Felix Neff The Brainerd Of The High Alps
Â“How is it that two hundred years after his death Protestants of France unite to celebrate the work of an evangelist with neither degree nor diploma and whose ministry in France lasted less than four years? How is it that one of the most isolated valleys in the High Alps became the scene of a mighty work of God, one of the high places of French Protestantism and the center of an annual gathering of many thousands of people, at Freyssinieres?Â” So questioned Mr. G. Williams, after a recent trip to those parts.
Felix Neff had much in common with David Brainerd who labored among the American Indians under similar primitive conditions. Both were young. Both came to their field of labor under a cloud of misrepresentation. Both were most self-sacrificing. Both remained unmarried. Both died at an early age from over-exertion under conditions of extreme hardship. Both experienced a work of reviving grace. Both were men of prayer.
Felix Neff, of Swiss extraction, was born at Geneva, October 8, 1798. In early infancy, he was deprived of his father. His mother, although a professed deist, never interfered with her sonÂ’s early love for the church. Although her means were limited because of widowhood, she gave him everything possible for his mental development. Tokens of motherly affection were withheld from him save in his sleep, as she wanted to inculcate manly qualities in him.
Â“I followed the world,Â” said Mrs. Neff, Â“and my union with a man of brilliant parts and skeptical opinions soon ended in making me, like himself, a deist and an habitual and deliberate neglector of public worship. Not so was it with my child. At a very early age, he delighted to attend the sacred assemblies, and not only did he never fail doing so, but was remarkable for the seriousness of his deportment. Happily, he never asked me why I did not go.Â”
Felix was self-taught in botany, history and geography. From his pastor, he gained some knowledge in Latin. He was gifted with a most retentive memory, truthful to a fault, but was strong-willed and haughty. Because the local village schoolmaster lacked a proper education, the mother became tutor to her son.
Before the lad was thirteen, they removed to Cartigny. Felix had by this time, exhausted the library of which their home could boast, as well as any books his mother could acquire for him. An effort to locate him in a good school failed in its endeavor. As employment was most difficult to procure, the teenage lad occupied his leisure hours studying insect life and trees and wrote a treatise on the care of the latter. He also continued his mathematical and Latin studies. He had read Plutarch and Rousseau from the age of eight until he was sixteen, but their infidel arguments did not seem to affect him.
But God was preparing His instrument. His mother writes, Â“I had always left him to follow his own inclinations. Alas, I saw not the Hand which controlled us both, leading me to send him to the good Pastor Montinie, who soon appreciated his character and anxiously wished to be of service to him. He advised my son to enter the army, seeing we were nearly destitute of pecuniary resources.Â”
Here, by his seriousness and application to work, Felix was rapidly advanced to the rank of sergeant, much to the chagrin of those who had been training much longer. His Captain once said to him, Â“You leave nothing for the soldiers to do Â– you have no idea of commanding.Â” Â“It is the best and surest way of command,Â” replied the youth.
From an early age, he had fixed ideas of the evils of the world. Â“Do you think there is no amusement at a theatre?Â” queried a friend. Â“On the contrary, I think there is too much,Â” was the reply.
A conviction that the spring of all his actions was selfish, caused him in deep distress to pray, Â“Oh, my God, whatsoever Thou art, make me to know Thy truth; vouchsafe to manifest Thyself to me.Â” He began a diligent study of the Bible, as it seemed to him that no other book could unlock the mysteries regarding the unregenerate state of the human heart. To him as yet, however, God was a stern Judge, not a merciful Father."
Spiritual understanding came to him about this through a book, Â“Honey flowing from the Rock,Â” loaned to him by his Pastor. It was written by an Englishman, Thomas Willcock. This passage brought balm to the young man: Â“If you knew Jesus Christ, you would not for all the world wish to do a single good work without Him. If you already know Him, you know that He is the Rock of salvation, infinitely above any righteousness of our own. This Rock will follow you everywhere. From this Rock flows the honey of grace, which alone can satisfy you. Would you go to Jesus? Renounce all ideas of your own goodness, taking with you nothing but your misery and sin."
