One of the most moving chapters of the history of mankind was written by the Huguenots of France. When we realize that today only about 3 percent of the French population is Protestant, the magnitude of the contribution made by French Protestants is amazing.
Some have wondered whether there was ever a Protestant movement in France! They overlook the fact that Protestantism's greatest theologian and very energetic leader, John Calvin, was a Frenchman. True, Calvin had to carry on his task in exile; but nevertheless Calvin defended evangelical faith as a gifted French humanist and, later, as a clear and powerful expositor of the Word of God.
There was an evangelical movement in France before Luther disagreed with the church in Germany. The teaching of justification by faith was defended especially in the writings of Lefevre, whose Commentaries preceded Luther's own teachings by several years. The first pre-Reformation evangelical movement flourished with great vitality in the climate of France. One critic, Faguet, states that "there is nothing more French, more old-French than French Protestantism. . . . French Protestants are so French that they are, as it were, the salt of France." Of course there are others who ignore this point of view and think that without Luther's leadership a Protestant movement in France could not have prevailed! They point to the fact that Luther's writings were read in France as early as 1520.
In the middle of the sixteenth century there was hardly an area in France that did not receive favorably the teachings of the Reformation. In 1560, in the time of Admiral Coligny, French Protestantism's grand old man, there were 2,150 Protestant churches in France. But in 1598, at the time of the signing of the Edict of Nantes, there were only 951 churches served by 800 ministers and 400 student pastors. What had happened?
Forty years of the most savage wars of religion, of which the Massacre of St. Bartholomew was the bloodiest episode, had depleted the ranks of the Protestant fold. The census of the French population in 1598 includes 274,000 Protestant families, or 1,250,000 persons in a total population of nearly 17 million. It is interesting also to note that among the Protestants are to be found the country's best families and among the wealthiest. In 1598, 2,468 of the noble families of France were Protestants, and that pattern has prevailed throughout. History owes a debt to French Protestantism.
The Name Huguenot
The history of the Huguenots is clearly traceable, but the name Huguenot has defied all attempts to ascertain its origin. Some see this name coming from Eidguenots, a German name meaning "confederates" (it was also the name of a political party in Calvin's Geneva). Others, such as the humanist printer Estienne, a contemporary, see in Huguenot the nickname coming from Hugo (Hughes).
The home-grown French Evangelicals before Calvin were mostly the followers of Lefevre, and they were grouped around the mystic "Reformers" at Meaux in the 1520's. As the Evangelical movement grew, the political-minded leaders among the Protestants continued to meet in religious meetings in numerous temples and synods. The king of France, Francis I, was interested off and on in the Reform movement primarily for political reasons; he favored the Evangelicals whenever he needed the Lutheran princes in his struggle against the emperor of Austria. Francis I also favored the movement because of his intellectual interest in a movement that had its roots partly in the intellectual Renaissance.
Shortly after the middle of the sixteenth century there were two solid political parties in France both having a religious basis: (a) the Catholics, who were indorsed by the Guise family, and (b) the Protestants, who were favored by the house of Navarre. Both parties vied for the highest prize—the crown of France. The two factions unavoidably were drawn into a merciless forty-year-long war; the outcome was the victory of the Protestants.
The king of Navarre, leader of the Huguenots, was the only candidate for the crown of France. But he could obtain it only on condition of becoming a Catholic. He wanted the crown so badly that, having to choose between his faith and political power, he is said to have exclaimed, "Paris was well worth a mass!" Primarily a soldier and politician, rather than a religious leader, he became king as Henry IV of France (and Navarre). However, he helped, first secretly and then openly, his former fellow partisans; and for a short while, during Henry IV's reign, the Huguenots enjoyed freedom and even prosperity.
The Edict of Nantes
The France of Henry IV made one of the earliest and most significant contributions to religious freedom. Although Henry had gone over to Roman Catholicism for political reasons, he was secretly still a Huguenot. The Huguenots, disheartened for a while, received secret and then open encouragement from Henry IV, who, in April, 1598, signed the Edict of Nantes, one of the most important milestones along the stormy road of religious freedom.
