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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 17 — Protestantism in France From Death of Francis I (1547) to Edict of Nantes (1598)

Chapter 3 — First national Synod of the French Protestant Church

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Early Assemblies of French Protestants—Colportage—Holy Lives—The Planting of Churches throughout France—Play at La Rochelle—First National Synod—Confession of Faith of the French Church— Constitution and Government—Gradation of Courts - Order and Liberty - Piety Flourishes.

The young vine which had been planted in France, and which was beginning to cover with its shadow the plains of that fair land, was at this moment sorely shaken by the tempests; but the fiercer the blasts that warred around it, the deeper did it strike its roots in the soil, and the higher did it lift its head into the heavens. There were few districts or cities in France in which there was not to be found a little community of disciples. These flocks had neither shepherd to care for them, nor church in which to celebrate their worship. The violence of the times taught them to shun observation; nevertheless, they neglected no means of keeping alive the Divine life in their souls, and increasing their knowledge of the Word of God. They assembled at stated times, to read together the Scriptures, and to join in prayer, and at these gatherings the more intelligent or the more courageous of their number expounded a passage from the Bible, or delivered a word of exhortation. These teachers, however, confined themselves to doctrine. They did not dispense the Sacraments, for Calvin, who was consulted on the point, gave it as his opinion that, till they had obtained the services of a regularly ordained ministry, they should forego celebrating the Lord's Supper. They were little careful touching the fashion of the place in which they offered their united prayer and sang their psalm. It might be a garret, or a cellar, or a barn. It might be a cave of the mountains, or a glen in the far wilderness, or some glade shaded by the ancient trees of the forest. Assemble where they might, they knew that there was One ever in the midst of them, and where he was, there was the Church. One of their number gave notice to the rest of the time and place of meeting. If in a city, they took care that the house should have several secret doors, so that, entering by different ways, their assembling might attract no notice. And lest their enemies should break in upon them, they took the precaution of bringing cards and dice with them, to throw upon the table in the room of their Bibles and psalters, as a make-believe that they had been interrupted at play, and were a band of gamblers instead of a congregation of Lutherans. [1]

In the times we speak of, France was traversed by an army of book-hawkers. The printing-presses of Geneva, Lausanne, and Neuchatel supplied Bibles and religious books in abundance, and students of theology, and sometimes even ministers, assuming the humble office of colporteurs carried them into France. Staff in hand, and pack slung on their back, they pursued their way, summer and winter, by highways and cross-roads, through forests and over marshes, knocking from door to door, often repulsed, always hazarding their lives, and at times discovered, and dragged to the pile. By their means the Bible gained admission into the mansions of the nobles, and the cottages of the peasantry. They employed the same methods as the ancient Vaudois colporteur to conceal their calling. Their precious wares they deposited at the bottom of their baskets, so that one meeting them in city alley, or country highway, would have taken them for vendors of silks and jewelry—a deception for which Florimond de Raemond rebukes them, without, however, having a word in condemnation of the violence that rendered the concealment necessary. The success of these humble and devoted evangelists was attested by the numbers whom they prepared for the stake, and who, in their turn, sowed in their blood the seed of new confessors and martyrs.

At times, too, though owing to the fewness of pastors it was only at considerable intervals, these little assemblies of believing men and women had the much-prized pleasure of being visited by a minister of the Gospel. From him they learned how it was. going with their brethren in other parts of France. Their hearts swelled and their eyes brightened as he told them that, despite the fires everywhere burning, new converts were daily pressing forward to enroll themselves in the army of Christ, and that the soldiers of the Cross were multiplying faster than the stake was thinning them. Then covering the table, and placing upon it the "bread" and "cup," he would dispense the Lord's Supper, and bind them anew by that holy pledge to the service of their heavenly King, even unto the death. Thus the hours would wear away, till the morning was on the point of breaking, and they would take farewell of each other as men who would meet no more till, by way of the halter or the stake, they should reassemble in heaven. The singular beauty of the lives of these men attracted the notice, and extorted even the praise, of their bitterest enemies. It was a new thing in France. Florimond de Raemond, ever on the watch for their halting, could find nothing of which to accuse them save that "instead of dances and Maypoles they set on foot Bible-readings, and the singing of spiritual hymns, especially the psalms after they had been turned into rhyme. The women, by their deportment and modest apparel, appeared in public like sorrowing Eves, or penitent Magdalenes, as Tertullian said of the Christian women of his day. The men too, with their mortified air, seemed to be overpowered by the Holy Ghost." [2] It does not seem to have occurred to the monkish chronicler to inquire why it was that what he considered an evil tree yielded fruits like these, although a true answer to that question would have saved France from many crimes and woes. If the facts were as Raemond stated them—if

