Eugene Bersier (1831-1899AD)

Eugene Bersier

Reformed pastor and preacher of France.


TO read such sermons as those composing this volume is a great pleasure; to hear them preached a high privilege. The orator cannot be printed, and Eugene Bersier is an orator of the loftiest rank. It was in the Oratory in the Rue de Rivoli, of Paris, that it was my joy to hear the man with whose “winged words” I had already, through the press, become familiar. That church has a history, and I was glad that there I first heard Bersier. It stands near the spot where the St. Bartholomew massacre com­menced and Coligny fell. It was built in the seventeenth century by Pierre de Berulle, who had first consecrated himself to the conversion of Protestants, and afterwards endeavoured to extirpate Protestantism, and to destroy the political power of the Huguenots. He had already founded convents of the order of St. Therese, and the congregation of the Oratorians—whence the name of the church. For nearly two centuries it had been in the occupation of the Church of Rome, but the building was appropriated by the Government of Napoleon to the worship of the Reformed Church, which had previously been celebrated in the Church of St. Louis du Louvre, then about to be taken down. The pulpit, where preached the Jesuit Bourdaloue, and the Oratorians Massillon and Mascaron, has been no less memorably occupied by Adolphe Monod and Bersier.

As I linger, waiting for the reader to finish the chapter, and for Bersier to appear, I try to picture to myself the place filled by the court of Le Grand Monarque, listening to Massillon’s marvellous eloquence and pointed rebukes. In those pews, or hidden in those deep recesses, royal and courtly sinners saw themselves in their true characters, and trembled in view of a judgment to come. The church is a spacious edifice, with a number of recesses all around, and a large gallery at the end. The pulpit is at one side, half-way down the church; it has a heavy sounding-board, and a deep green fringe depending from it, shading the face of the preacher. I wished it had been away, for it destroyed ofttimes the expression on the face; and the face of Bersier is one on which the eye rests with satisfaction. It is a firm, manly countenance, with somewhat of the expression and com­manding force of the first Napoleon. He was arrayed in the Geneva gown, and stood ready to point the sinful to Christ, or to enter the lists with the sceptic or atheist in the city which is a centre of unbelief.

Of course the writer was prepared to appreciate the measured, stately utterance, the intense fervour, the cultured emphasis and impassioned rhetoric of which Bersier is a perfect master. I have heard him at other places, but have never felt more powerfully his pulpit eloquence. Pencil and notebook had to be laid aside, and eyes and ears riveted on the speaker.

Many of his references were evidently caught readily by the congregation, for they were adapted to the times and place. Bersier seemed to realise that he was speaking within a stone’s throw of the spot where the massacre of St. Bartholomew began, and under the shadow of the tower from which the tocsin of slaughter sounded.

How stirringly further on he spoke of the office of the preacher. He has evidently an enthusiasm for his vocation, and at the same time he has a knowledge of the dangers and temptations that beset the man who succeeds in the pulpit. Here are a few sentences, jotted down rapidly, and carrying with them warning and encouragement. He spoke of how Christ went up into a moun­tain to pray, after the attempt of the multitude to hail Him as King, as an example for all His servants, and said: “if any are liable to be deceived by the allurements of the world, or the fickle breath of popularity, let them hide away to some solitary place of prayer, and by communion with Heaven conquer the entanglements of earth. . . . God has confidence in His own truth. He will ensure its triumph. God is love, justice, mercy. The Gospel is nothing else. It is to bless the world. The simple preacher and pastor has to spread this Gospel. He has to have faith in it, even though persecution dis­perse the flocks and harass the herd. . . . Ecclesiastical corruption must wither in face of that truth which is liberal, generous, and free. . . . God could have built up His Church, free from evil and corruption, by miracle, had He so willed it, but He has left it to pass through temptation, and to be purified by trial. It will find out in time, that it is not by alliance with the world, not by seeking political power, not by the voice of the multitude, but by the power of the Cross that it will conquer. . . . Christ has not said, ‘Go, preach My Gospel: you shall have the help of men, dominion from men, popu­larity from men, approval of men;’ but, ‘Go, preach My Gospel: for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ Yet why does the Kingdom of God delay? O heavenly King, let Thy power descend! Let not the heavens be closed to your cry!”

