It would be difficult to understand the Huguenots without a few notes about the spread of the Reformation.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of the subject, however, certain points stand out, which are necessary to understand. I read on Protestant blogs where some clergy say the Reformation never should have happened. It seems that either these men have forgotten their Church history or did not learn it properly.

The Church (Catholic at that time), royalty and nobility were the elite. They worked together to further mutual interests. We saw this even where the small yet strategic island of Corsica was concerned.

On a more personal level, there was the corrupt sale of indulgences, as if one could buy God’s pardon. Geoffrey Chaucer covered this in The Canterbury Tales, which showed how vice- and disease-ridden some ‘holy’ pilgrims were, especially those allied with the Church, including those who sold indulgences.

The revival of Augustinianism

Over the centuries, as the Church gained temporal power, St Augustine of Hippo‘s teachings from the early centuries  gradually disappeared into the background. The Bloomington (Indiana) Reformed Presbyterian Church has a good history of the Reformation, which is well worth reading in full. On Augustine, they say (emphases mine):

Augustine was led to develop his doctrines of sin and grace partly through his own personal experience in being converted to Christianity from a worldly life, and partly through the necessity of refuting the teaching of Pelagius, who taught that man in his natural state had full ability to work out his own salvation, that Adam’s fall had but little effect on the race except that it set a bad example which is perpetuated, that Christ’s life is of value to men mainly by way of example, that in His death Christ was little more than the first Christian martyr, and that we are not under any special providence of God. Against these views Augustine developed the very opposite. He taught that the whole race fell in Adam, that all men by nature are depraved and spiritually dead, that the will is free to sin but not free to do good toward God, that Christ suffered vicariously for His people, that God elects whom He will irrespective of their merits, and that saving grace is efficaciously applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. He thus became the first true interpreter of Paul and was successful in securing the acceptance of his doctrine by the Church.

Predestination was generally put to one side and semi-Pelagianism came to the fore. (This remains true today, not only in the Catholic Church but also in a number of Protestant denominations.)

Earliest Reformers and mountain influence

Nonetheless, a few men began preaching Scripture in the early Middle Ages, gathering ardent followers around Europe. In France, Peter Waldo (b. 1140) began spreading the Gospel in his home city of Lyon. He commissioned a clergyman to translate the Bible into Arpitan, so that the people of southeastern France could understand it. (The Bible was read at Mass in Latin, which many could not understand, hence the proliferation of religious art in churches, which could communicate important biblical stories and theological concepts.)

Two centuries later, England’s John Wycliffe preached and wrote that the Bible was the ultimate religious authority. In 1380, he translated the New Testament into English. The University of Oxford removed him from their faculty the following year because he called for Church reform. He then switched to parish life in Oxfordshire and Leicestershire. He died in 1384, having finished his collaboration on a translation of the Old Testament into English. The Church condemned him as a heretic in 1415 and had his remains exhumed and cast into the River Swift in 1428.

Meanwhile, Jan (John) Hus(s) called for reform in Moldavia (part of today’s Czech Republic) and Bohemia. Peter Waldo and his Waldenses, ordered to leave France, ended up in Bohemia via Picardy (the northern French province where John Calvin was born). The Hussites were acquainted with Waldo’s teachings and were fiercely opposed to the power that the German emperor and the Church shared.

In fact, the Bogomil teachings which circulated between the 10th and the 15th centuries, covered nearly everywhere in Europe where the Reformation spread. Within these regions are a number of mountain regions with independent-minded inhabitants. During the Middle Ages, a number of these people quietly rebelled against the Church and adopted what they considered to be true Pauline teaching direct from the New Testament. Some of these influences came from the Waldenses, however, others — Bogomilism — had slightly earlier origins. Bogomilism is a heresy as it proposes that the Devil created the world.  Other mountain people in the south of France — the Albigenses and Cathars — were similarly influenced by Bogomilism. What all these mountain peoples had in common — heretics or no — was their personal integrity and an austere lifestyle. They disregarded the Church and their rulers which made them enemies of both.

Therefore, by the time Martin Luther came along, there was a diverse readiness for reform in many parts of Europe.

Enter Luther and widespread Augustianism

Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, knew St Augustine’s writing well. Thanks to his superior, John Staupitz, Luther began to move from intense introspection to reflection on the merits of Christ. Staupitz also encouraged his monks to

read the Scriptures eagerly, to hear them devotedly, and to learn them zealously.

