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The Pastor of the Desert

 

“Something is dead over there,” Dad said, pointing.   I looked and saw the buzzards circling in the Oregon sky, round and round.  It was something that I saw many times as a boy.  A deer, a fox, a dog, or a cow lying dead in the manzanita brush of the free range would attract the vultures--the larger the dead, the more the birds.  It was many years later that I read in the Bible, “Where the carcass is, there the eagles [vultures] will be gathered together.”

 

France was a dead society and nation in the late eighteenth century.  Its moral fabric had disintegrated:  “For the first time since the decadent days of Rome, pornography emerged from its caves and circulated openly in a civilized nation…. Strange cults appeared; sex rituals, black magic, Satanism.  Perversion became not only acceptable but fashionable. Homosexuals had public balls to which heterosexuals were invited and the police guarded their carriages.  Prostitutes were admired; swindles and sharp business practices increased.  Political clubs of the more radical sort proliferated…. The air grew thick with plans to restructure and reconstruct all traditional French society and institutions….  The journals were mixtures of politics and smut.  They admired agitators extravagantly and never discussed the Church without mention of scandal nor the government without criticism.  They relied heavily on tales of sin in high places and highhanded outrages of the Court….”  [Scott, Otto.  Robespierre, the Voice of Virtue.]

 

The vultures were everywhere in France, feeding on the carrion.  It was an age of skepticism and intellectualism, but the skepticism and intellectualism were reserved for attacking the religion and the state; almost everything else was believed.  Conspiratorial theories abounded and there was a readiness to believe everything smutty and sordid about any person of prominence.  The word revolution appeared on everybody’s lips and the public thought moved readily from cynicism to utopianism, and each faction spun its gossamers of what the ideal future would be after the revolution.  As in all revolutionary societies there was no honor or respect given to the past; all were ashamed of France and its history.  Investments of hope and emotion were made in terms of the new dreams of new dreamers, dreams of a new order and a new society.  Forgotten was the pride of the nation and its history.  What actually came was beyond dreams and imagination.

 

Some of the outrages might seem not so outrageous if the circumstances had been different.  Of course the frogs in the pond would croak even if the lord of the manor needed his sleep.  If the peasants had been paid a decent wage instead of being forced to “beat the ponds” to keep the frogs quiet, maybe the revolution would not have come.  Maybe, and maybe not.  There were other outrages including grinding taxation, especially after the extravagant expenses of Louis XIV and Louis XV.  The modern man living in the luxuries of western civilization might think a few more thankful thoughts if his high school history classes had included these things.  The Man with the Hoe might wonder at the modern man.

 

The blind were leading the blind.   Didn’t the Bible say that servants are to obey their masters?  Subjects are to be subjection to their rulers?  Church members to submit to those who have the rule over them.  The blind who lead the blind never seem to consider the consequences that may result if the blind choose different blind men to lead them, to choose alternative blind guides.  There are many voices crying in the wilderness and true prophets are few.  Hell is a bottomless pit and one blind guide is as good as another, if nobody knows the way.

 

The cocktail made up of political power, economic and military strength, mixed with the bitters of religious bigotry is a drink fit for hell itself.  This hell fell upon the Protestant who was unfortunate to still be in France during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.   The Edict of Nantes, issued by Henry IV, who ascended to the throne after the disgrace of St. Bartholomew’s Day, had given peace to the Reformed Church in France while he was alive, but he was assassinated in 1610, and France was ruled by the blind and bigoted during the minority of Louis XIII.  The wars that ensued between those who believed in liberty of conscience and those who did not resulted in the complete destruction of Protestantism as a political party.   Cardinal Richelieu had become counselor to the king in 1624 and determined to completely exterminate the Huguenots.  The Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle fell in 1628 and the Huguenots were finished.  The flight from France became a flood.  The remnant of the Huguenots declared their loyalty to the king and became submerged in the life of France.  Their enemies were not satisfied.

