The French Reformed Churches
The origin of our Reformed churches lies not in the Netherlands, neither in Germany, Scotland or England, but in France. Actually, we as (Free) Reformed churches stand in the tradition of the French Reformed churches. During the 16th century it seemed that France would be the leading Reformed nation. Due to God’s providence, this never materialized. The Netherlands and Britain would become the leading Reformed nations.
The Influence of the French Reformed
What then, happened in France? During the 16th century the Reformation had a profound impact upon French society. But eventually, during the 17th century, those same churches were decimated. Many of us have little knowledge of what happened in France during those years. It is instructive to have some awareness of what transpired, for humanly speaking, we owe a lot to the Reformed Church of France. It had and still has an astounding influence in the world until this present day.
Church organization and reformed truths to which we are accustomed flow to us through the French churches. The singing of psalms and the liturgy we practice originate from the French Reformed. Economic diligence and industry flourish as a result of the Calvinistic work ethic that has come from the French churches. The best skilled workers, tradesmen and merchants have a Reformed background. They derived economic principles from Scripture and they proved to be successful. Calvinists promoted economically self-sufficient and independent states, which were historically productive in maintaining and promoting Christian education, religion, social improvements and constitutional government.
Present day principles of democracy in western society can be attributed to the impact of the French Reformed churches. The French Reformed emphasized personal freedom to serve God and make one’s own decisions in life. They emphasized the importance of education for their children. The church order that Calvin arranged for the French churches is the one we still know – comprised of consistories and synods.
This very well-structured organization would be reflected later in the democratic ideas of the United States. Rev. Paul Turquand, a descendant of French Reformed refugees, offered the introductory prayer at the first meeting in the South Carolina Congress constituting the United States, emphasizing personal liberty and democracy. Democratic ideas spread from John Calvin’s Geneva to France, The Netherlands, England and Scotland. Later, it spread to North America. It has been endorsed by Christians as the best way to govern a country. The background to the democracy practiced in western countries may be traced to Calvinism.
Persecution Spreads French Reformed Influence
The French Reformed churches were heavily persecuted. The result was that many fled to other European countries. Many Reformed people today have ancestors originating from the French Reformed churches. Many names amongst us reflect the French Reformed heritage. Hundreds of thousands of Reformed men and women fled France and settled in England, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands. They went on to move to America and even to South Africa. There they firmly strengthened existing Reformed churches and made an impact upon the life and society of these nations.
They assimilated into the society of their new countries and influenced the peoples among whom they settled. Soon, their French ancestry was forgotten except for perhaps a surname, which kept alive some remembrance of their French ancestry. At times, even the names they now bear do not reflect their French ancestry. For instance, in 1690 a Frenchman called Raimst fled to the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands where his only son adopted the Dutch name Janse. Because the son had thirteen children his descendants are now known by the name Janse. In similar fashion, many French Huguenots assimilated and changed their names. The Puritan, John Howe, was actually Hue, and of French origin. Many today who are of French origin do not know their ancestors or the sufferings they endured for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us not forget God’s deeds of the past.
The Influence Of The Reformation In France
The Reformed Church in France was already planted in the 1520s. Luther’s writings had become known and were read at the Sorbonne University in Paris. The French started to realize that the Roman Catholic Church had turned away from the Bible. Young men, especially from scholarly and academic circles, were convicted by the truth of God’s Word. Among them was one young man from northern France, living in a town called Noyon. His name was Jean Cauvin, later called Calvinus, or as we know him today: John Calvin.
Calvin initially studied law at Paris and at Orleans. He was converted and started to preach biblical truths in opposition to the doctrines of Rome. For that reason he had to flee France and came to Geneva where he eventually became the leader of the Reformed churches. It was from Geneva that Calvin and his associates evangelized the whole of France. The emerging French churches sent young men to Calvin and after a number of years of training Calvin sent them back as ministers. He wrote to the French churches: Supply us with wood and we will turn them into arrows.
