A history of french protestantism

Before 1500 BEGINNINGS

The Protestant Reformation was neither the only nor the first movement for renewal in the Church. lt is the Church's natural enough tendency to allow her message to lose its edge, or to lapse into mere religiosity, or to rest content on her structures. Yet the Reformation may be set apart from other reforming movements because of the sheer scope of what it called into question. lt did not only oppose certain abuses or correct odd isolated points of doctrine ; rather, such were its consequences in Church, state and society - as well as for the history of ideas - that the Reformation may justly be accorded a special place in the history of the Church.

Yet we should not put too much distance between the Reformation and its sources : over and above the New Testament itself, we could mention the thought of St. Augustine, or such forerunners as the Waldensian movement (12th century onwards), John Wyclif (1324-84) and John Huss (born 1369, martyred 1415).

We might conclude by recalling the classic Lutheran formulation of the Reformation's central message : the Christian lives by God's grace a/one, through faith alone, founded on the Scriptures alone.

1500-1525 IN FRANCE

Was the Reformation in France an imported product, or did it germinate in French soil ? Discussion will no doubt continue for a long time yet on the relative significance of French rediscovery of the Gospel or of Luther's influence. At any rate, new ideas were in the air.

The French evangelical or biblical revival must be set in context of a whole tide of humanism and the renaissance of the languages of Antiquity (for which the best representative is the famous Erasmus, 1467-1536). Whilst not constituting a very organised movement, it found a leading personality- the conciliatory Lefèvre d'Étaples (1450-1536), translator of note and commentator on the Bible in French. His protectors were Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux (where Lefèvre's friends would gather), and Margaret of Angoulême.

During the first third of the sixteenth century there existed a thoroughly active grouping made up of numerous preachers, the like of Jean Vitrier (whose significance has been rediscovered), and of ordinary believers, often craftsmen or simple labourers; this tendency was not, however, responsible for founding new communities.


The rapid spread of Luther's writings from 1520 onwards and the opposition they sparked off, and the establishment of Reformed Churches with the support of the civil power in several cities on the periphery of the then Kingdom of France (Strasbourg, and many Swiss cities) caused those who adhered to the innovative ideas to join forces. The first revolutionary declarations, like the first persecutions, took place in France in 1534.

The printing press, in combination with the travels of university professors and their students, and of merchants, ensured the propagation of ideas that were openly hostile to the institutional Church.

After 1541, John Calvin (born in Noyon, Picardy, in 1509 ; died in 1564), won over to the Reformation in 1533, would have great influence, from Geneva, upon those groups who were forming new churches.

ln spite of intense persecutions leading to the stake, and despite enforced banishments, Reformed congregations were set up all over France from 1555 onwards. Very soon, there were more than a thousand of them (numbering two million people), mostly in the southern part of the realm.


Representatives of various local Reformed Churches gathered for a Synod for the first time in Paris, in 1559.

This assembly achieved various tasks whose effects are still felt today : lt adopted a Confession of Faith, modelled to a great degree upon Calvin and later named The La Rochelle Confession of Faith ; it also established a Code of practice (a rule for the life of local congregations and for their relationships one to another) which would be progressively modified but which is still basically in use today - in it the system of church government is presbyterian and synodical, with authority jointly exercised by local (presbyterial) councils and by larger synods.

ln contrast to what would happen in many countries where the whole Church, often under pressure from the civil ruler, went over en bloc to the Reformation, we find French Protestantism to have been composed of a variety of communities that arose from nothing, more often than not with the old parishes under Rome's authority still co-existing alongside. Thus, instead of church worship and government being merely adjusted, in France something original and virulent was created.


Following the failure of the Poissy Colloquy (1561), at which Catholic and Protestant theologians were unable to find agreement, Protestantism was seen to
be both a challenge to royal authority and a movement of faith.

