Precursors of the French Reformation

The French Reformation was shaped as much by pious men as it was by pivotal events. At its heart lay the most compelling truth known to man: the infallible authority of the Word of God and that is why it prospered so well because the Word of God has a life-giving power inherent within its pages that is able to transform even the most hardened human heart.

The precursor of the Reformation was a theologian at the Sorbonne in Paris by the name of Jacques Lefevre. Lefevre was to France what Wycliffe was to England and Bohemia; the morning star of the French Reformation. He was born in Etaples and was verging on 70 in 1510 when he discovered the word of God.

He was chair of the Theological Hall of the Sorbonne and while he was in this position he decided to write a book on the lives of the saints. He was a faithful Roman Catholic but most importantly he was faithful to God, showing that sometimes those two things are not mutually exclusive, and he lived by all the light that he had shining on his path. 

Lefevre was a faithful Roman Catholic but most importantly he was faithful to God, showing that sometimes those two things are not mutually exclusive.

While he was writing his book he decided to use the Bible as a point of reference for some of the stories he was working on and began to study it in the original languages. The impact that the truth had on his heart and mind was seismic, it dislodged every other idea he had stored up in his mind and shook his faith in Catholicism to its core. The more he read the more his heart began to burst with so many conflicting emotions and his mind began to fill with so many different thoughts and ideas. He abandoned his work on the lives of the saints and began to write a commentary on the Bible instead and soon he was teaching what he had learned at the Sorbonne, which was not really a safe thing to do given that the Sorbonne was the intellectual stronghold of Catholicism in France.

While he was at the Sorbonne he made many disciples, most notably Pierre Olivetan, Calvin’s cousin who triggered Calvin’s conversion, Guillaume Farel who worked with Calvin in Geneva and the Bishop of Meaux.Lefevre began preaching at the Sorbonne in 1512 five years before Luther and his 95 theses officially kicked off the Reformation.

William Farel: Thunderbolt of the Reformation

Of all Lefevre disciples, Farel was probably the most outspoken also probably the fiercest. Farel was born in the Dauphinese Alps near Grenoble in 1498 and came from a deeply spiritual Catholic family. He was also extremely devoted to the Pope and by his own account, in keeping with his personality, would “gnash his teeth” at anyone that dared to insult him. Farel enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1510 and it was while he was a student here that he was brought into contact with Dr. Lefevre. Interestingly Farel seems to have walked with Lefevre on his journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and when his mentor decided to embrace the gospel Farel struggled with which path he himself should follow, finally deciding that the beauty of Jesus was far more compelling than the pageantry of the Pope. Leaving Lefevre to preach at the University, Farel took the gospel to the public squares and the churches.

The impact that the truth had on Lefevre’s heart and mind was seismic, it dislodged every other idea he had stored up in his mind and shook his faith in Catholicism to its core.

The Inconsistency of Briconnet and The First Martyrs

Another one of Lefevre’s disciples was Briconnet, the Bishop of Meaux, who after his conversion to Protestantism made his diocese of Meaux a cradle of the newly budding Reformation. His connections with the court of King Francis I of France gave him an opportunity to introduce the gospel there and he succeeded in converting the King’s sister, Margaret of Valois. Lefevre began to translate the New Testament into French and it was published in France on the 12th of October 1524 at Meaux. The good Bishop got his personal steward to purchase as many copies of the newly printed Bibles as he could find and distribute them, free of charge, among the peasants of Meaux. As the people of Meaux gained access to the Scriptures the began to read it and talk about it to each other as they performed their daily round of work. Before long the first Protestant congregation in France was meeting in different homes across Meaux until finally worshipping together in public.

The spread of the gospel in Meaux dried up the wellsprings of Papal taxes and dues that were flowing into the local Franciscan monastery and many of the monks moved to Paris in search of better financial prospects. But, as is always the case with a group of financially strapped disenfranchised monks, they began to talk long and loud about the Bishop of Meaux and his heretical ways, accusing him of not only embracing Protestantism himself but also of converting his entire Diocese with him. The alarm was sounded and the Bishop was summoned to answer to his treachery at the Parliament, where he was given two options; recant or die. The Bishop didn’t really want to die so he chose to recant. He was fined and sent back to Meaux with orders to reinstate the worship of Mary and the saints, to suppress the preaching of Protestant doctrine and to forbid the reading of Luther’s books.

