Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné (1794–1872), the most popular church historian of the nineteenth century, was born on 16 August 1794 into a well-known Huguenot family in Geneva.
In 1685 Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had protected French Protestants from persecution. Thousands fled France, including the paternal great-grandfather of Jean Henri, Jean Louis Merle, who escaped from Nîmes to Geneva. In the middle of the following century, Francis Merle, the son of Jean Louis, married Elizabeth d’Aubigné, a descendant of the famous poet and historian, Theodore Agrippa d’Aubigné (1552–1630). The children of this union all retained their mother’s maiden name, adopting Merle d’Aubigné as the family name. The historian was the second son of Aimé Robert Merle d’Aubigné, and the grandson of Francis and Elizabeth.
Jean Henri soon showed an academic bent and entered the Academy of Geneva. After completing an Arts course, he moved on to the Faculty of Theology. The influence of Calvin’s theology had long departed from Geneva, and had been replaced by a stifling Unitarianism. D’Aubigné recorded that in his four years of theological study in the Academy, ‘not one hour was consecrated to the study of Holy Scripture’. The sources most cited were not Christ and the apostles but Plato, Cicero, and Seneca. It was into this apparently unpromising scene that a true theological heir of Calvin and of the Reformation, the Scotsman Robert Haldane, entered in 1816.
Haldane (1764–1842) had been engaged in a missionary tour of France and Switzerland and was about to leave Geneva when a seemingly chance encounter led him to invite the theology students of Geneva to his apartments to study the Bible. Between twenty and thirty students, including Merle d’Aubigné, responded to the invitation, to the great irritation of their professor who ‘made it his business to pace up and down under the shady trees of the avenue at the time the students were assembling, making clear his high displeasure at their attendance, and noting their names in his pocket book’. D’Aubigné describes Haldane’s influence on him in this way:
I met Robert Haldane and heard him read from an English Bible a chapter from Romans about the natural corruption of man, a doctrine of which I had never before heard. In fact I was quite astonished to hear of man being corrupt by nature. I remember saying to Mr Haldane, ‘Now I see that doctrine in the Bible.’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but do you see it in your heart?’ That was but a simple question, yet it came home to my conscience. It was the sword of the Spirit: and from that time I saw that my heart was corrupted, and knew from the Word of God that I can be saved by grace alone. So that, if Geneva gave something to Scotland at the time of the Reformation, if she communicated light to John Knox, Geneva has received something from Scotland in return in the blessed exertions of Robert Haldane.
Haldane’s brief stay in Geneva greatly strengthened le Réveil, the Awakening in the city which appears to have lasted till 1830. In later years, d’Aubigné would point to the apartments that Haldane had once occupied, saying, ‘There is the cradle of the second Genevan Reformation.’
In July 1817, d’Aubigné was ordained a minister of the established church in Geneva, but he did not then enter the pastorate, choosing rather to travel widely through the German-speaking lands before continuing his studies in the University of Berlin. In the autumn of 1817 he attended the tercentenary celebrations at the Wartburg Castle, near Eisenach, of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. What struck him most forcefully at these celebrations was that it was essentially Luther’s intellectual and political significance that was being highlighted; his spiritual significance appeared to have been forgotten. It was then, at the age of 23, that d’Aubigné resolved to write a history of the Reformation that would emphasize the religious significance of the whole movement. ‘I want this history to be truly Christian,’ he wrote, ‘and to give a proper impulse to the religious spirit.’
In June 1818, d’Aubigné assumed the pastorate of the French Reformed Church in Hamburg which had been established by French Huguenots fleeing from their homeland during the persecution under Louis XIV. He remained in this pastorate until 1823 when he received an invitation from King Willem I of the Netherlands to become the pastor of a French- and German-speaking church in Brussels.
His ministry in Brussels appears to have been more influential than that in Hamburg. Many from the court attended his church, as did King Willem himself, with his Prussian wife, Wilhelmina Frederika, as well as Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, the royal historian and author of Unbelief and Revolution. D’Aubigné held this post in Brussels until the Revolution of 1830, which led to the separation of Belgium from Holland.
After seeking to help the scattered members of his congregation during the crisis, he decided to leave Brussels in June 1831 in order to accept an invitation to help establish a theological seminary in Geneva. He was appointed Professor of Church History there, and was joined shortly afterwards by Louis Gaussen, later famous as the author of a significant work on the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Merle d’Aubigné remained at the seminary until his death in 1872.
The resolution that he had made in 1817 came to fruition during the forty-one years spent as professor in Geneva. In this time he visited the major libraries of Central and Western Europe to read original documents in Latin, French, German, Dutch, and English. In 1835 the first volume of The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was published in French. The five-volume work was completed in 1853. This was followed by The History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin in eight volumes, published in French between 1863 and 1878, the last three volumes appearing posthumously.
The immense popularity of the History is evident from the remark of the church historian Philip Schaff that this work ‘had a wider circulation, at least in the English translations, than any other book on church history’. The principal factor in its popularity is the powerful personal element that pervades the work. The author focuses on the lives of men such as Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Farel, Calvin, Tyndale, Cranmer, and many others whose names are less well known. He recounts their struggles, their labours, their sufferings, their failures, their triumphs, and their Christian heroism. It is undoubtedly this emphasis which lends vividness and interest to his writing of history. The second major factor in his popularity is the powerful divine element that pervades his writing. He wrote that the historian ‘ought to embrace in his survey the whole field of human affairs. He must, of course, take into consideration the earthly powers that bear sway in the world, ambition, despotism, liberty; but he ought to mark also the heavenly powers which religion reveals. The living God must not be excluded from the world which He created.’ ‘There is in history,’ he wrote, ‘as in the body, a soul.’ It was the soul of the grand drama of the sixteenth century that Merle d’Aubigné sought to lay bare. He did not write as a detached, disinterested spectator; he loved the Reformation of the sixteenth century, for he saw in it a mighty movement of the Spirit of God, unparalleled since the early days of Christianity.
From the Publisher’s Preface to Let Christ Be Magnified: Calvin’s Teaching for Today. See also John Carrick’s article ‘J. H. Merle d’Aubigné: The People’s Historian’.
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