Trial before the Presidency — A digression — My defence — Angry discussion with the President — Query — My reply — Sentence

The month of August had come round by the time that the process was read; to be brought before the Presidency in the Hall of Justice.

In this court the prisoner is not allowed to have an advocate to plead for him, but has to appear alone. The door is locked and guarded by Archers. The President sits in the centre, the Judges or Counsellors on each side, the Register remains in the lower part of the Hall, and the prisoner is usually seated near him on a three legged wooden stool, as a mark of disgrace. There is a saying in France, “he has sat upon the stool,” which is tantamount to the English phrase, “I have seen him hold up his hand at the bar.”

The testimony recorded in the confrontation is read to the accused, and he is asked if it be correct, and if the signature attached to it be his. The Judges then examine him more fully, and if it be a case admitting of appeal to Parliament, the answers are recorded. The examination finished, the accused is taken back to prison, and the sentence of the court, in writing is sent to him by a sheriff’s officer.

In preparing myself, I thought much more of my poor neighbours than of myself; because I was really innocent of the charge in the indictment, they were not; and without the assistance of an advocate I was somewhat apprehensive about them, and I determined, if I had an opportunity, to say something that might be useful, either in softening the hearts of the Judges, or alarming their consciences. as might appear most expedient when the time came. I prayed most fervently to God for his assistance.

I will make a digression here, which you will presently perceive is not altogether irrelevant to the subject. My apartment under the Town Clock looked into the court yard of one of my Judges. He was a very passionate man and addicted to gambling though said to be an able jurist. Two or three days before my trial I was awakened out of my sound sleep at midnight, by this man swearing and making the most horrible noises; he had just returned home after losing a round sum of money in play, and mad with vexation, he was venting his rage upon his innocent wife and children. I thought I heard blows, but of that I was not sure.

To return to my trial. When I entered the Hall of justice, the Register civilly offered me the three legged stool: I declined it, saying, I was no criminal to deserve the disgrace. He then attempted to force me upon it, which the Court observing, ordered him to desist, and one of the Judges smiling said, “Mr. Fontaine is a young man, and he might miss a good match by it.”

I made a profound bow.

I was asked whether I had not prayed to God in the wood on Easter Sunday.

I said “No, and I can produce any number of witnesses to prove an alibi, if you will allow me; I spent that day at Coses.”

Little was said about my crime in prison, because I acknowledged unhesitatingly that I had prayed there, but not with my full voice.

After some other questions, they asked me if I did not know that his Majesty had issued a Declaration forbidding illegal assemblies. I thought that God had now opened the door for me to urge something on behalf of my fellow prisoners, and I said; —“Gentleman; I am aware of it. and I have read the Declaration most carefully over and over again, and I can find nothing in it which forbids people assembling to pray to God. I look upon it as the height of injustice to his Majesty, to pretend that he calls such assemblies unlawful, and you who are the interpreters of his Declaration ought to have more respect for him, and for your own reputation as Christians, than to give it so bad an interpretation as to call those assemblies illegal, to which no arms are carried but the Old and New Testament, and where no words arc spoken but such as find an echo in the sacred volume, and where prayers are offered for the prosperity of the King and his kingdom and for the conversion of those who persecute the Church of Christ.”

An interruption occured here; my advocate, Mr. Maureau, had been listening at the door, and thinking I was too bold, he put his mouth to a crevice, and cried “Hist, Hist, Hist,” and ran away. The door was opened, but the offender was not to be found, so they contented themselves with guarding it more carefully. This incident roused the attention of my Judges, and hoping to draw me into some unguarded expression which might be made a handle of, they encouraged me to proceed, which I did as follows:—“Illegal assemblies, gentlemen, it appears to me, are assemblies where something is done contrary to law, such as tumultuously assembling in arms to conspire against the state; and I see none other to which it can be applied without losing sight of the correct meaning of words; but if we were to extend its application, it is evident it should be to those meetings held in summer on Sunday evenings, where they play, dance on the green, quarrel with one another, and blaspheme their Maker on his appointed day of rest. Such assemblies might perhaps fall within the meaning of the Declaration, however I do not hear of any one being taken up for attending them, while the prisons are filled with those whose only crime has been praying to God. In the name of all that is sacred, Gentlemen, how dare you give such an interpretation to his Majesty’s Declaration without trembling to think of the wrath of the King of Kings? You who assemble nightly at balls, where they dance, speak evil of their neighbours, and squander their money, and perhaps lose in gambling that which is wanted to support their wives and children, and return home to be a burden where they ought to be a blessing. You, I say, who are now sitting in judgment upon others, will one day stand before the just Judge of all the world, and in that awful day, think you that He will condemn those who have worshipped Him in spirit and in truth, or those who have frequented your assemblies?”

