A letter from Quebec, 1817

25th August 2016

'Report from the missions: a letter from Monsieur de Putron, to the Editor. Quebec, January 1, 1817.' From the Magasin Méthodiste, 1818, p. 91, addressed to Jean de Queteville, Methodist pioneer and founder and editor of the magazine. Guernsey began very early to export French-speaking missionaries all over the world; poor Jean de Putron, however, felt let down by his Guernsey accent and inferior French, as spoken in Guernsey.

My dear brother in Christ. I am sure that you have been expecting a letter from me for a long time now; I have often thought about writing to you, but this is the first time I have actually got around to it.  It is over a month since I arrived in Montreal; I was here four months last summer, preaching every week. Oh! How painful it is to preach the Gospel to mad folk! It is however a thousand times worse to do it to obstinate, superstitious and ignorant people, who are smugly convinced that their church is the only source of salvation. I assure you that even with all the crosses you have to bear, and all the trials you face, you haven’t any cause for complaint; because at least people are listening to you. Here is an extract of a letter I have recently received from Montreal, from which you will see just how much the Priests detest us.

Montreal, 17 December 1816

‘I have been asked by poor Manon to tell you of her distressing circumstances. She is now a widow, with 4  young children, with no source of help or support. Her husband passed away on the 29th of last month, his death being quite sudden: but what has made her affliction worse are the aggravating events surrounding his death, and which upset her so much she almost lost her senses over it. When it became clear to her husband that the dread monster had laid his hand upon him, and that his death was inevitable, he sent for the priest, who refused to attend him; a second, third, fourth did exactly the same. Eventually the fifth one who was asked, being more compassionate than his brothers, agreed, on condition that the man's wife and children left the house, a condition to which they submitted out of loving concern for his salvation; the priest then went in and reproached him very severely for having allowed you to preach there [in his house]. He forced him to renounce his wife and children; and he made him promise, in front of seven witnesses, that should he get well again he would never again accept them as his legitimate wife and children. He died two hours afterward, and his wife, overcome with sorrow, never saw him again. She returned the next morning and fainted away at the door of her own house, where they refused to allow her to remain, saying that if she stayed there they would not bury the body.’

I am not going to make any comment about this letter (adds M de Putron) but what do you think about it? This poor woman was married by a Protestant, and when I was at Montreal I preached 2 or 3 times in her house. She used to read her Bible, but did not have much respect for Priests; they threatened her if she allowed me to preach there again, and her neighbours began physically to abuse her; that’s why I had to stop. The suburbs are the best parts of town, but the houses almost all belong to Canadians, who are unwilling to open them up, so what can be done? Being called a Methodist is prejudicial, since they have no idea what it actually means. There is no public opposition to me from the Priests, but when people go to confession, they have no compunction at all in imposing a pretty straightforward penance, for having listened to me preach; they forbid them to come back. They have a seminary, and three or four convents. A large Church, which had not even been completed, was burnt down a few days ago; it was destroyed in a less than two hours. (It was undoubtedly made of wood.) On Christmas Day they begin their service at 5 a.m.; I went there soon after. They had three or four candles lit, 70 to 80 priests, clerics, church officials and schoolchildren, who sang mass in an unknown language, in the stalls, and 2 or 3 thousand poor unfortunates who listened to them without understanding them. Such is their religion. Believe me, Sir, there is plenty there to amuse a foreigner; in some ways it is more entertaining than going to the public theatre. I haven’t spoken to any of these Priests yet; you hardly ever see them in church; what’s more they don’t like discussing religion outside their seminary, and who would want to get involved in that? It would be pointless.

I find I just can’t fully do my duty in every way I should. Seeing my ignorance, my weaknesses, how limited my ideas are, and the dreadful state of those to whom I preach the gospel, my heart would lead me to believe that it is impossible to achieve anything; but for God everything is possible; yes, I hope He will cover us with his Spirit, and that He will show them that it is through the madness of preaching that men are saved. I listened to a Priest’s sermon on Sunday. Human respect was the subject. He told us that human respect is against 1. God, 2, sense, 3. the soul’s salvation. What an admirable choice of subject for the consolation of those who will all eventually die!

How irritating it is that our Guernsey friends are so set against literature! On its own it is worthless, but, with grace, it is a great help in shutting up gainsayers. Oh! If only I could have my time again! I would spend it in study instead of wasting it. Our Guernsey patois is horrible.¹ It is not only useless, it works against you: you don’t hear it here at all; the Canadians often mock it. Although I am trying to drop it it is really difficult.*

You will by now have published the Cantiques; please send me 20 or 30 copies; I will send you the money. Oh! If only I could also ask you to send me some treatises in French, on conversion, or featuring striking experiences, as paper is too expensive to have them printed here.

May he whom you have so long served enrich you with his grace, and sanctify your body and soul; may he increase your faith, and may he give you the confidence and the courage of St Paul.

As you cannot give me your advice in person, at least help me with your prayers, so that God will make me prosper; may I be faithful, courageous, humble and discreet. Oh, how difficult it is to be a Christian! Lord, increase my faith, and let your grace abound in my soul; keep me from all evil. Amen. Monsieur Vincent was buried on the 27 December; he was at the meeting on Sunday and in his grave by Friday.

I am affectionately yours, &c,

Jean de Putron.

* Our friend de Putron had studied French, and improved his style and pronunciation considerably before leaving Guernsey; but from what he says here, it is easy to see how  a preacher, no matter how enthusiastic or talented, can achieve nothing in a French-speaking country, unless they have already rid themselves of their Guernsey patois and accent.

¹  'Notre jargon Guernesiais est odieux.'