Â“Would you know all the horrors of sin? Do not be content to examine its extent in yourself. Go to Jesus on the cross; behold in His sufferings the malignity of sin and tremble. Let the Spirit of God guide you in the study of the Bible. It is a mine wherein the most precious treasure is hid, even the knowledge of Christ.Â”
Written on the margin of the book were the words, Â“Felix Neff has found peace here on these two pages.Â” And of the experience he wrote, Â“When after a thousand useless vows and a thousand ineffective efforts, I learned at last that in me dwells no good thing, I was happy indeed to run across a book which depicted with exact truth the miserable state of my heart and showed me at the same time the only efficacious remedy. I received with joy the good news, that we should go to Christ with all our stains, all our unbelief, and all our impenitence.Â”
Although e energetic convert was far from satisfied with the spiritual condition of the national Church of Switzerland, he was not a separatist and sought by holding reunions Â– Bible studies and prayer meetings – within the established church to deepen its spiritual life.
Speaking of his labors in Switzerland, he writes, Â“Helped in the vinages in the day, and in the evening peasants assembled to receive instruction. I spoke of evangelical simplicity in opposition to barren theology. The whole of this Canton seems preparing for a great revival; at least, if one may judge by the agitation of Satan. I have held thirteen prayer meetings in seven different villages, and they have been attended by half the population of the place. I visit all the pious Christians in their own houses and those who are as yet but inquiring.Â”
He saw clearly that the world would tolerate its followers professing a belief in the Bible, but would severely punish those who sought to govern their lives by its precepts. Therefore, everywhere he spoke of the necessity of separation from the world.
These unpopular tenets, which the young exhorter held and taught, first surprised and then enraged the ministers who would not allow any religious teaching not under their direct supervision. Â“I remarked,Â” Neff wrote, Â“that I could not see how prayer meetings, carried on without any regular system, without a liturgy, or without the celebration of sacraments, could be in any way detrimental to the interest or tranquility of the established ministry. Either the established minister receives his authority from men or from God. If he receives it from men, we have no occasion to respect it as divine. If he receives it from God, let him prove that he does so, by respecting all that God does to promote the advancement of His heavenly kingdom, and not arrogate himself the right of prescribing to God the means He is to use for the accomplishment of this purpose.Â”
Ill health forced Felix Neff to leave the Jura without delay. In Neuchatel, opposition to his reunions caused him to record in his diary, "Jan.10, 1821. Permission to remain till 5th of April; many are hungry, but Government tolerates me, and the Lord has opened many hearts.Â”
A providence brought him to the notice of M. Blanc, pastor of Mens, in France. An interview was arranged, and Neff observed,Â“I informed him that I never pursued any regular course of study and that I should certainly never be ordained at Geneva. He did not seem to think the worse of me for this and invited me to visit him at Mens. He even would like me to pass some months there, in the absence of his colleague.Â”
At twenty-four years of age, Neff left his native Switzerland for France, where the few Protestants were poorly provided with clergy. He labored for six months as an assistant to a pastor in Genoble, using the same methods of reunions. Of these Neff writes,
Â“I am more and more convinced that these reunions are a very efficacious means of promoting practical piety. They encourage mutual confidence, humility, simplicity and brotherly love. I know by experience that the dead and lifeless state of which we all complain is occasioned by our own fault. We either do not pray, or we are not persevering and assiduous in prayer. Our heart being naturally at a distance from God, it is not a single step that will bring us next to Him, neither will a few minutes of cold prayer suffice to support our souls.Â”
In 1822, the young evangelist removed to Mens and assisted M. Blanc in instructing the catechumens, who numbered seventy. Once a week the young assistant visited them, only one-fifth of whom resided at Mens, the remainder being scattered in twenty different villages in almost impassable country. He was very disappointed to discover Â“not one single ripe ear of cornÂ” in so large a harvest field and bemoaned the worldly spirit which predominated.
Â“There is little spiritual life in this place,Â” he wrote, Â“and even B. himself, I cannot help thinking, seems too well satisfied that he is a Protestant and to be content with that. I perceive he is afraid I should establish prayer meetings, for he often talks to me of the danger of innovations, and of going too far. I am, however, thankful that he approves of the true and wholesome doctrines of the Gospel, and I trust that the Lord will yet further open his eyes. Invited into society, I hear nothing but worldly conversation, for B. never introduces religious subjects, except for the purpose of controversy.Â”
NeffÂ’s courageous and faithful teaching began to reap results. Some striking cases of deep conviction, culminating in salvation, encouraged the evangelist. Something akin to a revival took place affecting a large area.
