Study with Mr. Forestier — His persecutions — His wife’s firmness — Return home — Pray with neighbors — Leave the neighbourhood at Easter — Poor people assemble in the woods — A spy watches them — Warrants issued — A mason taken up — He recants — His repentance — My return home — Warrant against me — Determine to remain and wait the issue — Grand Provost and archers appear — Conducted to prison — Obtain permission to pray night and morning in prison
Having made all necessary arrangements for the management of my property. I went to my brother-in-law Mr. Forestier who was a minister at St. Mesme in Anguomois to prosecute my theological studies, for I had now no other wish than to devote to the glory of God all the talents he had bestowed upon me.
While I was at Mr. Forestier’s, a complaint was made that he had received a papist into the communion of the Protestant Church, contrary to the King’s edict. Upon this accusation, he was taken to prison on horseback with his legs tied under the horse’s belly. If you had but seen the papists of Augouleme collected on the road, in such numbers that I may say they were literally piled up, and they were uttering the most horrid maledictions and throwing stones at him and at us who accompanied him to the prison door; I say, if you had seen them, you would have supposed the prisoner had murdered his father, committed violence on his mother, or attempted the life of the King. Oh my God! to what a horrid pitch of barbarity does the blind zeal of superstition and idolatry carry mankind!
My sister was throughout her trials resigned to His will, who she felt assured, in His infinite wisdom ordered all for the best. After a tedious imprisonment Mr. Forestier appealed to the parliament* of Paris. and was acquitted. The Church of St. Mesme being condemned, he was removed by order of the Synod to Coses in Saintonge, and though it is rather anticipating events, I think I had better finish at once the history of his labours in the ministry, before returning to my own life. The church at Coses having been condemned, the papists in the neighborhood wished to put a stop to divine worship there, even before the day appointed for its destruction arrived, and to accomplish this end, they made some frivolous complaint of Protestants who had recanted having been seen there, and procured a warrant to arrest Mr. Forestier upon this charge. A friend travelled all night from Saintes in order to give him timely notice of the steps that had been taken, and arrived at Coses just as he was ready to go to church on Sunday morning, and tried in vain to persuade him to conceal himself.
There were ten Parliaments in the Kingdom of France, they were superior courts of judicature, to which appeal was made from the decision of inferior tribunals. They had no legislative function but that of registering and publishing the Royal Decrees, to which they very rarely raised any objection.
My sister was appealed to, expecting she would aid in dissuading her husband from going to church; so far from it, she replied with a calm and decided tone; “it is Mr. Forestier’s duty to preach to his flock, and it is for God to do as seemeth him good.”
Mr. Forestier turned round triumphantly and said “you see we have no Eve here Sir,” and immediately proceeded to church with his family. He preached with his accustomed energy, there was not the slightest visible trace of agitation, and as he descended from the pulpit he was seized by the Archers, taken to the prison of Saintes and thence transferred to that of La Reolle, where the parliament of Bourdeaux then held its sittings. His life was preserved through many dangers by the God whom he served so faithfully, and at last he left France with his wife and younger children, in conformity with the King’s Declaration.
It is difficult which to admire most, the husband or the wife, the faith of both shone so triumphantly on these trying occasions, and I can assure you (for I was much with her) that my sister’s firmness did not proceed from any deficiency of sensibility; there was no apathy about her. I have known few persons who had stronger affections, but her love for her husband and children was subordinate to her love of God, and when his glory was in question, nothing was too dear to her. Happy couple! their treasure was laid up in heaven, and they could well afford to despise this present life and its enjoyments.
I now return to my own history. I went to Saintes to reside, in order to have the assistance of two able and pious ministers, Mr. Mainard, and Mr. Borillak, in pursuing my theological studies. After a while they also were cast into prison, and I returned home.
My brother Peter had been the minister of my father’s parish ever since his death, and about this time, he was seized under a ‘lettre de eachet,’ and confined in the Castle of Oleron; the church at Vaux was levelled with the ground, and most of the churches in our Province shared the same fate; thus my neighbors could not reach a place of worship without great fatigue; and feeling compassion for them as sheep without a shepherd, I felt myself called upon to invite them to join me in my family devotions. The number who came soon increased to one hundred and fifty, and I then recommended them not to come daily as heretofore. I could prepare myself more suitably to expound the Scriptures, and preach for them, if our meetings did not take place more than two or three times a week. And I suggested to them, that if each family only came once a week, and thus all took their turns, that our meetings being less numerous, would be less likely to attract attention. I also frequently changed our days of assembling, giving previous notice to the people, and we continued this endearing intercourse uninterruptedly during the whole winter. All who attended were personally known to me, and to each other, and all were equally interested in keeping the secret, and my house standing entirely alone was a very favourable circumstance for us.
