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Huguenots

A nickname for the French Calvinists (the origin is uncertain: perhaps a corruption of the German Eidgenossen, “confederates”). Under Francis I (d.1547), persecution of Protestants was sporadic; his sister Margaret, indeed, made Navarre a center for reform-minded humanists. By the 1540s Calvinism spread rapidly in France, bringing increased repression. Under Henry II's reign (1547-59), special courts were set up to try heretics, who were often burned at the stake. As martyrs multiplied, so also did Calvinism spread, aided by massive mission efforts from Geneva. Powerful noble clans adopted the new faith, notably the Bourbons, led by Antoine of Navarre. A national synod was held in 1559. With Henry's death, the political situation began to disintegrate rapidly. The princely family of the Guises, militant Catholics, opposed any toleration of the heretics. An extremist Huguenot attempt to kidnap the new king (the weak Francis II) failed; a Catholic-Calvinist colloquy at Passy (1560) achieved nothing; attempts at compromise by allowing limited toleration produced militant Catholic protest, climaxed by a Guise march on Paris (1562).

Civil war broke out. It was to last for a generation. The main parties were three: the Huguenots, the militant Catholics, and the politiques, who wanted above all the restoration of order. Religious differences were entangled with political ambitions. Both Huguenots and militant Catholics proved ready to intrigue for foreign support. The wars were marked by political assassinations and even by mass “executions” (the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day,* 1572), an attempt to wipe out the Huguenot leadership.

Huguenot political theorists developed justifications for revolt against tyrants (e.g., Vindiciae contra tyrannos, 1579). Given the conventional wisdom of the age-namely, that a state could not survive if its citizens were divided in ideology (religion)-the situation seemed insoluble. The wars were ended in ironic fashion: the assassination of Henry III (by a fanatic Catholic) made Henry of Navarre, the Huguenot leader, heir to the throne. To gain it, he turned Catholic (“Paris is well worth a Mass”). He quickly ended the civil war and in 1598 issued the Edict of Nantes,* granting the Huguenots full toleration, civil rights, and the right to their own fortified towns. To some extent, thus, the Huguenots remained a “state within a state.”

During Henry IV's* reign (1598-1610) the Huguenots felt secure. After his assassination their position slowly worsened. Huguenot militant revolts (1615, 1625) merely led to the loss of the fortified towns. Though entrenched enough under Louis XIII (1610-43) to engage in internal controversy over the attempts by Amyraut (Amyraldus) of Saumur to soften the orthodox idea of predestination, the Huguenots' days were numbered. Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) was determined to make France the most powerful state in Europe, and this involved ruling a state committed to one religion. Repressive measures were instituted (e.g., the dragonnades, or quartering of soldiers on Huguenot families), persecution followed, and in 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked. Calvinism was now illegal. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots left in a mass exodus from the lands of the “Sun King.”

Those who remained, mostly the poor, suffered sentences to the galleys, hangings, and other punishments. The Calvinist peasants of the Cevennes rose in desperate revolt (1702); though the “Camisards”* were gradually hunted down, by Louis's death in 1715 a regular “underground” church had been organized, led by Antoine Court* and later by Paul Rabaut.* By the later 1700s, with the spread of Enlightenment ideas (Voltaire, etc.), persecution for religious reasons seemed increasingly antiquated, and by 1787 the Huguenot remnant gained limited civil rights.

The French Revolution brought full toleration and civil rights. The Napoleonic regime recognized Calvinism as an established religion, along with others, at the cost of some degree of state regulation. This was continued in the post- Revolutionary era. The Huguenots, though a small minority, produced many noted figures (e.g., the political leader Guizot). As the revolutionary storms subsided, new influences affected the Calvinists: higher criticism and “modernism” on the one hand, and the “Awakening” (Réveil*) on the other, the latter a conservative and Pietist return to traditional orthodoxy. By 1848 a conservative group led by Adolphe Monod* split off; another conservative schism followed in 1872, despite the efforts of the aging Guizot to reconcile evangelicals and modernists.

By 1905 anticlerical liberalism brought an end to all ties between state and religious groups. Among the Calvinists four separate bodies resulted. After World War I they cooperated increasingly, and by 1938 most Calvinists united in the Reformed Church of France.

A.G. Grant, The Huguenots (1943); E. Leonard, Histoire du Protestantisme français (1961); B.G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (1969).