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Winter 2016: Claude Brousson
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The old city of Nismes, in the south of France, was the scene of many tragic and affecting incidents connected with the persecutions of the French Protestants. There is scarcely a stone of its buildings but could tell its tale of horror, and bear witness to the patience and firmness with which the Cevenol Huguenots endured the sufferings which were sent upon them to try their faith. Again and again were the savage dragoons turned against the city; again and again were the Protestants cut down with the sword or trampled to death beneath the horses’ hoofs, or burned, or hanged, or quartered, or flayed alive; again and again were they driven by thousands to sign the abjurations which in their hearts they despised. No device of the priests could entirely extirpate them. They continued to exist in secret, attending Mass merely to save themselves from violence, and then holding their religious meetings in secret, hearing the word of God preached by their own pastors, and celebrating the sacraments according to the pure custom of the primitive Church. No risk could induce them to abandon their secret worship, and since they were willing to incur this danger, they were never without men willing to brave the greater peril of becoming their pastors. They met and conducted their worship in the vaults and cellars of the city, in the forest, in the neighboring mountains, and in caves. The meeting was always at night, and was conducted with the greatest secrecy, every precaution being taken to guard against a surprise.
One day towards the close of the year 1685 it was whispered among the members of the church at Nismes and in the vicinity of that place, that the Pastor Brousson had arrived, and would preach the next night at a place where many religious gatherings had been held before, and which was believed to be secure from the observation of the Catholics. The news spread rapidly among the Reformed, and it was resolved by them that the meeting should be attended by all who could possibly go. It was known that attendance upon the meeting would be a hazardous undertaking, for the priests and the military had been unusually vigilant of late.
The pastor who was to minister to the people on this occasion was one of the most gifted of all the Cevenol preachers, and the Intendant Baville had offered a large reward to anyone who would take him alive and deliver him over to the authorities for punishment. Nevertheless, despite the risk, despite the distance to be traversed in order to reach the place of meeting, the people resolved to go. Even the women did not shrink from the undertaking. In order not to arouse the suspicions of the Catholics, a larger number of Protestants than usual attended Mass on the morning of the appointed day. At the same time they dug up the hymn books they had buried for safe keeping, and also the arms which had been likewise concealed.
About eight or ten miles to the southwest of Nismes is a fertile district lying at the very foot of the Cevennes mountains, known as the Yaunage. It is one of the most charming valleys of the South of France, and from the slope of the mountains one can see the whole valley at his feet with the land gradually falling away until it meets the blue outline of the Mediterranean in the far distance. Towards the mountains there are sharp, rugged gorges, picturesque defiles, and caverns innumerable. At the time of which we write there was a very large Protestant population in the valley and along the mountain slopes, and there was scarcely a ravine or a cavern which had not been used by them as a place of worship. The place
appointed for the present meeting was a wild ravine not far from the town of Vergeze, which is eight miles from Nismes. It was entered from the direction of the town by a narrow pathway winding amongst the cliffs, which towered up on each side and almost seemed to shut in the sky. The upper end of the ravine was somewhat wider, and the rocks projected so far over the sides as almost to form a cavern. A small stream trickled from the rocks at the upper end, and went gurgling down the gorge to its mouth. A few stunted evergreens and mountain shrubs grew along the sides of the rocks, but they only added to the general sternness and ruggedness of the place. At the lower end there was but one means of entering or leaving the gorge, but at the upper end there were several pathways over the cliffs, some of which the Reformed had cut with great labor to facilitate their escape in case of an attack from the mouth of the glen.
The night appointed for the meeting was bleak and dark. A cold, drizzling rain was falling, against which no covering seemed proof. The Huguenot worshippers hailed the inclemency of the night with joy, however, for they knew it would aid them more effectually in concealing their movements. Few persons but those in the secret would be abroad on such a night, and they would incur less risk than usual of meeting any of their enemies, or of being seen by them. The darkness came early, and towards nightfall the Reformed began to leave their homes, and take their way towards the glen we have described. Those who resided at Nismes left the city before sunset, in order to avoid suspicion. From all parts of the Yaunage there came worshippers of all ages and both sexes, moving silently and cautiously through the darkness, and often pausing to listen and to survey the scene, to make sure they were not followed—all bending their steps towards the mouth of the glen. Arriving at the entrance to the defile, they were halted, and, upon giving the proper password, were suffered to pass on by the sentinels who had been placed there to watch over the safety of the meeting, and give warning of the approach of danger. Other sentinels were posted along the sides of the cliffs and at the summit, from which they could note the approach of the dragoons from any quarter.
