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Merle d’Aubigne’s Philosophy of History and Historical Writing

Category Articles
Date February 1, 2000

The Place of the Reformation in the History of Christianity

Merle d’Aubigne made a distinction between the history of Christianity and the history of the Church. In an address delivered in 1832 at Geneva he said,

There are two histories, there is what we may call the ‘History of the Church,’ that is of human institutions, forms, doctrines, and actions; and ‘The History of Christianity’ which has brought into the world, and still preserves, a new life, a life divine, the history of the government of that King who has said, the words which I speak unto you are spirit and life. . . .Most historians have hitherto presented only the barren history of the external church, because they themselves were only the outward man and had scarcely even imagined the life of the spiritual man. The ‘old man’ sees in the field of the Church but dry bones; the ‘new man’ there discerns that Spirit which blows from the four winds, and created for the Eternal ‘an exceeding great army.’

In his opinion, one could not really understand the history of Christ’s church without grasping something of the work of the triune God within that church. To him the work of the historian should reflect the spiritual development of the church. Within the history of Christianity, Merle d’Aubigne thought that there were two great movements that best reflected this work of God: primitive Christianity and the Reformation. He believed that in comparison to these two great epochs everything else was secondary:

Primitive Christianity and the Reformation are one and the same revolution, brought about at different epochs and under different circumstances. Although not alike in their secondary features, they are identical in their primary and chief characteristics. One is a repetition of the other. The former put an end to the old world: the latter began the new: between them lie the Middle Ages. One is the parent of the other; and although the daughter may in some instances bear marks of inferiority, she has characters that are peculiarly her own.

It is interesting to note that the eminent historian Philip Schaff shared this opinion: ‘The Reformation was a republication of primitive Christianity, and the inauguration of modern Christianity. This makes it, next to the Apostolic age, the most important and interesting portion of church history.’

Merle d’Aubigne considered the Reformation a mighty revolution that carried men beyond the corruption of the Middle Ages, He called it ‘one of the greatest revolutions that has ever been accomplished in human affairs: a mighty impulse communicated to the world three centuries ago, and whose influence is still visible on every side.’

He went on to explain exactly what he meant by the term ‘revolution’:

The term ‘revolution,’ which I here apply to it has of late fallen into discredit with many individuals, who almost confound it with revolt. But they are wrong: for a revolution is merely a change in the affairs of men, –something new unfolded (revolutus) from the bosom of the humanity; and this very word, previous to the end of the last century, was more frequently used in a good than in a bad sense: . . . The Reformation was quite the opposite of a revolt: it was the re-establishment of the principles of primitive Christianity. It was a regenerative movement with respect to all that was destined to revive; a conservative movement as regards all that will exist forever. While Christianity and the Reformation established the great principle of the equality of souls in the eyes of God, and overthrew the usurpations of a haughty priesthood that assumed to place itself between the Creator and his creature they both laid down this fundamental rule of social order, that all power is derived from God, and called upon all men to “love the brotherhood, fear God, and honour the king.

In the preface to volume one of the History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, he wrote how this revolution was accomplished:

The Reformation of the sixteenth century restored to the human race what the middle ages had stolen from them; it delivered them from the traditions, laws, and despotism of the papacy; it put an end to the minority and tutelage in which Rome claimed to keep mankind forever; and by calling upon them to establish his faith not on the word of a priest, but on the infallible Word of God, and by announcing to every one free access to the Father through the new and saving way, Christ Jesus, it proclaimed and brought about the hour of Christian manhood.

It was this view of the Reformation, the revolution by which God restored the church to something of its pristine power and character that it had in the days of primitive Christianity, that shaped Merle d’Aubingne’s writing the history of the Reformation. He confessed that he would rather study the epochs of primitive Christianity and the Reformation than any other periods in the history of Christianity:

What is necessary for us to study above all things are, in my opinion, the beginnings. The formation of beings, the origin of the successive phases of humanity, possess in my eyes an importance and interest far surpassing the exhibition of what these things have afterwards become. The creative epoch of Christianity, in which we contemplate Christ and His Apostles, is to me far more admirable than those which succeeded it. Similarly the Reformation, which is the creation of the evangelical world in modern times has greater attractions for me than the Protestantism which comes after. I take a pleasure in watching life in its commencement. When the work is done, its summa momenta are over.

Having examined Merle d’Aubigne’s view on the importance of the Reformation in the history of Christianity, let us now examine his views on the work of the historian.

The Work of the Historian

Merle d’Aubigne had two basic presuppositions that guided him in his work: the historian must trace the hand of God directing history and (2) the historian should have an evangelical faith that is sympathetic to the Reformation. He has been severely criticized for these presuppositions, but in his mind they were essential to his work as a historian.

He believed that the primary task of the historian was to trace the hand of God guiding and directing history. To him providence was the key to understanding the history of the Reformation ‘The impulse was given by an invisible and mighty hand: the change accomplished was the work of Omnipotence. An impartial and attentive observer, who looks beyond the surface, must necessarily be led to this conclusion.’