 

It is always a mistake to underestimate the sagacity of the blind.  Those opposed to the Reformed Churches found a way to destroy the liberty of the Reformed Churches through the very instrument that seemed to secure their liberties.  In much the same way that modern humanists attack the First Amendment by using the First Amendment, those loyal to Rome used the Edict of Nantes to attack the Edict of Nantes.  They insisted upon its absolute literal interpretation.  They demanded

 

that it should be observed with literal accuracy, disregarding the changes which had been produced in France during more than half a century. The clergy in 1661 successfully demanded that commissioners should be sent to the provinces to report infractions of the Edict, and thus began a judicial war which was to last for more than twenty years. All the churches which had been built since the Edict of Nantes were condemned to be demolished. All the privileges which were not explicitly stated in the actual text of the Edict were suppressed. More than four hundred proclamations, edicts or declarations attacking the Huguenots in their households and their civil freedom, their property and their liberty of conscience were promulgated during the years which preceded the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  In spite of all sufferings which this rigorous legislation inflicted upon them they did not cease to resist, and in order to crush this resistance and to compel them to accept the "king's religion," there were organized the terrible dragonnades (1683-1686) which effected the forcible conversion of thousands of Protestants who gave way under the tortures which were inflicted upon them. It was then that Louis XIV. declared that "the best of the larger part of our subjects, who formerly held the so-called Reformed religion, have embraced the Catholic religion, and therefore the Edict of Nantes has become unnecessary"; on the 18th of October 1685 he pronounced its revocation. Thus under the influence of the clergy was committed one of the most flagrant political and religious blunders in the history of France, which in the course of a few years lost more than 400,000 of its inhabitants, men who, having to choose between their conscience and their country, endowed the nations which received them with their heroism, their courage and their ability. [http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Huguenots; ]

 

The work was complete.  Uniformity of religion was achieved.  Non-conforming pastors had to leave the state within fifteen days.  Churches were demolished, and those who continued to believe the old faith of the apostles met in caves, in the country, wherever they could find refuge.   Pastors returned, scorning death, and visited the people to encourage them in the faith.  Anyone who denied the Catholic faith on his death bed had his corpse dropped into the common sewers.  French galleys were rowed by Huguenots.  In 1702 the desperate revolt of the Camisards broke out and was crushed by the troops of his sunny Highness.

 

The result was the Church in the Desert.  Louis XIV died in 1715, certain that he had forever put an end to all Reformed worship in France, but the decree of God was different.  A young man of twenty years of age, Antoine Court, who was not blind, summoned the first Synod of the Desert and began to put the Reformed worship back together.  Elders were appointed and the preaching of women prohibited.  It was the church that refused to die.  Although their marriages were outlawed in France and children declared illegitimate and the fear of death and the galleys was ever present, the Protestant church grew.    In 1756 there were forty pastors; in 1763, when they held their last synod, there were 65.  Antoine Court became known as the “Restorer of Protestantism” in France.

http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/COR_CRE/COURT_ANTOINE_1696_176o_.html

 

The beginning of the oppression of the French Reformed Christians had begun in 1524 when Jacques Pavannes was burned for writing against the worship of the Virgin and the Saints and continued until the last two galley slaves were released by Louis XVI, a period of some two hundred and fifty years. After the flight of the Huguenots from France, there remained some million Reformed Christians in France.  About a fourth of these perished under the persecution of Louis XIV and Louis XV.  

 

What was the Church in the Desert?   The following is from the record of a Desert pastor on trial for the capital crime of exercising his ministry:

 

“Questioned in what place he had baptized and administered the commuion.

“Answered that it was in the open country, or in the desert.

“We called on the accused to tell us what he meant by the desert.

“The accused said that he meant by the desert lonely and uninhabited places where he assembled the faithful; sometimes in the neighborhood of Alais, of Sauve, etc.”   

 

[This and much of the following is condensed from M. Bridel, Pasteur.  The Pastor of the Desert and His Martyr Colleagues: Sketches of Paul Rabaut.  London, James Nisbet & Co. 1861] 

 

Paul Rabaut [1718-1794], the “Pastor of the Desert,” assumed the leadership of the church at the death of Court.  He was not blind either.  Court had established a seminary at Lausanne to train ministers for France.  So many had offered up their lives for the French church, that it became known as the “Seminary of Blood.”  This seminary alone furnished ministers for French Reformed churches over the course of some seventy-two years.  Some put the number of ministers at about 100, others at 700.  Bridel’s number of 450 is probably closest to the truth.  Only three of them ever acquired any celebrity:  One was the eldest son of Court, the other two were Paul Rabaut and his eldest son, Jean-Paul Rabaut-Saint-Etienne.  Paul Rabaut became pastor of the church at Nîmes in 1741, but took a leave of absence to study at Lausanne from 1740-1743, leaving his young wife Madelaine alone for three years

