1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Preachers

(Part 54)


17th Century Preachers

When we think of Gallican theology during the 17th century, it is always with the famous pulpit orators of the period that thought is most busied. Nor is this unjust, for though the most prominent of them all, Bossuet (1627-1704), was remarkable as a writer of matter intended to be read, not merely as a speaker of matter intended to be heard, this double character is not possessed by most of the orthodox theologians of the time ; and even Bossuet, great as is his genius, is more of a rhetorician than of a philosopher or a theologian. In no quarter was the advance of culture more remarkable in France than in the pulpit. We have already had occasion to notice the characteristics of French pulpit eloquence in the 15th and 16th centuries. Though this was very far from destitute of vigour and imagination, the political frenzy of the preachers, and the habit of introducing anecdotic buffoonery, spoilt the eloquence of Maillard and of Raulin, of Boucher and of Rose. The powerful use which the Reformed ministers made of the pulpit stirred up their rivals; the advance in science and classical study added weight and dignity to the matter of their discourses. The improvement of prose style and language provided them with a suitable instrument, and the growth of taste and refinement purged their sermons of grossness and buffoonery, of personal allusions, and even, as the monarchy became more absolute, of direct political purpose. The earliest examples of this improved style were given by St Francis de Sales and by Fenoullet, bishop of Marseilles (d. 1652) ; but it was not till the later half of the century, when the troubles of the Fronde had completely subsided, and the church was established in the favour of Louis XIV., that the full efflorescence of theological eloquence took place. There were at the time pulpit orators of considerable excellence in England, and perhaps Jeremy Taylor, assisted by the genius of the language, has wrought a vein more precious than any which the somewhat academic methods and limitations of the French teachers allowed them to reach. But no country has ever been to show a more magnificent concourse of orators, sacred or profane, than that formed by Bossuet Fénelon (1651-1715), Flechier (1632-1710), Mascaron (1634-1703), Bourdaloue (1632-1704), and Massillon (1663-1742), to whom may be justly added the Protestant divines Claude (1619-1687) and Saurin (1677-1730). The characteristics of all these were different. Bossuet, the earliest and certainly the greatest, was also the most universal. He was not merely a preacher; he was, as we have said, a controversialist, indeed somewhat too much of a controversialist, as his battle with Fénelon proved. He was a philosophical or at least a theological historian, and his Discours sur l’ Histoire Universelle is equally remarkable from the point of view of theology, philosophy, history, and literature. Turning to theological politics, he wrote his Politique tirée de l’Écriture Sainte, to theology proper his Méditations sur les Évangiles and his Élevations sur les Mystères. Bu his principal work, after all, is his Oraisons Funèbres. The funeral sermon was the special oratorical exercise of the time. Its subject and character invited the gorgeous I somewhat theatrical commonplaces, the display of historical knowledge and parallel, and the moralizing analogies, in which the age specially rejoiced. It must also be noticed to the credit of the preachers that such occasions gave them opportunity, of which they rarely failed to avail themselves, of correcting the adulation which was but to frequently characteristic of the period. The spirit of these composition is fairly reflected in the most famous and often quoted of their phrases, the opening "Mes Frères, Dieu seul est grand" of Massillon’s funeral discourse on Louis XIV.; and though panegyric is necessarily by no means absent, it is rarely carried beyond bounds. While Bossuet made himself chiefly remarkable in his sermons and in his writings by an almost Hebraic grandeur and rudeness, the more special characteristic of Christianity, largely alloyed with a Greek and Platonic spirit, displayed themselves in Fénelon. A successor of St Francis de Sales, he found that even a previous canonization was not a safeguard for imitators. The Maximes des Saints of Fénelon, and later his Mémoires Particuliers and Directions pour la Conscience d’un Roi, were distinguished not only by a mystical theology which was not relished, but also by a very moderate admiration for despotic government. In pure literature Fénelon is not less remarkable than in theology, politics, and morals. His practice in matters of style was admirable, as the universally known Télémaque sufficiently shows to those who know notibng else of his writing. But his taste, both in its correctness and its audacity, is perhaps more admirable still. Despite of Malherbe, Balzac, Boileau, and the traditions of nearly a century, he dared to speak favourably of Ronsard, and plainly expressed his opinion that the practice of his own contemporaries and predecessors had cramped and impoverished the French language quite as much as they had polished or purified it. The other doctors whom we have mentioned were more purely theological than the accomplished archbishop of Cambray. Flécher is somewhat more archaic in style than Bossuet or Fénelon, and he is also more definitely a rhetorician then either. Mascaron has the older fault of prodigal and somewhat indiscriminate erudition. But the two latest of the series Bourdalou and Massillon, had far the greatest repute in their own time purely as orators, and perhaps deserved this preference. The difference between the two repeated that between Du Peron Sales. Bourdaloue’s great forte was vigorous argument and unsparing denunciation, but he is said to have been lacking in the power of influencing and affecting his hearers. His attraction was purely intellectual, and it is reflected in his style, which is clear and forcible, but destitute of warmth and colour. Massillon, on the other hand, was remarkable for his pathos, and for his power of enlisting and influencing the sympathies of his hearers. The two Protestant ministers whom we have mentioned, though inferior to their rivals yet deserve honourable mention among the ecclesiastical writers of the period. Claude engaged in a controversy with Bossuet, in which victory is claimed for the invincible eagle of Meaux. Saurin by far the greater preacher of the two, long continued to occupy, and indeed still occupies, in the libraries of French Protestants the position given to Bossuet and Massillon on the other side.

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