Calvin’s Strategy In Influencing France
The strategy Calvin employed was twofold. First, he employed secrecy in the training program and the dispatching of missionaries and pastors to the French churches. The Council of the city of Geneva did not even know that ministers were sent to France from Switzerland. Hundreds and hundreds of ministers were dispatched to France. To get back into France they needed to be extremely cautious. They would often go in very small groups or even alone and steal across the border. They would use fictitious names and identification papers. These pastors had to travel in secrecy and hide in concealed places in outlying farm houses. So far, no one has yet discovered the exact network mapped out from Geneva whereby the pastors obtained access to various pulpits in France.
As the pastors laboured in the French churches, they kept hidden; only to emerge on the Lord’s Days and other times to preach to their flocks. The Word of God spread rapidly. One eye witness reports: “In very few years in certain parts of the country games, dances, ballads, banquets and extravagances of hair, dress and wearing apparel came to an end” (The French Huguenots: Anatomy of Courage by Janet Glenn Gray. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981, p. 69).
The second part of Calvin’s strategy was to win over the nobility of France. Through them he would have access to the royal house of France and also to the local people. Indeed, he gained access to the royal houses of France: the Bourbons and the Colignys. Many of the French nobility assisted the Reformed cause. Later, when persecutions were fierce, they would open their mansions and estates for the relief of the common people of Reformed persuasion who had been evicted from their homes.
A decisive factor in Geneva’s ability to spread Calvinism was the printing press. Many of the leading printers had been master printers in France and knew the techniques of their trade well. A large part of the Geneva population was employed in paper-making, ink-making, printing and marketing books. Often the presses would run day and night to keep up with the demand of Reformed literature. Consequently, Calvin supplied a continual output of theological treatises and books.
The result of Calvin’s work was that in 1564, towards the end of his life, half of the French nobility was in agreement with Reformed principles. Out of the total population of France (some 20 million), around 3 million were Reformed believers congregating in 2,150 churches. All this took place while persecutions continued.
Actually, until 1770 there would be a sequence of ongoing persecutions. The kings of France quickly realized that the Calvinist view of personal freedom and democracy was incompatible with the absolute powers of the monarchy. Several civil wars erupted in which the French Reformed tried to defend themselves from their enemies. Political intrigues took place and the end result was that the Reformed church in France was increasingly crushed. It survived and even grew again during the 18th and 19th centuries. Estimates vary: In 1961 Raoul Stephan in Histoire du protestantisme francais, wrote that “between 1520 and 1550 half of France was won over to the evangelical faith, that at the end of the Sixteenth century there remained only 20% who professed Protestantism; in 1685 only 12%, at the end of the eighteenth only 2%, and finally today 1.7%...” (quoted by Gray, p. 253).
The emblem of the French Churches is a cross surrounded with thorns with a dove emerging from the cross. The French Reformed came to be called Huguenots. It is not exactly sure where the name Huguenot comes from – probably from the French word hugnon which means tramp. The Huguenots often walked (or tramped) around by night to go to their meeting places. Initially, it was used by their enemies as a name of derision but later it became a name of honour for the French Reformed believers.
The persecutions under the kings Louis XIV and Louis XV left the French Reformed churches decimated. But the Lord would again revive His church in France, by using a new generation of preachers. At times, there were gatherings in remote areas of southern France that drew an attendance of 10,000 and even 30,000 people. In spite of increased persecutions the church started to grow again
How was it possible that the French Church was revived again? Of course, the Lord spared His people. He revived His cause and would not allow His Church to be stamped out. We may see that the Lord used the deep convictions of the Huguenots’ authority of Scripture. Their emphasis on biblical preaching, which focused on the spiritual needs of man made a deep impact. Another contributing factor was their strict discipline and the good organization of their churches by means of consistories and classes. In this way, when leading men fell away, the structure of the church was still in place. In addition, the Lord supplied an influx of trained ministers originating from French refugees and trained at the schools at Geneva, and later at Lausanne, both located in Switzerland.
