Wealthy and educated, well connected and happily married, betrayed and bereaved, Philippe de Mornay lived through personal and national crises. He survived multiple threats to his life. At pivotal points, he found his path providentially blocked, forcing him to drop apparent callings and roles. Each time, Mornay faced the difficulty by turning to other avenues of service. Despite hard circumstances, he remained faithful.

When Philippe was born, France was tense. For decades, banishments and torture had been part of the official response to Protestantism.1 In 1549, the year of Mornay’s birth, Henry II’s accession continued the persecution; Queen Catherine de Medici worked to ensure Catholicism’s unchallenged sway. The French had watched German states fall to Lutheranism and wanted none of this social and religious upheaval.

Despite the balance of power, Protestantism spread. Even in the royal family, members succumbed to the “heresy.”2 Mornay’s own home reflected the national situation: the Roman Catholic father worked to restrain the Protestant mother’s influence.3 But in 1559, Mornay senior’s death gave his wife free rein with the six children and she publicly sided with the Huguenot church. Again, family reflected nation: it was often high-ranking women who protected and encouraged the French Reformation.4 The Spirit used his mother’s influence and personal Bible reading to bring Mornay to new life and new love. Immediate opposition from friends did not turn him back.

Family wealth freed Mornay to study: beginning in Paris, he moved on to Heidelberg, then Padua, studying law and language. Travel in England, Italy, Austria, and beyond gave him experience with multiple cultures, political scenes, and religious practices. He networked along the way, establishing contacts that remained through his career. As Lord of Plessis Marly, Mornay was prepared for a life in high circles. He was prepared for more than that, though, for he was eager to work for his country and his church.

But by this time, France’s internal tensions had not only deepened; they had fractured into civil war.5 On a visit home in 1567, Mornay joined the Protestant army. Though he was willing to fight for freedom of religion, the Lord prevented him. A fall from a horse injured Mornay and kept him away from battle and likely death.

Three critical years set the trajectory of Mornay’s career. In 1571, he published his first book.6 Writing became a lifelong occupation. In 1572, the Huguenot leadership sent him on a secret mission to William of Orange in the Netherlands. Diplomacy became a vocation. In 1573, he lived through the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The massacre was a watershed moment for France, drawing an inflexible line between Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens. It also showed the extent to which the French leadership would go to crush the Huguenot church. Paris, where Mornay was, saw the worst violence: thousands of his fellow Protestants died, cut down, thrown from windows, and hunted into the countryside. Mornay hid under a roof for days, then escaped to England with the help of a Roman Catholic friend. Again, God preserved his life in the face of death.

The violence that Mornay survived forced him to reconsider his priorities. He returned home and then allied himself with the Protestant Henri de Navarre, who was fighting for his right to the French throne. A Protestant on the French throne would change life for the Huguenot church. But in the campaigns of 1575, the Duke de Guise captured Mornay, holding him for ransom. A young widow paid for his release. Known in Huguenot circles for her account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre—which she also survived—Charlotte Arbaleste was an activist for the young Protestant movement. She paid Guise off not only because she valued Mornay’s work but also because they were engaged. The year after Charlotte freed him, the two married.

At pivotal points, he found his path providentially blocked, forcing him to drop apparent callings and roles.

Charlotte became the second greatest influence in Mornay’s life next to the Bible and his second love next to his Savior. Instead of being a distraction from his work, Charlotte encouraged and fueled her husband’s labors. His second published work, Excellent discours de la vie et de la mort (Excellent speech of life and death), was a present to her.

The book’s dark tone likely reflects Mornay’s psychological condition. Though he had survived two wars and a massacre, many friends and fellow believers had not. Persecution continued. The political future looked bleak. This book—more philosophical than scriptural at times—is colored by such suffering. But it also shows a biblical realism. Not yet in his thirties, Mornay had learned to number his days: “As nothing is more certain than death, so nothing is more uncertain than the hour of death, known only to God, the only Author of life and death, to whom we all should endeavor to live and die.”7

The war of succession continued, and Mornay again took up diplomacy as Henri de Navarre’s ambassador to England. The Protestant British crown was an important ally, and Mornay’s diplomatic skills worked for “the reformed religion” as well as Navarre’s king.8 In the early 1580s, Henri made Mornay his ambassador to the Reformed Dutch court. Wherever he was, Mornay’s correspondence connected French Protestant interests to sympathetic officials all over Protestant Europe, informing Henri about the Huguenot church, gathering and spreading information as needed.9 He was willing to publicly “protest that we were the body of the Church of Christ.”10 Friends and enemies recognized this prominence,11 calling him “the Huguenot pope.”

