Paul Rabaut: The Pastor of the Desert

Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle by Henri Motte, 1881, Courtesy of Le Musée d'Orbigny-Bernon, La Rochelle, France

Something is dead over there,” Dad said, pointing. I looked and saw the buzzards circling in the Oregon sky, round and round. It was something that I saw many times as a boy. A deer or a cow lying dead in the manzanita brush would attract the vultures.

The stench of moral and spiritual death filled the air of France in the late eighteenth century. “For the first time since the decadent days of Rome, pornography emerged from its caves and circulated openly in a civilized nation…. Strange cults appeared; sex rituals, black magic, Satanism. Perversion became not only acceptable but fashionable. Homosexuals had public balls to which heterosexuals were invited and the police guarded their carriages. Prostitutes were admired; swindles and sharp business practices increased. Political clubs of the more radical sort proliferated…. The air grew thick with plans to restructure and reconstruct all traditional French society and institutions…. The journals were mixtures of politics and smut. They admired agitators extravagantly and never discussed the Church without mention of scandal nor the government without criticism. They relied heavily on tales of sin in high places and highhanded outrages of the Court….”1Otto Scott, Robespierre, The Voice of Virtue (New York: Mason & Lipscomb, 1974).

The vultures were everywhere, feeding on the carrion. It was an age of skepticism and intellectualism, but only to attack religion and the state; almost everything else was believed, especially anything smutty and sordid about any person of prominence. Faith was shallow and bent toward conspiracy and dreams. Revolution was on everybody’s lips and the thought moved readily from cynicism to utopianism. Each faction spun its gossamers of what the ideal future would be after the revolution. As in all revolutionary societies there was no honor or respect given to the past; everyone was ashamed of France and its history. Investments of hope and emotion were made in terms of the new dreams of new dreamers, dreams of a new order and a new society. What actually came was beyond dreams and imagination.

Maybe the outrages would not seem outrageous if the circumstances were different. The frogs in the pond would croak even if the lord of the manor needed his sleep. If the peasants had been paid decently for their work…but that was then not now. They were forced to “beat the ponds” to keep the frogs quiet. And revolution came. There were other outrages including grinding taxation, especially after the extravagant expenses of Louis XIV and Louis XV.

When the leaders are blind, they do not consider the consequences that may result if the blind replace them with other blind guides. There are many voices crying in the wilderness and true prophets are few. Hell is a bottomless pit and one blind guide is as good as another, if nobody knows the way.

Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Illustration by Jan Luiken, 1690

The cocktail made up of political power, economic and military strength, mixed with the bitters of religious bigotry is a drink fit for hell itself. This hell fell upon the Protestant who was unfortunately still in France when Louis XIV was the Sun King. The Edict of Nantes, issued by Henry IV, who became king after the disgrace of St. Bartholomew’s Day, had given peace to the Reformed Church in France while he was alive, but Henry VI was assassinated in 1610. War broke out between the friends and enemies of liberty of conscience. Cardinal Richelieu became counselor to the king in 1624 and determined to exterminate the Huguenots. The Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle fell in 1628 and the Huguenots were finished as a political force. The flight from France became a flood. The remnant of the Huguenots declared their loyalty to the king and became submerged in the life of France. Their enemies were not satisfied. The blind are blind, not dim, and they determined to destroy the Edict of Nantes by rigorously enforcing it. They demanded:

“that it [the Edict] should be observed with literal accuracy, disregarding the changes which had been produced in France during more than half a century. The clergy in 1661 successfully demanded that commissioners should be sent to the provinces to report infractions of the Edict, and thus began a judicial war which was to last for more than twenty years…Louis XIV declared that ‘the best of the larger part of our subjects, who formerly held the so-called Reformed religion, have embraced the Catholic religion, and therefore the Edict of Nantes has become unnecessary’; on the 18th of October 1685 he pronounced its revocation. Thus under the influence of the clergy was committed one of the most flagrant political and religious blunders in the history of France….”2 Huguenots.

