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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 22 — Protestantism in France From Death of Henry IV (1610) to the Revolution (1789)

Chapter 7 — The "Church of the Desert"

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Chapters:
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Secessions – Rise of the "Church of the Desert" – Her Places of Meeting – Her Worship – Pastors – Communion "Tokens" – Night Assemblies – Simplicity yet Sublimity of her Worship – Renewed Persecutions – War of the Camisards – Last Armed Struggle of French Protestantism – No Voice – Bossuet – Antoine Court – The "Restorer of Protestantism" – Death of Louis XIV – Theological Seminary at Lausanne – Paul Rabaut – The Edict of Malesherbes – The Revolution.

IT seemed in very deed as if the once glorious Protestant Church of France had fallen before the storm, and passed utterly from off the soil she had but a century before covered with her goodly boughs. Her ministers banished, her churches razed, her colleges closed, her sons driven into exile, and such of them as remained in the land languishing in prison, or dragging out a life of wretched conformity to the Romish Church – all public monument of French Protestantism had been swept away, and the place that had known it once seemed fated to know it no more for ever.

A deep spiritual decay proved the forerunner of this sore judgment. An emasculated Protestantism had taken the place of that grand Scriptural faith which had given such breadth of view and elevation of soul to the fathers of the Huguenots. This cold belief, so far from rallying new champions to the Protestant standard, could not even retain those who were already around it. The nobles and great families were apostatizing; the ministers were going over to Rome at the rate of a score or so year by year; and numbers of the people had enlisted in the armies of Louis XIV, although they knew that they should have to contend on the battle-field against their brethren in the faith, and that the king's object in the war was to make France strong that it might be able to deal a fatal blow to the Protestantism of Europe. [1] These were symptomatic of a most melancholy decline at the heart of French Protestantism, and now the axe was laid at the root of that tree which, had it been left standing in the soil, would in a few years have died of utter rottenness.

The cutting down of the trunk was the saving of the life, for that moment shoots began to spring forth from the old root. In the remote south, amid the mountains of Dauphine and the Cevennes, after the first stunning effects of the blow had abated, the Reformed began to look forth, and draw to one another;, and taking courage, they met in little companies to celebrate their worship, or to partake of the Sacramental bread. Thus arose The "Church of the Desert." These assemblies speedily increased from a dozen or score of persons to hundreds, and from hundreds at last to thousands. They were ministered to by men who had learned their theology in no school or college, nor had the hands of presbyter been laid upon their head; on them had come only "the anointing of the Holy Spirit." The assemblies they addressed met on the side of a mountain, or on some lonely moor, or in a deserted quarry or gloomy cavern, or amid the great stems and overshadowing branches of a forest. Intimation of the meeting was sent round only on the evening before, and if any one had scandalized his brethren by immorality, he was omitted in the invitation. It was the only ecclesiastical discipline which was administered. Sentinels, stationed all round, on rocks or on hilltops, signaled to the worshippers below the approach of the dragoons, indicating at the same time the quarter from which they were advancing, that the people might know in what direction to flee. While the congregation was assembling, worship was commenced by the singing of a psalm, the Hundredth being commonly selected. The elders then read several chapters of the Bible. At this stage the pastor, who had kept his place of concealment till now, made his appearance, attended by a body-guard of young men, who escorted him to and from the place of meeting, and were prepared to protect his flight should they be surprised by the soldiers. The sermon was not to exceed an hour and a quarter in length. Such were the limits which the Synods of the Church had fixed, with an obvious regard to the safety of the worshippers.

The "Church of the Desert" had been some time in existence before she had the happiness of enjoying the ministry of her exiled pastors. A few returned, at the peril of their lives, when they heard that their scattered flocks had begun to meet together for the performance of worship. About 1730 a theological academy was established at Lausanne, in Switzerland, and thence emanated all the Protestant pastors of France till the reign of Napoleon. The same forms of worship were observed in the wilderness as in the city church in former times. Public prayer formed an important part of the service, conducted either by the ministers or, in their absence, by the elders. The prayers of the pastors were commonly extemporaneous, whereas the elders usually availed themselves of the aid of a liturgy. The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was dispensed at Christmas, at Easter, and at Pentecost, as well as at other times. The purity of the table was anxiously guarded. No one was admitted to it till first he had signified his desire to an elder, and received from him a little medal or "token." [2] These were made of lead, and roughly engraved, having on one side all open Bible, with the rays of the sun, emblematic of the Spirit's light, illuminating its page, and the motto, "Fear not, little flock;" and on the other, a shepherd tending his sheep, or a Communion cup, and a cross, suggestive of persecution. The communicant put down his "token" on the table, and the bread

and cup were then given to him. Often would it happen that those who had gone to mass would beg, with tears in their eyes, admission to the table, but there they could not sit till they had given ample proof of their Penitence.

