Cyprian of Carthage was known for his generosity. What lessons can the church learn from him?

Source: Faith in Focus, 2012. 3 pages.

The Generosity of Cyprian of Carthage: Some Applications to Modern Life

Cyprian of Carthage is one of the three African church fathers,1 born around 200 and martyred in the persecution brought about by the Roman emperor Valerian in 257. Cyprian was not raised as a be­liever but was converted at some stage in the 240s by Caecilius, and after his death he cared for Caecilius’s family.

Cyprian was definitely the wealthiest of the three African fathers and there are some who suggest that he was among the wealthiest in the empire at the time, great enough to be a member of the Senate, the ancient ruling council of Rome. As a rich man he was expected by ancient society to exercise patronage.

When we think of patronage the image that springs to mind is probably artistic patronage. This was practised in the ancient world but as a concept it was not nearly as important as social patronage. The classical ideal of patronage was that a rich man would take care, financially and legally, of a number of ordinary men and those who depended upon them. While patronage as such is not what interests us in this article, it fulfills a number of similar expectations that we would have of those of substantial means towards those who are less well off. By way of explanation, one important aspect of patronage is that it was a reciprocal arrangement with nearly the same formal status as a contract. It included any number of responsibilities which went both ways.

Making use of the mastery of oratory, or public speaking, was one way in which a wealthy man could show pa­tronage. Since the art of oratory was practised as a pastime for the edu­cated, it was only natural that those who were good at it would become public figures in the political, social, and military spheres. Having mastered these skills, an orator would be able to make convincing cases for his clients, whether recommendations for a posi­tion in the army or the civil service, or in their defence in the court room. Cyprian seems to have been unusual­ly good at oratory, earning for himself a reputation lasting at least to Augus­tine’s day. Note that although Cyprian was a masterful orator and would have known the law, neither of these means that he was a legal advocate by profes­sion. Probably, with all his responsibili­ties to his clients and administering his own and their estates, he had no time to practise law.

A patron’s responsibilities to his clients were proactive as well as reactive. A Greek writer of the first century BC states that a patron needed to inform his clients of aspects of the law which might concern them since they could not be expected to know it. In early Latin one of the uses of the world patronus, the origin of our word patron, is to refer to one’s legal advocate. In the ancient world communication of obscure pieces of information was not always reliable and it is probably fair to say that many more legal offences escaped prosecution then, than now. Much of one’s ability to avoid trouble with the law depended on influence: as usual, those who were unimportant were taken advantage of or charged for offences which those of greater influence were not. In one of his letters Cyprian suggests that injus­tice in the courts played some part in his conversion.2

While the ideals of patronage re­quired a patron to care for those who had entered into his clientele, those who were not bound to him in this way were not his responsibility. However, Cyprian’s generosity was not confined to his clients or even his own church. It was not just encouragement which Cyprian lavished upon the unfortunate. His biographer Pontius gives us a glowing report of his generosity to all and sundry: ‘No widow returned from him with an empty lap; no blind man was unguided by him as a companion; none faltering in step was unsupported by him for a staff; none stripped of help by the hand of the mighty was not protected by him as a defender.’ 3

Cyprian also exhorts his elders in Carthage to be generous. He writes while in exile:

In respect of means, moreover, for meeting the expenses, whether for those who, having confessed their Lord with a glorious voice, have been put in prison, or for those who are labouring in poverty and want, and still stand fast in the Lord, I entreat that nothing be wanting, since the whole of the small sum which was collected there was distributed among the clergy for cases of that kind, that many might have means through which they could provide the necessities and burdens of individuals.4

And another example:

I request that you will diligently take care of the widows, and of the sick, and of all the poor. Moreover, you may supply the expenses of strangers, if any should be in want, from my own portion ... which ... I have supplemented ... so that the sufferers may be more largely and promptly dealt with.5

One of the occasions on which a client had to spend money on his patron was ransom paid to his enemies for his release when he had been taken captive. One of the ancient social commentators6 does not list this as a duty required of a patron – it was expected of clients – but we have an example of Cyprian doing just that. There does not seem to be any parallel in previous Roman history. He writes to the bishops of one of the churches of Numidia:7