The French Reformed churches have had a tremendous impact in churches and societies around the globe. To their hallmark belong upholding the authority of Scripture, adhering to Reformed creeds, and promoting industriousness and democracy.
These churches had to endure severe suffering. Starting in the 1520s, the persecutions continued until the mid 18th century. There was a temporary easing up of the persecutions for about twenty-five years at the end of the 16th century, in which it seemed that Reformed churches were becoming an integral part of French society. But the persecutions returned in all their fury. Many were imprisoned, burned at the stake, massacred, killed, drowned or broken on the wheel. Countless Christians were dragged off to prison. Children were taken from their Reformed parents and raised in Roman Catholic monasteries.
Hundreds of thousands fled France. Eventually, it was forbidden for them to leave. They were trapped in their own country and forced to die, to suffer or to become Roman Catholic. Many also fled illegally by bribing captains of ships. At night they would row in little open boats out to sea and get on board of English and Dutch merchant ships. This was extremely dangerous. If they were caught, the men were sent to the galleys, the women locked up in prisons for the rest of their lives and the children brought to Roman Catholic monasteries.
Throughout these years hundreds of ministers were sent to the galleys. These galleys were huge warships that were propelled by 300 to 400 slaves. The slaves were chained to their seats and each row of men had a Muslim Turk who would beat them. These slaves were either criminals or Reformed believers. The average survival rate on the galleys was about three to four months. The policy was to avoid having the Reformed believers close together on the ships so that they could not support one another. They were forced to remove their cap and fall on their knees when mass was given. If they refused, their backs would be whipped until the skin came off. Then salt and vinegar were rubbed into their wounds. But the Reformed believers became well known for their patience in these sufferings.
A Roman Catholic chaplain who was an eyewitness wrote: “It is true that at the sad state of their bodies I shed tears. They noticed it and although they could scarcely utter a word being nearer to death than life, they told me they were obliged to me for the sweetness I always had for them. I went for the purpose of consoling them, but I had more need of consolation than they. For God, who was their stay, armed them with a truly Christian constancy and patience. You never heard them, among the cries which cannot be refused to nature, offer one word of impatience or injury. God the eternal one was their comfort and the only One whom they called upon for help”.
The French Huguenots: Anatomy of Courage by Janet Glenn Gray.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981, p. 230.
Women were locked up in dungeons for many years. In the south of France, in Aigues-Mortes there is a huge tower with thick walls, called the Tower of Constance. Here many women were imprisoned for their faith. One of them was Marie Durand, who was locked up in that tower for 38 years. Marie was born in 1715 (see Leben, Journal of Reformation Life, Volume 3, 1). Marie grew up in a home equipped with hiding places for the family Bible and even for family members. When Marie Durand was a young girl, her mother, Glaudine, was arrested after attending a secret Protestant service and died shortly thereafter. Marie’s brother, Pierre, eleven years her senior, became one of the “pastors of the désert.” These men preached in open fields, in caves, and in homes, to those in exile and to those in hiding, in continual defiance of the restrictions placed on them by the French monarchy.
Marie’s father, Etienne, was arrested in 1728, and Marie and her newly wed husband, Matthew Seres, were apprehended in 1730. Marie was interred in the Tower of Constance in Aigues-Mortes. She was only fifteen at the time. She never saw her husband again. The French dragonnades – military units organized for the express purpose of seeking out Protestants – attempted to use Marie and Etienne’s arrests to get Pierre’s attention. The authorities promised to set Marie free if Pierre would turn himself in, but Marie urged him not to yield to these offers. Pierre continued to preach until he was arrested on February 12, 1732. He was found guilty of disobeying the king’s orders and judgment was passed on him. On April 22, 1732, this judgment was carried out – death by hanging.
Because Marie would not renounce her faith, she remained locked in the Tower of Constance for almost thirty-eight years. Originally a military lookout and lighthouse, King Louis XIV converted the Tower of Constance into a women’s prison in the 17th century. Very little light and air came through the narrow openings in the walls that served as windows. The women comforted each other with Scripture and sang Psalms together. Here in dark moments, they also quarrelled. But of many, the officials had to write in their books behind their names: her faith is unchanged.
