Pablo Besson - For the Gospel and Religious Freedom

Pablo Besson - For the Gospel and Religious Freedom

 

When Pablo (then Paul) Besson received a request from Mathieu Floris, a Belgian emigrant to Argentina, to help him find an evangelist to spread the gospel in that country, he did his best to promote the cause. When no one answered, he understood that the call was for him.

 

From an Inherited Religion to an Understanding of the Gospel

            Besson was born in Nod, canton of Berne, Switzerland, in 1848. His father Edward was a Reformed pastor who also served the community as a physician (he had studied both medicine and theology). His mother, Elisa Revel, was a descendant of Waldensians and told her son many stories of her predecessors’ heroism and faith in persecution. Since Paul was the only child, Edward prayed fervently that he might dedicate his life to God’s service.

            With this prospect in mind, after finishing his basic studies, Paul moved on to an academy in nearby Neuchatel. Fearing that he would find his life too easy, Edward required his son to work part-time. In spite of this additional commitment, Paul finished with flying colors and continued his studies at Neuchâtel Theological College.

            Everything was going well and Paul was excelling in every way. His biographer, ..., illustrated the dangers of the ensuing self-satisfaction: “He began to feel satisfied with himself and full of that intellectual pride which is so natural at twenty years of age, when everything seems to be known.”[1] Later in life, Paul described himself as “a perfect pharisee.”[2]

            It was the family’s cook, who had worked in the Besson home for years and had seen Paul grow up, that woke him up to his true condition. “You are missing something. You are missing something,” she repeated. “You are missing the main thing.”[3]

            At first, Paul dismissed her warning and her encouragement to place his full trust in Christ crucified. After all, she was a cook and he was a theology student! But her words continued to ring in his mind.

            It was a little later, at the University of Leipzig, Germany, that a Lutheran professor, Christoph Ernst Luthardt, impressed on Paul the full meaning of the gospel and justification by faith alone – something he never forgot.

 

The Free Church

            Besson concluded his studies at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1870. After this, he supplied pulpits until April 1871, when he accepted a call as a pastor at Liniers, Neuchâtel.

            By then, however, the state had been infringing for some time on the rights of the church in virtue of the fact that they were government-funded. At the same time, there was a proliferation of teachers who openly contested the validity of Scriptures. Ferdinand Buisson, for example, president of the National Association of Freethinkers, attacked the use of the Old Testament in schools because it “favored superstition and corrupted the youth.”[4]

            In 1873, Freethinkers won a victory by convincing the government to modify its constitution so that every citizen could be a member of the church by virtue of his birth, without a confession of faith, and ministers could be allowed on any pulpit apart from subscription to any creed. In response, 27 out of the 47 pastors in Neuchâtel conservative pastors left the church, starting a new denomination, known as the Free Evangelical Church of Neuchâtel.

            Besson was one of the dissenting pastors, but his congregation chose to stay with the established church. Because of this, he accepted a call from two pastors in Lyon, France, to help to evangelize the area. There, he challenged the municipal rules that forbade the sale of Bibles and the distribution of tracts, and was briefly imprisoned twice.

            It was around this time that he met some Baptists who persuaded him to join their denomination. He did, working for six years with the Boston Baptist Mission in northern France and Belgium. Floris, who later invited him to move to Argentina, was one of his congregants.

 

Freedom Fighter

            Besson arrived in Argentina in 1881. The colony of French Baptists who requested his help were stationed in Esperanza, Santa Fe. He was 33.

            At that time, the Catholic Church didn’t allow the registration of births and marriages of non-Catholics. In other words, it was as if non-Catholics didn’t exist. When they died, they had to be buried outside the city limits. This happened so often that the road from Esperanza to Santa Fe was punctuated by crosses. Their opportunities for education and career were also restricted.

            When the Roman Catholic authorities forbade a member of Besson’s church to bury his daughter Luisa inside the city, Besson went to talk to the mayor, explaining that this matter was really under his jurisdiction. When this attempt failed, Luisa’s father decided to bury his daughter in his own garden, under a laurel tree, with Besson officiating.

            Quite predictably, the authorities sent the police to arrest Luisa’s father. The next morning, Besson mounted his horse and rode the twenty-seven miles to Santa Fe to talk to the vice-governor. He also sent articulate and convincing articles to both local and state-wide newspapers, denouncing these practices and reporting other cases of discrimination.

            At the end of 1882, he moved to Buenos Aires, where continued this fight at a higher level. He also founded the Iglesia Bautista del Centro - the first Spanish-speaking Baptist church in Argentina and one of the first Spanish-speaking Protestant churches in the continent.

            But Besson’s fight was not simply religious. Averse to any type of injustice, he joined the Society for the Protection of Animals and protested against the mistreatment of work horses. Once, after receiving a letter from a distressed Swiss parent, he was able to rescue a young girl who had been abducted to serve in a brothel, and reunited her with her mother.

 

Preaching the Gospel

            Besson’s greatest impact, however, was through his faithful preaching, constantly pointing his listeners to Christ and clearly distinguishing between law and gospel, and through his translation of the New Testament from Greek to Spanish, which continued to be used for generations. This translation was published as a single volume in 1919 and it was the first Bible translated in Latin America from the original languages.

            Besson married late, when he was already 57. His wife, Margarita Mealley, widow of the British pastor George Graham, had been a nurse in London in her youth. During her seventeen years in Argentina, she had devoted her life to teaching and to missionary service. She had two children, Jorge and Carlos.

            Margarita proved to be a great source of support and encouragement to Pablo as his physical strength began to wane. She also turned what Canclini calls “a bohemian's dwelling into a home that offered hospitality to many Christian workers,”[5] and was able to soften her husband’s temperament when needed.

            Pablo retired in 1927, at age 79, for health reasons. “It’s a good thing that salvation is by grace and not by works!” he said as his body became weaker. “What kind of works could I do now? What kind of works have I ever done that would bring me salvation? Nothing, nothing! Christ did it all!”[6]

            On July 26, 1931, the people of Buenos Aires expressed their gratitude for his service by holding a great celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the city. His speech was representative of his life:

            “Gracias, gracias, gracias!! We must not attribute undue merits to a man. If I have done anything, it has been by the grace of God. And if I have been able to do anything good, it has been by the grace of God. I am very grateful for you, for your presence, and for the good words spoken by our friends and brothers in the faith. But in gratefully acknowledging your goodwill and your presence in this meeting room, I must not attribute to man what does not belong to him.          “I am a poor sinner, a miserable sinner, who has been saved by faith in Christ the Redeemer. If anyone deserves and is worthy to be honored, to receive honor, glory, power and crown, it is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the expiatory victim who has paid for our sins and erased our debts. Thanks to him, to Christ our Savior! Let us give thanks to God and the Father who has sent the Christ to redeem us with his blood. Not by our good works, but by the blood of Christ we have been redeemed.

            “Let us all place ourselves at the feet of the great Savior Jesus Christ. Let us all be at his service until he comes, until we say: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. May God be with you, until the great day of the reunion of the children of God, saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.”[7]

            He died on December 30, 1932, and his body was laid to rest in the British Cemetery in Buenos Aires.



[1] Santiago Canclini, Pablo Besson: Un Heraldo de la Libertad Cristiana, my translation, Buenos Aires: Junta de Publicaciones de la Convencion Evangelica Bautista, 36

[2] Ibid., 37

[3] Ibid., 37

[4] James Isaac Good, History of the Swiss Reformed Church Since the Reformation, 496

[5] Canclini, Pablo Besson, 117

[6] Ibid., 177

[7] Ibid., 172, 173

 

Simonetta Carr

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