During the 16th century in what is now known as Germany, Martin Luther (1483-1546) rebelled against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and began the Protestant Reformation. Among other things he began translating the Latin Bible into German, the common language of his people, so that all might read God’s Word for themselves and not rely upon the teachings and extortions of the Church.
John Calvin (1509-1564), a French theologian, continued the Protestant movement, encouraging the translation of the Bible into French, and preaching reformation from his exile in Geneva. He lived to see Calvinism sweep across Western Europe. But those deeply involved in the Roman Catholic political machine fought back.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) denotes a very dark page in French history. Thousands of well-born French Protestant or Huguenot visitors had flooded into Paris to witness the wedding of Huguenot King Henry of Navarre to the sister of young King Charles IX, a match arranged by his mother Catherine de Medici in an effort to ease tensions between Catholics and Huguenots in France but not approved of by the Catholic Church. Tensions were high and Paris was very anti-Huguenot.
Without warning, a killing spree sprung up with the uncontrollable ferocity of a wild fire. It was sparked by an order of Charles IX, urged on by the Catholic Church and government officials, and implemented by the military. Caught off-guard and unarmed, Huguenots were slaughtered like sheep and their bodies left rotting for days wherever they fell: in their homes, in inns, on the streets and ally-ways, in public buildings, on public stairways, even in churches. The violence radiated outward into the countryside over the next two weeks leaving Paris and the Loire Valley in particular drenched with the blood of up to 30,000 innocent men, women and children whose only crime was being Protestant.

Seventeen years later Henry, King of Navarre was told to convert to Catholicism if he wanted to become King Henry IV, King of all France. His famous reply was “Paris is worth a Mass.” He was known as “Good King Henry” and he spent much of his reign trying to unify the various factions and provinces into one cohesive country. As part of this effort it was important to stop the wars of religion and he signed what was called the Edict of Nantes (1598) putting an end to the open persecution of Huguenots and guaranteeing in writing their basic rights – the right to practice their beliefs and worship as they wished, the right to have their own schools and churches, to hold local government offices, to vote for local officials, the right to feel safe within their country’s borders.
Under the protection of this edict, the Protestant citizenry began to flourish. Composed chiefly of merchants and skilled artisans living in urban settings, the Huguenots encouraged literacy within the family of both sexes in order to read the Bible, they employed biblical principles to their lives and businesses and they grew very prosperous.
As Huguenot wealth increased, the aristocrats grew envious and resentful. The aristocracy was always seeking more gold to pay for the upkeep of their huge estates. Most slid further into debt with their creditors each year as they tried to keep up appearances and used their children as pawns to contract more wealth. Prone to enormous waste and compelled to throw lavish parties, host extravagant banquets and feasts, and outdo each other’s splendid wardrobes, jewels and accoutrements at Court, still, the nobility remained totally disdainful of involvement in any form of money making or trade.
The Catholic Church was also very jealous of the Huguenots as well as being their arch enemy. These prospering French Protestants were viewed as impious and rebellious apostates from whom the Church received nothing in tithes, offerings, obeisance or gifts.
And finally, within the illiterate lower class and military, there grew increasing suspicions concerning Huguenot loyalties. Because of the Huguenots’ strongly held beliefs, their history of persecution, and the resentments they felt rising all around them, they turned inward and became increasingly withdrawn, separate, and clannish. They kept to themselves in their own neighborhoods and frequented their own taverns, merchants, and lawyers. Meanwhile, England, the Netherlands, and Germany were now all Protestant countries and often the ones with which France was at war. On whose side, grumbled the general population, did Huguenot loyalties really lie?
Then, in October 1685, King Louis XIV, the grandson of Good King Henry, signed the Edict of Fontainebleau rescinding the Edict of Nantes. There are two schools of thought as to why the Sun King chose to take away all the rights of his Protestant subjects.
Some argue he was so sheltered and so insulated that his ministers were able to convince him that there were almost no Huguenots left in the country and therefore there was no need to guarantee their rights. What need to keep open schools or churches if there was no one to fill them? Or what need of pastors if there were no flocks?