A rumour prevailed that there were meetings in our parish, and that I was the preacher, but we had no traitor in our ranks, and the papists were unable to discover any thing with sufficient certainty to make a handle of. Some of my friends advised me to cease before we were discovered, but I believed myself to be in the path of duty, and was determined to persevere. Our holy intercourse continued without any drawback till Palm Sunday 1684. I then advised my people to go to some of the few remaining churches in order to receive the communion with their brethren, and I myself went to the other side of the Province, and received the communion both on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and remained from home until ten or twelve days after Easter. On Palm Sunday some of the neighbours came to my house as usual, and not finding me there, they retired to the wood behind my house, and one of their number, a mason by trade, who read very well, officiated as their pastor.. He read several chapters from the Bible, the prayers of the church, and a sermon, and they sang Psalms. This meeting having been open, it was noised abroad, and on Holy Thursday, from seven to eight hundred persons assembled on the same spot, the mason again the pastor; and on Easter day the number increased to a thousand.
A miserable pettifogging Attorney, named Agoust, who had already abjured his religion, lived within four hundred paces of a high road by which many of the people returned home from the meeting, and thinking to ingratiate himself with those in power, he sat at his window to watch them returning, but it was impossible for him to recognise individuals at that distance, the services having continued till after dusk; nevertheless, he made out a list of sixty names, putting down some who were, and some who were not there, and Mr. Mouillere and I were at the head. He knew pretty well who would be likely to attend such a meeting, and that was about as much as he really did know. On the deposition of this single witness (a man of indifferent character at best) before the Seneschal of Saintes, warrants were issued against us. Two or three days before my return home, the Grand Provost and his Archers were sent in search of us. I was absent; the country people, having had timely notice, had hidden themselves in the woods, and after scouring the country over the archers found no one but the poor mason who had officiated. Him they took, fastened him to a horse’s tail, and dragged him to Saintes a distance of fifteen miles. They threatened him in all kinds of ways, and assured him he would be hanged as soon as they reached the Capital. It was late when they arrived, too late, they told him, for him to be hanged that night, and that one solitary chance for life yet remained to him, and that was, to recant without delay, for if he once got within the walls of the prison, a hundred religions would not save him from death. They said all that was required of him was to renounce the errors of Calvin, and surely he might do that with a clear conscience, for if Calvin had errors, they ought to be renounced, and if he had none, then nothing was renounced. They did not neglect to set before him the forlorn condition in which his wife and children would be placed by his death; and the poor fellow, what with their threats and their specious arguments, having no one at hand to strengthen him, yielded to the temptation, and abjured the errors of Calvin. He was rewarded by being set at liberty immediately. As soon as I returned home, he came to me, crying like a child, he threw himself on his knees before me, and entreated that I would pray to God for his soul, which he had damned by his own weakness. He related the whole story to me, and told me the torments he had endured ever since and that it was impossible for him to sleep. He viewed his crime with so much abhorrence, and was in such a state of despair, that I saw at once that my duty was not to reprove but rather to try to lead him to the true source for consolation, and I endeavoured to convince him that God’s mercy was still open to him. I drew a parallel between him and St. Peter, whom he had imitated, as well in his bitter tears, as in his fall. He once more abjured his abjuration, and asked forgiveness of every one he met for the scandal he had brought upon their holy religion; and I do believe that all who witnessed the remorse of this unhappy man, were by it strengthened in their own faith. God, who can bring good out of evil, shewed them by this sad example that man, with all his cruelties, can inflict no such pain, as God causes to the consciences of those who deny him before men.
