Relics By this term are usually understood the bodies or clothes of saints and martyrs, or the instruments by which they were put to death or suffered torment, which were so revered in the Romish Church as to be worshipped and carried about in procession. The honoring of the relics of saints, on which the Church of Rome afterwards founded her superstitious and lucrative use of them, as objects of devotion, as a kind of charms, or amulets, and as instruments of pretended miracles, appears to have originated in a very ancient custom that prevailed among Christians, of assembling at the cemeteries or burying-places of the martyrs for the purpose of commemorating them and of performing divine worship. Here they displayed their affection for their brethren by such rites as were dictated by fervent affection and were consistent with the principles of religion. In the 4th century the boundary between respect and worship was passed. Helena, the mother of Constantine, made a journey to Jerusalem and there discovered, as she supposed, the wood of the true cross, a part of which she gave to the city of Jerusalem, and sent the other part to Constantine, who encased it in his own statue and regarded it as the palladium of his new city. When the profession of Christianity obtained the protection of the civil government, under Constantine the Great, stately churches were erected over sepulchres, and the names and memories of the departed were treated with every possible token of affection and respect.
This reverence, however, gradually exceeded all reasonable bounds; and those prayers and religious services were thought to have a peculiar sanctity and virtue which were performed over their tombs; hence the practice which afterwards obtained of depositing relics of saints and martyrs under the altars in all churches. This practice was early thought of such importance that St. Ambrose, in the 4th century, would not consecrate a church because it had no relics; and the Council of Constantinople, in Trullo (A.D. 692), ordained that those altars should be demolished under which were found no relics. Such was the rage for them at one time that even Mabillon, the Benedictine, justly complains that the altars were loaded with suspected relics, numerous spurious ones being everywhere offered to the piety and devotion of the faithful. He adds, too, that bones are often consecrated which, so far from belonging to saints, probably do not belong to Christians. From the catacombs of Italy, Sicily, and other places which had served as the burial-places of the primitive Christians, although the catacombs have both before and since been used for other purposes, numerous relics have been taken. Even as early as 386 Theodosius was obliged to pass a law forbidding the people to dig up the bones of martyrs or traffic in their remains. The superstition grew until, in the 9th century, these relics were not only treated with veneration, but were supposed to have the virtue of healing disorders of body and mind and defending their possessors against the devices and assaults of the devil. Nor was this efficacy destroyed or lessened when the relic was distributed in fragments. In the 11th century relics were tried by fire, and those which did not consume were reckoned genuine, and the rest not. Relic-collecting has been carried to great lengths in Europe, the Italian churches especially being full of fictitious relics. The following is only a sample of those in the Church of Santa Croce de Gerusalemme: three pieces of the true cross, the title placed over the cross; two thorns from the crown of our Lord; the sponge extended to our Lord with vinegar and gall; a piece of the veil and hair of the Virgin; a phial full of the blood of Jesus; some of the manna gathered in the desert, etc.
Relics of saints were regarded as the palladia of cities, as St. Martin's body was carried out to the gates of Tours in 845 to repel a siege by the Danes. St. Werburgh's relics were borne in procession to quell a fire at Chester, and the canons bore them through the diocese to invite alms for the erection of Salisbury Cathedral. At Lichfield the bells were rung at their departure and return. In the 6th century the custom of swearing upon relics, as later upon the Gospels, began. Relics were, and still are, preserved on the altars whereon mass is celebrated, a square hole being made in the middle of the altar large enough to receive the hand, and therein is deposited the relic, being first wrapped in red silk and enclosed in a leaden box. In Catholic countries these relics are popularly esteemed the most precious treasures of the churches, and in earlier times they had even a high marketable value, large sums having been often raised by necessitous princes by the sale or mortgage of pieces of the "true cross," etc. Before the Reformation relics were in demand in Scotland, and their sale was a fertile source of revenue to the monks. They were forbidden to be brought into England by several statutes, and justices were empowered to search houses for them and to deface and destroy them when found. This folly has not been without learned and labored defence, antiquity and Scripture both having been appealed to in its support. Bellarmine cites the following passages: Ex 13:19; De 34:6; 2Ki 13:21; 2Ki 23:16-18; Isa 11:10; Mt 9:20-22; Ac 5:12-15; Ac 19:11-12. But there is no doubt that the worship of relics is an absurdity, without the guarantee of Scripture, directly contrary to the practice of the primitive Church, and irreconcilable with common-sense. Latin monographs uipon relics and relic-worship have been written by Cellarius (Helmst. 1656), Jung (Hanov. 1783), Kortholt (1680), Morellus (Rome, 1721), Steger (Leips. 1688), Batti (1655), Kiesling, Rambach (Hale, 1722). See Barnum, Romanism as It Is; Methodist Quar. Rev. Oct. 1866; Mosheim, Eccles. Hist.; Neander, Hist. of Christian Church.