to be sarcastic, impatient, arrogant, and aggressive. He was abrasive and egotistical in dealing with other Christians. The virulence of his criticism was evidenced in his attack on a certain priest named Jovinian. Many, including Morgan, reacted negatively to Jerome's personal abuse and libel of Jovinian. Later Morgan and Jerome conflicted in advice given to a young woman with which both men had been acquainted.
Jerome told her not to worry herself with theological problems while Morgan stressed the importance of study. Jerome's best method of defense was attack and he accused Morgan of heresy.
Morgan had placed himself at personal odds with Augustine of Hippo and Jerome of Dalmatia. Augustine had previously referred to Morgan in favorable terms with praise for Morgan, calling him "a man of high reknown, a great orator, and most excellent Christian." However, in 413 he openly attacked Morgan in two sermons. Jerome's conflict with Morgan also came to a head in 413 and both were aligned against him. The Roman Emperor Honorius would soon join the battle.
Councils and Synods
When Rome fell to Alaric in 410 Morgan and Celestius (one of his followers) departed with numerous other refugees for Carthage in North Africa. Morgan and Celestius soon parted company with Morgan moving on to Palestine while Celestius stayed in Carthage -- the center of Augustinian theology. In 411-412 the African Church condemned Celestius as a heretic but no charges were brought against Morgan. In 415 Augustine sent Orosius to Jerome in Palestine with the mission of convicting Morgan of heresy. Augustine was of the opinion that the root cause of Celestius' heresy was in the teachings of Morgan.
In June 415, a Synod was convened in Jerusalem with Orosius accusing Morgan of heresy. Morgan was present to defend himself and was acquitted. A second council was called in December at Diospolis (Lydda) with two previously deposed Gallic Bishops bringing charges against Morgan. Again, he was present to defend himself, and, again, he was acquitted.
In dissatisfied reaction, the Augustinians convened two of their own councils in 416 -- at Carthage and Milevum where they condemned both Morgan and Celestius. Morgan was not present to defend himself.
The Augustinians also appealed to Pope Innocent I who claimed universal authority for the Bishop of Rome by declaring that nothing done in the provinces could be regarded as finished until it had come to his knowledge. Innocent I, often referred to as "the first Pope", declared that the Pope's decisions affected "all the churches of the world" and reflects his attempt to exert control over the East as well as the West. The Augustinians successfully persuaded him to issue a conditional condemnation of Morgan and Celestius on January 27, 417 which would be effective only if they did not return to orthodoxy.
However, Innocent I died on March 12 and was replaced by Pope Zosimus I on March 18. Zosimus was an Eastern Christian who decided to re-examine the case, calling for a Synod at the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome. Morgan was unable to attend but sent a Confession of Faith which was intended for Innocent I (Morgan being unawares of the previous Pope's death). Zosimus was favorably impressed with Morgan's defense and proclaimed that Morgan was totally orthodox and catholic and that he was a man of unconditional faith. Zosimus went on to say that Morgan had for many years been outstanding in good works and in service to God; he was theologically sound and never left the catholic faith. The conditional condemnation was effectively overturned. Zosimus proceeded to condemn and excommunicate Morgan's accusers (Heros and Lazarus) and sent several letters to Carthage including one summoning Paulinus (another accuser) to Rome to account for his charges. Paulinus rudely refused. On September 21, 417 Zosimus advised the African Church: "Love peace, prize love, strive after harmony. For it is written: Love thy neighbor as thyself." He upbraided them for their discord in the Church and ordered them to cease their disruptions.
It would have appeared that the Augustinians had been thoroughly defeated. They had been unable to successfully condemn Morgan whenever he was present or when allowed to present his defense in writing. Three councils had declared him innocent of heresy. All they had to show for their efforts were Morgan's condemnation by their own courts and their own chastisement by the Bishop of Rome. Undaunted and disobedient, they appealed to the Roman Emperor Honorius. Emperor Honorius, a target of Morgan's exhortations against the abuses of wealth and power, willingly came to the assistance of the Augustinians. On April 30, 418 he invoked the power of the state and issued an Imperial Rescript -- a civil document -- ordering action against Morgan on the charge that public meetings and credulous adolescents affect the peace of Rome. An ecclesiastical document written by Pope Zosimus followed. It condemned Morgan as a heretic and banned him from Rome. The exact reasons why Zosimus reversed his position after the Imperial Rescript are unknown but it was done only after pressure from the Emperor. The text of Zosimus' condemnation is lost and the formal grounds for the condemnation are purely a matter of speculation.
