James Fontaine — Fond of study — Travels abroad — Called to the churches of Vaux and Royan — First marriage — Children by it — Second marriage — Children by it — My father’s person — Habits — Labors in the ministry — Summons before the governor — Second summons — Death.
I continue the narrative with what I know of my father, the youngest child and only son of James de la Fontaine, who received his own name, James. He was of delicate constitution, and he was from the earliest age very fond of books, which circumstances decided his father not to bring him up to a trade of any kind, but to make every possible effort to culti vate his taste for study, and to give him an education to fit him for one of the learned professions. He was assisted by several friends in this undertaking, but most effectually by Mr. Merlin, a sincere and worthy servant of God, a Protestant minister in Rochelle, who gave James gratuitous instruction in various branches of knowledge.
My father’s inclination towards the office of the holy ministry soon evinced itself, and he did not hesitate to follow the pious impulse, though fully aware of the dangers incident to the vocation. When his education was somewhat advanced, his pious and generous friend, Mr. Merlin, further assisted him by recommending him to the Countess of Royan as a suitable tutor to a young relation of hers. In that capacity he accompanied the young man to the college of Saumur, and superintended his studies there, while he availed himself of the advantages, thus opened to him, of completing his own preparation for the ministry.
After leaving college, he travelled with his pupil through various countries, and he was thus enabled to perfect himself in several living languages. In the course of their travels they went to London, and they remained there long enough to allow my father to fall in love with a very interesting and accomplished young lady named Thompson. She was of good family, spoke the French language with fluency; she played very well upon the Spinette, and was altogether a remarkably well educated person. My father was obliged to return to France, but before they parted they exchanged portraits, and promised to be constant to each other until they could meet again.
Very soon after his return home, he received a call from the United Churches of Vaux and Royan, which met the approbation of the Synod, and by its authority he was installed as pastor. At that time there was a good church edifice in each of these small places, and they were united under the charge of one minister. My father was cherished and tenderly beloved by the whole community, from his first appearance amongst them until he ended his days.
He steadily performed the duties of his sacred office for one year, and he then requested his flock to grant him a short leave of absence, to allow him to go to London and fetch that dear one to whom he had plighted his troth. He found her, as he expected, true to her promise, ready to fulfil her engagement, and return with him to his own country. They were married in London in the year 1628, and immediately returned to the borough of Vaux, where they took up their abode in a small, and not very convenient house, which they hired. They continued to occupy it until her death, which took place twelve years after their marriage. They had been very happy together, and were the parents of several children, five of whom lived to mature age, and perhaps may as well name them here, before I proceed to the second marriage of my father.
1. Jane married unfortunately a Mr. L’Hommeau, a man of good property, but who turned out to be an idle, drunken spendthrift, who wasted his substance in riotous living, and in the end Jane was obliged to maintain herself and family by keeping a school.
2. Judith married Mr. Guiennot, and was left a widow with four children. She was seized during the persecution and confined in a convent, from which she only obtained release by making a compulsory abjuration. She was so fortunate as to escape from France, and she and her daughters maintained themselves by needlework in London.
I would here pause, and call your attention to the uncertainty of this world’s goods. You may observe, in the short history I have already given of the fortunes of a single family, how mutable are all worldly possessions. Who could have foreseen, when the father of my grandfather was honored and respected in the Court of Francis I., that three of his children would have to beg their bread from door to door, and be glad to learn how to support themselves by mechanical employments; and equally in my father’s family; how little could it have been anticipated, when Jane and Judith married rich men, that they also would be obliged to work for their living!
3. James was educated for the ministry, and became pastor of the church at Archiac, in Saintonge. He had the infirmity of stammering when he repeated any thing that he knew by heart, so he was obliged to employ another person to repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in his church; but he could preach and pray extemporaneously without any hesitation. He died before the great persecution came on, but his widow endured cruel sufferings for the faith. She was imprisoned for three years, and during part of the time she was confined in a dungeon, but at last she was liberated and banished from France. She reached London in safety with three sons, one of whom became a Protestant minister in Germany.
4. Elizabeth, married to Mr. Sautreau, minister at Saujon, in Saintonge, under whom I studied. His church was condemned, and he and his wife and children went to Dublin, where he was urged to receive Episcopal ordination, but he thought the Presbyterian Church more like that to which he had devoted himself in his own country, so he gave it the preference. He determined to take his family to America, and he, his wife and five children were wrecked, and all drowned, within sight of the harbor of Boston, their destined port. I think we may add these seven persons to the list of martyrs in our family, as they had abandoned their home and possessions for the Gospel’s sake.
