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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 13 — First Protestant administration of the Lord's Supper in France

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Calvin goes to Poictiers — Its Society — Calvin draws Disciples round him — Re-unions — The Gardens of the Basses Treilles — The Abbot Ponthus — Calvin's Grotto — First Dispensation of the Lord's Supper in France — Formation of a Protestant Congregation — Home Mission Scheme for the Evangelisation of France — The Three First Missionaries — Their Labors and Deaths — Calvin Leaves Poictiers — The Church of Poictiers — Present State and Aspect of Poictiers.

CALVIN had been half-a-year at Angouleme, and now, the storm having blown over, he quitted it and returned northward to Poictiers. The latter was then a town of great importance. It was the seat of a flourishing university, and its citizens numbered amongst them men eminent for their rank, their learning, or their professional ability. Two leagues distant from the town is the battlefield where, in 1356, the Black Prince met the armies of France under John of Valois, and won his famous victory. Here, in the spring of 1534, we behold a humble soldier arriving to begin a battle which should change the face of the world. In this district, too, in former times lived Abelard, and the traces he had left behind him, though essentially skeptical, helped to prepare the way for Calvin. Thin, pale, and singularly unobtrusive, yet the beauty of his genius and the extent of his knowledge soon drew around the stranger a charmed circle of friends.

The Prior of Trois Moutiers, a friend of the Du Tillets, opened his door to the traveler. The new opinions had already found some entrance into the learned society of Poictiers; but with Calvin came a new and clearer light, which soon attracted a select circle of firm friends.

The chief magistrate, Pierre de La Planche, became his friend, and at his house he was accustomed to meet the distinguished men of the place, and under his roof, and sometimes in the garden, the Basses Treilles, did Calvin expound to them the true nature of the Gospel and the spiritual glory of the kingdom of heaven, thus drawing them away from idle ceremonies and dead formulas, to living doctrines by which the heart is renewed and the life fructified. Some contemned the words spoken to them, others received them with meekness and joy. Among these converts was Ponthus, abbot of a Benedictine convent in the neighborhood of Poictiers, and head of a patrician family. [1] Forsaking a brilliant position, he was the first abbot in France who openly professed himself a disciple of the Reformed faith. Among his descendants there have been some who gave their lives for the Gospel; and to this day the family continue steadfastly on the side of Protestantism, adorning it by their piety not less than by their rank. [2]

It was at Poictiers that the evangelisation of France began in a systematic way. The school which Calvin here gathered round him comprehended persons in all conditions of life — canons, lawyers, professors, counts, and tradesmen. They discoursed about Divine mysteries as they walked together on the banks of the neighboring torrent, the Clain, or as they assembled in the garden of the Basses Treilles, where, like the ancient Platonists, they often held their re-unions. There, as the Papists have said, were the first beginnings in France of Protestant conventicles and councils. [3] "As it was in a garden," said the Roman Catholics of Poictiers, "that our first parents were seduced, so are these men being enchanted by Calvin in the garden of the Basses Treilles." [4]

By-and by it was thought prudent to discontinue these meetings in the Basses Treilles, and to seek some more remote and solitary place of re-union. A deep and narrow ravine, through which rolls the rivulet of the Clain, winds past Poictiers. Its rocks, being of the limestone formation, abound in caves, and one of the roomiest of these, then known as the "Cave of Benedict," but which from that day to this has borne the name of "Calvin's Grotto," was selected as the scene of the future gatherings of the converts. [5] It was an hour's walk from the town. Dividing into groups, each company, by a different route, found its way to the cave. Here prayer was offered and the Scriptures expounded, the torrent rolling beneath, and the beetling rocks and waving trees concealing the entrance. In this grotto, so far as the light of history serves, was the Lord's Supper celebrated for the first time in France after the Protestant fashion. [6] On an appointed day the disciples met here, and Calvin, having expounded the Word and offered prayer, handed round the bread and cup, of which all partook, even as in the upper room at Jerusalem sixteen centuries before. The place had none of the grandeurs of cathedral, but "the glory of God and the Lamb" lent it beauty. No chant of priest, no swell of organ accompanied the service, but the devotion of contrite hearts, in fellowship with Christ, was ascending from that rocky chamber, and coming up before the throne in heaven.

Often since have the children of the Reformation assembled in the dens and caves, in the forests, wildernesses, and mountains of France, to sing their psalm and celebrate their worship; and He who disdains the gorgeous temple, which unholy rites defile, has been present with them, turning the solitude of the low-browed cave into an august presence-chamber, in which they have seen the glory and heard the voice of the Eternal.

Calvin now saw, as the fruit of his labors, a little Protestant congregation in Poictiers. This did not content him; he desired to make this young Church a basis of evangelisation for the surrounding provinces, and ultimately for the whole kingdom. One day in the little assembly he said, "Is there any one here willing to go and give light to those whom the Pope

