John Bost, Pastor and Philanthropist
by the Rev. W. L. Lang
The death of this devoted servant of God, who some months ago resigned earthly labours for his heavenly crown, is a real loss to French Protestantism. It is not possible for us to present more than a brief sketch of this good man's life, which was so unusually full of labours of love.
John Bost was a Swiss by birth, and descended from Huguenot refugees, who were driven from Dauphiny upon the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He was the second of the ten sons of Ami Bost, who in March, 1817, the time of the birth of this remarkable child, was pastor at Moutier-Grandval. His early childhood was passed amid the heavy privations which his father had to endure. This close acquaintance with misery on the one hand, and self-sacrifice on the other, doubtness laid deeply the foundation for the intense practical sympathy with the sorrowing and suffering which, in after years, burned in the breast of John Bost.
His elder brother, in a contribution to his memoirs, lifts the veil from the early home circle, and shows us how such characters were formed by that exiled pastor's cottage fireside. Indeed, Ami himself, in his own diary, further rejoices that early impressions, developed by prayer, so soon bore such good fruit. He has thus preserved, and presented to us, the first accents of John's impetuous piety, which in later days was heard resounding in so many of the churches of France. "I arrived home one day somewhat jaded and cast down, when I was met on the threshold by my little John, then about four years old ; he was holding up to my view a soiled piece of waste-paper, shouting at the same time, 'Do you see, papa?' 'Very good, very good,' replied I, brushing past him into the house. The dear little fellow was not thus to be foiled of his purpose, for he squatted himself resolutely before me, and in a somewhat indignant tone thus challenged me, 'You do not love the kind Saviour, then?' Such an appeal commanded my instant attention, and I read his bit of paper. It had nothing whatever to do with the Saviour; it was simply a rude bucolic ballad of a shepherd and shepherdess; but the dear child knew as yet no other Shepherd. He cried, as if in triumph, 'Ah! the Good Shepherd.'"
We must linger yet to dwell upon another of these beautiful household tales, so fragrant of spiritual teaching. "I recollect one day reproving one of my children—it could only be John— when the child responded to my reproof in a very interesting way. Being then a boy of four, he had committed some little misdemeanour. At table I said to my wife, without even looking in the direction in which the child was seated, 'This child has behaved to-day in a way very unlike a child of God.' Thereupon the child dropped his spoon upon his plate, and cried out, lifting up his two little hands, 'Oh ! he says that I am not a child of God.'"
In 1829, he was apprenticed to a bookbinder, but his taste for music, which he had inherited from his grandfather, who formerly was choir-master at the Church of the Madeleine, led him to cultivate the art. His pianoforte tutors were Wolff and Lizst, both famous composers. He afterwards entered the Swiss militia. We find him in Paris in 1839, as a musical student, living as best he could, a spiritual uneasiness causing him much anxiety. At this period he went to Pasteur Louis Meyer, whose loving sympathy soon had the desired effect, and the last night of 1839 was spent in agony of soul, with others in a like condition. To John, at any rate, the lifting of the veil of 1840 discovered him to be a new man in Christ Jesus. He paid a brief visit to Ireland, in the character of a tutor, but he soon returned and took his place on the benches of the College of St. Foy; thence to the Faculty of Montauban, where, favoured by the counsel and instruction of the saintly Adolph Monod, he remained but eighteen months. Though prevented from continuing his studies by weakness, yet his natural gifts were such as to justify his ordination, which took place at Orleans in 1844.
A number of believing brethren at La Force, disapproving of the Suite pastor set over them, seceded, John Bost becoming their pastor, and he and they consequently became dissenters. Thirty-six years later he applied for his Bachelor's Degree, in order to re-enter the National Reformed Church. At his re-ordination he chose a singular text, "Ye shall find a colt tied ; loose him, and bring him… the Lord hath need of him." The sense in which he used these words was to set forth the sincere avowal of his readiness for the humblest service for the Lord. Within two years the church was opened by his father. The school soon followed. The method by which he secured a master for the latter illustrates both the pastor's tender heart, and how he was led into ever increasing responsibilities.