Marie Durand also acted as an official correspondent, penning letters for those who could not write and sending petitions to government officials to inform them of the prison’s horrible conditions. Many of her letters still exist today and are a testimony to Marie’s tireless efforts. She never wavered in strength or in faith.
In 1767, Prince de Beauveau, the governor of Languedoc expressed his disapproval of the horrific conditions the women endured inside the Tower of Constance. Against the will of Louis XV, he ordered their release. In 1768, Marie Durand was one of the last women to leave the tower. Marie returned to the home of her family, although by then she was the only family member that survived the attacks that had been mounted against their faith. She spent her last days in poverty, supported by a church, until her death in 1776. Today, in the tower of Constance, one can still see the floor of that cell where she scratched the words: resister (resist). This was a word of faith, of patient endurance, and resting on the promises of God’s Word.
The Church of the Désert
The Church in France became known as the Church of the désert (wilderness), for the churches had to meet in secrecy, in hidden places. At the time of the death of King Louis XIV, the French Reformed churches had suffered severely. However, his death brought no reprieve, because his successor, Louis XV (1715-1774), had made it his goal to eradicate the Protestant faith. But the fire of God’s Word could not be quenched. Again, ministers were sent back into France. In deep secret, churches would grow and continue to draw people.
Many ministers had to flee the country and then returned illegally to support the afflicted Reformed Churches. Many of these were killed, hanged or sent to the galleys. From 1746 until 1752, in the space of six years 1600 people were condemned to the galleys for their work of Reformed church planting. Ministers were killed; some died singing like Pierre Durand, who was publicly hanged in Montpellier. Soldiers were assembled to beat their drums, but this could not hinder the people from hearing clearly that Durand died singing Psalm 23 and Psalm 51.
In spite of all these persecutions in the 1770s the Reformed Church in France still numbered around half a million members. It is moving to hear the account of a gathering in the open air held in a remote place during those years. A Swiss minister visited the area of Languedoc and related what happened:
It was Christmas Day 1773. The place where the local congregation met was half an hour distance outside the city. Along difficult and rocky ways we came to the place. It was a most desolate area and difficult to access. There were deep ravines and huge boulders. Eventually, we came into an open area surrounded by massive rocks. People were gathered all around. The total number present was about 13,000 people. A portable pulpit was erected and in front of the pulpit were rocks placed in a circle on which the elders were seated. A table was set for the Lord’s Supper.
All who approached the open place first kneeled in prayer before entering. Some were singing Psalms. The deacons went around requesting three nickels per person for the care of the poor. People sat on cushions they had taken along from home, and many just sat on the ground. Around the clearing were many horses and mules. While Psalms were sung, three ministers entered the clearing and the worship service started. The old French Reformed liturgy was followed and included a lively sermon. When the sermon was finished, the Form for the Lord’s Supper was read and the congregation prepared for the celebration of the Supper. Bread and wine were given out and the ministers held short meditations. Here and there groups of women or men kneeled together in prayer or softly sang Psalms.
At the end of the service, the elders stood at the outside of the clearing to ask the members for a second and final offering. The people dispersed while the elderly women were carried in portable chairs. The pulpit was dissembled and taken away. Everywhere along the road one would see booksellers selling Bibles and Reformed books. There were also scores of Roman Catholic beggars because the Protestants were known to give alms.
In 1795, under Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Reformed churches received permission to fully practice freedom of religion. But at that time liberalism had started to creep into the French churches. It would take another half a century, the 1840s, when these churches would again be revived due to evangelical preaching.
Presently in France only 1% of the population is Protestant, amounting to about half a million. About 40% of the Protestants belong to Evangelical Reformed churches so that presently there are only approximately 200,000 Evangelical Reformed believers in France.
