The James Begg Society

The James Begg Society

Publishers of Protestant, Reformed Christian Literature

The Government of the Kingdom of Christ.— Part III.
by Rev. James Moir Porteous.
(Published in 1888.)

Chapter VI:
France and the Reformation.

"The medal, faithful to its charge of fame,
Through climes and ages bears each form and name,
In one short view subjected to our eye."

— Pope.


T HE Sorbonne, or University of Paris, condemned Luther and his works in 1521 as insolent and blasphemous. Two years later, multitudes throughout the provinces were opposed to the doctrines and practices of Rome. The first evangelical Church formed was at Meaux. Bishop Brissonet permitted this to be accomplished by the labours of a few men, specially elevated by the hand of God. These were James le Fevre, William Farell, and General Roussel. But in 1533, Parliament ordered an investigation. Then Brissonet drew back, the Reformed opinions were condemned, and the disciples were dispersed to sow the seeds of the kingdom throughout the French provinces. One of the Meaux preachers, John le Clerc, in denouncing indulgences, represented the Pope as Antichrist. For this he was brought to receive the martyr's crown. Not only was he beaten, he was also branded with a hot iron. Fleeing to Metz, there at length he expired. Frances I, the king, was for a time inclined to listen to Margaret, his sister, the Queen of Navarre. Embracing the Reformed religion, she earnestly desired that Melancthon should be invited to come and reside in France. The king, however, only favoured the Reformed, when thereby he could inflict a chastisement upon his enemy, Charles V. So soon as, by the labours of pious men, religious societies increased, and some commotions occurring, he protected the Papacy.

Calvin sought shelter in Geneva, Le Fevre and Roussel at Navarre. Bearne and Guienne became full of evangelical Christians. Margaret was rebuked, and ordered by Francis to proceed no further in this direction. The Queen promised to stop if the following practices were adopted:— viz., that there should be— (1.) No private masses; (2.) No elevation or (3.) worship of the host; (4.) Communion in both kinds; (5.) No adoration of Mary or the saints; (6.) Common bread in the Supper; and (7.) No compulsion of celibacy in priests. These requests were refused, and the sword was unsheathed. About the year 1534, the blood of the Protestants flowed throughout the country, atrocities being greatest in the mountains of Provence. Cardinal Tournon was the instigator, but the King consented to these bloody deeds. He was filled with remorse, and professed to repent, and from his bed of death exhorted his son to act a different part. This advice was disregarded by Henry II. The Huguenots, as they were contemptuously called by their enemies, experienced greater sufferings. From 1547 to 1559 persecution was most determined and unsparing, estates and books were confiscated, and very many imprisoned and put to death. The Parliament, however, refused to ratify the King's decree, that no appeals were to be heard by the civil courts, and that all magistrates must execute the orders of the ecclesiastical. Henry II died of a wound in the eye, received at a tilting match, and was succeeded in 1559 by Francis II, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Young and feeble, he was used as a tool by the princes of Guise. The Prince of Cond� they condemned to death; but they were arrested by the death of Francis, and the ascension of Charles IX. Charles, being yet a child, a triumvirate was formed, and Protestant worship declared to be unlawful in 1561. The queen-mother Catherine de Medicis, for party purposes acted for a time as mediatrix; when, till 1565, the Protestants seemed to multiply in proportion as they were slain.


The Inquisition being introduced, under the title of 'La Chambre Ardente,' a meeting, called 'A Mercurial,' was summoned, and those judges who secretly favoured the Reformation, with numbers of others, were imprisoned or put to death.