By ten o’clock several hundred men, women, and even children, had assembled at the upper end of the gorge. The wind whistled sharply along the sides of the rocks, the rain fell incessantly, causing great discomfort to the worshippers, many of whom were drenched to the skin. Yet all were brave and cheerful, willing to bear any hardships so they might enjoy their worship without interruption from their enemies. A few dim lanterns lit up the scene, and served to make visible to the worshippers the rock, at the extreme upper end of the gorge, occupied by the pastor as a pulpit. In front of this rock, a large flat stone had been placed to serve as a table, and on this were set the vessels containing the bread and wine to be used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. They were covered with a coarse mantle belonging to one of the worshippers, to protect them from the rain. Close by, clad in the rough dress of a peasant, and distinguished as regarded his garb only by the black skull-cap which he wore under his hat, stood the pastor, conversing in low, earnest tones with a group of the brethren who surrounded him. Close by and leaning against the cliff, listening eagerly to the pastor, was his assistant, young Fulcrand Rey, of Nismes, who in a few months more was to pass to his Father’s House through the bloody gates of martyrdom. He seemed to be utterly unconscious of the storm, and his gaze never wandered from the face of the beloved pastor, whose words he drank in eagerly. The pastor was a remarkable man. He was tall, finely formed, and though but thirty-eight years old, had acquired, in consequence no doubt of his life of constant sacrifice and danger, a gravity and dignity of demeanor well suited to his holy calling. His face was strongly marked, indicating great firmness and devotion, as well as courage, and there rested upon it an expression of gentleness and sweetness which fully accounted for the passionate affection with which his followers regarded him.
At the hour of ten, the time appointed, the worship began. Two of the brethren stood up on the rock, each holding a lantern in his hand. Between them they held up a heavy cloak, and under this Fulcrand Rey took his place, with the Bible in his hand, the sacred book being sheltered by the cloak from the falling rain. He read in his clear sweet voice one of those tender addresses with which the Saviour on the night of His betrayal comforted the Apostles, and prepared them for the great sacrifice He was about to make;
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.”
“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
Had they not need of such comfort, these brave Christian men and women, who had come out into the desert through the night and the storm, to hear such blessed words, and to renew again in the midst of their persecutors their spiritual union with their Lord?
“Peace I leave with you,” read the young minister in his sweet, soothing tones, which brought tears to the eyes of all who heard him. “My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
The rain fell with a dreary, monotonous plash, the little stream swollen with the fall of water, dashed hoarsely down the gorge, and the storm howled wildly among the rocks. But the worshippers heard it not. Their ears were deaf to all sounds but the tones of the reader, and their souls were drawing from the tender words of Christ the comforts some of them were so soon to need.
When the reading of the Bible was ended a hymn was sung, one of those glorious songs of Clement Marrot, and the volume of praise soared up high above the storm, and floating over the cliffs in a full grand chorus, caused the sentinels to tremble lest it should draw down upon them the dreaded dragoons who might be thus apprised of their presence in the glen. But the worshippers cared not for this. They had forgotten the danger in the fervor of their religious joy, and they sang as only people can sing whose mouths have long been closed by tyranny. A prayer followed the hymn—a brief and earnest appeal to the Throne of Grace for protection and pardon. Then the pastor advanced to the front of the pulpit rock, and waving back the men who would have sheltered him with the cloak, bared his head to the storm, and for a moment gazed in silence on the throng before him.
