Alexandre Vinet (1797-1847)

For almost a century, the writings of Swiss theologian Alexandre Vinet had a major influence on French-speaking Protestantism.

Biographical notes

  • Alexandre Vinet (1797-1847) © S.H.P.F.

Alexandre Vinet may be considered as the most prominent thinker of XIXth century French-speaking Protestantism ; he was born in Lausanne on June 17, 1797. After reading theology at the Lausanne Académie, he went to Basel to teach French at a girls’ school, then he taught French literature at the local university. In 1836 the protestant and Parisian Société de la Morale Chrétienne (Society for Christian Morality) brought him a great success by awarding its prize to his Mémoire en faveur de la liberté des cultes (Essay in favour of freedom of worship) which is one of the great manifestoes of the time for religious freedom. From 1830 onwards his regular contribution to the Protestant Parisian periodical Le Semeur helped establish his reputation as a literary critic and his Discours sur quelques sujets religieux (Treatise on some religious topics), published in 1831, was re-edited several times and soon followed by other similar publications. These confirmed him as a religious thinker who deserved to be taken into account.

Although ordained at the beginning of his stay in Basel, Vinet was never in charge of a parish ; but this did not prevent his appointment as a Professor of practical theology at the Lausanne Académie. His competence earned him the reputation of being the most learned expert in this field in French-speaking countries, elsewhere in Europe and in North America. In 1842, his Essai sur la manifestation des convictions religieuses (Essay on the expression of religious beliefs) added a sharper polemical tone to his 1826 Mémoires. He defended without the slightest compromise the principle of a necessary and absolute separation between Church and State, even though the Reformed Church of his canton was a State Church. The purpose of the 1845 radical revolution in the canton of Vaud was precisely to make the ministers comply with its political orientation. As a result Vinet’s separatist theses became the programme of a number of ministers and some congregations who, in 1847, founded a free Church, independent from the State and quite distinct from the national Church. Although his health had much deteriorated, Vinet lived long enough to witness the establishment of a Church created according to his principles ; he died on 4 May, 1847.

Vinet's thoughts and writings

Except for his 1842 Essai, Vinet did not leave any truly systematic treatise. He is more of an essayist and a moralist in the best sense of the word. An exacting thinker, a fervent and scrupulous Christian, he attempted to ally the demands of the Christian faith and those of liberty by constantly underlining their convergence and their common destiny. His favourite authors were the classical writers of the age of Louis XIV. Like them, Vinet applied strict rules to his language style and considered this as a moral and spiritual necessity. He was considerably influenced by the writings of Blaise Pascal, and can be considered as the most “pascalien” of all Protestant theologians. In his other writings, Vinet shows himself to be a religious thinker more influenced by literary works than by theological schools of thought. Yet his thinking is deeply rooted in an evangelical faith. He was highly original in that he had the rare ability of combinig two demands often difficult to reconcile : on the one hand, a great interest in and a sharp attention paid to literary works and, on the other hand, a piety strongly marked by the ideas of the religious Revival.

As a teacher Vinet was eager to put his students in touch with the best representatives of language and thought. His Chrestomathie française in 3 volumes was long considered a model textbook of the French language. Simultaneously, he insisted on the necessity of a sound education for women, essential for the well-being of society as a whole ; he took part in the establishment of a girls’ school in Lausanne that still bears his name.

As a moralist, Vinet constantly underlined the fact that there can be no religion without ethics, and no ethics without religion – not so much in the established sense of these words, but rather as referring to each individual’s responsibility in all aspects of life : citizenship and public life, in educational, family, church and artistic activities. One sentence well sums up his point of view : « I want man to be his own master so that he can be a better servant to all » (Je veux l’homme maître de lui-même afin qu’il soit mieux le serviteur de tous).

As a theologian Vinet was too scrupulous to be taken up by harrowing doctrinal revisions. Nevertheless, as years went by, he abandons doctrinal expressions which, though traditional, no longer corresponded to his deeply-felt beliefs – as, for example, the notion of expiation. Another quotation from his writings is : « if error is not free, neither is truth » (là où l’erreur n’est pas libre, la vérité ne l’est pas non plus).

In practical theology – that is, the branch of theology that dealing with the practice of the pastoral ministry – Vinet left only notes and manuscripts which were to be published in book form after his death and were soon considered as real textbooks. His Théologie pastorale (Pastoral Theology) and his Homilétique ou théorie de la prédication (Homiletics) define the ministry as being wholly devoted to serving a message made of « what does not naturally reach the heart of man » (ce qui n’est pas monté naturellement au cœur de l’homme), a message whose very essence is a call to repentance, for salvation and for service. In a century where the old institutional religious landmarks were beginning to stagger, he stressed the importance of individualised pastoral care that takes into account the diversity of situations and temperaments. His point of view had a lasting influence on pastoral duties as exercised in French-speaking Protestant churches right up to the first half of the XIXth century.

By his writings and for almost a century, Vinet greatly influenced the whole of French-speaking Protestantism – liberal and orthodox alike. He was deeply convinced that Christianity consists of a very personal and almost mystical link to the person and message of Jesus Christ, while being founded primarily on conscience and thought. Along with the first Protestant representatives in psychology of religion, the theologians who most distinctly claimed to follow him were Auguste Sabatier, with his criticism of regimes authoritative in matters of faith, and Gaston Frommel with his attachment to the notion of spiritual experience.

Author: Bernard Reymond

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