I was very sorry that I had not been on the spot to have accompanied the poor man, and to have tried to strengthen him; and understanding that there was a warrant out against me, I rode over to Saintes to ascertain the fact. I waited upon the Lieutenant General, or Seneschal of the Presidency of Saintes, and he had the malice to deny that there was any such warrant out, though he himself had issued it, but he thought that being led to prison by the Grand Provost, and made a public spectacle of, would serve to intimidate me. I saw into the matter, and returned quietly home. During the week I remained there, I was constantly employed, exhorting my neighbours and trying to strengthen their faith, and when I heard that the Provost and Archers were within two leagues of us, I sent messengers into the villages to give them time to hide themselves, but I had determined myself not to shrink from the danger whatever it might be. I made all ready in the evening, expecting them early next day; I gave full directions to my servants, I made up a bundle containing what I should require in the prison, and I prayed most feverently to God for his grace to support me in the step I was about to take, and which I believed I was undertaking for his glory. Some of my friends came to me, and offered me the use of their houses as an asylum, but I refused, saying that I had induced these poor people to jeopard their lives for our holy religion, and that, having been their guide when there was no danger, if I were now to flee, I should consider myself like the shepherd who fled at the sight of the wolf, because he was an hireling. Example, I told them, was more powerful than precept, and that if I were absent, and my poor neighbours abjured their faith for want of a leader to countenance and support them, I should for ever feel that the sin rested on my shoulder. My mind was wonderfully calm, and I slept so soundly that I was only wakened by the noise of the Provost and his Archers knocking at the gate, at break of day. I started suddenly out of my sleep, felt a vague sort of alarm, and trembling from head to foot, and being but half awake, the idea crossed my mind of defending myself with fire-arms which I had in my room. Presently I realized more fully my situation, and calling to mind the resolves of the night before, I fell down upon my knees and prayed for Divine assistance, which appeared to be vouchsafed to me, for I felt almost immediately tranquillized, and I heard with displeasure that my servants were denying that I was in the house. I put my head out of the window, and told them I had made ready for them over night, upon they retreated a little, evidently thinking the preparation I spoke of was defensive; indeed, I heard the Provost order his Archers to be on their guard, for I should probably fire upon them. I told him he was mistaken, and that if he would wait patiently until I was dressed, I would accompany him. As soon as I was ready, I opened the door and showed the bundle I had prepared the night before. The Provost gave me some exhortations about what he considered my duty, namely, to make a recantation in conformity to the King’s order. He then left me in charge of two of his Archers, and proceeded with the rest in search of the other persons against whom he had warrants. They scoured the country without finding any of my accomplices in prayer. One poor ploughman was taken up, who felt somewhat embarrassed at suffering persecution without the consolation of having deserved it. He was sent forward to the place of rendezvous with an Archer for his guard, who was one of that tribe of booted Missionaries, who by oaths, threats and cruelties, strove to make converts to his religion.
Hearing that no more prisoners were likely to be brought in, we continued our way, and my companion was greatly comforted by having (at my earnest solicitation)the rope, which tied him to the horse’s tail, left long enough for him to walk by my side. When we were approaching the Capital, the Archers told me, with a delicacy rather unusual, that they had positive orders to tie my legs together under the horse, but that if I would drop my cloak down so low as to hide my legs altogether, they would dispense with it. We entered the town of Saintes at 5 o’clock in the afternoon of a day near the end of April 1684, and we formed a spectacle to a crowd composed of two very different classes. The one clapped their hands, jumped for joy, and cried out in loud tones, “Hang them! Hang them!” The other stood aloof and wept. My companion was sadly overcome, but I tried to encourage him, speaking kindly to him, and pressing his hand, which when the papists observed, they redoubled their menaces. The principal Protestants in the place made me a visit of condolence in the prison that very night. I thanked them for their sympathy, and told them they would soon have an opportunity of evincing it by acts, for I felt assured that my poor neighbours would ere long be my companions in prison, and they would then be called upon to contribute to their support. After they had left me, I made a bargain with the gaoler to pay him so much a day for a bed for myself, and for the use of his own private apartment. Now my principal reason for coming to prison (which I could easily have avoided by flight) was to prevent any of my followers, who might hereafter be seized, from changing their religion, and as it would be highly dangerous to speak to them of religion, I determined, without loss of time, to make the only arrangement by which I could hope to be useful to them, and that was, to obtain permission to pray aloud night and morning in the prison, an undertaking which hitherto no minister had attempted, so far as I knew.
After supper, conversing with the gaoler, I told him there was one thing I wished to mention to him, namely, that it was my practice to pray aloud to God night and morning, and that it had become so habitual to me, and was so necessary to my peace of mind, that if I were, debarred from it, he would find me unhappy and morose, and an uncomfortable inmate for him; but that wishing to shew him all due respect, I had no idea of annoying him by praying in our joint apartment, and if he had no objection, I would choose as my altar the corner of the common prison behind the door of our room. He replied rather jocularly that he was like the devil not so black as he appeared to be, and that all my holy water would not make him drop the keys out of his hand. “Very well,” said I, ‘I am glad we agree so well, you may keep the key of the prison, and I will endeavour to obtain that of eternal happiness.’ I went directly to the corner I had named, and kneeling down, I began to pray aloud, without calling any one to join me; but my companion threw himself on his knees at my side, as did also another poor Protestant who was imprisoned for debt. My prayer was chiefly composed of thanksgiving, that among so many faithful servants of God, he had been pleased to select me to suffer persecution for the truth of his Gospel, soliciting his grace to enable me to do my duty in this new sphere. I did not forget to make mention of the choice of Moses rather to suffer persecution with the people of God than to sit upon the throne of Pharaoh, and also the zealous protestations of St. Paul, that neither death nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, should be able to separate him from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I prayed also for the King, that God would be pleased to put it into his heart to examine the pure faith against which he issued so many edicts, and that he might be changed from its persecutor into its nurse and father. The following morning I went to prayer in the same corner; and continued daily night and morning, and my poor ploughman became confirmed in his faith, and felt so bold that the promises and threats of the Papists no longer disturbed him. The gaoler and his wife being accustomed to deal with haughty turbulent spirits, looked upon me as disordered in my intellects when they found I considered it a privilege to be imprisoned.
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).