The work was complete. Uniformity of religion was achieved. Non-conforming pastors had to leave the state within fifteen days. Churches were demolished, and those who continued to believe the old faith of the apostles met in caves, in the country, wherever they could find refuge. Pastors returned, scorning death, and visited and encouraged the people in the faith. If someone denied the Catholic faith on his death bed, his corpse was dropped into the sewers. French galleys were rowed by Huguenots. In 1702, the desperate revolt of the Camisards broke out and was crushed by the troops of his sunny Highness.

The result was the Church in the Desert. The Sun King died in 1715, certain that he had forever ended all Reformed worship in France. The decree of God was otherwise. Antoine Court, who was only twenty but not blind, summoned the first Synod of the Desert and began to put the Reformed worship back together. Elders were appointed; the preaching of women prohibited. It was the church that refused to die. Although their marriages were outlawed in France, their children declared illegitimate, and the fear of death and the galleys was ever present, the church grew. From 1756 to 1763, their last synod, they grew from 40 pastors to 65. Antoine Court became known as the “Restorer of Protestantism” in France.3 _CRE/COURT_ANTOINE_1696_176o_.html

The oppression of the French Reformed Christians lasted for some two hundred and fifty years. It began when Jacques Pavannes was burned for writing against the worship of the Virgin and the Saints and ended when the last two galley slaves were released by Louis XVI. Only some one million Reformed Christians remained in France after the flight of the Huguenots. About a fourth of these perished under the persecution of Louis XIV and Louis XV.

What was the Church in the Desert? The following is from the record of a Desert pastor on capital trial for exercising his ministry:

“Questioned in what place he had baptized and administered the communion.
“Answered that it was in the open country, or in the desert.
“We called on the accused to tell us what he meant by the desert.
“The accused said that he meant by the desert lonely and uninhabited places where he assembled the faithful; sometimes in the neighborhood of Alais, of Sauve, etc.”
[This and much of the following is condensed from Pasteur M. Bridel, The Pastor of the Desert and His Martyr Colleagues: Sketches of Paul Rabaut (London, James Nisbet & Co. 1861).]

Paul Rabaut [1718-1794], the “Pastor of the Desert,” assumed leadership at the death of Court. He was not blind either. Court had established a seminary at Lausanne to train ministers for France. So many had offered up their lives for the French church, that it became known as the “Seminary of Blood.” For some 72 years this seminary alone furnished ministers for French Reformed churches. Bridel’s number of 450 is probably close to the truth. Only three ever acquired any celebrity: the eldest son of Court, Paul Rabaut, and his eldest son, Jean-Paul Rabaut-Saint-Etienne. Paul Rabaut became pastor of the church at Nîmes in 1741, but took a leave of absence to study at Lausanne from 1740-1743, leaving his young wife Madeleine alone for three years.

After seminary Rabaut returned to Nîmes where he was well received. The effectiveness of his ministry may be measured by the intensity of renewed persecution. The notorious prisons of the Chateau d’If and the Tower of Constance were filled with the men and women of Calvinism.

The famous island prison, Chateau d’If

“During this period Rabaut was obliged to conceal himself, and to exercise his ministry in the most profound secrecy. He frequently preached in the woods and waste ground in the environs of Nîmes. The Protestants, thirsting for the Word of God, exposed themselves to the greatest dangers in order to attend these meetings. He gathered round him sometimes as many as ten thousand hearers, whom his clear and penetrating voice reached without difficulty. His preaching, simple, sober in thought and expression, copious in Scripture, was especially remarkable for its unction. He often extemporized with warmth, and the tears of the auditors responded to his own emotion. At other times he wrote his discourses, many of which, yet unpublished, are preserved with his numerous manuscripts. Besides preaching, and the care bestowed on his people from house to house, he paid great attention to the religious instruction of the young, being often obliged for this purpose to go from one farm to another, or to remote localities.”