5. Peter, who was also brought up to the ministry, had no sooner completed his preparation than he was appointed to asist my father, as his colleogue, in the church at Vaux; where he succeeded him at his death, and remained until the demolition of the church. When it was about to be condemned, he was served with a “Lettre de Cachet,” confined in the Isle of Oleron six months, and then banished from the kingdom, without the possibility of taking his two older daughters with him, for the law forbade ministers to take out of the country any of their children who were above twenty years old; but, by the good providence of God, they were able to join him afterwards in London, where, as you know, he spent the remainder of his days, filling the office of minister or chaplain at the Rest House, beloved and respected by all who knew him.
His youngest daughter, Esther, became the wife of John Arnauld, the grandson of my aunt Bouquet, a highly estimable man, of whom I shall have occasion to speak again in the course of these memoirs. His uprightness and correctness of judgment caused him to be frequently called upon, to act as umpire, when differences arose between any of the French merchants in London.
6. Francis ought not to be passed over without mention, though he died too young to leave any descendants. He was gifted with the most astonishing memory. When only six or seven years old he was much in my father’s study, where he heard the children and other pupils learning their lessons, and so retentive was his memory, that from simply hearing them repeat aloud what they were going to recite, he acquired the whole so perfectly, that when any boy paused for a word, he supplied the deficiency instantly; and that, not in English lessons only, but in Latin and Greek. My father became apprehensive that he would have a jumble of words in his head, without any ideas attached to them, and therefore positively forbade him to learn the lessons of others. The poor child, nevertheless, continued to do it, and he excused himself, saying, he could not help remembering that which he heard repeated over and over again; so, at last my father thought it best to begin to teach him Latin, in order that his memory might be employed connectedly at any rate. He made the most rapid progress, and soon surpassed boys twice his age. In due time, he accompanied his elder brother, Peter, to college, at Saumur, and before he had been there a year, he became an object of admiration to professors and students alike. At the end of the second year, he had distinguished himself so much, that he was looked upon as a prodigy for his years, and great hopes and expectations were raised as to his future career, all of which God saw fit to disappoint by taking him to himself soon after. He was too good for this world.
My father was married to his second wife, Marie Chaillon, my mother, in the year 1641. She was from the neighborhood of Pons, in Saintonge, where her father possessed considerable property, and resided at a country place named Rue au Roy, distant about a mile and a half from the town. She was a handsome brunette, twelve years younger than her husband, to whom she brought a marriage portion of four thousand francs, which was expended, by her desire, in the purchase of the small estate of Jenouillé, and the adjacent manor of Jaffé. My father made an addition of several rooms to the house already built upon the property, so that it might comfortably accommodate a few boarders in addition to his own family; for at that time he received pupils to educate with his sons.
The issue of the second marriage was remarkably similar to the first; five children by each, two sons and three daughters, who lived to a marriageable age.
1. Susan, married Stephen Gachot, a grandson, through his mother, of that most excellent, pious, Christian minister, Mr. Merlin, of Rochelle. This circumstance was not without its influence upon my father, in graining his consent to what proved a miserable marriage. Gachot was drunken and dissipated, and treated my sister unkindly. He even threatened her life with a pistol. He squandered his wife’s portion, and had mortgaged his own property, when he became known to a man named Jeudy, a collector to the farmers of the Royal Domain, who, perceiving him to be an acute, clever, and unscrupulous sort of man, engaged his services as a clerk or assistant collector. They were men of one mind, knowing how to fill their own purses. They committed acts of violence in making their collections, that made them worthy of two halters, and it was most fortunate for Gachot, that at the time he was beginning to tremble for fear of inquiry, a decree was issued by the Court, which ordered all Protestants in public employments, either to recant or resign. Gachot was only too glad to avail himself of the opportunity to give up his employment, and pretend to be a good Protestant. Jeudy envied him his escape from investigation of his doings, and wished that he too had been of a Protestant family. After a while the dragoons came, and Gachot readily changed his religion to retain his ill-gotten wealth. He jocularly observed,“I can accommodate myself easily to the Church of Rome, for I do not understand Latin, and so I cannot be scandalized by her services, which are all in that language.” He remained in France, and my poor sister with him.
2. Peter was light-complexioned, and of a very pleasing countenance. He was first appointed minister of St. Saurin, in Saintonge, and then removed to the church at Salles, in Aunix. He married, unhappily for himself, a little, ugly, haughty, jealous, worldly-minded woman of good fortune, who ruled him. She would not tolerate in him any evidence of affection to mother, brothers or sisters. She must be all in all to him.