Wherever Mornay went, Charlotte went with him: their four sons and four daughters were born in diplomatic posts. In an age of high infant mortality, the Mornay family was not an exception; they buried their five youngest.12 One son and two daughters survived childhood. Both parents were diligent to pray for them, teach them, and enjoy them, even as they grieved so much heavy loss. Philippe junior was his father’s protégé, trained up to understand politics and war, as well as theology.

By the mid-1580s, Mornay was a key player in French politics as Henri’s chief adviser. His skills facilitated negotiations and relationships, making gains where battles could not. In 1589, he saw the fruit of his political service: after years of diplomacy and a definitive battle, Henri de Navarre became Henri IV of France. It seemed as though freedom had arrived.

Henri’s accession brought initial joy to believers. But it quickly turned to shock and disappointment. Henri converted to Roman Catholicism in order to secure the French throne: “Paris is worth a mass,” Henri said in quote attributed to him. Mornay was devastated. An “affectionate friend,” Henri became a betrayer to Mornay and the church that Mornay loved.13 Perhaps Mornay’s hope for the church had been centered on princes, and Henri’s inconstancy exposed it.14 Mornay had not always agreed with the king, but there had been trust and hope.15

Though Henri periodically required Mornay’s presence in Paris, their old friendship never recovered. Half pushed, half repelled out of the newly aligned political scene, Mornay left a promotion and gradually withdrew from the court. Many relationships continued, but his level of influence did not. The Lord had turned his life to a different path once again. Mornay moved out of Paris to be governor of Samur, a Protestant town.16 Despite skill and opportunity, politics was never his first love; it was the means by which he served. So when national influence was taken away, Mornay could reorient himself to other service. Ambition in itself was empty, and Mornay had known this for a long time: “Whatever happiness can be in what ambition promises, is only suffering much ill, to get ill . . . often with incredible heart grief.”17

When national influence was taken away, Mornay could reorient himself to other service.

Writing was still an avenue for service. In 1598, after helping with the Edict of Nantes, Mornay published De L’institution, usage et doctrine du saint sacrement de l’eucharistie en l’église ancienne (The institution, use, and doctrine of the holy sacrament of the eucharist in the ancient church).18 Just as Roman Catholic officials wanted him out of government, Roman Catholic clergy certainly wanted him out of theology. Mornay agreed to meet and answer public challenges to his work, but he did not do well on his feet in debate. The opposition was so intense that it broke him physically. Charlotte spoke up: “Take courage, this is God’s work.”19 But Mornay’s health forced him to leave. Roman Catholics gloated, but the company of pastors at Geneva sent Mornay “hearty thanks for his great zeal and affection to the truth of God, and for his worthy labours in defense thereof,” ordering the work to be distributed.20

Mornay returned home to recover some strength and work quietly. He was at morning worship on a Sunday in 1601 when a young man entered a side door during the sermon. A monk had hired him to assassinate Mornay. The young man’s courage failed at the edge of the sanctuary, so Mornay survived. A long trail of evidence showed support for the conspiracy. God had again spared Mornay’s life for further work.

Mornay had trained his son to take up his mantle. Philippe eagerly adopted the Huguenot cause, believing his parents’ biblical teaching. He also began involvement in politics, and at the age of twenty-six went to fight for freedom of religion in the Netherlands. But while the fall from a horse kept his father out of one battle and capture kept him out of another, nothing stopped Philippe, who eagerly rode with the Dutch into battle against Roman Catholic Spain. He died there on October 23, 1605.

In France, the Mornays received the news. Unlike political disappointments, this blow struck at the heart of family and future. Both parents had believed that Philippe would carry on their service to the church after they died, and now that was gone. Their hopes, as well as years of praying, training, teaching, and loving, seemed to have been blown apart by a Spanish bullet.