How the orator’s face glowed and his voice gained greater force as he spoke further of the opposition from Voltaire and Strauss. He defied them, asserting that “the accounts of Christ’s life are too real and sublime to have been the work of the human imagination;” while he exulted with those who are not troubled by these problems, having experience of Christ’s power. They do not say, “Christianity is seized with despair, because they know never man spake like Christ. In Him they see living truth and their incarnate God.”

Fearlessly and scathingly in that luxurious city of Paris, Bersier upbraids selfishness and indifference to the ills of others. One is glad that such a preacher has such influence, and that with boldness he denounces the “shining sins” of the gay, the wealthy, and the worldly. Fashion would doubtless close its eyes when listening, but it must have writhed under such sarcasm as the following:—“You suffer at the contact with misery? Ah! what is your suffering, I ask, in comparison with that of those who must live and die in the atmosphere which you cannot breathe an instant without disgust?”

The great French orator is not a mere rhetorician, but a thinker. His sermons are not thrown into the form that has obtained so widely in our own pulpits, but they are logical throughout. Moreover, they are full of sympathy and throbbing with life. This all who look in this volume will find, and it is believed that they have only to be presented to English readers in suitable guise to become as popular as those of the best English discourses. It will be seen that Bersier speaks the truth, and that with tremendous force, for his sentences are often like forked lightning.

We cannot wonder, when listening to him, that the small religious meetings held in the evening at the west end of Paris, just after the war, grew so rapidly that a large church, costing £20,000, had to be erected. It stands in the Avenue de la Grande Armée, near to the Arc de Triomphe, and is called “L’Eglise de l’Etoile.” It is a chaste Gothic edifice, with pews far more comfortable than those of the church in the Rue de Rivoli, and a pulpit less contracted and gloomy. The whole of the wide space on which stands the table of communion is covered by a carpet of great cost, all wrought in wool by ladies; and the vestry is furnished with exquisite taste, and hung with portraits of some of the noblest men of the Huguenot Church. A liturgy is used in the service. It has been composed by M. Bersier, and is highly prized by the people.

This great French orator is descended from refugees who fled from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, but he was born in Switzerland, and has adopted France as his country. After being trained at Geneva he went to America, where he came under the influence of some of the foremost preachers of the Republic; and the influence of this American sojourn is often detected in the method and matter of his sermons. When returning to Europe, he went to Geneva, where, under Drs. Gaussen and Merle d’Aubigne, he gained a knowledge of systematic theology. He also studied at Halle and Göttingen, and came into association with Thöluck, Müller, and Dorner.

The life of Dr. Bersier, owing to the terrible war of 1870, has evidently been a stirring one. During those dreary months of the siege of Paris, he was one of the principal organisers of the Ambulance Service, and was present in all the conflicts that raged close around the beleaguered city. In conjunction with M. de Pressensé, he had to act as “political moderator” during the time that the Commune held its disastrous sway in Paris. Gazing on the firm face of the orator, it was easy to see that there was will and daring enough in that man to hold his own, even against a Felix Pyatt. What slaughter, misery, terror, the intervention of Bersier supported by Pressensé must have saved! The interest in listening to him is increased by trying to imagine something of what he had witnessed and passed through. While swept away by the rhetoric, one feels that there is behind the rhetoric the force of conviction, and of a large experience. He has a definite spiritual aim, and we can only hope that he will be long spared to preach the Gospel of Christ to the people of France; and that his spoken words, re-echoed through the press on this side the Channel, may bring spiritual strength and stimulus to thousands.

















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