Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Papa Panov should be Father Martin

Le Père Martin, a Christmas story about an old shoemaker who wanted to see Jesus, appeared over 130 years ago. It was the work of Ruben Saillens, writer, musician and Baptist pastor of Marseilles. Unbeknownst to him, the tale was soon translated into English and circulated without the name of the author.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy read the English translation of the tale, and, thinking it was an old English folk tale, made an adaptation in Russian. Tolstoy’s version quickly spread around the world, no doubt aided by the renown of his name.

When Ruben Saillens learned that his tale was circulating under the name of another, he wrote to Tolstloy, who apologized to him in 1888. Ten years later, seeing that the tale attributed to Tolstoy was still in circulation, Ruben Saillens again sent him a courteous complaint. Tolstoy replied with the following letter (written in French):

Sir,
As I have written to you, in all the Russian editions of my writings, it is said that the story Where love is, there is God, has been borrowed from a translation made from French. (1) With regard to the translations that are made of this story in America or elsewhere, it is completely impossible for me to control them, especially since more than 15 years ago I surrendered all of the copyrights for all my works published after 1881 in Russia as well as abroad.
Receive, Sir, the assurance of my distinguished feelings.
Leo Tolstoy
March 20, 1899
(1) and which is none other than your story: Father Martin

Tolstoy’s story, apart from being located in Russia, seems to give less importance to the Bible. In the tale by Ruben Saillens, the old shoemaker, Father Martin has had misfortunes in his life and it seems that he has recently obtained a large Bible that he is often seen reading. In Tolstoy’s story, Papa Panov searches for the old family Bible, which he has not read for a long time. From this point, the stories are almost identical.

If anyone wants to have the story written by Ruben Saillens, the copyright is now expired and I can send it by email (text only, without illustrations). Also, because I have been unable to find this tale in English I have translated it. Send me an email at the address found under Contact Me at the top to request this story in French or English, or both.

Papa Martin, conclusion

The hours went by, the passers-by also. The little stove continued to rumble and Martin, in his chair, still watched the street.

The Master did not appear.

He had seen a young priest pass by with blond hair and blue eyes, just like Christ is depicted in the portraits in the church. However, while passing by his shop, the priest had murmured: mea culpa. Obviously Christ would not have accused Himself. That couldn’t be Him.

Young men, old men, sailors, workers, housewives, great ladies, they all passed in front of him. Many beggars approached the old man; his kindly look seemed to promise something. They were not disappointed.

Nevertheless, the Master did not appear.

His eyes were tired, his heart grew faint. The days pass quickly in December. Already the shadows were growing long in the square, already the lamplighter could be seen in the distance, already the windows across the street began to glow joyously and the aroma of roasted turkey, the traditional food of the Marseillais, arose from all the kitchens.

And the Master did not appear.

Finally the night came, and with it a fog. It was useless to stay any longer by the window; the rare passers-by were unrecognizable in the fog. The old man went sadly to his stove and began to prepare his supper.

“It was just a dream,” he murmured. “Yet I had so much hoped.”

His meal finished, he opened his book and tried to read. But his sadness prevented him.

All of a sudden his room was lit with a supernatural light, and without the door being opened the little shop was filled with people. The street sweeper was there, the young woman with her child was there, and each said to the old man:

“Didn’t you see me?”

Behind them came the beggars to whom he had given alms, the neighbours to whom he had spoken a kind word, the children he had smiled at, and each one asked him in turn:

“Didn’t you see me?”

“But who are you then?” cried the shoemaker to all these phantoms.

Then the little child in the arms of the young woman leaned over the book of the old man and with his little pink finger pointed to this passage right where the book was open:

“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in . . . Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. “

— the end —

Papa Martin and the young woman

[Part 3 of Ruben Saillens’ le Père Martin, translated from French.]

A few homeward bound revellers passed by, but the old shoemaker barely glanced at them. The marketplace vendors came with their small carts. He knew them too well to pay much attention to them.

After an hour or two, his attention was drawn to a young, poorly dressed woman, carrying a child in her arms. She was so pale, so thin, that the old man’s heart was touched. Perhaps she made him think of his daughter. He opened the door and called her.

“Hey, you there!”

The poor woman heard him call and turned in surprise. She saw Papa Martin beckoning her to come.