He felt that the relation of Providence to the events of history gave life to the historical accounts: but there is another source to which above all, we must look for the intelligence, spirit, and life of past ages; and this source is Religion. History should live by that life which belongs to it and that life is God. In history God should be acknowledged and proclaimed. The history of the world should be set forth as the annals of the government of the Sovereign King.

I have gone down into the lists whither the recitals of our historians have invited me. There I have witnessed the actions of men and of nations, developing themselves with energy, and contending in violent collision. I have heard a strange din of arms, but I have been nowhere shown the majestic countenance of the presiding judge.

And yet there is a living principle, emanating from God, in every national movement. God is ever present on that vast theatre where successive generations of men meet and struggle. It is true he is unseen; but if the heedless multitude pass by without caring for him because he is ‘a God that dwelleth in the thick darkness,’ thoughtful men, who yearn for the very principle of their existence, seek for him the more ardently, and are not satisfied until they lie prostrate at his feet. And their inquiries meet with a rich reward. For from the height to which they have been compelled to soar to meet their God, the history of the world, instead of presenting to their eyes a confused chaos, as it does to the ignorant crowd, appears as a majestic temple on which the invisible hand of God himself is at work,’ and which rises to his glory above the rock of humanity.

Moreover, he based his philosophy of the Providential direction of history on theology of the Bible. He pointed out that God in history was the great principle of the Old Testament theocracy and the incarnation of Christ. Furthermore, he believed felt that this was the theology of the Reformers:

The Reformation recognized this divine law and was conscious of fulfilling it. The idea that ‘God is in history’ was often put forth by the reformers. We find it particularly expressed by Luther in one of those homely and quaint, yet not undignified similitudes, which he was fond of using that he might be understood by the people. ‘The world,’ said he one day at table with his friends, ‘is a vast and magnificent game of cards, made up of emperors, kings and princes, &c The pope for many centuries beat the emperors, kings, and princes. They yielded and fell before him. then came our Lord God. He dealt the cards: he took the lowest (Luther) for himself, and with it he beat the pope, that vanquisher of the kings of the earth. . . This is the ace of God. As Mary said: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.’

Merle d’Aubigne’s view of Providence, however, did not stop him from examining other causes. He firmly believed that in order to describe history accurately one must deal with second causes:

But as God works by second causes, another task remains for the historian. Many circumstances which have often passed unnoticed, gradually prepared the world for the great transformation of the sixteenth century, so that the human mind was ripe when the hour of its emancipation arrived.

In the first volume of the History of the Reformation, Merle d’Aubigne vividly described what he considered the main events leading up to and preparing for the Reformation. He wrote,

The Reformation has been gradually prepared by God’s providence in three different spheres, the political, the ecclesiastical, and the literary. Princes and their subjects, Christians and divines, the learned and the wise, contributed to bring about this revolution of the sixteenth century.

In another place he gave a list of political factors that contributed to the rise of the Reformation: (1) the constitution of the empire; (2) the internal peace of the empire; 3) the rapid advance of the third estate (a rising middle class); (4) a more cultivated religious character among the Germans; (5) the political tension between the princes-electors and the emperor; (6) the tensions between the bishops and the magistrates; and (7) the unrest among the peasants.

When Merle d’Aubigne dealt with second causes, the internal and personal captured his attention more than the external and material. He wrote,

There are in reality two histories: one which is external and makes much more noise, but whose consequences are not lasting; the other, which is internal, has but a mean appearance, like the seed when it germinates; and which nevertheless bears most precious fruit. Now what pleases the general public is a narrative in which great armies maneuver; while on the other hand, what touches the author is the movement of soul, of strong characters, enthusiastic outbursts, the low estate of humble and tranquil hearts, holy affections, life-giving principles, the faith which gains victories, and the Divine life which regenerates nations, in a word, the moral world. The material world, physical and appreciable forces, parks of artillery and glittering squadrons, possess but a secondary interest in his eyes. Numerous cannons, it is true, give more smoke but to those external powers, which destroy life, he prefers the internal powers which elevate the soul, warm it for truth, for liberty, and for God, and cause it to be born again to life everlasting. If these internal forces are developed in the midst of a little people they possess all the more attraction for him.

Of his interest in humble heroes, he wrote: If humble heroes are not popular, shall I therefore leave their noble actions in obscurity? Shall I limit myself henceforth to bringing princes and kings on the stage, with statesmen, cardinals, armies, treaties, and empires? No: I can not do so. I shall have to speak, indeed, of Francis I and Charles V, and of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, and other great personages; but I shall still remain faithful to little people and little things.

A good example of this interest is found in his description of the role of the common people in the events leading to the Reformation: It was in reality in the bosoms of the people that the revolution so soon to break forth was violently fermenting. Not only do we see youths issuing from their ranks and seizing upon the highest stations in the Church; but there are those who remained all their lives engaged in the humblest occupations, and yet powerfully contributing to the great revival of Christendom.

He went on to give the example of Hans Sachs, a shoemaker who put the message of the Bible to music. “The spiritual songs of Hans Sachs and his Bible in verse were a powerful help to this great work. It would, perhaps, be hard to decide who did the most for it, the Prince-elector of Saxony, administrator of the empire, or the Nuremberg shoemaker.”

