By Wayne C. Johnson
Geneva’s fall from grace was a top-down affair, cheered by her seminaries and blessed by her ministers. The proximate cause was the influence of the seminary across the border in Saumur, France, where ministerial students returning to Geneva questioned the old Evangelical Calvinism of earlier times. The previous generation had witnessed Voltaire taking up residence and Rousseau a frequent visitor. In time, Cartesian philosophy replaced theology, and rationalism virtually expunged heartfelt religion among the pastors.
While skeptics challenged the Bible, the Genevese pastors solved the problem in 1805 by commissioning a new translation, removing or altering troublesome texts. Creeds and catechisms that proclaimed salvation through the atoning work of Christ were also embarrassing to the new thinking, and so instruction of Geneva’s youth fell by the wayside.
Great effort was taken to expunge references to the deity of Christ and the persons of the Trinity in the new Bible. Here was a Jesus who could be held up as a good example without what the Genevese preachers considered the embarrassing claims of divinity.
Yet God left not His truth without a witness, for three pastors in the National Church of Geneva still clung to a semblance of the old evangelical doctrines of the Reformation. Their names were Cellerier, Moulinie and Peschier. There had also been a quiet group of Moravian Brethren who offered a home to those fleeing the cold, unbelieving rationalism that dominated the official churches.
It was into such a city that an Englishman named Robert Haldane ventured in the year 1816. Haldane’s own conversion is a remarkable testimony to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, which was then so unpopular in Geneva.
As J.I. Good relates Haldane’s conversion and subsequent time in Geneva (from which the details of this account are drawn), he begins with his sibling:
“His younger brother, James, had entered the British navy and risen to the position of captain in one of the war-ships.
“On one occasion, being engaged in a warmly-contested battle, he saw all his men on deck swept off by a tremendous broadside from the enemy. He ordered another company to be piped up from below to take the place of their fallen companions. On coming up they saw the mangled remains strewn upon deck and were seized with a sudden and irresistible panic. On seeing this, the captain jumped up and swore a horrid oath, imprecating the vengeance of Almighty God upon the whole of them and wishing that they all might sink to hell.
“An old marine, a pious man, stepped up to him. He respectfully touched his hat and said, ‘Captain, I believe God hears prayer, and if God had heard your prayer just now, what would have become of us?’ Having spoken this he made a respectful bow and retired to his place.
“After the engagement the captain calmly reflected upon the words of the old marine and was deeply affected by them that he was subsequently converted. Of course, he informed his brother, Robert, who was an infidel, of his conversion. The latter was greatly offended, and requested him never to enter his house till he had changed his views.
“‘Very well,’ said James, ‘but I have one comfort in this case, and that is, you cannot prevent my praying for you,’ and holding out his hand, he bade him goodbye. His brother, Robert, was so affected by this that he could not get rid of the idea that his brother was praying for him.”
The Lord used the prayers of his brother to lead Robert Haldane to Christ, after which he devoted his life to the support of missions. It was on a return voyage from India, where he had been rejected in his goal to serve as a missionary, that Haldane stopped first in Paris and then Geneva. Distressed by the cold rationalism that had extinguished evangelical Christianity, Haldane came into contact with Moulinie. Though gracious, Moulinie offered Haldane little in the way of encouragement that much could be done. He did offer an English-speaking theological student to serve as a guide to the city for him. Like his brother, the student was named James.
Conversing as they toured the city, Haldane was amazed that the young pastoral student was unfamiliar with the essentials of the gospel, confessing that he had never heard such things in his lectures. Young James returned to his quarters and shared the new things he had heard with a fellow student, Charles Rieu.
Merle D’Aubigne, renowned for his later works as a church historian, was at the time a student at Geneva. He had, in fact, led the student protest against a fellow student who had defended the divinity of Christ. Now, he too, fell under the powerful sway of the Spirit’s work in Geneva.
