Bloodshed. That one word sums up the history of the Reformation in France. In Luther’s Germany and Calvin’s Geneva, most princes and civil leaders supported the Reformation. In France, most opposed it. The French kings often tried to exterminate the movement by killing Reformed believers. At one point, Reformed believers in France also shed blood, taking up the sword to defend their cause, with many of them dying as a result.
These Reformed believers in France are known as Huguenots. The story of the French Reformation is the story of Jesus Christ gathering these Huguenots into His church and defending them from Satan’s unceasing assaults against them.
Francis I (1515-1547): Toleration and opposition
Francis I was king of France during the years that God was using Martin Luther to reform His church in Germany (1517-1546). When Luther’s teachings spread into France, Francis initially appeared willing to tolerate them.
One reason for this willingness is that his sister Margaret, to whom Francis was close, became a committed Protestant. A second reason is that he appreciated the advances in learning and art that the Renaissance had made—advances that had paved the way for the Reformation. Third, he was an ardent foe of Charles V, king of Spain and a loyal Catholic. Francis considered the possibility that the Protestants might become allies in his wars against Spain.
Francis’ wars with Charles V took him away from France for an extended time. In 1521, while Francis was away fighting, the theological faculty of the University of Paris condemned the writings of Luther and the Parliament of Paris prohibited the possession of Luther’s works. In 1525 the Parliament and Bishop of Paris authorized men to arrest those suspected of tolerating the Reformed faith and seize their possessions.
Francis did not immediately join this opposition to Protestantism. In 1533 he favored calling a meeting of Catholics and Protestants to discuss, and hopefully resolve, their differences. His mind changed after the “Affair of the Placards.” These placards were posters on which were written condemnations of the popish mass. On October 18, 1534, residents of five major French cities awoke to find these placards posted around town, and Francis awoke to find one posted to the door of his bedroom.
As often happens, a rash zeal for a good cause hurt that good cause. From that time on, the king approved the persecution of French Reformed believers, and these persecutions increased in severity. In 1540 Francis issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which declared Protestantism to be high treason against God and Protestants to be worthy of death. The Waldensians were destroyed en masse, and their villages burned; the destruction of the village of Mérindol in 1545 is one example.
Yet God gathered His church in France and from France. For one thing, by the power of the Holy Spirit, many believed the fundamental truths of sovereign grace that the Reformers proclaimed. In addition, several men who were influential in the Reformation (William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and others) were born in France. These left France for other regions, but did not forget the French believers. One could argue that the headquarters of the French Reformation was located just outside France, in Calvin’s Geneva.
The French Reformed churches (1547-1598)
Several factors in the Reformation’s growth in France trace back to Geneva. First, Calvin published the first French edition of his Institutes in 1541, with a preface to Francis I. Second, Calvin sent letters, Bibles, and other tracts to the Reformed believers. Third, by 1564 over one hundred Frenchmen had trained in Geneva and returned to France to preach the gospel.
As king, Henry II (1547-1559) continued the persecution of the Reformed believers. The year he took office, a burning chamber was created to burn “heretics,” and in 1551 he pronounced the Edict of Châteaubriant, which forbad the printing and sale of any book not approved by the theological faculty of the University of Paris.
In such soil, God planted His church. The first Reformed congregation in France was openly organized in 1555, and within seven years more than two thousand congregations were organized, with an estimated total membership of well over one million. This rapid growth had at least two explanations. First, many had already become convinced of the Reformed faith but did not meet openly as congregations. Like a widespread underground fungus that suddenly sprouts mushrooms in many places, the church in France had been gathered invisibly and, when the time was right for congregations to organize openly, they multiplied. Second, that many congregations could organize openly at this time was due to the fact that many French nobles supported the Protestant cause.
The first French Reformed national synod was held in Paris in 1559. This synod adopted the French (Gallic) Confession as the doctrinal basis of the French churches. (Two years later, Guido deBrès used the French Confession as a template to write the Belgic Confession.) The churches in France were Reformed in doctrine, in worship, and in church government.