There were disheartening set-backs. A long letter from a minister in Geneva to M. Blanc, delineating NeffÂ’s faults and short-comings, warned the Pastor to take care of wolves in sheepÂ’s clothing. Then the absent minister, for whom Neff had acted as substitute, returned and sought reinstatement. Some reluctance among the people to do this resulted in party spirit, the minister openly misrepresenting Felix Neff and deriding his rigid sentiments. This influenced some who had given bright promise. About one hundred families, fearing that their faithful catechist would leave them, offered to raise a stipend for him. These considered him a saint, but their praise wounded Neff quite as much as had the misrepresentations.
M. Blanc was very tolerant of this young assistant to whom he would at times unburden his heart. Even the reproofs Neff administered from time to time were received in a gracious manner, for M. Blanc had come to know the sterling worth of the young man, who was undeterred by inclement weather and who never thought of himself.
Summing up NeffÂ’s ministry in Mens, Blanc wrote, Â“during his residence among us of nearly two years, he was instrumental in effecting the greatest good. Zeal for religion increased; many people were brought seriously to think of their immortal souls; the Bible was more deeply searched and carefully read; the catechumens were better informed in their Christian duties and showed improvement by their conduct; family worship was established in many houses; the love of luxury and vanity greatly diminished; schools were established; a visible improvement had taken place in the manners and industrious habits of our Protestants."
Â“Gifted with great natural abilities, especially with an unusual degree of eloquence and, having his heart warmed with love of his Savior, he preached several times in the course of a day, but never repeated the same discourse.Â”
In order to be more acceptable to the church in France, Neff sought ordination. But he could not receive it there, because of his irregular studies. So he applied to a body of pastors of the Independent congregations in England who acceded to his request. Upon his return from England, Neff was to learn that suspicions regarding his being ordained abroad had spread. He was misrepresented as a hidden enemy with foreign religious connections who was disseminating new doctrines. The local magistrate had had the reunions misrepresented to him and requested that these be discontinued, so Neff looked elsewhere for a field of labor. He preached his farewell sermon on, Â“We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom.Â”
Turning his thoughts to the High Alps, Neff wrote,Â“Among the Alps I should be the sole pastor. In the south, I should be surrounded by pastors, many of them on good terms with the world and should be constantly annoyed.Â”
After much difficulty as to naturalization and a permit to labor, the ardent evangelist finally, at the age of twenty-six began the work for which he is most remembered. For a few years, in order to feed the scattered flock of God, he constantly traveled back and forth over the dangerous passes of the highest and coldest parish in all France.
One of his journeys, described in his journal, will give us some conception of the travel difficulties. The day was stormy, and the villagers entreated the young minister not to cross the Col in such weather. But Neff, feeling he must preach at Dormilleuse at the appointed time, procured a guide and, armed with a large stick, approached the mountain.
Â“It requires the pen of a poet to describe the awful and magnificent scenery,Â” he writes. Â“We were knee deep in snow. A storm of hail, driven by a sharp wind, accompanied the repeated claps of thunder, and the rolling of the avalanches falling from the highest rocks. The lightning flashed above and below us, and the drifts of snow threatened to overwhelm us."
Â“Happily, all this storm was at our backs, and there was a precipice near us. We, therefore, were in no real danger. At last we reached the Col, where we found snow three feet deep and the wind insupportable. We arrived at the descent, and I then dismissed my guide and continued to descend, still up to my knees in snow. A fog arose, and I could just see the points of the rocks gilded with the rays of the sun. I then sang a few verses of the Â‘Te DeumÂ’ and, quickening my pace, I discovered the tracks of some sheep driven into the valley by the snow. I arrived by daylight at Dormilleuse, where they were not a little surprised to see me.Â”
In a letter to a friend, he describes the historical and moral setting of the people among whom he worked.Â“This village (Dormilleuse), the highest in the valley of Freyssinieres, is celebrated for the stout resistance which its inhabitants, for more than sixty years, have made against the encroachments of the Church of Rome. They are the lineal, unadulterated descendants of the Vaudois and never bowed their knees to Baal."