True, the Edict of Nantes did not grant full freedom of worship; the Huguenots had to be satisfied with "a certain form of religion and some justice in the courts." As Catholicism was reinstituted in full, the Reformed had to pay a tithe to the Catholic clergy and conform to Catholic marriage laws. One controversial feature in particular implied mixed courts for litigants of different denominations. The Reformed could not hold political meetings at all.
One cardinal concession was the freedom to dwell anywhere in the kingdom without being subjected to inquiry or molested for their faith. They were not coerced to do anything: against their conscience, and that in itself was an achievement of sorts! Moreover, a person could meet his fellow believers in any part of the realm for worship. The Protestant people were given considerable accessions to their own cities of refuge. As for education, more freedom was granted, and Protestants as well as Catholics were allowed to teach in higher institutions. They were also permitted to establish their own schools wherever their worship was authorized. Protestants were admitted to hospitals as well and could be buried in public cemeteries.
From a civil point of view there was also an improved liberty. Protestants were given access to public office. The civil equality was assured by an article ordering them to be admissible to all public dignities, offices, and charges, and forbade any other examination or discrimination as to their qualifications, conduct, and morals than those to which Catholics were subjected.
As it appeared at first, however, the Huguenots were not satisfied with the edict, whereas the Catholics were incensed because it granted too much!
The significance of the Edict of Nantes is that it is a luminous and epoch-making monument in the way toward the ideal—a free church in a free state. The edict placed France ahead of the Western nations and placed the issue of religious liberty as an ideal in the forefront. The Huguenots of that time and King Henry IV stood nearer to that ideal of religious freedom than was the case in history before. That edict, in spite of its initial shortcomings, was a blessing. The Huguenots prospered; their industries and enterprises thrived—in fact, "to be rich like a Huguenot" became a proverb in France!
Revocation of the Edict
That success was obviously too much for the Catholics to endure. By various and devious means Catholics undermined the edict and discredited the so-called Reformed Religion. Cardinal Richelieu partially abrogated the Edict of Nantes, and Louis XIV, after some two hundred orders and laws against the Huguenots, finally revoked the edict in 1685, only eighty-seven years after it was called into existence.
The revocation, which was the result of Catholic intrigue and political shortsightedness, is considered a monumental political blunder because it hurt France. In spite of the interdiction to leave France, the Huguenots left their beloved homeland by unknown thousands, bringing to their newfound countries their law-abiding practices, their thrift, their industries, their know-how. They greatly enriched the lands that welcomed them: Prussia, England, and America. But an entire people cannot emigrate; some Huguenots did stay in France and submitted to the pressure of the Catholics, especially as the government used the soldiery—the ruthless dragonnades, an incursion of merciless soldiery who were allowed to use all types of coercion save death. The "dragons" were called "spurred missionaries."
The Huguenots made a considerable contribution, at least indirectly, to the religious and social concepts as they grew in the French climate. The ideas of religious toleration, as they became very fashionable in the eighteenth century, can at least partly be traced back to the Huguenots who remained faithful in France and who remained loyal to freedom's traditions.
After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Protestantism in France appeared doomed: The old Protestant families of the nobility were either back in the Catholic fold or in exile; the great Protestant cities had surrendered. But there were the peasants in the south, the Cevennes Mountains region. Those who did not go underground were drawn into a long war, the War of the Camisards. For nearly one hundred years French Protestants could not hold regular meetings; they had to meet in the "desert" of the Cevennes region. The Protestants became "resistants." The Protestant "Camisards" who fought for an ideal and for their religion were small in numbers, and their primitive weapons make us think of Gideon's army. The Huguenot leader Cavalier found only one gun and twelve swords—they had to make their arms. The leaders of the Protestants were as little prepared as was Gideon: Cavalier was a baker, Roland was a farmer, and Catinat a blacksmith. The rebels were few, but they defended a cause! They knew why they were resisting. "The entire war of the Cevennes was fought with the singing of psalms."