One cold and gloomy winter evening he found, on a retired road, a poor limping beggar, who had been passing from door to door, exhibiting a wax image. Exhausted by hunger, fatigue, and sickness, he had fallen down, and was unable to proceed. Moved with pity, the young pastor went to him, helped him to rise, and led him to his manse, where he received a night's shelter. But on the morrow he was still unable to move, and he was found to be suffering from anchylosis in one hip joint, the relief of which, it was evident, would take much time. But kind attention and good food soon did wonders for his general health ; but the difficulty regarding the use of his legs remained. In the meantime, while hoping for some possible improvement, all efforts were used to do him good. He soon showed intelligence, and learned to read, and the kind services rendered to him exercised upon his spirit an irresistible influence ; he became, under the leadings of Christian charity, a new man. Pastor Bost of course rejoiced at these great results, but the future prospects of this hopeful protégé gave him some cause for uneasiness ; for even at the end of eighteen months, he yet remained a cripple. While in this state of uncertainty, Bartier (the cripple) solved the problem himself, by writing a letter, in which he asked his benefactor to aid him in his attempt to fit himself to become a teacher. He was soon admitted to a training school in Paris, and, at the end of 2½ years, gained the first place among sixty-five who took certificates at the same session. He then became master of the pastor's new school, and subsequently married a young girl who was about to leave the institution, and he had the further joy of welcoming to his home his aged lather, who ended his days there in peace.
Even while he was a student at Montauban, John Bost had conceived the idea of founding an orphanage, on a larger scale than any then in existence. Now his dream began to develope into a serious plan, and the Vincent de Paul of Protestantism, as Dr. Pressensé calls him, began to dawn on the world. He came to Paris, and thence he proceeded to England, to advocate the claims of his projected institution, and returned witli a considerable sum of money. Then again he put his faithful parishioners to new proof of their regard for him.
On the 24th of May, 1848, while contending parties of idealists in Paris were cutting each other's throats, the Famille évangélique, as the orphanage for Protestant girls was called, was opened. This first essay at practical philanthropy, on the part of the bold young pastor, seemed to engender, as by a sort of logical necessity, various other useful adjuncts. Among the children received were some whose state was hurtful to the rest, and therefore demanded a distinct treatment. Others came whose claims he could not repel, nor did he desire to do so.
The second institution, called Bethesda, was called into existence by the seeming accident of some person having sent to the manse a poor shapeless mass—an idiot—contrary to the pastor's wish, Ton, the pastor's servant, taking charge of it, and also another which had been previously received, and the pastor himself undertaking their education, or, he says, his own. This was in 1855.
The next, Siloé, owed its origin to a cry of despair uttered by a youth totally crippled, who, on being beaten by his stepmother, was informed that the asylum of Bethesda was for girls only. "Are not boys", he said, "worth as much as girls?" Four cripple lads were the first stones of this building in 1858.
"Come quickly—Bethesda is in consternation", this was the awakening call which resulted in the founding of the next house of mercy. One of the inmates of Bethesda had been seized with an attack of epilepsy, the idiots had fled, and the blind had taken shelter under the trees in the garden. Looking at the prostrate form of the sufferer, the decision to found an asylum for epileptics, and the ejaculation of the name "Eben-Hezer" seemed simultaneous. One instance of the power of this Christian philanthropist to move all hearts, and to bear down all resistance to his loving projects, occurred in reference to the foundation of this home. M. Bost, after reading his annual report, at a meeting of his sympathisers in Paris, mentioned the project as having passed beyond the initial stage. His audience, as if by concurrent inspiration, rose in the attitude of protest. The pastor's answer was as quick as it was effectual in silencing every objector. "It's for epileptics, for poor epileptics; have pity upon them." The audience at once caught his emotion; a cheque for a thousand francs, from the chairman, and numerous promises of help, with many a "God bless you", were the ultimate response. But even such a giant in faith was once the subject of despair, the circumstances of which he had the courage to place upon record. They were these : Siloe being designed solely for epileptic girls, there came a flood of most distressing appeals on behalf of boys so afflicted. "Do, for mercy's sake", was the climax of one of these heartrending epistles. The incensed director, for the moment oft' his guard, tore up the letter, saying, "Do they take me for a God? Is there no one who will care for epileptic boys?" Very soon this lapse was severely reproved, the more so because the reproof came from the same source as all his encouragements—the recorded words of the Master, the utterance of Love incarnate, "Bring him to Me", led to the formation of the next institution. Eben-Hezer for epileptic girls, was opened in 1862, and Bethel for boys, in 1863.