Immediately upon Zosimus' death in 418 two different Bishops were consecrated Pope - Eulalius and Boniface I. Eulalius, like Zosimus, was a Greek. At the Synod of Gangra (Armenia) in 381, Eulalius was among the Bishops who passed Synodical canons in support of the equality of marriage and celibacy and condemned those who denied the legitimacy of the married priesthood. Both positions were in opposition to the views of the Augustinians. In 419 Eulalius was replaced with the pro-Augustinian Boniface only through the intervention of the Emperor.
Within the context of personalities and politics (ecclesiastical and secular), it appears that the Augustinian campaign against Morgan was only part of a developing conflict between the West and the East over the primacy of Rome and the dominance of Latin theology over the whole Church. Not so curiously, St. Morgan was condemned by Western, pro-Augustinian Synods and the Roman Emperor while exonerated by Eastern, non-Augustinian Synods and a Pope of Eastern origin. It has been frequently commented that if Morgan had been born in the East there never would have been a controversy.
Even after death, Morgan would be ensconced in controversy. The Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 was called to combat the Nestorian heresy. Among those accused of Nestorianism was Celestius (one of Morgan's followers). In a closing letter written by the Bishops of the great Council there is a brief mention of Morgan by his Latin name, Pelagius, which lists him among those who have been deposed. The letter is unfortunate and the inclusion of his name is probably an Augustinian interpolation for the Council was not called to debate Morgan's teachings. Nowhere in the proceedings of the Council does his name or reference to his teachings appear. And no Canon of any Ecumenical Council of the undivided Church ever condemned Morgan of heresy.
The Teachings of Morgan
It is difficult to glean from history the teachings of Morgan for little remains of his writings. We must rely on the polemics of his Augustinian opponents who have displayed less than honorable intentions when dealing with Morgan and who have often confused his teachings with that of the condemned Celestianism. Nonetheless, we have a fairly good idea of the thrust of his teaching.
Morgan was not a systematic theologian like Augustine or Aquinas. He was, primarily, a Christian ethicist and moralist who sought practical applications of the Christian virtues to daily life. His theological concepts are grounded in attempting to balance faith and works in that way which is reflected in the Epistle of St. James and epitomized and by the life of Christ. For Morgan, Christianity was not an abstract system of thought but a concrete way of life.
Unlike Augustinianism with its grounding in neo-Platonic philosophy and Manichean religion, Morgan's theology is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and the Early Church Fathers. Morgan believed that man's salvation was a cooperative effort between God and man. Man's power to save himself was predicated on man freely choosing to accept the saving grace of Christ through baptism. Through the exercise of his free will, man can choose to receive that grace from God by which man can live a perfect life.
Morgan's central message was that the Church was to be a perfect religious institution consisting of Christians wholly dedicated to the observance of a code of behavior enjoined by Jesus Christ and followed by His Apostles. Morgan insisted that God wanted His people to be holy and that He had given His people the means to accomplish perfection. A person's baptism has presented him with the unique opportunity to become a Christian, abandoning old pagan ways and leading a new life. We squander this opportunity when we lapse into old, comfortable habits of self-indulgence and careless pursuit of worldly things. To Morgan, the established leaders in the Church are to blame for general lapses in behavior when they mislead their flock by encouraging them to accept standards of Christian behavior which are below that enjoined by Christ.
Morgan's view of God's grace was broader than that of his opponents. He wrote, "This grace we do not allow to consist only in the law but also in the help of God. God helps us through His teaching and revelation by opening the eyes of our heart, by pointing out to us the future so that we may not be preoccupied with the present, by uncovering the snares of the devil, by enlightening us with the manifold and ineffable gift of heavenly grace."
Morgan asserted that with God's grace Christians could more easily do that which He had commanded them to do by their free will. He wrote, "God works in us to will what is good, to will what is holy, when He rouses us from devotion to earthly desires and our love of the present only after the manner of dumb animals, by the magnitude of our future glory and the promise of its rewards, when, by revealing wisdom to us, He awakens our sluggish will to longing for Him, when He urges upon us all that is good."
