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Caesar Malan and the Great Turning Point

Category Articles
Date June 4, 2019

There is a moving story about how Charlotte Elliott came to write the well-known hymn, ‘Just as I am, without one plea,’ which has been a blessing to so many. It seems that Miss Elliott, a lifelong invalid, was going through a period of deep depression before her conversion and could not find the way to Christ: it was obscured to her because of her own profound sense of unworthiness. At just this point a friend of her father’s, a man who was a minister in the city of Geneva, spoke with her and said, ‘Come just as you are, Charlotte’. It was these simple words that brought her peace; and from them, too, came the beautiful verses of her famous hymn.

I am not concerned just now with the hymn-writer, however interesting her story may be, but with the counsellor who was able to help her. His name was Caesar Malan, and he was one of a group of men whom God raised up in the first quarter of the 19th century to preach again in great power throughout French-speaking Europe the glorious truths of the Reformed faith. Others were F. S. R. L. Gaussen (the great theologian), J. H. Merle d’Aubigné (the church historian), Alexandre Vinet, and the Monods. But it was Malan to whom ‘the grace and glory were given to be the first publicly to raise from the ground the tarnished banner of the Church of Geneva, and from the pulpit of Calvin boldly to proclaim, without reserve and without compromise, that Gospel whose echoes scarcely lingered within his temple.’

Geneva had during the 18th century fallen into the most fearful hardness and unbelief. It was a time when reason reigned as king and when the successors of Calvin, the very professors of theology themselves, professed unitarian principles and worse, rather than the gospel of Christ which had once been so powerfully preached in the city. The church was cold and dead, and nowhere did there seem to be any token of spiritual life. And then a man named Robert Haldane, a Scottish gentleman who spent his life in Christian work and teaching, went to Geneva and began to expound to a group of students, in his own rooms, the Epistle to the Romans. The substance of that exposition is still available in his commentary afterwards published and in print again at the present time. Many students were converted through Haldane’s testimony; and one young man already ordained a minister, was brought, not to orthodoxy for he was already convinced of the truth of Scripture, but to a living faith in Christ. His mind, he himself declares, was orthodox, but his soul ‘had not yet been awakened.’ ‘At the time I was awakened to life everlasting, I was still in darkness and great feebleness in almost all points, and I know how useful, how efficacious, under God’s blessing, to my mind, to my soul, to my humbled heart, were the teaching and fatherly guidance of Mr. Haldane,’ he later gratefully wrote.

But that new-found faith had to be given expression. In May of 1817 it came Malan’s turn to preach in the Cathedral of St. Pierre, the church of Calvin; and he did so, in the presence of the great and notable of the city, Arian, unitarian, unbelieving, rationalistic and proud, with great boldness and faithfulness. ‘His eloquent words,’ we are told, ‘dropped on the leaden slumbers of his audience like bolts of fire shot from heaven.’ His hearers were furious and as he left the church almost gnashed their teeth upon him in their intense hatred for him and the truth he had preached. He was a leper in their eyes, and they despised him.

Even his wife, who was herself not yet converted at this time, was resentful because she saw their hopes for the future dashed by this intemperate act on her husband’s part. Malan went home from the service dispirited and depressed, to hide himself in his own room. But as he opened the door of his house he saw waiting for him the familiar figure of his friend, Robert Haldane, who looked the younger man in the eye, grasped his hand, and said: ‘Thank God! The Gospel has been once more preached in Geneva!’ Malan was comforted; and he and his friends went on with their preaching till the ancient faith had been revived by God’s blessing, not only in Geneva, but also in many other parts of Europe as well.

I tell this story because there is a lesson in it, I think, for ministers today. Malan had to learn — and he did learn it gloriously! — that the great thing for a minister is faithfulness to the gospel, no matter what the response and even hatred of men. It was a hard thing to accept, but it brought him freedom from the fear of man and very great blessing. We live in a day when there is again little sense of the presence of God, and when ministers themselves seem to speak with small authority and little spiritual power. Perhaps they are bound too much by the world about them and live in another fear than that of God alone. What a joy it is to know that we are unimportant, and that Christ only is important! Ministers are but the paranymphioi, the friends of the bridegroom, who is the Lord Jesus Christ. John the Baptist understood that when he said: ‘He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.’ (John 3:29) ‘Thank God! The Gospel has been once more preached in Geneva!’ That is, ‘Thank God! The voice of the bridegroom has once more been heard in the city!’

And what, after all, is more significant than that?


This article was first published in the November 1968 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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