 

After completing his education Rabaut returned to Nîmes where he was well received.  The effectiveness of his ministry may be measured by the intensity of renewed persecution.  The notorious prisons of the Chateau d’If and the Tower of Constance were filled with the men and women of Calvinism.

 

During this period Rabaut was obliged to conceal himself, and to exercise his ministry in the most profound secrecy. He frequently preached in the woods and waste ground in the environs of Nîmes.  The Protestants, thirsting for the Word of God, exposed themselves to the greatest dangers in order to attend these meetings.  He gathered round him sometimes as many as ten thousand hearers, whom his clear and penetrating voice reached without difficulty. His preaching, simple, sober in thought and expression, copious in Scripture, was especially remarkable for its unction.  He often extemporized with warmth, and the tears of the auditors responded to his own emotion.  At other times he wrote his discourses, many of which, yet unpublished, are preserved with his numerous manuscripts.  Besides preaching, and the care bestowed on his people from house to house, he paid great attention to the religious instruction of the young, being often obliged for this purpose to go from one farm to another, or to remote localities.”

 

Of Rabaut’s preaching, Bridle said, “Much simplicity and unction; more of sweetness than vehemence; little of a controversial character; more of loving earnestness than profound argument; dogmatic exposition always sustained by practical admonitions….  He preached doctrines in the spirit and words of the Gospel, without adding to them, without wandering into details or losing himself in deductions.”  Bridle published one of his sermons, a communion sermon on the text “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” [John 7:37].  The following is from this sermon:

 

He, then, who does not feel his misery will not thirst for the health-giving waters of grace; for the first step he must take to experience this spiritual thirst is to know his sins, to understand how hateful they are God, how dangerous to the soul, and most bitterly to repent of them.  You who have experienced the bitterness of repentance, describe to us your remorse, your agitation, your alarm.  What confusion at the sight of so much insult offered to the Divine Majesty by your thoughts, by your words, by your actions!  What fear in considering that you have often exposed your soul to become the prey of the flames of hell, to be separated from the Blessed God, for ever the victim of his vengeance, for ever given up to its own despair! What regret to have shown yourselves so ungrateful towards your Heavenly Father, to have so little esteemed his benefits, to have resisted his invitations, abused the riches of his patience and long-suffering, to have forsaken Him, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out for yourselves broken cisterns that can hold no water. 

 

To come to Jesus Christ is to believe in Him, to look to Him as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world; to profess his doctrine, to practice his precepts.  This appears from various places in the Gospel where this mode of speaking is employed; thus in the 6th chapter of St. John we see that to come to Jesus Christ and to believe in Him signify one and the same thing; witness those words in verse 35.  “He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst.”  In the same sense He says, “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heaven laden, and I will giver you rest.”  He then explains what He means be coming to Him; “Take my yoke upon you,” says He, “and learn of Me.”  When  Jesus Christ invites you to believe in Him it is not a dead faith that He requires.  ….   Again, if we believe in Jesus Christ, it is because his doctrine is the most excellent, the most worthy of God which has ever appeared, the best adapted to enlighten the mind, to sanctify the heart, to inspire the most solid hopes….

 

Rabaut understood that meekness and submission was the way to eventual triumph over the persecutors.  A young minister named Désubas was betrayed while sleeping in a barn and conveyed to Montpellier for trial.  Many attempts were made to rescue him from the soldiers and numerous Protestants were shot and killed, including about thirty persons killed by soldiers firing into an unarmed assembly.  A large crowd assembled the next day, but were dispersed when Désubas entreated them to disperse:  “There has only been too much blood already shed.  I am very tranquil, and entirely resigned to the will of God.”  The crowd immediately obeyed, but large crowds gathered in other places where there were many Protestants.

