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Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné Historian of the Reformation

Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné Historian of the Reformation

Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné (1794-1872) was born in Geneva and studied at the University of Geneva in his undergraduate work and as a student under the Faculty of Theology. At the time Geneva was experiencing a spiritual revival from 1813 to 1830 (le Réveil). D’Aubigné was touched by the saving grace of God when the Scotsman Robert Haldane visited Geneva and conducted a Bible study for the students at the University. He was ordained as a minister at the age of 23 and also resolved at the same time to write a history of the Reformation. Before he became a professor of church history at age 37 at a new theological school that opened in Geneva, d’Aubigné pastored churches in Hamburg, Germany, and in Brussels. King Willem I of the Netherlands and the famous Dutch politician and historian Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer regularly heard him preach in Brussels. D’Aubigné finished his career teaching church history in Geneva working alongside his famous colleague François Samuel Robert Louis Gaussen (1790-1863) who taught theology. The first volume of The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was published in 1835, and the five-volumes were completed in 1853. They were published in French and later translated into English. Other works of interest that he published include the following: History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of John Calvin (8 vols.); The Reformation in England (2 vols.); and a biography of Oliver Cromwell entitled The Protector.
D’Aubigné believed that the Reformation was an event of monumental significance and was therefore an era that is worthy to be studied with much attention.1 As he contemplated the events of the sixteenth century, he said, “Every thing bears the mark of a regeneration of the human race” (1). “Primitive Christianity and the Reformation,” he said, “are the two greatest revolutions in history. They were not limited to one nation only, as were the various political movements that history records; but their influence extended over many, and their effects are destined to be felt to the utmost limits of the world” (1). D’Aubigné asserted the following concerning impact of the Reformation upon the world: “All kinds of human progress date from the Reformation. It produced religious progress by substituting for the forms and the rites which are the essence of Romish religion, a life of communion with God. It produced moral progress by introducing, whenever it was established, the reign of conscience and the sacredness of the domestic hearth. It produced political and social progress by giving to the nations which accepted it, an order and a freedom which other nations in vain strive to attain. It produced progress in philosophy and in science, by showing the unity of these human forms of teaching with the knowledge of God. It produced progress in education, the well-being of communities, the prosperity, riches, and greatness of nations.”2
The history-changing power of the Reformation was due to the fact that it entailed “the re-establishment of the principles of primitive Christianity. It was a regenerative movement with respect to all that was destined to revive; a conservative movement as regards all that will exist for ever” (1). More specifically, the Reformation was “the triumph of the greatest of its doctrines,—of that which animates all who embrace it with purest and most intense enthusiasm,—the doctrine of Faith, the doctrine of Grace” (2). This meant that there was a clear articulation of the biblical doctrine of justification: “The Church had fallen, because the great doctrine of justification by faith in the Saviour had been taken away from her. It was necessary, therefore, before she could rise again, that this doctrine should be restored to her. As soon as this fundamental truth should be re-established in Christendom, all the errors and observances that had taken its place—all that multitude of saints, of works, of penances, masses, indulgences, &c., would disappear” (29). What the Reformation accomplished was due to the power of the Word of God that has a “regenerative influence” and “which purified society” (4).
D’Aubigné’s approach to history as reflected in the Preface to The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century shows a deep awareness of the distinction between what we may call “scientific history” and “speculative history.” In scientific history there is “the attempt to arrive at an accurate account of past events based upon scientific evidence, without regard to learning lessons, predicting the future course of events, or grasping the ‘meaning’ of human history as a whole.” Speculative history, on the other hand, is “the attempt to grasp ‘the meaning of history as a whole . . . to look beneath the surface of events and find their inner or ultimate significance.” 3
D’Aubigné was committed to presenting scientific history. In the Preface he stated, “I address this history to those who love to see past events exactly as they occurred” (5). In order to do this, he based his writing upon the primary sources: “This history is compiled from the original sources with which a long residence in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, has rendered me
familiar; as well as from the study, in their original languages, of the documents relating to the religious history of Great Britain and other countries” (5). He also attempted to be objective in his presentation of the facts regarding the Reformation: “I hope to be impartial in retracing its history. I think I have spoken of the principal Roman-catholic actors in this great drama . . . more favourably than the majority of the historians have done. On the other hand, I have no desire to conceal the faults and errors of the reformers” (5).
D’Aubigné was upfront in declaring his philosophy of history and in setting forth his position on the ultimate significance of what was happening in the Reformation period. He made the point that the historian must do more than just recite the facts of the past in succession: “History can no longer remain in our days that dead letter of events, to the detail of which the majority of earlier writers restricted themselves. It is now understood that in history, as in man, there are two elements—matter and spirit. Unwilling to resign themselves to the task of producing a simple recital of facts, which would have been but a barren chronicle, our great modern historians have sought for a vital principle to animate the materials of past ages” (2). What then is the ultimate explanation for the Reformation? D’Aubigné sets forth his position at numerous points throughout his history. In the Preface, he states in the first paragraph that the “regeneration of the human race” and the “religious and social change” must be understood as “emanating from God himself” (1). In the Reformation there was “an invisible and mighty hand” that was guiding all events—“the work of Omnipotence” (2). D’Aubigné raises important questions. “Shall we not recognize the hand of God in those grand manifestations, those great men, those mighty nations, which arise, and start as it were from the dust of the earth, and communicate a fresh impulse, a new form and destiny to the human race? Shall we not acknowledge him in those heroes who spring from society at appointed epochs—who display a strength and activity beyond the ordinary limits of humanity—and around whom, as around a superior and mysterious power, nations and individuals unhesitatingly gather?” (3) His philosophical approach to the history of the Reformation is stated concisely in this declaration: “I believe the Reformation to be the work of God: his hand is everywhere visible in it” (6).
D’Aubigné drew attention to a remarkable phenomenon that illustrated his contention that God was directing all events in the Reformation time period. It is simply an historical fact that “it was not Germany that communicated the light of truth to Switzerland, Switzerland to France, and France to England” (257). “The Reformation of Germany and that of Switzerland demonstrate this truth. Zwingli had no communication with Luther. There was no doubt a connecting link between these two men; but we must not look for it upon earth: it was above. He who from heaven gave the truth to Luther, gave it to Zwingli also. Their bond of union was God. “I began to preach the Gospel,” says Zwingli, “in the year of grace 1516, that is to say, at a time when Luther’s name had never been heard in this country. It is not from Luther that I learnt the doctrine of Christ, but from the Word of God. If Luther preaches Christ, he does what I am doing; and that is all” (257).
The speed with which the Reformation proceeded all at once throughout the church in numerous countries can be put in these terms: “The partisans of Rome were filled with apprehension, and exclaimed that a wide and terrible conspiracy was forming every where in the Church against the Church. The exulting friends of the Gospel said that, as in spring the breath of life is felt from the shores of the sea to the mountain top, so the Spirit of God was now melting throughout Christendom the ices of a lengthened winter, and covering it with fresh flowers and verdure, from its lowest plains to its most barren and its steepest rocks” (257).
Let us continue to lift our prayers to God that he may be pleased to bring reformation and revival in our time of theological apostasy and widespread moral declension. We stand in desperate need of another mighty regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”

Mark J. Larson
Pastor Emeritus
Warrenville, South Carolina

Reformation History | History

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