The Baptist Pillar ©      Brandon Bible Baptist Church     1992-Present

"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Church in the Desert:

Huguenot Heroes and Martyrs

W. H. Withrow, M. A., 1812

Editor’s Note: Some believe the Huguenots were Anabaptist. whether they were or not, they suffered like Anabaptists.

In the south-eastern part of France is a stern mountain region of volcanic origin. Its high bleak uplands are clothed with stunted junipers or scanty fields of rye, and in winter the snow lies long and deep. In sheltered valleys the olive, chestnut, and mulberry flourish, but on the sterile heights only a few flocks of mountain sheep crop the meager herbage. This is the "Desert" of the Cévennes, inhospitable and forbidding in aspect, but made memorable forever by one of the noblest struggles for religious liberty the world has ever seen. The sublime faith and patience and undaunted daring of the persecuted Church in the Desert are a legacy to every age, and the thrilling story of its heroes and martyrs still stirs the deepest pulses of our hearts.

By the Edict of Nantes the gallant Henri Quatre, in 1599, gave the Huguenots full toleration after nearly a century of persecution. In ten years he fell beneath the dagger of the fanatical monk, Ravaillac, and the Huguenots lost their powerful protector. Renewed oppressions led to revolt, which Cardinal Richelieu crushed with a ruthless hand. In the heroic defence of Rochelle against his troops, the Huguenot population was reduced in fifteen months from 27,000 to 5,000 persons. Cardinal Mazarin, the politic minister for twenty years of Louis XIV, anxious to retain the alliance of Cromwell, the champion of Protestant liberties throughout the world, tolerated the Huguenots.

On the death of Mazarin, the dissolute monarch, like another Herod, "stretched forth his hands to vex the Church." Instigated by the Jesuits and by his bigot mistress, De Maintenon, herself an apostate Protestant, he sought to atone for the crimes of his youth by persecuting the saints of God. The Huguenots were excluded from public life, from the universities, from the liberal professions, from the more honorable arts and industries, and they were compelled to wear a distinctive dress.

Many emigrated to England, Germany, and Holland, till emigration was prohibited. Edict followed edict with increasing severity, with penalties graded from a fine to imprisonment, to the galleys, and to death. Then followed the infamous "dragonades." A brutal soldiery were quartered on the "heretics," and, records a historian of the period, they inflicted "devastation, pillage, torture—there was nothing at which they recoiled. Indeed, they gave such loose rein to their passions that their frightful excesses would have shamed a horde of brigands.'' (Benoit, in his Histoire del' Edit de Nantes," has filled five quarto volumes with accounts of these outrages.)

To complete the extirpation of his noblest subjects, Louis XIV, on the 17th of October, 1685, by his own despotic will, annulled forever all the solemn pledges of his royal ancestor, Henry IV., to which he himself had also sworn, and signed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes—an event of tragical significance in history.

The Huguenots were absolutely forbidden the exercise of their religion—that dearest right of man—their churches were ordered to be levelled to the ground, and their ministers to quit the realm in fifteen days. The Huguenot flocks were forbidden to follow them under penalty of the galleys, and their children were required to be baptized forthwith by Catholic priests, and trained up in the Romish faith. The Jesuits were in ecstasy. "Heresy is no more," exclaimed Bossuet: "God alone could have worked this marvel." "Nunc dimittis (Now thou dost dismiss)," chanted the Chancellor Le Tellier, in blasphemous triumph, as he affixed the seal of the realm to the infamous document.

The dragoons found congenial employment in torture and pillage. The mob were delighted with the task of sacking and destroying the Protestant churches. "I have this morning condemned seventy-six of these wretches," records the Lieutenant of Languedoc. "It is not at all dull," writes the vivacious Madame Sévegué, "hanging is quite a refreshment to me. They have just taken twenty-six or thirty of these men, and are going to throw them off."

Everybody seemed pleased—except the Huguenots. Multitudes of these, in spite of cordons of soldiers stationed along the frontier to dragoon them back to the galleys or to prison, forsaking home and country and substance, escaped into exile; England, Switzerland, Holland, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, giving them welcome and succour.

Thus it is estimated France lost half a million of her best artisans and most pious subjects. Thousands of emigrants perished of hunger, cold, fatigue, or were slain or wounded in attempting their escape.