the confessors of an heretical and diabolical creed were men of preeminent virtue the conclusion was inevitable, either that he had entirely misjudged regarding their creed, or that the whole moral order of things had somehow or other come to be reversed. Even Catherine de Medici, in her own way, bore her testimony to the moral character of Protestantism. "I have a mind," observed she one day, "to turn to the new religion, to pass for a prude and a pious woman." The persecutors of that age are condemned out of their own mouths. They confess that they "killed the innocent."

Truly wonderful was the number of Protestant congregations already formed in France at the time of the death of Henry II. "Burning," yet "not consumed," the Reformed Church was even green and flourishing, because refreshed with a secret dew, which was more eiticacious to preserve its life than all the fury of the flames to extinguish it. We have already recorded the organization of the Church in Paris, in 1555. It was followed in that and the five following years by so many others in all parts of France, that we can do little save recite the names of these Churches. The perils and martyrdoms through which each struggled into existence, before taking its place on the soil of France, we cannot recount. The early Church of Meaux, trodden into the dust years before, now rose from its ruins. In 1546 it had seen fourteen of its members burned; in 1555 it obtained a settled pastor. [3] At Angers (1555) a congregation was formed, and placed under the care of a pastor from Geneva. At Poictiers, to which so great an interest belongs as the flock which Calvin gathered together, and to whom he dispensed, for the first time in France, the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, a congregation was regularly organized (1555). It happened that the plague came to Poictiers, and drove from the city the bitterest enemies of the Reformation; whereupon its friends, taking heart, formed themselves into a Church, which soon became so flourishing that it supplied pastors to the congregations that by-and-by sprang up in the neigh-bourhood. [4] At Alevert, an island lying off the coast of Saintonge, a great number of the inhabitants received the truth, and were formed into a congregation in 1556. At Agen, in Guienne, a congregation was the same year organized, of which Pierre David, a converted monk, became pastor. He was afterwards chaplain to the King of Navarre.

At Bourges, at Aubigny, at Issoudun, at Blois, at Tours, at Montoine, at Pau in Bearn, Churches were organized under regular pastors in the same year, 1556. To these are to be added the Churches at Montauban and Angouleme. [5]

In the year following (1557), Protestant congregations were formed, and placed under pastors, at Orleans, at Sens, at Rouen in Normandy, and in many of the towns and villages around, including Dieppe on the shores of the English Channel. Protestantism had penetrated the mountainous region of the Cevennes, and left the memorials of its triumphs amid a people proverbially primitive and rude, in organized Churches. In Brittany numerous Churches arose, as also along both banks of the Garonne, in Nerac, in Bordeaux, and other towns too numerous to be mentioned. In Provence, the scene of recent slaughter, there existed no fewer than sixty Churches in the year 1560. [6]

The beginnings of the "great and glorious" Church of La Rochelle are obscure. So early as 1534 a woman was burned in Poitou, who said she had been instructed in the truth at La Rochelle. From that year we find no trace of Protestantism there till 1552, when its presence there is attested by the barbarous execution of two martyrs, one of whom had his tongue cut out for having acted as the teacher of others; from which we may infer that there was a little company of disciples in that town, though keeping themselves concealed for fear of the persecutor. [7]

In 1558 the King and Queen of Navarre, on their way to Paris, visited La Rochelle, and were splendidly entertained by the citizens. In their suite was M. David, the ex-monk, and now Protestant preacher, already referred to. He proclaimed openly the pure Word of God in all the places through which the court passed, and so too did he in La Rochelle. One day during their majesties' stay at titis city, the town-crier announced that a company of comedians had just arrived, and would act that day a new and wonderful piece. The citizens crowded to the play; the king, the queen, and the court being also present.

When the curtain rose, a sick woman was seen at the point of death, shrieking in pain, and begging to be confessed. The parish priest was sent for. He arrived in breathless haste, decked out in his canonicals. He began to shrive his penitent, but to little purpose. Tossing from side to side, apparently in greater distress than ever, she cried out that she was not well confessed. Soon a crowd of ecclesiastics had assembled round the sick woman, each more anxious than the other to give her relief. One wouldhave thought that in such a multitude of physicians a cure would be found; but no: her case baffled all their skill. The friars next took her in hand. Opening great bags which they had brought with them, they drew forth, with solemn air, beads which they gave her to count, relics which they applied to various parts of her person, and indulgences which they read to her, with a perfect confidence that these would work an infallible cure.

