The following is a brief biographical sketch of Claude Brousson, a Huguenot missionary at the close of the 17th century. His name is little known among Christians in the 21st century, but his exemplary missionary labors challenge us to greater faithfulness and deeper sacrifice so that the church might grow up “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”
As the sun was setting behind the nearby Pyrenees Mountains in Montpellier, France, on November 4, 1698, a criminal was escorted by fifty musketeers to the place of execution. He was guilty of a number of offenses against Louis XIV’s Catholic France, all of which were rooted in his Protestant faith. There were more than 10,000 people who came out that day to witness the church and state sponsored death of this infamous Huguenot. Those who were watching later spoke of his courage and serenity as he faced his executioners. As was custom, one of his executioners took an iron bar in hand to break his legs and arms, and the criminal addressed the abbe Caramignon standing nearby, “It is a comfort to me that my death has some resemblance with that of my Lord.” But, then, to his surprise, as well as that of everyone watching, the executioner stated that intendantLamoignon de Baville, who had hunted the Huguenot in nearly every region of France for more than a decade, had granted him retentum – death by strangling. Rather than being evidence of a hate-filled heart growing merciful, the retentum in reality was Baville’s final attempt to stop the criminal from using the place of execution to preach a symbolic sermon through a painful, tortuous death. As the cord around his neck was twisted beneath the platform, with silent prayers coming from his lips, the light of life was finally vanquished in Claude Brousson. He was fifty one years old.
Who was Claude Brousson and how did he become one of the most wanted men in the France of his day? Many things could be written about him in answer to those questions. He was a lawyer, pastor, missionary, writer (putting into print more than 4,000 pages), theologian, mystic, diplomat, advocate for religious liberty, and as mentioned above, martyr. All these roles should be duly weighed in order to get a complete picture of the man whose life would come to such a dramatic end. But, most descriptive of his life’s work and most central to the Roman Catholic Church’s indictment against him was his illegal missionary activities. Above all else, Claude Brousson was a missionary and eternity will show the fruit from his three missionary journeys among the pastorless Huguenot churches in France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. I first read about Brousson in Samuel Smiles’ The Huguenots in France, and was greatly impressed by his tireless missionary labors to strengthen the Huguenot “Church in the Desert.” As will be seen below, it was largely due to these labors that the Huguenot Church survived while suffering severe persecution through the century following Brousson’s martyrdom.
The Context of Brousson’s Missionary Labors
In 1598, a hundred years before Brousson was executed, Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes. Although he was Protestant before taking the throne, he quickly converted to Catholicism for political reasons. However, his sympathy for Protestantism remained. Henry’s edict brought an end to the religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants that had plagued France in the second half of the sixteenth century. It granted a degree of religious liberty to the Huguenots in a country that was still Roman Catholic. This meant they were no longer considered schismatic rebels, but were granted basic rights. Under the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenot Church was tolerated (but was never placed on par with Roman Catholicism) and it flourished in certain regions of France. Although there was intermittent persecution against Protestants while the edict was still in effect (Catholics would take action against Huguenots due to perceived infractions of the edict), the French Calvinists were permitted to gather and worship, build “temples,” ordain clergy, administer the sacraments, marry, etc., where it was legal for them to do so. Difficulty again began to arise, however, as the Huguenots became a more visible part of French society, many even occupying positions in the government, as well as when they attempted to expand either through proselytizing or migrating into Catholic regions.
Due to increasing pressure from the Roman Catholic Church (who had been waging a “holy war” against the Huguenots via the Company for the Propagation of the Faith), Louis XlV, Henry’s grandson, eventually revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Louis surmised that the greatest way to bring civil unity to his kingdom was to establish religious uniformity. Perhaps he also had finally concluded that the Calvinists would not be converted through “peaceful means,” as he had once hoped. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes with the Edict of Fontainebleau officially made Protestantism illegal. It forced Protestant ministers to convert to Catholicism or flee the country. It also prohibited the emigration of the Huguenot lay masses. In essence, what the revocation tried to accomplish was the total eradication of Protestantism in France. The Catholic Church believed that once the Huguenot clergy were eliminated, then the pastorless churches would easily compromise and convert to Roman Catholicism. Many, in fact, did and were known as nouveau catholiques by the Huguenots.