It comes as no surprise then that Luther placed a great emphasis on the justification by grace through faith. Zwingli and Calvin also held this theological principle which runs throughout St Paul’s letters.

Luther’s collaborator, Philipp Melanchthon, the first systematic theologian of the Reformation, also held to this principle. However, over the centuries — some believe it started with Melanchthon’s later writings — the Lutheran Church, much to the disappointment of its more confessional members, has gravitated towards Universal Objective Justification (see Dr Gregory Jackson’s Ichabod for more). The Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church’s history explains it this way:

Melanchthon in his earlier writings designated the principle of Predestination as the fundamental principle of Christianity. He later modified this position, however, and brought in a kind of “synergism” in which God and man were supposed to co-operate in the process of salvation. The position taken by the early Lutheran Church was gradually modified. Later Lutherans let go the doctrine altogether, denounced it in its Calvinistic [Augustinian??] form, and came to hold a doctrine of universal grace and universal atonement, which doctrine has since become the accepted doctrine of the Lutheran Church.

However, at the time of the Reformation, all Protestants held to basic Pauline tenets of original sin, predestination, efficacious grace and perseverance (i.e. God will not allow His own to fall away). As for the Lutherans specifically:

At the time of the Reformation the Lutheran Church did not make such a complete break with the Catholic Church as did the Reformed. In fact some Lutherans point out with pride that Lutheranism was a “moderate Reformation.” While all protestants appealed to the Bible as a final authority, the tendency in Lutheranism was to keep as much of the old system as did not have to be thrown out, while the tendency in the Reformed Church was to throw out all that did not have to be kept. And in regard to the relationship which existed between the Church and the State, the Lutherans were content to allow the local princes great influence in the Church or even to allow them to determine the religion within their bounds — a tendency leading toward the establishment of a State Church — while the Reformed soon came to demand complete separation between Church and State.

Calvin the codifier

What Luther began, John Calvin took much further:

To a great extent Calvin built upon the foundation which Luther laid. His clearer insight into the basic principles of the Reformation enabled him to work them out more fully and to apply them more broadly … Calvin stressed the principle of the sovereignty of God, and developed a principle which was more objective and theological.

One of the reasons I believe there is an attraction of Catholics to Calvinism and vice versa is the codification of beliefs. Each has a clear set of theological answers for every human circumstance. Personally, as an ex-Catholic, I am comfortable with the content from Calvinistic canons and catechisms.  They answer the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what abouts’ just as the Catholic catechism and Canon Law does for Roman Catholics. Calvin started a deep exploration of the Bible with regard to the Protestant faith, drawing heavily on Augustine’s writing.

By Calvin’s time, persecution by state and Church had begun against Protestants. Calvin had to flee France for Basel, prior to his arrival in Geneva. No doubt that influenced his zeal and focus on his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he published in 1536, just three years after he decided to become a Protestant.  His study of law no doubt had an additional effect on the precision he put into his apologetics for the faith.

The Oxford historian Froude, although no admirer of Calvinism, nevertheless had this to say:

“… For hard times hard men are needed, and intellects which can pierce to the roots where truth and lies part company. It fares ill with the soldiers of religion when ‘the accursed thing’ is in the camp. And this is to be said of Calvin, that so far as the state of knowledge permitted, no eye could have detected more keenly the unsound spots in the creed of the Church, nor was there a Reformer in Europe so resolute to exercise, tear out and destroy what was distinctly seen to be false — so resolute to establish what was true in its place, and make truth, to the last fibre of it, the rule of practical life.” 1

This is the testimony of the famous historian from Oxford University. Froude’s writings make it plain that he had no particular love for Calvinism; and in fact he is often called a critic of Calvinism. These words just quoted simply express the impartial conclusions of a great scholar who looks at the system and the man whose name it bears from the vantage ground of learned investigation.

In another connection Froude says: “The Calvinists have been called intolerant. Intolerance of an enemy who is trying to kill you seems to me a pardonable state of mind . . . The Catholics chose to add to their already incredible creed a fresh article, that they were entitled to hang and burn those who differed from them; and in this quarrel the Calvinists, Bible in hand, appealed to the God of battles. They grew harsher, fiercer, — if you please, more fanatical. It was extremely natural that they should. They dwelt, as pious men are apt to dwell in suffering and sorrow, on the all-disposing power of Providence. Their burden grew lighter as they considered that God had so determined that they must bear it. But they attracted to their ranks almost every man in Western Europe that ‘ hated a lie.'”

