The church in Geneva, Switzerland had a significant place in the formation and continuation of the Reformed churches in France. Geneva supported and nurtured the work of the French Reformed churches “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ” in France to the glory of the God of grace (Eph. 4:12). The Reformed in France recognized and appreciated the place God gave Geneva in their history and development.
Three Frenchmen in Geneva
The influence of Geneva upon the Reformation in France and the French Reformed churches is due in no small part to the presence of Frenchmen in Geneva itself. There were many, but William Farel (1489-1565), John Calvin (1509-1564), and Theodore Beza (1519- 1605) stand out among them. These three men were different in age and diverse in temperament, but by God’s sovereign plan and hand all came to Geneva at one time or another. All three were Frenchmen, born and bred. All three were nurtured from their earliest days in the bosom of French Roman Catholicism, taught to revere its rites, and entrust their salvation to its sacraments and priests. All either became clerics (Farel) or profited as if they were clerics through benefices that supported their studies elsewhere (Calvin and Beza). All three were turned by the Spirit of Christ, through different means, to the Truth who sets men free. And finally all three, according to the word of Christ that “if they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another” (Matt. 10:23), left their homeland and came to the Swiss city on the shores of Lake Geneva.
These three men carried the torch and kept the flame of reformation in Geneva. Farel was the hammer who by the mighty weapon of gospel preaching broke down the stronghold of Romanist domination (II Cor. 10:4), Calvin was the builder and planter, and Beza was the faithful successor of Calvin. Especially during the years of Calvin and Beza, or from about 1555 onward, Geneva’s support of and influence on the French Reformation was felt. “Geneva, located safely outside of France, had become the capital of French Protestantism.”1
Books and preachers
Two of the primary ways in which Geneva served the cause of reformation in France were by exporting books and pastors to France. As the printing trade in Wittenberg was transformed by the publication of Luther’s works, so the same trade in Geneva ballooned with the effort of publishing Calvin’s Institutes and his (and later, Beza’s) sermons, commentaries, catechisms, and tracts and treatises to satisfy the demand from France. Bibles and Psalters in French were printed and sent as well. Colporteurs—booksellers—obtained consignments of books in Geneva. Because many of them were poor, they obtained their consignments of books from a financier of the book trade named Laurent de Normandie, a friend of Calvin and yet another Frenchman-in-exile in Geneva. These colporteurs hauled their loads over the mountains between Switzerland and France to sell their wares to eager buyers. Some book sellers paid an exceedingly high price for their efforts: imprisonment, torture, and death. But the books they transported and sold worked their way among the people, and the truth of the gospel they expounded worked wonders in hearts.
From about the mid-1550s congregations of Reformed believers were being organized in France, where they were known as “Huguenots.” By 1562, there were some 2,150 congregations.2 These congregations needed pastors. Calvin and the “venerable company” of pastors in Geneva worked to recruit, educate, and send pastors to France, but they needed more men. “Send us wood,” Calvin is said to have declared in one of his many letters to the French believers, “and we will send you arrows.” Eventually some 1,300 Geneva-trained missionaries went to France. But the missionaries, like the booksellers, were under no illusions about the price they might be required to pay. Their blood too was mingled with the blood of countless thousands that was the seed of the church in France.
The ‘workshop’ in Geneva where the ‘wood’—the men sent from France—were honed into ‘arrows’— pastors—to be shot back into France was the Geneva Academy or college. The Academy was built in 1558- 1559 during the last years of Calvin’s life. Under Calvin and for a longer period of time under his successor, Theodore Beza, the Academy became a ‘nursery’ of the French Reformed Churches. Hundreds of French pastors received theological, exegetical, and practical training at the Academy.3 The Huguenot preacher Antoine Court (1695-1760) later paid high tribute to the Academy’s influence: “Our statutes and our preaching reveal how everything we believe was believed by the divinely inspired, by the early church, by our French churches, and by the venerable Academy of Geneva, whose rules we follow as much as possible.” 4
In addition to the recruitment and training of pastors, many of the ministers who served in Geneva during the early 1560s went personally to France to encourage and support the Reformed churches. These included Farel and, especially, Beza. In 1560, Beza secretly traveled to France and preached in the court of Navarre, a small principality in the south of France. His hope was to persuade the “powers that be” in Navarre to support the Reformed churches. These efforts were not generally successful. Beza was invited back to France in 1561 by the perfidious Catherine de Medici, thenregent of France and inveterate enemy of the Reformed faith. Beza defended the French Confession of Faith of 1559 at the Colloquy of Poissy, a gathering of Reformed and Roman Catholic leaders with the goal to establish a united French church. The Colloquy was a resounding failure. Instead, Beza bore agonized witness to the outbreak of the first of eight bloody “Wars of Religion” as Huguenots took up arms, first to defend themselves against the militant forces of Rome and then to take the offensive to the Romanists. The wars ground on across France from 1561-1598. Throughout his life, Beza heavily and tirelessly (and sometimes illegally) involved himself in public and private efforts to support Reformed believers in France.5
“The cradle of theology”
“The institution of the church was the cradle of theology.”6 The Holy Spirit worked among the Reformed believers in France to form that cradle for the theology of the Reformation. Calvin dedicated his commentary on Daniel “to all the pious worshippers of God who desire the kingdom of Christ to be rightly constituted in France.”7 Out of that desire, the newly established congregations adopted the institutional framework of the church in Geneva with its pastors, elders, and deacons. Then, they went beyond Geneva and established colloquies (equivalent to the Dutch classes) and synods. The first national Reformed synod was held at Paris in 1559, and laid the theological and constitutional foundations of the French Reformed Churches by adopting the Confession of Faith and a church order, in English entitled the “Ecclesiastical Discipline.” The “Discipline,” as it was called, was expanded and clarified by subsequent synods, but its basic principles remained unchanged through the rest of the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth centuries.8
City of refuge
Geneva, “the capital of French Protestantism,” also served as a city of refuge for Huguenots fleeing war and persecution in France. The years 1549-1560 saw an especially high number of refugees arrive at Geneva, and a fund was set up exclusively for their support. Calvin, a permanent refugee himself, was instrumental in establishing and soliciting for this fund, and advocating their cause. After the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on August 24, 1572, during which thousands of French Protestants were brutally killed in Paris and other major French cities, Beza welcomed another wave of refugees to sanctuary in Geneva.
