Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance. Dr. Michael Haykin is with us again tracking out the French Reformation in large strokes. Today we focus on the French Huguenots.
Michael, who were the Huguenots?
The Huguenots were those who embraced the Gospel in France. In the early years, they would have been shaped by Luther’s theology, in the 1520s; but when Calvin began to write, Calvin was the dominant theological influence on them. They became the Reformed Church in France, Presbyterian in structure, Calvinistic in theology.
Tell us about the infamous St. Bartholomew Day Massacre. What was it, and how did it all come about?
The French Reformation, which results in the Huguenots, or the Reformed church in France, is a tremendous story. It’s nowhere near as well known to English speakers and English-speaking evangelicals as it should be. In the 1520s there probably were somewhere in the vicinity of maybe a couple of thousand evangelicals, in the mid-1520s, out of a total population in France of twenty million. Within forty years that had mushroomed or ballooned to the point that there were close to two million evangelicals. So, from 2000 to 2 million in 40 years is tremendous church growth. Many of these congregations were huge; like the one just outside of Paris at a place called Charenton, had 15,000 in membership. It’s a regular mega church.
One of the things that became apparent to Calvin is that many of the converts to the Gospel during this period were upper-class. In fact, 50% of the aristocracy embraced Evangelicalism or the evangelical truths of the Reformation during this period. That raised a concern for Calvin; which was this – many of these men and women had, obviously, significant lands and property to which they owed significant responsibilities. One of which was to defend them. When it became apparent to the Roman church the drift of the Reformation in France was definitely in favor of many of these aristocrats becoming evangelical, the Roman church began to use the sword to repress the Reformation, so, there were attacks on Protestant churches. The nobility, who were evangelical, felt that they could not let their people be attacked in such a way and be helpless, so they responded by defending themselves. Calvin was very concerned that the evangelicals in France, the Huguenots, would take up the sword against Roman Catholicism in the country. He has a number of striking warnings in this regard. Although, there is evidence that he also began to formulate a theology of resistance so that lower magistrates, in his mind, could resist what they regarded as tyranny from higher magistrates. This was a very, very important theory in theology, which would have enormous impact in the Western world, especially in the American Revolution.
So, Calvin did have a concern of there being a major outbreak of Civil War; and that theory was realized eight years after his death. Catherine de Medici was the queen mother and an ardent Catholic of Italian origins. She received a cryptic note from the Pope to the effect that there was upcoming in August of 1572, an event that would give her a fabulous opportunity. Little more was said beyond that. In August 1572, a wedding was planned between two royal houses, one of which was Protestant. And the key figure in that Protestant royal house was a man named Gaspard de Coligny who was the Admiral of the French Navy. He was a very powerful evangelical. He and his two brothers, François and d’Andelot had become evangelicals, Gaspard largely through the witness of Calvin via letters. He was coming to Paris for the wedding that was going to take place and plans were made by Roman Catholic authorities to assassinate him. The assassination was a blunderbuss; it failed in the street on August 23, but on August 24 in the wee hours of the morning it succeeded when the Roman Catholic authorities forced their way into his house, knifed him in his bed and then tossed his body from the upstairs window onto the street which would have killed him if he was not already dead. This touched off a wave of bloodshed. In times past, there has been an enormous inflation of the numbers killed over the next two months but it probably was upwards of 30,000 Protestants. It was a bloodbath.
The long-term impact of this would be Civil War in France and a hardening of the lines between the evangelical Protestant communities and the Catholic communities. The high tide of conversion in Catholic France would have been in the 1560s when close to 2 million professed faith in Christ.
Would it have been just basically open season on the Huguenots in those few days?
Yes, it went on for about two months. The scenes were very similar to the sort of things that we saw in Rwanda, with the Hutu and Tutsi. People who had lived next door to each other and disagreed theologically, but suddenly, now, the other, either Protestant or Roman Catholic, became a diabolical figure that had to be eliminated. It was brutal.
What was the date of that again?
That would have been August 24, 1572. And from that point on, as I said, the evangelical presence in France diminished; it never reached that zenith of 2 million ever again.
Why is their story so little-known here in North America; and why is their history important for us to remember?
Well, I think their history is a very important for us to remember, obviously, because of Calvin, his love for France. During his lifetime, he trained upwards of 1200 ministers to go back into France to evangelize. Calvin kept in constant contact with people like Pierre Viret, his close friend, who was working in Lyon.
The French Huguenot story was of major significance for evangelicals in Britain. Many of them would remember it during the late 17th century when they were fighting against a king, namely Charles I, who had a French Roman Catholic queen. The Puritans were deeply bound by numerous ties to the Huguenots. A number of key Huguenot leaders came over to England and preached in English pulpits. Somebody like Richard Baxter, for instance, whose conversion came through the preaching of people like Louis DuMoulin, who was the son of a great Huguenot theologian named Pierre DuMoulin.
Then, during the early 17th century there is a significant period of revival through the ministry of a man named Antoine Court. And then an even greater revival that is inspired by the work of Robert Haldane in Geneva, in the early 19th century. And so, although the two nations, France and England, were tied in bitter, bitter rivalry and war, almost constant war, during the long 18th-century, many evangelicals on both sides saw very close ties with one another, and prayer for one another. So, it’s an important story that we should be much more familiar with.
We’re talking to Dr. Michael Haykin, Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of many books related to church history that you can check out here on our page.
Michael, many thanks for your good help.
Editor’s Note: You’ll want to check out these church history related titles from Dr. Haykin.
Books by Michael Haykin
The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities
To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy
The Revived Puritan: The Spirituality of George Whitefield (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement
The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers
Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition
The Reformers and Puritans as Spiritual Mentors: Hope Is Kindled (Christian Mentor)
Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact (Biography)
Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church
Eight Women of Faith
Soldiers of Christ
Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival (Emmaus)
Defence of the Truth: Contending for the Faith Yesterday and Today
Ardent Love for Jesus: English Baptists and the Experience of Revival in the Long Eighteenth Century
Kiffin Knollys & Keach: Rediscovering English Baptist Heritage
A Cloud of Witnesses: Calvinistic Baptists in the 18th Century
Bitesize Biographies: George Whitefield
Devoted to the Service of the Temple: Piety, Persecution, and Ministry in the Writings of Hercules Collins (Profiles in Reformed Spirituality)
Travel with Jonathan Edwards
Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory: The Piety of Samuel and Sarah Pearce (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
A Consuming Fire: The Piety of Alexander Whyte
Baptists and War: Essays on Baptists and Military Conflict, 1640s-1990s
A Heart for Missions: Memoir of Samuel Pearce
A Sweet Flame: Piety in the Letters of Jonathan Edwards (Profiles in Reformed Spirituality)
Waiting on the Spirit of Promise: The Life and Theology of Suffering of Abraham Cheare (Monographs in Baptist History)
Christ Is All: The Piety of Horatius Bonar (Profiles in Reformed Spirituality)
The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
An Orthodox Catechism
The Empire of the Holy Spirit
“The First Counsellor of our Denomination”: Studies in the Life and Ministry of Abraham Booth
Church History 101: The Highlights of Twenty Centuries
Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ
The British Particular Baptists, Vol. 1: 1638 – 1910
The British Particular Baptists Vol. II: 1638-1910
Buy the books
John Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