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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 3 — The first Protestant congregation of France

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A Bright Morning – Sanguine Anticipations of the Protestants – Lefevre Translates the Bible – Bishop of Meaux Circulates it – The Reading of it at Meaux – Reformation of Manners – First Protestant Flock in France – Happy Days – Complaints of the Tavern-keepers – Murmurs of the Monks – The King Incited to set up the Scaffold – Refuses – The "Well of Meaux."

A MORNING without clouds was rising on France, and Briconnet and Lefevre believed that such as the morning had been so would be the day, tranquil and clear, and waxing ever the brighter as it approached its noon. Already the Gospel had entered the palace. In her lofty sphere Margaret of Valois shone like a star of soft and silvery light, clouded at times, it is true, from the awe in which she stood of her brother and the worldly society around her, but emitting a sweet and winning ray which attracted the eye of many a beholder.

The monarch was on the side of progress, and often made the monks the butt of his biting satire. The patrons of literary culture were the welcome guests at the Louvre. All things were full of promise, and, looking down the vista of coming years, the friends of the Gospel beheld a long series of triumphs awaiting it – the throne won, the ancient superstition overturned, and France clothed with a new moral strength becoming the benefactress of Christendom. Such was the future as it shaped itself to the eyes of the two chief leaders of the movement. Triumphs, it is true, glorious triumphs was the Gospel to win in France, but not exactly of the kind which its friends at this hour anticipated. Its victories were to be gained not in the lettered conflicts of scholars, nor by the aid of princes; it was in the dungeon and at the stake that its prowess was to be shown. This was the terrible arena on which it was to agonize and to be crowned. This, however, was hidden from the eyes of Briconnet and Lefevre, who meanwhile, full of faith and courage, worked with all their might to speed on a victory which they regarded as already half won.

The progress of events takes us back to Meaux. We have already noted the Reformation set on foot there by the bishop, the interdict laid on the friars, who henceforward could neither vent their buffooneries nor fill their wallets, the removal of immoral and incapable cures, and the founding of a school for the training of pastors. Briconnet now took another step forward; he hastened to place the Reform upon a stable basis – to open to his people access to the great fountain of light, the Bible.

It was the ambition of the aged Lefevre, as it had been that of our own Wicliffe, to see before he died every man in France able to read the Word of God in his mother tongue. With this object he began to translate the New Testament. [1] The four Gospels in French were published on the 30th October, 1522; in a week thereafter came the remaining books of the New Testament, and on the 12th October, 1524, the whole were published in one volume at Meaux. [2] The publication of the translated Bible was going on contemporaneously in Germany. Without the Bible in the mother tongues of France and Germany, the Reformation must have died with its first disciples; for, humanly speaking, it would have been impossible otherwise to have found for it foothold in Christendom in face of the tremendous opposition with which the powers of the world assailed it. The bishop, overjoyed, furthered with all his power the work of Lefevre. He made his steward distribute copies of the four Gospels to the poor gratis. [3] "He spared," says Crespin, "neither gold nor silver," and the consequence was that the New Testament in French was widely circulated in all the parishes of his diocese.

The wool trade formed the staple of Meaux, and its population consisted mainly of wool-carders, spinners, weavers. [4] Those in the surrounding districts were peasants and vine-dressers. In town and country alike the Bible became the subject of study and the theme of talk. The artizans of Meaux conversed together about it as they plied the loom or tended the spindle. At meal-hours it was read in the workshops. The laborers in the vineyards and on the corn-fields, when the noontide came and they rested from toil, would draw forth the sacred volume, and while one read, the rest gathered round him in a circle and listened to the words of life. They longed for the return of the meal-hour, not that they might eat of the bread of earth, but that they might appease their hunger for the bread whereof he that eateth shall never die. [5]

These men had grown suddenly learned, "wiser than their teachers," to use the language of the book they were now so intently perusing. They were indeed wiser than the tribe of ignorant cures, and the army of Franciscan monks, whose highest aim had been to make their audience gape and laugh at their jests. Compared with the husks on which these men had fed them, this was the true bread, the heavenly manna. "Of what use are the saints to us?" said they. "Our only Mediator is Christ." [6] To offer any formal argument to them that this book was Divine, they would have felt to be absurd. It had opened heaven to them. It had revealed the throne of God, and their way to it by the one and only Savior. Whose book, then, could this be but God's? and whence could it have come but from the skies?

And well it was that their faith was thus simple and strong, for no less deep a conviction of the Gospel's truth would have sufficed to carry them

through what awaited them. All their days were not to be passed in the peaceful fold of Meaux. Dark temptations and fiery trials, of which they could not at this hour so much as form a conception, were to test them at no distant day. Could they stand when Briconnet should fall? Some of these men were at a future day to be led to the stake. Had their faith rested on no stronger foundation than a fine logical argument – had their conversion been only a new sentiment and not a new nature – had that into which they were now brought been a new system merely and not a new world – they could not have braved the dungeon or looked death in the face. But these disciples had planted their feet not on Briconnet, not on Peter, but on "the Rock," and that "Rock" was Christ: and so not all the coming storms of persecution could cast them down. Not that in themselves they could not be shaken – they were frail and fallible, but their "Rock" was immovable; and standing on it they were unconquerable – unconquerable alike amid the dark smoke and bitter flames of the Place de Greve as amid the green pastures of Meaux.