Â“The remains of forts and walls, which they had built to prevent the enemy from surprising them are still to be seen. And the almost inaccessible nature of their country was also a great means of their preservation. The population of this village is entirely Protestant, as well as that of the other villages of the valley. The aspect of this country, at once dreadful and sublime, which afforded a shelter to truth while the rest of the world lay in darkness; the recollection of those ancient and faithful martyrs, whose blood even now stains the rocks; the deep caverns whither they retired to read the Scriptures and to worship the Father of light in spirit and in truth Â– all tend to elevate the soul and excite feelings and emotions impossible to describe."
Â“But these thoughts soon give place to grief, when the mindÂ’s eye rests on the present condition of the descendants of those ancient witnesses of the crucified Jesus. They are degenerated in every sense of the word. And their state reminds the Christian that sin and death are all that the sons of Adam can really bequeath to their descendants. And, alas, that inheritance is inalienable."
Â“A great respect for the Scripture is, nevertheless, kept up amongst them, and we must hope that they are still Â‘beloved for their fathersÂ’ sakes,Â’ and that the Lord will again cause His face to shine upon that place, which He chose for His sanctuary."
Â“The work of an evangelist in High Alps greatly resembles that of a missionary among the savages; the almost equal degree of uncivilization that prevails among them both, being a great obstacle to missionary labors. Among the valleys, under my charge, that of Freyssinieres is the most backward. Architecture, agriculture, education of every sort is in its very earliest infancy."
Â“Many houses are without chimneys, and many without windows. All the family, during the seven winter months, stow themselves into the stable, which is only cleaned once a year. Their dress and food are equally coarse and unwholesome. Their bread, which is made once a year, consists of the coarsest rye. If any of them are ill, they have no doctor, and no one to administer either medicine or sick food. The invalid may think himself happy if he can obtain a draught of water."
Â“The women are harshly treated, as among people still in a barbarous state. They seldom sit down, but generally kneel or crouch down. They never sit at table or eat with the men, who give them a piece of bread over their shoulder without looking around Â– a miserable pittance, which they receive with a low reverence, kissing the hand of the giver."
Â“The inhabitants of these melancholy villages were so wild, when I first came among them that, at the sight of a stranger, even a peasant, they would run away into their huts. The people participated in the general corruption, as far as poverty would permit. Gambling, dancing, swearing, quarrelling are to be met with here as elsewhere."
Â“There is scarcely a house that is proof against the snow drifts and pieces of falling rock. I conceived a peculiar affection for this valley and felt an ardent desire to become, as it were, an Oberlin to the poor people. Unfortunately, I was not able to spend more than a week with them in the course of a month.Â”
Felix Neff, in his short period of service, helped to build schools and temples for worship. He also taught improved methods of potato culture and introduced irrigation, assisting in its construction. He founded schools and secured teachers, but it was for the spiritual reviving of this people that he travailed.
A genuine movement of the Spirit was noticed when he visited Freyssinieres. It seemed as though the whole valley had assembled, and a solemnity and awe rested upon the entire congregation. Passing on to other villages, he witnessed still further proofs of a moving of the Spirit.
Â“All the people seemed to give themselves up to reading, meditation and prayer; the young people especially seemed animated by a holy spirit; a heavenly flame appeared to have communicated itself from one to another. I had scarcely thirty hoursÂ’ rest during the week."
Â“I am struck with astonishment at the apparent suddenness of this awakening. I could scarcely believe my senses. Even the rocks, the cascades and the ice seemed inspired with life and offered up to my eye a less dismal and gloomy prospect than formerly. This wild country has become dear and delightful to me, now that it has become the habitation of Christian brethren.Â”
The exertions of this lowly ambassador of Christ had taken a heavy toll. Writing in his journal, he remarks,
Â“My constant Alpine journeys were both painful and dangerous, on account of the severity of the winter. Constant internal pains and indigestion obliged me to observe an abstinence but ill-suited to the fatigue and cold to which I was exposed. My stomach sensibly weakened by the coarse food and irregularity of my meals, and perhaps in some degree, too, by the uncleanliness of the cookery utensils used in this country. I soon perceived that it was absolutely necessary to seek medical assistance Â– assistance which, with all their good will, these poor mountaineers could not procure me.Â”
In 1827, at only twenty-nine years of age, the sick man left his beloved people for Geneva. For the first few months of rest, he rallied so much that people did not believe him to be ill. But a relapse set in toward spring. It altered him so much that old friends scarcely knew him, and strangers took his mother for his wife, although she was sixty-seven.
