WITH this volume we complete the publication of the work of M. Merle d’Aubigne on the history of the Reformation. The ten volumes published by the author himself and the three posthumous volumes are the fruit of his long labors, begun in 1817, and continued almost uninterruptedly until 1872.
It was in 1817, immediately after his ordination to the ministry, and in the course of a visit to Germany undertaken to perfect his theological studies, that M. Merle d’Aubigne conceived the project of writing this history.
Germany was at that time celebrating at Eisenach the third centenary of the Reformation. The people were in a state of great excitement.
Humiliated by long-continued oppression and irritated by severe suffering, Germany, which had so long been the theatre and the victim of the sanguinary wars of the Empire, had at length risen with an impetuous energy and a fervor of feeling which were irresistible, and had powerfully contributed to the overthrow of the imperial warrior who had appeared to be invincible. Rescued thus from foreign rule, she had fallen again under the equally heavy yoke of her former masters; and she was now turning her eyes towards Luther, the spiritual liberator of modern times. The reformer’s name was on every tongue; and Merle d’Aubigne encountered on his way the crowds of young German students who were journeying to the Wartburg. On the eve of the celebration he felt an overpowering desire to take part in it. He therefore followed the throng, and after travelling all night came at daybreak within sight of the castle famous as the scene of Luther’s confinement, a novel spectacle here presented itself. The squares and streets of Eisenach were filled with a motley crowd, chiefly composed of young men. Their long hair falling upon their shoulders, their thick, untrimmed beards, their velvet cloaks reaching to the knees, their caps adorned with feathers or foliage, their broad embroidered collars, their banner proudly borne aloft, surrounded by its defenders who, with outstretched arms and drawn swords, formed its body-guard, the name of Luther the while resounding in all directions—this spectacle, the antique costumes, the usages of a bygone age, all contributed to transport the traveler in imagination into the midst of the scenes of three centuries ago.
The young Genevese, however, soon withdrew from these noisy scenes, from the political and social harangues, the excitement and the tumult.
Longing for quiet, he traversed with a guide the deserted rooms of the castle. ‘This then’ he murmured, ‘this is the place where, after the stormy scenes of the Diet of Worms, Luther was able to say, “At last I am at rest.” Here was passed the captivity of the knight George. This is the table at which he used to sit; that the window from which he looked out upon the landscape around. Here it was that he gave himself up to profound meditation, mingled with regret that he had consented to withdraw from the battlefield, and with a distressing fear lest the Pope should take advantage of his absence to crush the infant Church. In this room he used to read the Bible in Hebrew and in Greek; here he translated the Psalms and the New Testament, and here his fervent prayers rose to heaven.’ f1 The great movement of the sixteenth century thus presented itself to the young man’s imagination in its intimate details, which are far more thrilling than its external aspects. He formed the resolution to write its history; and a few weeks later (November 23, 1817) he sketched in the following terms the plan which he proposed to follow:— ‘I should like to write a history of the Reformation. I should wish this history to be a work of learning, and to set forth facts at present unknown. It should be profound, and should distinctly assign the causes and the results of this great movement; it should be interesting, and should make known the authors of the transformation by means of their letters, their works, and their words; and it should introduce the reader into the bosom of their families and into their closets. Finally I should wish that this history should be thoroughly Christian, and calculated to give an impulse to true religion. I would show by the evidence of facts that the aim of the Reformation was not so much to destroy as to build up—not so much to overthrow that which was in excess, superstition, as to impart that which had ceased to exist, the new life, and holiness, the essence of Christianity, and to revive or rather to create faith. I shall begin to collect materials, and I will dedicate my history to the Protestant churches of France.’ f2 Thus, in his youthful dreams, did the pious descendant of the refugees of the sixteenth century sketch out the leading features of the monumental work, to the execution of which he thenceforward uninterruptedly devoted himself. At this day when, by means of many collections, innumerable documents relating to the Reformation have been placed within the reach of all, it is not easy to imagine the amount of labor and research which it cost Merle d’Aubigne to enter as he did into intimacy with the reformers and to master their most secret thoughts. Eighteen years had passed away before he was prepared, in 1835, to present to the public the first volume of his work.
In a preface worthy of the subject, he said:— ‘It is not the history of a party that I purpose writing; but the history of one of the greatest revolutions that was ever wrought in the condition of the human race; the history of a mighty impulse imparted to the world three centuries ago, the results of which are still universally recognized. The history of the Reformation is not identical with the history of Protestantism. In the former everything bears the impress of a regeneration of humanity, of a social and religious transformation which has its source in God; while in the latter we too frequently observe a considerable falling away from first principles, the action of party spirit, sectarian tendencies, and the stamp of petty personalities. The history of Protestantism might possess interest for Protestants alone; the history of the Reformation is for all Christians, nay, rather for all men.’
We are thus made acquainted by the author’s own statement with the purpose which he had conceived; and it is for the reader to judge how far that purpose has been accomplished. This judgement has indeed been already pronounced. It declares that the work of Merle d’Aubigne, everywhere learned and accurate, animated and attractive, approaches in some passages the very perfection of literary art. Amongst these passages are the pleasant and lively pages in the first volumes devoted to the youth of Luther, and in the posthumous volumes the chapters of a more serious and severe character devoted to Calvin and his work at Geneva.
Little is wanting to the completion of the monument erected by Merle d’Aubigne. It is to be regretted that we cannot follow John Knox in Scotland, or Marnix in the Netherlands, to the full accomplishment of their work. In these countries the temple door is closed before us just as our feet are pressing the threshold. To complete his history the author would have required two more years of life and of labor; and this was denied him.
Everything, however, that is essential to the history of the Reformation is narrated in these thirteen volumes.
Those portions of the work which have been most recently published are not in all cases the latest written. Some of them were written long ago and have never been retouched. It is not to be supposed that the author would have published these without alteration. M. Merle d’Aubigne’s method of procedure in composition was as follows:—First, he would make a summary study of an important period, and rapidly sketch its history; next, he would refer to the original sources, collecting around him all the documents which he could discover, and sometimes making a long journey for the purpose of consulting a manuscript preserved in some library. He would then plunge again into his theme, familiarizing himself thoroughly with its form and its color, so as to make it real and present to his mind, and see it as it were with his own eyes. And, finally, he would rewrite the story, completing and giving life to his narratives, and depicting the scenes for the reader as he had already done for himself. The result of this process was an entirely new work.
A third and even a fourth recasting was not seldom undertaken before the author was satisfied: so vast and so complex was that spiritual movement which he had undertaken to describe, so numerous and almost inexhaustible were the documents of all kinds which he continued to examine throughout his life.
Some of the later chapters, and particularly that which relates to Germany, had not been subjected to this revision. The editor, however, has not felt himself at liberty to suppress these chapters, both on account of their intrinsic value, and because they contain information not accessible to general readers. We hope that they will be read with interest and profit.
The editor wishes here to express his thanks to Mr. Cates for his valuable assistance as translator of the last three volumes of the work into English.
The editor has now fulfilled what he considers a duty to the Christian public, by presenting to them this last volume of a work the composition of which was not only the principal occupation, but also the principal enjoyment of ‘the noble life, consecrated to toil,’ of J. H. Merle d’Aubigne.