The little church at Meaux was stunned to see its leader and founder flounder so haplessly in deep water but the interesting thing about it all was that the people didn’t buckle because their leader did. And that is perhaps one of the most powerful things about true bible religion when the word of God gets a hold of your life it changes you so fundamentally that even in the face of human imperfection you are still able to hold fast to your faith. In any case, whether he had set out to do so or not the Bishop of Meaux had produced a flock of amazing disciples and all he had really done was give them the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves.

The church at Meaux was soon besieged by persecution and many of the thought leaders of the French Reformation who had taken up residence there, like Lefevre and Farel, fled France altogether. The rest of the flock, too poor to flee, weathered the worst of the storm. The first martyr of the Reformation in France was a man named Denis, a protestant from Meaux and soon others followed.

In any case, whether he had set out to do so or not the Bishop of Meaux had produced a flock of amazing disciples and all he had really done was give them the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves.

John Calvin: Vanguard of the Reformation

Turning from the happenings in Meaux we focus on Noyon, the birthplace of the Father of the French Reformation; John Calvin. Calvin was born in Noyon, near Paris, on the 10th of July 1509. He was quiet, timid, and unbelievably smart and he was soon enrolled in the local school and then after a period of time found himself enrolled at La Marche, in Paris where Mathurin Cordier, an eminent scholar, recognised Calvin’s intellectual abilities and took him under his wing, mentoring him for the duration of his time at La Marche. Once he finished his training at La Marche he went on to Montaigu College, where he was steeped in the musty teachings of church dogma and doctrine, a far cry from his training at La Marche and an imperceptible influence that began transforming his worldview.

The arrival of his cousin Olivetan in Paris however, proved to be the breath of fresh air Calvin needed to recalibrate his thinking. Olivetan was a disciple of Lefevre and soon made inroads into Calvin’s thinking, challenging many of the beliefs he held dear as a Catholic. Up to that point Calvin’s entire belief system rested on the merit of his own good works but now faced with the awful realization that his good works might not be good enough, he wrestled to find peace with God. He tried everything the church had to offer, from confession to penance, but he could find no peace.  

There is much dispute over the exact circumstances of Calvin’s conversion but most scholars agree on the general details. The impact that Olivetan had on him is however undisputed. Taking Olivetan’s advice Calvin began to study the Bible for himself, hoping to find this peace. What he found there was the gospel, and it irrevocably transformed his life.

After completing his doctorate in law he devoted himself fully to the preaching of the gospel. He first began in the provincial town of Bourges. While laboring at Bourges he received news that his father had died and returned at once to Noyon, later traveling to Paris where he continued to preach the gospel from house to house with a small band of Protestants stationed there. While in Paris he became friends with Nicholas Cop, underground Protestant and rector of the Sorbonne, which was a stronghold of Catholicism. In 1553 the academic year at the Sorbonne was set to open on the 1st of November and Cop was to give the inaugural oration. Calvin saw this as an opportunity to publicly preach the gospel and suggested that Cop use his speech to this end. Cop was hesitant at first but when Calvin proposed to write the speech he agreed to the idea. In the aftermath of the speech Cop fled to Basel, being warned of his imminent execution and Calvin fled to the outskirts of Paris being warned of the same.

The Placards: An Unfortunate Series of Events

While the work of reform was slowly wending its way through France it was rapidly blazing through Germany and Switzerland and the French Protestants were impatient to see the same results in their native land. They consulted amongst themselves but there was a division of sentiment about how to proceed and so they sought counsel from Farel, then exiled in Switzerland. Farel and others encouraged them to push the work forward and suggested that they strike at the very heart of Papal ritual by attacking the Mass. This was agreed to and Farel was put forward to pen a thunderbolt of Protestant polemic that would dispense rid France of Catholic sentiment in one fell swoop