Even before the edict’s revocation, Brousson had witnessed growing hostility in his early years. In the 1660s, laws were passed which eroded many of the civil, economic, and political freedoms the Huguenots had previously enjoyed. He was the last Calvinist student, for example, to graduate with a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the School of Theology at Nîmes. It was taken over by the Jesuits a few months afterwards. Before being closed, Brousson’s professor, David de Rodon, had published a work deemed offensive to Roman Catholic officials. So, Claude along with other students watched as the authorities burned de Rodon’s books in the school’s courtyard. De Rodon was subsequently banished from France. Brousson then, like Calvin the century before, decided to study law and graduated with a doctor of law degree at the age of nineteen from the University of Montpellier. His main motivation, no doubt, was to defend his Huguenot brethren in the French courts as their rights and liberties were being whittled away little by little.
He began his work as an advocate in the town of Castres in 1666. As Walter Utt and Brian Strayer write, “Although he sought neither fame nor glory, his reputation for oratory, integrity, and sensitivity grew as he devoted most of his time to serving the needs of the region’s poor, whose injustices grew steadily worse as their civil and religious freedoms were removed” (15). Over the next decade, then, his legal responsibilities spread throughout the Languedoc and he won many victories on Huguenots’ behalf. Then, in 1679, in order to gratify the Roman Church’s Company of the Most Holy Sacrament, Louis passed a declaration which abolished the chambers of the Edict. The chambers had originally been established (both within the parliament of Paris and within each provincial parliament) in order to deal with disputes that came about as a result of the Edict of Nantes. In the parliament of Paris, ten Roman Catholic and six Protestants comprised the chamber. In the provinces, however, there was an equal number of Roman Catholics and Protestants. By revoking the chambers of the Edict, Louis forced Protestants to be tried for their supposed infractions before chambers comprised solely of Roman Catholics. This led to an increasing number of Huguenots being imprisoned.
Since his graduation from law school, along with becoming a well-known Huguenot advocate, Brousson also became increasingly involved in Huguenot ecclesiastical life. In 1679, he and his wife moved to the Languedoc regional capital Toulouse. Just outside the city in another town, Claude established a Calvinist temple in Portet, where he became one of the elders. The strict Calvinist piety he imbibed from his parents Jean and Jeanne Brousson, worshipping twice daily in the home as well as mandatory times of personal prayer and Bible study, along with his theological education, had prepared him well for this role. It would also be foundational to the much larger role he would begin to play in the Huguenot Church a decade later. Understandably, Brousson also became increasingly involved in church politics, which were divided into factions – the Zealots who believed the Huguenots needed to stand up for their rights, and the Moderates who believed that Huguenots needed to demonstrate they were law abiding citizens. Brousson fell into the former camp.
In the last five years (1680-85) before the Edict of Nantes was completely revoked, more than a hundred laws were passed against the Huguenots. One of these stated that Protestants could no longer practice law. Thus, Brousson’s career was abruptly ended. Also, as a result of these laws, seventy percent of all Huguenot temples were destroyed by 1684. Protestant pastors, as well, were beginning to be sentenced to the gallows for holding illegal public gatherings. Many Huguenots subsequently began to take up arms against the Catholic Church’s dragoons. Brousson, in an effort to stand up for his quickly shrinking rights, organized a conference of Huguenot pastors in order to appeal to Louis’ conscience, petitioning him for their rights to practice their religion. They explained to Louis that although they wanted to honor him as their sovereign, they could not dishonor God by going against their own consciences and the Word of God. The petition, which became known as the Project of Toulouse, did not accomplish its intended effect. Rather than softening Louis to the plight of the Huguenots, it brought down further wrath. Ten of the twenty pastors were captured and executed publicly, all for participating in Brousson’s “treasonous” project. Brousson, then, realizing his own danger, fled along with his family to Lausanne, Switzerland, in October 1683.