Notwithstanding, the Reformation progressed — one-fourth of the nation had seceded from Popery. The King of Navarre, the Prince of Cond�, and a truly Christian patriot, the Admiral of France, de Coligny, with many nobility and gentry, professed the evangelical faith, and encouraged its extension. In 1559, a meeting of some thousands of professing Christians convened in a meadow near Paris, in open day; and in that year the first synod of the Reformed Church of France was privately held. The last was held at Loudon in 1669. At the first, a confession of faith and a presbyterial form of Church government were adopted. In the confession it is said — 'We believe that the true Church ought to be governed by that policy which Christ Jesus our Lord hath established — viz., that there be pastors, presbyters, or elders and deacons.' And again, 'We believe that all true pastors, wherever they be, are endued with equal and the same power, under one chief Head and Bishop Christ Jesus.' Single churches were governed by consistories or sessions, composed of pastors and ruling elders, many of the latter being noblemen. From these an appeal might be taken to the colloquies, classes, or presbyteries, which met twice a year. These were formed of pastors and elders deputed from the consistories. From the classes there was also opportunity of appeal to the synods of each province, which met annually. The supreme ecclesiastical tribunal was the national synod, which met only as occasion required. It was composed of one pastor and one elder from each of the sixteen provincial synods. At each meeting the next was arranged to be called by some one province. From 1559 to 1669 no fewer than twenty-nine national synods were held. The Pope was assured that he 'might discover that a fourth part of the kingdom is separated from the communion of the Church, which fourth part consists of gentils-homme (noblemen), men of letters, chief burgesses in cities, and such of the common people as have seen most of the world, and are practised in arms.... Neither do they lack good counsels, having among them three parts of the men of letters; neither do they lack money, having among them a great part of the good wealthy families, both of the nobility and of the tiers �tat (most eligible classes), and, what is more, they are so united, and so resolved never to abandon each other, that it is hopeless to attempt dividing them. Thus France possessed a fully-organized Presbyterian Church, covering all her borders, and doing the work of the Lord heartily and well.

In the year 1571, they claimed to possess two thousand one hundred and fifty churches, although many of these were family churches, owing to their peculiar circumstances. The churches proper reached to eight hundred, some of which were very large, having from three to five pastors. A striking instance of the government and discipline of the French Presbyterian Church is furnished in the fact, that the Prince of Cond� was debarred the communion by the consistory of Rochelle in 1578. This was because one of his ships had taken a prize after the signing of the last peace, and because he continued to hold it as a lawful prize, urging that it was taken before the forty days allowed had expired. The Prince appealed against the judgment of the consistory to the national synod, and that synod decided the case by confirming the judgment of the consistory.


That sacred fire was destined to be quenched in blood. 'Those violent enemies,' says D'Aubigne, 'which the Reformation encountered simultaneously in France gave it a character altogether peculiar. Nowhere did it so often dwell in dungeons, or so much resemble primitive Christianity in faith, in charity, and in the number of its martyrs. If, in other countries, the Reformation was more glorious by its triumphs, in France it was much more so by its defeats. If elsewhere it could point to thrones and sovereign councils, here it might point to scaffolds and "hillside" meetings. Whoever knows what constitutes the true glory of Christianity upon earth, and the features that assimilate it to its Head, will study with a livelier feeling of respect and love that often blood-stained history.' (D'Aubigne's Hist., vol. iv. p. 326).

Blood-stained it truly was, on to that consummation of blood, August 23-24, 1572, the Bartholomew massacre. It began at midnight, at the tolling of the great bell of the palace. The brave Admiral Coligny was the first victim. For three days it continued in Paris, when horrors untellable were perpetrated. Five hundred noblemen and six thousand Presbyterian Christians fell in the city alone. The whole plan was the fruit of the infamous Catherine de Medicis and the Duke of Guise. Protestants from all parts were summoned to Paris to witness the nuptials of Henry, the young King of Navarre, to Margaret Valois, the sister of King Charles. At midnight Catherine descended to the King's chamber, and found him wavering. Finding that the fatal mandate was not yet issued, she gave him a cutting insinuation of cowardice. This settled the point, and he ordered them to commence the work. The deadly work was speedily promoted throughout the provinces. The slain were reckoned from thirty to one hundred thousand — the bloody banquet extending to the principal towns of France.

Over the whole of Europe there was a general feeling of horror. The northern princes were at no pains to conceal their detestation of the deed. John Knox denounced 'that cruel murderer and false traitor, the King of France, predicting that his name would remain an execration, and that none of his family would enjoy the kingdom in peace.'

At Rome, the news of the massacre was received with every demonstration of joy. The Pope and Cardinals gave public thanks to God, and ordered a universal jubilee. Guns were fired, bonfires were lighted. In fine, the Pope ordered a medal to be struck. On the one side, his own head, with the inscription Gregory XIII Pontiff; and on the other, an angel attacking and murdering the helpless, with the words 'Hugonotorum strages' — 'the slaughter of the Huguenots' — are beheld, a perpetual monument of the infamous transaction. (See Bulwark vol. i. pp. 35-39.)