Thousands were captured and thrust into noisome dungeons, and driven in gangs fettered with murderers and the vilest of felons across the kingdom, that the spectacle might strike with terror their coreligionists. Some of the pastors went into exile, among them most of these faithful shepherds of a persecuted flock refused to abandon their charge, and continued by stealth to minister to their scattered congregations, with a price upon their heads and exposed to the penalty of death.

No Protestant might engage in any trade or profession. Even Protestant washerwomen were excluded from the public washing-places on the river. All Protestant books that could be found were burned. And dead Protestant, denied Christian burial, were dragged through the streets and thrown into a ditch or on a dunghill. (Such was the fate of M. Chenevix, Councillor of Metz, an old man of eighty, an ancestor of the Archbishop of Dublin.)

Brutal soldiers were despatched to the infected provinces to convert obstinate heretics by torture and outrage. They set about their congenial work with malignant ingenuity. The feet of their victims were placed in boiling oil. They were made to sit beneath water dropping on their heads, till many died of madness. They were tortured with burning coals, the boot, the rack, the thumbscrew, or were broken on the wheel. (Pastor Homel, after his bones were broken with an iron bar, lingered forty hours upon the wheel. “Farewell, beloved spouse,” he said to his weeping wife, “though you see my bones broken to shivers, yet is my soul filled with inexpressible joy.”) And other modes of conversion were employed, too horrible to record, and with those, who would not be converted, the prisons were kept full. Without fire, without light, without straw, and almost without food, they languished in horrible dungeons, and as rapidly as they died their places were filled by others.

Those who under such stern persuasion professed conversion, were driven in gangs to the churches, penned up like lepers, treated scarce less harshly than the obstinate heretics. Many of them escaped from France, and in exile abjured with bitter tears their apostasy. Some of the pastors who had escaped, of remorse at what they thought their cowardice, returned to share the perils and to cheer the hearts of their persecuted brethren, who still worshipped God in dens and caves of earth.

One of these, Claude Brousson, said to his weeping wife, "I must go and strengthen my brethren, groaning under their oppressions. If God lets His soldiers die, they will preach louder from their graves than during their lives." With nine companions, he returned from the security of fair Lausanne, to the perils of the bleak mountains of the Cévennes. Though pursued like a wild beast, he stole by night to the Desert assemblies. With a price upon his head, he hid in hollow trees and rocky caves. He carried a small board on which, placed on his knees, he wrote his sermons. Seventeen of these he sent to His Most Christian Majesty Louis XIV, as a proof that he preached only the pure Word of God. These sermons were afterwards published in Amsterdam, and breathe only words of charity and love.

After four years' ministry in the Desert, during which seldom slept beneath a roof, Brousson returned, a physical wreck to Lausanne. When restored to health he was appointed pastor, with a liberal stipend, at the Hague. But the cry of his brethren entered his soul, and leaving ease and comfort, wife and friends disguised as a wool-comber, with a pack upon his shoulders, he again crossed the frontier. The persecution was very bitter, and Brousson, to escape capture, had to take refuge in a well. A soldier descended to explore its depths, but in the darkness failed to find him. At last he was taken, but might have escaped had he not promised not to attempt it. He was condemned to be broken on the wheel. His last act was a benediction on the multitude who came to see him die.

An army of 40,000 men was sent into the Cévennes to convert these obstinate heretics. For fifteen years these unarmed peasants had endured with heroic patience their cruel persecution. They now burst out into open revolt. Pierre Seguier, stung by that "oppression which maketh a wise man mad," declared that he had a call from God to deliver the people. The peasants rallied at his summons, and with pikes and scythes attacked a chateau filled with arms. Seguier was soon captured and burned to death. But another hero, Laporte, took his place, and led the peasants against their foe. Chanting Marot's version of the sixty-eighth psalm, "Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered"—the "Marseillaise" of the Camisards:


Que Dieu se montre seulement "            God only shows himself
Et l'on verra dans un moment                And we will see in a moment
Abandonner la place,                           Abandon the place;
Le camp des ennemis épars,                 The camp of the enemy scattered
Epouvanté, de toutes parts                  Terrified, everywhere
Fuira devant sa face.                          Flee before him.
On verra tout ce camp s'enfuir              We'll see what camp escape
Comme l'on voit s'évanouir                    As we see faint
Une épaisse fumée;                             Thick smoke;
Comme la cire fond au feu                     As the wax melts in fire
Ainsi des méchants devant Dieu             And the wicked before God
La force est consumée ».                     The power is consumed. "

While chanting this sacred war-song, each man became a lion. It was the pas de charge in many a hard-fought fight. The name Camisards, given them by their enemies, was probably derived from the common blouse or camisole they wore—their only uniform. They called themselves no other name than "The Children of God"—Enfants de Dieu.)—they charged against the veteran warriors of France. Laporte was surprised at a field-meeting and slain. His nephew Roland, a neatherd (herdsman), took up the fallen brand.

