Yesterday’s post retraced the history of France’s Protestants, the Huguenots.

After the Revolution, France was unstable until Napoleon took power as First Consul and Emperor. His reforms in the Napoleonic Code brought social and political order which lasted throughout the restoration of the monarchy (1815-1848). Today, it endures through the various incarnations of the Republic. France is now in its fifth.

A book review from 1963 by Jean (John) Tulard on Protestantism in 19th century France — ‘French Protestants at the beginning of the 19th century’ — describes what happened during the Napoleonic era and the Restoration. The essay is in French. A summary of developments follows with page citations in parentheses.

When Napoleon assumed power, a number of prominent French men and women thought he would make France a Protestant nation (p. 48). The emperor had stated his admiration for Lutheranism over the Calvinism which dominated French Protestantism (p. 49). It is possible that Napoleon viewed Lutherans as being more respectful of German state authority whilst preserving their Christianity. France’s Calvinists were known as individualists who had rebelled against the government. John Calvin encouraged this outlook which, it could be argued, helped to exacerbate the Wars of Religion and result in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre:

in his Readings on the Prophet Daniel, a book of 1561, in which he had argued that when kings disobey God, they “automatically abdicate their worldly power” – a change from his views in earlier works that even ungodly kings should be obeyed. This change was soon picked up by Huguenot writers, who began to expand on Calvin and promote the idea of the sovereignty of the people, ideas to which Catholic writers and preachers responded fiercely.[8]

Nevertheless, it was only in the aftermath of the massacre that anti-monarchical ideas found widespread support from Huguenots, among the “Monarchomachs” and others. “Huguenot writers, who had previously, for the most part, paraded their loyalty to the Crown, now called for the deposition or assassination of a Godless king who had either authorised or permitted the slaughter”.[9] Thus, the massacre “marked the beginning of a new form of French Protestantism: one that was openly at war with the crown. This was much more than a war against the policies of the crown, as in the first three civil wars; it was a campaign against the very existence of the Gallican monarchy itself”.[10]

However, by the time of the French Revolution a little over two centuries later, some historians argue that Protestants had no desire to overthrow the state. Jean Tulard says that, in reality, many supported a counter-Revolution (p. 51). The Revolution resulted in temporary sanctions against Christianity, affecting the religious practice of both Catholics and Protestants.

As far as Napoleon was concerned, however, he knew little about Protestant belief — whether Lutheran or Calvinist — and wanted to preserve a religious peace and practice with no return to bloody religious conflict (p. 52). Therefore, those who feared or wanted the creation of a Protestant state were mistaken.

In fact, whilst Protestants had religious liberty, Napoleon decreed that consistories could have no more than 6,000 congregants, the government had to authorise synod meetings and affiliations with churches abroad were forbidden (p. 53). All of these made Calvinists quietly suspicious of his intentions. Lutherans, on the other hand, did not mind these restrictions (p. 54).

Life in the early 19th century improved for France’s Protestants. A pastor of the era, Samuel Vincent, wrote that Protestants ‘were more than tolerated’. Seven were serving in government. The number of pastors rose from 200 in 1814 to 305 by 1829. Theological debate opened up and their Bible Society also revived (p. 55). Detailed records were kept of the various consistories all over the country (p. 56).

During the Restoration, France’s Protestants were once again allowed to liaise with their fellow Christians in foreign countries. Revival was taking place in Britain thanks to the Methodists and in Switzerland with an evangelist, Mr Neff, in Geneva. These associations helped France’s Bible Society to further prosper (p. 58). Protestants felt free to evangelise in their own nation and made a number of converts, notably in the north, in the southwest (Bayonne), the central region around Saint Étienne and also further east in Lyon.

The nature of Protestant practice and thought also changed. The Reformed churches became increasingly involved in charitable works. They opened orphanages, undertook missionary work in women’s prisons and opened an agricultural school for young male inmates (pp 58, 59).

This open social outlook continues today in France’s Reformed churches which are now part of the country’s United Church, where they partner with Lutherans.