We note, therefore, that he did not neglect second causes. Nevertheless, as he carefully delineated various lines that converged at the beginning of the sixteenth century, he never lost sight of the one directing these things in order to accomplish his purposes. He labored to show the relationship of Providence and second causes. For example, when describing the development of German humanism and the role of Reuchlin, after describing a meeting between Reuchlin and a scholar from Greece, he commented:

It was thus that the sons of barbarous Germany and of ancient and learned Greece met in the palaces of Rome; thus the East and the West embraced in this resort of the world, and the one poured into the lap of the other those intellectual treasures which it had snatched from the barbarism of the Ottomans. God, whenever his plans require it, brings together in an instant, by some catastrophe, the things which seemed destined to remain forever separated. It is worth noting that d’Aubigne’s relating of Providence to second causes follows that of his mentor Neander. For example, when describing Boniface VIII and the corruption of his papal rule, Neander wrote:

This pope, a man without any pretensions to spiritual character, or even moral worth, carried papal absolutism to the highest pitch it ever reached; and he was forced to see himself reduced to the most severe humiliations; nor can we fail to recognize the guiding hand of a higher wisdom, when we observe how the humiliation to which he was reduced contributed, by the consequences that followed to bring on that whole train of succeeding contests which made the existing church-system of the medieval theocracy totter to its foundation.

Closely related to his first presupposition about the role of God in history, was his second presupposition that he must write history from the perspective of his evangelical faith. We detect this perspective in his view of the importance of the Reformation. He made no claim to being a neutral, totally objective reporter. He knew the futility and self-deceit of such a claim. He shared this view with Phillip Schaff:

But, as the plans of Providence unfold themselves, the prospect widens, old prejudices melt away and hope and charity expand with our vision. The historian must be impartial, without being neutral or indifferent. He must follow the footsteps of Divine providence, which shapes our ends, and guides all human events in the interest of truth, righteousness, and peace.

Like Schaff, Merle d’Aubigne believed that he could write from the evangelical perspective, while remaining an impartial chronicler of the truth. He said,

I believe the Reformation to be the work of God: his hand is every where visible in it. Still I hope to be impartial in retracing its history. I think I have spoken of the principle Roman catholic actors in this great drama, of Leo X, Albert of Magdeburg, Charles V, and Doctor Eck, for instance, more favourably than the majority of historians have done. On the other hand, I have had no desire to conceal the faults and errors of the reformers.

When he discovered unworthy motivations on the part of those promoting the Reformation he was willing to expose them. For example, in discussing some of the reasons that the German nobility were friends of the Reformation, he wrote,

Many discovered in the Reformation a certain chivalrous character that fascinated them and carried them along with it. And others, we must freely acknowledge, were offended with the clergy, who, in the reign of Maximilian had powerfully contributed to deprive them of their ancient independence, and bring them under subjection to their princes. They were full of enthusiasm, and looked upon the Reformation as the prelude to a great political renovation; they saw in imagination the empire emerging with new splendour from this crisis, and hailed a better state brilliant with the purest glory, that was on the eve of being established in the world, not less by the swords of the knights than by the Word of God.

Nor did he turn a blind eye to the faults of the great Reformers. Of Calvin he wrote, ‘We entertain no blind admiration for him, We know that he has sometimes used bitter language. We acknowledge that, sharing in the faults of his century, or rather of ten centuries, he believed that whatever infringed on the respect due to God ought to be punished by the civil power, quite as much as anything that might be injurious to the honor or life of man. We deplore this error. But how can any one study with discernment the Reformer’s letters and other writings, and not recognize in him one of the noblest intelligences, one of the most elevated minds, one of the most affectionate hearts, and in short, one of those true Christian souls who unreservedly devote themselves to duty?’

Merle d’Aubigne had a passionate desire to be truthful. In fact, his desire for truth led him to delay the first volume of the history of the Reformation in England:

I cannot, however, approach the History of the Reformation in England without some portion of fear; it is perhaps more difficult there than elsewhere. I have received communications from some of the most respectable men of the different ecclesiastical parties, who, each feeling convinced that their own point of view is the true one, desire me to present the history in this light. I come to execute my task with impartiality and truth; and thought it would be advantageous to study for some time longer the principles and the facts.

Having examined his presuppositions, I will now examine his approach to research. The writer of a very short article in the Encyclopedia Britannica said, ‘Although considered partisan toward the Presbyterian form of church structure, he revitalized church history and assembled more source documents that [sic] any other historian up to this time.’

He made use of every available source. Not content with reading the histories of the other writers, he searched for original documents: letters, narratives, governmental papers, etc. He scoured the archives and libraries of Europe and even advertised for manuscripts.

In many places he recorded for us the details of his research: This history is compiled from the original sources with which a long residence in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, has rendered me familiar; as well as from study in their original languages of the documents relating to the religious history of Great Britain and other countries.

He felt that original research was an important task:

A spirit of examination and inquiry is in our days continually urging the literary men of France, Switzerland, Germany, and England to search after the original documents which form the basis of Modern History. I desire to add my mite to the accomplishment of the important task which our age appears to have undertaken. Hitherto I have not been content simply with reading the works of contemporary historians: I have examined eyewitnesses, letters, and original narratives; and have made use of some manuscripts, particularly that of Bullinger, which has been printed since the appearance of the Second Volume of this work in France.