Persecutions were systematic and massacres occurred in many places. The most infamous of these is that of St. Bartholomew's Eve (1572) in Paris and many other towns. Not only were large numbers of Protestants killed, but in addition their but in addition their ranks were further decimated by wholesale recantation and by exile. Bartholomew's Eve is still a very present part of collective Protestant consciousness even today.

Although conversions to Protestantism did continue, its numbers began to decline sharply from 1572.

Not all Protestants were meek and mild in that violent century. The fact that, among them, were noblemen capable of raising armies, that whole cities transferred to protestant control, and that their opponents were determined to stamp them out led to wars of religion - the most serious and long - lasting civil wars France has ever known (1562-1577).

ln the South of France a kind of Protestant Republic was even declared in 1572, opposed to royal power, possessing an army and with its own legislature and government.


ln the 16th century this province, composed of various principalities and free cities, was Germanie in outlook. Where the Reformation took root there, it did so by choice of princes and magistrates ; certain principalities, especially to the north, and several towns including Strasbourg went over in their entirety to the Reformation. Here, it was be the Lutheran tradition which gradually but decisively imposed itself.

When the greater part of Alsace became French (in 1648, and 1681 for Strasbourg), Protestants encountered difficulties and harassment, but the Revocation ot the Edict of Nantes did not affect Alsace.

The Montbéliard area (incorporated into France in 1793) is another region whose Protestant tradition has a very long past.


lt was the ascension to the throne of Henry IV, a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism, that brought the cessation of armed hostilities, and the Edict of Nantes (1598) granted Protestants certain rights regarding religion together with some guarantees of a military nature. However, these were rights within limits : no more than two places of worship per district (with the exception of certain towns), and a fixed number of schools. ln practice, that meant no possibility of future development.

Whilst the Edict of Nantes was reasonably well applied during Henry IV's reign, it was less and less respected thereafter. Little by little, Protestant military strength was whittled away, the best known episode in this struggle being the siege of La Rochelle (1627-28). Previously agreed subsidies were left unpaid and increasing limitations followed one another in succession. lt was under Louis XIV that organised persecution took shape: at the slightest excuse places of worship and schools were progressively suppressed till hardly any remained ; at the same time a very large number of professions and trades were barred to Protestants, and conversion by violence (the dragonnades) dragooned Protestants on a vast scale.


All these measures taken against Protestants and their Churches added up to the serious reduction of their numbers by voluntary exile, by enforced conversions and by despondency.

Louis XIV thought that revoking the Edict of Nantes by the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685) would put the final nail in the coffin. Services of worship and religious instruction were outlawed, ministers were given two weeks to leave the realm, and their congregations were denied right of exit. Nonetheless, an estimated 300,000 people fied France. The last remaining Protestant enclaves were forcibly converted. However, persecution (by death, the galleys and emprisonment) could not prevent people regrouping or worship assemblies convening in the desert (i.e., in secrecy) ; in this connexion a few itinerant preachers began to circulate.

Between 1688 and 1715, spurred on by prophetie movements, Protestants in the Cévennes opposed the central power by armed insurrection. lt was only after large numbers of troops intervened that this war of the Camisards would cease.


Thanks to periods of relative calm the Reformed Churches were able to organise themselves once more (the period of Antoine Court). Clandestine National Synods were even held. The last minister to be hanged for his ministry was executed in 1762, and the last Huguenot convicts finished their hard labour in 1775. ln 1787 the Edict of Tolerance restored civil rights to Protestants, whereas religious liberty was declared in 1789. From 1795 onwards, and especially after 1801, public worship could be organised virtually without restriction.

Legal status for the Lutheran and Reformed Churches was established by the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801, but it met the authorities' criteria rather than responding to the Churches' wishes. ln particular, it remained practically impossible for Synods to meet.