These worshipping assemblies were usually convened at night, the more effectively to avoid pursuit. When they met in a wood, as very often happened, they hung lamps on the boughs of the trees, that they might see the passages of Scripture which were read, and the psalms that were sung. Afterwards, when the congregations had swelled to thousands, they met during day, selecting as their rendezvous the mountain-top, or some vast stretch of solitary moor. Their worship, how simple in its outward forms, but in spirit how sublime, and in its accessories how grand! the open vault above, the vast solitude around, the psalm and prayer that rose to heaven amidst the deep stillness, the dangers that environed the worshippers – all tended to give a reality and earnestness to the devotions, and impart a moral dignity to the worship, compared with which the splendor of rite or of architecture would have, been but desecration. The Protestant Church of France had returned to her early days. It was now with her as when Calvin administered to her the first Communion on the banks of the Claim This was her second birthday.

When the king and the Jesuits learned that the Protestants had begun again to perform their worship, they broke out into a transport of wrath that was speedily quenched in blood. More arrests, more dragoons, more sentences to the galleys, more scaffolds; such were the means by which they sought to crush the "Church of the Desert." Everywhere in Languedoc and Dauphine the troops were on the alert for the Reformed.

"It was a chase," as Voltaire has expressed it, "in a wide ring." The Marquis de la Trousse, who commanded in the Cevennes, when he surprised a congregation, made his soldiers fire into it as if it was a covey of game. The Protestants had no arms, and could offer no resistance. They dropped on their knees, and raising their hands to heaven, awaited death.

The truthful Antoine Court says that "he was furnished with an exact list of assemblies massacred in different places, and that in some of these encounters from 300 to 400 old men, women, and children were left dead upon the spot." [3] But no violence could stop these field-preachings. They grew ever larger in numbers, and ever more frequent in time, till at last, we are assured, it was nothing uncommon, in traversing the mountain-side or the forest where they had met, to find, at every four paces, dead bodies dotting the sward, and corpses hanging suspended from the trees.

The outbreak of the Camisards came to diversify with new and even greater horrors this terrible tragedy. Driven to desperation and stung to madness by the numberless cruelties, injustices, and infamies of the Government, and permitting them. selves to be directed by certain of their own number whom they regarded as prophets, the peasants of Vivarais and Languedoc rose in arms against the royal troops. Ignorant of the art of war, and provided only with such weapons as they took from their enemies, they lurked behind the bushes and crags of their mountains, and sold their lives as dearly as they were able. They never amounted to more than 10,000, but at times they held in check armies of double that number.

Tiffs guerilla warfare lasted from 1702 to 1706, and was attended with frightful slaughter on both sides. The Cevenols joined the Camisards, which enlarged the seat and intensified the fury of the war. The court took the alarm, and more soldiers were poured into the infected provinces. The more effectually to suppress the rising, the Romanist population were removed into the cities, and the country was laid waste. And the work of devastation not proceeding rapidly enough with the musket, the sword, and the axe, the faggot was called in to expedite it; the dwellings of the peasantry were burned down, and the district, so flourishing before the Revocation, was converted into one vast gloomy wilderness. This was the last armed struggle of the Reformation in France. No noble or pastor took part in it; it was waged for liberty rather than for religion, and though it stained rather than honored the cause in the name of which it was waged, it emboldened the Protestants, who from this time were treated somewhat less mercilessly, not because the Government hated them less, but because it feared them more.

These atrocities were enacted upon no obscure stage, and in no dark age, but in the brilliant era of Louis XIV. Science was then cultivated, letters flourished, the divines of the court and of the capital were learned and eloquent men, and greatly affected the graces of meekness and charity. We wait to hear these lights of their age exclaim against the awful crimes of which France was the theater. Surely some voice will be lifted up.