Writing later, D’Aubigne recounts Rieu’s telling of his meeting with Haldane: “I first learned of Mr. Haldane as a Scotch gentleman who spoke much about the Bible, which seemed a very strange thing to me and to other students to whom it was a closed book. I afterward met Mr. Haldane at a private house, along with some friends, and heard him read from the English Bible a chapter from Romans about the natural corruption of man – a doctrine of which I had never heard before. In fact, I was quite astonished to hear of men being corrupted by nature. I remember saying to Mr. Haldane, ‘Now I see that doctrine in the Bible.’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but do you see it in your heart?’ That simple question came home to my conscience like the sword of the Spirit. I saw my heart was corrupted and could be saved by grace alone.”
Haldane began holding lectures twice weekly and soon the initial group of eight students swelled to 20, and then 30. The faculty of the seminary was appalled, and one professor went so far as to linger outside the meetings and write down the names of those attending to report them.
But as Haldane instructed them simply out of the book of Romans (which many of these theological students confessed they had never read): “The scales fell from their eyes, as from Saul’s at Damascus. New doctrines, new peace, and new life came to them. Learners at these meetings, some of them went out to be teachers. Thus Guers, Pyt and others went and held religious services in the Place Molard, the spot where Froment first preached the Gospel in the days of the Reformation. Since the days of Francis Turretin, Pictet and Muarice [all notable champions of the faith], the council of God had not been spoken with such clearness and fullness in the city of Calvin, as by Haldane. … The question of 1817 at Geneva was the same as under Luther in 1517 at Wittenburg, ‘How shall man be just with God?'”
One of the pastors in the city named Malan had been ordained in 1810 at the age of 23, largely ignorant of what the gospel was all about. He relates how when visiting a Waldensian pastor in another town, he had been asked to preach.
After the sermon, the Waldensian brother said to him, “It appears to me that you have not learned that to convert others, you must yourself be converted. Your sermon was not a Christian discourse, and I sincerely hope my people did not understand it.”
Back in Geneva, he came into contact with Moulinie and Haldane and was introduced, by stages, into the elements of the gospel.
He began to study the Scriptures and, “One afternoon, while reading the New Testament at my desk in school … I turned to Ephesians, the second chapter, and came to the words, ‘By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.’ The passage seemed to shine before my eyes. I was so moved that I was compelled to leave the room and take a walk in the courtyard, where I walked up and down with the intense enjoyment, saying, ‘I am saved, I am saved.”
On May 5 and 6, 1817, Malan stood in the pulpit at St. Gervais Church in Geneva and preached salvation by grace through faith. The congregation was at first restless, but soon became openly hostile.
As he left the church, Good records that it was Haldane who alone grasped his hand and said, “Thank God the gospel has again been preached in Geneva.”
The rebuilding of the wall in Geneva is one of trial and setbacks, yet a story crowned with God’s blessing. A believing church would rise from the ashes of rationalism and flourish for generations. Malan would be deposed from the ministry for his sermon, build a “Chapel of Testimony” where he would preach, until eventually uniting with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Good and D’Aubigne are the two most accessible historians of the descendents of the Reformation, and in Good’s retelling of Robert Haldane’s moving testimony, he does what he does so often – he connects what he tells us to the familiar and beloved. It is in telling us of what happened to Malan that we find the following poignant reminder of the marvelous Providence of God, Who works all things according to the counsel of His own will.
Malan was visiting the British Isles when he was introduced to Charlotte Elliot, a prominent satirist who had been bedridden with a degenerative disease. Never shy to inquire into the state of another’s soul, Malan witnessed to her, and she is said to have resented it.
“What?” she had asked, “I, a sinful creature, come to Him?”
“Yes, replied Malan, ‘God wants you to come just as you are.'” And she did.
An old seaman rebukes the blasphemy of his captain, whom God saves. A captain prays for his brother, whom God saves. A brother from Scotland witnesses to a preacher in Geneva, whom God saves. A preacher from Geneva shares the gospel with a bedridden woman, whom God saves … and who takes up her pen again, only this time to pour out her heart in thankfulness, writing:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me.
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.