HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION - EDITOR’S PREFACE.
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AWHOLE year has elapsed since the publication of the sixth volume of the History of the Reformation. But this delay is owing to the fact that the editor has been unable to devote to this under-taking more than the scanty leisure hours of an active ministry; and not, as some have supposed, to the necessity of compiling the History from notes more or less imperfect left by the author. The following narrative, like that which has preceded it, is wholly written by M. Merle d’Aubigne himself.
The editor repeats the statement made on the publication of the last volume—that his task has consisted solely in verifying the numerous quotations occurring in the text or as foot-notes, and in curtailing, in two or three places, some general reflections which interfered with the rapid flow of the narrative, and which the author would certainly have either suppressed or condensed if it had been permitted him to put the finishing touches to his work.
We can only express our gratitude to the public for the reception given to the posthumous volume which we have already presented to them.
Criticism, of course, has everywhere accompanied praise. The estimates formed by the author of this or that character have not been accepted by all readers; and the journals have been the organs of the public sentiment.
One important English review has censured the author for placing himself too much at the evangelical point of view. It is unquestionable that this is indeed the point of view at which M. Merle d’Aubigne stood. This was not optional with him; he could not do otherwise. By conviction, by feeling, by nature, by his whole being, he was evangelical. But was this the point of view best adapted to afford, him a real comprehension of the epoch, the history of which he intended to relate? This is the true question, and the answer seems obvious. If we consider the fact that the theologians of the revival at Geneva have been especially accused of having been too much in bondage to the theology of the sixteenth century, we shall acknowledge that this evangelical point of view was the most favorable to all accurate understanding of the movement of the Reformation, and to a just expression of its ideas and tendencies. No one could better render to us the aspect of the sixteenth century than one of those men who, if we may so speak, have restored it in the nineteenth.
The criticism most commonly applied to M. Merle d’Aubigne is that he has displayed a bias in favor of the men of the Reformation; and especially in favor of Calvin. That the author of the History of the Reformation feels for Calvin a certain tenderness, and that he is inclined to excuse, to a certain extent, his errors and even his faults, may be admitted. But it is no less indisputable that this tendency has never led him to palliate or to conceal those errors or faults. He pronounces a judgment; and this is sometimes a justification or an excuse. But he has in the first place narrated; and this narration has been perfectly accurate. The kindly feeling, or, as some say, the partiality of the writer may have deprived his estimate of the severity which others would have thought needful; but it has not falsified his view. His glance has remained keen and clear, and historical truth comes forth from the author’s narratives with complete impartiality. These narratives themselves furnish the reader with the means of arriving at a different conclusion from that which the author has himself drawn.
May we not add that M. Merle d’Aubigne’s love for his hero, admitting the indisputable sincerity of the historian, far from being a ground of suspicion, imparts a special value to his judgments? For nearly sixty years M. Merle lived in close intimacy with Calvin. He carefully investigated his least writings, seized upon and assimilated all his thoughts, and entered, as it were, into personal intercourse with the great reformer. Calvin committed some faults. Who disputes this? But he did not commit these faults with deliberate intention. He must have yielded to motives which he thought good, and, were it only in the blindness of passion, must have justified his actions to his own conscience. In the main, it is this selfjustification on Calvin’s part which M. Merle d’Aubigne has succeeded better than anyone else in making known to us. He has depicted for us a living Calvin; he has revealed to us his inmost thought; and when, in the work which I am editing, I meet with an approving judgment in which I cannot join without some reservation, I imagine nevertheless that if Calvin, rising from the tomb, could himself give me his reasons, he would give me no others than those which I find set forth in these pages. If this view is correct, and it seems to me difficult to doubt it, has not the author solved one of the hardest problems of history—to present the true physiognomy of characters, and to show them as they were; under the outward aspect of facts to discover and depict the minds of men?
Moreover, the greater number of these general criticisms are matters of taste, of tendency, of views and of temperament. There are others which would be important if they were well-founded. Such are those which bear upon the accuracy of the work, almost upon the veracity of the author.
Fortunately it is easy to overthrow them by a rapid examination. ‘M. Merle,’ it has been said, ‘makes use of his vast knowledge of the works of the reformers to borrow from them passages which he arbitrarily introduces out of their place and apart from the circumstances to which they relate. Thus sentences taken from works of Calvin written during the last periods of his life are transformed into sentences pronounced by him twenty or twentyfive years earlier. That which on one occasion was written with his pen, is in regard to another occasion, put into his lips. We may, without pedantry, refuse to consider this process in strict conformity with that branch of truth which is called accuracy.’