It was all in vain. Not one of these renowned specifics gave her the least mitigation of her sufferings. The friars were perfectly non-plussed. At last they bethought them of another expedient. They put the habit of St. Francis upon her. Now, thought they, as sure

as St. Francis is a saint, she is cured. But, alas! attired in cowl and frock, the poor sick woman sat rocking from side to side amid the friars, still grievously tormented by the pain in her conscience, and bemoaning her sad condition, that those people understood not how to confess her. At that point, when priest and friar had exhausted their skill, and neither rosary nor holy habit could work a cure, one stepped upon the stage, and going up to the woman, whispered into her ear that he knew a man who would confess her right, and give her ease in her conscience; but, added he, he goes abroad only in the night-time, for the day-light is hurtful to him. The sick person earnestly begged that that man might be called to her. He was straightway sent for: he came in a lay-dress, and drawing near the bolster, he whispered something in the woman's ear which the spectators did not hear. They saw, however, by her instant change of expression, that she was well pleased with what had been told her. The mysterious man next drew out of his pocket a small book, which he put into her hand, saying aloud, "This book contains the most infallible recipes for the curing of your disease; if you will make use of them, you will recover your health perfectly in a few days." Hereupon he left the stage, and the sick woman, getting out of bed with cheerful air, as one perfectly cured, walked three times round the stage, and then turning to the audience, told them that that unknown man had succeeded where friar and priest had failed, and that she must confess that the book he had given her was full of most excellent recipes, as they themselves might see from the happy change it had wrought in her; and if any of them was afflicted with the same disease, she would advise them to consult that book, which she would readily lend them; and if they did not mind its being somewhat hot in the handling, and having about it a noisome smell like that of a fagot, they might rest assured it would certainly cure them. If the audience desired to know her name, and the book's name, she said, they were two riddles which they might guess at. [8]

The citizens of La Rochelle had no great difficulty in reading the riddle. Many of them made trial of the book, despite its associations with the stake and the fagot, and they found that its efficacy sufficiently sovereign to cure them. They obtained deliverance from that burden on the conscience which had weighed them down in fear and anguish, despite all that friar or penance could do to give them ease. From that time Protestantism flourished in La Rochelle; a Church was formed, its members not darng as yet, however, to meet for worship in open day, but assembling under cloud of night, as was still the practice in almost all places in France.

We are now arrived at a new and most important development of Protestantism in France. As has been already mentioned, the crowns of France and Spain made peace between themselves, that they might be at liberty to turn their arms against Protestantism, and effect its extermination. Both monarchs were preparing to inflict a great blow. It was at that hour that the scattered sections of the French Protestant Church drew together, and, rallying around a common standard, presented a united front to their enemies.

It was forty years since Lefevre had opened the door of France to the Gospel. All these years there had been disciples, confessors, martyrs, but no congregations in our sense of the term. The little companies of believing men and women scattered over the country, were cared for and fed only by the Great Shepherd, who made them lie down int he green pastures of his Word, and by the still waters of his Spirit. But this was an incomplete and defective condition. Christ's people are not only a "flock," but a "kingdom," and it is the peculiarity of a kingdom that it possesses "order and government" as well as subjects. The former exists for the edification and defense of the latter.

In 1555 congregations began to be formed on the Genevan model. A pastor was appointed to teach, and with him was associated a small body of laymen to watch over the morals of the flock. The work of organizing went on vigorously, and in 1560 from one to two thousand Protestant congregations existed in France. Thus did the individual congregation come into existence. But the Church of God needs a wider union, and a more centralized authority.

Scattered over the wide space that separates the Seine from the Rhone and the Garonne, the Protestant Churches of France were isolated and apart. In the fact that they had common interests and common dangers, a basis was laid, they felt, for confederation. In this way would the wisdom of all be available for the guidance of each, and the strength of each be combined for the defense of all.