Of Rabaut’s preaching, Bridel said, “Much simplicity and unction; more of sweetness than vehemence; little of a controversial character; more of loving earnestness than profound argument; dogmatic exposition always sustained by practical admonitions…. He preached doctrines in the spirit and words of the Gospel, without adding to them, without wandering into details or losing himself in deductions.” Bridel published one of his sermons, a communion sermon on the text “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” [John 7:37]. The following is from this sermon:

Paul Rabaut, Image courtesy of Musée du Désert, Mialet, France

He, then, who does not feel his misery will not thirst for the health-giving waters of grace; for the first step he must take to experience this spiritual thirst is to know his sins, to understand how hateful they are God, how dangerous to the soul, and most bitterly to repent of them. You who have experienced the bitterness of repentance, describe to us your remorse, your agitation, your alarm. What confusion at the sight of so much insult offered to the Divine Majesty by your thoughts, by your words, by your actions! What fear in considering that you have often exposed your soul to become the prey of the flames of hell, to be separated from the Blessed God, for ever the victim of his vengeance, for ever given up to its own despair! What regret to have shown yourselves so ungrateful towards your Heavenly Father, to have so little esteemed his benefits, to have resisted his invitations, abused the riches of his patience and long-suffering, to have forsaken Him, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out for yourselves broken cisterns that can hold no water….

To come to Jesus Christ is to believe in Him, to look to Him as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world; to profess his doctrine, to practice his precepts. This appears from various places in the Gospel where this mode of speaking is employed; thus in the 6th chapter of St. John we see that to come to Jesus Christ and to believe in Him signify one and the same thing; witness those words in verse 35. “He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst.” In the same sense He says, “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He then explains what He means by coming to Him; “Take my yoke upon you,” says He, “and learn of Me.” When Jesus Christ invites you to believe in Him it is not a dead faith that He requires…Again, if we believe in Jesus Christ, it is because his doctrine is the most excellent, the most worthy of God which has ever appeared, the best adapted to enlighten the mind, to sanctify the heart, to inspire the most solid hopes….

Rabaut understood that meekness and submission was the way to eventual triumph over the persecutors. A peasant betrayed the young minister Désubas who was sleeping in a barn. Désubas was conveyed to Montpelier for trial. Many tried to rescue him from the soldiers and numerous Protestants were shot and killed, including about thirty persons killed by soldiers firing into an unarmed assembly. A large crowd assembled the next day, but were dispersed at the plea of Désubas: “There has only been too much blood already shed. I am very tranquil, and entirely resigned to the will of God.” In other places mobs assembled.

Jean-Paul Rabaut-Saint-Etienne. Image courtesy of Musée du Désert, Mialet, France

When he heard of the trouble, Rabaut left his hiding place and rushed, begging and entreating. He brought order and submission. He feared renewed wars would completely destroy the churches. Désubas was taken to Montpelier where he was tried and executed.

Seventeen fourty-five and 1746 were years of blood and tears. The principal citizens of Nîmes and other places were ordered to bring their children to the churches for the baptism into the Romish faith. They refused, because it was decreed that “The Church has full power over those who have received baptism, just as the King has absolute right over the coin stamped at his mint.” The people left their houses, fields, workshops, manufactories, and fled to the caves and words. The Governor ordered soldiers to be stationed at each home until the children were baptized. A fine would be exacted daily until the order was obeyed. More force was threatened.

There were some of fourteen, twelve, and even ten years of age who would not allow themselves to be led to church, and whom it was necessary to drag by force; others filled the air with heart-rending cries; some threw themselves like lions on those who came to seize them, tearing their skin and clothes with their hands; others, having no better way of expressing their resentment, turned into ridicule the ceremony which was about to be performed upon them…. And in this manner, in the midst of these brutal and ignoble scenes, baptism was by force administered!