It is true that, in vol. vi., M. Merle d’Aubigne applies to the year words uttered by Calvin about twenty-five years later, at the time of his death in 1564:—‘have lived here engaged in strange contests. I have been saluted in mockery of an evening before my own door with fifty or sixty shots of arquebuses. You may imagine how that must astound a poor scholar, timid as I am, and as I confess I always was.’ But these words, spoken by Calvin many years after the event, referred precisely to that year, 1538. The historian has quoted them at the very date to which they belong; nor could he have omitted them without a failure in accuracy.
The following is, however, the only proof given of this alleged want of accuracy:— ‘At the time when Calvin had just succeeded in establishing in Geneva what he considered to be the essential conditions of a Christian church, he had published, in the name of his colleagues, some statement of the success which they had just achieved, and had given expression to the sentiments of satisfaction and hope which they felt. Of this statement, to which events almost immediately gave a cruel contradiction, M. Merle has made use to depict the personal feelings and disposition of Calvin after the check which, his work had sustained. The conditions are altogether changed. Instead of triumphing, the reformer is banished; and, nevertheless, the language which he used in the days of triumph is employed to characterize his steadfastness and constancy in the days of exile.’
The document here spoken of is a preface by Calvin to the Latin edition of his Catechism. In the original edition it bears date March 1538. It is now before us; we have read and re-read it, and we cannot imagine by what strange illusion there could be seen in it a statement of the success which Calvin and his colleagues had just achieved. It does not contain one vestige of satisfaction or of hope, not a trace of triumph. It is an unaccountable mistake to suppose that it was written in days of triumph.
It was written in March 1538, in the very stress of the storm which, a few days later, April 23, was to result in the banishment of the reformer and the momentary destruction of his work at Geneva. This storm had begun to take shape on November 25, 1537, at a general council (assembly of the people), in which the most violent attacks had been directed against Calvin and against the government of the republic. From this time, says M.
Merle, ‘the days of the party in power were numbered.’ In fact, the government favorable to Calvin was overthrown February 3, 1538. On that day the most implacable enemies of the reformer came into power.
Thus, in March, Calvin, far from thinking of a triumph, was thinking of defending himself. The preface which stands at the head of his catechism is not the statement of success already seriously impaired, but an apologia for his proceedings and his faith, a reply to the ‘calumnies aimed against his innocence and his integrity,’ to ‘the false accusations of which he is a victim.’ The following is the analysis of the preface, given by Professor Reuss, of Strasburg, in the Prolegomena to Vol. 5. of the Opera Calvini, p. 43:— ‘The occasion for publishing, in Latin, this book was furnished by Peter Caroli, doctor and prior of the Sorbonne. This doctor, after having spread abroad iniquitous rumors against Farel, Viret, and Calvin, broke out passionately in open accusations against these men, his colleagues, who were equally distinguished by their faith and their moral character, imputing to them the Arian and Sabellian heresies and other similar corruptions. At this time there existed no other public monument of the faith of the Genevese church but the Confession of Farel and the Catechism of Calvin; and these, as they were written in French, were almost unknown to the rest of the Swiss churches. For this reason Calvin translated into Latin his own Catechism and the Confession of Farel, in order to make known through this version to all his brethren in Switzerland the doctrine which he had hitherto professed at Geneva, and to show that the charge of heresy brought against it was without foundation.’ f6 It must be added that Calvin, in this preface, does not confine himself to the refutation of the charges of heresy drawn up against him by Caroli; but he vindicates his own course at Geneva, particularly in that vexatious affair of the oath which gave rise to the debate of November 25, 1537, the overthrow of the government on February 3, 1538, and the expulsion of Calvin and his friends on April 23 following. This document is, with the letters written by Calvin at this period; the most precious source of information as to the reformer’s feelings during this cruel struggle; and in quoting it at this place the author has made a judicious use of it.
Let us quote further some words from an article in the Athenaeum, of which we have already spoken. In the course of criticisms, sometimes severe, the writer acknowledges that ‘there are to be found in this volume, in unimpaired vigor, the qualities we admired in its predecessors. Few narratives are more moving than the simple tale of the death of Hamilton, the first of the Scotch martyrs; and the same may be said of the chapter devoted to Wishart.’ In regard to Calvin the same writer tells us—‘M.
Merle possessed, as we have already remarked, a knowledge truly marvelous of the writings of Calvin; and there are few books which enable us to understand so well as M. Merle’s the mind of the reformer—not perhaps as he was on every occasion, but such as he would have wished to be.’
