"On Her Lips the Psalms..." - S. Vanderploeg
From Clarion Volume 32, No. 12 June 17, 1983
The French Reformed Church of the sixteenth century suffered greatly at the hands of the Roman Church. Torture and burning of the believers was the order of the day. A once flourishing church was devastated.
"Such, then, is the estate, the picture of the Church,
With shackles on her feet, placed on the rack of Hell,
Around her neck the rope, and the inhuman iron
But on her lips the psalms and in her hand the lute."
So wrote the French Protestant poet, Agripa d'Aubigné, at the height of his country's persecution. The Huguenots driven from their homes sought to escape.
"0 shelter, Lord, this voice hoarsened by the rains
And make these fingers free that on your lute would play."
The recently discovered American continent offered such a shelter, and several attempts were made to establish a safe haven for the persecuted Huguenots.
Geneva in the Wilderness
The Brazilian settlement seemed to offer the sought-for escape and the dreamed-of peace. The island Coligny in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro, settled by Villegagnon in 1555, was in need of colonists. For that reason Villegagnon wrote letters to France and to Geneva. "When the letters had been received and read, the Genevese, desirous of the advancement of their religion, gave public thanks to God that they saw the way prepared to establish their doctrine in those parts, and to cause the light of the Gospel to shine among these barbarous tribes, who were without law, without religion."
The Genevan consistory decided the following, "In consequence of receipt of a letter requesting this church to send ministers to the new islands, which the French had conquered, M. Pierre Richer and Guillaume Charretier were elected. These two were subsequently commended to the care of the Lord and sent off with a letter from this church." On the urgings of Admiral de Coligny and the Genevan churches, Monsieur du Pont took charge of the expedition. The company, including the theological students capable of doing mission work, set sail and arrived in Brazil on March 7, 1557.
In his word of welcome Villegagnon restated the purpose of the colony, and that was "to establish a retreat for the poor faithful who may be persecuted in France, in Spain, and in other countries beyond the sea, in order that without fear, whether of king, or of emperor, or of other potentates, they may be able to serve God with a pure heart according to His will."
After the ceremony the company "entered into a small hall in the centre of the island, and sang the 5th Psalm which in Marot's translation begins: 'Aux paroles que je veux dire,' which was followed by a sermon, in which the Minister Richer took for text these verses of the 26th Psalm: 'One thing have I desired of the LORD, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.'"
For a while things went well. Everyone was engaged in the building of the fort, the daily struggle for survival, and the initial exploration of the mainland.
One day, Jean de Lery, accompanied by several Indians, travelled from the island to the mainland to fetch supplies and other necessary things. De Lery gives the following account, "We passed through a great forest. The many different, green and sweet smelling trees, plants and flowers, together with the songs of the countless songbirds amid the sunlit trees, moved me. I thought, 'What an invitation to praise God for all these things.' Filled with happiness I began to sing in a loud voice Psalm 104: "0 bless the LORD, my soul, and praise His name.'"
His companions, delighted and Impressed, complimented him on his singing, but not having understood the words asked for an explanation. "I was very glad to hear this and I explained as well as I could that I had not only in general praised my God for the beauty and government, but also in particular had ascribed all this to Him; that He alone gives food to all men and animals; that He makes the trees, fruits, and plants grow all over the world. Moreover that this song, dictated by the Spirit of this God, was first sung by one of our great prophets, who left it for us to be used for the same purpose."
The Indians listened attentively. After half an hour or so they gave the following comment: "0 how happy you Mairs (Europeans) are to know so many secrets that are hidden from us poor, miserable people."
A complete about-face by Villegagnon, from a protector of the persecuted Protestants to a zealous champion of the Church of Rome, brought the colony, begun in hope, to a disastrous end. The same people he had welcomed as "my children" were now persecuted as heretics and rebels. Three of the colonists - Pierre Bourdon, Jean du Bordel, and Mathieu Verneuil - were sentenced to death by drowning. "Thus Villegagnon was the first to shed the blood of God's children in that newly discovered country; and he has been called the Cain of America."
Florida, the Promised Land
In 1562 Admiral de Coligny sent out two ships with colonists under the command of Jean Ribaut. He settled his people at Port Royal in South Carolina and returned to France for reinforcements. In his absence the colonists revolted and made their way back to France in a home-made leaky craft. Ribaut's attempts to interest the English Calvinists in the settlement failed, and the scheme for a Protestant colony in North America was temporarily abandoned. In 1564 a new company, this time under René de Laudonnière, sailed to Florida. On arrival, the company gathered to thank God. "There we sang praises to the Lord, beseeching Him that of His holy grace He would be pleased to continue His accustomed goodness to us, and henceforth help us in all our undertakings, in such wise that the whole might redound to His glory, and the furtherance of our faith. Prayers ended, each one began to take courage."
