France was influenced by the ideas of Luther and Zwingli from 1520 onwards – this was made possible by the atmosphere of intellectual freedom which was part of the Renaissance. Members of the court of François 1st were quite strongly attracted by this new approach. However, repressive measures were taken as soon as 1523 and the situation worsened after the “notices incident” (“placards”) in 1535.
This did not prevent the Protestants from establishing their own Churches and the first one was in Meaux. From Geneva Jean Calvin (1509-1564) sent out instructions for setting up reformed Churches in France. The first national synod was held in Paris in 1559 ; a confession of faith and ecclesiastical rules for the organization of the church were voted which were to be respected by the reformed Protestants of France for the next two hundred and fifty years. In the kingdom of France nearly all Protestants were reformed : they were about 2 million in number.
The Wars of Religion began in 1562 and ended with the edict of Nantes in 1598 : it was a period of warfare, destruction and massacre. With the edict, religious harmony returned to France ; although it allowed a certain amount of protection for the protestants and the possibility of employment in all walks of life, it did, however, limit the number of places where protestants could hold their services, that is to say only in towns or villages where this had already been done in 1577, in places where services had been held in the two years leading up the edict, in two communes in each bailiwick and in the houses of wealthy protestant noblemen ; this situation affected the north of France more than the south, where there had previously been more places of worship.
After the assassination of Henri IV in 1610, the reformed Churches still managed to survive during the reign of Louis XIII in spite of another period of religious wars. However, from 1660 onwards the edict of Nantes was applied much more strictly and even modified by the king. Places of worship were done away with. From 1680 onwards the repression worsened until king Louis XIV ordered the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 by the edict of Fontainebleau. From then on there were no more reformed Churches apart from the secret assemblies held in the Désert – this heroic period lasted until 1760. And it was only with the constitution of 1791 that freedom of worship was properly established.
The consistorial Churches in 1802
In April 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte, the first consul, established the law of 18th germinal in year X (the organic Articles dealing with protestant acts of worship) which officially recognized the reformed Churches. Each Church was limited to 6,000 protestants and was ruled by a council called a consistory, which consisted of pastors and from ten to twelve leading citizens. The pastors were appointed and paid by the State. Each reformed Church (known as a consistorial Church) continued to lead an independent existence because in the organic Articles there was no mention of any synod. When Napoleon became emperor he gave catholic churches and disused convent chapels to the reformed Churches.
This consistorial policy continued until the separation of the Church and State in 1905 ; during the XIXth century other free Churches emerged, who were independent from the State.
During the XIXth century, various different Revival movements were introduced to France by pastors who had come from Geneva, England or Germany ; later they developed into new Churches (Methodist Churches) but some also came into being within the existing reformed Churches. This was because they wanted to react against the formal and dry approach of certain communities – on the contrary they aimed at reviving the Church and bringing a renewal of piety. Two main doctrines could be found in the reformed Churches : the orthodox or evangelical doctrine consisted of those who wanted to return to Calvin’s doctrines – they were opposed to the liberals, who advocated a scientific study of the Bible and were also quite close to a rationalist approach. No agreement could be found between these two tendencies at the general synod in 1872, although the reformed Churches did not actually split up until 1906 when three Church unions were set up.
The beginning of the French Reformed Church in 1938
The ERF was founded in 1938 by Marc Boegner at a meeting where there were representatives of each tendency. He had previously worked over a period of years at bringing the orthodox and liberal members closer together. Those who were present at this meeting were :
- The majority of the Churches who were members of the Union of evangelical Churches (the orthodox tendency).
- All those who belonged to the Union of reformed Churches (the liberal tendency).
- Most of the free Churches (who were independent from the liberal tendency).
- Most of the Methodist Churches.
This gathering together of different tendencies was made possible by an article introducing the Declaration of Faith which stated “it is not a question of giving excessive authority to the Declaration of faith… in the knowledge that the evangelical message is of a stature which quite overcomes any other formula and that in different situations faith is not always expressed in the same way.”
The theology of the ERF can be summarized in the Declaration of faith of 1938, which was read out loud at the beginning of each synod and at the ordination of each pastor.
The ERF follows the six major principles of the Reform movement which are common to all protestants :
- Glory belongs to God alone : nothing is sacred or absolute apart from God.