Often, because of his diligence, Merle d’Aubigne had the privilege of discovering new sources: On this subject [history of the Reformation in France] we possess but few printed memoirs in consequence of the perpetual trials in which the Reformed Church of that country has existed. In the spring of 1838 I examined, as far as was in my power the manuscripts preserved in the public libraries of Paris, and it will be seen that a manuscript in the Royal Library, hitherto I believe unknown, throws much light on the early stages of the Reformation; . . .

In another place he said: The notes will direct the reader to the principal sources whence the author has derived his information. Most of them are well known; some, however, had not been previously explored, among which are the later volumes of the State Papers published by the order of the Government, by a Commission of which the illustrious Sir Robert Peel was the first president.

His diligent research particularly paid off in Calvin studies, in which he used many unpublished documents:

With regard to France, the author has consulted various documents of the sixteenth century, little or altogether unknown, especially in what concerns the relations of the French government with the German Protestants. He has profited also by several manuscripts, and by their means has been able to learn a few facts connected with the early part of Calvin’s life, which have not hitherto been published. These facts are partly derived from the Latin letters of the reformer, which have not yet been printed either in French or Latin, and which are contained in the excellent collection which Dr Jules Bonnet intends giving to the world…

According to his editors, because of his diligent research, he became the foremost authority on Calvin: The man who for fifty years had lived in close intercourse with Calvin, who had made his writings, his works, and his person the objects, perhaps, than any one in our age; the man who was the first to hold in his hand, to read without intermission, and to analyze almost all the innumerable pieces that proceeded from the pen of the reformer would have been able to trace for us with unrivalled authority the grand figure of his hero, and to describe the immense influence which he had on the sixteenth century, in distant regions as well as in his immediate circle.

It is obvious from the above statements that Merle d’Aubigne did much prodigious and useful research. How then did he use his research? How did he go about the task of taking what he discovered and fitting it together into the narrative of history?

In the first place he believed in making critical use of his sources. Each document and the statements of every historian must be weighed in order to uncover the truth. He tried to make his critical judgments on the basis of the facts. In relating the evils of Alexander VI, he wrote, ‘Historians have accused Alexander and Lucretia of incest; but this charge does not appear sufficiently established.’ Later, commenting on the circumstances of Luther’s birth, he wrote,

Seckendorf relates, on the testimony of Rebhan, superintendent at Eisenach in 1601, that Luther’s mother, thinking her time still distant had gone to the fair of Eisleben and that contrary to her expectation she here gave birth to a son. Notwithstanding the credit that is due to Seckendorf, this account does not appear to be correct: in fact, none of the oldest of Luther’s historians mention it; and besides, it is about twenty-four leagues from Mora [the place, according to Seckendorf, where Luther’s parents were still living] to Eisleben [the place where Luther was born and, according to Merle d’Aubigne, where Luther’s parents had moved before his birth], and in the condition of Luther’s mother at that time, people do not readily make up their minds to travel such a distance to see a fair; and, lastly, the evidence of Luther himself appears in direct opposition to this assertion. (Ego natus sum in Eisleben, baptisatusque apud Sanctum-Petrum ibidem., Parentes mei prope Isenaeo illuc migrarunt. Luth. Epp. i 390.)

But, although he made a critical evaluation of the sources, he thought that much literary criticism had gone to extremes:

We live in a literary age when criticism sways the sceptre. Criticism is good and necessary: it purifies history and clears the paths to the palace of truth. But if dogmatic epochs have their excesses critical epochs have theirs also. It was said a long while ago that ‘those who run too hastily after truth shoot beyond it.’ The men who desire to renovate history are like those who desire to renovate cities. The latter begin by pulling down a few ugly houses which disfigure the neighborhood and impede the traffic; but at last they lay their hands on solid and useful edifices, buildings whose destruction is regretted by every one. Wise men will, in critical ages, take moderation and equity for their rule. These have often been wanting in recent days. . . .

In the second place, he was concerned to give more than a bare listing of the facts as they were found in the documents. He wanted to write history that had life. Several other historians shared this conviction. He wrote:

There are writers at this day who carry their archaeological predilections further still and would like to substitute chronicles for history, giving us a body without a soul. But authors of distinguished merit have protested against such an error.

A great critic, M. Sainte, Beuve, says: ‘here is one kind of history founded on documentary evidence, state papers. diplomatic transactions, and the correspondence of ambassadors and there is another kind with quite a different aspect, moral history, written by the actors and the eyewitnesses.’

An eminent man (Le Comte d’Haussonville) who by his last work, L’Eglise Romaine er le premier Empire, has taken an honorable position among Historians, indorses this judgment. M. Sainte Beuve is right, he says ‘the latter kind of history is the best, by which I mean the most instructive, the most profitable the-only one which serves to unseal the eyes, open the understanding, combat deplorable credulity,’ and avoid disagreeable mystifications. What concerns us, is to know men, ‘by lifting the curtain which hides them’ according to the happy expression of Saint-Simon.