The next day "they were raised at daybreak by the sound of trumpet and after singing a psalm they set themselves to their task." The first task was the building of a fort, Fort Caroline on the St. John's River. The work must have been accompanied by much psalm singing judging by the account of the colony written by Chaleux "The simpleminded children of the forest were especially captivated by the sonorous singing in which the Huguenots perpetually indulged."
The location of the fort, on the route taken by the Spanish treasure ships, and the presence of the hated heretics near Spanish possessions, brought an end to the happiness. Philip II ordered Pedro Menedez de Aviles to wipe out the French colony. In August 1565 the Spanish and the French met. Menedez asked, "Are you Catholics or Lutherans?" and "is there any among you who will do confession?" Ribaut, who just recently had rejoined the colony answered, "I and all here are of the Reformed faith." The French company sang Psalm 59. After that Ribaut continued: "We are of the earth and to the earth we must return; twenty years more or less can matter little."
In the ensuing battle Ribaut was killed and most of the French colony slaughtered. Laudonnière was one of the few who escaped to get back to France. The hoped-for "promised land" turned out to be yet another desert. Even though the colony had been destroyed, the memory of the French, especially their songs, lingered for a long time. "Europeans, cruising along the coast or landing upon the shore, would be saluted (by the Indians) with some snatch of French Psalm uncouthly rendered by Indian voices."
Nicholas Le Challeux (1579) writes that the Indians "yet retain such happy memories that when someone lands on their shore the most endearing greeting that they know how to offer is 'Du fond de ma pensée' (Ps. 130), or 'Bienheureux est qui conqués' (Ps. 138), which they say as if to ask the watchword, 'Are you French or not?' "
A Matter of Principle, Canada
Although the French settlements in Canada were commercial, there is historical evidence of psalm-singing on and off the shores of Canada. "Many of the ships that visited the fishing banks or cruised along the shores of the St. Lawrence, were owned by Huguenot merchants and manned by Huguenot sailors, whose loud voices were often heard, to the indignation of all good Catholics, as they joined lustily in singing Clement Marot's psalms."
The Reformed worship services on board the ships were held publicly. The prayers and the singing of the psalms, done in the forecastle, were loud enough to drown out the chanting of the priest as he was saying mass in another part of the ship. This practice brought Guillaume de Caen, who had received the trade monopoly of New France in 1622, into difficulties with his stockholders and the new viceroy, Duc de Ventadour. His Lordship "was dissatisfied with Sieur de Caen, owing to the report which had reached him that he had caused the prayers of their so-called religion to be said publicly within the river St. Lawrence, and had desired the Catholics to attend them, a thing which His Lordship had forbidden him to do."
On the return to New France, Guillaume, forced to stay behind, passed the viceroy's instructions concerning the singing of the psalms in the St. Lawrence River on to his brother Emery. Champlain gives the following account: "We weighed anchor and set sail with favourable wind. In the evening the said Emery assembled his crew and informed them that His Grace, the Duc of Ventadour, did not wish them to sing their psalms in the Great River, as they had done at sea. They began to murmur and say that they ought not be deprived of that liberty." The result was the first recorded "strike" in Canadian history. Cooler heads, however, prevailed, and a compromise was reached. As Champlain writes: "Finally it was agreed that they should not sing their psalms, but that they should assemble for prayers, since nearly two thirds of them were Huguenots. And so out of a bad debt one gets what one can."
An American Postscript
Many Huguenots had found a safe haven in The Netherlands. This country's proximity to France, however, gave some of them a feeling of insecurity. It was for that reason that a number of families, under Lois du Bois, decided to immigrate to the New World. They settled in Dutch held territory near the Hudson River.
One day their village, Wiltwyck, was attacked by the Indians, and many of the inhabitants were taken captive. After three months a rescue party succeeded in freeing them. Charles Baird writes in History of the Huguenots: "Tradition represents the pious Walloons as cheering the tedious hours of their bondage with Marot's psalms. When rescued by their friends, just as the savages were about to slaughter them, they were entertaining their captors, and obtaining a momentary reprieve, by singing the 137th Psalm;
"Along the streams of Babylon, in sadness
We sat and wept, remembering Zion's gladness,
For there our captors did our songs require."
Baird, Charles, History of the Huguenot Emigration to America.
De Champlain, Samuel, Voyage de la Nouvelle France.De Lery, Jean, Histoire de l'Amérique.
Le Challeux, Nicholas, Bref Discours et Histoire d'un voyage de quelques Francois en la Floride.
Lescarbot, Marc, Histoire de la Nouvelle France.