FRANCE, SWITZERLAND, METHODISM AND PENTECOSTALS
As the articles on this website about Methodist churches and missionary service in Brittany, and about the kinship between real Methodism and classic Pentecostalism, show, there is a real affinity between the two movements in general, and an organic link between the final stages of Methodism in Brittany and the early Pentecostal movement in France, spreading from Le Havre; in fact, the organic link extends also to French-speaking Switzerland, as a search of the Internet quickly shows. This being the case, it seems relevant to this website for me to record some incidents and experiences of my own, as one with a Methodist heart and outlook taking part in Pentecostal missions in France and Switzerland in the summer of 1970.
On Friday, 24th July 1970 I set off with the late Ted Robinson in my Renault 4 for France, where we were to spend between eight and ten weeks taking part in evangelistic missions led by the Pentecosal pastor, Willy Droz. Ted was a loveable and zealous brother. At moments of religious excitement, he would express his gratitude and praise towards God with a heart-felt utterance of Siac-y-boron dau! I don’t think it had a particular meaning for him, other than that he was expressing sincere love and thanks to his heavenly Father, though I was interested to read somewhere else (I forget where) that the phrase was fairly commonly used among Pentecostals at such moments.
Ted Robinson beside the Renault 4
We arrived at Saint Dizier, where the missions were to be based, the next day, and attended the evening meeting at the church, where the pastor was René Kennel. Walking into the church felt like entering the presence of God. There was a daughter work in Joinville, where I preached the following morning to half a dozen or so people, and another daughter work in Chaumont. We spent time in each place, sleeping in a tent in Joinville, and in the church in Chaumont. That first Sunday saw two evangelistic meetings, and number professed to respond to the Gospel.
The following day we moved to Chaumont, a beautiful old town set among lovely countryside and woodland, to a dilapidated and primitive three-storey house, where the dining room was a dirt-floored garage. Next door was the chapel, which had also been a house previously. It had no ceiling, and a decaying floor. We swept, cleaned and put in a lead for electric light. A pioneer work was bring carried on there, and it was still small. Three quarters of the congregation were Spanish. On the Tuesday morning we gave ourselves to prayer and fasting, and felt that God was among us of a truth and that He had heard our prayers. In the afternoon, the pastor was drowned in an accident; he had been leading the work for only a few months, and combining the ministry with farming. He was buried on the Friday.
In the afternoons we often sang and testified in the streets, whilst one stayed behind and prepared to preach at the evening meeting. We continued to make much prayer. It was a busy time, as I preached in the chapel and on the streets in the warm sunshine, interpreted others’ English sermons into French, sometimes using Spanish also, and slept in a sleeping bag. One gets weary sometimes, I wrote, but added praise God for His blessing. Often I drove a little way down the road to sit in the car alone and write to Margaret, then my girlfriend, now my wife.
It was a privilege on Sunday 2nd August to preach in Saint Dizier, in the biggest of the three churches. Three days later Ted and I ate at the home of a Spanish family – father, mother and five children. What a noise! The children spoke French, the parents Spanish, Ted English. It was a good meal, with warm friendship, and fellowship round the scriptures. Afterwards we went into the sunshine and sang, testified and preached in the open air.
Sadly some trouble arose in the church at Chaumont between a man and a woman, and the visiting pastor leading the mission, Willy Droz, felt he should cancel his engagement to preach at his own church in Armentières and stay in Chaumont. So, taking Ted with me, I drove the 230 miles and took his services for him – one on the Saturday at a mental hospital, and two at the church on Sunday. About eight patients at the hospital came on the Saturday, and I spoke to them from 2 Timothy 1.
On the Sunday, most of the congregation were away, and I preached to the pastor’s family, a Portuguese man who didn’t speak French, a teenage boy and an elderly woman. It was hard going. In the evening Ted preached, and I interpreted, after which came a meal and family prayers. Being at the pastor’s home was an enrichment and blessing with its warm atmosphere of Christian sincerity. It was good to be assured that we too were a blessing.
The following day we set off for a Baptist camp at Septvaux, about 105 miles away between Saint Quentin and Reims, and arrived in the afternoon. There we stayed in tents till the Friday, when it was time to return to Chaumont. The week included a Monday evening evangelistic meeting at Laon, and a Tuesday one in La Fère, a purpose-built church rather than a converted house or café, where there were so many flowers in the pulpit that it was difficult to see the congregation! There was a Fact and Faith film, and a sermon delivered with liberty and fire by a man of 21 called Eric for whom I interpreted. An appeal was made for dedication, not for conversion, and about twenty streamed into a side room for appropriate counselling.
On Wednesday we held a series of open air meetings at different points in the town of Saint Gobain, and invited people to the evening meeting at the camp fire in Septvaux. One person who came was a young Roman Catholic priest. On the Thursday evening, the meeting was held in the big tent at the camp, and I was invited to speak for about ten minutes. This was followed by a wonderful, roaring thunderstorm with lightening and thunderbolts – very very beautiful.
A new member of the team was a student from Reading who had been working in Saint Dizier. She had been converted during the mission and had decided to leave her job and join the team. I noted that it seemed that she now has much less make-up on, and instead one sees sometimes the radiance of joy in the Lord. After the camp she worked for a little longer at St. Dizier, and planned to join the team when it moved to Switzerland; whether she did or not, I do not recall.
