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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 11 — The Gospel preached in Paris – A Martyr

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Margaret of Navarre – Her Hopes – Resolves to have the Gospel Preached in France – The City Churches not to be had – Opens a Private Chapel in the Louvre – A Large and Brilliant Assembly convenes – The Preachers – Paris Penitent and Reforming – Agitation in the Sorbonne – The Sorbonnists apply to the King – The Monks occupy the Pulpits – They Threaten the King – Beda Banished – Excitement in Paris – The Populace Remain with Rome – The Crisis of France – The Dominican Friar, Laurent de la Croix – His Conversion – Preaches in France – Apprehended and conducted to Paris – His Torture – His Condemnation – His Behaviour at the Stake – France makes her Choice: she will Abide with Rome.

LEAVING princes to intrigue for their own ends, under cover of advancing religion, let us turn to the work itself, and mark how it advances by means of instrumentalities far different from those which kings know to employ. This brings before us, once more, a lady illustrious for her rank, and not less illustrious for her piety – Margaret, the sister of the king, and now Queen of Navarre. She saw her brother holding out his hand to the Protestants of Germany, and the King of England, and permitted herself to believe that the hour had at last come when Francis and his kingdom would place themselves on the path of the Reform, and that in the martyrdom of Berquin, which had filled her soul with so profound a sorrow, she had seen the last blood that would ever be sprit on the soil of France, and the last stake that would ever blaze in the Place de Greve for the cause of the Gospel. Full of these hopes, her zeal and courage grew stronger every day.

Reflecting that she stood near the throne, that thousands in all parts of Reformed Christendom looked to her to stand between the oppressor and his victim, and that it became her to avert, as far as was in her power, the guilt of innocent blood from her house and the throne of her brother, she girded herself for the part which it became her to act. The Gospel, said this princess, shall be preached in France, in the very capital, nay, in the very bosom of the Roman Catholic Church. The moment was opportune. The Carnival of 1533 was just ended. Balls and banquets had for weeks kept the court in a whirl and Paris in continual excitement, and, wearied with this saturnalia, Francis had gone to Picardy for repose. Margaret thus was mistress of the situation. She summoned Roussel to her presence, and told him that he must proclaim the "great tidings" to the population of Paris from its pulpits. The timid evangelist shook like aspen when this command was laid upon him. He remonstrated: he painted the immense danger: he acknowledged that it was right that the Gospel should be preached, but he was not the man; let Margaret find some more intrepid evangelist. The queen, however, persisted. She issued her orders that the churches of Paris should be opened to Roussel. But she had reckoned without her host. The Sorbonne lifted its haughty head and commanded that the doors of the churches should be kept closed. The queen and the Sorbonne were now in conflict, but the latter carried the day. These Sorbonnists could be compared only to some of old, who professed to be the door-keepers of the kingdom of heaven, but would neither go in themselves, nor permit those that would to enter.

Margaret now bethought her of an expedient which enabled her to turn the flank of the doctors. She was resolved to have the Gospel preached in the capital of France, and to have it preached now; it might be the turning-point of its destiny, and surely it was a likelier way to establish the Reform than that of diplomatists, who were seeking to do so by leagues and battles, if the Sorbonnists were masters in the city, Margaret was mistress in the palace. She accordingly extemporised a chapel in the Louvre, and told Roussel that he must preach in it. This was a less formidable task than holding forth in the city pulpits. The queen publicly announced that each day at a certain hour a sermon would be preached under the royal roof, and that all would be welcome from the peer downwards. The Parisians opened their eyes in wonder. Here was something till now unheard of – the king's palace turned into a Lutheran conventicle! When the hour came a crowd of all ranks was seen streaming in at the gates of the Louvre, climbing its staircase, and pressing on through the antechambers to the saloon, where, around Roussel, sat the King and Queen of Navarre, and many of the grandees of France. The preacher offered a short prayer, and then read a portion of Scripture, which he expounded with clearness and great impressiveness. The result bore testimony to the wisdom of Roussel and the power of the truth. A direct assault on the Papacy would but have excited the combative faculties of his hearers, the exposition of the truth awakened their consciences.

Every day saw a greater crowd gathering in the chapel. The saloon could no longer contain the numbers that came, and antechambers and corridors had to be thrown open to give enlarged space to the multitude. The assembly was as brilliant as it was numerous. Nobles, lawyers, men of letters, and wealthy merchants were mingled in the stream of bourgeoisie and artisans that each day, at the appointed hour, flowed in at the royal gates, and devoutly listened under the gorgeous roof of the Louvre to preaching so unwonted. Verily, he would have been a despondent man who, at that hour, would have doubted the triumph of the good cause in France.