As the symbol of such a confederation it was requisite that a creed should be drafted which all might confess, and a code of discipline compiled to which all would submit. Not to fetter the private judgment of individual Christians, nor to restrict the rights of individual congregations, was this creed framed; on the contrary, it was intended as a shield of both liberty of opinion and liberty of Christian action. But in order to effect this, it was essential that it should be drawn from the doctrines of the Bible and the models of apostolic times, with the same patient investigation, and the same accurate deduction, with which men construct a science from the facts which they observe in nature, but with greater submission of mind, inasmuch as the facts observed for the framing of a creed

are of supernatural revelation, and with a more anxious vigilance to avoid error where error would be so immensely more pernicious and destructive, and above all, with a dependence on that Spirit who inspired the Word, and who has been promised to enlighten men in the true sense of it. As God has revealed himself in his Word, so the Church is bound to reveal the Word to the world. The French Protestant Church now discharged that duty to its nation.

It was agreed between the Churches of Paris and Poictiers, in 1558, that a National Synod should be held for the purpose of framing a common confession and a code of discipline. In the following spring, circular letters were addressed to all the Churches of the kingdom, and they, perceiving the benefit to the common cause likely to acrue from the step, readily gave their consent. It was unanimously agreed that the Synod should be held in Paris. The capital was selected, says Beza, not because any preeminence or dignity was supposed to belong to the Church there, but simply because the confluence of so many ministers and elders was less likely to attract notice in Paris than in a provincial town. [9] As regards rank, the representative of the smallest congregation stood on a perfect equality with the deputy of the metropolitan Church.

The Synod met on the 25th of May, 1559. At that moment the Parliament was assembling for the Mercuriale, at which the king avowed his purpose of pursuing the Reformed with fire and sword till he had exterminated them. From eleven Churches only came deputies to this Synod: Paris, St. Lo, Dieppe, Angers, Orleans, Tours, Poictiers, Saintes, Marennes, Chatellerault, and St. Jean d'Angely. [10] Pastor Francois Morel, Sieur of Cellonges, was chosen to preside. Infinite difficulties had to be overcome, says Beza, before the Churches could be advertised of the meeting, but greater risks had to be run before the deputies could assemble: hence the fewness of their number. The gibbet was then standing in all the public places of the kingdom, and had their place of meeting been discovered, without doubt, the deputies would have been led in a body to the scaffold. There is a simplicity and a moral grandeur appertaining to this assembly that compels our homage. No guard stands sentinel at the door. No mace or symbol of authority traces the table round which the deputies of the Churches are gathered; no robes of office dignify their persons; on the contrary, royal edicts have proclaimed them outlaws, and the persecutor is on their track. Nevertheless, as if they were assembled in peaceful times, and under the shadow of law, they go on day by day, with calm dignity and serene power, planting the foundations of the House of God in their native land. They will do their work, although the first stones should be cemented with their blood.

We can present only an outline of their great work. Their Confession of Faith was comprehended in forty articles, and agrees in all essential points with the Creed of the Church of England. They received the Bible as the sole infallible rule of faith and manners. They confessed the doctrine of the Trinity; of the Fall, of the entire corruption of man's nature, and his condemnation; of the election of some to everlasting life; of the call of sovereign and omnipotent race; of a free redemption by Christ, who is our righteousness; of that righteousness as the ground of our justification; of faith, which is the gift of God, as the instrument by which we obtain an interest in that righteousness; of regeneration by the Spirit to a new life, and to good works; of the Divine institution of the ministry; of the equality of all pastors under one chief Pastor and universal Bishop, Jesus Christ; of the true Church, as composed of the assembly of believers, who agree to follow the rule of the Word; of the two Sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper; of the policy which Christ has established for the government of his Church; and of the obedience and homage due to rulers in monarchies and commonwealths, as God's lieutenants whom he has set to exercise a lawful and holy office. [11]

Their code of discipline was arranged also in forty articles. Dismissing details, let us state in outline the constitution of the Reformed Church of France, as settled at its first National Synod. Its fundamental idea was that which had been taught both at Wittemberg and Geneva, namely, that the government of the Church is diffused throughout the whole body of the faithful, but that the exercise of it is to be restricted to those to whom Christ, the fountain of that government, has given the suitable gifts, and whom their fellow Church members have called to its discharge. On this democratic basis there rose four grades of power:—

1. The Consistory.
2. The Colloquy.
3. The Provincial Synod.
4. The National Synod.

Correspending with these four grades of power there were four circles or areas — the Parish, the District, the Province, and the Kingdom. Each grade of authority narrowed as it ascended, while the circle within which it was exercised widened. What had its beginning in a democracy, ended in a constitutional monarchy, and the interests of each congregation and each member of the Church were, in the last resort, adjudicated upon by the wisdom and authority of all. There was perfect liberty, combined with perfect order.