On one occasion, my mother went to St. Saurin, a distance of four leagues from our house, to visit this dearly be loved son, and she was so much fatigued and exhausted with her ride, that she went to lie down as soon as she alighted from her horse, and begged to have a little herb soup. Her own maid, whom she had taken to wait upon her, was busy preparing it for her, when her daughter-in-law went into the kitchen, in a very bad humor, vexed at her mother-in-law being there, and still more that her husband should have received his mother with evident marks of kindness and affection, and, in this mood, she took a fire-brand out of the fire, and began to stir the broth with it. The servant cried out, “Madam! What are you about? Here is a spoon for you.” She answered contemptuously, “It is good enough for her.” This was very inconsiderately repeated to my poor mother, who was so much wounded by it, that she shortened her visit; she mounted her horse to return home next day, and never again went to the house of this dear son. Peter knew the cause of it, and he was deeply grieved; but still, his wife had become so entirely the governing power in his house, that he made no effort to correct the grievance.
Three years before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he began to collect money with which he intended to leave France. He sold whatever he could, and he had raised about 15,000 francs in gold, when he thought it was time to apply for a passport. He obtained one from the king, in which his wife and two daughters were included, and they all four might easily have quitted the kingdom, but he had still some sums of money due to him ,which he hoped to receive, and so he lingered on from day to day, and kept ita secret that he had procured a passport. At length the dragoons made their appearance in Rochelle, and he felt it was high time to make use of the passport; which he accordingly produced to the Intendant. He looked at it carefully, and discovered that it was dated six months before. He exclaimed, “Oh! oh! Sir, you can derive no benefit from this, it is of old date. We can see through your designs, you have not used your passport in order to take time to collect money, to carry out of the country with you, contrary to law. You must now either change your religion, or I can tell you the dragoons will soon have your treasure.” He turned round, and gave immediate orders that tenor twelve dragoons should go to my brother’s house. They went and took possession of every thing they could find, but the gold was too carefully concealed for them to discover it. My brother had hidden it in a barrel of wine.
During the succeeding night his wife was a greater torment than the dragoons. She left no argument untried to persuade him to ask time for consideration on the subject of religion, and then she told him they could find an opportunity, in all probability, to escape with their gold, before the time allowed to consider should have expired. At any rate, she said if he would only get the dragoons out of the house, she would follow him where he pleased. He resisted all her entreaties for some time, and told her he would rather beg his bread in a foreign land, where he could worship according to his conscience, than have the greatest wealth at home if he were obliged to abjure his religion to gain it.
The cursed Eve gained her point by morning, and he put forth his hand to the forbidden fruit. He went to the Intendant at an early hour, and told him he wished for time to study the subject, and see whether he could change his religion. The dragoons were thereupon ordered from his house, and fifteen days allowed to him for consideration.
Observe, my dear children, the fatal influence of a bad wife over a too yielding husband. The first step was persuading him to withhold, from his affectionate, widowed mother, that respectful tenderness to which she was entitled. The next was to induce him to temporize for the sake of gold, and finally, he was forsaken of God. He, who had been as a shining lamp in the tabernacle, preaching to others, renounced the pure faith he had taught, and signed the act of abjuration.
It is always thus; the great enemy of mankind tempts us first to commit small sins, and the downward path becomes easier as we descend. Let us lay to heart the lesson taught in the fall of some members of our family, and learn from it distrust of self and dependence upon God, for the grace of his Holy Spirit, to sustain us through temptation and deliver us from evil. It is a comfort to me to know that my brother had no son; thus there is not one descendant of my father, bearing the honored name of Fontaine, who is now living in France in what I consider idolatry.
3. Mary, married Peter Forestier, a zealous minister, an able preacher and a sound theologian, of whom I shall have occasion to make honorable mention hereafter.
4. Ann, my youngest sister, the light and joy of the house, married Leon Testard Sieur des Meslars. He changed his religion, or pretended to do so, when the dragoons came, but my sister remained firm in her faith, and could not give up the hope of escaping from France, and in about two years after the abjuration it was accomplished. They landed in safety at Plymouth, but my sister’s health was much impaired, and she died a few months after reaching England, well satisfied to leave this present life and enter upon her heavenly inheritance. She was rejoiced to leave her children in a land where the gospel was preached in all its purity.
I, James, was the youngest child of my parents, but before I narrate my own life I will say something more of my father.
He was a man of fine figure, pure red and white complexion, and of very dignified deportment, commanding the respect of all with whom he came in contact. He was a remarkably abstemious man; he lived chiefly upon milk, fruits and vegetables, during the greater part of his life, but towards its close he lived more generously, in conformity with the advice of his physicians. He was never to be seen amongst his flock at feasts or entertainments, but he made it an invariable rule to pay a pastoral visit to each family twice in the year. He hastened to the sick and afflicted as soon as their sorrows were made known to him. Almost all the people were Protestants in the neighborhood where he lived, so all belonged to his church, and when it was known that he was praying with any sick person, crowds would flock to hear him, and frequently the houses could not contain those who came. He was zealous and affectionate, and employed all his gifts, his time, his knowledge and his talents, in the service of God, for the good of his people, and he was rewarded even in this life by the affectionate attachment of his flock. He was a man of unusual attainments; he had great learning, quick and ready wit, clear and sonorous voice, natural and graceful action; he always made use of the most chaste, elegant and appropriate language; and genuine humility, crowning the whole, gave an indescribable charm to his discourses, and all who heard him were delighted.