- Grace alone can save man, regardless of his worth ; it is God’s free and original gift to humanity. As God thus trusts man, he becomes responsible for his acts.
- Faith alone is important : this faith arises from meeting God,
- Only the Bible is recognized as having real authority : it has a message for us today because it has been interpreted by the various different Churches according to their beliefs.
- The Churches must always be open to reform : they gather together all those who believe in the God revealed by Jesus Christ in the act of baptism and in the Last Supper. These institutions do not act as mediators between believers and God. They are constantly evolving according to the rhythm of human progress.
- Universal priesthood : each baptized believer is on the same level as others within the Church, whether he be a layman or a pastor ; indeed, the latter is not in a particularly privileged position – it is just because of his theological training that he is in a position to lead the community. Every Church member has the duty to witness to his faith and be committed to playing a responsible role in the world.
The French Reformed Church in 2012
The French Reformed Church is the Church with the largest number of members although other Protestant Churches do exist in France – there are about 110 000 known families, about 350 000 people. Nearly 500 worship associations have been created, they serve more than 850 places where services are held with varying regularity. 300 pastors work in parishes whereas 60 others have another ministries, for example: teaching theology, military or hospital chaplains, the administration of the Church, communication or social work. Around 70 pastors are seconded to works of charity and Protestant movements. About 30% of the pastors are women and there are likely to be more. Most pastors are married (85%).
There is a permanent Lutheran-Reformed Council made up of the French Reformed Church, the Lutheran Evangelical Church and the Union of Protestant Churches in Alsace and Lorraine. This Council deals with European agreements at the French level, for example the recognition of different ministries and the training of pastors.
The French Protestant Church is a member of the French Protestant Federation and also the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Ecumenical Council of Churches.
The French United Protestant Church (2013)
After a long period of preparation which began with the national of Sochaux in 1997, the French Reformed Church finally united with the French Lutheran Church to form one Church: ‘the French United Protestant Church, Lutheran and Reformed Communion’. This became official on the 1st January 2013. The first national synod of the united Church took place from 8 – 12 May 2013 in Lyon. National institutions are common to both Churches and there is one body of pastors for both Churches but local parishes remain either Reformed or Lutheran.
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 Edict of Nantes (1598)
This was Henri IV’s major achievement : the terms of this edict ensured the peaceful coexistence of Catholics and Protestants and brought a stop to all hostilities in France after 36 years of civil warfare.
Protestantism after 1562
In the second part of the XVIth century (1562-1598), in spite of persecution and long periods of civil war, the Reformed Churches became well organized. A political system, structured on much the same lines as the organisation of the Reformed Churches, was introduced in the United Provinces of the Midi.
The Edict of Fontainebleau or the Revocation (1685)
In October 1685, Louis XIV signed the Edict of Fontainebleau which repealed the Edict of Nantes. It banned Protestant worship and the emigration of Protestants. Pastors were banished.
Marc Boegner (1881-1970)
Marc Boegner was a pastor with outstanding charisma, and a prominent figure in contemporary French Protestantism. He also acknowledged its various tendencies, and very early accepted big responsibilities. During the 1939-1945 war he fought against discrimination notably towards the Jews in the name of the French Protestant Federation. Throughout his life his “ecumenical demand” made him a pioneer in Christian churches unification strivings.
The Law of 1905
The law of 9th December 1905, concerning the separation of the churches and the state, instituted and defined the secularity of France. It guaranteed freedom of worship in the spirit of the 1789 revolution, creating for it a legal framework and marking the end of the struggle between the lay Republic and the Catholic Church.
Divisions and regroupings in the Reformed Church
Betweeen 1802 and 1938 the Reformed Church underwent dramatic modification in their organisation.
The Baptist Churches
The Baptist Churches have been established in France since the beginning of the XXth century in certain regions (mainly in the North), but with the help of the English and American communities they spread all over France. The 40.000 members of the Baptist Church (who form part of the evangelical community), are scattered unevenly throughout the country.
The Evangelical Churches
The existence of Evangelical Churches in France goes back to the beginning of the XIXth century. There are at present 1850 Churches with 350.000 members and there are about 200 million Protestant Evangelicals in the world (this is not counting the Pentecostals). In the last twenty years the Protestant Evangelical movement has been expanding throughout the world, in Central America, South America, Asia and especially in China.