Let us sketch briefly the constitution of each separate court, with the sphere within which, and the responsibilities under which, it exercised its powers. First came the Consistory. It bore rule over the congregation, and was composed of the minister, elders, and deacons. The minister might be nominated by the Consistory, or by the Colloquy, or

by the Provincial Synod, but he could not be ordained till he had preached three several Sundays to the congregation, and the people thus had had an opportnnity of testing his gifts, and his special fitness to be their pastor. The elders and deacons were elected by the congregatiom

The Colloquy came next, and was composed of all the congregations of the district. Each congregation was represented in it by one pastor and one elder or deacon. The Colloquy met twice every year, and settled all questions referred to it from the congregations within its limits. Next came the Provincial Synod. It comprehended all the Colloquies of the Province, every congregation sending a pastor and an elder to it. The Provincial Synod met once a year, and gave judgment in all cases of appeal from the court below, and generally in all matters deemed of too great weight to be determined in the Colloquy.

At the head of this gradation of ecclesiastical authority came the National Synod. It was composed of two pastors and two elders from each of the Provincial Synods, and had the whole kingdom for its domain or circle. It was the court of highest judicature; it determined all great causes, and heard all appeals, and to its authority, in the last resort, all were subject. It was presided over by a pastor chosen by the members. His preeminence was entirely official, and ended at the moment the Synod had closed its sittings.

In the execution of their great task, these first builders of the Protestant Church in France availed themselves of the counsel of Calvin. Nevertheless, their eyes were all the while directed to a higher model than Geneva, and they took their instructions from a higher authority than Calvin. They studied the New Testament, and what they aimed at following was the pattern which they thought stood revealed to them there, and the use they made of Calvin's advice was simply to be able to see that plan more clearly, and to follow it more closely. Adopting as their motto the words of the apostle — "One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren"—they inferred that there must be government in the Church—" One is your Master"—that the source of that government is in heaven, namely, Christ; that the revelation of it is in the Bible, and that the depository of it is in the Church — "All ye are brethren." Moving between the two great necessities which their motto indicated, authority and liberty, they strove to adjust and reconcile these two different but not antagonistic forces—Christ's royalty and his people's brotherhood. Without the first there could not be order, without the second there could not be freedom. Their scheme of doctrine preceded their code of discipline; the first had been accepted before the second was submitted to; thus all the bonds that held that spiritual society together, and all the influences that ruled it, proceeded out of the throne in the midst of the Church. If they, as constituted officers, stood between the Monarch and the subjects of this spiritual empire, it was neither as legislators nor as rulers, strictly so called. "One" only was Master, whether as regarded law or government. Their power was not legislative but administrative, and their rule was not lordly but ministerial; they were the fellow-servants of those among whom, and for whom, their functions were discharged.

The Synod sat four days; its place of meeting was never discovered, and its business finished, its mermbers departed for their homes, which they reached in safety. Future councils have added nothing of moment to the constitution of the French Protestant Church, as framed by this its first National Synod. [12]

The times subsequent to the holding of this assembly were tunes of great prosperity to the Protestants of France. The Spirit of God was largely given them; and though the fires of persecution continued to burn, the pastors were multiplied, congregations waxed numerous, and the knowledge and purity of their members kept pace with their increase. The following picture of the French Church at this era has been drawn by Quick:—"The holy Word of God is duly, truly, and powerfully preached in churches and fields, in ships and houses, in vaults and cellars, in all places where the Gospel ministers can have admission and conveniency, and with singular success. Multitudes are convinced and converted, established and edified. Christ rideth out upon the white horse of the ministry, with the sword and the bow of the Gospel preached, conquering and to conquer. His enemies fall under him, and submit themselves unto him."

"Oh! the unparalleled success of the plain and earnest sermons of the first Reformers! Multitudes flock in like doves into the windows of God's ark. As innumerable drops of dew fall from the womb of the morning, so hath the Lord Christ the dew of his youth. The Popish churches are drained, the Protestant churches are filled. The priests complain that their altars are neglected; their masses are now indeed solitary. Dagon cannot stand before God's ark. Children and persons of riper years are catechized in the rudiments and principles of the Christian religion, and can give a satisfactory account of their faith, a reason of the hope that is in them. By this ordinance do their pious pastors prepare them for communion with the Lord at his holy table." [13]


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