Presbyterians of the Past

J. H. Merle D’Aubigné, 1794-1872

For anyone familiar with books published about the history of the Reformation the mention of D’Aubigné is likely to be associated with his historical studies of the era. The first of five volumes appeared in French in 1835 with the last one released in 1853, and  the English translations were published, 1846-1853, under the title History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. The set enjoyed great success, however, D’Aubigné was not fully satisfied with the five volumes and reviewers had been critical of some of his content, so he picked up his pen again to write a more scholarly and lengthier version in eight volumes with the English title History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, which was published in both French and English, 1863-1878. According to his biography in McClintock and Strong published in 1890, the sales of his five-volume history had numbered over 200,000 in France and more than 300,000 in Great Britain and the United States. How many historians today would delight to leave a legacy of a half-million books sold in two different languages?

Jean Henri Merle D’Aubigné was born August 16, 1794 in Les Eaux-Vives (Living Water) Switzerland, which is located on the south-western end of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) at the mouth of the Rhone River. Les Eaux-Vives is currently an area within the city limits of Geneva. Jean Henri was descended on his father’s side from his great-grandfather, John Lewis Merle. Around the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, John Lewis Merle fled France to Lausanne, Switzerland, seeking religious freedom as did many other Huguenots. John Lewis’s son, François Merle, married Elizabeth, the daughter of a Protestant nobleman named George D’Aubigné who lived in Geneva. Elizabeth’s paternal ancestors were descended from Theodore Agrippa D’Aubigné who was a Calvinist that left France in 1620. Theodore had published Universal History of the Late Sixteenth Century, which was condemned by Louis XIII, many copies were confiscated, and then publicly burned. As was sometimes practiced in the day, François Merle added the D’Aubigné to his name to become François Merle D’Aubigné. His son Amie Robert Merle D’Aubigné, born 1755, was the father of J. H. Merle D’Aubigné. It is a complicated family tree, but it is recounted here to show both the Huguenot and intellectual heritage of young D’Aubigné. 

J. H. M. D'aubigne, Date Unknown, 10-5-2015Merle D’Aubigné was educated in the Academy of Geneva which had been founded in 1559 through the influence of John Calvin. After he completed the required curriculum in letters and philosophy, he studied theology. The theological faculty at the time had adopted Socinian (Unitarian) views such as had been expressed historically in the Racovian Catechism, 1605, and they had been greatly influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and its opposition to the supernatural interpretation of Scripture. All the professors in the theological faculty of the Academy of Geneva rejected the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, salvation through the work of Christ, and regeneration and sanctification through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The institution had wandered considerably, thought some, from Calvin’s vision for a school that would teach men to become ministers and leaders not only in Geneva and Switzerland but also other nations influenced by the Reformation.

There was a growing awareness among some individuals in Geneva, including some of the students, that there were problems with the doctrine taught by the theological faculty. The Socinian views and Enlightenment rationalism had been gaining adherents for several decades resulting in pastors in the Swiss Reformed Church that denied the divinity of Christ as well as other key doctrines. The problem was thrust before the public in mid-November 1816 when Henri Empeytaz published a pamphlet titled Considerations About the Divinity of Christ. Empeytaz had read nearly two-hundred sermons preached since the mid-eighteenth century by the Venerable Company of Pastors in Geneva and found that all the pastors but two denied the divinity of Christ. Empeytaz’s exposé showed its readers that the theological views presented in the Academy of Geneva were inconsistent with historic Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular.

The furor created by the publication of Empeytaz’s study led to a meeting of the students and others concerned about the teaching of the faculty. Chosen to preside over the meeting was J. H. Merle D’Aubigné who at the time was a leader of the students that supported the professors and their views. The meeting composed a formal protest document denouncing Empeytaz’s pamphlet, which was signed by all attendees of the gathering except for two that refused. In Geneva, the influences from the Enlightenment and Socinianism appeared to have won the day, but Empeytaz’s book resulted in increased opposition to the faculty from those who held to a high view of Scripture and historic Reformed doctrine.

At the time, Switzerland was experiencing a movement known as Le Reveil (The Revival or Awakening), which was a response to the prevalent theology in the Swiss Reformed Church and its institutions. Le Reveil was seeded by Moravian missionaries and by D’Aubigné’s day was increasingly influenced by evangelists from England and Scotland. One of those influential figures was Robert Haldane. Haldane was born in London to a wealthy Scottish family and converted through the gospel in 1795. He sold his family estate and used the proceeds and other wealth for missionary work. After a failed attempt to be a missionary to India, Haldane traveled, 1816-1819, as an evangelist in France and Switzerland. Henri Empeytaz’s pamphlet had been published in the middle of November 1816, which was contemporaneous with Haldane’s arrival in Geneva. Haldane was shocked by the theological situation in Geneva, so he endeavored to do what he could to provide orthodox instruction. He invited students from the theological school to daily meetings in which he taught from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Merle D’Aubigné’s experience with the instruction he received from Haldane was quoted in The Gospel Herald.

I met Robert Haldane at a private house, with some other friends, and heard him read from an English Bible, a chapter from Romans about the natural corruption of man—a doctrine which I had never heard before. 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 a simple question, but it came home to my conscience. It was a sword of the Spirit; and from that time I saw that my heart was corrupt, and I knew from the word of God that I could be saved by grace alone (Vol. 53, No. 7, July 1885, p. 201).

D’Aubigné was one of about a dozen divinity students attending the lectures who came to know the Gospel through Haldane’s teaching. Where D’Aubigné had defended his professors in the past, he became a leader of those opposing the theological views existing in the Academy of Geneva. The series of lectures delivered by Haldane to those students were included in his commentary on Romans that was published in three volumes between 1835 and 1839.

