In the Cevennes, the Protestant spirit is still alive

In the Cevennes, the Protestant resistance spirit is still alive.

This week-end in Strasbourg , The French Protestants celebrate the 500 years of the Reform.
Is was in October 1517 that Luther published his 95 thesis against the indulgences. In Mialet, historical ground of the Protestantism, the community keeps the traditions alive with care and reserve.

Ewes run, agile and fast on a difficult path cut deep into the grey granitic rocks. It is raining cats and dogs. ‘’ A blessing, says the shepherd, four months of draught! We have been waiting for this water…’’. His eyes are full of emotion, a reflection of these sparkling schist stones that seem alive all of a sudden; as if the austere Cevennes possessed an interior soul. Those mountains keep their secrets , though. One of them is deep in the shepherd’s bag. It’s a book. He never shows it. The pages are worn out, exhausted…. Here is a bible. Every day, month after month, year after year, this man reads it all the time. He who knows as how to talk to his herd, also discusses with God. But this private conversation, this shy farmer wouldn’t have revealed it. The knowledge came from an indiscreet question.

In the same vein, his prayer which happens far from the crowd. “ The ‘’ Our Father’’ is never the same prayer. I do interpret it every day, according to life and events that occur. ‘’. Grand-son and son of Protestant pastors, Jacques Verseils, 66, didn’t follow the family path, but he lives his Christian faith differently. His own pastoral life follows the steep steps of this rebel countryside and implies firm commitments. With his wife, Colette, they invite guests in their kitchen, warmed by a good wood fire. The ‘’ tic tac ‘’ of the high long clock rhythm the sleepy life of Paussanel, the close by hamlet. Nothing superfluous but the fare is generous, fed by the garden and the farm animals.
The house has been at the heart of the family for the last four centuries.

Thursday night, about twenty neighbours were here, in this household. They were having dinner , after having shared …… The Gospel according to Saint John an its famous prologue.’’ I am always amazed by this prologue says Jacques Verseils, everything is said in it ‘’.  A short discussion happened on the translation of one of the section of the Gospel, with five bibles translations on the table. That wasn’t enough , though and a sixth bible was fetched from the bedroom to resolve a specific meaning.

The bible , then and now ever present on this protestant land. ’’In organizing those biblical evenings, we want to renew with this old regional tradition, explains the shepherd. We don’t have a pre-established plan. We read the texts, and then we discuss.’’ Was there a common prayer? ‘’ No, we didn’t even think about that that. We have participants who are not believers, but seekers. I go the Temple o Sunday, but here we are outside the institution. In any case, this group is not ‘’Protestant’’ in the ecclesial meaning. We have invited people from our neighbourhood. They came. In our Cevennes, the neighbourhood was within half an hour of walking, now it’s half an hour of driving.

Initially this shepherd was a Professor of Literature and he is very well known in this rural area (finage). In the 1980, Jacques Verseils founded the Abraham Mazel association (Abraham Mazel was a figure of the local Protestantism). This association fought against a dam project in the region (and won). It also restored “la maison Mazel’’, his native home. The house has become a museum as well as a centre for conferences, training on the themes ‘’ Resistances ‘’ and ‘’ freedom of conscience’’. Jacques Verseils, though hesitates to qualify himself as a Protestant. For him, it is ‘’ the individual that counts, and not the external denomination, that’s the Protestant spirit I am trying to inspire’’. In his parish, he just founded “L’Entraide de Mialet ‘’ ( Mialet Assistance ). ‘’ Open to all’’, it is aimed to help the underprivileged populations.

Protestantism Bastion

The same commitment , but also the same religious restraint can be found in the village of Mialet itself. Philippe Herbster, 54 opens the door of the Mas Soubeyran, native home of another famous protestant named Rolland. The house is now the “ Musée du Désert ‘’ . The different rooms commemorate the Protestant epic story in the Cevennes. He narrates precisely and with a restraint passion, an history that gives a meaning to his life and moves the visitors deeply. More than 30.000 people visit the museum every year. Recently, a person named “Duhamel’’, American and Protestant was researching his French family roots. “But this house is not a pilgrim site, insists Philippe Herbster, not a place of worship and still less a sacred space. It is a remembrance site. Only God is  Holy ‘’.