Nevertheless, the Reformed Church in France had a major influence outside of France. Many important persons around the globe and various American presidents like George Washington, John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt were of Huguenot descent (Gray, p. 257). Many of the descendants of the Huguenots still stand for loyalty to the Scriptures and uphold a rigorous Church Order. Wherever they are, they are a minority, but this minority continues to supply leadership abilities, and places emphasis on education, independence of thought, high moral standards and industriousness.
Persecution Under King Louis XIV (1638-1715)
The fiercest persecutions came under the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715). This tyrant wanted to cleanse France from all the Roman religions except Catholic religion. He thought that he could clear himself from God’s judgment if he would kill Reformed believers. He efficiently sent soldiers and men of the cavalry into their homes. The soldier would smash everything in the homes and demand food and money. The inhabitants had no choice but to leave everything and flee for their life or be forced to become Roman Catholic. Just a few words spoken and a simple signature, and the soldiers would leave. Hundreds of thousands could not stand this pressure and recanted. Churches were closed and broken down. Streams of refugees fled France to other countries. Most went to England, while some went to Holland and Denmark. In Amsterdam one thousand homes were built for the French Reformed believers.
The heroic faith of a famous Huguenot minister, Claude Brousson, stands out during the years of Louis XIV’s persecutions. After he was captured he was transported by boat through the waterways of France. At a certain time during the night, while Brousson was on deck and his captors were out of sight, the helmsman steered the vessel close to the riverbank and told Brousson he could jump ship. Brousson refused to do so, for he said: J’ai donné ma parole (I have given my word) not to flee if I would be allowed to walk freely on deck. He was tried in the southern French city of Montpellier, where the people never forgot what happened. An eyewitness states:
...20 soldiers were beating their drums until the execution was over. I cannot describe to you with which persistence and dedication he went to the execution. It seemed as if he was going to a feast. His eyes were continually raised up to heaven, so that it seemed he did not see or notice anything or anyone. All broke out in tears when they saw this great man of faith pass by.
Ten thousand people watched as he was put to death on November 6, 1698. Claude Brousson died singing the 34th Psalm while his body was broken upon the wheel.
How Could the Huguenots Endure Suffering?
The French Huguenots suffered much for the cause of Christ. How could they endure such terrible suffering? How could they continue to patiently endure?
Pierre du Moulin, a French 17th century minister, gives some answers in a booklet he wrote, entitled “The Christian combat during times of affliction” (from the Dutch: “De Christelijke strijd”). In it he states that we ought to realize that all Christians will be afflicted in one way or another.
He gives three reasons why there must be afflictions. In the first place there will be afflictions because of the wisdom and righteousness of God who leads His people to follow the footsteps of Christ, who suffered. Christ is our Head and what happens to the Head must also happen to the members. To our comfort we may know that those who share in the sufferings of Christ will also share in His glories.
In the second place, the world we live in is under the dominion of the devil and is at enmity with Christ and His Church. The wicked are like thistles that feel at home in this world. But every god-fearing person is like a plant taken from a strange country that has a hard time growing in this hostile environment. The country where God’s people are persecuted can be compared to a body possessed of an evil spirit. When Christ, through the preaching of His Word, cast out the demon-possessed Gadarene, it tore his body. Similarly, our country is torn by civil war.
In the third place, afflictions are necessary for the church because of errors that easily creep in during times of prosperity and freedom. It is at such times that Christian piety declines and people become self-complacent. Therefore the Lord gives periods of affliction to purge His people and to cause His church to become more devoted to Him.
The Blessed Fruits of Suffering
Pierre du Moulin continued to explain in his booklet that there are blessed fruits attached to suffering and afflictions. By means of suffering the Lord cleanses His church, removing hypocrites. He expels those who love themselves and their ease more than the Lord. He also strengthens His children in the faith precisely through the sufferings they are going through. They become aware of the deceits of the devil and will be more engaged in prayer to ask the Lord for strength under afflictions. Through afflictions the Lord causes His children to bring forth more fruit, as John 5:2 teaches: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” They bring forth fruits of patience, love, sorrow for sin, and a close walk with the Lord. They are weaned from earthly and carnal pleasures. Their faith in the Lord is strengthened.