Over the next six years, Brousson would spend tremendous energy on behalf of Huguenot immigrants. He worked diplomatically to help the refugees gain permission to settle and establish churches in Germany, as well as in Sweden and Denmark. He also visited those who had fled to Holland, Ireland, and England. It was while in exile that Brousson began to write. Many of his writings were about freedom of conscience and directed towards Louis’ regime in France. But, much of his writing was done with the spiritual needs of the “Church in the Desert” in mind. Along with writing helpful tracts to teach them, Brousson also wrote to Huguenot pastors abroad, exhorting them to remember those still left in France languishing like sheep without a shepherd. In these exhortations, he challenged them to return to France and gather the congregations for worship. Then, the question was put to him that would change the course of the rest of his life: “You who condemn the pastors for not returning to France at the risk of their lives, why do you not first return to France yourself?” This question began to haunt him so much that he even fell sick due to guilt and uneasiness of conscience. How could he enjoy the comforts of his Swiss exile in Lausanne when so many of his Huguenot brothers and sisters were in France suffering the severities of persecution without anyone to teach, encourage, or pray with them? He then approached his wife, “I must set out; I will go to console, to relieve, to strengthen my brethren, groaning under their oppressions.” She objected by throwing herself at his feet and crying, “You would go to certain death; think of me and your little children!” In spite of his love for his family, his sense of obligation won the day as he returned with the knowledge that if caught, he would face certain execution.
Brousson’s Missionary Labors
According to many historians, French Calvinism was on the decline after the revocation, not simply due to harsh measures being taken by the state, but also due to “spiritual dry rot at its core.” Brousson knew this. News of the “Church in the Desert” must have regularly come to him as Huguenots growing tired of Roman Catholic oppression covertly fled the country. So, in July 1689, Brousson left Lausanne to secretly cross the border to “wrest souls from the Roman Communion and nourish them in the Holy Scriptures.” He traveled with nine others, breaking into groups of twos and threes before crossing the border. They all then reunited after crossing safely into France and traveled to the Cévennes. By August’s end, they had already celebrated the Lord’s Supper with hundreds and had found more than 2,000 Huguenots hungering for God’s word. They traveled from place to place, secretly gathering the churches. They would preach at these gatherings for three to four hours, many times a week. Sometimes, the crowds would be large, which did not aid the clandestine nature of their work. This, in time, began to arouse the suspicions of the authorities who had boasted to Louis XIV that there were no returning preachers. With the authorities now aware of their activities, it forced the men to take refuge in caves and mountain hideouts in order to avoid detection. Brousson would sleep in clefts of rock, on straw in barns, in attics, and behind false walls in Huguenot homes. He would travel and hold meetings late at night and into the morning. He never risked being in one place for more than a week, but during that week would preach for hours a day in order to help the pastorless churches.
Lamoignon de Baville responded to the news of Brousson’s work by putting a bounty on his head. At first, the bounty was around 200 livres, but by 1693 it would rise to 5,000 livres, a “king’s ransom.” Baville had spies everywhere, as well as troops who constantly stalked Brousson and the others. The greatest danger perhaps came from those who, pretending to be Huguenot, would sneak in among the Reformed in order to listen for clues to their location. The first two to be captured from the nine who crossed into France were pastors named Boisson and Dombres. They were tortured, their limbs being dislocated, and then executed at Nîmes. There were several other Huguenot pastors, as well, who were captured, tortured, and executed during Brousson’s first year of labor back in France. Yet, he continued. He stated, “If I must die, tis better to die in the way of duty than in the neglect of it.” He continued to get invitations everywhere and was unceasing in his acceptance of these. Perhaps it was so difficult for him to turn down a meeting because he had seen first hand how desolate the churches had become and how the people were languishing spiritually. He tried often to hold small meetings so as not to attract attention, but Huguenots from neighboring villages would get wind of the meetings and travel long distances in order to hear him preach.