The peasant warriors gathered. They converted the mountain caves into hospitals, arsenals, and powder-factories, and guarded the narrow passes. Again and again the royal troops were defeated by a few hundred cowherds and wool-carders. More troops, including an Irish brigade, were sent to the Cévennes. Sixty thousand godless ruffians ravaged the country, burned to ashes five hundred villages, and slew all the inhabitants, except a few who escaped. Three hundred Camisards, besieged in a tower, were burned to death, singing the psalms of Marot with their last breath.

Cavalier, a Camisard leader, retaliated, by harrying the Catholic villages. He encountered the Royalists, six to one, and utterly routed them. For three years of bloodshed and rapine the Camisard revolt lasted, when it was crushed by overwhelming force. Cavalier entered the English service and reached the rank of Major-General. The Huguenots were seemingly exterminated. The King had medals struck announcing the "extinction of heresy." But the Desert assemblies still met in wild and lonely gorges. Often surprised by the soldiery, many were slain, and the living sent to the dungeons or the galleys.

Of the latter dreadful punishment we have a vivid account in the autobiography of Jean Marteilhe, a galley slave, which, after lying for a hundred years in an old trunk, was published in Paris in 1868. (Memoires d'un Protestant Condamne aux Galeres de France pour cause de Religion ecrits, par lui meme. A book of more tragic and thrilling nterest we have never read.) Attempting to escape to the Netherlands, he was arrested and condemned to the galleys. He was thrown into a dungeon so dark that he could not see to drive away the rats, which stole his bread.

Several of his fellow-prisoners were horribly bastinadoed that they died. He was made to march with a chain of prisoners, in the winter of 1712, across the whole breadth of France, from Havre to Marseilles. Over four hundred men were chained together in pairs, with a long thick chain running the entire length of the gang, each prisoner bearing a weight of a hundred and fifty pounds of fetters. Many of these were murderers and the vilest of felons, but the Huguenots were distinguished by red jackets, as deserving of special opprobrium.

At Paris they were confined in the dungeon of La Tourney chained to beams so that they could neither sit, lie, nor stand. At Charenton they were made to strip in an open courtyard during a hard frost, that their clothes might be searched, and all money, knives, or files taken away. They were so benumbed that during the night eighteen of them died. They slept in stables or on dung heaps, in mud, rain, or snow. Often parched with thirst, they stretched their wooden cups for a drop of water to the villagers as they passed. But even the women spurned their appeal with the jeer, "Away! You are going where you will have water enough!"

The punishment of the galleys was almost worse than the chain. The royal galley was 150 feet long and 40 broad. It had 50 benches for rowers, 25 on each side. The oars were 50 feet long, 37 feet outside of the ship and 13 inside. Six men tugged at each oar, all chained to the same bench. They had to row in unison, or they would be heavily struck by the oars before or behind them. Beside the 300 rowers, the galley carried 200 officers and soldiers. A slave-driver scourged the rowers to their task by a long whip. "To enable his strokes to tell, the men sat naked while they rowed." At night the galley-slave slept where he sat. He never quitted his bench except for the hospital or the grave. Yet some of the Huguenots lingered on in this living death for thirty or forty years.

"During all these years," says Smiles," they toiled in their chains in a hell of foul and disgusting utterance, for they were mixed up with thieves and the worst of criminals. They ate the bread and drank the waters of bitterness. Their keepers lashed them to make them row harder, lashed them to make them sit up, lashed them to make them lie down." "Go and refresh the backs of those Huguenots with a salad of strokes from the whip," the captain of Martielhe's galley used to say, for he hated them worse than the thieves and murderers. And yet at any moment a word spoken would have made these heroic confessors free. If they would only recant their heresy their chains would fall off, and they would be restored to life, to friends, to liberty. Yet very rarely did one give up his religion. They preferred to remain galley-slaves for life.

