The French Reformed Churches (1)
Written by Gerald Procee
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Reformed Worldviews - The Hand of God in History

The origin of our Reformed churches lies not in the Netherlands, neither in Germany, Scotland or England, but in France. Actually, we as Reformed churches stand in the tradition of the French Reformed churches. During the 16th century it seemed that France would be the leading Reformed nation. Due to God’s providence, this never materialized. The Netherlands and Britain would become the leading Reformed nations.

The Influence of the French Reformed

What then, happened in France? During the 16th century the Reformation had a profound impact upon French society. But eventually, during the 17th century, those same churches were decimated. Many of us have little knowledge of what happened in France during those years. It is instructive to have some awareness of what transpired, for humanly speaking, we owe a lot to the Reformed Church of France. It had and still has an astounding influence in the world until this present day.

Church organization and reformed truths to which we are accustomed flow to us through the French churches. The singing of psalms and the liturgy we practice originate from the French Reformed. Economic diligence and industry flourish as a result of the Calvinistic work ethic that has come from the French churches. The best skilled workers, tradesmen and merchants have a Reformed background. They derived economic principles from Scripture and they proved to be successful. Calvinists promoted economically self-sufficient and independent states, which were historically productive in maintaining and promoting Christian education, religion, social improvements and constitutional government.

Present day principles of democracy in western society can be attributed to the impact of the French Reformed churches. The French Reformed emphasized personal freedom to serve God and make one’s own decisions in life. They emphasized the importance of education for their children. The church order that Calvin arranged for the French churches is the one we still know-comprised of consistories and synods.

This very well-structured organization would be reflected later in the democratic ideas of the United States. Rev. Paul Turquand, a descendant of French Reformed refugees, offered the introductory prayer at the first meeting in the South Carolina Congress constituting the United States, emphasizing personal liberty and democracy. Democratic ideas spread from John Calvin’s Geneva to France, The Netherlands, England and Scotland. Later, it spread to North America. It has been endorsed by Christians as the best way to govern a country. The background to the democracy practiced in western countries may be traced to Calvinism.

Persecution Spreads French Reformed Influence

The French Reformed churches were heavily persecuted. The result was that many fled to other European countries. Many Reformed people today have ancestors originating from the French Reformed churches. Many names amongst us reflect the French Reformed heritage. Hundreds of thousands of Reformed men and women fled France and settled in England, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands. They went on to move to America and even to South Africa. There they firmly strengthened existing Reformed churches and made an impact upon the life and society of these nations.

They assimilated into the society of their new countries and influenced the peoples among whom they settled. Soon, their French ancestry was forgotten except for perhaps a surname, which kept alive some remembrance of their French ancestry. At times, even the names they now bear do not reflect their French ancestry. For instance, in 1690 a Frenchman called Raimst fled to the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands where his only son adopted the Dutch name Janse. Because the son had thirteen children his descendants are now known by the name Janse. In similar fashion, many French Huguenots assimilated and changed their names. The Puritan, John Howe, was actually Hue, and of French origin. Many today who are of French origin do not know their ancestors or the sufferings they endured for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us not forget God’s deeds of the past.

The Influence Of The Reformation In France

The Reformed Church in France was already planted in the 1520s. Luther’s writings had become known and were read at the Sorbonne University in Paris. The French started to realize that the Roman Catholic Church had turned away from the Bible. Young men, especially from scholarly and academic circles, were convicted by the truth of God’s Word. Among them was one young man from northern France, living in a town called Noyon. His name was Jean Cauvin, later called Calvinus, or as we know him today: John Calvin.

Calvin initially studied law at Paris and at Orleans. He was converted and started to preach biblical truths in opposition to the doctrines of Rome. For that reason he had to flee France and came to Geneva where he eventually became the leader of the Reformed churches. It was from Geneva that Calvin and his associates evangelized the whole of France. The emerging French churches sent

young men to Calvin and after a number of years of training Calvin sent them back as ministers. He wrote to the French churches: Supply us with wood and we will turn them into arrows.