A new device was tried to persuade Paul Rabaut to leave France. Bridel reported:

An armed force entered the dwelling of his family during the night and endeavored to terrify his wife, at that time left in charge of the education of their two eldest sons, and having in addition the care of her aged and infirm mother. It was signified to Madeleine Gaydan that she would not enjoy the slightest security or repose for herself or her family so long as her husband continued to exercise his ministry at Nîmes and in the province. The Governor, by whose order this was done, hoped that the young woman, from love to her children and her mother, would solicit Rabaut to leave the country for a time. The attempt was repeatedly made, but was fruitless; Madeleine was one of those women who, far from fettering or retarding the activity of their husbands by the counsels of human prudence, have the power to fortify and encourage them in their devotedness.

She persuaded the Pastor of the Desert to remain and continue his work. She wandered about herself for two years without a settled home, along with her infirm mother and her two children; received and concealed by friends whom she soon quitted, for fear of compromising them, to resort to others with whom she could not make a longer stay. During these two years the firmness of this heroic woman was immovable, and at the end of that time her persecutors were wearied of this unworthy method of annoyance.

Late in 1756 renewed attempts were made by the government to apprehend Rabaut. “It was at this period of his life that he passed some time in a sort of hut partly hollowed out of the ground and covered with stones and bushes: this sepulchral dwelling, situated in the midst of an uncultivated district, served him as a retreat at night and even as a study, till a shepherd, leading his flock over the heath, lighted one day upon the little cave and denounced it to the police. Rabaut regretted this wild abode as if he had enjoyed in it all the comforts of life. He was never apprehended, though often in extreme danger; sometimes he escaped from his persecutors by the speed of a horse which he used to facilitate his extensive circuits.”

In spite of his trials he continued to be faithful to his ministry and sent his two elder sons to the Academy at Lausanne to be prepared for the same life of hardships that he endured.

In the early 1760’s the celebrated case of Jean Calas, a merchant of Toulouse, inflamed all of France against the Reformed church. A suicide, his son had hanged himself in his father’s warehouse. The enemies of Protestantism spread the vicious rumor that the boy was murdered by his father because he wanted to abjure heresy and rejoin the Roman church. The young man was given a splendid service for martyrdom and a magnificent tomb. Jean Calas was broken alive on the wheel and then thrown into the flames, his goods confiscated, his children banished or shut up in convents. Three years later his name was cleared and his property restored to his heirs.

The Calas Family by M. de Carmontelle, 1765. The drawing was commissioned in order to raise funds for Jean Calas’s widow

Rabaut wrote in defense of the Reformed faith. He refuted the calumny that said that Reformed fathers were required to execute their children who wanted to convert to Rome. “Let them not accuse us of being unnatural fathers….” Although many fair and just Roman Catholics spoke out against the rumor, it was still widely circulated and stirred up the masses of the people. Rabaut wrote that the charge was contradictory to the very substance of their faith:

The fundamental principle of Protestants consists in recognizing the Holy Scriptures as the only rule of faith and conduct; those Holy Scriptures in which assuredly no one learns to commit parricide. What church is it which maintains most firmly that faith is the gift of God alone, that conscience is amenable solely to Him, that one man cannot believe at the will of another, that a blind faith is a dead faith, that every act of piety must be voluntary? It is ours. What church is it which has the most forbearance toward heretics, which carries civil toleration the farthest and asserts that errors are to be combated only by the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God? This again is ours.

Is it not the Protestants who have pleaded with most earnestness for liberty of faith and opinion? To accuse us then of a persecuting spirit is to attack us in our stronghold. It is generally considered among us that those who err from the truth are to be tolerated, that we are to honor the Deity and never avenge Him. We leave the punishment of heresies to God, to whom alone it belongs.

Painting by Duval, 1851 Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1786, Jean-Paul Rabaut St. Etienne, who had just been installed as pastor at Nîmes, received a visit from the celebrated hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington had entreated Lafayette to try to help the Protestants in France. Lafayette heard St. Etienne preach and with others, urged him to go to Paris. St. Etienne yielded and worked for a year to help enact the Edict of 1787 which gave some small liberties to the Reformed, such as registration of marriages, births, and death. Even this small gesture resulted in an outcry from the benighted priests. New persecution would have erupted, had not the flood of revolution, a whirlwind of desolation swept over the land in 1789.

