An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
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Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, and welcome to another Author Interview here at Books At a Glance. Today we are pleased to have Dr. Stephen Davis with us to talk about his new book, The French Huguenots and Wars of Religion: Three Centuries of Resistance for Freedom of Conscience.
Steve, welcome, and congratulations on your new book!
Thank you, Fred. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.
By way of introduction, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in the Huguenots and all things French.
My family and I spent several years in France back in the 80s and 90s church planting, pastoral training, and learning the language so there has been an interest in France. My wife and I went back in 2006-2008 to help with a church in Paris and help start another church in the suburbs. My interest in the Huguenots did not start until I started my PhD at Columbia International University where I did a dissertation on French secularism. The dissertation was accepted by the Evangelical and Theological Society in their Monograph Series. That book had a small section on the Huguenots. I started studying more.
My wife and I visited France for our anniversary, and we visited some of the Huguenot’s sites. One of the places we visited was where Huguenot women were imprisoned in the 1700s. All that began coming together and I spent years in France but did not know hardly anything about the Huguenots. Most people do not know about them. To learn about them is fascinating but sad. I thought it would be something people should know about. I was able to write and since I speak French, I was able to use mostly French sources. I was not relying on anyone else for the translation.
Just in broad terms tell us what your book is all about. And explain your focus on the struggle for freedom of conscience.
As the subtitle suggests it was three centuries of resistance for freedom of conscience. The book deals with that period of those centuries following the Reformation. It begins with the struggle in France for freedom of worship and conscience. Under the French system, there is the union of the monarchy and the Roman Catholic church. The rulers rule by divine right. Once the Reformation entered France people turned to the true Gospel. Protestantism tried to get a foothold in France. The persecution and wars of religion continued. It was a struggle for French Protestant believers to come to the place where they were considered fully French, with civil and religious rights.
You have just won an award for this book – tell us about it.
I just found out this morning; I got a phone call from someone from the National Huguenot Society telling me I won this award. I thought it was a scam. I went into my email and found in my spam that they tried to reach me. They were trying to track me down. My book unbeknownst to me had been submitted and selected from other books and dissertations and they selected it for what they call their Scholarly Works Award. I will be awarded this Wednesday at their national meeting in Washington D.C. Being in English my book gives people a grasp of the times.
Give us some background. How did Reformation theology first come to France? And who were some of the major forerunners in France itself? And give us a time frame here.
My book deals specifically starting in the 16th century which is the early 1500s. Before that time there were some movements of reform in France. I give a sketch of some of the things that happened before the Reformation. I start with Luther’s teaching coming into France. That was in the early 1500s after his 95 theses came out. Many of the early believers or at least adherents to Lutheran teaching were in the Catholic church. These were the bishops and others who embraced this teaching. They tried unsuccessfully to bring about some reform in the church. They were persecuted and executed. What was interesting is that people who were early believers in this were called Lutherans. It was a really demeaning way to describe them at that time.
Soon after we see Calvin, who was French. He had to go into exile. In Geneva, he really went beyond the Lutheran teaching. It was Calvin and his teaching that made the greater impact in France. Lutheran impact was in eastern France and the borders close to Germany. Lutheranism was much more successful. Even today there is more of a Lutheran concentration. It was the first synod in France around 1559. Calvin wrote his institutes around 1541. He dedicated it to the French king at the time. Thinking about the name Huguenot, there are different opinions how it came to be, and I deal with where the term comes from. Basically, the Huguenots were reformed believers, reformed by the teachings of Calvin, Protestants, and heretics.
Explain the political situation for us and the relation of the king and the church in France. And what were the “Wars of Religion” in France?
In France, during the early 1500s, there were wars. There were not only wars of religion, but France was at war with Spain and England. There was a lot of turmoil and chaos. France was the first that initially somewhat was open to new teaching. There were events that led to early persecution of those who had embraced Luther’s teaching. The Catholic Church at the time condemned Luther’s writings. His teachings were burned and little by little that persecution and oppression grew to the point where there was war that was inevitable. They were religious wars but always had political overtones.
I deal with this more in the book and talk about the families, dynasties, and houses that were competing for the throne. In 1562, there was the Edict of January by Catherine de Medici, who was queen at that time. There was an edict of tolerance that was very short lived. Shortly after that, there was a couple hundred Huguenots who were worshipping and massacred. That was the beginning of the wars of religion. At that massacre, the Huguenots took up arms to protect themselves.