Another celebrated writer has said: ‘Real history appears only when the historian begins to distinguish across the gulf of time, the living and acting man, the man endued with passions, the creature of habit, with voice and physiognomy, with gestures and dress, distinct and complete, like the one from whom we have just parted in the street. Language, Legislation, Catechisms ‘are abstract things; the complete thing is the man acting, the visible corporeal man who walks, fights, toils, hates, and loves.’

Merle d’Aubigne attempted, within the framework of the facts, to make history come alive: The author having habitual recourse to the French documents of the sixteenth century, has often introduced their most characteristic passages into his text. The work of the historian is neither a work of the imagination, like that of the poet, nor a mere conversation about times gone by, as some writers of our day appear to imagine. History is a faithful description of past events; and when the historian can relate them by making use of the language of those who took part in them, he is more certain of describing them just as they were.

But the reproduction of contemporary documents is not the only business of the historians. He must do more than exhume from the sepulchre in which they are sleeping the relics of men and things of times past, that he may exhibit them in the light of day. We value highly such a work and those who perform it, for it is a necessary one; and yet we do not think it sufficient. Dry bones do not faithfully represent the men of other days. They did not live as skeletons, but as beings full of life and activity. The historian is not simply a resurrectionist: he needs, strange but necessary ambition, a power that can restore the dead to life. . .

He firmly believes that, if a history should have truth, it should also have life. The events of past times did not resemble, in the days when they occurred, those grand museums of Rome, Naples, Paris, and London, in whose galleries we behold long rows of marble statues, mummies and tombs. There were then living beings who thought, felt, spoke, acted, and struggled. The picture, whatever history may be able to do, will always have less life than reality.

No less a historian than Philip Schaff agrees with Merle d’Aubigne at this point: The historian must give himself up entirely to his object; in the first place, accurately and conscientiously investigating the facts; then identifying himself, in spirit, with the different men and times, which have produced the facts; and then so presenting the facts, instinct with their proper spirit and life, that the whole process of development shall be repeated before the eyes of the reader, and the actors stand forth in living forms. History is neither all body, nor all soul, but an inseparable union of both; therefore both the body and the soul, the fact and the idea, in their mutual vital relation, must be recognized and brought into view.

Merle d’Aubigne suggests how to give history such reality: When a historian comes across a speech of one of the actors in the great drama of human affairs, he ought to lay hold of it, as if it were a pearl, and weave it into his tapestry, in order to relieve the duller colors and give more solidity and brilliancy. Whether the speech be met with in the letters or writings of the actor himself, or in those of the chroniclers, is a matter of no importance: he should take it wherever he finds it. The history which exhibits men thinking, feeling, and acting as they did in their lifetime, is of far higher value than those purely intellectual compositions in which the actors are deprived of speech and even life.

How then did Merle d’Aubigne go about the process of composing a history that was full of life? We are indebted to his editor, who gave us a detailed description of his method of composition:

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 it some library. He would then plunge again into his themes 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.

Having considered Merle d’Aubigne’s views on the work of the historian, let us now turn our attention to his views on the purpose of history.

The Purpose of History

In the first place Merle d’Aubigné wrote history for its intrinsic worth. He believed that Christians should know the history of the Reformation. He wrote his books because there was, to his knowledge, no complete historical account of the Reformation:

Up to this hour we do not possess, as far as I am aware, any complete history of the memorable epoch that is about to employ my pen. Nothing indicated that this deficiency would be supplied when I began this work. This is the only circumstance that could have induced me to undertake it, and I here put it forward as my justification. This deficiency still exists; and I pray Him from whom cometh every good and perfect gift to grant that this humble work may not be profitless to my reader.

In another place, having spoken of the far-reaching effects of the Reformation, he wrote, ‘It is important, therefore, that this great epoch should be better known; nay more, it must become popular.’ His great aim was to make the Christian public familiar with the great epoch of the Reformation. He was quite successful in accomplishing this purpose. Houghton writes:

The immense popularity of Merle d’ Aubigné’s History in his own day was largely due to the fact that it was written by an expert in the field, not for fellow-experts but for the ordinary Christian public. He judged that public interest could best be stirred, not by erudite disquisitions on the intricacies of canon law and on Church institutions, but by continual stress on the personal factor in history, the emotions of the human soul, the mental strains and stresses occasioned by the impact of ancient and yet newborn truth upon minds long in bondage to Roman Catholicism, and the tortures experienced by the human spirit when the movement came for decisive action, it was this aspect of the Reformation which d’Aubigné’s pen portrayed with a skill hitherto lacking in Church historians. . . As did Foxe the martyrologist, he wrote not so much for the scholar and the collegiate world, but for the person of scanty knowledge and non-academic bent.

And yet, according to Houghton, this effort to popularize Reformation history in no way betrayed the tenets of good scholarship.

