The warm glow of the firelight threw shadows across the walls of the cosy little cottage. Seated on the floor beside it, Antoine Court gazed intently at his mother’s face. She was seated in an armchair cradling the family Bible in her lap. The family had just finished singing their favourite Psalm to open the special time of worship they had together every evening. The Court children sat huddled together at their mother’s feet, listening attentively as she read a passage of scripture.
Bibles were a rarity in those days and if a family did own one it was usually only parts of it. The Court family Bible was made up of portions of scripture roughly sewn together but it was the most precious book they owned. After she finished reading Marie Court placed the Bible on the little stool beside her and smiled at her children. They smiled back in eager anticipation. It was story time.
“What stories would you like to hear today children?” she asked softly, taking in the pale young faces in front of her.
“Tell us about the war Maman,” Antoine said
“Yes,” his sister chimed in “Why did the war begin Maman?”
“And what was it like before the war” Antoine’s brother added
Marie nodded slowly and closed her eyes for a brief moment, as she allowed the memories to wash over her.
“A long time ago” she began softly “before any of you were born the King of France made a decree, actually it wasn’t a new decree, it was really a decree that undid another decree issued by another king in the past”
“What was the decree about?” Antoine asked
“Well, many years ago, our people the Huguenots were given freedom to worship God according to their own conscience. This freedom was guaranteed to us when King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes but almost a hundred years later his grandson Louis XIV decided to revoke that Edict altogether”
“What did that mean Maman?” Antoine’s sister asked
“It meant that Huguenots were no longer free to worship God according to their conscience. Instead of being captive to the word of God we were forced to become captive to the Roman Church and worship as the church commanded.”
In her quiet voice, Marie began to narrate the terrible persecutions that followed in the wake of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. She recalled how on that terrible day in October, when the Edict was signed into law Protestantism became illegal in France and every Protestant was ordered to become a Catholic or face terrible consequences. She told the children of one clause in the Edict that ordered the destruction of every Protestant church in France.
“Every single one?” Antoine asked incredulously
“Yes son, every single one”
“Just because it was a Protestant church?”
Marie nodded “I remember the story of the church at Nimes, not far from here”
“Tell us about it Maman” Antoine’s brother urged
Slowly she recounted the sad story. The entire congregation gathered at the church on that awful day. With tears streaming down their faces they listened as their Pastor preached his last sermon. When the sermon came to an end they sang a final farewell psalm before assembling themselves in a long procession stretching down the knave of the church all the way to the door. One by one they filed past their Minister, who blessed them and encouraged them to be faithful unto death.
Then drowning in a flood of memories they passed out of the church and stood huddled in front of its great doors, watching as their beloved church was hacked to pieces by the angry mob. The church fell amidst a confusion of noise. Trumpets blared, announcing the demolition in progress, Catholics shouted in anger and triumph as they attacked the building with picks, axes, and hammers and the watching Huguenots sobbed loudly as they witnessed the destruction of their sacred place of worship.
After the building had been fully torn down a single stone lay at the very top of the rubble. It was a stone that had formed the lintel of the portico and was engraved with words that reflected how special the church had been to the Huguenots. The inscription read “This is the house of God, this is the Gate of Heaven”
Antoine and his siblings were quiet as they thought about this sad story. After a moment Antoine spoke;
“What happened to the Huguenots who didn’t want to become Catholics?”
“They were sent away to the galleys as slaves, or locked up in prisons” Marie paused before she continued “Some were tortured and others were put to death”
“Did some leave Maman?” Antoine’s sister asked
Her mother nodded “Yes, some chose to leave”
“Tell us the stories Maman” Antoine urged excitedly “Tell us what happened to the Huguenots after King Louis’ decree”
Marie told them of the mass exodus of Huguenots who had fled towards the border. Many had disguised themselves in order to escape. Nobles had dressed like peasants, trundling wheelbarrows full of vegetables, peasants had dressed as cattle drivers, farmers or merchants.
Those who were too afraid to disguise themselves chose to travel over the rugged, winding mountain paths. They travelled at night in small groups, pausing for rest during the day. In order to evade capture, they hid in caves or abandoned farmhouses, burrowing into haystacks so they could sleep undisturbed.