Just previous to the foundation of the first of these, John Bost had married, at the somewhat lute period of 44 years of age, to one of his parishioners, Miss Eugénie Ponterie, who proved to be a real helpmeet for the philanthropic pastor, in his multifarious good works. From that time he set his heart upon the erection of a new church, which he carried forward to its realisation in 1867. He aimed to serve two purposes by that step, first, to separate the ecclesiastical from the purely philanthropic part of his work, and so secure, ere he should be called away, the recognition of the State for the former ; and, secondly, so to construct the edifice that the epileptics might attend the services, without disturbing the congregation, in case of sudden attacks of their malady.
Amid the pressing daily cares of such a family, so variously afflicted, other forms of human misery were not forgotten by him. His extensive experience of the world had brought him into contact with many useful cultured women, both widows and unmarried, who, in the decline of a self-sacrificing life, have to experience both poverty and neglect. A home called Le Repos, was opened for such in 1875, and in 1878 another, La Retraite, for women of inferior social position, and less intellectual cultivation, nurses, or servants.
Surely, one might be disposed to conclude that philanthropy had by this time found at La Force its fullest representation. No! is John Bost's reply, for the development of some of the forms of suffering already installed in its special home, furnished cause for further effort to mitigate it. There were idiots sunk in complete degradation ; epileptics whose disease had reduced them to violent madness or sullen imbecility. Their wild cries seriously disturbed the more fortunate inmates of Bethesda and Eben-Hezer. But —the funds? This query was soon answered. Two old Protestant ladies, descendants of Huguenot worthies, offered to give 100,000 francs, upon the modest condition, that no "chronicle in stone" should be made of that act upon the buildings. Space forbids any description of the clever adaptation of the two houses which were the outcome of this fresh departure. Suffice it to say that for their purpose they are perfect, the design being the pastor's own. The one called La Miséricorde was inaugurated in 1875, a notable year in the history of the institutions of La Force. The companion institution, La Compassion, has been finished since the death of the respected founder, as a tribute to his memory.
Just a word as to the institutions in their working condition. They contain 403 inmates, whose varied wants are attended to by 45 loving attendants. The cost of maintenance involves a daily expenditure of £20. They have no State support, but they have been so far recognised, as institutions useful to the community, as to be allowed permission to inherit property.
In passing through the buildings, one is struck with the order, cleanliness, and air of content, together with the spirit of mutual helpfulness, of the variously afflicted groups. John Bost himself said on one occasion, when he saw the tender care with which an idiot was attending to a sick girl, "Oh, that I might have such a watcher at my bedside, on my departure." On entering the common room of La Compassion some of the inmates laughed aloud, whilst others hid their faces in their aprons, and cried. One poor shrivelled thing, twenty years of age, looked on with grim sullenness, and seemed no bigger than a girl of ten. In the Famille we found a girl with no hands, who with her bare stumps produced a splendid piece of caligraphy, composed of these words, which was her message, by us, to the girls of England: —"Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost." This bright girl, with others, sat for examination with the specially trained children of the district, and took a high place. She threaded her needle and executed a set piece of woolwork before the inspector.
Truly, in the words of his biographer, "John Bost, at the end of thirty-six years of public life, so full of labour, of touching scenes, of anxieties and struggles, but also of consolations, and
even of triumph, was enabled to finish his work, to garner his sheaves, and to say to his Father, in a measure, as did his Master, 'I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do.'"
• Establishments of John Bost at Laforce, The Romance of Charity, by John De Liefde (1867)
• A visit ot the Asylum of Laforce, in Christian's Penny Magazine (1875)
• Asiles de Laforce en 1878 : liste des bâtiments & résidents
• John Bost : index des documents
• portraits de John Bost : photographies