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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

He presided at the consistory


Sec. 6. _The Organisation of the French Protestant Church._

It was during these years of terrible persecution that the Protestant Church of France organised itself--feeling the need for unity the better to sustain the conflict in which it was engaged, and to assist its weaker members. Calvin was unwearied in urging on this work of organisation. With the fire of a prophet and the foresight of a statesman he insisted on the necessity of unity during the storm and strain of a time of persecution. He had already shown what form the ecclesiastical organisation ought to take.[195] He proposed to revive the simple threefold ministry of the Church of the early centuries--a congregation ruled by a bishop or pastor, a session of elders, and a body of deacons. This was adopted by the French Protestants. A group of believers, a minister, a "consistory" of elders and deacons, regular preaching, and the sacraments duly administered, made a Church properly constituted. The minister was the chief; he preached; he administered the sacraments; he presided at the "consistory." The "consistory" was composed of elders charged with the spiritual oversight of the community, and of deacons who looked after the poor and the sick. The elders and the deacons were chosen by the members of the congregation; and the minister by the elders and the deacons. An organised Church did not come into existence all at once as a rule, and a distinction was drawn between an _eglise

plantee_, and an _eglise dressee_. The former was in an embryonic state, with a pastor, it might be, but no consistory; or it might be only a group of people who welcomed the occasional services of a wandering missioner, or held simple services without any definite leader.

The year 1555 may be taken as the date when French Protestantism began to organise Churches. It is true that a few had been established earlier--at Meaux in 1546 and at Nimes in 1547, but the congregations had been dispersed by persecution. Before 1555 the Protestants of France had been for the most part solitary Bible students, or little companies meeting together for common worship without any organisation.

Paris set the example. A small company of believers had been accustomed to meet in the lodging of the Sieur de la Ferriere, near the Pre-aux-Clercs. The birth of a child hastened matters. The father explained that he could not go outside France to seek a pure baptism, and that his conscience would not permit his child to be baptized according to the rites of the Roman Church. After prayer the company resolved to constitute themselves into a Church. Jean le Macon was called to be the minister or pastor; elders and deacons were chosen; and the organisation was complete.[196] It seemed as if all Protestant France had been waiting for the signal, and organised Churches sprang up everywhere.

Crespin names thirteen Churches, completely organised in the manner of the Church of Paris, founded between 1555 and 1557--Meaux, Poitiers, Angers, les Iles de Saintonge, Agen, Bourges, Issoudun, Aubigny, Blois, Tours, Lyon, Orleans, and Rouen. He adds that there were others. Documentary evidence now available enables us to give thirty-six more, all _dressees_, or completely organised, with a consistory or kirk-session, before 1560. One hundred and twenty pastors were sent to France from Geneva before 1567. The history of these congregations during the reign of Henry II. was full of tragic and dramatic incidents.[197] They existed in the midst of a population which was for the most part fanatically Romanist, easily excited by priests and monks, who poured forth violent addresses from the pulpits of neighbouring churches. Law-courts, whether in the capital or in the provinces, the public officials, all loyal subjects of the King, were invited, commanded by the Edict of Chateaubriand, to ferret out and hunt down those suspected of Protestant sympathies. To fail to make a reverence when passing a crucifix, to speak unguardedly against an ecclesiastical ceremony, to exhibit the slightest sympathy for a Protestant martyr, to be found in possession of a book printed in Geneva, was sufficient to provoke a denunciation, an arrest, a trial which must end in torture and death. Protestants were compelled to worship in cellars, to creep stealthily to their united devotions; like the early Christians during the persecutions under Decius or Diocletian, they had to meet at midnight; and these midnight assemblies gave rise to the same infamous reports about their character which the Jews spread abroad regarding the secret meetings of the Christians of the first three centuries.[198] Every now and then they were discovered, as in the incident of the Rue Saint Jacques in Paris, and wholesale arrests and martyrdoms followed.


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