Morgan believed that man began to sin from that moment when he became consciously able as a child to imitate the sins of others, not because of some flawed nature forcing him to do so but because he was ignorant of his true essence and potential. His will had been corrupted by Adam's example of sin and the fallen world's habit of sin. To enable man to correct this flaw God first provided the Law. Although the Law failed it allowed man to recognize the error of his ways and to become conscious of his sins. Man was still in possession of the capacity to live without sin but was prevented by the inability to draw "upon the treasure of his soul" -- the free will with which God had endowed him at creation.
To help man make the right choices God has endowed him with three faculties or capacities -- posse (natural ability or potential), velle (will), and esse (action). Posse is the capacity to be righteous and not to sin. It is a part of man's nature which God gave him at creation. It can never be taken away from him and he never loses the ability to do good. But if he is to exercise it properly he must employ velle and esse, will and action. Velle is man's capacity to make his own free choice of right action. Esse is man's ability to translate that choice into right action and to live according to the nature given to him by God, that is, without sin. The capacity to make choices and to translate them into right action are both under man's control and produce righteousness. But since Adam's sin and the Fall, man's capacity to be righteous, despite being reinforced by the Law, has atrophied because of man's failure to make the right use of his capacity to make choices. In order to restore the divinely-endowed faculties of man, God has offered the opportunity of redemption by the saving death of Jesus Christ, who forgives our sins, restores our will, and sustains it by His own teaching and example.
Morgan's doctrine provides for a grace of creation, a grace of revelation, and a grace of redemption. It is God who, in the first place, has given man the possibility of doing good as his original endowment of grace and has confirmed and strengthened it by revelation and redemption through Jesus Christ.
St. Morgan and St. John Chrysostom
It is an irony of history that at almost the same time St. Morgan of Wales was facing charges of heresy in Rome for having upbraided the wealthy and powerful of that city St. John Chrysostom was facing the same dilemma in the East. John interpreted the Scriptures literally and sought to show how they applied practically to contemporary life. As Patriarch of Constantinople, he sought to reform the Eastern Church of his day. His primary concern was the misuse of wealth by the rich. In his reforms he made huge personal donations to the poor, cutting back on clerical pomp and extravagance. He was also outspoken in his condemnation of secular extravagance, and although beloved by many he made many influential enemies. Among those were the Eastern Empress Eudoxia (condemned by John for her vanity and lack of charity) and many prominent churchmen, including Theophilus of Alexandria (John's previously thwarted rival for the title of Patriarch of Constantinople).
The Synod of Oak in 403, under the leadership of Theophilus, condemned John on 29 charges, including an unsupported accusation of heresy and the charge of having personally attacked the Empress in a sermon. John was banished twice but continued his outspoken preaching. He died of exhaustion in Pontus. His body was returned to Constantinople 31 years later and was buried in the Church of the Apostles. Today he is venerated as one of the Greek Doctors of the Church in the West and one of the Three Holy Hierarchs and Universal Teachers in the East.
Those who unequivocally stand for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim it without respect for whom it convicts inevitably face the wrath of the wealthy and powerful. Both St. John Chrysostom and St. Morgan of Wales did so with eloquence and suffered charges of heresy and banishment by rigged courts.
St. John Chrysostom eventually restored to his rightful place as a teacher of the faith. Those of Celtic spiritual heritage equally venerate St. Morgan of Wales -- preacher of the Gospel and martyr of the intellect, the patron saint of the misunderstood.
The Theological Influence of St. Morgan
St. John Cassian (4th-5th Centuries)
St. Vincent of Lerins (5th Century)
St. John Scotus Eriugena (9th Century)
Peter Abelard (12th Century)
St. Thomas Aquinas (13th Century)
John Duns Scotus (13th-14th Centuries)
William of Ockham (14th Century)
Philip Melancthon (16th Century)
Jacobus Arminius (16th-17th Centuries)
Jeremy Taylor (17th Century)
John Wesley (18th Century)
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (20th Century)
A Selected Bibliography
Evans, R. F.; Four Letters of Pelagius, London, 1968
Evans, R. F.; Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals, London, 1968
Ferguson, J.; Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study, Cambridge, 1956
Nicholson, M. Forthomme; "Celtic Theology: Pelagius", An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, edited by James P. Mackey, Edinburgh, 1995
Rees, B. R.; Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic, Suffolk, 1988
Article copyright © 2008-2014, +Taoiseach Thomas Faulkenbury
All rights reserved. Revised: August 7, 2014