Margaret, emboldened

by the success which had attended her experiment, returned to her first idea, which was to get possession of the churches, turn out the monks, and for their ribald harangues substitute the pure Gospel. She wrote to her brother, who was still absent, and perhaps not ill-pleased to be so, making request to have the churches placed at her disposal. Francis granted her wish to the extent of permitting her the use of two of the city churches. He was willing to do Protestantism this service, being shrewd enough to see that his negotiations with English and German Protestants would speed none the worse, and that it might equally serve his purpose to terrify the Pope by the possible instant defection of France from its "obedience" to the "Holy See." One of the churches was situated in the quarter of St. Denis, and Margaret sent the Augustine monk Courault to occupy it, around whom there daily assembled a large and deeply impressed congregation gathered from the district. Berthaud, also an Augustine, occupied the pulpit of the other church put by Francis at Margaret's disposal. [1] A fountain of living water had the Queen of Navarre opened in this high place; inexpressible delight filled her soul as she thought that soon this refreshing stream would overflow all France, and convert the parched and weary land into a very garden. It was the season of Easter, and never had Lent like this been kept in Paris. The city, which so lately had rung from one end to the other with the wild joy and guilty mirth of the Carnival, was now not only penitent, but evangelical. "The churches were filled," says the historian Crespin, "not with formal auditors, but with men who received the glad tidings with great joy.

Drunkards had become sober, the idle industrious, the disorderly peaceful, and libertines had grown chaste." Three centuries and more have rolled over Paris since then. Often, in the course of that time, has that city been moved, excited, stricken, but never in such sort as now. The same Spirit which, in the days of Noah's preaching, strove with the antediluvians, then shut up, as in prison, under the doom of the coming deluge, unless they repented, was manifestly striving, at this hour, with the men of Paris and of France, shut up, as in a prison, under a sentence which doomed them, unless they escaped by the door that Protestantism opened to them, to sink beneath the fiery billows of war and revolution.

What, meanwhile, were the doctors of the Sorbonne about? Were they standing by with shut mouths and folded arms, quietly looking on, when, as it must have seemed to them, the bark of Peter was drifting to destruction? Did they slumber on their watch-tower, not caring that France was becoming Lutheran? Far from it. They gave a few days to the hearing of the report of their spies, and then they raised the alarm. A flood of heresy, like the flood of waters that drowned the old world, was breaking in on France. They must stop it; but with what? The stake. "Let us burn Roussel," said the fiery Beda, "as we burned Berquin." [2] The king was applied to for permission; for powerful as was the Sorbonne, it hardly dared drag the preacher from the Queen of Navarre's side without a warrant from Francis. The king would interfere neither for nor against.

They applied to the chancellor. The chancellor referred them to the archbishop, Du Bellay. He too refused to move. There remained a fourth party to whom they now resolved to carry their appeal the populace. If they could carry the population of Paris with them they should yet be able to save Rome. With this object an agitation was commenced, in which every priest and monk had to bear his part. They sent their preachers into the pulpits. Shouting and gesticulating these men awoke, now the anger, now the horror of their fanatical hearers, by the odious epithets and terrible denunciations which they hurled against Lutheranism. They poured a host of mendicants into the houses of the citizens. These, as instructed beforehand, while they filled their wallets, dropped seditious hints that "the Pope was above the king," adding that if matters went on as they were doing the crown would not long adorn the head of Francis.

Still further to move the people against the queen's preachers, processions were organized in the streets. For nine days a crowd of penitents, with sackcloth on their loins and ashes on their heads, were seen prostrate around the statue of St. James, loudly imploring the good saint to stretch out his staff, and therewith smite to the dust the hydra that was lifting up its abhorred head in France.

Nor did the doctors of the Sorbonne agitate in vain. The excitable populace were catching fire. Fanatical crowds, uttering revolutionary cries, paraded the streets, and the Queen of Navarre and her Protestant coadjutors, seeing the matter growing serious, sent to tell the king the state of the capital.

The issue, in the first instance, was a heavy blow to the agitators. The king's pride had been touched by the attack which the Romanists had made on the prerogative, and he ordered that Beda, and the more inflammatory spirits who followed him, should be sent into banishment. [3]

It was a trial of strength, not so much between Evangelism and Romanism as between the court and the university, and the Sorbonne had to bow its proud head. But the departure of Beda did not extinguish the agitation; the fire he had kindled continued to burn after he was gone. Not in a day were the ignorance and fanaticism, which had been ages a-growing, to be extirpated: fiery placards were posted on the houses; ribald ballads were sung in the streets.