In a clear, firm voice, he read his text—those memorable words of Jesus, so applicable to these, his later followers: “He that endureth to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 24:13) Salvation, he told them, was promised alone to those who fight without ceasing the fight of faith. He told them of the Apostles, the martyrs, the confessors of the primitive Church, how they braved persecution and suffering, and death, resisting all temptations to abandon their Lord, and counting themselves blessed above their fellows when chosen to die for His name. Then he spoke of the courage of the martyrs of their own day—many of whom were their kindred and friends—how they went gladly to the stake, enduring to the end, and passing from earthly suffering to everlasting joy in Heaven. Then he traced the miseries of the cowardly apostates, who fell off from the faith in the hour of trial, their anguish and remorse on earth, and their eternal damnation hereafter. He exhorted his hearers to stand firm, and not to be driven from their duty by any threat or fear of persecution. They might suffer on earth, but they would rejoice forever more in Heaven. His hearers were profoundly affected. Strong men wept, and sobs and groans of penitence, and vows of future fidelity were heard on all sides.
The rain had now almost ceased to fall, and the pastor, upon the conclusion of his sermon, removed the covering from the bread and wine, and solemnly consecrated them for the communion. Then the whole congregation prostrated themselves in prayer, beseeching God to pardon them for their past sins, and to strengthen them to be faithful to His name in the future, even though they should be called on to suffer and to die for it.
The prayer was ended, and there was a brief pause, broken only by the sobs of the kneeling worshippers. Suddenly there was a sound of heavy footsteps towards the mouth of the glen, followed by a confused noise, and from the sides of the cliff the loud voices of the sentinels came ringing down: “The dragoons! The dragoons! Save yourselves without delay.”
In an instant the lights were extinguished, and the worshippers were upon their feet. They stood irresolute for a moment, but a heavy discharge of musketry was poured into them from the mouth of the ravine, and by the flash of the guns they could see the dreaded dragoons struggling with and cutting down the devoted sentinels who sought to stay their passage. The next instant the worshippers were clambering up the hidden paths along the sides of the cliff, each one seeking to secure his own escape. The greater part were fortunate enough to gain the summit, from which they passed easily to the open country, but a large number fell into the hands of the dragoons. About fifteen or twenty were killed in the melee, and the soldiers, finding it impossible to secure any more, conducted their prisoners to Nismes, to be punished for the heinous crime of worshipping their Maker. The two pastors were among those who escaped. At the very first sign of danger, they had been seized by two of the brethren, who had charged themselves with that duty, and hurried up the cliffs to the open country, from which they succeeded in gaining a place of refuge in the mountains. There they waited a few days, until the excitement attending the affair had subsided, and then resumed their labors afresh.
The elder of the two pastors, the one whose eloquence had so moved the congregation in the glen, was Claude Brousson. He was born at Nismes in 1647, and was educated as an advocate. Upon entering upon the practice of his profession he established himself at Toulouse. He had been trained in the Reformed religion, and was a devoted member of the Huguenot Church. As long as he dared do so, he boldly advocated the rights of the Huguenots in the courts, and when this could no longer be done openly, he became the leader of a secret committee which met at his house to consult as to the course to be pursued by the Reformed. This becoming known to the authorities, his arrest was ordered, and he was obliged to escape for his life. The inhabitants of Nismes were forbidden under pain of death to receive him, and he was obliged to encounter the greatest hardships in his efforts to reach the Cevennes, where he was sure of meeting with friends. He was successful, however, and from the Cevennes passed into Switzerland, where he fixed his residence at Lausanne, being joined there by his wife and child. He resumed the practice of his profession, and his abilities and personal character soon brought him into such prominence that he was sent by the Protestant cantons of Switzerland on a mission to the Prince of Orange, respecting a league of evangelical union for the safety of the Reformed Faith in every country where it was professed; a project which failed at the time, but was afterwards realized in the league of Augsburg. He returned home sadly disappointed with the result of his journey.
This mission had the effect of calling Brousson’s attention more particularly to the condition of his Huguenot brethren in Southern France. In the Cevennes’ region the case was specially sad. The few pastors who remained in that region were living in caves and in the forests, hunted, driven from place to place, and exposed to the greatest dangers. The people were almost entirely without spiritual care, and they were constantly beset by hordes of priests and monks who were seeking by every species of argument and intimidation to make them desert their religion. More pastors were needed in the Cevennes, and Brousson felt that it was his duty to enter the field thus opened to him. He was devoted to his wife and his child, and the former earnestly opposed his design. To leave them caused him the greatest struggle he had ever known, yet he could not take them with him; he must go alone. He could not hesitate. His duty was plain. God called him, and he must obey. Commending his dear ones to the protection of his Master, he tore himself away, and set out on his journey.