The presence of so many churches and believers led the French government to realize that their efforts to destroy the Reformed faith were not working. In 1561, during the reign of Charles IX, Reformed and Catholic men met at the Colloquy of Poissy to discuss their differences. That nothing was resolved comes as no surprise to us. The Edict of St. Germain, published in January 1562, permitted the French Reformed believers to possess church buildings and hold worship services, but required them to worship outside of cities and to give up any property that they owned in the cities. The king’s mother was influential in issuing this Edict, not because she loved Protestantism but because she realized that it was not politically expedient actively to oppose the Reformed faith.
Although the government no longer sanctioned persecution, ardent Catholics continued it. In March 1562, a congregation of Huguenots was attacked while worshiping in a barn near Vassy. This began a decades-long period in the history of the French Reformed churches that was darker than any period of persecution, for the Huguenots resorted to the sword both to defend themselves and to fight offensively. One notable and sad moment in the war was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered. That the Huguenots had been using weapons to defend themselves was one reason for this attack on them.
During this dark period, hope flickered briefly and died. When Henry III (1574-1589) died, Henry IV (1589-1610) took the throne. Henry IV was raised a Protestant, and many hoped that he would defend the Protestant cause. However, having married a Catholic woman and realizing that France was too steeped in Catholicism to tolerate a Protestant king, he thought it expedient to become a Catholic himself.
That Henry IV still had sympathy for the Huguenots was evident when he issued the Edict of Nantes in April 1598. This Edict declared Catholicism the official religion of France but gave the Huguenots freedom to live anywhere in France, to hold some public offices, to educate their children as they thought best, to receive higher education, to worship in certain designated districts of France, and to sell books in these same districts. It also ended the thirty-plus years of war between Catholics and Protestants. By issuing this Edict, Henry acknowledged that the Huguenots were a numerous and powerful force, and also showed them gratitude. He wrote to the Duke of Luxemburg, “I have been too well served and helped by them in any need to neglect their interests; and were I to neglect them, I should introduce into my kingdom troubles more dangerous than those of the past.”1
After a long, bitter struggle, the churches in France had peace. However, they were weakened. Death and apostasy from the Reformed faith had reduced their numbers, and their readiness to use the sword left them spiritually weaker.
Henry IV and Louis XIII (1598-1643): Relative peace
The Huguenots had a measure of peace during the rest of the reign of Henry IV, although the government still regulated them closely. Because Louis XIII (1610-1643) did not always defend their rights, the Huguenots fought three wars against the crown in the 1620s. In these wars the Huguenots fared poorly. The Peace of Alais in 1629, in which the provisions of the Edict of Nantes were for the most part ratified, brought the wars to an end. Yet the Huguenots were not permitted to live in certain districts of France, and Louis XIII favored making any Huguenot whom he disliked a galley slave. Galley slaves rowed ships, usually as punishment for criminal activity, but at times for the crime of being Protestant. Although the French tolerated the Huguenots, popular opinion was that they were a nuisance and disturbers of the peace. However, they enjoyed peace until the end of Louis XIII’s reign.
Louis XIV (1643-1715): Reversal
During Louis XIV’s early years the Huguenots enjoyed their earlier privileges, but in the 1660s the king developed his philosophy of un roi, une loi, une foi— that France should have “one king, one law, and one faith.” For two decades he chipped away at the rights of the Huguenots. Finally, in 1685 he issued the Edict of Fountainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes completely. Protestantism became illegal, Reformed ministers had to leave France, Protestant schools had to close, and Huguenot parents had to have their children baptized by Romish priests.
But the church Louis XIV could not destroy! Many Huguenots left France for other European countries, the American colonies, and the East Indies. Other Huguenots stayed in France, especially in the south, and maintained their faith and worship at a cost; for one hundred years (1685-1789) they were known as the “Churches of the Desert,” both because southern France was arid and because they were in a spiritual wasteland.
The history of the Reformation in France is one of bloodshed. It is also one of triumph. That the Huguenots used the sword does not explain this triumph, for it was not an earthly triumph. It was the triumph of the cause of Christ—a spiritual triumph, always in spite of the sins of God’s people. Its explanation is that Christ gathers, defends, and preserves His church in every nation, tribe, and tongue, also in France. Our Savior keeps His promises: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper” (Is. 54:17). And, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Again, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And this: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Using only the sword of the Spirit, and no earthly sword, may we today experience the fulfillment of the same gracious promises.
1 As quoted in Janet Glenn Gray, The French Huguenots: Anatomy of Courage (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 210.