“What about those who died?” Antoine interrupted suddenly.
Marie studied her youngest son carefully. From the moment he was born she had consecrated him to God’s service. There was something special about Antoine, she had sensed it. However, she wrestled with the consequences her son would have to face if he chose to serve in the shadow of the cross. She feared he would meet a martyrs end.
“Would you like to hear their stories?” she asked quietly.
Antoine nodded “yes Maman, I would,” he said earnestly.
His mother nodded and hestitantly began to share with her children the story of Claude Brousson.
Brousson was a Huguenot lawyer living in Toulouse who took a special interest in taking on the cases of Christians in his city. After Louis XIV passed his decree against the Huguenots, Brousson could no longer practice law and was forced to flee. While on the run he decided to use his voice to spread the gospel in France. This was a dangerous decision to make.
He found refuge in the wilds of the Cevennes mountains, making his home in abandoned huts or under the stars in the woods and ravines that spread out over the area. While living here he began to send out invitations to other Huguenots in the area to gather together for secret worship services. The King soon learned about the secret meetings and sent men to hunt Brousson down and capture him.
In order to escape, Brousson fled France but his heart longed for the little flock of people he had been ministering to. Before long he returned to France, eager to carry on his mission of keeping the gospel flame alive. Once more he was hunted and once more like the Prophet Elijah had done centuries before, he found refuge in the wilderness. Often he would sit under a spreading oak tree or by a gushing stream to write his sermons. He would then preach them to the poor, discouraged Huguenots, hungry for the precious light of Bible truth.
The King was determined to capture him and finally after months of searching he was taken prisoner. He was brought to Montpellier where he was charged with preaching the gospel to the Protestant outlaws. He was sentenced to death and martyred on the 4th of November 1698 amidst the loud beating of 18 drums.
The images of Claude Brousson lingered in Antoine’s young mind as his mother’s story came to an end. Quietly he drifted back to the present, his eyes fixed on the dancing flames beside him. Staring at the flames he vowed that he would never let anything or anyone force him to renounce any part of the Protestant faith of the Huguenots.
“What about the war Maman?” His brother’s voice made him snap to attention
“Yes,” he said abruptly, finding his own voice “What about the war of the Camisards? How did that start?”
The war was a subject of much conversation in every Huguenot family and the Court household was no exception. The war of the Camisards had begun in 1702 and was still raging fiercely around them. A feverish excitement hung in the air and many Huguenots were hopeful that the war would bring them the freedom they so deeply longed for. But not everyone shared these sentiments. Many Huguenots did not think that war was the solution to their problems.
Marie Court was silent for a moment as she contemplated how much she should tell her young children.
“The war began because many of the Huguenots were desperate for freedom” she finally said, measuring her words “They were tired of not having freedom of conscience and felt that war was the answer”
“What does freedom of conscience mean Maman?” Antoine asked.
“It means that you have the freedom to live and worship according to your own conscience, that still small voice in your head that the Holy Spirit uses to speak to you”
“But how can anyone control someone else’s conscience?” Antoine’s sister asked
“Well they can’t, no one can read your thoughts except God but the Catholic church has tried to control how we worship for many centuries. The persecutions we face today are not new. Other Huguenots that lived before us faced similar persecutions too and they chose to submit to God alone”
Marie paused as she turned the matter over in her head. The heart of the issue the Huguenots had faced for centuries was religious freedom.
“So how did the war start?” Antoine’s brother asked
“Well, there was once a very tyrannical priest by the name of Du Chaila…”
As his mother began yet another story Antoine shifted himself into a more comfortable position and settled in.
Du Chaila was appointed as the Inspector of Missions in the region of the Cevennes. He had recently returned from a missionary trip to Siam and was placed in the Cevennes in the hope that the Huguenots could be converted to Catholicism by his particular talents. In this region, Du Chaila moved from place to place until he settled in the little town of Pont-de-Montvert. Here he was given the home of a former Huguenot who had been martyred for his faith and here he set up his base of operations. He had eight other young priests living with him and together they formed a missionary team. From Pont-de-Montvert Du Chaila and his priests travelled from place to place throughout the Cevennes.