Upon reaching the Cevennes, he was ordained a minister by Vivens and Gabriel, two fugitive pastors, and at once entered upon his life-work. For nearly a year he lived in a cavern amongst the rocks, in the midst of the most frightful precipices. His life was one of constant toil and hardship, but he did not shrink from his work. He travelled back and forth throughout the entire province of Languedoc, visiting every place in which there was a congregation, preaching regularly three times a week and often every day. His life was in constant peril, but he did not regard this. He preached, baptized, celebrated the rite of marriage, visited the sick, buried the dead, administered the Load’s Supper, and performed all the duties of an active ministry, oftentimes within hearing of the drums of the troops sent out to capture him. His eloquence was all-powerful, and it did much to keep the people true to their religion.
Baville, the Intendant of Languedoc, was greatly alarmed by the effect of the pastor’s eloquence. He falsely accused him of endeavoring to excite an insurrection in the province, and offered a reward of five hundred louis d’ors for his head. Brousson wrote to him, indignantly denying the charge, and saying, “My design is not to cause trouble. I do harm to no one. I hold the assembly of my congregations without arms; I travel without arms; and, like a lamb, unprotected.” He thus labored among the Cevenols for a number of years.
At length one of his dearest friends, Vivens, the pastor from whose hands he had received ordination, was cruelly put to death by order of Baville. The Intendant caused Brousson to be warned that he would be the next victim; but the pastor without heeding the threat, went on with his work. When sorely pressed, he would retire to his cavern, and there remain until the danger had passed by. It is wonderful how he escaped, and was able to continue his labors for so long a time; but he not only passed unharmed through the dangers which surrounded him, but found time and opportunity to compose in his cavern many valuable religious treatises adapted to the wants of his people. Here also he wrote his most celebrated work, “The Mystic Manna of the Desert,” which was subsequently published in Holland. Sometimes his enemies watched him so closely that he could not reach the places he had promised to visit for the purpose of preaching. He accomplished his object partially, however, by dictating short and instructive sentences, which were cut in wood or stone, and conveyed to these places, and passed from hand to hand and carefully concealed. At length, however, the persecution became so fierce and unrelenting that he was obliged to fly from Languedoc. He returned to Switzerland, where he had once more the happiness of being with his wife and child. This was in 1696.
He was greatly in need of rest, and he remained in Switzerland for nearly a year, endeavoring to build up his health, which had been greatly enfeebled by his hard life. Whilst there reports reached him of the sufferings of his people in Languedoc, who were being persecuted by Baville with unusual severity. He felt that he must go back, and he once more bade adieu to his family, and late in 1697 set out on his return to France. He was detained in Dauphiny during the winter by the snow. While there he preached constantly to the Vaudois of that region, who had been for many months without a pastor. In the spring of 1698 he passed into Vivarais, going from village to village and preaching to large crowds. Thence he made his way into the Cevennes, and on the 28th of April, reached the vicinity of Nismes.
Baville was promptly informed of his arrival, and increased the reward offered for his head. His presence was discovered in Nismes, and spies were at once set upon his track. He had great difficulty in getting beyond the walls, but having accomplished this, set out for his refuge in the mountains. He was so hotly pursued that he was obliged to take shelter in the house of a friend, who concealed him in an old well on the place. At the side of this well, and near the bottom, there was a niche just large enough to afford a hiding place for a man. Brousson was directed to conceal himself in this niche. He had scarcely done so when the soldiers arrived at the house. One of them immediately descended into the well to search for Brousson; but, coming suddenly from the full light of the sun into the gloom of the pit, he did not perceive the niche, and was drawn up again by his companions without having discovered the fugitive.