In time, it grew almost impossible for Brousson to continue his labors among the mountain folk of the Cévennes. Not only was he becoming too well-known and his ministry more and more visible, but he was exhausted physically. As a result, he went into hiding in his birthplace, Nîmes, for about a month before laboring further in the Languedoc. During this period of time, living among his own townsfolk, he was able to write out many of his sermons that would be published later. His work in the Languedoc, and subsequently back into the Cévennes, continued until the end of 1693. Hearing that his family was in need of his help, exhausted from his labors and sleepless nights in mountain caverns, his voice almost gone due to constant preaching and exposure to the cold, he returned to Lausanne. It had been fours years and five months, and he was almost unrecognizable to his wife.
Brousson remained in Lausanne for about fifteen months, preaching in Huguenot churches, before traveling abroad to Holland and England. In these places he met with many Huguenot leaders, preaching in their churches and informing them of their brethren who were still in the “desert.” During this time he also acted as a diplomat, attempting to help Huguenot refugees get settled into new homes into these foreign countries. He, as well, published his sermons under the title Mystic Manna in the Desert. While in England, Brousson was called back to Holland where he had been appointed preacher to the Walloon Church at the Hague. This was a prestigious ecclesiastical position for the French Calvinist. He had several other ministers to assist him, as well as a large salary. But, as he did in 1689 while still in Lausanne, Brousson began to feel an uneasiness of conscience. How could he enjoy the comforts of a prestigious émigré pastorate while his brothers and sisters, whom he had grown to love so dearly, were continuing to suffer without their spiritual needs being met as they faced bitter persecution? Thought of the church in France constantly occupied his mind, so that after four months he resigned from his post at the Hague and resolved once again to reenter France. The Dutch government, hearing of his desire to return to France and labor among the Huguenots there, committed to continue paying his salary to his wife in his absence. So, assured that his family’s needs would be met, he entered France once again from the north.
Northern France was unfamiliar to Brousson. He had never lived nor worked there either as a lawyer or as an itinerant preacher. So, he enlisted the help of a guide to bring him safely across the border and connect him with the network of underground churches in the North. He was able to find an old Huguenot merchant, James Bruman, to be his guide. Bruman was a conductor on a sort of Huguenot underground railroad, helping lay folk escape the clutches of the Roman Catholic dominated state and helping Calvinist preachers like Brousson back into the country. Fortunately for Brousson, he knew every hidden cavern and mountain trail. So, in August 1695, Brousson and Bruman entered France and made their way to Sedan, where Claude met secretly with Protestants. He was then convinced to hold a more public meeting in the forest outside Sedan, which was almost his last. The authorities, through their spies, found out about the meeting and dragoons raided the home where Brousson was staying. They captured Bruman and thinking that he was the preacher, began ransacking the house looking for his books and any others who might be accompanying him. Brousson hid himself behind a door while the dragoons searched the house. After they left, however, a small child saw Brousson’s feet under the door and ran after the soldiers, saying, “Here, sir, here!” But, the soldier did not understand what the child was trying to say and kept marching on. Thus, Brousson’s life was spared for the time.
Leaving Sedan behind with a new guide, Claude traveled to Champagne, Picardy, Normandy, Nevernois, and Burgundy, in the guise of a wool merchant in order to teach and encourage Huguenots in each place. He, as well, visited friends in Paris. Brousson writes about this second missionary journey, about which little else is known:
I assure you that in every place through which I passed, I witnessed the poor people truly repenting their fault (i.e. of having gone to Mass), weeping day and night, and imploring the grace and consolations of the Gospel in their distress. Their persecutors daily oppress them, and burden them with taxes and imposts; but the more discerning of the Roman Catholics acknowledge that the cruelties and injustice done towards so many innocent persons, draw down misery and distress upon the kingdom. And truly it is to be apprehended that God will abandon its inhabitants to their wickedness, that he may afterwards pour down his most terrible judgments upon that ungrateful and vaunting country, which has rejected his truth and despised the day of visitation.