He would preach, conduct inspections and interrogate Huguenots, treating them worse than animals wherever he went. Before long he converted the cellars under his home into dungeons which he used as prisons for the Huguenots.
Every day he would creep into the dungeons to torture his prisoners. For a while, he was able to continue his reign of terror without resistance but soon the Huguenots of the Cevennes began to grow restless and frustrated by his cruelty. His friends began to warn him that his behaviour would get him into trouble with the people.
“The way you treat Huguenots,” his cousin remarked to him one day “it almost seems like you are trying to work towards a promotion. Perhaps you have your eye on being a bishop?” when he was greeted with silence he continued “But I fear that your expectations will be disappointed if you continue like this. You will soon become a victim of your cruelty”
“What happened to him?” Antoine broke into the story.
His mother smiled at him “If you’re patient, you’ll find out soon enough” she teased
Antoine grinned and settled back to listen and his mother continued the story
In July of 1702, a group of Huguenots decided that they had had enough of Du Chaila’s tyranny and decided that they would escape to Geneva. The group of men and women enlisted the help of a man named Massip. Massip was a guide who had led many other groups of Huguenots safely across the mountains into Switzerland.
On the morning of their departure, they gathered at the appointed meeting place. The women were disguised as men and they each had a horse. They chose a route that was not particularly well known and made their way over the mountain trails on horseback. Du Chaila heard of their escape and sent his men to capture them. They were captured and sent to Pont-de-Montvert, where Du Chaila interrogated them. He sent the women away to prisons in Mende and he threw the men into the dungeons underneath his home where he tortured them mercilessly.
When the relatives of the captured Huguenots heard about it they hurried to Du Chaila to plead for their release but the priest was like a mad man and refused to show mercy.
“They will receive the full penalty of the law” he shrieked angrily “to the galleys they will go as slaves and their guide, Massip will be sent to the gallows and hanged!”
A week later a group of angry Huguenots, led by Pierre Seguier entered the town of Pont-de-Montvert in search of Du Chaila. It was ten o’clock at night when they arrived in the town, singing a battle hymn at the top of their voices. The people of the town huddled around their windows, holding their candles aloft, to see what the commotion was all about. When the Huguenots saw the shadows against the windows they held up their pistols against the light of their torches. The entire town was gripped with a sense of expectation and fear.
For his part, Du Chaila at first thought the commotion was a group of Huguenots organising a nightly meeting. He ordered his servants to go down and break up the gathering. But by the time his men had gathered themselves the Huguenots were already inside Du Chaila’s front garden.
In unison, they chanted “The Prisoners! The Prisoners!”
Peeping out of a window and seeing the group of men with their torches and pistols Du Chaila shouted: “be off, be off you rascally Huguenots!”
Soon there was terrible confusion everywhere. Shouts and gunshots broke the still night air and the Huguenots rushed to break into Du Chaila’s house and free the prisoners. That night the Huguenots killed Du Chaila.
“And that is how the war began?” Antoine asked
“Yes son, that is how the war began”
The three children were quiet as they absorbed the information their mother had given them. All around them the war was still being fought. They had become so accustomed to living in the midst of it that it almost seemed like second nature for them to duck and hide and be on the lookout for priests and soldiers.
Sometimes at night, they could hear the sound of gunshots echoing in the distance and their imaginations would conjure up images of what the battle was like. Antoine’s eyes wandered back to the fireplace as he thought over everything he had heard that evening.
His mother knelt down beside them and smiled. “It is time to say our prayers and get ready for bed my dear ones,” she said reaching out to ruffle Antoine’s hair. He smiled at her and shifted on to his knees.
That night, as he settled into bed, Antoine’s mind kept going over the stories he had heard again and again. He didn’t think that fighting was the solution, the war was not something he was fond of. But what other options do we have? He asked himself as he lay quietly in the darkness listening to the steady breathing of his family around him.
How can my people ever be free?