When we look at European Reformation history, much of our focus centers on England, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. However, we miss quite a bit when we ignore the history of the Huguenots, Reformed Christians in France. Though never really impressive in a numerical sense, the Huguenots had a massive impact on their native land and also the lands they were exiled to. It is sad that their history so often lies dormant in our day and age.
From the outset I should note that it was not a utopian movement. Certainly there were excesses and questionable decisions made. The movement’s history is fraught with many thorny issues and difficult questions. And yet, the Huguenots are a powerful example of a vigorous Reformed Christianity standing strong in the face of suffering, persecution, and exile.
The Massacre And The Pressure Cooker Of Persecution
The King of France, Louis XIV, saw the Huguenots as dangerous, perhaps rightfully so. They were about to provide a powerful blow to tyrannical monarchies. As one writer put it, the Huguenots and their vigorous Protestantism were “a constant reminder to [him] of the aggravating presence of neighbouring Calvinist Holland”.
The 1560s and 1570s were filled with religious wars in France between Protestants and Catholics. In 1572, during the notorious St. Bartholomew’s massacre, thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered. There’s a lot of speculation regarding the details. Casualty estimates range from 2,000 to 70,000. Philip II of Spain “laughed for the only time on record” after hearing the news. Protestant nations were generally horrified at the news, and even Ivan the Terrible expressed outrage.
The Huguenots continued in a complicated relationship with their mother land. Many Huguenots left France, and fled to Protestant nations throughout the 1500’s and 1600’s, especially after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Many of them arrived in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Others arrived in the U.S., England, Ireland, South Africa, and Scotland. In general, they quickly assimilated into other groups and lost their distinctives.
The first Huguenots arrived in North America in 1562, settling in Florida. Unfortunately, this community did not escape persecution and the Spanish forces of Pedro Menendez massacred hundreds of Huguenot settlers. It wouldn’t be until the 1700s that the persecution of Protestants in France waned, and 1789 when Protestants gained equal rights as citizens.
The experiences of the Huguenots led them into some interesting tensions in their way of thinking. Circumstances seem to have forced them to deal with certain subjects more radically than others might have.
A Reformed Popular Sovereignty Movement
The Huguenots may very well be credited with being the first Reformed “popular sovereignty movement”. Before the Huguenots, the Reformed movement was generally supportive of monarchies, perhaps we could call it “total civil obedience”. Emphasizing Biblical texts on government authority, and perhaps lacking a fully-orbed understanding of the spheres of authority, some Protestant thinkers gave a “rubber stamp” to some forms of monarchical tyranny.
The Huguenots, however, challenged this mindset. Philippe Du Plessis Mornay, if we are to accept the hypothesis of his authorship of the work, wrote a very important work called Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants). He argued that “kings should acknowledge that after God, they hold their power and sovereignty from the people”.
The Huguenots noticed a small section in Calvin’s commentary on Daniel in which he said that when king’s disobey God, they “abdicate their worldly power”. They took this small thread, and ran with it as they began to argue forcefully for popular sovereignty over against monarchies.
A Radical Paradigm Shift And Armed Resistance
Today, it is easy to miss how radical of a paradigm shift occurred when Mornay said “a king cannot rule without a people, while a people can rule itself without a king”. With lots of a time and a few revolutions in our rear view mirror, that statement may seem tame. However with some contextualization we see how radically earth-shattering it was! This paradigm shift became an early ripple that would contribute to later developments. It’s been said that one of the most popular books in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution was Mornay’s book, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.
With the Huguenots, Reformed Christianity received what was, to some degree, a novel theory of social revolution. This strain of thought would remain controversial in Reformed circles and admittedly would be problematic in a number of areas, but it is undeniable that it was wildly influential and is an important contribution to the history of Western thought! The Huguenots resorted to armed resistance. After warning the king that rebellion would occur if the persecution would not desist, the Huguenots participated in three periods of armed rebellion during the 1600’s.
For the Huguenots, it was a last resort after trying peaceful submission. The persecution crossed a line for them. Rightly or wrongly, they saw the need for armed resistance. And, for better or for worse, they got the all the complexities that that entailed.
