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A Memoir of Felix Neff, Pastor of the High Alps, by
W. S. Gilly, M. A. London, 1832. This is an interesting volume. The subject of the memoir was engaged in the service of a people who dwell in the passes and on the heights of the mountains dividing France from Italy. The scene of his labours is a hundred miles north of the valleys of Piedmont, whose Waldensian inhabitants have excited more than common interest. In an introduction, the editor endeavours to shew, (and we think with success,) that the secluded glens of Piedmont are not the only retreats where the descendants of primitive Christians are to be found ; and, that the Alps within the French territory, where Neff laboured, are inhabited by a people who have come down from the first ages of Christianity, without having been at any time involved in the widely spread errors of Romanism.
Felix NEFF was born in 1798, and brought up in a small village near Geneva, under the care of his widowed mother. In 1815, he became a soldier, and was soon brought into notice by his knowledge of mathematics, and more particularly by the piety of his conduct. The latter feature of his character, we are told, excited an unpleasant feeling in the minds of his superior officers. They wished him out of the service,-he was too religious for them ; and his piety became so marked, that he was advised to quit the regiment, and prepare himself for holy orders. After serious consideration and prayer, Neff resolved to devote himself to the work of the ministry. Accordingly, in 1819, he left the army, and placed himself under pious instruction and superintendence. During the two following years, he exercised as a catechist in the Swiss Cantons of Neufchatel, Berne, and the Pays de Vaud. In 1821, when 24 years of age, he left Switzerland, and went to Grenoble, where, and also at Mens, he executed his office with unwearied zeal and considerable success. Having discharged his probationary duties of catechist for four years, and rejoicing that God had given him strength and willingness to labour for souls, he was desirous to be publicly set apart as a minister of the Gospel of Christ. In this there was some difficulty. In consequence of the anti-scriptural doctrines held by most of the present ministers in connection with the established church of Geneva, Neff was reluctant to be ordained by them. He was therefore induced to visit England for this purpose, and on the 19th May, 1823, he received ordination in a chapel (we think Mr. Clayton's) in the Poultry, London. Soon after this, he returned to Mens, where he met with a very gratifying reception ; the people crowded round him, some half-stifled him
in their embraces, others kissed his hand, others wept with joy ; and all signified the warmth of their affection and the sincerity of their respect.'
We shall now have to contemplate Neff in the character of a Pastor. The elders of the churches of Val Queyras and Val Fressinière having made application to the Consistory, Neff was appointed to take the oversight of them ; and in the first month of 1824, he entered on his pastoral duties.
In order to estimate the devotedness of Neff's character, the difficulties of his situation, and the nature of his work, we offer a few remarks on the locality of his charge, and the condition of its inhabitants. The people of his care occupy seventeen or eighteen villages, scattered over an extent of nearly 80 miles, in the high passes of the Alps, where they long since fled for refuge from the persecuting arm of papal power. They are situated in the neighbourhood of the river Durance, in the French district of · Les Hautes Alps ;' a name which well describes the nature of the country and its formidable aspect. It was here, probably, that Hannibal found the greatest obstacles in pursuing his line of march into Italy, where, according to Livy, the height of the mountains, the snows almost touching the skies, the wretched huts standing on the cliffs, and the dreary aspect of every thing, animate and inanimate, struck terror into the Carthaginian army. From this we may perceive the spirit of devotedness which animated this young preacher of righteousness, which enabled him to forego the comfort of a milder scene; and, for the sake of the Gospel, to prefer a place where fertility is an exception, and barrenness the common aspect; where the tottering cliffs and frowning rocks look like a veil which is never to be raised; and the frightful depths, and the comfortless cottages, and the ever present dangers, proclaim it to be a land which man never would have chosen, even for his hiding place, but from the severest necessity.'
From a letter of Neft's, written after he had commenced his labours here, we have the following observations on the situation and condition of his flock. He says:
Many of the people have retreated to the foot of a glacier, where they built the village of Dormilleuse, which is like an eagle's nest, on the side of a mountain ; others occupy a deep glen called La Combe, a rocky abyss, where the horizon is so bounded, that for six months of the year the rays of the sun never penetrate. T'heir hamlets consist of hovels, of which some are without chimneys and glazed windows, and others have nothing but a miserable kitchen and a stable, which is seldom cleaned out more than once a year, and where the inhabitants spend the greater part of the winter with their cattle, for the sake of the warmth. The rocks by which they are en. closed are so barren, and the climate is so severe, that there is no knowing how these poor Alpines, with all their simplicity and temperance, contrive to subsist. Their few sterile fields hang over precipices, and are covered, in many places, with enormous blocks of granite, which roll every year from the cliffs above. The clothing of these poor creatures is made of coarse wool, which they dress and weave themselves. Their principal food is unsifted rye; this they bake into cakes in the autumn, so as to last the whole year.”