But as yet these tempests are forbidden to burst, and meanwhile let us look somewhat more closely at this little flock, to which there attaches this great interest, that it was the first Protestant congregation on the soil of France. They were the workmanship, not of Briconnet, but of the Spirit, who by the instrumentality of the Bible had called them to the "knowledge of Christ," and the "fellowship of the saints." Let us mark them at the close of the day. Their toil ended, they diligently repaired from the workshop, the vineyard, the field, and assembled in the house of one of their number. They opened and read the Holy Scriptures; they conversed about the things of the Kingdom; they joined together in prayer, and their hearts burned within them. Their numbers were few, their sanctuary was humble, no mitred and vested priest conducted their services, no choir or organ-peal intoned their prayers; but ONE was in the midst of them greater than the doctor of the Sorbonne, greater than any King of France, even he who has said, "Lo, I am with you alway" – and where he is, there is the Church.

The members of this congregation belonged exclusively to the working class. Their daily bread was earned in the wool-factory or in the vineyard. Nevertheless a higher civilization had begun to sweeten their dispositions, refine their manners, and ennoble their speech, than any that the castles of their nobility could show. Meek in spirit, loving in heart, and holy in life, they presented a sample of what Protestantism would have made the whole nation of France, had it been allowed full freedom among a people who lacked but this to crown their many great qualities.

By-and-by the churches were opened to them. Their conferences were no longer held in private dwellings: the Christians of Meaux now met in public, and usually a qualified person expounded to them, on these occasions, the Scriptures. Bishop Briconnet took his turn in the pulpit, so eager was he to hold aloft "that sweet, mild, true, and only light," to use his own words, "which dazzles and enlightens every creature capable of receiving it; and which, while it enlightens him, raises him to the dignity of a son of God." [7] These were happy days. The winds of heaven were holden that they might not hurt this young vine; and time was given it strike its roots into the soil before being overtaken by the tempest.

A general reformation of manners followed the entrance of Protestantism into Meaux. No better evidence could there be of this than the complaints preferred by two classes of the community especially – the tavern-keepers and the monks. The topers in the wine-shops were becoming fewer, and the Begging Friars often returned from their predatory excursions with empty sacks. Images, too, if they could have spoken, would have swelled the murmurs at the ill-favored times, for few now bestowed upon them either coin or candles. But images can only wink, and so they buried their griefs in the inarticulate silence of their own bosoms. Blasphemies and quarrellings ceased to be heard; there were now quiet on the streets and love in the dwellings of the little town.

But now the first mutterings of the coming storm began to be heard in Paris; even this brought at first only increased prosperity to the Reformed Church at Meaux. It sent to the little flock new and greater teachers. The Sorbonne – that ancient and proud champion of orthodoxy – knew that these were not times to slumber: it saw Protestantism rising in the capital; it beheld the flames catching the edifice of the faith. It took alarm: it called upon the king to put down the new opinions by force. Francis did not respond quite so zealously as the Sorbonne would have liked. He was not prepared to patronize Protestantism, far from it; but, at the same time, he had no love for monks, and was disposed to allow a considerable margin to "men of genius," and so he forbade the Sorbonne to set up the scaffold.

Still little reliance could be placed upon the wavering and pleasure-loving king, and Lefevre, on whom his colleagues of the Sorbonne had contrived to fasten a quarrel, might any hour be apprehended and thrown into prison. "Come to Meaux," said Briconnet to Lefevre and Farel, "and take part with me in the work which is every day developing into goodlier proportions" [8] They accepted the invitation; quitting the capital they went to live at Meaux, and thus all the Reformed forces were collected into one center.

The glory which had departed from Paris now rested upon this little

provincial town. Meaux became straightway a light in the darkness of France, and many eyes were turned towards it. Far and near was spread the rumor of the "strange things" that were taking place there, and many came to verify with their own eyes what they had heard. Some had occasion to visit its wool markets; and others, laborers from Picardy and more distant places, resorted to it in harvest time to assist in reaping its fields; these visitors were naturally drawn to the sermons of the Protestant preachers moreover, French New Testaments were put into their hands, and when they returned to their homes many of them carried with them the seeds of the Gospel, and founded churches in their own districts, [9] some of which, such as Landouzy in the department of Aisne, still exist. [10] Thus Meaux became a mother of Churches: and the expression became proverbial in the first half of the sixteenth century, with reference to any one noted for his Protestant sentiments, that "he had drunk at the well of Meaux." [11]

We love to linger over this picture, its beauty is so deep and pure that we are unwilling to tear ourselves from it. Already we begin to have a presentiment, alas! to be too sadly verified hereafter, that few such scenes will present themselves in the eventful but tempestuous period on which we are entering. Amid the storms of the rough day coming it may solace us to look back to this delicious daybreak. But already it begins to overcast. Lefevre and Farel have been sent away from the capital. The choice that Paris has made, or is about to make, strikes upon our ear as the knell of coming evil. The capital of France has already missed a high honor, even that of harboring within her walls the first congregation of French Protestants. This distinction was reserved for Meaux, though little among the many magnificent cities of France. Paris said to the Gospel, "Depart. This is the seat of the Sorbonne; this is the king's court; here there is no room for you; go, hide thee amid the artizans, the fullers and wool-combers of Meaux." Paris knew not what it did when it drove the Gospel from its gates. By the same act it opened them to a long and dismal train of woes – faction, civil war, atheism, the guillotine, siege, famine, death.


Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, December 11th, 2018
the Second Week of Advent
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