The tracts were printed in two forms, posters to be put up on every wall, post and tree and small slips which were to be handed out from person to person. They decided to paper the whole of France under cover of night and on the 24th of October 1534 each man went from street to street quietly putting up his quota of posters. The placards found their way on to the walls of the Louvre, the gates of the Sorbonne and the doors of every Catholic church that they could gain access to. When the people of France lumbered out of their houses the next morning they came face to face with these placards and  France was plunged into a frenzy of speculation; rumors circulated that the Protestants were behind it and that they would burn every church to the ground and massacre every Catholic they could lay their hands on. One placard found its way onto the door of the king’s private residence. The breach of security and the audacity of the deed threw Francis I into a rage and he ordered that every single Protestant be hunted out and exterminated. One of the Protestants was seized by the King’s man in charge of the execution and was forced on pain of death to go from door to door revealing where each protestant lived and they were all rounded up, arrested and massacred.

  The fugitives congregated in Geneva which was fast becoming a stronghold of Protestantism and from there they sent back trained pastors to evangelize France and over a period of 40 years, there were 2 million Huguenot Protestants in France worshipping in 1250 Protestant churches. These joined the existing Protestant community in France and the work in France was soon established among all classes of Society. This meant that the Reformation not only spread among the peasants and working classes but was also embraced by much of the nobility bringing a political dimension to its progress.

The Huguenot Wars and The Massacre

France was soon divided between Huguenot nobility and Catholic nobility and the tensions between the two sides erupted into full-blown war from 1562-1598. Dubbed the Huguenot wars, this series of politically charged religious wars became a game of strategic tick-tack-toe among the Huguenot elite and their allies and the Monarchy and their allies; the Monarchy being firmly on the side of the Pope in Rome. The warfare eventually culminated in the St Bartholomew Massacre which was orchestrated by the King Charles IX, his mother, Catherine De Medici and the Pope Pius V.

In order to lull the Huguenots into a false sense of security and also to lure many of the nobility to Paris; Charles IX proposed the marriage of his sister, the staunchly Catholic, Margaret of Valois to the young king Henry of Navarre who was staunchly Protestant. After some wheeling and dealing the marriage was arranged and secured and soon a procession of Huguenot nobility flowed freely into Paris with the King to celebrate the marriage.

The massacre was planned for after the wedding. The king had ordered all the gates of Paris, save two, to be shut and many Huguenots sensing that something was afoot fled the city before the Massacre took place but many remained inside. The king had given instructions to arm a large portion of the people and had ordered the spread of rumors to incite the mob to butchery. At 2 am on the 24th of August 1572, the signal, the tolling of the bell at the Palace of Justice was given, authorized by the Queen Mother. A single shot was heard, followed by a cacophony of sound and fury from which was heard the cry, “Kill, Kill”. Every single Huguenot in the city was mercilessly butchered by their Catholic neighbors, who, to keep themselves distinct, wore white armbands.

In order to lull the Huguenots into a false sense of security and also to lure many of the nobility to Paris; Charles IX proposed the marriage of his sister, the staunchly Catholic, Margaret of Valois to the young king Henry of Navarre who was staunchly Protestant. After some wheeling and dealing the marriage was arranged and secured and soon a procession of Huguenot nobility flowed freely into Paris with the King to celebrate the marriage.

The massacre was planned for after the wedding. The king had ordered all the gates of Paris, save two, to be shut and many Huguenots sensing that something was afoot fled the city before the Massacre took place but many remained inside. The king had given instructions to arm a large portion of the people and had ordered the spread of rumors to incite the mob to butchery. At 2 am on the 24th of August 1572, the signal, the tolling of the bell at the Palace of Justice was given, authorized by the Queen Mother. A single shot was heard, followed by a cacophony of sound and fury from which was heard the cry, “Kill, Kill”. Every single Huguenot in the city was mercilessly butchered by their Catholic neighbors, who, to keep themselves distinct, wore white armbands.

Huguenot nobility who had been housed at the Louvre were dragged out of their beds, hacked to pieces and their body parts piled in front of the Louvre. The massacre continued for seven days and extended beyond Paris throughout France and blood flowed freely throughout the streets of France. Those who managed to escape the butchery found refuge in Geneva.

The religious wars of France would continue from 1572-1598 until the Edict of Nantes was signed awarding the Huguenots substantial religious, political and military autonomy. However, this was revoked in 1685 and over the next twenty years, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled France to take up residence in the Protestant states of the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere throughout the world.