Rothbard on The Huguenots
Reformed Christians who are also libertarians will likely be fascinated to find that Murray Rothbard wrote a fair amount about the Huguenots. He summed up the Huguenot popular sovereignty movement by saying it held that “the sovereign right is only in the people as a whole and not in any individual”. In An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, he argued that the furnace of persecution led the Huguenots to develop “libertarian theories of radical resistance against the tyranny of the Crown”. They abandoned “the original Calvinist counsel of total civil obedience and construct[ed] a natural law theory of the original sovereignty of the people”.
Therefore, according to Rothbard, Calvinism initially supported tyrannical monarchies and only became “revolutionary and antityrannical under the pressure of opposing Catholic regimes, which drove the Calvinists back to natural law and popular sovereignty motifs in Catholic scholistic thought”.
I’m not here to defend Rothbard’s reading of history in all its details, and I think he may have misread the earlier Reformers a bit, but I think he is at least right in the sense that some sort of paradigm shift did occur. Rothbard’s analysis is helpful, even if we do not follow him in every conclusion he draws out.
There’s more to Huguenots that revolution, though. The Huguenots had a rich artistic heritage, and the movement produced excellent artists and craftsmen. Anyone with a strong grasp of French will find vast treasures in Laurent Drelincourt’s Sonnets Chretiens. As an aside, it’s about time for these excellent Huguenot sonnets to be translated into English!
However, above all, the Huguenots had a rich heritage of Psalm singing. Clement Marot and Theodore Beza made amazing contributions to the French psalter and, according to Alice Morse Earle, the French psalter was the first metrical translation of the psalms ever sung. And so, we read in The Psalms in Human Life by R.E. Prothero:
“..in France the metrical version of the Psalter, in the vulgar tongue, set to popular music, was one of the principal instruments in the success of the Reformed Church. The Psalms were identified with the everyday life of the Huguenots. Children were taught to learn them by heart; they were sung at every meal in house…to chant psalms meant, in popular language, to turn Protestant.“
So, in a sense the Huguenot were singing revolutionaries. And the Psalms ministered to them in times of suffering and distress.
This use of the Psalms in Europe has not been limited to France. If we fast-forward many years, we find the Psalms being a similar foundation for the Reformed Christians in Hungary living through communism. David T. Koyzis has argued in Singing the Psalms Through Adversity: Hungary over at the First Things blog, that “it can be justly argued that psalm-singing carried [Reformed Christians] through four decades of communist tyranny”.
Some Lessons To Be Learned From the Huguenots
This has been a whirl-wind tour of the Huguenots. I hope it inspires you to dig deeper into this history, which is absolutely fascinating. With many years in our rear view mirror, we can look back at them and see their strengths and weaknesses. I would not propose that we follow them in all their steps or try to emulate them in every way. And even though this article focuses a lot on good things, I wouldn’t want anyone to think they were some sort of a utopian or ideal movement, they certainly weren’t.
What are some lessons we can learn?
1. A rigorous Reformed faith can be lively, active, musical, productive, and have a big impact on society, even if not numerically impressive. Christians who live fruitful lives, even when they are marginalized by the state, not only bless their countries, but also other nations.
2. They are a powerful example of remaining faithful in times of tragedy and persecution. They show how persecution and opposition stretches us and very often frames our thinking. We often don’t realize how much our thinking is a product of the times we live in. Often times, our best (or worst) comes out in the pressure of persecution.
3. In our day and age, not much in the way of nuanced and careful thinking is being carried out in the church in regard to political science. The Huguenots provide a powerful example of Christians acknowledging political authority, but firmly rejecting tyranny. They avoided the common error of falling for cheap, jingoistic “Christian” justifications of tyranny.
4. We are reminded that he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. The Huguenots felt that powerfully as the rebellions led to increasing losses of political power and religious freedom. Their decision to resist certainly had grave consequences. One could try to make a case that it was inevitable, but one can’t make the case that it wasn’t costly. And, even more importantly, it is an important reminder that Scripture alone should be our authority, not the traditions of any strain of thought, whether they be “Reformed” or not. “Sola Scriptura” should regulate our entire lives.
5. Even if we fault them in certain areas, they resisted tyranny with a great deal of bravery. In a powerful way, the history of the St. Bartholomew’s massacre was a strong argument for the very changes that they ended up championing. In their history, we see an extreme example of why no leader should have unchecked power.
6. They teach us the power of music, especially the Psalms, during times of great suffering.
7. Seeing true religion decimated in our country can be very disheartening. However, we must remember God’s providence. The kingdom of God is bigger than it’s representation in one nation. France’s loss became the gain of nations such as Switzerland, Holland, and America.