To help cope with the grief, Mornay wrote a lengthy poem, working through the spiritual and emotional consequences of the loss. It includes an obituary: Philippe was “with a Musket-shot struck through the breast, and fell . . . and was made immortal.” The work is a father’s heart honestly crying out to God, full of Scripture and a trust in God’s loving faithfulness. Mornay saw the dangers both of stoic fatalism and also of giving himself over to grief. “Let us be moved,” he addressed Charlotte; “let us be melted. And my desire is that we acquaint ourselves fully with this accidental (not eternal) affliction. . . . We are deprived of a son, dear wife, an only son, and how good a son! Our God the true comforter, be our comfort: he who has caused our sorrows, conclude them: be he our cure, who has procured our hurt: only comforter, only surgeon.”21

It was the first half of a double sorrow. Charlotte never recovered from her son’s death, and months later, in 1606, she died. After Philippe’s death, Mornay had written that “in calling him away, [God has] almost torn me up from my rooting in earth (there wants only one other pull).”22 Charlotte’s death was that pull, but he still had to live, had to face a life that felt lonely and, in some ways, futureless. Of all the providential blocks to his work, the loss of Philippe, his spiritual heir, and Charlotte, his faithful helpmeet, seemed the most final. But even in this grief, Mornay saw a gift: “She assisted me to live well, and by her pious death, she has taught me to die well.”23 Friends commented on his lack of bitterness. Even in the hardest providence, Mornay was prepared to submit.

His knowledge of the Bible balanced him through waves of grief. Since boyhood, study of Scripture had been a habit. The accumulated knowledge of God’s Word and character became his rod and staff through this valley. Godly daughters and their children were also a comfort. His published commentaries give us insight into his thinking: “Are you a Christian and overwhelmed with adversity, or toiled under your calling? Pour out your heart to the Lord; roll yourself on him, take him for your pledge, and do not doubt: as he is naturally good and faithful in his promises, so he will take your burden on himself and comfort you.”24 At times, it seemed as though Mornay described himself: “He does not murmur, does not answer back, but yields to [God’s] will, and waits with patience for it to come, and submits his whole wisdom to [God’s] providence. This is certainly the highest point of faith.”25 This certainly seemed to be Mornay’s highest point of faith. These later writings have a Godward orientation and tenderness that his earliest works do not.

The accumulated knowledge of God’s Word and character became his rod and staff through this valley.

After Henri IV’s assassination—by an angry Roman Catholic with a carving knife—Mornay did what he could to maintain the level of political stability, despite an eight-year-old king and a Roman Catholic queen mother. Hearing of the murder, he called the people of Samur together and had them take oaths of allegiance to the young Louis XIII.26

In 1618, the Synod of Dort called him to be a Huguenot representative, but Louis XIII refused to allow it. In 1621, royalist Roman Catholics took control of Samur. Mornay retired to his estate to continue his writing and support of Protestantism, from his local congregation to denominations across Europe. He died there in 1623. Years before, he had said that death was “not the end of life, but the end of death, and the beginning of life . . . the dawning of an everlasting day.”27 While that was true for him, his beloved Huguenot church mourned their loss.

Like so many of his Protestant peers, Mornay was caricatured as anti-Catholic and anti-France. The truth was that he was not against the Roman Catholics, but for Scripture; not against France, but for a country with freedom of religion. He spent his political life trying to help France become a place where conscience was not bound. He wanted a France where people could flourish. When prevented from serving politically, Mornay focused directly on the church. His labor, encouragement, and determined, faithful fruitfulness is still a model for Christ’s people. That is because, for all his involvement in the earthy politics of his day, Mornay maintained an eternal perspective:

And so we have peace with all, seeing all their might and weapons turn to our peace, all their curses into blessings, all their gashes, however terrible they may be, are turned into balm, their tempests into safe havens. All these things, and all others, work together, as the Apostle says, to our good because of the love of God purchased for us by Jesus Christ. For instead of judge, he is now father, and instead of just revenger, gracious protector, turning all the harm to our victory, to our peace, to our glory and salvation.28

Mornay’s work, writing, and even efforts for the Huguenot church soon faded. His line disappeared. Nobody reads his commentaries. The political world that he shaped vanished centuries ago. It is gone—a part of history that does not touch our daily lives now. His legacy was not the fruit of his career, productive as it was at the time. Mornay’s legacy is his faithfulness. His lack of bitterness, his determination to serve fully in a clear calling is still effective today, because such an example touches us just where we are.