The Mennonite Churches
The Mennonite Churches go back to the radical Reform movement of the XVIth century ; they were persecuted in Switzerland, then settled along the Rhine valley. In the XVIIth century there was a split between liberal Mennonites and Amish, or conservative Mennonites who emigrated to the States. Today there are 32 independent Mennonite Churches in France.
The Pentecostal Churches
The Pentecostal movement is the most successful Protestant denomination in the world today, with about 150 million members. Its presence in France goes back to the 1930s and its main Churches are the “Assemblées de Dieu” and “La Mission Evangélique Tzigane”.
The Protestant Churches of Alsace and Lorraine (UEPAL, EPCAAL and EPRAL)
The Lutheran and Reformed Churches of Alsace and Moselle have been working towards unity for a long time. These efforts finally met with success when the Union des Eglises Protestantes d’Alsace et de Lorraine (The Union of Protestant Churches of Alsace Loraine) was set up in 2006. The Lutheran Churches still retained their own parishes and organisation as well as the Concordat system of church government.
Union of Evangelical Free Churches
The Union des Eglises Evangéliques Libres (UEEL) (Union of Evangelical Free Churches) was set up in 1849, because its members wanted to openly strengthen their links with the Reform movement and to prevent the State from having any control over its organisation or activities. When the Eglise Réformée de France (Reformed Church of France) was set up in 1938, they did not wish to become part of it. They have been confederate members of the Fédération des Eglises Evangéliques Baptistes de France (the Federation of French Evangelical Baptist Churches) since 1987 and also of the Fédération Internationale des Eglises Evangéliques Libres (International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches) ;they were also founder members of the Fédération Protestante de France (French Federation of Protestant Churches) in 1905 and in fact one of their most distinguished members, Edouard Gruner (who had studied at the “Ecole de Mines” in 1869) became its first president (1905 – 1927). At the beginning of the 60’s they chose to distance themselves from the Fédération Protestante de France (French Federation of Protestant Churches) ; however in 1996 they joined forces again.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of France
In 1808, quite a large Lutheran community in Paris consisting of foreigners became a Church which was connected to Strasbourg. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of France was established in France in 1872 after the Franco-German war of 1870. Today there are about fifty parishes and talks are under way to bring this Church closer to the “Eglise réformée de France”. The two Churches hope to unite, thus forming one Church.
Protestantism in the XXth century
The law of 9th December 1905 separating the Churches from the State guaranteed the freedom of public worship for the Reformed Church and a legal framework. Hardly surprisingly, most Protestants welcomed this law.
It did not concern Alsace and the Moselle, which had become part of the German empire in 1871.
Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox intra-confessional Ecumenism
The beginnings of contemporary Ecumenism on the international level appeared in the late 19thcentury with Church and youth movements. They merged into an international movement: the World Christian Youth Federation (WCSF). The World missionary conference met in Edinburgh in 1910 and lay the foundations for a renewed dialogue between the different protestant churches. World conferences were set up. Their work was organised through commissions or permanent councils.
In 1937 about a hundred churches decided to create an Ecumenical World Council of Churches (WCC). The First Assembly met in 1938, but, because of World War II, it was only established in Amsterdam in 1948, with its headquarters in Geneva. From then on the different conferences set up in 1910 progressively joined the WCC. It organises plenary assemblies every seven or eight years, while the number of member Churches increases as South American Churches are accepted. General Secretaries play an important part. Willem Visser’t Hooft who participated in creating the WCC was the first General Secretary. Originally the WCC was composed mainly of Protestant churches, though it soon aroused the interest of Orthodox Churches. The Catholic Church does not belong to the WCC but takes part in some work sessions.
In the early 20th century a number of Protestant Churches came together, especially in France because of its great variety of Churches. Thus, from 1945 on the French Protestant Federation offered to unite most Protestant Churches and associations. In 1938 a significant number of Reformed Churches assembled and formed the French Reformed Church (FRC). In 2013, after the Lutheran and Reformed Churches of Alsace and Moselle linked, the FRC and the French Lutheran Evangelical Church merged to create the French United Protestant Church.