Not too many people in Massillon seem to know it, but our Fair City is named after a French preacher — one of the most famous of his time. And although the man to the right may not look imposing, in his day he would preach before kings and cry loudly against evil wherever it was found.
Jean-Baptiste Massillon was born in 1663 to Roman Catholic parents at Hyères, a small town in France where his father was a Royal Notary. Massillon seemed destined to be a public speaker; at the age of eighteen, contrary to his father's wishes, he joined the Congregation of the Oratory and soon was teaching at area colleges. So excellent were his public speaking skills that in 1693, upon the death of the Archbishop of Vienne, he was commissioned to deliver the funeral oration. This was the beginning of Massillon's fame.
In 1696, while still a young man, Massillon moved to Paris, where he became director of Saint-Magloire — a famous Seminary of the day. There he devoted much of his time to his first great love: preaching — so much so that he was removed from his position a year later for neglecting his duties in favor of preaching sermons. During his lifetime, Massillon would preach thousands of times, even writing extensively about the art of preaching. He soon gained a wide reputation for his strong, assertive sermons and in 1699 was selected to be the Advent preacher at the court of Versailles, where he preached before King Louis XIV of France. Shortly thereafter he was appointed the Court Chaplain to the King. At first Louis regularly attended all of Massillon's sermons, but later the King grew cold with Massillon, perhaps because of his abrasive style.
Nonetheless, Massillon was never one to compromise what he considered to be the truth. Louis XIV had the most magnificent, extravagant court in all Europe, and planned his own funeral to be just as spectacular. The King instructed Massillon that upon his death he was to lie in state in a golden coffin at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. He further instructed that at his funeral service the entire cathedral was to be completely dark, lit dimly by only one candle positioned above the coffin so that all would be awed by the late king's presence, even in death. When Louis died, Massillon did exactly as the King had instructed. At the funeral thousands waited in hushed silence as they peered at the exquisite casket that held the mortal remains of their monarch. But as he began his funeral oration, Massillon slowly reached down, snuffed out the candle, and proclaimed to all: "Only God is Great" — a defiant cry to both the late king and those who called him "Louis XIV the Great."
In the last years of Louis XIV's reign, the King gradually became
cold to Massillon — perhaps because he was the only preacher not to cater his sermons to the King's liking.
Whatever the reason, following Louis XIV's death in 1715, Massillon returned to
favor in the French Court under the new young king, Louis XV.
In 1718 he preached a series of 10 Lenten sermons before King Louis, entitled the "Petit Carême".
These became the most highly regarded-model of pulpit eloquence of the 18th Century. In fact,
the "Petit Carême" is studied today in many colleges and seminaries.
Throughout France and beyond, by this time
Massillon's oratory skills were well-known, and it was generally accepted that he could indeed be called a
preacher-extraordinaire of the age.
Massillon died of complications from a stroke on September 28th, 1742. He had preached his messages before commoners and nobility alike — including Kings Louis XIV and XV of France. However, Massillon was never intimidated by royalty, and often preached harshly against the follies and excesses prevalent in high society at the time. Louis XIV once said to Massillon, "I have heard many great orators ... and have been highly pleased with them; but whenever I hear you, I go away displeased with myself, for I see my own character." Massillon was never one to change his message to please his audience — even if it was the King.
The poor were always dear to him. Not only did he plead for them in his sermons, but he also assisted them out of his bounty. Following Massillon's death, much of his estate was used to fund the building of the hospital of Clermont. Its commission was to provide medical care at no cost to the poor.
Upon his death, the people in his hometomown of Hyères erected a statue in his honor. On it is the epitaph: "This is one of the best, most lovable and virtuous men whom the history of literature and the French Church can honor."
Massillon's popularity was partly due to the fact that his sermons almost always dealt with moral subjects, and not deep theological issues. He seemed to be able to 'get inside' the secrets of the human heart and the processes of man's reasoning. Following his death, one of his contemporaries said of Massillon — "In preaching, he manifested himself as both practical and eloquent, with a persuasive style, great piety and insuperable competence."
His great literary power, his reputation for benevolence, and his toleration toward all are why he was admired and respected by people of all classes. These characteristics are why he is still remembered today. Here are a few of the more notable quotes attributed to Massillon:
Unfortunately there are no original manuscripts of any sermons by Massillon. Three years following his death, Massillon's complete works were published in several volumes by his nephew, who was a well-known preacher in his own right. Those books comprise the only record we have of Massillon's sermons, and although they have been reprinted many times, no new sermons of Massillon have ever been discovered.
Be aware. Although these sermons are interesting, they are certainly not easy reading. This is because:
a) They were written almost 300 years ago, and
b) They were originally written in French, and
c) This English translation is over 150 years old.
Nonetheless, you do not need to be an English major in order to understand and appreciate Massillon's writings. And if you'll take the time to read through these sermons, you'll be rewarded with a broader understanding and a deeper appreciation for one of France's greatest preachers and our city's namesake — Jean-Baptiste Massillon.