I have read your letter which you wrote to me from the solicitude of your love, concerning the captivity of our brethren and sisters ... We have then sent you a sum of one hundred thousand sesterces,8 which have been collected here in the church over which by the Lord’s mercy we preside ... If, however, for the searching out of the love of our mind, and for the testing of the faith of our heart, any such thing should happen, do not delay to tell us of it in your letters, counting it for certain that our church and the whole fraternity here beseech by their prayers that these things may not happen again; but if they happen, that they will willingly and liberally render help. But that you may have in mind in your prayers our brethren and sisters who have laboured so promptly and liberally for this needful work, that they may always labour; and that in return for their good work you may present them in your sacrifices and prayers, I have subjoined the names of each one ... And besides our own amount, I have intimated and sent their small sums, all of whom, in conformity with the claims of faith and charity, you ought to remember in your supplications and prayers.9

By way of explanation, one hundred thousand sesterces was one tenth of the value of property a man had to have to qualify to enter the Senate, the Roman ruling council. It is difficult to do so, but if this sum is converted into modern figures, it would amount to something around $100,000,000. Cyprian obviously had a lot more money, but it is clear that he was very generous. We see that he did so not only on this occasion, but would do all he could to do so again, if it were necessary. Where the money came from is not certain, but one could make a good guess that a good portion of it came from Cyprian himself, probably money accumulated previously from rent or inheritance.

We should note that Cyprian’s concern for those in difficulty was not confined to monetary gifts. There are numerous refer­ences throughout his letters to prayer. He prayed often himself and often exhorts others to do so.

We need to remember that however wealthy and influential Cyprian was, he was nevertheless a Christian and a bishop during two persecutions. After some centuries of intermittent perse­cution, the authorities had concluded that it was more useful to persecute the clergy than the laity. Consequently, Cyprian was first in the firing line and may have been pursued out of propor­tion to his perceived importance to the church because of his wealth.

Some of the limits of Cyprian’s influ­ence are shown by his inability to assist the persecuted in practical ways. There are a number of examples of letters of consolation which he wrote to Christians condemned to the mines, where they would be worked very hard in dark, dusty conditions until they succumbed to fatigue or disease.

Examples are hard to find, but if Cyprian were so generous with his money it is easy to believe that he would have been similarly generous with his time in giving advice and ar­bitrating disputes and acting as a legal advocate. Indeed, many early bishops acted as what we would think of as secular judges in courts such as the Dis­putes Tribunal when there were disputes between believers.

In conclusion, it is difficult to fault Cyprian’s generosity, though we must re­member that to have been so he must have had enormous wealth at his dispos­al. His concern for those in hard times included prayer and he surely would have given advice in everyday matters, including matters relating to the law, and acted as a legal advocate or arbitrator when he needed to. Despite the limits placed upon his influence, he is never­theless a sterling example of unstinting charity to those in want, particularly given his busy life as a secular patron and bishop.

Modern applications of Cyprian’s patronage would include things such as financial advice, generosity with wealth and education, and use of influence to help others. We must of course beware of misusing influence to obtain for others what is not theirs, but for a Christian employer to hire someone in the church has benefits for both – the employee obviously obtains work, but the employer is able to employ someone whose character he is more likely to know than someone whom he has never met. Among us as a church we have skills, knowledge, and experience in nearly every conceivable area of expertise; why not put that to use to benefit those of the household of faith?

So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. Galatians 6:10

Generous use of the money which God has first given us is an obvious application from the life of Cyprian: indeed, God has given us all our abilities to advance his kingdom here on earth.

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their dis­tress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:17

We must not belittle the importance of prayer. Occasionally we think that we have done ‘everything’ and all that remains is to pray. We should pray from the start and we can see from Cyprian’s life that he did so as well as doing all the material good that was in his power to do.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. Ephesians 6:18

We must all acknowledge that we could spend more time in prayer; and to pray knowledgeably requires knowing about other people’s lives, not as gossips, but as interested brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of us in the Reformed churches do all these things as we have opportunity to; let us keep up the good work.


  1. ^ The others were Tertullian (lived around 160-220) and Augustine (354-430). Africa refers to an area about where modern Tunisia is.
  2. ^ Ad Donatum (To Donatus), 10-11. Later in the letter he complains about the misuse of wealth.
  3. ^ Life of Cyprian, 3.
  4. ^ Epistle. v. 1.
  5. ^ Ep. vii.
  6. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
  7. ^ A province neighbouring Africa.
  8. ^ Four sesterces equals one denarius, which in New Testament times was a day’s wage for a manual labourer.
  9. ^ Ep. lxii. 1, 3-4.

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