 

Hearing of trouble, Rabaut left the recesses where he usually concealed himself and, fearful that the wars might resume to the complete destruction of the churches, arrived at a critical moment and rushed into the midst of the tumultuous bands, begged and entreated, and persuaded them to return to submission and order.  Désubas was taken to Montpelier where he was tried and executed.

 

Rabaut, a short time after the martyrdom of Désubas, wrote to the magistrate and appeal and expression of his pastoral work.  It shows much of his spirit and dedication:

 

In devoting myself to the work of the ministry in this kingdom, I was not ignorant of the consequences I incurred, and regarded myself as a victim devoted to death. No human consideration could have induced me to adopt such a course….  I believe that in undertaking the work of the pastor, I should accomplish the greatest good of which I was capable.  Ignorance is the death of the soul and the source of an infinity of crimes.  The Protestants, deprived of the free exercise of their religion, believing that they ought not to attend the services of the Romish Church, and unable to obtain the books which they need for instruction, judge, my Lord, what would be their condition if they were absolutely destitute of pastors.  They would be ignorant of their most essential duties; they would fall either into fanaticism, the fruitful source of extravagances and disorder, or into indifference and contempt of all religion.

 

“Your Lordship is not ignorant that the ministry of the pastors obviates in a great measure these inconvenience; as to my own, I have neglected nothing for the sound instruction of those who have been confided to my care.  I have especially endeavored, after having established the fundamental truth of religion, to enforce the important duties of morality.  I have preached sermons expressly on obedience and fidelity to sovereign….  It is true that Protestants have suffered much in various provinces of the kingdom, either in their own persons or those of their children, or in their property, and this may give reason to fear that the exhortations of the pastors may not have all the success that could be desired.”

 

The appeals fell on deaf ears.  The persecutions were continued and expanded.  The years 1745 and 1746 were years of blood and tears.  Orders were given for the principal citizens of Nîmes and other places to appear at the churches within two weeks to bring their children for the baptism into the Romish faith.  The Reformed refused, because it was decreed that “The Church has full power over those who have received baptism, just as the King has absolute right over the coin stamped at his mint.”  Terrible punishments were threatened. The people left their houses, fields, workshops, manufactories, and fled to the caves and words.  The Governor ordered soldiers to be stationed and remain at each home until the children were baptized.  A fine would be exacted day until the order was obeyed.  Force would be increased in the case of disobedience. 

 

There were some of fourteen, twelve, and even ten years of age who would not allow themselves to be led to church, and whom it was necessary to drag by force; others filled the air with heart-rending cries; some threw themselves like lions on those who came to seize them, tearing their skin and clothes with their hands; others, having no better way of expressing their resentment, turned into ridicule the ceremony which was about to be performed upon them….. And in this manner, in the midst of these brutal and ignoble scenes, baptism was by force administered!

 

A new device was tried to persuade Paul Rabaut to leave France.  Bridel reported:

 

An armed force entered the dwelling of his family during the night and endeavored to terrify his wife, at that time left in charge of the education of their two eldest sons, and having in addition the care of her aged and infirm mother.  It was signified to Madeleine Gaydan that she would not enjoy the slightest security or repose for herself or her family so long as her husband continued to exercise his minister at Nîmes and in the province.  The Governor, by whose order this was done, hoped that the young woman, from love to her children and her mother, would solicit Rabaut to leave the country for a time.  The attempt was repeatedly made, but was fruitless; Madeleine was one of those women who, far from fettering or retarding the activity of their husbands by the counsels of human prudence, have the power to fortify and encourage them in their devotedness. 

 

She persuaded the Pastor of the Desert to remain and continue his work.  She wandered about herself for two years without a settled home, along with her infirm mother and her two children; received and concealed by friends whom she soon quitted, for fear of compromising them, to resort to others with whom she could not make a longer stay.  During these two years the firmness of this heroic woman was immovable, and at the end of that time her persecutors were wearied of this unworthy method of annoyance.