It took the government of France to bring under control these few hundred Protestant farmers. Twenty-five thousand regular troops and two marshals of France were unable to subdue them, and the third marshal only got his prey by ruse. Cavalier was clever and bold; but in 1704 Marshall Villars, who knew that he could not obtain Cavalier's surrender by force of arms, tried successfully the diplomatic way of promises, such as that of full freedom of worship. While Cavalier surrendered, the other Huguenot leaders refused to go along; young Roland in particular rejected the offer of the Court, and the war continued. But not for long—Roland was betrayed and killed.
The resistance of the Huguenots went underground. Never will the full story of the horrors perpetrated against them be told: the slaughter of believers who assembled in barns, in the open fields, in the forests, mowed down by the swords of the "spurred missionaries" (the king's "dragons," or troops), women and young people tortured, quartered, burned by slow fire. Their only crime was to pray, sing hymns, and exhort one another in the Word of God.
During these times of oppression the Protestants were more fervent than ever, and some of the greatest preachers displayed their magnificent courage and eloquence. There was Claude Brousson, who at first tried peaceful resistance; but an armed defense of their land, their homes, and churches seemed unavoidable. Moreover, the courageous enthusiasm was fanned by self-styled "prophets," who kept their faith in a state of aggressive vigilance. In the midst of the wars they conducted synods, they continued to observe ecclesiastical rules, and held their services under the open sky, the "desert." They continued to marry their young people and to bury their dead in the evangelical fashion, and hundreds of those who had given up their faith under the pressure of the soldiery came back into the fold. There was the great preacher Antoine Court and other famous pastors of the "desert," such as the gifted Paul Rabaut. The Protestants were determined to resist by all possible means. Even their women stood firm.
There is in the south of France a prison that was reserved for women prisoners and particularly Huguenots. Well known is the case of Marie Durand, who was jailed in that "Tower of Constance" at the age of fourteen and released thirty-eight years later. Those who visit that medieval dungeon will still see the word which she carved into the hard granite: "resist"—the leitmotiv of the Protestants, as of those of the Mas Soubeyran, where young Roland had his home and where he was slaughtered.
The Edict of Grace and the Huguenot Message
The Protestant cause was finally resolved by a peaceful gesture in 1787 when Louis XVI signed the "Edict of Grace," which re-established the Protestants as French citizens and considered their religion as acceptable. They were at last tolerated in their homeland.
Freedom in which the Huguenots of France pioneered was bought at the highest price—the blood of enlightened and determined believers who were found in the aristocratic ranks of the noble families of France as well as in the modest hovels of the peasants.
The Huguenots during their trying experience were on the way to victory because they had a message:
A religious message: They exalted the Word of God as no other Protestant group. In obeying their conscience as a witness, they proclaimed with great certainty and fervor the message of forgiveness and salvation.
An ecclesiastical message: They believed in a visible as well as an invisible church, a universal brotherhood of believers. They had definite opinions as to the function of the church and the pastor. They insisted on full liturgical acts of worship though the "desert" meetings caused untold hardship, forcing them to carry, wherever they worshiped, the portable rostrums and sacred vessels for communion.
A moral message: They had received, and believed in, the rigid and solid form of Christian living as Calvin had taught. They maintained that there is an invisible relationship between religion and everyday life.
An international message: As they were driven out of the homeland, they laid some of the firmest foundations of religious freedom in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and America.
A message of freedom: No other religious group has more truly sensed the need of, and the right to, religious liberty for themselves and for others. The Edict of Nantes is in spirit a Huguenot contribution to the liberty of other minority groups. This document is an epoch-making legislation that was well in advance of the times. We find the spirit of freedom permeating the thinking not only of the religious circles of France but of the intellectual spheres as well. In the storm and stress of their tormented history the Huguenots indeed held up fearlessly the magnificent banner of religious freedom, for which they were ready to die or, even greater, to witness for in their everyday life.