On being a Protestant
in 16th century in France

During the second half of the 16th century, many reformed churches were created in France. Calvinist catechism and discipline brought about a new kind of person: a Protestant person.

"Reformed" meant being different

A reformed person’s religious practice differed from the catholic practice. The Reformation claimed to be an eradication of catholic customs that had “disfigured true Christianity” by their “heathen” and superstitious characteristics.

Being reformed implied:

  • that certain specific signs and gestures – such as crossing oneself, participating in religious processions, kneeling in front of images and relics – were not to be observed,
  • that the Virgin Mary and the Saints were not be considered as mediators of divine salvation, nor were they to be worshiped,
  • that no funeral services were to be held in church. To avoid superstition, pastors did not pray or preach at funerals. The dead were entrusted to the mercy of God who granted them salvation. Confident in divine grace, the Reformed needed no rites or prayers upon dying (funeral services were to be restored later).

In the light of an ancestral behaviour which had always considered certain times, places, images and objects as sacred, such changes in practice implied a mental revolution.

New religious practices

  • Protestant family reading the Bible and singing in the 19th century © S.H.P.F.

The Reformed Protestants replaced the mass that focused on the Eucharist by the service of worship that focused on preaching. The service took place every Sunday and the whole community attended Church to worship God, to listen to his Word and to pray. Psalm singing by the whole congregation had an important place in the service of worship.

The Lord’s Supper replaced the Eucharist and was not celebrated every Sunday but four times a year, for the Christian church feasts. The bread and the wine were distributed to all worshippers.

Another practice developed among the Reformed Protestants : Family worship. The family gathered around the father in the morning and in the evening for:

  • prayers,
  • psalm singing,
  • and Bible reading.

The Sacraments

  • Le Nain (1593-1648) "Return from baptism" © S.H.P.F.

Of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, the Reformed Church kept only two, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper celebrated during the service of worship.

Baptism was celebrated according to the simplicity of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Reformed Church entrusted to God’s divine mercy children who died prior to Baptism. The latter is not considered as a ritual for the washing away of original sin and is therefore not required for infants whose life is threatened.

What became of the other sacraments ? Were Reformed worshippers not at a loss by the lack of guidelines for daily living ? Calvin reorganised the ecclesiastical practices to comply with New Testament teachings.

  • Confirmation was replaced by a catechism that prepared the young to become part of the community of worshippers – the celebration a confirmation ceremony was to be restored later.
  • Marriage was not a sacrament, but received the blessing of God during a liturgical service.
  • Ordination of priests was no longer a sacrament for a specific order, but Calvin gave very detailed instructions concerning the nomination of pastors.
  • Penitence : forgiveness was granted by God himself and not by a priest. The service began with a general confession of sins to God and then forgiveness was proclaimed.
  • Extreme unction was replaced by visits of the pastor and of lay-people to the sick, with prayers.

Other ethics

Calvinist discipline banned as opposed to the Decalogue and to God’s honour behaviours such as adultery, games (especially gambling), dancing, festivals such as carnival, and the wearing of luxury clothes. All of this accounted for the austere image people had of Protestants.

The Reformation upset the traditional scale of values. It abolished monastic orders and destroyed the ideal notion of monkhood. However it promoted new values such as work and education, which were to become values of the modern world.

The Reformation gave new responsibilities to lay-people, such as elders and deacons. The Church was no longer a Church of the clergy, but a community with lay people and pastors together assuming its leadership.

Calvin also wanted the Reformation to concern all aspects of everyday life ; he wanted all to express their faith freely, not only theologians but also the “most rugged and ignorant swineherd”. By giving Christians the full responsibility of their faith, Calvin also gave them unequalled autonomy and freedom.

By gradually changing the individual’s status in the world, the Reformation markedly influenced the slow evolution of society towards democracy.

Associated tours

Associated notes

  • Church organisation

    Initially, Reformed Churches were not institutionalised, but as from 1555, throughout Kingdom of France, they progressively conformed to the pattern Calvin had organised in Geneva.
  • The reformed service of worship and the sacraments

    The central part of the service of worship was the sermon, based on a text from the Bible. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were celebrated during the service, the latter...
  • A new relationship to God

    In the XVIth century, it appeared highly necessary to reform the Catholic Church. But how was this to be done and to what extent ?
  • 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.
  • Clément Marot (1496-1544)

    The famous 16th century French poet put into verse the biblical Psalms that were to be sung all over France and become the well-known Huguenot Psalter.