Jean-Baptiste Massillon
The Greatest French Preacher of his Day
Jean-Baptiste Massillon Jean-Baptiste Massillon

Not too many people in Massillon seem to know it, but our Fair City is named after a French bishop — 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 François 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.  He was ordained a priest in 1691.  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.  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.

Louis XIV's funeral shows an excellent example of this:  Louis XIV had the longest reign of any French king — 72 years. He 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, illuminated by a single flickering candle. But as he began his funeral oration, and to the surprise of all, Massillon slowly reached down and snuffed out the candle representing the late king's greatness. Then in the darkness he proclaimed to all: "Only God is Great" — a defiant cry to both the late king and those in attendence who had called him "Louis XIV the Great."  [Hear Louis XIV's Funeral March.]

Following the King's death in 1715, Massillon returned to favor in the French Court under its new young king, Louis XV.  In 1718 he preached a series of 10 Lenten sermons before King Louis, which he composed in just six weeks. These he called the "Petit Carême" (or "Small Lenten Worship").  This group of sermons became the most highly regarded-model of pulpit eloquence of the 18th Century. In fact, the "Petit Carême" is still studied today in many colleges and seminaries. By this time, throughout France and beyond, Massillon's oratory skills had become well-known, and it was generally accepted that he could indeed be called a preacher-extraordinaire of the age.

Massillon became a Roman Catholic bishop in 1717, and spent most of his remaining days away from the French Court — being faithful and diligent to his churchly duties. As you might expect, he also preached at every opportunity afforded him.

A "Massillon" is a small, French almond pastry that originated in Massillon's hometown of Hyères. The folks there were so proud of their hometown boy who became a well-known bishop, that they named a pastry after him.

In 1719 he was appointed to oversee the Diocese of Clermont — one of the largest in France, with 29 abbeys, 224 priories, and 758 parishes. There he served faithfully for more than 20 years.   He always visited at least one part of his diocese each year, and by the time of his death he had been through the whole diocese nearly three times, even to the poorest and most remote parishes.  So pleased was he with the fruits of his labors, that before his death he was quoted as saying, "My diocese, which I found so full of troubles, is today the most peaceful in the kingdom"  During these years Massillon committed himself to maintaining strong discipline and good morals among his clergy.  He deeply loved those who labored with him, and even assured that the clergy in his diocese would have a peaceful old age by building a house of retirement for them. Massillon spent most of his final years re-reading, copying and correcting his sermons. Right up to his death, he remained spiritual, peaceful, welcoming and helpful to all.

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.

Fountain of the 4 Bishops Fountain of the 4 Bishops
Statue of Massillon at the
"Fountain of the 4 Bishops"
in Paris

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.

Shortly after 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.

Complete Sermons

For those who want to read more, or for serious students of Massillon's writings, several books of his sermons have been compiled and are available online:

Sermons of John Baptist Massillon and Lewis Bourdaloue  [Translated by Abel Flint;  Printed by Lincoln and Gleason, 1805]

Sermons by Jean-Baptiste Massillon, Bishop of Clermont [Volume 1]  [Printed for Thomas S. Arden;  Printed by T. Kirk, 1803]

Sermons by Jean-Baptiste Massillon, Bishop of Clermont [Volume 4]  [Printed for Thomas Tegg;  Printed by William Tyler, 1839]

The Charges of Jean-Baptiste Massillon, Bishop of Clermont  [Printed for Brisban & Brannan;  Printed by D. & G. Bruce, 1806]

Massillon's Sermons for all the Sundays and Festivals throughout the Year [PDF]  [Printed for James Duffy;  Printed by John F. Fowler, 1851]

Below are links to several of Massillon's sermons. Even though they have been translated into English, these sermons quickly give you a sense of the 'in-your-face' style of preaching for which Massillon was noted.

Be aware. Although these sermons are interesting, they are certainly not easy reading. This is because:

  1. They were written almost 300 years ago, and
  2. They were originally written in French, and
  3. This English translation is over 150 years old.

Nonetheless, you do not need a college degree in English Literature 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 — our city's namesake, Jean-Baptiste Massillon.