"To the stake! to the stake! the fire is their home; As God hath commanded, let justice be done,"

was the refrain of one of these unpolished but cruel productions. Disputations, plots, and rumors kept the city in a perpetual ferment. The Sorbonnists held daily councils; leaving no stone unturned; they worked upon the minds of the leading members of the Parliament of Paris, and by dint of persistency and union, they managed to rally to their standard all the ignorant, the fanatical, and the selfish – that is, the bulk of the population of the capital. The Protestant sermons were confirmed for some time; many conversions took place, but the masses remained on the side of Rome.

This was the CRISIS of France – the day of its special visitation. More easily than ever before or since might France have freed its soul from the yoke of Rome, and secured for all coming time the glorious heritage of Protestant truth and liberty. This was, in fact, its second day of visitation.

The first had occurred under Lefevre and Farel. That day had passed, and the golden opportunity that came with it had been lost. A second now returned, for there in the midst of Paris were the feet of them that "publish peace," and that preach "the opening of the prison to them that are bound." What all auspicious and blessed achievement if Margaret had been able to win the population of Paris to the Gospel! Paris won, France would have followed. It needed but this to crown its many happy qualities, and make France one of the most delightful lands on earth – a land full of all terrestrial good things; ennobled, moreover, by genius, and great in art as in arms. But Paris was deaf as adder to the voice of the charmer, and from that hour the destiny of France was changed. A future of countless blessings was fatally transformed into a future of countless woes. We behold woe on woe rising with the rising centuries, we had almost said with the rising years. If for a moment its sun looks forth, lo! there comes another tempest from the abyss, black as night, and bearing on its wings the fiery shower to scorch the miserable land. The St. Bartholomew massacre and civil wars of the sixteenth century, the dragonnades of the seventeenth, the revolution of the eighteenth, and the communism of the nineteenth are but the more notable outbursts of that revolving storm which for 300 years has darkened the heavens and devastated the land of France.

Paris had made its choice. And as in old time when men joined hands and entered into covenant they ratified the transaction by sacrifice, Paris sealed its engagement to abide by the Pope in the blood of a disciple of the Gospel. Had the Sorbonne been more completely master of the situation, Roussel would have been selected as the sacrifice; but he was too powerfully protected to permit the priests venturing on burning him, and a humbler victim had to be found. A Dominican friar, known by the name of Laurent de la Croix, had come to the knowledge of the Gospel in Paris.

Straightway he threw off his cowl and cloak and monkish name, and fled to Geneva, where Farel received him, and more perfectly instructed him in the Reformed doctrines. To great natural eloquence he now added a clear knowledge and a burning zeal. Silent he could not remain, and Switzerland was the first scene of his evangelizing efforts. But the condition of poor France began to lie heavy on his heart, and though he well knew the perils he must brave, he could not restrain his yearnings to return and preach to his countrymen that Savior so dear to himself. Crossing the frontier, and taking the name of Alexander, he made his way to Lyons. Already Protestantism had its disciples in the city of Peter Waldo, and these gave a warm welcome to the evangelist. He began to preach, and his power to move the hearts of men was marvelous. In Lyons, the scene of Irenaeus' ministry, and the seat of a Church whose martyrs were amongst the most renowned of the primitive age, it seemed as if the Gospel, which here had lain a thousand years in its sepulcher, were rising from the dead. Alexander preached every day, this hour in one quarter of the city and the next in the opposite. [4] It began to be manifest that some mysterious influence was acting on the population. The agents of the priests were employed to scent it out; but it seemed as if the preacher, whoever he was, to his other qualities added that of invisibility. His pursuers, in every case, arrived to find the sermon ended, and the preacher gone, they knew not whither. This success in baffling pursuit made his friends in time less careful. Alexander was apprehended. Escorted by bowmen, and loaded with chains, he was sent to Paris.

The guard soon saw that the prisoner they had in charge was like no other that had ever before been committed to their keeping. Before Paris was reached, the captain of the company, as well as several of its members, had, as the result of their prisoner's conversation with them, become converts to the Gospel. As he pursued his journey in bonds, Alexander preached at the inns and villages where they halted for the night. At every stage of the way he left behind him trophies of the Protestant faith.

The prisoner was comforted by the thought that his Master had turned the road to the stake into a missionary progress, and if in a few days he should breathe his last amid the flames, others would rise from his ashes to confess the truth when he could no longer preach it.