 

Late in 1756 renewed attempts were made by the government to apprehend Rabaut.  “It was at this period of his life that he passed some time in a sort of hut partly hollowed out of the ground and covered with stones and bushes: this sepulchral dwelling, situated in the midst of an uncultivated district, served him as a retreat at night and even as a study, till a shepherd, leading his flock over the heath, lighted one day upon the little cave and denounced it to the police.  Rabaut regretted this wild abode as if he had enjoyed in it all the comforts of life. He was never apprehended, though often in extreme danger; sometimes he escaped from his persecutors by the speed of a horse which he used to facilitate his extensive circuits.”

 

In spite of the price on his head and separated from his wife and family for long periods, he continued to be faithful to his ministry.  He sent his two elder sons to the Academy at Lausanne to be prepared for the same life of hardships that he endured.

 

In the first part of the 1760’s the people of France were inflamed against the Reformed church because of the celebrated case of Jean Calas, a merchant of Toulouse.  Calas was on trial for the murder of his son.  The truth was that the son had committed suicide by hanging himself from a door at his father’s warehouse.  The enemies of Protestantism spread the vicious rumor that the boy was murdered by his father because he wanted to abjure heresy and rejoin the Roman church.  The young man was given a splendid service for martyrdom and a magnificent tomb.  His father and brother were accused of murder.  Jean Calas was broken alive on the wheel and then thrown into the flames, his goods confiscated, his children banished or shut up in convents.  Three years later his name was cleared and his property restored to his heirs.

 

Rabaut wrote in defense of the Reformed faith.  He refuted the calumny that said that Reformed fathers were required to execute their children who wanted to convert to Rome.  Although many fair and just Roman Catholics spoke out against the rumor, it was still widely circulated and stirred up the masses of the people.  Rabaut wrote:

 

Let them punish us as bad reasoners, or as transgressors of those penal laws which we cannot obey without violating more august commands, but let them not accuse us of being unnatural fathers….

 

The fundamental principle of Protestants consists in recognizing the Holy Scriptures as the only rule of faith and conduct; those Holy Scriptures in which assuredly no one learns to commit parricide.  What church is it which maintains most firmly that faith is the gift of God alone, that conscience is amenable solely to Him, that one man cannot believe at the will of another, that a blind faith is a dead faith, that every act of piety must be voluntary?  It is ours. What church is it which has the most forbearance toward heretics, which carries civil toleration the farthest and asserts that errors are to be combated only by the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God? This again is ours.

 

Is it not the Protestants who have pleaded with most earnestness for liberty of faith and opinion?  To accuse us then of a persecuting spirit is to attack us in our stronghold.  It is generally considered among us that those who err from the truth are to be tolerated, that we are to honor the Deity and never avenge Him. We leave the punishment of heresies to God, to whom alone it belongs.

 

Paul Rabaut received a boost to his work in 1765, when his son Rabaut St. Etienne arrived from Lausanne and was appointed Pastor at Nîmes at the age of 22.  Rabaut’s second son, Rabaut-Pommier served at Montpellier and later at Paris.  Often the children of the Reformed were given as an alias the last name of a city, as a device against those who tried to steal their children so as to rear them in the Roman faith.

 

But the spirit of freedom and religious toleration was in air the 1780’s and 1790’s under the influence of men like Voltaire, Rousseau, and the other humanists.  The Reformed could now bury their dead in public cemeteries.  For a long time the dead had been transported at night to private and secret graves.  In the towns the bodies were buried in graves dug in their own cellars or in their gardens, always in secret.

 

In 1785, Paul Rabaut by permission of the Consistory of Nîmes retired from all pastoral labors.  Selling some property that had belonged to his mother-in-law, with funds donated by a grateful people, he built a house to shelter his old age.  But his troubles were not yet over.

 

In 1786, Jean-Paul Rabaut St. Etienne received a visit from a celebrated French and American hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had recently returned from aiding George Washington and the Americans in their War for Independence.  Washington had entreated Lafayette to try to help the Protestants in France.  Lafayette heard St. Etienne preach and urged him to go to Paris where he could do more to help the Reformed church.  St. Etienne yielded to the urgings of Lafayette and others and worked for a year to help perfect and get passed the Edict of 1787 which gave some small liberties to the Reformed, such as registration of marriages, births, and death.  There was nothing said of meetings, pastors, or worship.  But even this small gesture resulted in an outcry from the benighted priests.  New persecution would have erupted, had not the flood of revolution, a whirlwind of desolation, swept over the land in 1789.