Instead of accomplishing this event, it seemed to defeat the end sought, for this massacre was followed by an accession greater than the victims to the Protestant ranks. But dearly has France paid for that homage to Popery. These barbarities were at length terminated by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, in which Henry IV, who, while he decided to adhere to the Romish faith, yet saw that the Reformed could not be subdued, and gave full liberty to worship God with equal rights to all his subjects. Henry did more; he gave an annual stipend of forty thousand crowns for the support of their ministers, and protected the Protestants to the end of his reign in 1610.

That was a sad day for France when Henry IV decided to abide by the faith of Rome. One-half of his kingdom was evangelical and presbyterian. If, instead of a continued tale of blood by the civil power doing the work of Rome, the gospel had been protected and freedom of conscience secured, France might have become the most elevated of all the nations of Europe The assassination of Henry awoke the suspicions of the Protestants. The Queen, under Spanish influence, provoked them by infractions of the Edict of Nantes. In 1629, they were finally put down by the terrible energy of Richelieu. Toleration was, however, granted by the Edict of Nismes. Thereafter, the Protestants were known as good and faithful subjects, maintaining the rights of monarchy in opposition to seditious practices. 'We can hardly suppose that Henry IV. meant to dupe the Reformed, just as they had established him on the throne. But in the preamble of his grandson's revocation, the party (the Jesuits) which made both monarchs its tools in turn, plainly avows that the peace it had proclaimed in 1598, and the liberal maxims it professed and practised afterwards, were mere blinds under covert of which those enemies, whom wars and massacres had failed to exterminate, were to be gradually weakened and undermined, till too weak to withstand any such crisis as that at length produced by the joint efforts of La Chaise, Louvois, and De Maintenon' (' Suppr. of French Ref.' by D. Dundas Scott).

In 1680 that edict was revoked, and the furnace of persecution was heated seven times. By Papal agents Louis XIV was induced to sign the revocation, and it soon appeared that nothing could satisfy the malignity of that system but the utter extinction of this light of the Reformation. Protestant worship was proscribed, and uniformity with Romanism enforced; children, induced to apostatise, were declared independent of their parents; Protestant marriages declared illegal, and voluntary exile prohibited. Vast numbers trying to escape were arrested, and in chains sent into loathsome dungeons or to toil as slaves in the galleys. And wherever attempts were made to uphold Gospel services, the fiendish torments of the Dragonades were poured upon the people.

Notwithstanding, the full flood of emigration could not be arrested. It is computed that not less than half a million of persons escaped, and that with �20,000,000 worth of property. It would be difficult to tell how much other lands were benefited thereby. That dire loss to France — bereavement of her most intelligent, upright, energetic, and pious people — was a boon of no ordinary value to the British Isles and other lands.

The war of the Camisards in Southern France show glorious and yet terrific pages. When everything sacred to them as men and Christians was violated, a handful of peasants took arms and kept in check the armies of a mighty king. The Church was well nigh overwhelmed in an ocean of ignorance, fanaticism, and blood when peace succeeded, and the man was provided who was enabled to restore Protestantism to France. Antoine Court assembled the first "Synod of the Desert" in a stone quarry, near Nimes, amidst the mountains of Vivarais, N. Languedoc, in 1726. This assembly of forty seven members infused new life into this one body, whose National Synods met thus till 1763. The "apostolic" Paul Brabant, who for forty years was on the verge of being hung, presided over the last. Churches were restored, and 700 pastors were prepared at Lausanne for service "under the Cross." Toleration progressed until full liberty of conscience was proclaimed in 1789. But with that proclamation came that dire revolution the record of whose fiendish acts cannot be read without a shudder.

Thereafter Napoleon I. gave a Law of Restoration which proved to be a Law of Disorganisation. The National Synod was suppressed, and the Church delivered up to the civil power. The new organisation under Napoleon III. in 1852, abolished Provincial Synods as well. Although not commissioned by the Church, the Conseil Central deals with its relations to the State. Without a synod it was felt that the Church was destined to crumble under the united powers of infidelity, popery, and indifference; hence, by strenuous efforts they have been restored. In 1848 a General Assembly was held in Paris, and the convocation of a real synod was granted by the Repubican Government in 1872. It re-affirmed the Faith and the Government according to the old Presbyterian plan. But the "Liberal" party refused adherence to its decisions; and this furnished a reason for the refusal of permission to call another synod. Hence it was that a Conference was held at Ganges, at the foot of the Cevennes Mountains, which resolved independently to re-establish that which neither Government nor universal consent would allow.