Arrived in Paris, he was brought before the Parliament. The prisoner meekly yet courageously confessed the Reformed faith. He was first cruelly tortured. Putting his limbs in the boot, the executioners drove in the wedges with such blows that

his left leg was crushed. Alexander groaned aloud. "O God," he exclaimed, says Crespin, "there is neither pity nor mercy in these men! Oh, that I may find both in thee!" "Another blow," said the head executioner. The martyr seeing Budaeus among the assessors, and turning on him a look of supplication, said, "Is there no Gamaliel here to moderate the cruelty they are practicing on me?" [5]

Budaeus, great in the schools, but irresolute in the matters of the Gospel, fixing an eye of pity on Alexander, said, "It is enough: his torture is too much: forbear." His words took effect. "The executioners," says Crespin, "lifted up the martyr, and carried him to his dungeon, a cripple." [6] He was condemned to be burned alive. In the hope of daunting him, his sentence, contrary to the then usual practice, was pronounced in his presence; but they who watched his face, instead of fear, saw a gleam of joy shoot, at the instant, athwart it. He was next made to undergo the ceremony of degradation. They shaved his crown, scraped his fingertips, and tore off his robe. "If you speak a word," said they, "we will cut out your tongue;" for about this time, according to the historian Crespin, this horrible barbarity began to be practiced upon the confessors of the truth. Last of all they brought forth the rob de fol. When Alexander saw himself about to be arrayed in this dress, he could not, says Crespin, refrain from speaking. "O God," said he, "is there any higher honor than to receive the livery which thy Son received in the house of Herod?"

The martyr was now attired for the fire. Unable to walk to the place of execution, for one of his legs had been sorely mangled in the boot, they provided a cart, one usually employed to convey away rubbish, and placed the martyr in it. As he passed along from the Conciergerie to the Place Maubert he managed to stand up, and resting his hands on the sides of the cart and leaning over, he preached to the crowds that thronged the streets, commending to them the Savior for whom he was about to die, and exhorting them to flee from the wrath to come. The smile which his sentence had kindled on his face had not yet gone off it; nay, it appeared to glow and brighten the nearer he drew to the stake. "He is going to be burned," said the onlookers, "and yet no one seems so, happy as he."

Being come to the place of execution they lifted him out of the cart, placed him against the stake, and bound him to it with chains. He begged, before they should kindle the pile, that he might be permitted to say a few more last words to the people. Leave was given, and breaking into an ecstasy he again extolled that Savior for whom he was now to lay down his life, and again commended him to those around. The executioners, as they waited to do their office, gazed with mingled wonder and fear on this strange criminal. The spectators, among whom was a goodly number of monks, said, "Surely there is nothing worthy of death in this man," and smiting on their breasts, and bewailing his fate, with plenteous tears, exclaimed, " If this man is not saved, who of the sons of men can be so?" [7] Well might the martyr, as he saw them weeping, have said, "Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves." A few sharp pangs, and to him would come joy for ever; but for them, alas! and for their children, the cry of the blood of the martyr, and of thousands more yet to be slain, was to be answered in a future dark with woes.

Now that we find ourselves 300 years from these events, and can look back on all that has come and gone in Paris since, we can clearly see that the year 1533 was one of the grand turning-points in the history of France. Between the stake of Berquin and the stake of Alexander, there were three full years during which the winds of persecution were holden. During at least two of these years the Gospel was freely and faithfully preached in the capital; an influence from on High was plainly at work amongst the people. Five thousand men and women daily passed in at the gates of the Louvre to listen to Roussel; and numerous churches throughout the city were opened and filled with crowds that seemed to thirst for the Water of Life. Many "felt the powers of the world to come." In these events, Providence put it distinctly to the inhabitants of Paris, "Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve. Will ye abide by the Papacy, or will ye cast in your lot with the Reformation?" and the men of Paris as distinctly replied, when the period of probation had come to an end, "We will abide by the Pope." The choice of Paris was the choice of France. Scarcely were the flames of Alexander's pile extinguished, when the sky of that country, which was kindling apace, as the friends of truth fondly thought, with the glories of the opening day, because suddenly overcast, and clouds of threatening blackness began to gather. In the spring of 1534 the churches of Paris were closed, the sermons were suppressed, 300 Lutherans were swept off to prison, and soon thereafter the burnings were resumed. But the ominous circumstance was that the persecutor was backed by the populace. Queen Margaret's attempt to win over the population of the capital to the Gospel had proved a failure, and the consequence was that the Sorbonne, with the help of the popular suffrage, again set up the stake, and from that day to this the masses in France have been on the side of Rome.

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Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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