Baville, knowing that Brousson’s preaching was one of the principal reasons of the firmness with which the Huguenots maintained their faith, now resolved to secure him at any cost. He beset his path with spies, and with pretended friends, who only waited an opportunity to betray him. The pastor, perceiving his danger, resolved to go into Poitou for a season, and accordingly set out thither. He was provided with letters of recommendation to the principal persons of the Reformed faith along his route. One of these was to a young Hugnenot lady living near Pau. By an unfortunate mistake he delivered the letter to a lady of the same name, who had become an apostate, and thus betrayed himself. She at once took the letter to the consul, and Brousson being warned of his danger fled from the place. He was pursued, and captured at Oleron. Upon being asked his name, he frankly avowed it, and joyfully held out his hands to receive the chains with which they bound him. He was conducted back to Pau, and imprisoned in the castle, which, during the reign of the heroic Queen of Navarre, the mother of Henry IV., had been the stronghold of the Reformation, but which was now a Romish prison. The Governor of the castle, De Pinon, treated Brousson with great kindness during his stay there.
Baville upon being informed of the arrest of the pastor, ordered him to be removed to Montpelier, where he was residing as Governor of Languedoc. De Pinon displayed great emotion in parting with him, and asked the escort which was to convey him to Montpelier to show him every possible indulgence. This they did. They put no chains on him, and guarded him but negligently, he having pledged his word that he would not attempt to escape. During the journey he had several opportunities of regaining his freedom; but he had given his word to his guards, and not even to save his life would he break his pledge.
Upon reaching Montpelier, he was imprisoned in the citadel, and on the 4th of November was brought to trial before a court presided over by Baville himself. The hall was crowded with priests and monks, officers and lawyers, all curious to see the famous pastor of the desert of whom they had heard so much. They expected that he would make an eloquent defense, but they were disappointed. He refused to plead in his own behalf, believing such a course unworthy of the cause for which he knew he was to suffer. He answered the questions put to him frankly and concisely, and without the least manifestation of fear or embarrassment. He said he had done no harm to man; that his religion was that of the Reformed Church; he feared God, and as a minister of His Word had returned to France to console his unhappy brethren in the faith. Baville was greatly disconcerted by his language and manner, and not knowing what to say, asked him:
“What were the motives of your conduct in the Cevennes?”
“To preach the Gospel after the example of the Apostles,” replied the pastor, calmly.
The trial was a mere form; the prisoner was accused of rebellion against the State, but he indignantly denied this, and there was not the slightest shadow of evidence against him on this point. His crime was preaching the pure Word of God, and for this he must die. He had dared to oppose Rome, and there was no mercy for him. He was sentenced to be tortured upon the rack, then to be broken upon the wheel, and then to be hanged upon the gibbet. Baville’s conscience seems to have smitten him when this infamous sentence was laid before him for his approval, for he altered it materially, and ordered that the victim should be made to see the rack only, and then should be hanged, after which his lifeless body should be broken on the wheel. Brousson heard the sentence in silence, and then bowing his head prayed to God that He would have mercy on his judges and forgive them.
The pastor passed the greater part of the night in prayer, after which he fell into a calm sleep. The next day, November 5th, 1698, he was led between two soldiers to the place of execution. According to the terms of his sentence, he was taken to look upon the rack. He was calm and serene, and he gazed upon the dreadful instrument a moment, and then raised his eyes to Heaven in silent prayer. He was accompanied by some of the judges who had sentenced him, and they were pale and trembling. From the rack he was led to the scaffold. Ascending it, he endeavored to speak to the people, but his voice was silenced in the roll of drums. He then knelt down, and clasping his hands, prayed fervently, after which he rose, calm and smiling, and delivered himself to the executioner, who was so much agitated that he could scarcely perform his terrible work. A few moments more, and it was all over. Then the lifeless body of the pastor was placed upon the wheel, and broken.
Said the executioner a few days later: “I have executed above two hundred condemned persons; but none ever made me tremble as did Monsieur de Brousson.”
Said one of his judges, who stood by his side to see the sentence properly carried out:
“I could have fled away rather than have put to death such an honest man. I could, if I dared, speak much about him—certainly he died like a saint.”
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