But his depth of scholarship enabled him to rise far above the level of a mere populariser of knowledge. A superficial reader might at times suppose that the history was itself superficial, and that, being ‘popular,’ it could not be at the same time scholarly and critical. In this, however, he would deceive himself. Normally the scholar is not the populariser, but in d’Aubigné the two roles are combined. ‘Art consists in concealing art.’ runs the ancient saying, and of this particular skill d’Aubigné was the humble master. His knowledge,, based on the most extensive and prolonged research, was immense, but with it he never overloads his narrative. His terse racy style never becomes bogged in a morass of mere factual information.

From what has already been observed about Merle d’Aubigné’s methods of research, it appears that Houghton’s analysis is accurate. In addition to and in a sense flowing from this desire to make the facts of history familiar to the Christian public, Merle d’Aubigné’s sought to derive lessons from history. Chiefly, his didactic statements were an apologetic against Roman Catholicism.

He felt strongly that in his day a great battle was raging again between Reformation truth and Roman Catholicism. By presenting what he considered historical truth, he sought to reinforce Reformation doctrine. In one place he quoted a letter from Dr. Pusey to the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘Two systems of doctrine are now, and probably for the last time, in conflict, the Catholic and the Genevan.’ He then added, ‘May this work be of some little use in determining the issue!’ By showing the errors of Roman Catholicism and the blessings of evangelical Christianity, he hoped to show the superiority of the former over the latter.

He frequently called on his readers to study the truth of the Reformation that they might resist the errors of Rome. For example, concerning England he wrote, England requires now more than ever to study the Fathers of the Reformation in their writings, and to be animated by their spirit . . . May we be permitted to conjure all who have God’s glory, the safety of the Church, and the prosperity of their country at heart to preserve in its integrity the precious treasure of God’s Word and to learn from the men of the Reformation to repel foolish errors and a slavish yoke with one hand, and with the other to empty theorems of an incredulous philosophy.

Similarly, he often extolled the benefits of the Reformation. Commenting on the great amount of space given to Geneva in his History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, he wrote, ‘He might add that the special character of the Genevese Reform, where the political liberty and evangelical faith are seen triumphing together, is of particular importance to our age.’

In another place he wrote, ‘For three centuries it [the Reformation] has been producing in the social condition of the nations that have received it, transformations unknown to former times. And still at this very day, and how perhaps more than ever, it imparts to the men who accept it a spirit of power which makes them chosen instruments, fitted to propagate truth, morality, and civilization to the ends of the earth.’

It was only natural that one who considered the Reformation to be like primitive Christianity should think that the church in his day could derive significant lessons from Reformation history. And, as long as such a didactic use of history did not impair his partiality and was consistent with the facts, Merle d’Aubigné did not violate his calling as a historian to make such inferences.


Having considered Merle d’Aubigné’s philosophy of history and the writing of history, let us now attempt some evaluation of his work as a historian.

Success of Merle d’Aubigné

Without question in his day there was no historian more popular. Spitz writes of Merle d’Aubigné’s work that it ‘had a larger reading public than any Church history title published up to that time.’ His popularity was particularly great in Britain and the United States:

When a foreigner visits certain countries, as England, Scotland, or America, he is sometimes presented with the rights of citizenship. Such has been the privilege of the ‘History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.’ From 150,000 to 200,000 copies are in circulation in the English language, in the countries I have just mentioned; while in France the number hardly exceeds 4000. This is a real adoption, naturalizing my work in the countries that have received it with so much favour.

His achievement was recognized by many in academic circles; he received honorary degrees from the College of Princeton, the Theological Faculty of the University of Berlin, and the University of Oxford.

In his day Merle d’Aubigné’s work received many fine critical reviews. Prof. F. Godet of Neuchatel wrote, ‘Here. . . we find the full light of historic truth, imagination restored to its true object, that of giving life to real facts. The faith of this martyr, it really struggled, really triumphed, this blood, it really flowed, this pile, its flames lighted up the surrounding country, but in doing so they really consumed their victims. When we read these true histories our hearts do not swell with vain ambition or aspire to an inaccessible ideal. We do not say: “If I were this one, or that one.” We are obliged to commune with ourselves, to examine our consciences, to humble ourselves with the question: What would become of me if I were called to profess my faith through similar sufferings. . .?’

We warmly recommend this work to those who are glad to find wholesome nutriment for the strengthening of their faith, to those who by contact with a vivifying stream wish to give renewed vigor to their spiritual life. They will find in its narrations all the energy and brightness which a living faith communicated to the author, whose mind retained all its youthful freshness, and at the same time that wisdom which Christian experience had brought to full maturity.

According to Godet, Merle d’Aubigné’s strength lay in his ability to make history come alive. Even reviewers who have been more critical of other aspects of Merle d’Aubigné’s work have agreed on this point.

In a somewhat critical review of Volume I of The Reformation in England, J. D. Douglas writes:

The style is gripping throughout, and we see clearly delineated the problems and frustrations which confronted Henry, the incredible vacillation and duplicity of Clement VII over the divorce issue, and the labyrinthine ways of Wolsey. Anne Boleyn is handled nearly as gently as the blameless Catherine, but where the writer really excels is in the lucid yet passionate accounts of the Protestant martyrs, a story which we neglect to our souls’ impoverishment.