It was in January, 1824, that Neff commenced his labour of love on these wild heights. He soon began to make himself acquainted with his people, and to preach in various parts of his widely scattered charge; at the same time organizing little companies, who were to meet at stated periods for prayer and reading the scriptures. It was not on the Sunday only that he went the round of his churches ; but he was “ Ever visiting, now one quarter, and then another; and happy did they esteem themselves at whose table he sat down, and under whose roof he lodged for the night. When his arrival was expected in certain hamlets, whose rotation to be visited was supposed to be coming round, it was beautiful to see the cottages send forth their inhabitants to watch the coming of the beloved minister. Come, take your dinner with us?—Let me prepare your supper?- Permit me to give up my bed to you?'--were re-echoed from many a voice, and though there was nothing in the repast which denoted a feast-day, yet never was festival observed with greater rejoicing than by those whose rye-bread and pottage were shared by the Pastor Neff
. Sometimes, when the old people of one cabin were standing at the doors, and straining their eyes to catch the first view of their guide to heaven, the youngsters of another were perched on the summit of a rock, and stealing a prospect which would afford them an earlier sight of him, and give them the opportunity of offering the first invitation. It was on these occasions, that he obtained a perfect knowledge of the people, questioning them about such of their domestic concerns as he might be supposed to take an interest in, as well as about their spiritual condition, and finding where he could be useful both as a secular adviser and a relis gious counsellor. 'Could all their children read? Did they understand what they read ? Did they offer up morning and evening prayers ? Had they any wants that he could relieve? Any doubts that he could remove ? Any afflictions wherein he could be a comforter ?' It was thus that he was the father of his flock, and master of their affections and their opin. ions; and when the saniors asked for his blessing, and the children took hold of his hands or hi. knees, he felt all the fatigue of his long journeys pass away, and became recruited with new strength.”
Captain Cotton, who visited the valley of Fressenière about this time, has given the following account of Neffos preaching :
“ His congregations are so dispersed, that he is of necessity in continual motion from one village to another. On arriving, perhaps after a toilsome walk of several leagues over the mountains, he calls the inhabitants together, and commences his service. Those who assemble first, when in a private house or stable, where the assembly usually takes place in the winter, pass the time in singing hymns, the women spinning or knitting, until he appears. It is a simple service among simple people, several of whose hearts, however, are impressed with the Gospel. A table is placed for the minister. Some forms or chairs are brought for the rest, all sitting with a thick carpet of manure under their feet; one or two lamps, suspended by strings, throw their light on the plain-featured and plainly-attired group, and show the cattle ranged at their mangers behind. Sometimes the hymns that the congregation are singing at his entrance furnish a subject for Neff's discourse, sometimes he expounds a chapter of the Bible, or preaches from a text; singing and extempore prayer preceding and concluding the service.”
Neff appears to have laboured without ceasing. We here give a specimen of his unremitting attention to the wants of his people:
“ Having spent the Thursday of passion-week at the village of Dormil. leuse, and Good Friday at Minsas and Violins, the pastor thought it right to give Saturday to the inhabitants of Fressinière and Palons. On EasterSunday he again officiated in the new church at Violins, and administered the Sacrament to an assembly so numerous, that it was remarked by the oldest people, that they had never before seen half the same number of communicants. On Easter-Monday, the untired minister performed three public services at Dormilleuse, at which the whole of the Protestant popula. tion of the valley, who could climb the rock, were present."
This unremitting labour was no weariness to this devoted man. He was happy in his privations and perils ; he felt that holy pleasure in his engagements which lessened every difficulty, and enabled him to fulfil his course with joy. Speaking of the preceding days spent at Dormilleuse and Fressinière, he says:
“ So passed this week, this holy week, for such it really was in the valley. The inhabitants spent it in penitence and prayer, or in pious reading or conversation. All the young people seemed to be animated by the same spirit; a flame of holy fire appeared to spread from one to another, like an electric spark. During the whole of the eight days, I had not thirty hours' rest. Before and after, and in the interval of, public services, the young people might be seen sitting in groups among the huge blocks of granite, with which the place is covered, edifying each other by serious reading or conversation. I was absolutely astonished by this sudden awakening. I could scarcely collect my scattered thoughts. The rocks, the cascades, even the surrounding ice, seemed to present a new and less dreary aspect. This savage country became agreeable and dear to me: it was at once the home of my brethren, the beloved Jerusalem of my affections."