“Aha!” cried the President “your rebellious spirit breaks out at last, you not only sermonize and reproach us, but you say the King issues Declarations wherein he forbids assemblies where they pray to God, and permits those in which the Divine Majesty is blasphemed. Register; that is the sense of his reply, write it down”

“It is not;” said I.

He then rose up in great anger, and said; “I am void of understanding if it mean anything else.”

Some of the Judges more calm, said, they had better listen to what I had to say.

This was politic on their part, because an appeal to Parliament was open to me, and if I would not sign my name to the answers recorded, they might get into trouble, and be obliged to verify on oath every word they had made the Register write as coming from me.

“Gentlemen,” said I, “the sense of what I did say I take to be this; that the King by his Declaration of such a date never meant to prohibit assemblies where they pray to God, but much rather balls, and Sunday evening assemblies for dancing on the green, and more especially those wherein they conspire against the state.”

“No,” said the President “that is not it.”

“Well, gentlemen,” said I, “to put an end to the dispute, I am very willing to dictate verbatim to the Register all that I have said;” and I was about to begin.

“What !” cried the President, “that long sermon over again, no; that would be rather beyond endurance.

At last, in order to save the trouble of the long reply, they consented to take the the following as the tenor of it.

“According to my judgment, the Declaration of his Majesty of such a date does not forbid assemblies where they only pray to God, and I think those who extend its application so far, depart from the intention of his Majesty.” This was written, and I signed the document.

The President, by way of showing my stubbornness (as he called it) to the Court, then said to me, “Mr. Fontaine, we have no more questions to put to you as an accused person, but merely as a matter of curiosity, I wish to know from you whether you think a private individual, we will say, a mechanic, for instance, can understand the Holy Scriptures as well as the learned Doctors and Councils?”

I answered, “I must make some discrimination before I reply to your query. Suppose the individual in question should be blessed with the Holy Spirit, and the Doctors and Councils should not, (which I think very possible) then I am of opinion the former would understand the sacred volume the best, because the same Spirit, by which the Scriptures were dictated, is necessary for their correct understanding. Our blessed Lord and his poor fishermen found themselves opposed by the Scribes and Pharisees at Jerusalem. And to come nearer to our own days, Luther and Calvin to a certainty, understood the Scriptures better than all the Popes, Cardinals, and Councils put together.”

At these words they all arose, crying out, “Jesu Maria! what infatuation!”

“Ere long, gentlemen,” said I, “we shall all be summoned to leave this vain world, and we shall then see whose has then been the infatuation.”

I was taken back to prison, and my companions succeeded me in the Hall of Justice.

The sermon, which it was reported I had preached to the Court, made a great noise in the place, it was the topic of conversation equally among Papists and Protestants, each dressing it up according to their own fashion. The Judges themselves said I had put the rope round my own neck. I received visits and letters of condolence from many of the principal Protestants, and they all blamed me for my indiscretion, but they did not know how cautiously I had expressed myself; and when I told them the whole truth, and the form in which my answers had been recorded, they no longer reproached me.

I appealed to Parliament before I had even read the sentence of the Presidency, which was handed to me next day. I was sentenced to pay a fine of a hundred livres to the King for having prayed in prison, and declared for ever incapable of exercising any function of the Holy Ministry.

My companions were condemned to make the “amende honourable,” to be banished from the Province for six months, to pay all expenses and one hundred crowns in specie; and a further fine of six thousand francs was laid upon us all, collectively and individually. The object of the last clause was to squeeze the money out of me, as I was the only one in circumstances to pay it. I tendered the hundred livres imposed upon me individually, and then demanded my enlargement, or at any rate the liberty of going in and out of the prison. This was refused, therefore I was under the necessity of calling upon my friends to present my request to Parliament.



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