So what happened in the Cevennes for that region to become such a sanctuary? It has always been a Protestantism bastion. Nearby Nimes’s population, for example, counted 85% of Protestants, Montpellier , 50%. Relatively spared by the Religion wars, the region became a strategic corner of the anti-protestant fight led by Louis XIV. When Mazarin died, in 1661, the Huguenots endured a century of fearsome persecutions. The ‘’ so called Reformed Religion “ as it was then known had to be annihilated. Seven hundred temples were destroyed between 1661 and 1665. Protestants were barred from Administrative jobs. This policy was formalized by the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, which cancelled the Edict of Nantes established by Henri IV in 1598, after his conversion to Catholicism. This edict gave the Reformation , freedom of conscience, access to all Public jobs, a relative worship freedom, and the development of strongholds ( Refuge ) such as la Rochelle or Montauban.

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes triggered the exile of the elite of the Protestant community. In regions with a strong farmer population like the Cevennes, reformed people stayed and went underground, helped by the rugged terrain.

From 1686, the Cevennes protestants, started to worship in the countryside, often at night, in secret. They named it ‘’ Le désert’’  in reference to the ordeals of the Hebrew people, who flew from Egypt. The Musée du Désert is full of objects from that period : tiny bibles that women hid in their hair, pulpits chairs hidden into barrels, cups for the Last Supper Celebration, lamps. The politic power then decided to send his regiments of Dragoons to intimidate the defiant and to eradicate the “heresy’’. When “Dragonnades’’ happened, the troops moved in with the local residents and then, pressured them by all means of intimidation , except killing to leave the Protestant faith and go back to the Catholic one. There were also village fires to chase the residents away, the famous “ brulements des Cevennes’’ ( Cevennes fires). Certain Protestant will give in, other will be sent to the Galleys , a lot will hide to resist.

It is then that the “Prophets” will rise. Often young people, also women who will call to the revolt with blazing preaches. From 1720, it will be called the war of the “CAMISARDS ‘’ as those rebelled Protestants will fight in white shirts against the King’s army. Abraham Mazel triggered this armed rebellion in July 1702, when he ordered the killing of a Catholic priest, the Abbé du Chaila, who was well known to persecute Protestants. The guerrilla, often heroic will last seven years. Twelve thousand people will lose their lives. Calm will only come with the Edict of Tolerance, established by Louis XVI in 1787 and then the Human Rights Declaration in August1789 , with article X on freedom of conscience. “In those conditions , conclude Philippe Herbster, the Protestant spirit is still weary and inclined to discretion as well as resistance’’. The verb “ Resister’’ is engraved in stone, traced by the hand of a Protestant woman jailed in the Tour de Constance, in Aigues-Mortes.

But this resistance spirit expresses itself within the current Protestantism. This week-end in Strasbourg, the whole French Protestantism should have been united to celebrate the 500 years of the Reform. The evangelists which represent ¾ of the believers , that is to say 700.000 Protestants decided to boycott the meeting. They affirm to have discovered ( at the last moment and without concertation) that a whole inclusive worship with homosexuals had been programmed for Friday night. Etienne Lhermenault, President of the National Council of the French Evangelists ( Cnef) has cancelled his participation. ‘’We are dismayed, he explains . As one of the essential elements of the Reform is the return to the Bible, the claims of the Christians LGBT groups seem contrary to the Bible’’. Eric Denimal who was an evangelist pastor in the Cevennes explains
‘’ What the evangelists reproach to the elitist Parisian protestants, is to insist on the Republican fervour, the living together rather than the spirituality, The old Protestant families have lost in the transmission and the militancy. But the spirit of resistance is also the resistance to an immoral world that confuses freedom and licentiousness. ‘’.