Faith in Focus

The Huguenots


The history of the Church has its disappointments, embarrassments and shame when one considers the shortcomings and failures of the people of God. But that is only one side of that history. There is also another, a glorious side.

The fact that the Church is surviving is surely the Lordís doing: after all, it is foremost His church, the church for which the Lord Jesus Christ shed His precious blood. The church of today would be wise to consider its history often. Even in the so-called free world there is tremendous opposition to the Church of Jesus Christ. Among the many modern forms of persecution there is a growing intolerance to anything Christian. And that in an age in which a new kind of "tolerance" has become the only absolute virtue!

French Protestantism

It is a moving experience to read the history of French Protestantism. The French branch of the Reformation came to be referred to as the Huguenots. In the main they followed the teachings of the French-born Reformer John Calvin. The Huguenots remained a martyr church for over 200 years.

By the middle of the 1550ís the first congregations became established in France, and before the decade was finished there were over 70 churches, which met for their first Synod in 1559. Between 1562 and 1588 some eight wars were waged between the Roman Catholic and Reformed nobility to gain freedom of religion for all French citizens.

When Henry of Navarre came to the throne in 1589 he pressed for the basic civil rights for the Huguenots although he himself had turned from Protestantism back to Catholicism.

The Edict of Nantes temporarily brought relief to the persecuted church. However, in 1685 King Louis XIV of France revoked the edict. This drove the bulk of the Huguenots out of the country. France lost so many highly skilled and industrious people in this "brain and skill drain," that its economy suffered severely.

The enormous exodus proved to be of great benefit to many surrounding countries, e.g. Switzerland, Germany, Holland, England, Russia etc. Eventually many of the refugees moved further afield and migrated to America, and South Africa. The many French surnames in these countries are present-day evidence of this historical development.

The Church of the Desert

Meanwhile in France the forced presence of the Dragoons or Dragonnades in Huguenot homes went on. Like the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution in China they ravaged property and people. There was torture and death, public humiliation and execution and the dreaded consignment to be galley slaves.

There was also severe deprivation of the most basic rights of citizens. Their dead were not allowed to be buried on the cemeteries, and consequently found their resting place on the dumps. The faithful searched for all kinds of hiding places for worship, and so the Church of the Desert came into being. The so-called "pastors of the desert" ministered to Godís people at the risk of martyrdom. And their followers were no less liable to the worst of torture.

The gifted pastor Antoine Court was only 20 years old when he was made moderator and clerk of the first synod of the Church of the Desert in 1715. Later he became the dean of the theological training place in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the future leaders of the persecuted churches of France were prepared to minister the eagerly desired message of the Word of God to thousands. Approximately 400 pastors received their training at this seminary.

The Camisards

There were also groups among the Huguenots who offered "active resistance", somewhat like an underground counter movement. The Camisards were led by so-called "prophets" or "inspired ones" who claimed Spirit-given revelations to take up arms to attack the enemies. These charismatic Huguenots called themselves "the children of God". Abraham Mazel, a godly 24 year old, was not a man of war, but a repeated "divine order" convinced him he had to obey.

The gruesome opposition to the Camisards reminds one of the drastic reactions of the enemy to the underground movement during World War II. In one campaign of revenge some 534 villages and 608 hamlets were wiped out by the Marshall of Montrevel.

Many Huguenots who did not find their death in local prisons or execution on the wheel of torture, were shipped to sea to serve their sentences as galley slaves. They were chained down to row the galleys of the Royal French Navy. The mortality rate was frightful. Few were released alive, most rowed to glory. Even old men were chained down among the galley convicts. A younger survivor, Jean Marteilhe, wrote about his thirteen years as a galley slave. It gave an insight into the horrors of "life" on board of a galley. When released he chose to go to the city of refuge, Geneva.

Singing as they went

The great courage of these Huguenots was their strong conviction of the Protestant and Reformed faith, in which they held firmly that God was sovereign in every area of life. They believed God would maintain His cause even through the most severe persecution.

One of the most remarkable sources of encouragement to these Huguenot Christians was the inspiration they received from the Book of Psalms. They went into battle singing the Genevan psalms, notably the 68th one, put on rhyme by Calvinís successor, Theodore Beza.

They went to the scaffold singing. In trying to stop their singing they were gagged, until the fire severed the cords and they sang again, with charred lips.

On the galleys and in the prisons they sang their psalms. When they marched through the streets they sang. The Psalms were at the heart of all their actions, and even evangelical leaders among the Roman Catholics followed their psalm-singing practice. Among them was the well-known author and mathematician Blaise Pascal.

What wonderful testimony to their faith and perseverance in times when the church was so harassed! The fire of God cannot be put out by mere human hatred and persecution. The last Huguenot to die at the stake was Francois Rochette, who went singing to meet his Lord, "This is the day, which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

(Summary of a talk presented to the Wellington Womenís Fellowship by the Rev John Goris, who gratefully acknowledges the helpful information provided in issues of "The Young Reformer" published by The Protestant Alliance of England.)

Mr John Goris is the Minister of the Reformed Church of Wellington.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@xtra.co.nz / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000