As the untiring worker now reviewed his years of labor, he could see how he had overstrained his body by incessant labors.
Â“This interruption of my activity is a trial I well deserve. I often feared, in the midst of my greatest vigor, that I placed too much confidence in my strength and pleased myself too much in a power of action which nothing seemed capable of interrupting or wearying. Thus I ran the risk of one day being deprived of it, for the sake of my spiritual good.Â”
How often in those days of enforced rest he longed to be back in the High Alps.
Â“In spirit,Â” he wrote, Â“I often revisit your valleys and long to be able to endure cold and fatigue, to sleep in a stable on a bed of straw, in order to proclaim the Word of God. My words have often wearied you, and my plainness of speech has often offended you, and many of you saw me depart with joy. But were I still amongst you, I should not change my language. Truth is unchangeable. I should still entreat you, in the name of Jesus to be reconciled to God.Â”
No murmur was heard to pass his lips during those long, long months of illness. During the last weeks of his life, he endured agony and could not bear reading or receiving visitors. He was heard to whisper, Â“Victory, victory, victory in Jesus Christ,Â” as the end approached. Felix Neff then passed from the scene of his short labors to receive the MasterÂ’s Â“Well done.Â”
What was the secret of this young manÂ’s endurance under such hardship, toil and misunderstanding? Early in his Christian life, he had understood that going Â“without the campÂ” is the lot of every dedicated Christian. He had armed his mind with the thought that we must fill up the sufferings of Christ.
Writing in all frankness to his close friend, M. Blanc, he reveals his inner attitude toward this subject.
Â“I have often told you why you find it so difficult to endure the hatred, contempt and perfidy of the world. It is because you cannot bring yourself to believe that thus it must be, and that this continual struggle is inseparable from the Gospel. It is because, on entering the ministry, you did not take this into consideration, but rather reckoned on the esteem of men, on worldly ease and comfort. My case is different."
Â“When my eyes first opened to the bright light of the Gospel, it was a critical moment, and I saw nothing but the rage and fury of the wolf against the sheep of the Good Shepherd. I now think nothing of the little contradiction I meet with. Nevertheless, I wish not to boast, for if, by the grace of God, I have some strength, I have but little in comparison with other laborers a thousand times more faithful than I am. And besides, I have so many causes for humiliation that I must be worse than a fool to esteem myself on any account."
Â“He Who came to open the kingdom of heaven to us was far from having His earthly path strewed with roses and met with but little honor and respect."
Â“Do not, I entreat you, talk of Â‘an end of all this,Â’ of Â‘Satan being conquered,Â’ etc. Either lay down your arms and submit at once to the enemy, or make up your mind to a life of warfare. If outward peace were to be granted you, I should fear that spiritual life would soon expire. Perfect peace in this world is death to the new man. For our flesh Â– no peace, no repose, no honor, no esteem.Â”
Quotations By Felix Neff
Â“Abide in me. It is not given to any creature to have life in itself. It is only in proportion as Christ dwells in us, and we in Him, that we have any real life in us."
Â“To those whose spiritual life has gradually become feeble and languishing, I say without hesitation that this evil arises from their neglect of prayer and meditation. They are content to know these things without practicing them. They speak of the grace of God, but they seek it not. They know Jesus Christ, but they do not cultivate a close communion with Him. They are not sufficiently Christians in private. They do not seek Christ in their closets."
Â“The source of life is not in ourselves. It is in God and in proportion as we neglect to apply to this source, by prayer, reading and medication, we shall become dry and unfruitful; just as a meadow in a sandy soil, and exposed to the sun would languish and fade for want of water.Â”