In 1598, the French King Henri (or Henry) IV proclaimed the Edict of Nantes. This was not a declaration of toleration for the Reformed faith, but a peace settlement after the Wars of Religion (1561-1598). But it did grant the Huguenots the right to worship in certain places in France, to establish schools and academies, and convoke their colloquies and synods. This Edict was in force until 1685 and for almost a century Huguenots experienced a measure of relief. But in 1685, Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King,” revoked the Edict, and declared that all Huguenots must convert to Romanism or leave the country. An exodus of some 200,000- 300,000 Huguenots ensued, and Geneva opened her arms to over 7,000 of “the least of these.”9
Equals, not inferiors
For all the books, pastors, personal support, and refuge Geneva supplied to the French Reformed churches, it is important to recognize that “the French Reformed churches…neither considered themselves daughters of Geneva nor took orders from Geneva. In fact, their synods issued a few orders to Geneva.”10 The acts of the French Reformed synods bear this out. The Protestant churches in France officially referred to themselves as “Reformed,” not “Calvinist.” In the annals of the Huguenot synods, we find them censoring Genevan printers for errors discovered in printed Bibles shipped to France; admonishing the Genevan consistory for Psalters bearing traces of Romanist superstition; requesting that Geneva’s pastors and professors undertake no new translations of the Bible into French without seeking advice from France; and refusing the request of the Genevan consistory to return two Genevan-born pastors on the grounds that these pastors were lawfully called and ordained in their respective French congregations and could not be transferred by a synod.11
One final evidence
Still, the influence of Geneva on the Huguenot churches and the appreciation by the French Reformed churches of Geneva’s influence is significant. One final example will bear this out. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots who remained in France went underground as the “Church of the Desert.” Seeking some direction in the chaos of their situation, they directed their attention to Geneva. Among other things, they (re) adopted the Genevan regulation restricting the length of pastor’s sermons to an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes at most, “conforming to the practice of the church of Geneva and what the Reformed churches of France had formerly done.”12 It is a small evidence; but sometimes the smallest gestures show the strength and character of a relationship.
1 Jeannine Olson, “The Cradle of Reformed Theology: The Reformed Churches from Calvin’s Geneva through Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes,” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches: From Henri IV to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, ed. Martin I. Klauber (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 13.
2 J. Olson, “The Cradle of Reformed Theology,” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, 16.
3 Scott M. Manetsch “Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and the Crisis of Reformed Protestantism in France” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, 34, 36, 38.
4 Otto H. Selles, “The First Sermon of Antoine Court (1695-1760)” in The Theology of the Huguenot Refuge: From the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the Edict of Versailles (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020), 265; emphasis added.
5 S. Manetsch, “Beza and the Crisis of Reformed Protestantism,” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, 38-54.
6 J. Olson, “The Cradle of Reformed Theology” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, 9.
7 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Prophet Daniel, 2 vols., trans. Thomas Myers (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), 1:lix.
8 Theodore G. Van Raalte, “The French Reformed Synods of the Seventeenth Century,” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, 58.
9 J. Olson, “The Edict of Nantes and Its Revocation: A Balanced Assessment?” in The Theology of the Huguenot Refuge, 9-10, 28.
10 T. Van Raalte, “French Reformed Synods of the Seventeenth Century,” in Theology of the French Reformed Churches, 61; emphasis Van Raalte’s.
11 T. Van Raalte, 67, 89, 95-96.
12 Pauline Duley-Haour, “The Churches of the Desert, 1685- 1789” in Theology of the Huguenot Refuge, 79-80.