 

In spite of the fact that the great majority of the citizens of Nîmes were Roman Catholic, St. Etienne was elected in the first rank to represent the district in that body which became the Constituent Assembly.  He soon distinguished himself in that assembly as a spokesman for Liberty.  He rejected the idea of Toleration, demanding complete liberty for all the citizens of France.   His work would bear fruit in religious liberty in France almost immediately but was firmly established fifteen years later, ten years after his death.  On Dec. 12, 1804, at the coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I in Paris the Emperor addressed the assembled presidents of the Protestant Consistories, “I wish it to be known that it is my intention and firm determination to maintain liberty of worship: the empire of the law ends where the indefinite empire of conscience begins. Neither the law nor the prince has any power against that liberty.  Such are my principles and those of the nation; and if any one of my family who may succeed me should forge the oath which I have taken and, misled by the suggestions of an ill-informed conscience, should violate it, I devote him to public animadversion, and I authorize you to give him the name of Nero.”

 

But as early as 1789 the revolutionary National Assembly declared liberty of conscience and permitted non-Catholics to be admitted to all positions.  The vice-president of this Assembly was Jean-Paul Rabaut St. Etienne.  In 1790 the Constituent Assemble gave Rabaut St. Etienne the high honor of nominating him to the honorable post of President.  In 1792 the Consistory at Nîmes hired the great church of the Dominicans to celebrate their regular public worship. Paul Rabaut, now 74 years old, gave the prayer and wept tears of joy, for this was the first time his congregation has worshiped in a church.

 

But griefs would follow.   St. Etienne rose in power and prestige in the National Assembly.  When the Gerondists were in power, he was appointed to the Council of Twelve.  He opposed the execution of the King and offended Robespierre and the Jacobins.  When the Jacobins came to power, the Council of Twelve was stripped of all power and the Gerondists were arrested.  St. Etienne escaped and went into hiding, but was betrayed, arrested, and guillotined in December, 1793.

 

Jean-Paul Rabaut St. Etienne was a victim of the very liberty that he had helped turn loose.  He came to realize too late that liberty is not self-sustaining.

 

There is no question that the Reformed were very active in the early stages of the French Revolution.  They ardently desired the changes that men dreamed of in those exciting days.  The excitement was political, religious, social and emotional.  Rousseau had taught Frenchmen to feel, Voltaire had taught them to doubt.  Freedom was in the air, and bubbled up in the souls of men, not only in France, but in the America.

 

Matthew Rainbow Hale of Goucher college wrote of this “bubbling” in the hearts of the democratic-republicans in America:

 

On December 27, 1792, [Jeremy] Post rose before sunrise after being “alarmed by the ringing of the bells throughout the city.”  Expecting to see buildings on fire, “as is too often the case when the bells are ringing, so early in the day,” he rushed out of his home and into the street.  There he was pleasantly “disappointed” when he “was informed that it was a rejoicing for the happy turn of affairs in France . . . which too long had been the seat of absolute and despotic sway.”  Post heard the bells ring again, from “12 to 1 and from 4 to 5,” for the “same occasion as in the morning,” while in the evening, he braved the “very cold” temperatures and joined the “Different companies” gathered together “to congratulate each other on the glorious change of fortune.”  Inspired by these “happy” scenes and “the time spent” on the streets, “in the best of pleasures, arising from the bubbling of the heart” and the “voluntary . . . rejoicings as on the happiness of France,” this New Yorker composed for his diary an abbreviated pep talk directed to France.  “Go on France in the noble cause of freedom,” he urged.  “Show the despotic world an example of bravery, before unequalled within [the] annals of history.”   The “bubbling of the heart” stimulated by the French “example of bravery” was by no means a one-day affair, and the effusive emotions stimulated by the news of December 27 spilled over again on January 1, 1793.  “To day [sic] commences a new Year,” Post wrote, “a year which most probably [will] be attended with many remarkable new scenes.  Probably we may during this year see all Europe in confusion, and every throne tottering from its foundation.” 