Perhaps no modern memoir has been more widely circulated than than that of the Pastor Oberlin, of the Ban de la Roche. We are told, that previous to Neffos entering on his ministry, he used to regard Oberlin as a beautiful model of a mountain pastor. Between these consecrated servants of God there is a great resemblance, which is increased by the condition of their charge being so much alike. Neft"s situation was like that of a Missionary among an uncivilized tribe. He had to teach them every thing. He had to shew them how to build a school-room ; how to use the line and plummet; how to irrigate their meadows, and how to cultivate their barren soil, so as to be most productive. He was their spiritual instructor and their constant guide.
“ Like the philosopher with the shipwrecked crew, in the uninhabited is land, his example, his contrivances, his persuasions, his suggestions, were ever leading the way to some new improvement in their condition. He taught them to improve their dwelling ; to cultivate their lands to greater advantage; to employ time profitably and agreeably, that had previously hung heavy upon their hands; and to find occupation and amusement in
numberless resources, of which they had no conception till his arrival among them. He was their school-master, in short, not only to bring them unto Christ, but to instruct them in whatever was useful and advantageous.
“His first attempt of this kind, was to impart to them an idea of domestic convenience. Chimneys and windows to their hovels were luxuries to which few of them had aspired, till he shewed them how easy it was to make a passage for the smoke, and admittance for the light and air. He next convinced them that warmth might be obtained more healthily, than by pigging together for six or seven months in stables, from which the muck of the cattle was removed but once during the year. For their coarse and unwholesome food, he had, indeed, no substitute ; because the sterility of the soil would produce no other, but he pointed out a mode of tillage by which they increased the quantity; and in cases of illness, when they had no conception of applying the simplest remedies, he pointed out the comfort which a sick person may derive from light and warm soups, and other soothing assistance. So ignorant were they of what was hurtful or beneficial in acute disorders, that wine and brandy were no unusual prescriptions in the height of a raging fever. Strange enough, and still more characteristic of savage life, the women, till Neff taught the men better manners, were treated with so much disregard, that they never sat at table with their husbands or brothers, but stood behind them, and received morsels from their hands with obeisance and profound reverence. ' But with all this,' says Neff, 'they participated in the general corruption of human nature, as far as their poverty would let them. Gaming, dancing, swearing, and quarrelling were not uncommon, though the Papists, who occupied the lower part of the valley, were certainly much more corrupt. Nevertheless, the wretchedness of this people commends them to our compassion, and ought to excite the deepest interest, when we consider, that it is the result of their ancestors' fidelity to our cause. Persecution has penned them up like frightened and helpless sheep, in a narrow gorge, where there is scarcely a habitation which is not exposed to avalanches, snow, or falling rocks. From the first moment of my arrival, I took them as it were to my heart, and I ardently desired to be unto them even as another Oberlin. Unfortunately I could not then give them more than a week in each month, whereas, such is the length of the valley, and the number of the hamlets, that I ought to be constantly there. But the Almighty has been pleased to bless the little care that I could bestow upon them, and to permit a change to be produced in more respects than one.
Among the many improvements introduced, the cutting of a water channel is particularly interesting, because it at first met with their decided opposition ; but being completed gave the pastor an entire dominion over the minds of his people. It was in the valley of Fressinière that this aqueduct was made. One of the principal resources of the valley is the breeding and pasturage of cattle. But the winter is so long, and the tracts of land capable of producing fodder are so scanty, that every blade of grass that can be raised and made into hay, is a very treasure. A dry summer often left them unprovided with hay, and compelled the poor creatures to part with their stock at an inadequate price. Neff's eye perceived that a direction might be given to the streams in one part, which would improve the ground in another, and furnish the proprietors with constant means of keeping the grass fresh and moist. But he found the utmost difficulty in explaining the simplest principles of hydraulics, and in persuading his ignorant listeners that the water might be made to rise and fall, and might be dammed up and distributed, accordingly as it might be required for use. The imaginary expense stared them in the face like certain ruin;