In 1879 this first Independent Synod orSynode Officieux met in Paris. All who agreed to the Confession of 1872, and submitted to the authority of the synod, found a place in it, while none were compelled to attend, and nothing was required from Government. In 1881 the second synod was held at Marseilles an the third at Nantes in 1884.

The Reformed Church consists of 536 congregations connected with the State, along with 12 minorities who are independent of State connection — these also sending deputies to the synod. 400 of these 548 congregations are confederate in the synod with 500 pastors. The old organisation of Calvin in districts is retained, so that there are 21 local synods which meet annually; and these send deputies to the Triennial General Synod, and during the interval its decrees are executed by a permanent Commission — a Synodal Fund making up for the want of the official budget. The Liberal party, however, refuse to recognise the authority or necessity for a General Synod.


formed out of the Reformed on a doctrinal basis in 1849, combines Presbyterial unity with Congregational liberty. From 13 its congregations have risen to 46, with 3,500 members, 9,900 adherents, who contributed 178,000 francs in 1875 for religious objects. The Free Church has 36 churches, and keeps up 25 mission stations in various parts of France.


By the census of 1881 there were 692,800 Protestants in France. 7,684,906 declined any declaration of religious belief. Synods gave members of the Reformed Church as 630,000, and those of the Lutheran 305,000, giving a total of less than a million, — there being other Protestant Churches. In 1866 there were 41,244 Protestants in Paris. All religions are recognised by the State, but only the Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews are noticed in the budget — the latter only since 1831. The last budget gives the allowance to the Protestant Church at 1,551,600 francs, or �61,449, 10s. In 1884 there were 700 Protestant ministers.

Lutherans are, in their religious affairs, governed by a general consistory, established at Strasbourg. The Reformed Church is under a council of administration, the seat of which is at Paris. The Lutherans have a seminary and a faculty of theology at Strasbourg, with fifty-three churches; and the Calvinists have consistorial churches in fifty-nine departments. They meet occasionally in synod, and have a faculty of theology at Montauban. The government of each parish in the Reformed Church in France was, from the first, confided to a presbyterial council or consistory, taken from among the general assembly of the members. This was strictly adhered to till the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The edict of 1787 restored to Protestants the civil rights they had been deprived of a century before, but it made no regulations as to their religious organisation.

By the law of the 18th Germinal 1802, five or six churches were organised. They were subject to a consistory, nominated by the twenty-five Protestants of the district who contributed most to the public taxes. Instead of provincial, synods d'arrondissement were established. These consisted of deputies from five consistories. One only met. This was at La Drone in 1850. By the decree of March 1852 considerable changes were introduced. A council was appointed for every parish. From four to seven elders elected by the people were presided over by the pastor. General Consistories of a district were held in the principal towns, consisting of pastors and delegates from the parishes — half the members subject to reelection every three years. A civil Protestant council superintends all these, composed of two senior pastors, and fifteen members nominated by the State. ( States. Year-Book )

By the treaty of peace with Germany in 1871, 5,580 English square miles, and 1,597,219 inhabitants have changed hands, reducing the population of France to 36,469,875. By the census of 1886 it had risen to 38,218,903.

'While Rome has been actually losing ground in France, Protestantism has been visibly on the increase. Since the year 1825 the Protestants have opened more than one hundred and fifty places of worship in quarters where previously a trace of the Reformation could scarcely be discerned; while the Romanists have not erected a single new church or even chapel for the use of Protestants who have fallen back upon Rome.

'The Protestant population, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, amounted, according to M. Duruy, to a million of souls, either more or less.'


  1. Mention the origin and progress of the French Reformed Church, and give an account of its organisation
  2. Give some details as to the Bartholomew massacre, and the opposite feelings and tendency it called forth.
  3. What monarch held the future prosperity of France apparently in his hands?
  4. Who have defended this polity there? and what is its present position?