Professor F. Godet, of Neuchatel, expresses the same opinions and insists on them. After having spoken of that stroke of a masterly pencil which was one of the most remarkable gifts of M. Merle d’Aubigne,’ he adds— ‘it is always that simple and dignified style, calm and yet full of earnestness, majestic as the course of a great river, we might say—like the whole aspect of the author himself. But what appears to us above all to distinguish the manner of M. Merle is his tender and reverential love for his subject. The work which he describes possesses his full sympathy. He loves it as the work of his Savior and his God. Jesus would no longer be what he is for the faith of the writer if he had not delivered, aided, corrected, chastened, governed and conquered as he does in this history.
St. John, in the Apocalypse, shows us the Lamb opening the seals of the book containing the designs of God with respect to his church. M. Merle, in writing history, appears to see in the events which he relates so many seals which are broken under the hand of the King of Kings. In each fact he discerns one of the steps of his coming as spouse of the church or as judge of the world. And just as the leaves of the divine roll were written not only without but within, M. Merle is not satisfied with portraying the outside of events, but endeavors to penetrate to the divine idea which constitutes the essence, and to unveil it before the eyes of his reader. Do not therefore require him to be what’s called an objective historian, and to hold himself coldly aloof from the facts which he recalls to mind. Is not this faith of the sixteenth century, of which he traces the awakening, the struggles, defeats and victories, his own faith and the life of his own soul ?
Are not these men whom he describes, Calvin, Farel, Viret, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh? Are not these churches, whose birth and first steps in life he relates, his own spiritual family? The reader himself, to whom his narrative is addressed, is for him an immortal soul, which he would fain make captive to the faith of the Reformation. He does not for an instant lay aside, as narrator, his dignity as a minister of Christ. The office of historian is in his case a priesthood. Not that he falls into the error of determining at all cost to glorify his heroes, to palliate their weaknesses, to excuse their errors, or to present facts in a light different from that objective truth to which he has been led by the conscientious study of the documents. The welfare of the church of to-day for which he desires to labor, may as surely result from the frank avowal and the severe judgment of faults committed, as from admiration of everything ,which has been done according to the will of God.’
The same judgment was lately pronounced by the author of a great work on French literature, recently published, Lieutenant-Colonel Staaf. It is in the following terms that the author introduces M. Merle d’Aubigne to the French public:—‘M. de Remusat has said of this work—“It may have had a success among Protestants (un succes de secte ), but it deserves a much wider one, for it is one of the most remarkable books in our language.” We might add one of the most austere, for it is at once the work of a historian and of a minister of the gospel. It would be a mistake to suppose that the author has sacrificed the narrative portion of his history to the exposition and defense of the doctrines of the Reformation.
Without seeking after effects of coloring, without concerning himself with form apart from thought, he has succeeded in reproducing the true physiognomy of the age whose great and fruitful movements he has narrated. All the Christian communities over which the resistless breath of the Reformation passed live again in spirit and in act in this grand drama, the principal episodes of which are furnished by Germany, France, Switzerland, and England. In order to penetrate so deeply as he has done into the moral life of the reformers, M. Merle was not satisfied with merely searching the histories of the sixteenth century; he has drawn from sources the existence of which was scarcely suspected before they had been opened to him.’... ‘Now, at whatever point of view we may take our stand, it is no subject for regret that for writing the story of the conflicts and too often of the execution of so many men actuated by the most generous and unalterable convictions, the pen has been held by a believer rather than by a skeptic. It was only a descendant and a spiritual heir of the apostles of the Reformation who could catch and communicate the fire of their pure enthusiasm, in a book in which their passions have left no echoes. M. Merle d’Aubigne—and this is one of the peculiar characteristics of his work—has satisfied with an antique simplicity the requirements of his twofold mission. It is only when the conscience of the historian has given all the guarantees of fairness and impartiality that one had a right to expect from it that the pastor has indulged in the outpourings of his faith.’
We close with the words of Professor F. Bonifas, of Montauban: f9 —‘In this volume are to be found the eminent qualities which have earned for M.
Merle d’Aubigne the first place among the French historians of the Reformation: wealth and authenticity of information, a picturesque vivacity of narration, breadth and loftiness of view, a judicious estimate of men and things, and in addition to all these a deeply religious and Christian inspiration animating every page of the book. The writer’s faculties remained young in spite of years, and this fruit of his ripe old age recalls the finest productions of his youth and manhood.’
A last volume will appear (D.V.) before the end of the present year.
Ad. Duchemin. Lyons, May 1870.