What were their major areas of theological emphasis?
The real battle was for the teaching of justification by faith. The Catholic church had people in bondage with heresies. Not only that but the crushing tithes of the church were obligatory. I deal with a little bit of what they call the three estates; the clergy, the nobility, and the peasants. The peasants supported the nobility and clergy. The peasantry was open to anything that would deliver them from the oppression of the Catholic church. Calvin clearly articulated the teaching of salvation being of faith alone, Scripture alone, by Christ alone.
With the Gutenberg printing press, Luther’s pamphlets and Calvin’s writings were going throughout France and had a great impact early on. Many French people were won to the Protestant cause. The monarchy and the Catholic church were threatened. They did not want to lose their privileges. In the monarchy, to be a king you had to be Catholic. One king, one law, one faith was the motto for French kings.
From 1562-1590 there were eight wars. Some of them were more like skirmishes. It was not just one long war, there were truces in between. They officially ended in 1598 with Henry IV, who was a Huguenot. After the death of Henry III, he became heir but could not become king as a Huguenot, so he converted to Catholicism. He was a great warrior and leader. The edict at that time granted tolerance for the Protestants, the official persecution stopped, and the wars were ended.
If Christians today have heard at all about the French Huguenots, they have heard Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Tell us what that was all about.
The massacre was in the early period of the wars. It was in August of 1572 and took place in Paris initially. Henry of Navarre, not king yet, was there for his marriage to Catherine Medici’s daughter. There were a lot of Protestant nobles gathered for the marriage. The night before there was an attempt on an admiral’s life. It was unsuccessful and it stirred everything up. It was a massacre of the nobility in the city. It was an attempt to stamp out the Protestant movement at that time. It took several thousand to their death.
In the next couple of months, there were thousands more who were slaughtered. The massacre in Paris seemed to give the okay in other towns and villages throughout France, especially southern France. A lot of times it was for their properties. The confiscation of goods was never far from the issue, by officials or your neighbor. So, when that spread and the Huguenots took up arms they fought courageously but they were always outnumbered. The French monarch at that time did not control all of France. It was a long reach down in the Southern provinces to send troops and provisions for them and fight a war in all these different towns.
There were truces after the war, but they were broken. There was a cycle from 1562 to 1598 of skirmishes, truces, and wars. I give details all the way up to the 8th war. Finally, Henry III, who was the king, was mortally wounded. He called Henry of Navarre and pleaded with him to convert to Catholicism. Finally, Henry of Navarre converted to end the wars. Protestants and Catholics alike were tired of the bloodshed. The economy was affected; the Huguenots were exiled. So, 1598 brought some temporary stability to France at that time. Then Henry IV was assassinated in 1610.
How and when did the Huguenots obtain freedom to worship?
The Huguenots obtained freedom at different times. There were different edicts given to stop the bloodshed and then they were revoked. For example, in 1610 when Henry IV was assassinated, after that there was a period of oppression once again. It was always like an ebb and flow throughout that time. The edict of Nantes in 1598 lasted until 1685.
In 1685, Louis XIV was king and he was convinced by his Catholic counselors and elders to place soldiers to watch the Huguenots. In 1685, The Edict of Nantes was revoked. Once again it was forbidden to be a Protestant. Pastors were given ten days where they were allowed to leave the country. The peasants were forbidden to leave but they left anyway. All a sudden, a ton of people were at the borders. Today in the United States we have the National Huguenot Society because of all of them coming.
The battles fought were incredible. They went charging against the armies with Psalms on their lips. They were not trained soldiers. They were able to hold off the kings’ armies until the point that they could not fight anymore. The men were often sent to the king’s galleys and spent their lives on the king’s ship as rowers and died there. All they had to do to be released was to renounce their beliefs. The revolution dates 1789, during this time the influences of the enlightenment were present. Philosophers were not Protestants or even sympathetic to religion but did not believe in coercion. They fought against this and were exiled at times. It was a struggle for the freedom of conscience to be able to believe and worship or not.