Different kinds of suffering can create different temptations. But they can all be met with the same answer: a devotion to obedience. And what drives such obedience is love. Love for his merciful God—not primarily politics, country, or even family—is what fueled Mornay’s service. The same love carried him through trial without revenge or bitterness. That kind of love is what we need to be faithful and at peace in our own generation.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 18, 2021. 

  1. Richard B. Hone, The Lives of Bernard Gilpin, Philip de Mornay, William Bedell, and Anthony Horneck (London: John W. Parker, West Strand, 1850), 78. ↩︎
  2. Henry II’s aunt, Marguerite de Navarre, was the first French royal to convert, despite open hostility from her family. Another aunt, Renee of France, took the doctrines to Italy on her marriage. Henri IV’s mother and sister were both devout Calvinists. ↩︎
  3. Hone, 82. ↩︎
  4. From being examples of conversion themselves to sponsoring Bible translations and Protestant pastors, aristocratic and royal women were pivotal to the formation and preservation of the Huguenot church. Vincent J. Pitts, Henri IV of France: His Reign and His Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 10. ↩︎
  5. The French Wars of Religion (1562–98) were a series of wars that not only tore France internally but also involved Navarre, Spain, and the papacy. ↩︎
  6. It was Dissertation sur l’Église visible (Dissertation on the visible church). Some of Mornay’s writings have disappeared: at the beginning of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, he burned the papers in his apartment; others have disappeared; pirates stole a detailed history of France before Mornay could publish it. Hone, 115. ↩︎
  7. Diane Bornstein, ed., The Countess of Pembroke’s Translation of Philippe de Mornay’s Discourse of Life and Death (Detroit: Michigan Consortium for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 1983), 72. Quotes from period translations have been significantly updated in spelling, grammar, and occasionally vocabulary for this article. ↩︎
  8. Mornay, August 12, 1583, in Philippe de Mornay, Mémoires et correspondance de Duplessis-Mornay, ecrits Politiques et Correspondance, A. 1571–1584, vol. 2 (Paris: Chez Treuttel et Wurtz, 1824), 358. ↩︎
  9. See for example, “Adresse par M. Duplessis sur les Memoires envoyes au roy de Navarre par les eglises de France, et presente au roy Henri III, par M. de Clervant” in Mornay, 320–44. ↩︎
  10. Mornay, “Fragment,” 1584 in Mémoires et correspondance, 497. ↩︎
  11. See for example, “A MM. du synode de l’Isle de France,” September 22, 1583, in Mornay, Mémoires et correspondence, 376. ↩︎
  12. Charlotte de Mornay, Memoires de Madame de Mornay (Paris: Jules Renouard, 1868), 111, 118, 124, 133, 146–47, 162, 165. ↩︎
  13. Henri de Navarre to Mornay, January 14, 1582, in Mémoires et correspondance, 120. ↩︎
  14. Psalm 146. ↩︎
  15. Pitts, 170. ↩︎
  16. Pitts, 140. ↩︎
  17. Bornstein, 46. ↩︎
  18. Nantes effectively ended the French Wars of Religion and gave Protestants freedom of religion for decades. ↩︎
  19. Arbaleste in Hone, 156. ↩︎
  20. In Hone, 158. ↩︎
  21. Philippe de Mornay, Philip Mornay, Lord of Plessis his teares For the death of his sonne. Vnto his wife Charlotte Baliste. Englished by Iohn Healey. (London: G. Eld, dwelling in Fleete-lane, at the signe of the Printers Presse, 1609), np. ↩︎
  22. Mornay, His Teares, np. ↩︎
  23. Mornay in James Isaac Good, Famous Women of the Reformed Church (Birmingham, Ala.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007; facsimile of the 1901 edition), 94. ↩︎
  24. Three homilies upon these three sentences folowing: Psal. 55.22. Cast thy burthen vpon the Lord. Iohn 14.27. My peace I giue vnto you. Luk.10.42. One thing is necessarie. Mornay, Philippe de, seigneur du Plessis-Marly, 1549–1623., Anthony Ratcliffe, trans. 1626, (London: Printed by I. Dawson for Nathanael Newberry, and are to be sold in Popes-head alley at the signe of the Starre, 1626), 4. ↩︎
  25. Mornay, Homilies, 38. ↩︎
  26. Hone, 182. ↩︎
  27. Bornstein, 63. ↩︎
  28. Mornay, Homilies, 116–117. ↩︎

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