A year and a half after crossing into Northern France with James Bruman, Brousson eventually made his way to Basel, Switzerland, by the end of 1696. Compared to his first missionary journey, the second had been short. But, it was doubtless any less treacherous or fruitful.
Over the next few months, Brousson and others attempted to bring the plight of the Huguenots to the attention of those making the Treaty of Ryswick, the treaty which eventually brought closure to the War of the League of Augsburg. Louis XIV, however, refused to listen to any resolution which might govern the way he treated his own subjects. Realizing, then, that nothing would be done politically to help his beloved “Church in the Desert,” Brousson made plans to enter France a third time in order to preach and build-up the Protestants there. He did so once again contrary to the wishes of his wife, who felt that this time he was going to certain death. He entered France in August 1697, a little more than a year before he was finally caught and executed.
On this third missionary journey, Brousson returned to the Languedoc where he had labored so much on his first journey. By late 1697, persecution against Protestants had grown as bitter as the winters in the Pyrenees. They were being forced at sword blade by dragoons to take part in the Roman Mass. Protestant merchants’ stores were broken into by soldiers, their goods being confiscated and sold. The prisons were being filled with women who were caught in secret Huguenot meetings; the gallows were in constant use hanging men who were likewise captured. The situation, as Brousson realized, was bleak. But, the bleakness all the more convinced him that if the church was to survive, then it must have shepherds; the people must be nourished by the word of God or they risked far worse than imprisonment or gallows. So, Brousson carried on his clandestine itineration as he had before – traveling and preaching at night, sleeping in rocky clefts and caverns, enduring cold and sickness. Then, after avoiding capture the month before by hiding in a cutout at the bottom of a well, he traveled westward from his hometown Nîmes to Oberon in September 1698. He heard there was a remnant of Huguenots in the area, and he sent a letter calling on a Protestant friend whom he knew to be there. However, the letter was received by the wrong person – a Catholic who bore the same name. The spy reported Brousson’s location to the authorities and dragoons soon came and arrested him. A little more than a month later, after being tried as a criminal against the state in Montpellier, the very location where he had studied law, Claude Brousson’s life would come to its fateful end.
Conclusion: What Can Be Learned From Brousson’s Missionary Labors?
The Apostle Paul writes in the second epistle to Timothy, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2:10). The same willingness to endure hardship for the sake of God’s people which characterized Paul’s life and ministry was also vividly displayed in Claude Brousson. The driving force behind Brousson’s labors was no doubt that the Huguenot Church would grow up into mature manhood, into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. He could not sit idly by while his beloved people were languishing spiritually under Romanism’s cruel tyranny. He was compelled to give his life preaching and teaching so that Protestants in France would grow in maturity, and so that the church would persist. As mentioned above, it was largely due to his efforts, along with others who are little known, that the Huguenot church survived through the 18th century.
Brousson’s life is perhaps an indictment against much of what is found in present day evangelicalism. Often, ministers have career goals and make career choices based upon what will bring them the most benefit. They may ask questions such as, “What kind of notoriety will the ministry give me?” Or, “How big will the salary be?” These type of self-focused questions were alien to Claude Brousson’s life. He was willing to do whatever it took so that others might be blessed and nurtured in the faith. In his day, Brousson did achieve a degree of notoriety because he was willing to risk life and limb for the Huguenot Church, and he was also appointed to a prestigious pastorate which had a handsome salary. But, these he was able to hold loosely because he had never sought them in the first place. He quickly traded the comforts of his pastorate at the Hague in order to shepherd God’s people meeting secretly in caves and forests. Instead of capitalizing on his notoriety in places where it may have been advantageous, he sought to use his gifts to benefit Christ’s followers in a land where his infamy led him to the gallows. In short, Claude Brousson was a man with one allegiance and he has much to teach the church in the 21st century about self-sacrifice and self-denial so that Christ’s body might be built up and his bride made beautiful.