Simon Goulart – Preacher of Confident Hope

Simon Goulart – Preacher of Confident Hope

            In 1595, Simon Goulart joined the company of famous preachers who angered powerful women. The woman in this case was Gabrielle d’Estrée, mistress of King Henry IV of France, who persuaded the Protestant king to turn Roman Catholic in order to promote unity in their country. While he was at it, Goulart preached against the magistrates in Geneva who had condemned an innocent woman while allowing the guilty party to walk away free with an unsoiled reputation.

            The sermon was shocking, but the church elders should have known what was coming. He had given his resignation from his post a month earlier precisely because he knew he couldn’t in good conscience keep quiet. But they kept insisting.

            As expected, the civil authorities imprisoned him for a week – a mild punishment, according to the incensed French ambassador. But the Genevan government laid out some conditions: Goulart had to ask for forgiveness, promise he would stay in Geneva, and submit to the judgement of his church elders and fellow-pastors. The fact that he was asked to stay shows how much he was valued.

Reformer

            The outline of Goulart’s early life is typical of the lives of many scholars in his day. Born in 1543 in the town of Senlis, in the north of France, he started out studying law but in 1566, after becoming a Protestant, moved to Geneva where he could safely follow a different course of studies.  

            The Reformer Theodore Beza, then head of the Academy of Geneva, was so impressed by the young man’s faith and abilities that he appointed him pastor of the nearby village churches of Chancy and Cartigny. There, Goulart married a fifteen-year old girl, Suzanne Picot, daughter of a local city councilor. Together, the couple had nine children (although three died in infancy).

            In 1571, Goulart was assigned to the city's parish of Saint Gervais, where he preached his shocking sermon and where he spent most of his life. At the same time, he kept in touch with the Huguenots who fought for religious freedom in France, and occasionally returned to his country. He was in Paris during the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and narrowly escaped with his life.

            His traumatic witness of the slaughter of thousands of Protestants moved him to write his most famous work, Mémoires de l'estat de France sous Charles IX, published in three volumes between 1576 and 1579. Here, after a description of the events, Goulart expressed his views of the massacre as a premeditated action, exposed the rulers’ attempts to obscure the facts, and defended the propriety of a rebellion against the crown. His views went along with Théodore Beza’s Du droit des magistrats, which advocated the rights of magistrates to rise against any absolutist ruler who denied the right to act according to conscience.

            Goulart’s second political work was Mémoires de la Ligue, a two-volume composition work designed to support the campaigns of the Protestant Henry of Navarre to become Henry IV of France on the death of Henry III. He also participated in the compilation of the Histoire ecclésiastique des Eglises réformées au royaume de France, often attributed to Beza, which became the standard official history of the early Protestant Reformation in France.

            Goulart’s political views caused him frequent troubles, so much that he often wrote under a pseudonym (for example, Stephanius Julius Brutus – a name denoting his republican views).

Polymath

            For the most part, modern scholars value Goulart for his historical writings, dismissing his other literary works as “unoriginal.” But there is much more than meets the eye. Goulart’s wide range of interests, ranging from translations of philosophical and historical works to hymnography to poetry to science, qualify him as a polymath or “Renaissance man.” His library was large for the times, and included works of writers who had different opinions.

            A talented poet with a good musical ear, he also worked on arranging the French Psalms to French, Italian, and German tunes which were sent to him by various composers. The first portion of his work, entitled Cinquante Pseaume (Fifty Psalms), was published in 1597. His goal was to publish two more volumes (completing the 150 biblical Psalms), but never managed to do it.

            Overall, he was a prolific writer and one of the most published and appreciated in the generation after Calvin. Besides translations, musical arrangements, poetry, and devotional and historical works, his production includes theological, political, and medical treatises.

            Goulart understood God’s Word to be the only current revelation of God to humanity, as he expressed in one of his poems:

O God, I have sought you: but if the splendor

of your being doesn’t enlighten my soul,

my senses will dull me and the surrounding world

will blind me. Your divine Word

will be the mirror on which I perceive your greatness.

In Christ, whose death makes me worthy of seeing your face.[1]

Pastor

            From 1605 to 1612, Goulart served as moderator of the Geneva Company of Pastors, and remained as senior member until his death in 1628. His pastoral and poetic works, still largely in French, deserve to be translated and read for their clarity, honesty, and warmth, addressing crucial subjects such as comfort, assurance, doubts, fears, sanctification, suffering, spiritual warfare, and the art of dying well.

            Goulart often spoke from personal experience. In 1587, his wife died, leaving him with six children. Two years later, he had to bring comfort to his parishioners while the Roman Catholic armies of the king of Savoy began to plunder their area. In 1593, King Henry IV shattered the hopes of French Protestants by converting to Roman Catholicism. All these things, together with the disappointing attitude of the Geneva magistrates, weighed heavily on Goulart’s heart. To make things worse, he suffered from poverty and ill health.

            In the preface of his Christian Discourses – a two-volume collection of short devotional writings in French, Goulart explains that he started to write them to bring comfort to himself, and decided to publish them when he realized how much they helped him.

            A frequent theme in the Discourses is God’s sovereignty, which is of immense comfort to those who know Him to be a faithful and loving Father as well as a powerful God. Suffering is seen, in this light, as useful to the sufferer. For Goulart, courage under affliction doesn’t mean keeping a stiff upper-lip. Cries and tears are important in moving us to call on God.

            Likewise, submission under affliction doesn’t imply a pessimistic view of the world or a negative view of God. “Since we have been placed in this world to glorify the Lord our God, sadness and pain should not cause us to despise the gift of this life.”[2]

            Overall, Goulart was a preacher of hope, pointing Christians to the sufficiency they have in Christ and what he has obtained for them, now and forever.

            Thanks to Dr. Scott M. Manetsch and his mention of Goulart in his book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, at least a few paragraphs from this Reformer are making their rounds online – particularly Goulart’s moving description of heaven as the ultimate aspiration of all Christians – “This is the goal on which our gaze should be fixed throughout our earthly pilgrimage. This is the treasure that we should unceasingly desire. This is the hour and the blessing to which all the plans and efforts of our lives should be inclined…This is our true country, our permanent city, in which our citizenship has been acquired by the merit of the death of Jesus Christ. This is the home that we long for, amidst the banishments, the weariness, the dangerous fears of this valley of misery and the shadow of death. This is the safe refuge and the beautiful harbor toward which we sail amidst so many waves and storms that constantly trouble the world. This is the blessed land where we will dwell by means of death”[3]



[1] Simon Goulart, Imitations Chrestiennes, ode 3, last strophe, quoted in Jacques Pineaux, “Simon Goulart et les voies du sacré,” Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire du Protestantisme Français (1903-2015), Vol. 135 (April-June 1989), pp. 161-175, my translation.

[2] Simon Goulart, XXIII Discours Chrestiens, 193, my translation.

[3] Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 297-298. The same passage is quoted here: http://www.christurc.org/blog/2015/2/27/homesick-for-our-true-country