The Lord also gives various comforts to His suffering people in their afflictions:
- The example of the Lord Jesus and the awareness that God’s child is being conformed to Him. In all your sufferings realize that this was also done to Him. You are not greater than the Lord Jesus. During your suffering realize that the suffering of the Lord Jesus was the worst possible suffering. You are now being conformed to Him.
- The example of the prophets and the apostles. Many of God’s people were martyred in the Old and New Testament. At times God honours His children by incorporating them into His suffering. Do not be amazed when you are slandered, hated and reviled for no apparent reason. They did this to the prophets and to the early Christians.
- Realize that your reward shall be great, yes, very great in heaven. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:12). When they kill you, realize that they are causing you to live forever. When they cause you to weep, the Lord Jesus dries your tears. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). To the extent your afflictions increase, the Lord will also increase His comforts to you. He will let you feel His hidden strength to bear all your hardships. Remember that the future glories are forever and realize how insignificant this life is in comparison to the eternal glories that await in heaven. “I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15).
- The weakness of your enemies. Do not be afraid of the persecutors. They can chase you out of the land of your birth but they cannot take away your heavenly citizenship. They can break down our churches but they cannot break down the temple of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. They can take away our money but they are unable to take away the true wealth we have in Christ Jesus. They can deprive us of honour in this world but they cannot take away the honour that we are children of God. God is able to change every evil for our good.
- The promises of God. Our faith is often afflicted but we may find comfort in the true and rich promises of the Word of God. Christ promised not to leave us orphans.
He promised to never leave or forsake us. He promised to be with His children to the end of the world. The Lord will not put to shame those who trust in His Word. Never be afraid that the church will be wiped off the face of the earth. That can never happen because the world exists only for the church. The Lord will continually revive His church.
Rejoice In Afflictions and Fight Against Indwelling Sin
Pierre du Moulin exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord in the midst of afflictions. The Lord says, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11, 12).
The Lord works joy in the heart. The fear of the Lord does not prosper in a downcast mind. We should not feed ourselves with depressing thoughts. We should not despise the goodness of the Lord. After God has humbled us on account of our sins, He also by faith, lifts us up again. He comforts us with His precious promises and with the hope of His full salvation and the prospect of being conformed to the image of Christ. It is not right when we are more sorrowful about a conflict that is waged against us than that we rejoice in the salvation of the Lord. Above all, we must have joy in the Lord.
How can we remain standing under the weight of severe afflictions and persecutions? Pierre du Moulin says that we can only do that when we daily fight against indwelling sin. We should turn away from sin and resist sin. Neither should we be ashamed of our faith before people. Certainly, we should not fear people. They can do nothing unless the Lord allows them. We should realize from what terrible heresies and lies we have been delivered. We should persevere in prayer, for only by prayer can we stand in the evil day. Christ’s church ought not be ashamed of the Lord.
The Lord Sustains Believers
That was also the reality of the suffering Reformed Church of France. The Lord sustained the believers, either to persevere to the end, or He granted them grace to flee to neighbouring countries. Also today there are those who are suffering severe persecution. We think of Christ’s church in North Korea, Eritrea, Sudan, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other Muslim nations. Let us remember God’s people in their difficult circumstances and pray for them, realizing and be thankful for our great advantages and privileges.
We can still benefit from Moulin’s writings of many years ago. We need to have love for Christ. We need to have a new heart wrought in us to enable us to hate all manner of sin and fight against it. We also need boldness not to be ashamed of His testimony. This all needs to be done with “all prayer and supplication.” The Huguenots could do nothing without Christ. We may feel weak in the struggles that befall us, but through prayer the Holy Spirit will strengthen and teach us self-denial and faithfulness to make us willing to live and to die in the one and only comfort that we belong to Christ Jesus. That gives a true perspective on eternal life in glory with Christ. This was the perspective of the French Reformed Churches.