Calvin's ideas spread throughout France
Calvin’s works spread throughout France, especially his Institution of the Christian Religion – the last edition appearing in 1560. This was an immense work written with two objectives in mind : first, to set out a doctrine and then to incite people to actually put these ideas into practice. In this way, the reformed communities, even though they were not allowed to openly proclaim their faith, acquired a clear statement of their religious beliefs, which included the basic tenets of church laws, theology and ecclesial practices.
Growth of the Reformed Churches
From 1555 onwards, many churches used this “Genevan” form of organisation.
From the beginning, when it first opened in 1559, the Academy of Geneva trained pastors to come to France to make sure that churches were strictly obeying the rules set out in the « Institution ». In the space of five years, about a thousand were set up, especially in the area of Provence, but also south of Poitou, in the Loire country and in Normandy. Between 1559 and 1565 the movement grew considerably – in France there were about two million Protestants, that is to say, some 10% of the kingdom’s population. Some towns such as Montauban were exclusively Protestant. But this spectacular growth did not last long – from 1565 onwards the tide went the other way – it was with the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572 that the situation changed radically.
At the end of the 16th century, the number of Protestants had dwindled – there were only one million left ; however, those that remained were active and dynamic, especially in the towns.
The Church was organized on three levels
At local Church level, Protestants met together to elect a council of elders called the “consistory“, which named the pastor. It was “to deal with maintaining order, looking after upkeep, as well as the government of church”.
On the provincial and national level, the churches had a totally original institution called a “synod” : it was a gathering of representatives from different churches all over France. These men served as a link between local churches, each of which remained independent and all with equal rights.
An example of political organisation
Protestant thought brought about a concept of power that openly contested absolutism. In the political domain, some thought the people should have sovereign power, represented by the States General – they were called “monarchomaques”. The United Provinces of the Midi represent an interesting application of this theory : a political regime was installed which closely resembled a federative republic. It lasted for about twenty years.
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.
St. Bartholomew's Day (24th August 1572)
Charles IX had tried to reconcile the two religious parties, but when this failed, he was driven by the Guise family to authorize the Catholics to assassinate the Protestant leaders; the situation degenerated into a massive massacre.
Absolute power was contested
Those who are opposed to the ruling of a country by one single person, but believe in a monarchy by contractual agreement are referred to as monarchomaques.
First National Synod of the Reformed Churches
This clandestine meeting of Protestants met in Paris and adopted the first Protestant Confession of Faith in France. Largely inspired by Calvin, this confession of faith was slightly modified to become the La Rochelle Confession of Faith (1571), which remains in our day one of the major texts of the French reform movement.
The United Provinces of the Midi
Strongly influenced by Calvinism, a political theory of State government was put into practice in the Midi for about twenty years. In this political system, the power comes from the rank and file.
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.
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.