Calvin’s Strategy In Influencing France

The strategy Calvin employed was twofold. First, he employed secrecy in the training program and the dispatching of missionaries and pastors to the French churches. The Council of the city of Geneva did not even know that ministers were sent to France from Switzerland. Hundreds and hundreds of ministers were dispatched to France. To get back into France they needed to be extremely cautious. They would often go in very small groups or even alone and steal across the border. They would use fictitious names and identification papers. These pastors had to travel in secrecy and hide in concealed places in outlying farm houses. So far, no one has yet discovered the exact network mapped out from Geneva whereby the pastors obtained access to various pulpits in France.

As the pastors laboured in the French churches, they kept hidden; only to emerge on the Lord’s Days and other times to preach to their flocks. The Word of God spread rapidly. One eye witness reports: “In very few years in certain parts of the country games, dances, ballads, banquets and extravagances of hair, dress and wearing apparel came to an end” (The French Huguenots: Anatomy of Courage by Janet Glenn Gray. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981, p. 69).

he second part of Calvin’s strategy was to win over the nobility of France. Through them he would have access to the royal house of France and also to the local people. Indeed, he gained access to the royal houses of France: the Bourbons and the Colignys. Many of the French nobility assisted the Reformed cause. Later, when persecutions were fierce, they would open their mansions and estates for the relief of the common people of Reformed persuasion who had been evicted from their homes.

A decisive factor in Geneva’s ability to spread Calvinism was the printing press. Many of the leading printers had been master printers in France and knew the techniques of their trade well. A large part of the Geneva population was employed in papermaking, ink-making, printing and marketing books. Often the presses would run day and night to keep up with the demand of Reformed literature. Consequently, Calvin supplied a continual output of theological treatises and books.

The Results

The result of Calvin’s work was that in 1564, towards the end of his life, half of the French nobility was in agreement with Reformed principles. Out of the total population of France (some 20 million), around 3 million were Reformed believers congregating in 2,150 churches. All this took place while persecutions continued.

Actually, until 1770 there would be a sequence of ongoing persecutions. The kings of France quickly realized that the Calvinist view of personal freedom and democracy was incompatible with the absolute powers of the monarchy. Several civil wars erupted in which the French Reformed tried to defend themselves from their enemies. Political intrigues took place and the end result was that the Reformed church in France was increasingly crushed. It survived and even grew again during the 18th and 19th centuries. Estimates vary: In 1961 Raoul Stephan in Histoire du protestantisme francais, wrote that “between 1520 and 1550 half of France was won over to the evangelical faith, that at the end of the sixteenth century there remained only 20% who professed Protestantism; in 1685 only 12%, at the end of the eighteenth only 2%, and finally today 1.7%...” (quoted by Gray, p. 253).


The emblem of the French Churches is a cross surrounded with thorns with a dove emerging from the cross. The French Reformed came to be called Huguenots. It is not exactly sure where the name Huguenot comes from probably from the French word hugnon which means tramp. The Huguenots often walked (or tramped) around by night to go to their meeting places. Initially, it was used by their enemies as a name of derision but later it became a name of honour for the French Reformed believers.

The persecutions under the kings Louis XIV and Louis XV left the French Reformed churches decimated. But the Lord would again revive His church in France, by using a new generation of preachers. At times, there were gatherings in remote areas of southern France that drew an attendance of 10,000 and even 30,000 people. In spite of increased persecutions the church started to grow again.

How was it possible that the French Church was revived again? Of course, the Lord spared His people. He revived His cause and would not allow His Church to be stamped out. We may see that the Lord used the deep convictions of the Huguenots’ authority of Scripture. Their emphasis on biblical preaching, which focused on the spiritual needs of man made a deep impact. Another contributing factor was their strict discipline and the good organization of their churches by means of consistories and classes. In this way, when leading men fell away, the structure of the church was still in place. In addition, the Lord supplied an influx of trained ministers originating from French refugees and trained at the schools at Geneva, and later at Lausanne, both located in Switzerland.

Continued here.

Dr. Gerald Procee is the pastor of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Middelharnis, NL. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is repubished here with permission.