Back in Chaumont, the first event was the wedding of Daniel and Julia, both aged 18. I was staying above the church again, but in a different room: bare wooden floor, no curtains, white-washed walls, but neater, cleaner and further advanced in the process of decorating. And we had electricity, a gas stove and flowing water! Ted and I also spent a few days staying with an elderly couple in their lovely, old two-roomed home in Suzannecourt, a village of less than three hundred souls near Joinville. The wife was a believer, the husband not yet, though he read the scriptures every night and was close to the Kingdom. It was the first time I slept in a bed after the first night in France, and a real treat.
On Tuesday 18th August we began a few days of evangelism in Joinville, including door-to-door visitation, an activity I have never really enjoyed. We got a mixed response.
There had been some movement of God’s Spirit among gypsies about that time in Europe, and at the Sunday afternoon service in Chaumont, two gypsy preachers came in and asked us to minister at their open-air mission in Brethenay. They hoped their contacts would become linked with the church in Chaumont. It was our privilege to go that same evening, and I felt drawn to the people, and their beautiful children. Ted spoke at their camp – which was made up of beautiful modern caravans and cars. We went again the following evening.
But first we were taken to visit a brother at Villiers-le-Sec, who once had walked with God and been delivered from drink. After eight months of not drinking, he went back to it, left the church, and backslid, though his wife maintained her faith without fellowship with others. We ministered the Scriptures to him, and invited him to repent, to pray and to return to the Lord. He felt convicted; he prayed; he shed tears. They came to the evening meeting at the gypsy camp, and invited us to their home for a meal later in the week. I visited them on the Monday. His daughters, aged 7 and 8, greeted me with hugs and kisses, but I was saddened to learn that he had been drinking again and had been unpleasant to his wife. She said his children no longer loved him, and she had come to think that he would never return to the Lord’s ways: three times she had had a vision that he died a hideous death.
A good deal of time was also spent, not in public preaching or evangelism, but in visiting people in their homes – seekers, backsliders, lonely saints. We often had prayer, fellowship and read the scriptures. But in one home, a woman’s daughter also came in. Her great-grandmother was healed at Lourdes, she told us, and she oozed mockery, pride and self-righteousness as she spoke at length about how Mary had healed her great-grandmother. Her attitude was very unpleasant; Ted, whilst not understanding much if anything of what was said, felt a demonic presence of evil. That was on our last day in Joinville. The couple at Suzannecourt were in tears when we left them to return for two nights to Chaumont.
On Monday, 24th August, we set off for the French-speaking part of Switzerland for further evangelistic work. I preached in the evening meeting at Couvet on the day we arrived.
On the Thursday after our arrival we had a good meeting in Noiraigue, in a full tent with the Swiss flag on the platform; the following day open-airs; Saturday till Wednesday in a mission in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Peter Creasy (now of Haverhill) preached on the Sunday morning to a congregation of about a hundred and twenty. In the evening, I preached – in English, interpreted by the pastor. I set him a puzzle as I spoke on forgiveness and deliverance from sin: we, said I, may have a good memory, but God has a good forgettery, being able deliberately to forget our sins for ever. The word he coined was oublioire.
On Tuesday 1st September I preached at La Neuveville. In the afternoon I went to a hay-loft above a cattle-shed to prepare. I could look through its door to the hillside, and all the time there was the quiet jangle of bells hung round the necks of heifers. And God was there. I wrote: I would like to return there. Preachers aren’t made in churches… they are made alone with God. In the evening, one who came with me sang, she and another testified. There was a felt presence of the Lord, and some seemed to lap up the Word, to be grateful and refreshed as I ministered on Hebrews 8 on the theme of living under the New Covenant, and the spirit of the New Covenant, and not living in the spirit of the Old Covenant by the keeping of many unscriptural rules.
It wasn’t all religion. We helped with shopping; and helped the pastor’s wife, Brenda Droz, to clean the large flat which the family would soon be moving into. I felt I was getting quite domesticated! And there were walks in the countryside, and some of the glorious Swiss views to enjoy.
On Sunday morning, 6th September, I preached at Couvet, and afterwards a man of about fifty wanted to talk to me. He hadn’t been to church for about six months, and as he told me his sad story, he began to cry. His ancestors put the family under a curse, and he was the last generation whom the curse should reach. His father, though deep in the Lord, had many troubles with the family. He himself served the Lord most diligently when a young man, but, he told me, he was then living extremely under law. In the end the enemy made him feel he was no longer saved, and that no hope remained for his soul. He stopped attending meetings, though he felt deep and grave distress. He came to church that day, asking the Lord for a sign to show him if he was still a child of God despite his deep, great and prolonged trouble. As we talked and then prayed, though he cried again, he began to smile and then laugh, as God’s light began to break through, and with it God’s joy.
How much that believer needed to rest on the truth of such scriptures as Proverbs 3:33, “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.”
Couvet: the church; open-air work
(David Young in the white shirt)
After the Missions
Some weeks later, when Wednesday, 21st October, marked the completion of eight months of courtship with Margaret, I wrote to her:
I think it would be true to say that these eight months have been the best of my life; not only because of going out with you, but… because I have been able to walk with God in a way I never did before.
Prior to that summer of 1970 I had, for perhaps six years, begun to read deeply and extensively about the 18th and early 19th centuries Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist movements. I had met elderly men in village chapels in England, born perhaps around 1890, who had experienced or (in their youth) been told of the final embers of the revival fires of that movement, and I had felt, with Ruth, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In large measure my personal pilgrimage through the ensuing decades has been guided and animated by a search for a context in which that religion is practised. Early Methodism, and the Pentecostals I worked and worshipped with in 1970, seemed closely akin.
Driving through those familiar parts of France, years later, on the way to and from Albania, I often wondered why God never sent me to France as a missionary. The summer of 1970, in some ways, marked a high point.