For nearly two years the illustrious Scottish Reformer, John Knox, was chained to the oar of the galley "Nostre Dame." The felon's fare, the heavy toil, exposure to the wintry elements, undermined his health, but could not break his intrepid spirit. One day an image of the Virgin was presented him to kiss. He refused, when the officer pressed it to his lips. Snatching the image he threw it into the sea, with the words:—

"Lat our ladie now save herself; sche is lycht enoughe, lat hir leirne to swime (Let our lady now save herself; she is light enough, let her learn to swim).”

These galleys swarmed in the harbors of Dunkirk, Brest, Bordeaux, Toulon, and Marseilles. They scoured the Mediterranean to protect French commerce from Moorish pirates. In the British channel they lay in wait for Dutch or English merchant ships, or engaged in actual sea fight. The oarsmen often had to row all night, and loaded cannon commanded the benches so as to shoot them down in case of revolt. During action they were the special objects of attack—just as the boiler or screw of a war sloop is now—in order to disable the ship.

Martielhe records an adventure which well-nigh cost him his life. His galley—La Palme—attacked an English frigate convoying a merchant fleet. The English captain, by a dexterous maneuver, collided with the galley, broke off all its oars on one side, and held it firmly with grappling irons. His cannon, loaded with grape-shot and scrap-iron, were discharged into the writhing mass of galley-slaves, and great carnage ensued. A shower of hand-grenades was also rained down upon them.

Martielhe's bench was just opposite a loaded gun, which he could touch with his hand. He saw the gunner approach with lighted match, and lifted up his heart to God. In a moment he was hurled, desperately wounded, the length of his chain, and his five fellow-slaves were mangled to death. He lay unconscious in the darkness—for night had fallen—while the soldiers threw the dead into the sea. Being roughly seized for the same purpose, the pain of his wound caused him to wince, and he was spared for further sufferings. For three days his wounds were undressed and became gangrened.

Then the wounded were hauled up by pulleys and ropes like cattle, and sent to the hospital. "In three months," says Martielhe, "I was as sleek and fat as a monk," although three-fourths of the wounded had died, and he was sent back to the galleys. Unable to row, he was made a sort of steward in the store-room.

The Reformed in Holland and Switzerland tried to mitigate the sufferings of these galley-slaves by gifts of money secretly conveyed to them, and Martielhe records the generous fidelity of a Turkish slave, who for four years became the medium of conveying this money—a service of much danger—and resolutely refused any reward.

The war between France and England was terminated by the peace of "Utrecht, and Queen Anne demanded the liberation of the Huguenots in the galleys. After much evasion and shuffling on the part of the Most Christian King, a considerable number, among whom was Martielhe, were released. Landing at Nice, they found their way through the Vaudois valleys and over the Alps to Geneva—which they reached "with a joy which can only be compared with that of the Israelites at the sight of the land of Canaan."

The people, many of whom were exiles with friends on the galleys, came forth to meet them with joyous cries of recognition—" Oh, my husband! my son my brother!" Some proceeded to Holland and England—sanctuaries of the oppressed Huguenots—and had the honor of kissing Queen Anne's hand, and of interceding for their brethren still in captivity—an intercession which led at length to their release.

Under such cruel persecutions, continued for long years, Huguenotism seemed to languish. But beneath the ashes the fire burned. When the worn-out voluptuary, Louis XIV., lay upon his death-couch, Antoine Court, a young Huguenot preacher, began to reorganize the long-oppressed Church in the Desert.

Clad in various disguises, and traversing by night the lonely mountain passes, he preached with zeal throughout the Cévennes. He held in the old quarry at Nismes, where almost every stone was stained with martyrs' blood, an assembly of the Desert pastors. A "school of the prophets" was formed for training candidates for the pastor's perilous office. The synods met in mountain caves. The students followed their teachers in their midnight wanderings, and studied, preached, and prayed with the sentence of the galleys or the scaffold hanging over their heads. For listening to their sermons a number of Huguenots were transported to the colony of New Orleans, on the Mississippi. Boys of twelve were sent to the galleys for life for attending "the preaching."

Meanwhile "the chase," as it was called, continued. The hanging of the pastors was never suffered to flag." "What an honor for me, O my God!" exclaimed Pierre Dorteat upon the scaffold, "to suffer for the truth." Often the dead bodies of the martyrs were dragged through the streets. On the death of Court, Paul Rabout became his successor. "For more than thirty years," says his biographer, "caverns and huts, whence he was unearthed like a wild beast, were his only habitation." For a long time he hid beneath a pile of stones and thorn bushes. "Yet this hut of piled stones," says Smiles, "was the centre of Protestantism in France."