has blinded?" [7] Jean Vernon, Philip Veron, and Albert Babinot stood up and offered themselves for this work. Veron and Babinot, turning their steps to the south and west, scattered the good seed in those fertile provinces and great cities which lie along the course of the Garonne. In Toulouse and Bordeaux they made many disciples. Obeying Calvin's instructions they sought to win the teachers of the youth, and in many cases they entirely succeeded; so that, as we find the staunch Roman Catholic Raemond complaining, "the minister was hid under the cloak of the magister," "the young were lost before they were aware of their danger," and "many with only down on their chins were so incurably perverted, that they preferred being roasted over a slow fire to renouncing their Calvinism." [8] Jean Vernon remained at Poictiers, where he found an interesting field of labor among the students at the university. It was ever the aim of Calvin to unite religion and science. He knew that when these are divorced we have a race of fanatics on the one side, and of sceptics on the other; therefore, of his little band, he commanded one to abide at the university seat; and of the students not a few embraced the Reformed faith. These three missionaries, combining prudence with activity, and escaping the vigilance of the priests, continued to evangelise in France to their dying day. Veron and Babinot departed in peace; Vernon was seized as he was crossing the Alps of Savoy, and burned at Chambery. This was the first home-mission set agoing in modern times. After a stay of barely two months Calvin quitted Poictiers, going on by way of Orleans and Paris to Noyon, his birth-place, which he visited now for the last time.

But he did not leave Poictiers as he had found it. There was now within its walls a Reformed Church, embracing many men distinguished by their learning, occupying positions of influence, and ready to confess Christ, if need were amid the flames. [9]

It is deeply interesting to observe the condition at this day of a city around which the visit of Calvin has thrown so great an interest, and whose Church, founded by his hands, held no inconspicuous place among the Protestant Churches of France in the early days of the Reformation. [10]

Poictiers, we dare say, like the city of Aosta in Italy, is in nowise proud of this episode in its history, and would rather efface than perpetuate the traces of its illustrious visitor; and, indeed, it has been very successful in doing so. We question whether there be now a dozen persons in all Poictiers who know that the great chief of the Reformation once honored it by his residence, and that there he laid the foundations of a Protestant Church which afterwards gave martyrs to the Gospel. Poictiers is at this day a most unexceptionably Roman Catholic city, and exhibits all the usual proofs and concomitants of genuine Roman Catholicism in the dreariness and stagnation of its streets, and the vacuity and ignorance to be read so plainly on the faces of its inhabitants. The landscape around is doubtless the same as when Calvin went in and out at its gates. There is the same clear, dry, balmy sky; there is the same winding and picturesque ravine, with the rivulet watering its bottom, and its sides here terraced with vines, there overhung with white limestone rocks, while cottages perched amid fruit-trees, and mills, their wheels turned by the stream, are to be seen along its course. East and west of the town lie outspread those plains on which the Black Prince, in the fourteenth century, marshalled his bowmen, and where French and English blood flowed in commingled torrents, and where, 200 years later, Calvin restored to its original simplicity that rite which commemorates an infinitely greater victory than hero ever achieved on earth. Within its old limits, unchanged since the times of Calvin, is the town itself. Here has Poicfiers been sitting all this long while, nursing its orthodoxy till little besides is left it to nurse.

Manufactures and commerce have left it; it has but a scanty portion of the corn and wine which the plains around yield to others. Its churches and edifices have grown hoary and tottering; the very chimes of its bells have a weird and drowsy sound; and its citizens, silent, listless, and pensive, look as if they belonged to the fifteenth century, and had no light to be seen moving about in the nineteenth.

In the center of Poictiers is a large quadrangular piazza, a fountain in the middle of it, a clock-tower in one of its angles, and numerous narrow lanes running out from it in all directions. These lanes are steep, winding, and ill-paved.

In one of these lanes, but a little way from the central piazza, is a venerable pile of Gothic architecture, as old, at least, as the days of Calvin, and which may have served as the college amongst whose professors and students he found his first disciples. Its gables, turned to the street, show to the passer-by its rich oriels; and pleasant to the eye is its garden of modest dimensions, with its bit of velvet sward, and its trees, old and gnarled, but with life enough in their roots to send along their boughs, in spring, a rush of rich massy foliage.

A little farther off from the Piazza, in another lane which attains the width of a street, with an open space before it, stands the Cathedral, by much the most noticeable of all the buildings of Poictiers. Its front is a vast unrolled scroll of history, or perhaps we ought to say of biography. It is covered from top to bottom with sculptures, the subjects extremely miscellaneous, and some of them not a little grotesque. The lives of numerous Scripture heroes — patriarchs, warriors, and kings — are here depicted,

being chiselled in stone, while in the alternate rows come the effigies of saints, and Popes, and great abbots; and, obtruding uncouthly among these venerable and dignified personages, are monsters of a form and genus wholly unknown to the geologist. A rare sight must this convention of ante-diluvians, of mediaeval Popes, and animals whose era it is impossible to fix, have presented when in the prime of its stony existence. But the whole goodly assemblage, under the influence of the weather, is slowly passing into oblivion, and will by-and-by disappear, leaving only the bare weather-worn sand-stone, unless the chisel come timeously to the rescue, and give the worthies that figure here a new lease of life.

Calvin must sometimes have crossed the threshold of this Cathedral and stood under this roof. The interior is plain indeed, offering a striking contrast to the gorgeous grotesqueness of the exterior. The walls, covered with simple whitewash, are garnished with a few poor pictures, such as a few pence would buy at a print-seller's. The usual nave and aisle are wanting, and a row of stone pillars, also covered with whitewash, run along the center of the floor and support the roof of the edifice. It had been well if Poictiers had continued steadfast in the doctrine taught it by the man who entered its gates in the March of 1534. Its air at this hour would not have been so thick, nor its streets so stagnant, nor its edifices so crumbling; in short, it would not have been lying stranded now, dropped far astern in the world's onward march.

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