“You don’t appear to be doing well, ma belle.” (“Ma belle” is the most commonly used expression in old Marseilles. It is used indiscriminately for the fishwives of the Vivaux market, for laundry women, and all women, young or old, rich or poor, who have anything to do in these quarters.)

“I’m going to the hospital,” replied the young woman. “I hope they will admit me with my child. My husband is out at sea and I have been waiting for him for three months.”

“Like I wait for my son,” thought the shoemaker.

“He doesn’t come and now I don’t have a sou left and I’m sick. I really need to go to the hospital.”

“Poor woman,” said the old man tenderly. “You’ll have a bit of bread while you warm up, won’t you?”

“At least a cup of milk for the little one. Take this, I haven’t touched it yet. Warm yourself and let me take the little bundle. I have cared for babies in my day, I know how to handle them. He is good looking, your boy. What! Didn’t you put any shoes on him?”

“I don’t have any,” sighed the poor woman.

“Wait then. I have a pair that will just suit him.”

And the old worker, amidst the protestations and thanks of the mother, went to find the shoes that he had looked at the night before and placed them on the feet of the child. They were just the right size.

Martin stifled a sigh however, in letting go of his best workmanship, the best he had done in his life.

“Bah!” he said, “I have no more need of them for anyone now.” and he returned to the window. He searched the street in such an anxious manner that the young woman was surprised.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“I am waiting for my Master,” replied Martin.

The young woman did not understand, or did not care to understand.

“Do you know the Lord Jesus?” he asked.

“Certainly,” she replied while crossing herself. “It’s not such a long time ago that I learned my catechism.”

“It is Him that I am awaiting,” said the old man.

“And you believe He is going to pass by here?”

“He told me so.”

“Impossible! Oh, how I would like to stay with you to see Him myself, if it’s true. . . But you must be mistaken. And then, I need to go to be admitted to the hospital.”

“Can you read?” asked the shoemaker.

“Yes.”

“Well then, take this little book,” he said, placing a portion of the gospel in her hands. “Read it carefully, and it will not be exactly the same as if you would see Him, but it will be nearly the same thing, and perhaps you will see Him later.”

The young woman looked doubtful, but took the book and left, saying thank you, and the old man returned to his place before the window.

— to be continued

Papa Martin and the street sweeper

[Installment two of a Christmas tale by Ruben Saillens. Original title: le Père Martin. Translated from French.]

Long before daylight the little lamp of the shoemaker was lit. He put more coal into his stove, where the fire had not yet gone out and busied himself preparing his coffee. Then he hurried to make his bed, then placed himself in front of the window to catch the first glimmers of daylight and the first passers-by.

Little by little the light appeared, and Martin soon saw a street sweeper, the earliest of all workers. He hardly noticed him, really, he had more important things to do than watch a street sweeper!

Nevertheless it appeared to be cold outside, fog kept appearing on the window and the sweeper, after a few vigorous sweeps of his broom, felt a need for more vigorous exercise to warm himself by slapping his arms with all his strength and stamping the ground, first with one foot, then the other.

“The good man,” Martin said to himself, “he’s cold out there. It’s a holiday today, but not for him. Why don’t I offer him a coffee?” And he tapped the window.

The sweeper turned his head, saw Papa Martin in the window and came closer.

The shoemaker opened his door, “Come in,” he said, “come and warm yourself.”

“I won’t refuse, thank you. What miserable weather, you would think we were in Russia.”

“Will you accept a cup of coffee?”

“Oh, such a good man you are. With pleasure. Better to celebrate Christmas Eve late than not at all.”

The shoemaker quickly served his guest, then returned to the window to look up and down the street to see if anyone was passing.

“What are you looking for outside?” asked the sweeper.

“I’m waiting for my Master.”

“Your Master? You are working for a chain then? It’s too early to be out checking on his workers. Besides, it’s a holiday for you today.”

“I was speaking of another Master,” replied the shoemaker.

“Ah.”

“A Master who might come at any time and who promised to come today. You must know his name; it’s Jesus.”

“I have heard tell of him, but I don’t know him. Where does he live?”

Papa Martin then began to tell the sweeper the account he had read the past evening, adding a few details, turning toward the window as he spoke.

