The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 1685
"Worse than a mistake, it was an error," Jeanine Garrisson-Estebe, a French protestant historian writes in her new book on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV. This year French protestantism will commemorate one of the most sinister epochs of its history, and France may recall one of the most fatal errors committed by one of her despotic monarchs. In 1598 Henry IV, the "Good King Henri" and grandfather of Louis, had promulgated this edict. After thirty years of civil and religious wars (eight in all), he hoped by this edict to establish peace in the country to those whose throne he finally had access. It is true he gained it at the price of recanting the reformed faith, though the famous words attributed to him are certainly an apocryphal saying ("Paris vaut bien une messe" — Paris is worth a mass!). Though one of the best sovereigns that France has ever had, Henri shrewdly wished to grant to his former co-religionnaires, the Huguenots, the necessary toleration on religious matters and at the same time to ensure himself of their military support in his fierce struggle against the Roman League.
There were at this period some two million protestants in France and more than 1,300 temples — places of worship. According to the Edict, the Huguenots were allowed in worship in more than one hundred of the most important cities of the kingdom and in castles, but also could have access to any and all official functions. It was a model, an unprecedented one, both of religious toleration and of the nature of normal relations between Church and State. However, Roman Catholics judged it as too favorable towards the heretics.
After the maelstrom which had lasted for thirty years, the Roman church was seriously recovering and was determined to crush the Huguenot party, the main enemy of France. At the same time, there was also a remarkable spiritual growth among the Huguenots, and reformed churches were converting crowds of Roman Catholics. It is important to mention this, since it was argued at the time of the Revocation that protestantism had stopped being an important social and religious body, had practically disappeared, so it was no more necessary to grant the too liberal measures of religious toleration.
The harassing measures against the protestants, the Religion Pretendue Reformee (the so-called reformed religion), had started already around 1660. Inhuman treatment had already forced many of them to choose the way of exile. Some did actually recant. Among those measures were the Dragonnades, the Bastonades, and the Galeres.
The Dragonnades were one of the most diabolical measures ever intended for such a purpose. For weeks and months a detachment of soldiers would occupy the home of a protestant family and under cruel treatment attempt to convert them into the Roman religion. The Bastonades were the beating of people, sometimes to the point of death, unless they would recant. The Galeres were the galleys of the royal navy where recalcitrants unwilling to give in were sent.
The Revocation was ratified by the French Parliament in October, 1685. All church buildings would have to be destroyed. (Some 700 were destroyed). All external signs of the R.P.R. were to be destroyed. Huguenots were forbidden to sing hymns aloud. Their dead could not be buried during the daytime. Ministers could no more wear their pastoral robes nor preach in more than one place. In fact, they had to either recant or leave the country in fifteen days. Schools and academies had to be closed. Children whose fathers were Roman Catholics would be baptized Roman. Money would be extorted if families did not recant or if they tried to recover their children taken away from them. No protestant could exercise his profession — as lawyer, doctor, or even businessman.
Some 300,000 French preferred to leave the country. They chose to go to the British Islands, to the Netherlands, to the Swiss Cantons, to Germany, to the Scandinavian countries, to Russia, to North or South America, or even as far as South Africa. (It has been one of my pleasures, during my many visits to this lovely country, to meet the du Toits, the Marais, the de Villiers, and the Malans, all genuine descendants of French Huguenots.)
It is impossible to evaluate in two pages all the disastrous effects of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Suffice it to mention the impoverishment of France at financial, cultural, and social levels. Even four years after the Revocation, Vauban, the Prime Minister and one of the forefathers of modern statistics, was recognizing this fact in a report presented to the despotic Louis XIV. One may with confidence state that most of the modern troubles plaguing France are due more to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 — which means a religious issue — than to the Revolution of 1789.
Instructed by this negative experience, one has to ponder both the nature of the relation between state and church and the role that the Roman church has exercised in the past and is still playing in countries which she claims as her own. Even though we may not follow all the conclusions of the sociological analyses of Max Weber or R. Tawney, we will readily recognize the immense impact of the evangelical faith on the culture, economy, and even politics in reformed protestant countries. What a difference between them and so-called Roman Catholic countries.
Finally, one has to ask a question to modern French protestants: "What is the use of commemorating past events and blaming the errors of other epochs if one is not ready to behave like his forefathers and show the same faithfulness and determination to witness to the Truth which his forefathers witnessed to"? Mere ornamenting of the tombs of ancestors does not rekindle their spirit. We are asking questions like this in our own radio ministry and in our writings in order to bring French protestants and non-protestants to the truths that in past centuries remarkable people had discovered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.