Community gatherings prior to the organisation of Churches
Luther’s ideas were known in Paris and other French cities as early as 1520. They spread clandestinely since they had been outlawed. They were printed in France but mainly overseas. As from 1524 they were translated into French.
Around 1530 community gatherings first appeared, i.e. inconspicuous meetings at one or another’s home to read the New Testament and pray. But in order to avoid trouble, it was necessary go to Church once in a while for confession and to attend mass at least once a year, to get married, have children baptised and parents buried.
More and more numerous Reformed Churches
Calvin wanted this dual practice to stop, but many people did not dare claim they were Protestants. Calvin called them « Nicodemists », and admonished them to choose between the Reformation and Catholicism.
Travelling salesmen (pedlars) went to Geneva to obtain books and sell them in France. They would explain the contents and some likewise held short services.
The first regular Reformed Church in the kingdom of France was founded in about 1546 in Meaux, with the same structure as Calvin’s congregation in Strasbourg. That same year, the Church in Meaux was persecuted and 14 Protestants including the pastor were burnt alive.
After 1555, other Reformed Churches were established in Paris, Angers and Valence on the Geneva model and according to Calvin’s recommendations that set strict rules concerning the evangelical sacraments, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Protestants gathered to elect a council of elders called the Consistory. The Consistory appointed the pastor, watched over the members of the church, and took care of the poor. The pastor preached and administered the sacraments.
Around 1560 there were about a thousand Reformed Churches, each with an elders’ council, but not always with its own pastor. These Churches were unevenly scattered over the country. Most of them were in Southern France, Occitany, but also South of Poitiers, in the Loire Valley, and in Normandy.
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Jean Calvin (1509-1564)
A generation after Luther, the Frenchman Jean Calvin became the organiser of the Reformation : he organised the Church, shaped the doctrine and defined the role of the Church in state government.
The Reformed Churches in France
In 1559, the Paris Synod organised the French Reformed Churches according to Jean Calvin’s guidelines.
Appearance of the Reformation in France
In the early 16th century the Church had already been in a moral and political crisis they could not overcome for two centuries. In the context of the Renaissance, humanism appeared, as printing ensured the spread of writings. Against this background Luther’s ideas flowed into France. In 1521 Lefèvre d’Étaples founded the Meaux Circle, a reflection group promoting preaching of Scripture in parishes. Reformed Churches appeared and soon organised themselves.
The development of the Reformation in France in the 16th century
In the 16th century, a reform of the Catholic church appeared to be essential.
But how should it be reformed? To what extent?
The theological debates led to several forms of Reformation:
- The Magisterial Reformation with its Lutheran and Reformed strands,
- The Radical Reformation
- Reformism with the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Important differences appeared with regard to the relationship with God, salvation and the forgiveness of sins and the way of understanding and interpreting the Bible.
The kingdom of France remained mostly Catholic. However the reformed strand spread despite the persecutions: reformed churches were established as from 1555. Inspired by Calvin, they adopted a confession of faith and a discipline which laid down the rules of their organisation at local, provincial and national level.
Church worship used the liturgy of Calvin, and the centre of worship was the sermon delivered by the pastor. Holy Communion was only celebrated four times a year, with the distribution of bread and wine. Services were also held in family homes.
Being Protestant in the 16th century meant being different in several ways: firstly in your relationship to God, without the intermediary of saints and the clergy, but also in your private life.