“And that is who you are waiting for?” said the sweeper when he understood. “I don’t think you will see him in the way you expect. But no matter, you have helped me to see Him. Could you lend me your book, Mister . . .”

“Martin,” said the shoemaker.

“Mister Martin, I guarantee that you have not wasted your time this morning, even if it is hardly day. Thank you and good-bye.”

The street sweeper went on his way and Papa Martin again placed himself in front of the window.

Papa Martin

[First instalment of a Christmas story by Ruben Saillens, original title Le Père Martin, translated from French.]

You don’t know Papa Martin? He is only a shoemaker whose workshop, living room, bedroom and kitchen are all together in a little wooden building at the corner of Place de Lenche and rue des Martégales in the centre of the old quarter of Marseilles. There he lives, not too rich, not too poor, resoling shoes for everyone in the neighbourhood, for since his eyes have grown old he doesn’t make new shoes anymore.

The fishermen know him well, and the sellers in the marketplace, as well as the schoolchildren who pass by his door in swarms.

He has repaired shoes for them all, he knows where a shoe pinches. The mothers don’t trust anyone else to put solid heels on the shoes of their children who wear out the best store bought shoes in two weeks.

Papa Martin has recently gained a reputation for being devout. Since he began going to those meetings where they sing and pray and speak of God he has changed. He has a large book which you can often see him reading if you look in the window of his shop. He appears to be happier than he was before, this book seems to be the cause.

Papa Martin has had his sorrows. His wife died more than twenty years ago. His son went to sea and hasn’t returned in six years. As for his daughter, if one asks what has become of her a shadow passes over his face and he only shakes his head.

It is Christmas Eve. Outside it is cold and damp, but the shop of Papa Martin is warm and well lit.

He has finished his work and eaten his supper. His stove rumbles and seated in his wicker arm chair, glasses on his nose, he leans over the table and reads, “There was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).

He stops here to reflect. “No place,” he murmurs, “no place for Him!”

He looks around the clean and neat little room, “There would have been room for Him here, if He had come. What happiness it would give to receive Him! I would have given them the whole place. . . No place for Him. Oh, why doesn’t He come and ask me for a place?”

I am alone, I have no one to care about. Everyone has their family and their friends; who is there in the whole world to care about me? I would love it if He would come to keep me company.”

“What if today was the first Christmas? If this was the night for the Saviour to come into the world? What if He would choose my shop for His coming? How I would serve Him and worship Him. Why doesn’t He show Himself today like He used to?”

“What would I give Him? The Bible says the Magi brought gold, incense and myrrh. I have nothing like that, they were rich, those Magi. But what did the shepherds bring? It doesn’t say, perhaps they didn’t have time. Ah, I know what I would give Him!”

With that, Papa Martin got up and reached up to a shelf where two baby shoes were carefully wrapped.

“This is what I would give Him, my best workmanship. The mother would be happy! But what am I thinking?” He sighed, “How can I imagine such things? As if my Saviour needs my shop and my shoes!”

The old man sank into his chair. It was getting late and it appears that he fell asleep.

“Martin!” said a gentle voice close beside him.

“Who’s there?” cried the cobbler. But as he looked towards the door, he saw no one.

“Martin, you wanted to see me. Watch the street tomorrow, from dawn until evening, you will see me passing by. Try to recognize me, for I will not make myself known to you.”

The voice ceased; Martin rubbed his eyes. The oil in his lamp had run out and it was dark. Midnight sounded from all the clocks: Christmas had come.

“It was Him,” said the old man. “He promised to pass by my shop. Was it only a dream? No matter! I will wait for Him. I have never seen Him, but haven’t I admired His portrait in all the churches? I will surely recognize Him.”

With those thoughts Martin crawled into bed and for a long time his mind was occupied with the strange words that he had heard.

— To be continued —

Ruben Saillens vs Leon Tolstoy

Ruben Saillens (1855-1942) was a well-known French Baptist pastor, writer and musician. My next few posts will consist of my translation of a story written by him that was first published in France about 130 years ago. Unknown to the writer, someone translated it into English. The English version, with no name attached, then found its way to Russia where it was discovered by Leon Tolstoy. Tolstoy then proceeded to render the story into Russian, with a few minor changes including changing the setting from Marseilles to some place in Russia. When a French translation of Tolstoy’s version appeared, Ruben Saillens wrote to Tolstoy, who replied with an apology in 1888.

