French Heroes of Faith

by David Sutherland

According to the dictionary, a hero is ‘a person admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities’. In the Lord’s grace, there have been countless heroes of the faith in France who have shown noble qualities and produced spiritual fruit. They served Him faithfully and courageously, in spite of many challenges and much opposition.

Most Christians, even those with a limited knowledge of French church history, would recognise the name John Calvin. Despite a relatively short life, having died in 1564 aged 54, the Lord used Calvin mightily and is still doing so through his many books. In 1964, the French post office issued a special stamp to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s death, and another stamp in 2009 for the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Bernard Palissy should have been murdered during the slaughter of thousands of Protestants in 1572. Thanks to God’s providence and with the help of Catherine de Medici, Mary Queen of Scots’ mother-in-law, this talented master glassmaker’s life was spared. However, he died a few years later of starvation in the Bastille, Paris’ infamous prison for the most notorious criminals. In 1654, Blaise Pascal – mathematician, inventor, physicist and philosopher – came to faith in Christ. From that time onwards, his motto was Scio cui credidi (I know in whom I have believed).

None of these heroes had much material wealth, unlike their 12th-century predecessor Pierre Waldo, a rich merchant from Lyon. He sold all he had, distributed food and clothing to the poor, and shared the Word of God with them. A spiritual awakening followed known as the Waldensian movement. As with many other groups of people called by the Lord, they suffered much persecution. Today, some European Christians link their spiritual roots to the Waldensians.

Martial Alba, with four other believers, was burned at the stake in the city centre in May 1553. Over a century later, in 1666, Louis-Isaac LeMaistre and a team of believers were translating the Bible into French when he was imprisoned for his faith but, not wanting to waste his time, he continued his work. Once complete, it was known as the Bible of Sacy. Louis XIV had 14,000 copies printed to give to Protestants so that they would convert to Catholicism! However, this translation became one of the first widely available French Bibles.

Others who suffered for their faith include: William Farel, evangelist and colleague of Calvin, 1489–1565; Louis de Berquin, a lawyer burned at the stake in 1529, aged only 39; and Théodore de Bèze, a French theologian who ministered in Geneva. A statue of de Bèze stands alongside those of Farel, Calvin, Knox and others on the Reformation Wall in Geneva. Marie Durand was arrested, while still a teenager, because the authorities could not find her brother, Pierre, a well-known preacher. Marie was also a believer, so she was sent to the Tour de Constance in the south of France where she was imprisoned for 38 years. During this time, her brother and father were arrested and killed. She never denied her faith but persevered in trusting the Lord with all her heart. She died in 1776, eight years after being released from prison. Her parents’ house is now a museum.

As with many other groups of people called by the Lord, they suffered much persecution.

A century later, Adolphe Monod served the Lord in the city of Lyon but was forced to resign when the members of his church told him to ‘Stop talking about God’s judgement of sin and sinners.’ He left Lyon and was blessed in other ministries. His Scottish wife, Hannah, née Honyman, continued to serve the Lord after her husband’s death at the age of 54 in 1856.

Faithful Service in the 20th Century

Ruben Saillens was born in 1855. He trained at a Bible college in London and preached regularly for Spurgeon. He became known as ‘the French Spurgeon’ and founded his own Bible college near Paris. One of the first lecturers he employed was Jules-Marcel Nicole. Born in Berlin in 1907, Nicole lectured at the Institut Biblique in Nogent-sur-Marne for 60 years. Shortly after his death, the town council named a street after this respected man of God. Many church leaders in France today owe a lot to Monsieur Nicole.

Donald Caskie, known as the Tartan Pimpernel, served the Lord in Paris until 1940 when he had to flee the capital. Believing that the Lord called him to stay in France, he was a member of the Pat O’Leary escape line that helped hundreds of British soldiers to escape from occupied France and return safely to Britain. He was betrayed, arrested and sentenced to death. However, after seven weeks of awaiting execution, the Lord intervened and the authorities transferred him to another prison. During the following months, he spent time in different French and Italian prisons where he was a faithful witness and other prisoners came to trust in the Lord. No longer having a Bible, he was sustained by meditating on the many verses that he had memorised.

During that same period, the inhabitants of a small village south of Saint-Etienne, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, were involved in the very risky business of hiding Jewish children. This activity was motivated by two local ministers, André Trocmé and Edouard Theis. During the Second World War, over 2,000 Jewish youngsters were given hospitality and protection by the families of this and neighbouring villages. After a period of imprisonment, Trocmé and Theis continued to lead dozens of families in the area, believers and non-believers, in their work of hiding Jewish children from the Nazi invaders. The town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was honoured after the war, receiving the title of ‘The Righteous among the Nations’ at the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Israel.

Born in Algeria in the 1930s, Alain Choiquier became a Christian through the ministry of Ralph Shallis who was mightily used of God. Nurtured in the faith by Shallis, Choiquier studied at the Insitut Biblique in Nogent-sur-Marne. God called him to serve as an evangelist. Through his books, radio programmes and sermons, many people came to Christ and churches were strengthened through his ministry.

In the 1960s, the Lord called Trifon Kalioudjoglou to lead the Emmaus Bible ministry in France. After Trifon’s retirement, Rebecca Moffitt took over the work and then asked my wife, Brigitte, to replace her in 2010.

During the 1980s and 1990s the Lord blessed church-planting efforts in different areas of France. These were often the initiatives of missionaries from the UK and the USA but always in conjunction with existing French churches or missions. Summer teams, such as GLO and OM, brought hundreds of young people each summer to evangelise France. Churches were either planted or greatly encouraged through the presence of these young people, keen to distribute tracts and to sing in the open air. Many of the churches planted during that period have grown considerably and planted other churches, whereas others, unfortunately, have disappeared. In some towns, evangelism is so difficult that some mission workers gave up and went elsewhere.

In January 1990, Stan Wilday was on a pedestrian crossing with a bundle of tracts that he was putting into letter boxes in the town of Aix-les-Bains when he was knocked down and killed by a young lady on a scooter. His widow Mary, who celebrated her 102nd birthday in 2021, has remained a faithful prayer warrior for the Lord.

Many others, who have continued in this heritage, including some associated with Echoes International, are all with the Lord now. Malcolm Coombes and John Hanley, faithful witnesses to Muslims for many years; Colin Porteous, a man who had an extraordinary knowledge of the Word of God; and Peter Wheeler who encouraged the use of Bible exhibitions and was called Home in 2021 at the age of 93. All of these dear men were faithfully and lovingly supported by their wives, Hannah, Ruth, Rhoda and Jeane respectively.

The Next Generation

I have been privileged to have known a number of these heroes. There are many more and some still serve the Lord in France today. They have been examples of faith and courage in a country that is known as a missionaries’ graveyard.

These stories are a reminder that wherever we are called to serve the Lord, in whatever capacity, we must all strive to be found faithful and to leave an example to the younger generation, knowing that He who has called us is faithful and will always remember His own. ‘We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised’ (Heb. 6:12).

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