In spite of the fact that the great majority of the citizens of Nîmes were Roman Catholic, St. Etienne was elected in the first rank to represent the district in that body which became the Constituent Assembly. He soon distinguished himself in that assembly as a spokesman for Liberty. He rejected the idea of Toleration, demanding complete Liberty for all the citizens of France. His influence was immense and finally bore full fruit after his death. At the coronation of Napoleon I in Paris in 1804 the Emperor addressed the assembled presidents of the Protestant Consistories, “I wish it to be known that it is my intention and firm determination to maintain liberty of worship: the empire of the law ends where the indefinite empire of conscience begins. Neither the law nor the prince has any power against that liberty. Such are my principles and those of the nation; and if any one of my family who may succeed me should forge the oath which I have taken and, misled by the suggestions of an ill-informed conscience, should violate it, I devote him to public animadversion, and I authorize you to give him the name of Nero.”

Even as early as 1789, the revolutionary National Assembly declared liberty of conscience and permitted non-Catholics to be admitted to all positions. The vice-president of this Assembly was Jean-Paul Rabaut St. Etienne. In 1790, the Constituent Assembly gave Rabaut St. Etienne the high honor of nominating him to the honorable post of President. In 1792, the Consistory at Nîmes hired the great church of the Dominicans to celebrate their regular public worship. Paul Rabaut, now 74 years old, gave the prayer and wept tears of joy, for this was the first time his congregation had worshiped in a church. But his woes were not ended.

St. Etienne rose in power and prestige in the National Assembly. When the Gerondists came to power, he was appointed to the Council of Twelve. His opposition to the execution of the King offended Robespierre and the Jacobins. When the Jacobins overthrew the Gerondists, the Council of Twelve was stripped of all power and the Gerondists were arrested. Though he escaped into hiding, St. Etienne was betrayed and guillotined in December, 1793.

St. Etienne was a victim of the very liberty that he had helped turn loose. He came to realize too late that liberty is not self-supporting.

There is no question that the Reformed were very active in the early stages of the French Revolution. They ardently desired the changes that men dreamed of in those exciting days. The excitement was political, religious, social and emotional. Rousseau had taught Frenchmen to feel, Voltaire had taught them to doubt. Freedom was in the air, and bubbled up in the souls of men, not only in France, but in the Americas.

Matthew Rainbow Hale of Goucher College wrote of this “bubbling” in the hearts of the democratic-republicans in America:

“On December 27, 1792, [Jeremy] Post rose before sunrise after being ‘alarmed by the ringing of the bells throughout the city’…he ‘was informed that it was a rejoicing for the happy turn of affairs in France…which too long had been the seat of absolute and despotic sway’…Inspired by these ‘happy’ scenes and ‘the time spent’ on the streets, ‘in the best of pleasures, arising from the bubbling of the heart’ and the ‘voluntary…rejoicings as on the happiness of France’…The ‘bubbling of the heart’ stimulated by the French ‘example of bravery’ was by no means a one-day affair, and …spilled over again on January 1, 1793.”4

The trouble with “bubbling” and emotion is that they cannot differentiate between dreams and reality, or as Oscar Wilde put it, “All men kill the thing they love.”

But why would the Pastors of the Desert get mixed up in such a stew of rebellion, anarchy, and chaos? Some of the answer is found in “The Pastors of the Desert on the Eve of the French Revolution,” by Jack Alden Clarke.5Jack Alden Clarke, “The Pastors of the Desert on the Eve of the French Revolution”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 18, No. 1, (University of Pennsylvania Press, January, 1957) 113-119.