Wartburg Castle, 10-9-2015Following his ordination on July 3, 1817, Rev. Merle D’Aubigné travelled to Germany to participate in the tercentenary of the Reformation and to study at the universities of Leipsic and Berlin. He was particularly influenced by the teaching of church history professor J.A.W. Neander of the University of Berlin. Neander, similar to D’Aubigné’s experience, had been converted to Christianity as a student. D’Aubigné was impressed with Neander’s opposition to the rationalism of the day. While visiting Eisenach and touring Wartburg Castle (pictured) where Martin Luther had lived in exile under the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise, Merle D’Aubigné thought of writing a history of the Reformation. The young minister had been thoroughly impressed by his visits to the church historical sites of Germany and by the lives of the personalities associated with the Reformation. He believed the story needed to be told in detail.

D’Aubigné continued his travels in Germany by visiting Hamburg, and then Brussels, which at the time was ruled by the Dutch. In Hamburg, he ministered to a French Protestant Church that had been planted by Huguenot refugees. When he had time from his pastoral duties, he sought material for his Reformation book project by scavenging shops and accessing resources in libraries and archives. He moved to Brussels in 1823 and was appointed court preacher by the Protestant king, William I, who ruled Brussels as a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, when the primarily Roman Catholic led Belgian Revolution began in 1830, Protestant D’Aubigné found himself in a dangerous situation, so he left for Holland. The revolution successfully overthrew Dutch rule and an independent Belgium was established formally in November 1831. In Holland, Merle D’Aubigné was offered the position of tutor to the Prince of Orange, but he turned it down. He continued to live in Holland for a short time until he returned to his home in Geneva.

The fifteen years that D’Aubigné had been away from Geneva had seen an increase of those concerned about the views presented by the Academy of Geneva’s theological faculty. In response to the situation in 1831, the Geneva Evangelical Society was founded with one of its goals being the establishment of a seminary faithful to Calvin’s design and Protestant theology. The seminary was opened with D’Aubigné and his close friend François Samuel Robert Louis Gaussen on the faculty. In 1841, Gaussen would publish his book on biblical inspiration that was later released in English with the title, Theopneustia: The Plenary Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. It was during D’Aubigné’s years as a professor that he produced his works on the Reformation and several other publications. Both D’Aubigné and Gaussen wrote not only in their subject areas but also responded as apologists to the continued influence of Enlightenment thinking upon Christian doctrine. Other professors were added during the years as Merle D’Aubigné served the remainder of his life teaching in the seminary. The seminary had started with just three or four students but by the time Robert Baird’s book, D’Aubigne, and His Writings, was published in 1847, the student body had grown to number forty. D’Aubigné was also a founder of the Evangelical Church of Switzerland and a popular preacher.

In the morning of Saturday, October 19, 1872, Merle D’Aubigné had given a theology lecture in the seminary and then returned home. He went back to work in the afternoon but feeling unusually fatigued he went outside for some fresh air. After greeting a passing friend and having a brief discussion he went back to work and then to bed for the night. On Sunday after worshipping in the morning he ended the day leading his family devotions. About eleven o’clock he retired for the night without experiencing any discomfort or illness, but the next day his family discovered that he had passed away. His funeral was held with several friends and colleagues presenting eulogies, hymns were sung—including one that D’Aubigné wrote himself, after which he was buried in the cemetery not far from his birth place and home in Les Eaux-Vives.

D’Aubigné’s work on the Reformation and Protestant history has gone through many printings and there have been a number of special editions that have pulled excerpts from the volumes to create specialty studies such as individual biographies. Many have had their first encounter with the personalities, places, and events of the Reformation through the writing of D’Aubigné. The sources for his Reformation historical writing included some of the greatest libraries and archives in Europe. Since the death of D’Aubigné in 1872, Europe has experienced several conflicts two of which were world wars resulting in catastrophic destruction in many cities.  It could very well be that D’Aubigné used source materials that are no longer available because of their having been destroyed by war. Some today would simply dismiss the work of D’Aubigné as a whole, but it may very well be that he has provided some information that is no longer available. 

Barry Waugh

Notes—The middle name of D’Aubigné’s great grandfather, John Lewis Merle, was also spelled “Louis” in some sources. Even though the “Louis” is French, the preponderance of “Lewis” led to the use of that spelling. D’Aubigné was given the Doctor of Divinity, DD, by Princeton University in 1838, and in 1843, his colleague, François Samuel Robert Louis Gaussen, was likewise given the DD by Princeton.

Socinian—One of the theological errors confronted by D’Aubigné that was mentioned in this biography was Socinianism. The Socinians’ views developed from the teaching of Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) who denied the doctrine of the Trinity and correspondingly the divinity of Christ. As the movement grew and spread into England it was propagated particularly through the writings of John Biddle (1615-1662) and by the end of the seventeenth century its proponents came to be known as Unitarians. Socinianism was one of the heterodox teachings addressed in the deliberations and writings of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) particularly with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity in the Confession of Faith, chapter 2, as well as the corresponding questions in the catechisms. In America, Unitarian views contributed to the decline of orthodoxy in New England Congregationalism. 

Sources—include, D’Aubigné, and His Writings: With a Sketch of the Life of the Author, by Robert Baird, New York: Baker and Scribner, 1846, which contains several of D’Aubigné’s shorter works and one book-length selection; Notice Sur La Vie et Les Écrits de M. Merle D’Aubigné, by Jules Bonnet, Paris: Grassart, 1874; History of the Swiss Reformed Church Since the Reformation, by James I. Good, Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1913; also, The Identity of Geneva: The Christian Commonwealth, 1564-1864, edited by John B. Roney and Martin I. Klauber, with a forward by Robert M. Kingdon, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998, has several interesting contributions including one by William Edgar titled, “Education and Modernity in Restoration Geneva.”


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