Ten years later, seeing that the story was being published everywhere and attributed to Tolstoy, Saillens wrote again and received the following reply:

Sir,
As I wrote to you, in all the Russian editions of my writings it is said that the tale: Where there is love, God is there, is borrowed from a translation made from French (and is none other than your tale: Le Père Martin). As for the translations which are made of your tale in America and elsewhere, it is completely impossible for me to control them, inasmuch as more than fifteen years ago I surrendered all my copyrights for all my works that have appeared since 1881 in Russia as well as other countries.
With kindest regards
Leon Tolstoy
March 20, 1899

Was Tolstoy a plagiarist? He was definitely negligent if he made no attempt to discover who wrote the original tale that he then modified and sent out under his own name. However one can’t say that he deliberately plagiarized Saillens’ story; since it came to him in English, perhaps he took it to be an old English folk tale.

Most readers will be familiar with some version of the story of Papa Panov, the old Russian cobbler. I have tried to convey Saillens’ original French story as faithfully as possible. I would be interested in hearing your opinion: do you prefer Saillens’ story or Tolstoy’s?

Kindness does more than violence

Here is another story that was told to Ruben Saillens.

An Anabaptist and his wife were sleeping peacefully in their hut at the edge of the road, when some young men returning from a party in a neighbouring village passed by.

“Look. Here’s the home of the old Anabaptist. Why don’t we play a trick on him?” said one of them.

“Yes, but what?”

“I have an idea,” said the leader, “we will uncover his roof without waking him. He will have the pleasure of sleeping under the stars without knowing it. Can’t you see their surprise in the morning in not seeing a roof over their heads?”

The young men immediately agreed and mounting on the thatched roof, they removed sheaf after sheaf with suppressed chuckles.

But the man was only half asleep. He heard some noise, awoke fully, looked up and saw the stars shining through a large hole above him. He heard voices whispering; he understood what was happening.

“Wake up,” he said to his sleeping wife, “get up quickly and prepare coffee.”

The woman obeyed, and both quickly dressed. Then the Anabaptist opened his door and shouted to the young men:

“My friends, you are doing tiring work. When you have finished, I hope that you will give us the pleasure to come in and drink some hot coffee, that will refresh you.”

Thunder falling among them would not have produced more shock in the group than the appearance and the simple language of the man.

All our young people, crestfallen, came down from the roof without saying a word, and pressed by the Christian and his wife entered their home.

The coffee was ready; they drank it. The old man spoke to his young guests in a Christian and affectionate way; many were touched. Finally, the leader exclaimed:

“This was all fine, my friends. But now that we uncovered the roof, it must be put back in place.”

This was done. Some sheaves of fresh straw replaced the rotten thatch and the hut was better than before. “Kindness does more than violence.”

A different kind of heroism

Ruben Saillens, 1855-1942, was the best-known Baptist preacher of his day in France. In 1895 he visited an Anabaptist community in Switzerland and then published  a couple of historical incidents that he heard from them. Here is one of them.

One day, during the Thirty Years War in Europe, a group of soldiers stopped at the door of an Anabaptist.

“Hey, fellow,” said the squad leader, “show us a clover field where we can pasture the horses of our detachment!”

“Willingly,” replied the old man, “follow me, gentlemen .”

He led the soldiers along a path that bordered superb fields: “It is not necessary to go further , my friend,” said the officer; “the pasture here will suit us very well.”

But the Anabaptist continued to walk, “Do me the favour,” he said almost pleadingly, “to come a little further; I’ll show you a field where you will have all the grass you need.”

The officer, assuming that the man wanted to give them the best fodder in the country continued to follow. Finally they came to piece of land that was large enough, but where the clover was no better than in the fields they had passed.

“Here gentlemen, make yourselves at home!”

“But why,” cried the officer angrily, “have we gone so far, since you are not giving us anything better than what we could have gotten before?”

“I’ll tell you why,” replied the good man. “The fields we have seen are those of my neighbours, this one is mine. If someone has to suffer loss, I’d rather it be me.”

The officer was surprised at this sublime simplicity, this heroism that was so simple, yet much greater than his!

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