Bossuet, "the Eagle of Meaux," has come to be credited with a "charity" superior to his country, and which shone all the brighter from the darkness that surrounded it. It would unspeakably delight one to find a name, otherwise so brilliant, unstained by the oppressions and crimes of the period; but the facts brought to light by M. M. Haag, in La France Protestante, completely disprove the truthfulness of the panegyrics which the too partial biographers of the distinguished bishop have pronounced upon his moderation. These show that Bossuet was not superior in this respect to his contemporaries. In giving vigorous enforcement to the edicts of the king within his own diocese, he but acted consistently with his avowed principles. "It behooves us to give obedience to kings," said Bossuet, "as to Justice itself. They are gods, and participate in a certain

sense in the independence of God. No other than God can judge their sentences or their persons." [4] This prepares us for the part he acted against the Protestants. The Intendant who executed the law in his diocese, and who had orders to act according to Bossuet's advice, condemned to death several Protestants of Nanteuil, and even the Abbe le Dieu admits that the bishop demanded their condemnation. True, he demanded also their pardon, but this "pardon" consisted in the commutation of the penalty of death to the galleys for life. Further, it is certified by a letter of Frotte, a former canon of St. Genevieve, and whom Bossuet himself describes as a very honest man, that the bishop caused Protestants to be dragged from the villages of his diocese, cited them before him, and with a military officer sitting by his side, summoned them to abjure their religion; that he used to have children torn from their parents, wives from their husbands, and to have dragoons quartered upon Calvinists to force them to abandon their faith. He asked for lettres de cachet to be issued against the Crochards, father and son, at the very time that the former was dying. [5] He instigated a ruthless persecution of two children, the Mitals. [6] We find him too in the memoir addressed to the minister Pontchartrain, which is published in the seventeenth volume of his works, demanding the imprisonment of two orphans, the Demoiselles de Neuville, whose father was serving in the army of William of Orange, thus punishing the children for the faults, as he deemed them, of the parent. These facts, which are beyond dispute, completely overthrow the claim for superior clemency and mildness which has been set up for the eloquent bishop.

To pursue the century year by year to its close would only be to repeat endlessly the same tale of crime and blood; the facts appertaining to the progress of Protestantism in France, from the war of the Camisards until the breaking out of the great Revolutions. group themselves around two men – Antoine Court and Paul Rabaut. Antoine Court has received from the French Reformed the well-earned title of "Restorer of Protestantism."

He found the French Protestant Church at the close of the Camisard war at the last extremity. She needed educated pastors, she needed public instruction, she needed order and discipline, and above all a revival of piety; and he set about restoring the Protestant Church as originally constructed by the first Synod at Paris in 1559. He was then young, and his task was great, but he brought to it a sound judgment and admirable prudence, an indefatigable zeal, and a bodily constitution that sustained itself under the pressure of prodigious labors, and he succeeded in raising again the fallen edifice. Commencing with assemblies of ten or a dozen, he saw around him before ending his career congregations of eight and ten thousand. By his missionary tours he revived the all but extinct knowledge and zeal of the Protestants. He re-organized the worshipping assembly; he re-constituted the Consistory, the Colloquy, and the Synod; and he provided a race of educated and pious pastors. He convoked a Synod (October 21st, 1715), the first which had met since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. At that moment Louis XIV lay dying in his splendid palace of Versailles. History delights in contrasts, and we have here one that will repay our attention. On the one side is the great monarch; his children dead; his victories swept away; the commerce and industry of his kingdom ruined; many tracts lying untilled; while his subjects, crushed under enormous taxes, and cursing the man whose wars and pleasures had plunged his realm into millions of debt, waited gloomily till his remains should be borne to the grave, that they might throw stones and mud at his coffin. On the other side we behold a youth of nineteen laying anew the foundations and raising up the walls of that Protestantism to commemorate the entire destruction of which Louis XIV had caused so many medals to be struck, and a bronze statue to be erected.

Having re-constituted upon its original bases the Reformed Church of France, Antoine Court in 1730 retired to Lausanne to preside over the seminary he had there founded, and which continued for eighty years to send forth pastors and martyrs to France. [7] Paul Rabaut took his place as nourisher of that Protestantism which Antoine Court had restored. The life of Rabaut was full of labors and perils; but he had the satisfaction of seeing the Protestant Church growing from day to day in spite of bloody arrets, and in defiance of the continued operation, sometimes in greater and sometimes in less intensity, of the dragonnade, the galleys, and the scaffold. As the result of continual journeyings, during which he seldom slept more than two nights in the same hiding-place, he kept flowing the fountains that his great predecessor had opened, and streams went forth to water the weary land. But neither then nor since has the Protestant Church of France attained the glory of her former days, when sovereigns and princes sat in her Synods, when great generals led her armies, and learned theologians and eloquent preachers filled her pulpits. She continued still to wear her chains. At length in 1787 came the Edict of Malesherbes, which merely permitted the Protestants to register their births, marriages, and deaths; in other words, recognized them as subjects, and permitted them to prosecute their professions and trades, but still held them punishable for their religious opinions. At last, amid clouds of seven-fold blackness, and the thunderings and lightnings of a righteous wrath, came the great Revolution, which with one stroke of awful justice rent the fetters of the French Protestants, and smote into the dust the throne which had so long oppressed them.


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