And all the weary while Louis Le Dien Aimé was rioting amid the orgies of the Petit Trianon and the Parc aux Cerfs. While millions were lavished in wantonness and vice, the people starved. When they clamored for bread, the King bade them "eat grass." But a terrible retribution was pending. The red spectre of the Revolution, which was soon to overturn both throne and altar in the dust, avenged the persecution of the saints. Strangely enough, the arch-skeptic of Europe was the instrument, more than any other, to procure the toleration of Huguenots.

The last executions of the Reformed took place in 1762. Jean Galas, an old man smitten with paralysis, was broken on the wheel at Toulouse, on pretence of the murder of his son, but really on account of his religion. Voltaire was no friend to the Huguenots, but he hated injustice. He took up case of Galas, and made all Europe ring with his denunciations of this judicial murder. So intense was public indignation that the court which condemned Galas to death pronounced him innocent, and awarded 36,000 francs to his widow. Twenty years later Voltaire was received with enthusiasm in Paris. "Who is that man whom the crowd follow?" asked a passer-by. "Ne savez vous pas, (Don’t you know,)" was the answer, "que c'est le sauveur Galas!(it’s Galas’ saviour)" No more Protestants were hanged in France for their religion.

The cynical skeptic had somewhere a spark of good in his soul. He interceded for the release of the Huguenots from the galleys. Among those released were old men who had been chained to the oar for twenty-five, twenty-eight, and thirty years! The doors of the prison, too, were thrown open. One of the most dreadful of these was the Tour de Constance, amid the malarious marshes of Aiguesmortes.

This was a dismal dungeon with walls eighteen feet thick, in which Huguenot women of rank were confined. Sixteen prisoners immured here in 1688, died in five months. Over the gates were written the words which Dante says are written on the gates of hell:—"Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'entrate." (Abondon all hope, ye who enter here)

When the doors were opened fourteen women were found, the youngest of whom was over fifty and had been buried in this living grave for two and forty years.

In 1789, Rabaut Saint-Etienne, son of Rabaut, the persecuted Pastor of the Desert, as a member of the Constituent Assembly of France, demanded for the Huguenots, not toleration, but liberty. "Toleration!" he exclaimed, "I demand that toleration be prescribed in its turn, and deemed an iniquitous word, dealing with us Protestants as criminals to whom pardon is to be granted." His bold demand was granted, and thenceforth all restraints were removed from French Protestantism. (The names of Guizot, Michelet, and Waddington, distinguished Protestant statesmen, illustrate this fact.)

But Rabaut refused to vote for the death of Louis XIV., and, the Revolution devouring its own children, he was condemned to the guillotine.

To this day the Protestants of the Cévennes often hold memorial services in the glens and quarries where their ancestors were wont to worship God. Nowhere in France is the Reformed religion a more potent force. The Methodists, Moravians, and even the Quakers, have numerous congregations in that Desert, made, by the blood of the saints, to bloom like the garden of the Lord.

The persecution of the Huguenots brought upon France a heavy retribution. She lost by their exile 500,000 of her best subjects and skilled handicraftsmen. She lost, too, 60,000,000 francs in specie, and her most flourishing manufactures; while 400,000 lives paid the forfeit of the long dark reign of terror.

"Trade," says St. Simon, "was ruined." "Whole villages," says Sismondi, "were deserted, hundreds of factories were closed, and vast districts became depopulated."

"The Huguenots," says Lamartine, "repaid the generous hospitality of those peoples with whom they found a home, by contributing the riches of their cunning labor, by the example of their faith, by the integrity of their lives."

"If they are bad Catholics they are good traders," said the Intendant of France; "the most skilled workmen and richest merchants belong to the Reformed." Switzerland, Holland, England, Germany—even the new colonies in America—were enriched by their labours, and many of the most illustrious names in science, art, and literature, are those of Huguenots.

(The venerable mother of the late General Garfield was of Huguenot descent, and doubtless transmitted much of the high and heroic character of her ancestry to her illustrious son.) Their expulsion was to France almost a national suicide.

Their strength and steadfastness of character would doubtless have largely counterpoised the fickleness and frequent political revolutions of her checkered career. Their sublime endurance, their lofty faith, their heroic courage, are forever the heritage, not of France, but of all mankind.