[http://www.ufr-anglais.univ-paris7.fr/CENTRES_RECHERCHES/CIRNA/CIRNA1/RESSOURCES/AUTRES_PAGES/COLLOQ/contrib/Matthew_Rainbow_Hale/Colonies_into_Republics_Paper.php]

 

The trouble with “bubbling” and emotion, is that it cannot differentiate between dreams and reality, or as Oscar Wilde put it, “All men kill the thing they love.”

 

But why would the Pastors of the Desert get mixed up in such a stew of rebellion, anarchy, and chaos?  Some of the answer is found in “The Pastors of the Desert on the Eve of the French Revolution,” by Jack Alden Clarke.  Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 18, No. 1, (Jan., 1957), pp. 113-119 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

Clarke affirms that the intervention of Voltaire in the Calas matter brought an unnatural alliance between the philosophic party of the enlightenment and the persecuted Church of the Desert.  Sophisticated and chic writers vied for attention in championing the cause of the underdogs.  The Reformed accepted St. Etienne’s view of religious liberty which could not be distinguished from that of the enlightenment.  Only Paul Rabaut was afraid of the spreading of indifference among the people.  He wrote in 1776, "This freedom for which so many of our people yearn, I fear it as much as I desire it, and I have no trouble putting my fate in the hands of Wise Providence."  But Paul Rabaut stood alone in his pessimism and most of his colleagues accepted without reservations a concept of tolerance that sucked the vitals from their Calvinistic faith.

 

Further, the Reformed toughness was eviscerated by an admiration for Voltaire whom they credited with giving them their liberty.  Clarke writes:

 

Laying aside the Bible for the gazettes and the encyclopedia, clergy and laity alike embrace the sentimental deism of an essentially irreligious epoch.  About the same time in Lausanne the theological instruction of the French seminary became tinged with moralism and rationalism to the detriment of the traditional dogmatic Calvinism.  Instead of serving as ardent defenders of orthodoxy the seminary graduates were already predisposed by their training in favor of the deists.  Far too many of them gloried in their personal relations with these illustrious men of letters and failed to appreciate the insidious character of the natural religion of Voltaire and Rousseau which became the faith of the day.

 

The preaching of Antoine Court, the famed Restorer of Protestantism in France, had been purely biblical, while that of his successor, Paul Rabaut, was likewise orthodox.  In contrast, the sermons of the later Desert are largely secular in spirit and bear evidence of a close acquaintance with the works of the encyclopedists.  The sermons of Rabaut Saint-Etienne read like rationalist discourses: 

 

“The Christian religion is only natural religion unveiled to mortals and confirmed by Jesus Christ….All of our ideas come to us from the senses, that is to say that our soul has no thought, no reflexion, no sentiment which is not given to it by the body….  Every reasonable man has a conscience since our conscience is only our reason which approves us or condemns us.”

 

St. Etienne would say before the National Assembly at the zenith of his power and prestige—in rough translation:  “All the institutions in France crown the misfortunes of the people.  To renew and return it to happiness, [it is necessary] to change its ideas, its laws, its manners, its homes, to change everything; to change the words.  All must be destroyed, yes all destroyed, since all has to be recreated.”  [Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke NOTES to Volume 2, "Reflections on the Revolution in France", edited by Edward J. Payne.]

 

Never has a revolutionary creed been so well expressed, but none more hopeless and delusive, and none more pagan.  To God alone belongs the reformation of character and the predestination of all things. 

 

With the Jacobins in power France turned to the worship of Reason.  All priests and ministers were ordered to move within a week a distance of about 70 miles from their churches.  Paul Rabaut did not move and so was arrested.  “As his infirmities did not allow of his walking he was taken on an ass to the citadel, amidst the insults of the mob.  During his youth and his mature age, he had been persecuted, tracked from place to place, menaced with death a thousand times by the despotism of an absolute monarch; and now, in his enfeebled old age, we see him the butt of the persecutions and the outrages of another despotism quite as hateful as the former, that of the lawless multitude.  He had known before the violence of superstition, he now experience that of impiety.” 

 

However, after a few months, the government changed and he was set free.  He had suffered much, a widower and infirm, sorely afflicted by the death of St. Etienne, his second son in prison, his third in exile.  Seventy-seven years old, he went home, put his house in order, and passed away, his death as simple as his life.

 

“But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” (Heb 11:16)