The following incident may serve as an example of his facility in preaching. On the afternoon of a Communion Sunday he had just given out his text, which had been selected with reference to the services of the morning, when he perceived some Capuchins and Jesuits enter the church. He paused and addressed his own people, saying: “The text I have read to you is of a kind suitable for the edification of those who, by the grace of God, have been already well instructed in pure religion; but I see persons before me whom I believe to be still in a state of superstition and ignorance; I therefore feel it my duty, for this time, to leave the ninety and nine, and strive to bring back the lost sheep to the fold. He then turned over the leaves of his Bible, took a controversial text, upon which he gave an extempore discourse, and treated the subject with so much force and perspicuity, that the Fathers were obliged to confess, on going out, that they had never heard error (as they called it) so well defended.
The Synod thought most highly of his judgment and discretion, and on that account they usually selected him for the difficult task of reconciling differences between pastors and their flocks, when any such occurred.
He generally succeeded in healing the breach, and his eloquence frequently drew tears from the eyes of his auditors, at the same time that it softened their hearts towards each other.
He was invited to take charge of a church at Rochelle, where he was offered a salary just twice as large as that which he was receiving, but he refused decidedly. He had not the heart to abandon a flock who loved him so much.
I have mentioned that he was Pastor of the United Churches of Vaux and Royan. At the commencement of his ministry he preached in one church in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, taking each church alternately for the morning service. They were distant from one another two short miles. In course of time an Order in Council was issued, condemning the church at Royan, and it was pulled down accordingly. My father went there as usual, and persevered in holding services upon the ruins of the church.
The Governor was much enraged when he heard of it, and sent him a summons to appear before him at Brouage, to answer for the offence. My father rested his defence upon the ancient privileges and liberties accorded to the people. The Governor said he knew of no privilege or liberty that subjects could claim but such as had been granted by the king, the council, or the ancient laws. This church had been built, he said, without the king’s permission, which was the fact, and therefore, as its erection had been an act of usurpation in the first instance, no one could consider its demolition now to be an arbitrary stretch of power, He added, that the distance was so short from Royan to Vaux, that it could not be considered a great hardship for his followers at the former place to walk to the latter to hear him. My father was obliged to acquiesce.
Another Order in Council was issued soon after, which forbade Protestant ministers to wear their clerical robes in the street. My father looked upon this as an indignity, and appeared abroad in his robe as he had hitherto done. The Governor summoned him to appear before him a second time to answer for this new offence.
He went, accompanied by the elders of his church, and attired in his robe. The wife of the Governor was present at the examination, and so much was she touched with the dignified eloquence of his defence, that she entreated her husband to permit him to continue wearing a garb to which he did so much honor.
The often repeated occurrence of little vexatious trifles, such as those named above, made it evident to my father that more serious persecution was at hand. He did everything in his power, by prayer and teaching, to prepare his flock for the day of trial. His labors were blessed in no common degree, and the effects of his instruction were visible long after he had been laid in the grave. When the great persecution came on, eighteen years after his death, a most unusual proportion of the Protestant population of Vaux and Royan fled the kingdom for the sake of the truth. There were few parishes in which so small a number of persons abjured their religion under the terrors of the dragonade, and of those who were terrified into doing so with their lips, I believe there are many who still worship God in sincerity around their family altars.
My father was never seen in the transaction of worldly business of any kind. My mother attended to all such matters. She consulted with him in any case where she had doubts, but she alone appeared. She received and paid money, she gave directions to work-people and servants; thus my father never came in contact with his flock but in the exercise of his spiritual functions, and this circumstance no doubt contributed to the respect with which all looked up to him.
His favorite recreation was gardening, and it was in coining out of his garden, in the year 1666, that he was seized with apoplexy, which proved fatal.
It is impossible to describe the affliction caused by his death to a large circle of mourning parishioners, as well as to his own immediate family. I knew not then the full extent of my personal loss; but I have since thought that I was perhaps the greatest sufferer of all, for, had it pleased God to lengthen his days, what a guide and instructor would he have been to me!
James Fontaine (1658) was the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jared Smith (Editor of the AHB). He wrote an autobiography, the material of which was compiled and published by some of his descendants. The first publication is called, ”A Tale Of The Huguenots Or Memoirs Of A French Refugee Family (De La Fontaine)” (1838). The second publication is called, “Memoirs Of A Huguenot Family” (1872).