But reviewers gave him high scores on other points as well. For example, M. de Remusat has said of this work, ‘It may have had a success among Protestants (un success 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 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’Aubigné, 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.

Obviously Merle d’Aubigne was a popular and a critical success. And yet, as has already been mentioned, he has not been without his critics. Let us now turn our attention to the more severe criticisms.

Criticism of Merle d’Aubigné

The first criticism is that he was biased. According to his critics, his prejudice shows in his strong attachment to evangelical Christianity and his anti-Roman Catholic convictions. We have already seen that in part this accusation is true. We need, however, to ask a further question: “Did his commitment to Reformation theology and his Roman Catholic polemic interfere with his impartiality?” In my opinion, Merle d’Aubigné’s convictions did not cloud his impartiality. In fact, according to Philip Schaff, a commitment to evangelical Christianity enables one to be a better church historian:

This truth [that which is to be sought by the historian] is, at the same time, inseparable from justice; it allows no partiality, no violation of the suum cuique. Such impartiality, however, as springs from a self-denying, tender sensibility to truth, and from a spirit of comprehensive love to the Lord, and to all his followers, of whatever name, time, or nation, is totally different from that colorless neutrality and indifferentism, which treats all religions, churches and sects with equal interest, or rather want of interest, and is, in reality, a hidden enmity to the truth and moral earnestness of Christianity.

Merle d’Aubigne’s love for the Reformation enabled him to write about it in a vital way. Duchemin, in dealing with the criticism developed against Merle d’Aubigne’s evangelical commitment, wrote, ‘One important English review [Athenaeum, 21 Sept, 1875] 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’Aubigné 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 an 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.

In order to illustrate this point the writer then mentioned a supposed conversation between Merle d’Aubigné and Professor Ranke: The writer of the article relates that he once heard a discussion between M. Merle and Professor Ranke respecting certain features in the lives of his favorite heroes. The former defended them at all points: while the German historian, with his sceptical temperament, seemed to take malicious pleasure in bringing forward their weaknesses. At the close of the discussion M Merle exclaimed with some impatience — ‘But I know them better than any one, those men of the six-time.’ ‘That explains everything,’ replied Professor Ranke, ‘I could not believe when reading your books that you were a man of the nineteenth century.’ As our own age differs so greatly in every respect a very fortunate circumstance that a man of the sixteenth century has arisen to depict for us that great epoch.

Merle d’Aubigné’s love for the Reformers enabled him to make the sixteenth century live for his readers. So it would seem that as long as an evangelical commitment did not interfere with honest reporting, it is not detrimental to the work of an historian. Merle d’Aubigné’s convictions in no way prompted him to change the facts. As already noted, he was willing to point out errors of the Reformers. Even the Huguenots with whom he would have had the greatest affinity did not escape his critical judgment:

France, after having been almost entirely reformed, found herself Roman catholic in the end. The sword of her princes thrown into the balance made it incline towards Rome. Alas! another sword, that of the Reformers themselves, completed the destruction of the Reformation, Hands that had been used to wield the sword ceased to be raised to heaven in prayer. It is by the blood of its confessors, and not of its adversaries, that the Gospel triumphs.

True, he is often a sympathetic critic, but, nevertheless, he does offer critique. At the same time, even though he is obviously anti-Roman Catholic, such convictions do not interfere with his impartiality. In comparing his description of the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation with the account given by Neander, I found no qualitative difference in the accounts.

A second criticism, closely connected with the first, is that he moralizes too much, particularly against the Roman Catholics. It has already been pointed out that he derived lessons from the facts of history and that those lessons were often demonstrated the benefits of evangelical Christianity and the dangers of Roman Catholicism. Many feel that he went too far with these moralizing tendencies.

In reviewing Vol. I of The Reformation in England, J. D. Douglas writes, There is, however, much more anti-Roman moralizing in this work than is legitimate in a historian; d’Aubigne does his work superbly in laying the facts before us, it becomes distasteful when he considers it necessary to point the moral. His terms of reference barely cover such statements as ‘wherever pride flourishes there Popery is developed’ (p. 130), or ‘The Romish church. . . is nothing but a sect, and that a degenerate one’ (p. 371).

After examining the quotations given by Douglas (The Banner of Truth edition), I concur with the criticism. By expressing such sentiments, he detracted from an otherwise excellent work. Such expressions, however, do not interfere with his historical reporting.

The third major criticism brought against Merle d’Aubigné is that he misuses quotations by taking them out of context and at other times by inventing quotations. Douglas gives an example of the latter: ‘At one point (p. 325f.) we are given nineteen lines in quotations which purport to be the rejections of the Pope [Clement] while alone in his chambers, a literary device properly associated with works of fiction.’ On the surface this seems to be a serious offense, but there is a plausible explanation. The Banner of Truth edition does not give most of Merle d’Aubigné’s footnotes. In the original edition he gave two footnotes that attributed a portion of the quoted remarks to Strype’s Records, in which they are quoted from a letter written by the pope’s ambassadors to Cardinal Wolsey. From this reference it seems that he gleaned these remarks from the correspondence itself, but he only gave footnotes for part of the quotation.