Clarke affirms that the intervention of Voltaire in the Calas matter created an unnatural alliance between the philosophic party of the enlightenment and the persecuted Church of the Desert. Sophisticated and chic writers vied for attention in championing the cause of the underdogs. The Reformed accepted St. Etienne’s view of religious liberty which could not be distinguished from that of the enlightenment. Only Paul Rabaut was afraid of the spreading of indifference among the people. He wrote in 1776, “This freedom for which so many of our people yearn, I fear it as much as I desire it, and I have no trouble putting my fate in the hands of Wise Providence.” But Paul Rabaut stood alone in his pessimism and most of his colleagues accepted without reservations a concept of tolerance that sucked the vitals from their Calvinistic faith.

Further, the Reformed toughness was eviscerated by an admiration for Voltaire whom they credited with giving them their liberty. Clarke writes:

“Laying aside the Bible for the gazettes and the encyclopedia, clergy and laity alike embraced the sentimental deism of an essentially irreligious epoch. About the same time in Lausanne the theological instruction of the French seminary became tinged with moralism and rationalism to the detriment of the traditional dogmatic Calvinism. Instead of serving as ardent defenders of orthodoxy the seminary graduates were already predisposed by their training in favor of the deists. Far too many of them gloried in their personal relations with these illustrious men of letters and failed to appreciate the insidious character of the natural religion of Voltaire and Rousseau which became the faith of the day.”

Clarke says that although the preaching of Antoine Court and Paul Rabaut was biblical and orthodox, the sermons of the later Desert are “secular in spirit and bear evidence of a close acquaintance with the works of the encyclopedists.” In particular, the sermons of St. Etienne were like rational discourses:

“The Christian religion is only natural religion unveiled to mortals and confirmed by Jesus Christ…All of our ideas come to us from the senses, that is to say that our soul has no thought, no reflection, no sentiment which is not given to it by the body…Every reasonable man has a conscience since our conscience is only our reason which approves us or condemns us.”

16th century Dutch illustration of the “wheel of torture,” to which many Huguenot ministers were subjected. Image courtesy of Musée du Désert, Mialet, France

St. Etienne could say before the National Assembly at the zenith of his power and prestige—in rough translation: “All the institutions in France crown the misfortunes of the people. To renew and return it to happiness, [it is necessary] to change its ideas, its laws, its manners, its homes, to change everything; to change the words. All must be destroyed, yes all destroyed, since all has to be recreated.”6Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke, NOTES to Volume 2, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, edited by Edward J. Payne, (originally published Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874-1878)

Never has a revolutionary creed been so well expressed, but none more hopeless and delusive, and none more pagan. To God alone belongs the reformation of character and the predestination of all things.
France now turned to the worship of Reason. All priests and ministers had to move within a week a distance of about 70 miles from their churches. Paul Rabaut did not move and so was arrested. He could not walk so he rode an ass to the citadel. “During his youth and his mature age, he had been persecuted, tracked from place to place, menaced with death a thousand times by the despotism of an absolute monarch; and now, in his enfeebled old age, we see him the butt of the persecutions and the outrages of another despotism quite as hateful as the former, that of the lawless multitude. He had known before the violence of superstition, he now experienced that of impiety.”

However, after a few months, when the government changed, he was set free. He had suffered much, a widower and infirm, sorely afflicted by the death of St. Etienne, the imprisonment of his second son, the exile of his third. Seventy-seven years old, he went home, put his house in order, and passed away, his death as simple as his life.

“But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” (Heb 11:16)


1 Otto Scott, Robespierre, The Voice of Virtue (New York: Mason & Lipscomb, 1974).
2 Huguenots.
3 _CRE/COURT_ANTOINE_1696_176o_.html
5 Jack Alden Clarke, “The Pastors of the Desert on the Eve of the French Revolution”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 18, No. 1, (University of Pennsylvania Press, January, 1957) 113-119.
6 Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke, NOTES to Volume 2, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, edited by Edward J. Payne, (originally published Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874-1878