In 1787, Louis XVI issued the Edict of Tolerance. At that point, this gave French Protestants civil status and religious freedom. During most of the treaties and truces, they could not worship inside Paris since it was a Catholic stronghold. Protestants generally welcomed the revolution because they had more freedom to worship without oppression and persecution.
When Napoleon came on the scene in 1799, that put an end to the French revolution and then he became emperor. In 1801 there was the Concordat of Rome. Napoleon recognized Catholicism as the religion of most French people. It was no longer under a religious state. That was the change that Napoleon brought. Shortly after in 1802 Napoleon brought the reformed Lutherans and the Jewish faith into the terms concorded. The state exercised neutrality where they could worship freely, and they became paid servants of the state. Religion was brought into the service of the Empire. The Catholic church at that time controlled education and Napoleon needed the Catholic church for educational purposes. Napoleon did bring stability religiously.
After the centuries of persecution, from that time on, French Protestants had religious rights. They had access to positions in government, they could be officers in the army, and they were able to have a lot of professions after the revolution. In the 1800s you have a rollercoaster where the Catholic church was trying to come back to power and kings tried to unite the church and monarchy again. Protestants were relatively free to worship and the concordant did not end until 1905 and that is when the Catholic church was officially disestablished in France.
Complex question here: What came of the Huguenots? What influence did they have? And what is their legacy? What do we learn from the Huguenot struggle about church and state separation? And how do they serve as an example for Christians today?
In many respects, the Huguenots serve today through their struggle. They were faithful to God’s word, they followed it, and taught it. Against all odds they resisted. When my wife and I visited southern France there was a stone with an inscription on it. It was to honor the time when some of them were imprisoned there. In French, there is a word for resist. We find this word on the inscription. Not all Huguenots had this mindset some became one because it was politically advantageous. They struggled for freedom, for themselves, and for others.
The Huguenots were loyal to the French king. Calvin even wrote his preface to the French king at the beginning of his institutes. They wanted to be considered fully French citizens with the rights of other people. In the early 1700s when the pastors were exiled, there was a period of prophets arising and a lot of things going on. People were no longer taught the word of God by men who knew Scripture. There was a lot of fanaticism. There were struggles during the war for them. Their legacy today is one of being faithful regardless of the cost. The suffering of many of them is unimaginable for us today. In French when you talk to someone there is a form of speaking in a more familiar way. They spoke to God in this way. There was the difference of the sacraments and the meaning of the sacraments. They were not trying to force other people to convert. Although there were excesses of the Huguenots. For example, they took vengeance on their enemies.
For us today when we look at where we are in our nation there is a heritage. If we understand like the Huguenots, that as believers, we recognize we are dual citizens, have responsibilities, and respect for the laws of our nation, if they do not contradict the word of God. We do not want a place where the church interferes as the Catholic church did in the affairs of state, no matter what the religion is. We do not want religion to dominate state or government. And we do not want the state interfering in the consciences and practices of believers. As believers of the Word of God, we want the freedom to be able to tell people the Gospel without it being considered hate speech. We tell people about God because we love them. We do not want the government interfering in that and saying we cannot talk about these things. We want for others what we want for ourselves. We need to be ready for the cost that may come for us and our children.
There is marginalization and hostility, and we should not be surprised when persecution comes. We are blessed here in the United States with freedoms. There is not a political solution. At the root of everything, it is rebellion against God, and we must bear the good news. We must have the courage of the Huguenots. I do not think we will face anything they faced; physical harm did come to them. They had to make the choice to lose everything. The history that we have of them is amazing. If knowing about them helps us to stand fast and speak the truth in love. Our message cannot change and it is the message of the Protestant Reformation. It is not of works but by salvation in Christ alone.
We’re talking to Dr. Stephen Davis about his captivating new book, The French Huguenots and Wars of Religion: Three Centuries of Resistance for Freedom of Conscience. It’s a well-informed, stirring, and eminently accessible account of an important chapter of history.
Steve, thanks much for your good work and for talking to us today.
It has been a pleasure. I love Books At a Glance and appreciate the work you do. I do want to give a plug for Dr. Edgar who did the forward for my book. He is the former president of the local Huguenot fellowship. Its mission is to support John Calvin seminary in France.
Buy the books
THE FRENCH HUGUENOTS AND WARS OF RELIGION: THREE CENTURIES OF RESISTANCE FOR FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE, by Stephen M. Davis