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A Day To Remember

Category Articles
Date August 30, 2005

A date of great significance for the worldwide communion of the Reformed Churches is August 24 – ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day.’ It is remembered for the terrible massacre of Huguenots in France in 1572. They were amazing Christian men and women whose testimony must never be forgotten.

I believe that, though often caricatured and misunderstood by friend and foe alike, John Calvin is the greatest Christian theologian of all time. As exemplified by the Huguenot people of France, the spirituality of Calvin (neither Roman Catholic, Anglican nor Anabaptist) remains the finest and purest expression of Christianity. Second, in the face of the four-fold threat of decadent secular liberalism, New Age mysticism, the new Benedictine papacy and the Muslim menace, the Huguenot testimony remains the only antidote to our blind, chaotic and despairing world.


In the history of the Reformation, no story is more moving and humbling than that of the martyr churches of France. For nearly three centuries, the Huguenots earned the title of the suffering saints of Europe. Led by exiled John Calvin from Geneva, they bravely proclaimed the true Gospel of Christ. In 1559, the first National Synod held in Paris adopted a Reformed Confession of Faith and Church Order. By 1561, there were about 2,000 Reformed churches in France. Faithful preaching was accompanied by fervent psalm singing. Versified by Clément Marot and Theodore de Bèz (Beza), the Psalms were sung to tunes by Matthias Greiter, Louis Bourgeois and others. Most famous of all was Greiter’s setting of Psalm 68, which became the Huguenot battle-hymn. It was a constant source of inspiration during terrible persecution.


During the appalling St Bartholomew massacre of 24 August 1572, many thousands of Huguenots perished throughout France including their godly leader, admiral Gaspard de Coligny. King Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes (1598) provided a fragile and frequently violated peace. Directed by the Jesuits, the Roman Church pursued a cruel policy of extermination. The Edict of Nantes was revoked by King Louis XIV in 1685. Huguenot temples were demolished and the flocks scattered. The faithful worshipped in woods, caves and other remote places; their assemblies were known as the ‘churches of the desert’. Those captured by the dragoons were punished. Pastors were either hanged or sent to the galleys. Women were sent to prison and the children educated in Jesuit schools. Many emigrated to Holland, Germany, Great Britain and elsewhere. The sufferings of those who remained provoked the heroic yet tragic Camisard war in the Cévennes (1702-4). But God did not forsake His people. Under the inspired leadership of Antoine Court and Paul Rabaut, there was a revival of the Reformed Churches during the eighteenth century.

Persecution gradually eased. Galley slaves were released in 1775. In 1787, Louis XVI’s Edict of Toleration opened an era of liberty on the eve of the French Revolution (1789). The French monarchy was overthrown in the bloodshed that followed. It was a miracle that French Protestantism ever survived. Yet, in the midst of indescribable suffering, the testimony of the Huguenot pastors and people alike stood firm. They remain a model for us all. The assurance of the psalmist was theirs: ‘Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits…the God of Israel is He that gives strength and power unto his people. Blessed be God.’ (Psalm 68: 19, 35).

Postscript: The Huguenot diaspora brought enlightenment and enrichment to all the host nations that welcomed them. They reinforced the democratic values of Protestant Britain and Reformed Holland. They injected moral fibre into parts of the German nation. In the 19th century, Bismark declared that “The best of the French were the Huguenots, and the best of the Germans were the Huguenots!” Closer to the present day, had it not been for the exploits of the French resistance leader Michel Hollard (Huguenot by descent and conviction), the Allied victory against the Nazis would have been less certain. Feeding British Intelligence with information about Hitler’s V-1 weapons, Hollard’s bravery meant that London and the South-east were saved from annihilation and the D-Day invasion proceeded on schedule to ultimate victory.

Read “Sons of Calvin – Three Huguenot Pastors” by Alan C. Clifford

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