Calvin’s writing influenced the translators of the Geneva Bible, the compilation of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion which support predestination (Article XVII) and John Knox who, rightly or wrongly, turned Scotland Calvinist. Calvinism also spread to the Low Countries as well as throughout France, although it is a minority denomination in that country today because of the Wars of Religion.

Calvinism in France — the Huguenots

Although the Reformation began in France with Lutheranism, later, John Calvin led the Huguenots.

As I mentioned upthread, the Huguenots adopted the attitudes and teachings of the earliest Reformers. They were honest, diligent, plain-living people:

Their moral purity and heroism, whether persecuted at home or exiled abroad, has been the wonder of both friend and foe.”12 “Their history,” says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “is a standing marvel, illustrating the abiding power of strong religious conviction. The account of their endurance is amongst the most remarkable and heroic records of religious history.” The Huguenots made up the industrious artisan class of France and to be “honest as a Huguenot” became a proverb, denoting the highest degree of integrity

And again, “In every respect they stood immeasurably superior to all the rest of their fellow-countrymen. The strict sobriety of their lives, the purity of their moral actions, their industrious habits, and their entire separation from the foul sensuality which corrupted the whole of the national life of France at this period, were always effectual means of betraying the principles which they held, and were so regarded by their enemies.” 14


gave the Huguenots their creed and form of government. Throughout the following period it was, according to the unanimous testimony of history, the system of faith which we call Calvinism that inspired the French Protestants in their struggle with the papacy and its royal supporters.

By 1561:

the Calvinists numbered one-fourth of the entire population. McFetridge places the number even higher. “In less than half a century,” says he, “this so-called harsh system of belief had penetrated every part of the land, and had gained to its standards almost one-half of the population and almost every great mind in the nation. So numerous and powerful had its adherents become that for a time it appeared as if the entire nation would be swept over to their views.” 15 Smiles, in his “Huguenots in France,” writes: “It is curious to speculate on the influence which the religion of Calvin, himself a Frenchman, might have exercised on the history of France, as well as on the individual character of the Frenchman, had the balance of forces carried the nation bodily over to Protestantism, as was very nearly the case, toward the end of the sixteenth century,” (p. 100). Certainly the history of the nation would have been very different from that which it has been.

Today, even a number of French Catholics and historians agree that driving out Protestants represented a great loss to the nation. Expert weavers, lacemakers and clockmakers took their skills elsewhere in the world by necessity. Today, although most cities have a Reformed church, Protestants number around half a million nationwide. There are many more Muslims in France; Islam is the second world faith in the nation after Catholicism.

Calvinists — defenders of the Reformation

More on the Huguenots tomorrow.

For now, let it be said that the Calvinists left a huge legacy, like it or not. The Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church offers these insights:

If the spirit of Calvinism had not arisen in Western Europe following the outbreak of the Reformation, the spirit of half-heartedness would have gained the day in England, Scotland and Holland. Protestantism in these countries could not have maintained itself; and, through the compromising measures of a Romanized Protestantism, Germany would in all probability have been again brought under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church. Had Protestantism failed in any one of these countries it is probable that the result would have been fatal in the others also, so intimately were their fortunes bound together. In a very real sense the future destiny of nations was dependent on the outcome of that struggle in the Netherlands. Had Spain been victorious in the Netherlands, it is probable that the Catholic Church would have been so strengthened that it would have subdued Protestantism in England also. And, even as things were, it looked for a time as though England would be turned back to Romanism. In that case the development of America would automatically have been prevented and in all probability the whole American continent would have remained under the control of Spain.

Let us remember further that practically all of the martyrs in these various countries were Calvinists,- the Lutheran, s and Arminians being only a handful in comparison. As Professor Fruin justly remarks, “In Switzerland, in France, in the Netherlands, in Scotland and in England, and wherever Protestantism has had to establish itself at the point of the sword, it was Calvinism that gained the day“…

There is also one other service which Holland has rendered and which we must not overlook. The Pilgrims, after being driven out of England by religious persecutions and before their coming to America, went to Holland and there came into contact with a religious life which from the Calvinistic point of view was beneficial in the extreme. Their most important leaders were Clyfton, Robinson, and Brewster, three Cambridge University men, who form as noble and heroic trio as can be found in the history of any nation. They were staunch Calvinists holding all the fundamental views that the Reformer of Geneva had propounded. The American historian Bancroft is right when he simply calls the Pilgrim-fathers, “men of the same faith with Calvin.”