Because of his commitment to reporting the facts of history, it is not likely that he invented the remarks attributed to the pope. Apparently he gleaned from various letters the pope’s thoughts. The letters express exactly what the pope was thinking at the time.

He used this device more than once. As was pointed out above, his plan of composition was to give quotations whenever possible, in order to give life to the narrative. If he found a letter or an entry in a journal that related what a person was thinking or saying at a specific time, he would introduce the quotation into his narrative.

Another example of this procedure is found in Volume VI of History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin. On page 387 he introduced a quotation by Calvin: ‘”I have lived here,” says Calvin himself, when speaking of this period, “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”‘ Calvin actually spoke these words twenty-five years later at the time of his death, but since he was referring to the earlier time, Merle d’Aubigné quoted him in that context.

We may conclude, therefore, that Merle d’Aubigné did not invent quotations; and although the way he handled the quotation from Calvin was quite permissible, he carried this practice too far in quoting Pope Clement as he did.

The major problem with respect to Merle d’Aubigne’s quotations is not their misuse, but the lack of sufficient footnotes. This 1ack is responsible for the charges of fictionalization and of taking things out of context. His omission of footnotes was deliberate. Because of his prodigious research and frequent use of quotations, he felt that he must eliminate all but the most necessary notes. He wrote,

I should have wished to authenticate the various portions of my work by many original notes; but I feared that if they were long and frequent, they would prove a disagreeable interruption to my readers. I have therefore confined myself to such passages as seemed calculated to give them a clearer view of the history I have undertaken to write.

From the scholar’s point of view, such omissions are unfortunate, but when judged in light of his express purpose to write for the Christian public the offense is forgivable.

There may be other serious faults which my limited research has not discovered, in my opinion Merle d’Aubigné’s most serious faults are his occasional, unwarranted moralizing and lack of sufficient documentation. Yet, I am convinced that Merle d’Aubigné’s work is balanced and scholarly and his role as a historian deserves careful re-evaluation.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out, that Merle d’Aubigné’s work must not be judged merely by academic standards. It should be evaluated by the boundaries set for it: a history of the Reformation written for the Christian public. For, above all else, Merle d’Aubigné was the people’s historian.


Primary Sources History of the Protestant Church in Hungary, From the Beginning of the Reformation to 1850; with Special Reference to Transylvania (Introduction by Merle d’Aubigne). Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1854.

Memoir of Robert Haldane and James Alexander Haldane; with Sketches of Their in Friends, and of the Progress of Religion Scotland and the Continent of Europe, in the Former Half of the Nineteenth Century. New York: American Tract Society, 1858.

Merle D’Aubigné, Jean Henri. A Discourse Against Modern Oxford Theology. Baltimore: N. Hickman, 1843.

______. A Voice From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century: or Read the Book. New York: John S. Taylor and Co., 1844.

______. D’Aubigné’s Martyrs of the Reformation with an Introduction. Ed. by C.H.A. Bulkley. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1882.

______. Germany, England, and Scotland; or, Recollection of a Swiss Minister. New York: Robert Carter & Brother, 1855.

______. History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin. 8 vols. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1863-1879.

______. History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. 5 vols. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1875.

______. and Labouchere. Illustrations of the Life of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Lutheran Board of Publication, 1869.

______. The Life and Times of Martin Luther: Selections from D’Aubigne’s Famed History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Chicago: Moody Press.

______. The Protector: A Vindication. New York: Robert Carter, 1847.

______. The Reformation in England. 2 vols. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971-1972 (Biography of Merle d’Aubigné).

Neander, Augustus. General History of the Christian Religion and Church. Vol. V.Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1871.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. New York: Charles Scribner, 1853.

______. History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI. Modern Christianity, “The German Reformation.” 2nd ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892.

Strype, John. Ecclesiastical Memorials. Vol. I part II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1822.

Secondary Sources. Bieler, Blanche. Une famille du refuge; Jean-Henri Merle D’Aubigné, ses origines, sesparents, ses freres. Clamart (France): Editions “Je sers,” 1930.

Buss, P. H. “Another is Needed (review of The Reformation in England, Vol. II),” Christianity Today, 7 (August 2, 1963), 33.

Douglas, J. D. “The Reformation in England, Vol. I, by J.H. Merle d’Aubigné,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 35 (April-June, 1963), 118-119.

______. “The Reformation in England, Vol. II, by J.H. Merle d’Aubigné,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 36 (January-March, 1964), 46.

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia. Ed. by Mortimer J. Adler et al. Vol. VI.15th ed. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1974.

La France Protestante. Ed. by M.M. Eug. et Em. Haag. Vol. VII. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1966.

Roney, John B. The Inside of History: Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigne and Romantic Historiography. Wesport (CT): Greenwood Press, 1996.

Smith, Preserved. The Age of the Reformation. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920.

Spalding, J.J. D’Aubigne’s History of the Great Reformation in German and Switzerland, Reviewed and Refuted; …..2nd ed. Dublin; Battersby, 1846.

Spitz, Lewis W. “The Lutheran Reformation in American Historiography, ” The Maturing of American Lutheranism. Ed. by Herbert T. Neve and Benjamin A. Johnson. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House,1968.

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