The Huguenots And The Church In The Wilderness

In 1598 Henry IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes  into law. The Edict ended a long and tenuous struggle to recognise the rights of French Protestants, especially their right to freedom of conscience. The beleaguered French Protestants finally had the reprieve they had been looking for after decades of bloody and protracted conflict. But the French Protestants, known colloquially as Huguenots, did not enjoy this freedom indefinitely. 

Less than 100 years later, Henry’s grandson Louis XIV signed the Revocation of The Edict of Nantes into law. The Revocation withdrew every freedom the original Edict had ceded to the Huguenots, effectively nullifying their basic rights as French Citizens. The most important of these was their right to freedom of conscience. From that point forward Huguenots were forbidden to practice the reformed faith and were forced to become Catholics. 

In the wake of the Revocation all Protestant churches were demolished and Protestantim, as an organised religion, was dismantled piece by piece. Bibles were outlawed as were Protestant services. It became illegal to practice the reformed faith even in the confines of one’s own home. Huguenots who refused to attend mass were arrested and either burned or put to work as galley slaves. 

No one was sure which was worse. The life of a galley slave was miserable but then again so was the prospect of being burned alive. With the sword of the King and the horror of the galleys constantly hanging over them, Huguenots began a mass exodus across the border, escaping the oppression and intolerance in droves. They slipped away unnoticed in the dead of night or disguised in the broad light of day.

Those who stayed behind did so at great personal risk. They were forced to worship secretly, hiding their bibles in custom made crevices behind false walls and in chimneys, conducting their worship services in the wilds of the French mountains under cover of night. These worship services were conducted by a small knot of pastors, outlawed for their profession but choosing to serve God at the risk of their own lives nonetheless. 

Most Huguenot homes had a secret crevice, a man hole of sorts, to hide pastors in. The Durand home in Bouchet-Du-Pransles had a small hole located directly beneath the fireplace in their kitchen. In the event of a raid, the fire would be hastily put out and the pastor would be lowered into the hole, which had only enough room for him to stand upright. The fire would then be reignited over the hole and a boiling pot placed over it. 

The Camisards And Beyond

Then in 1702, after a particularly tyrannical episode of persecution, a faction of Huguenots decided that the best way forward was to take up arms. These peasants went to war against Roman Catholic authorities. Known as the War of the Camisards, the conflict continued intermittently for about a decade but provided little relief. In the midst of the turmoil there were Huguenot families who decided to stay in France and keep the flame of the Reformation burning. One such family were the Courts. Their youngest son Antoine was born in 1689 and grew up in the thick of the war. His parents were devout Huguenots and consecrated him to the service of the cross from a young age. 

After finishing his primary education in a Catholic school, Antoine dropped out of school and began to educate himself. He read everything he could get his hands on from some of the leading Protestant authors of his time but most importantly he read the Bible. After briefly considering taking up a trade he decided to serve God as a Huguenot minister instead.

Around this time he began to attend secret Huguenot worship services with his mother and became a regular participant. In 1713 he was introduced to a Huguenot preacher by the name of Brunel who took him on his first preaching tour of the Vivarais region. By 1715 Court had crystalised a vision to reorganise the Protestant church in France. He called together the first Protestant synod in August of that year. He then gathered about him a group of seasoned preachers and began to establish and build up Protestantism in France. They traveled around the countryside, encouraging, instructing and exhorting the people of God. 

Court organised more general meetings or synods of the Protestant church in France and began to ordain ministers to preach. In 1722 he was married to a young Huguenot woman by the name of Rachel and they went on to have 3 children. 

Court’s ministry profoundly impacted a young man by the name of Pierre Durand. Durand was 15 years old when he heard Court speak and it changed his life. He committed his life to serving God and began to lead out in Huguenot worship services that were organised in his community. Durand was part of the first Protestant synod Court organised in August of 1715. 

The Durand Family

In 1719 Durand was conducting a secret Huguenot service close to home. Spies informed the authorities of the meeting and there was a raid. The King’s dragoons arrested a handful of those present while Durand and many others managed to escape. Among those arrested was Pierre’s mother Claudine Durand and one of his closest friends Michel Rouvier. 

Pierre’s father Etienne and his young sister Marie managed to escape. Pierre went into hiding, crossing the Rhone river and making his way to the home of his friend, mentor and fellow Huguenot Jaques Roger. After the spending some time with Roger Durand dedicated his life to full time ministry. 

The revival of the Protestant church caught the eye of the authorities and the King issued a decree in 1724, condemning all Huguenot preachers to death. Despite the decree Court, Roger and another Huguenot preacher by the name of Cortiez ordained the young Pierre Durand two years later in 1726. 

Each Huguenot pastor had a bounty on his head ranging from 1000 livres upwards. The bounty on Court’s head was 10,000 livres. The bounty on Durand’s head was 4000. Before long Pierre Durand’s father Etienne was arrested. His only crime was having a son who was a Huguenot minister. Shortly after that the authorities arrested Pierre’s sister Marie and her husband Matthew Seres. Marie was 17 or 18 years old when she was arrested. 

She was imprisoned in the Tower of Konstanz where she remained for 38 years.  While she was imprisoned in the tower she scratched the word “Register!” into the rim of the refuse hole in the middle of the circular room. It was a call to arms to remain faithful to God, to resist the temptation to give in to compromise. 

In 1727 Court and his family moved to Switzerland because Court feared for the safety of his wife. They settled in Lausanne where, after much labour and struggle Court set up a seminary and training school for ministers in Lausanne in 1730. This had been one of his dreams for many years. From here he was able to train ministers who would go back into the French field to serve the Church and keep it going.

Pierre Durand was captured in 1732 and hanged to death after a lengthy trial at Montpelier. Pierre’s father Etienne and his brother in law Matthew were also killed.Court remained in Lausanne for the remainder of his life as director of the training school he had set up. The school continued to send Pastors to the Protestant Churches in France until the close of the 18th century. Court died in Lausanne in June of 1760. 

After her release from the tower of Konstanz, Marie Durand lived with Pierre’s daughter Anne for the reaminder of her life.

Further Reading

  • Smiles S. (1867) – The Huguenots in France
  • Wylie J.A. (1870) – The History of Protestantism
  • Hugues E. (1872) – Antoine Court: Histoire de la Restauration de Protestantisme en France
  • Tylor C. (1893) – The Camisards