Henri Abraham César Malan, who died 150 years ago, was born in a bourgeois family in Geneva, in 1787, a couple of years before the earth-shaking French Revolution.
His family was of French Huguenot stock from Mérindol in Provence. They had taken refuge in Geneva during the long years of religious persecution in France.
Malan’s childhood fell during a dark time for continental Europe. After the bloodshed of the Revolution, the Napoleonic wars created misery, famine and great loss of life throughout Europe.
Protestants had been decimated in France and the few who remained no longer held to Reformation teaching, but had been converted to the free-thinking of Voltaire, Didérot and Rousseau.
In Geneva too, the Reformed church had abandoned the faith of the fathers for a Unitarian belief in an absentee, landlord ‘God’. The gospel of the Reformation was entirely neglected and Malan grew up in an atmosphere of formal religion. In his own words, the Gospels seemed to be uninteresting, outdated and primitive to his sophisticated and enlightened young mind.
So Malan paid more attention in his formative years to his father’s rationalism than to his mother, who tried to instil in him a belief in the divinity of Christ and the teachings of the Bible.
Nor did his theological training help him at all, as he recalled later: ‘Were I to go back to my recollections of theological teaching, I should fail to find a single instance in which instruction was given me on the divinity of our Saviour, man’s fallen nature or the doctrine of justification by faith’.
Nor is this an exaggeration. Other witnesses from the time inform us that there was no teaching of dogmatics at Geneva and the Bible was only opened to translate a little Hebrew or Greek. Natural theology and the wisdom of the ancient philosophers held pride of place.
Unaware of his own spiritual blindness and plight, Malan none the less aspired to become a Christian minister in the Reformed Church and was duly ordained in Geneva in 1810, at the age of 23. The previous year he had become an instructor in Latin at the college founded by Calvin in Geneva, a post that he retained until ejected nine years later on account of his evangelical faith.
Looking back at this period, Malan wrote: ‘Although I was an honest young man, somewhat rigid of attitude, I was ignorant of the gospel of grace and never imagined that there was another way of salvation than by good works’.
So what stopped Malan in his tracks? From 1813 he began to realise, little by little, the depth of human sinfulness and need for divine salvation.
Called to officiate one Sunday in a church outside Geneva, and having offered to his hearers a completely non-biblical homily, he was upbraided by the local minister, whose name remains unknown: ‘Sir, in order to preach conversion one must be converted oneself. Your sermon was not a Christian one, and my members certainly did not understand you!’
However, it was not until 1816 that the young pastor finally came to an understanding of grace. Having formed an acquaintance with two German Lutherans in Geneva, Malan read Romans 5 with them one evening, and coming to verse 10, about reconciliation through the death of the Son, he was deeply shaken.
A little later while in class at the college he was reading Ephesians 2 and when he came to ‘saved by grace through faith, not of works, but through the gift of God’, the text lit up so much that he had to go out in the school yard, where he walked up and down shouting aloud, ‘I’m saved! I’m saved!’
His conversion meant for Malan a clean break with the past — his attitudes of pride and self-sufficiency, his friends and reading. He took this break so much to heart that he burned his prized collection of classical authors and manuscripts.
Having determined Scripture alone to be the Word of God, he gave himself to a ministry of expounding its content and applying it to his hearers. He preached the gospel of grace all round Geneva and, in the Easter of March 1817, his sermon entitled ‘Man only justified by faith alone’ created a storm.
This outspoken message brought him into conflict with the ‘Company of Pastors’ in Geneva. This conflict also embroiled students in theology who were meeting three times weekly with Robert Haldane to receive his instruction on Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Revival had been stirring widely in Geneva. As well as Robert Haldane, two other evangelical influences were Robert Wilcox, a Calvinistic Methodist businessman and disciple of George Whitefield, and Henry Drummond.
Evangelical meetings were being held with students, some of whom were to become widely associated with the developing revival movement in France and Switzerland — Ami Bost, Pyt, Guers, Empetaz, Merle d’Aubigné and Louis Gaussen.
Meanwhile, after his sermon, Malan received an official pastoral visit with orders to change his doctrine. It was deemed dangerous to preach that ‘salvation might be acquired without good works’. Shortly after, the Reformed Church forbade the public preaching of the ‘new message’.
The following year Malan was removed from his teaching post at the college. In 1820 he established a Chapel of Witness as a preaching centre, where the gospel could be freely proclaimed.
Malan was increasingly considered a dissenter and was finally expelled from his ministry in the Reformed Church in 1823.
On this occasion, Malan gave witness to his faith in the following words: ‘We know that the faith we confess is neither ignorance nor superstition … But the Word of God that produced it in us is quite plain to those who have their eyes opened to the eternal truth by the Holy Spirit. It rests neither on vague ideas but on the demonstration of the Spirit and the Word of God with power…
Our faith rests on the promise and oath of the Lord, who has sworn and will not repent … It is no illusion to feel that one is reconciled with God, that his love is shed abroad in our hearts and that we call God the Father, Redeemer and Paraclete … and know the power of answered prayer and a peace that passes all understanding’.
When dismissed by the assembled pastors, Malan rose, bade good day to the assembly and left without a word.
From this time, he embarked on a ministry of evangelism and mission, popular evangelical writing and hymn-writing, which he continued until retiring to his home at Vandoeuvres, in the Genevan countryside, in 1857.
Cesar Malan published a score of books and his short and popular pamphlets received wide circulation in the French-speaking world and beyond, so much so that, two years before his death in 1864, Malan was honoured by a visit from the Queen of Holland.
He wrote with refreshing frankness, in a style typical of his time. His writings include works of spiritual instruction, homely parables and stories, and works on the true church, baptism and the family, as well as on the errors of Rome and of formal religion.
Many of them are today available as English reprints, including Kindle editions. During the 1990s, Europresse (EP) in France published three books by Cesar Malan, including The church is mine and The true cross.
Malan continued hymn-writing for almost 40 years. His spiritual songs, like all true revival hymns, are characterised by fervour, profound faith and love for the Lord and for biblical truth. Many were collected in his 1841 hymnbook, Songs of Sion.
Thou, Lamb of God, didst shed thy blood,
Thou didst our load of misery bear,
And hast exalted us to share
The rank of kings and priests to God.
To thee we render evermore
The honour, glory, praise that’s due:
Might, power and glad obedience too,
And in our hearts we thee adore.
Amen! Amen! O Lord, Amen!
The author is a founding professor of the Jean Calvin Faculté, Aix-en-Provence, France. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary, USA.