Certain limitations notwithstanding, such religious liberty made possible the reconstruction of the Churches. ln 1875 there were 700.000 Protestants in France. The local congregations, grouped together in consistories, were reborn while theological education could once again be organised on French sail.

lt should be said that Protestant preaching of the early 19th century was often long in eloquence and short on precision. Several theological currents were to restore vigour to the Protestant message. Between these currents there existed great mutual opposition, and especially between the Revival movement (later to be called the orthodox) and liberalism. This cleavage would be a strong mark of the French Protestant churches for over a century. The Reformed went so far as to divide up into various unions of Churches.

This entire period was also marked by great efforts at Bible distribution, evangelism and mission. Social action also harnessed Protestantism's energies, producing pioneers in many fields. Protestants played a foremost role in education, and particularly at the very moment when Public Education was introduced (1872).

Under the Third Republic a Reformed National Synod was indeed able to meet in 1872, as did a Lutheran Synod, but on the Reformed side two unions of Churches (orthodox and liberal) were formed and structures gradually developed, with sorne attempts at finding common ground.

AFTER 1905

The separation of Churches and State was well received by Protestants (1905). On the heels of this event came the establishment of links between almost all branches of Protestantism (Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist) when, in 1907, the French Protestant Federation was set up. ln 1910 two previously separate bodies merged into the Central Society of Evangelism. The People's Mission (Mission Populaire), founded in 1870, underwent development, and starting in 1911 the unionist variety of scouting was to be the first in France to put into action the ideas of Baden-Powell.

New theological trends made their appearance in the 1920s ; in particular, Barthianism was to take the heat out of the struggle between liberals and orthodox. The prevailing spirit of the time sought unity; on the international scene things were moving towards the creation of the World Council of Churches. ln 1938, in Lyons, the French Reformed Church (Église Réformée de France) was reestablished, bringing together almost ali churches of the Reformed and Methodist

The Protestant Federation has seen gradual development. Many combined undertakings were introduced. Recently, it has been enlarged through the admission of churches of "evangelical" persuasion, notably Gypsy churches. Unfortunately, a more visible unity between Protestant churches still remains a dream.

Today [1980], French Protestantism (that is, the Federation) boasts 800.000 official members. However a recent opinion poll estimated the number of French people who felt associated with Protestantism at 2 million. A very scattered phenomenon, French Protestantism is strongly concentrated in a few areas (Alsace
and Franche-Comté, the Cévennes and the Poitou) although these rural areas are undergoing rapid population decline).

Very diverse theological positions are to be found, for example regarding interest in economie, social and political realities. Different ways of interpreting the Bible are another source of tension.

Since Vatican Il, ecumenism in relation to the Roman Catholic Church has induced in Protestants reactions of a much less superficial nature (to be Protestant is no longer simply to be anti-Catholic !) and caused a rethink of their specifie identity and their particular calling.


These ought not to be overplayed. What matters is how each Christian lives before God, through faith in Jesus Christ, and that is something history can only imperfectly outline and that a little booklet like this can hardly touch. Yet the past history of the grouping through which we have received the Gospel is no neutral thing ; our awareness of it is very important. ln consequence, a few tacts may now be recalled here :

- The French Reformation, in terms of its organisation, was for its time quite revolutionary.

- Despite the localised commitment of whole populations to the cause of the Reformation, French Protestantism has always been in the minority. lt was persecuted for two and a half centuries and frowned upon for a further two. Only whenever the democratie mindset seemed to them to be in accordance with their own way of thinking did French Protestants manage to avoid a brush with the civil power.

- There exists, therefore, great sensitivity among Protestants towards minorities and towards society's rejects. Over and above this sociological characteristic, they share an ongoing quest for an authority that transcends the human.


Rev. Olivier PIGEAUD

Translation :

Église Réformée de France
Coordination " Témoigner - Servir "
47, rue de Clichy- F-75311 Paris Cedex 09.

Front caver: photo by Jo LUDWIG
Back cover' photo by Claude MALHAUTIER, Musée du désert