Others argue that being an absolute and strong-willed autocrat with a vision for France of total unity, Louis was obsessed with the idea of being the singular all-powerful head of state over a country composed of one language, one culture, one religion, one church … and he was determined to have his subjects comply and bend to his will as his religious advisers convinced him his own salvation depended on wiping out the protestant menace.
Perhaps it was a combination of both but of one thing we can be certain – overnight an estimated one to three million Huguenots throughout France lost all of their legal rights, all of their standing, and were being commanded to renounce their faith and become Catholic.
Huguenots who resisted abjuring their faith were subjected to a variety of indecencies.
The Minister of War had long since determined that when the soldiers and mercenaries were sitting about awaiting new orders to go back to a battlefield, they should be billeted by Huguenot families in their homes, at their expense. The blatant murder of Huguenots was no longer acceptable as it had been years earlier, but after the Edict of Fontainebleau, rape and inventive forms of torture and humiliation became commonplace and even encouraged against the defenseless Huguenots.
It was illegal for any Huguenot to seek to leave the country and if caught doing so, the men were sent to the galleys as slaves where they would almost certainly die of starvation, exhaustion, illness, or drowning during combat while their property was confiscated by the state. Women caught fleeing were sent to any of a number of prisons for the rest of their lives unless they renounced their faith and converted.
The only exception: Pastors themselves were given one week to abandon everything and leave the country. If a pastor was caught preaching, however, he was instantly hanged.
Protestant church property was confiscated by the state and all citizens were required to attend mass, providing proofs of attendance to the authorities if questioned.
All Protestant schools were closed.
All children were to attend Catholic schools teaching the Catholic catechism and be baptized into the Catholic faith. If the parents were now in prison, children became wards of the state while half of their parents’ property was confiscated by the state and the other half was drawn upon to reimburse the state for each child’s food and shelter.
All newborns were baptized immediately as Catholics.
Many ran to the hills, living in the seclusion of the south eastern mountains, sheltered in caves. Some converted in fear and many feigned conversion holding secret worship services in their homes, barns, and root cellars, on hillsides, in forest glens, in caves – always fearing betrayal and discovery.
It can be argued that with the rescinding of the Edict of Nantes, Louis XIV destroyed France’s middle-class, that stable level-headed buffer between the all powerful, spoiled, indulgent and even cruel aristocrats at the very top and the powerless, rage-filled serfs and deeply resentful poor at the bottom (who vastly outnumbered them). Thus, the groundwork was laid for the senseless destruction of “The Terror” and mob rule several generations later when Louis XVI and wife Marie Antoinette along with much of the aristocracy and intelligentsia lost their heads and the ensuing leaders of France eventually adopted atheism as the national religion in reaction to the corruptness of the French Catholic Church.
Despite the terrors of being caught, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots did manage to slip across the borders into neighboring Protestant countries who welcomed the industrious, talented, skilled, and literate French Protestants with open arms. Thousands also made it across the sea to the New World but since it was illegal to be a Huguenot in the French colonies they settled into the English colonies on the North American coastline, anglicized their names, and sought to blend in to their communities.
One such example is Apollos Rivoire who came to the Boston area at the age of thirteen and anglicized his name to Revere before marrying a young English girl. Amongst their many children was a boy they named Paul.
It is about another such as these our series is written.
The Marquis de Lafayette who had come to the colonies to assist in our revolution was very impressed by the fact that so many of the American leaders were of Huguenot descent. Years later he finally persuaded Louis XVI and the French Council to adopt an Edict of Toleration, which they did in November of 1787, guaranteeing religious freedom to all in France.
Unfortunately, it was too little too late as France’s streets began to run with blood just two years later as the suppressed, downtrodden, and opportunistic employed the guillotine to severe the head of any aristocrat or adversary they could get their hands on including the small community of thinkers and scientific minds. Minds like Antoine Lavoisier who is now called “the Father of Modern Chemistry.” Assisted by his wife, Marie-Anne, a chemist herself who made considerable contributions to scientific methodology, he identified oxygen and hydrogen and gave us the first basic table of elements.
One cannot help but wonder if the 1 to 3 million lost Huguenots could have influenced a more temperate atmosphere at that time in France. Instead, France ended up slaughtering so many of its own people, seeing the rise of a despot, and turning its back on God as atheism became its official state religion.
D. C. Force, Author