Protestantism in France: The Hugenots

by Moon Choi

Protestantism reached France soon after Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of Castle Church. French Protestants followed Lutheran theology but later became aligned with Calvinistic theology once Calvin set up his ministry in neighboring Geneva, Switzerland. These French Protestants were known as the Huguenots (pronounced hue-ga-nots). The origin of this name is still unknown, but the Huguenot name came to identify these French Protestants around 1550.

Until their dispersion, the Huguenots had been severely persecuted. As it happened in other countries in which Rome had a stronghold, the papacy and the French monarchy relentlessly persecuted the Huguenots in an effort to extinguish the heretical movement. In 1536, a general edict was passed, which encouraged the eradication of the Huguenots. However, in 1561, Catherine de’ Medici, the queen of France, passed the Edict of Saint-Germain, giving the Huguenots some liberties with their worship, as long as it was private. She was not sympathetic toward the Huguenots; rather, she was seeking to establish a political stability between the Catholic Church and the new Protestant movement. This was short lived. In 1562, the Wars of Religion was galvanized when twenty three Huguenots were slain and roughly two hundred were injured at Vassy, France. The Wars of Religion lasted for thirty years and ripped apart France, both socially and financially.

The political tension between the Catholic monarchy and the Huguenots escalated, the former fearing retaliation from the latter. As a result, on August 24, 1572, a mass Huguenot massacre began and lasted for weeks following. Thousands of Huguenots flooded into Paris for a wedding between Huguenot Henry of Navarre and Marguerite de Valois, who was Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter, another marriage planned in a desperate effort to bring political peace. Charles IX, de’ Medici’s son, ordered the death of these Huguenots. The killings lasted a weeks as the Huguenots were chased from Paris into the countryside.

Henry of Navarre’s life was spared and he converted to Catholicism. He became King Henry IV. Though a converted Catholic, Henry IV was very sympathetic to the Huguenots. In 1598, he passed the Edict of Nantes, bringing an end to the Wars of Religion. This allowed the Huguenots to have twenty “free” cities in which they could have public worship. Peace followed but after Henry IV was murdered by a Catholic zealot, his son, Louis XIII blatantly refused the rights of the Huguenots found in the Edict of Nantes, stating, “[Henry III] feared [the Huguenots], and [Henry IV] loved them; but I neither fear nor love them.” Thus the persecution of the Huguenots began once again. All the free cities granted by the Edict of Nantes were destroyed until the last one, La Rochelle, an important Huguenot stronghold, fell in 1629. Louis XIV, Louis XIII’s son, revoked the Edict of Nantes all together in 1685. Protestant pastors were given a twenty-four hour notice to leave but the laity was forbidden to leave the country. Still, many risked their lives by following their pastor out of the country, some even hiding out in the barren lands of south-eastern France to practice their faith, undisturbed. Those who were captured were either fined, imprisoned, killed or became galley slaves. Women were sent to prison for life. Children were ripped away from their parents to be reeducated by the priests and nuns. All it took for the men in the galleys to escape was a revocation of the Protestant faith. Many men remained galley slaves for twenty, thirty years, refusing to deny that they were saved by grace alone through faith alone through Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Many families fled the country in fear of their children’s souls. Some pastors risked death twice and left France for Geneva explicitly for the purpose of being trained by Calvin himself, only to return to shepherd their flock.

For those who remained in France, Louis XIV also issued draggonades, a policy which forced Huguenot families to house particularly difficult dragoons (cavalrymen) in their homes. These dragoons “gave such loose rein to their passions that their frightful excesses would have shamed a horde of brigands” (Withrow, 1). There were also forced conversions by means of torture. Though men had their feet burned until they were crippled, driven to madness by dripping water on their heads, or their bones broken for hours, they shared the same sentiment as a victim, Pastor Homel, who said to his weeping wife, “Farewell, beloved spouse. Though you see my bones broken to shivers, yet is my soul filled with inexpressible joy” (Withrow, 1). Those who weren’t tortured were excluded from the public life, not being able to participate in higher education and the arts.

The enthusiasm that the French monarchy once had for Protestant persecution soon died down to a point in 1764 when they were practically tolerated and left to openly practice their faith. They were given legal protection a quarter of a century later.

In the end, about 250,000 Huguenots left France. Some 200,000 Huguenots had perished through persecution. This caused a “brain drain” in France as many Huguenots constituted the upper-middle class. These Huguenots scattered around the world, some going to neighboring countries such as Switzerland, Germany, England, the Netherlands or Poland for refuge. Some came to America. Others went to South Africa. The Huguenots, after a few generations, eventually integrated into their respective cultures. However, wherever the Huguenots went, they built a reputation for themselves as industrious, honest people. Some American colonists were of Huguenot descent, the most famous one being a man who was named after his father, Apollos Rivoire, which, when anglicized, is Paul Revere.

It is easy to merely read all the numbers of those who were persecuted and perished and to store it in our minds as historical information. However, when we consider the fact that all it took for these Huguenots was a simple Catholic confession of faith to be saved from exile, torture, or death, it is amazing to see that so many of the saints that came before us simply refused to reject the doctrine of grace and to cling to the cross. They truly saw that to live is Christ and to die is gain.

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The Beacon is the monthly newsletter for Lighthouse Bible Church in San Diego, California. It covers a variety of subjects including LBC events, church history, current events from a Christan perspective, ministry profiles, and messages from our pastors and elders. To join the Beacon ministry, please contact Stephen Rodgers.

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