The French Reformed Churches (2)
Written by Gerald Procee
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Reformed Worldviews - The Hand of God in History

Continued from here.

The French Reformed churches have had a tremendous impact in churches and societies around the globe. To their hallmark belong upholding the authority of Scripture, adhering to Reformed creeds, and promoting industriousness and democracy.

Suffering

These churches had to endure severe suffering. Starting in the 1520s, the persecutions continued until the mid 18th century. There was a temporary easing up of the persecutions for about twenty-five years at the end of the 16th century, in which it seemed that Reformed churches were becoming an integral part of French society. But the persecutions returned in all their fury. Many were imprisoned, burned at the stake, massacred, killed, drowned or broken on the wheel. Countless Christians were dragged off to prison. Children were taken from their Reformed parents and raised in Roman Catholic monasteries.

Hundreds of thousands fled France. Eventually, it was forbidden for them to leave. They were trapped in their own country and forced to die, to suffer or to become Roman Catholic. Many also fled illegally by bribing captains of ships. At night they would row in little open boats out to sea and get on board of English and Dutch merchant ships. This was extremely dangerous. If they were caught, the men were sent to the galleys, the women locked up in prisons for the rest of their lives and the children brought to Roman Catholic monasteries.

Throughout these years hundreds of ministers were sent to the galleys. These galleys were huge warships that were propelled by 300 to 400 slaves. The slaves were chained to their seats and each row of men had a Muslim Turk who would beat them. These slaves were either criminals or Reformed believers. The average survival rate on the galleys was about three to four months. The policy was to avoid having the Reformed believers close together on the ships so that they could not support one another. They were forced to remove their cap and fall on their knees when mass was given. If they refused, their backs would be whipped until the skin came off. Then salt and vinegar were rubbed into their wounds. But the Reformed believers became well known for their patience in these sufferings.

A Roman Catholic chaplain who was an eyewitness wrote: “It is true that at the sad state of their bodies I shed tears. They noticed it and although they could scarcely utter a word being nearer to death than life, they told me they were obliged to me for the sweetness I always had for them. I went for the purpose of consoling them, but I had more need of consolation than they. For God, who was their stay, armed them with a truly Christian constancy and patience. You never heard them, among the cries which cannot be refused to nature, offer one word of impatience or injury. God the eternal one was their comfort and the only One whom they called upon for help” (The French Huguenots: Anatomy of Courage by Janet Glenn Gray. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981, p. 230).

Marie Durand

Women were locked up in dungeons for many years. In the south of France, in Aigues-Mortes there is a huge tower with thick walls, called the Tower of Constance. Here many women were imprisoned for their faith. One of them was Marie Durand, who was locked up in that tower for 38 years. Marie was born in 1715 (see Leben, Journal of Reformation Life, Volume 3, 1). Marie grew up in a home equipped with hiding places for the family Bible and even for family members. When Marie Durand was a young girl, her mother, Glaudine, was arrested after attending a secret Protestant service and died shortly thereafter. Marie’s brother, Pierre, eleven years her senior, became one of the “pastors of the désert.” These men preached in open fields, in caves, and in homes, to those in exile and to those in hiding, in continual defiance of the restrictions placed on them by the French monarchy.

Marie’s father, Etienne, was arrested in 1728, and Marie and her newly wed husband, Matthew Seres, were apprehended in 1730. Marie was interred in the Tower of Constance in Aigues-Mortes. She was only fifteen at the time. She never saw her husband again. The French dragonnades—military units organized for the express purpose of seeking out Protestants—attempted to use Marie and Etienne’s arrests to get Pierre’s attention. The authorities promised to set Marie free if Pierre would turn himself in, but Marie urged him not to yield to these offers. Pierre continued to preach until he was arrested on February 12, 1732. He was found guilty of disobeying the king’s orders and judgment was passed on him. On April 22, 1732, this judgment was carried out—death by hanging.

Because Marie would not renounce her faith, she remained locked in the Tower of Constance for almost thirty-eight years. Originally a military lookout and lighthouse, King Louis XIV converted the Tower of Constance into a women’s prison in the 17th century. Very little light and air came through the narrow openings in the walls that served as windows. The women comforted each other with Scripture and sang Psalms together. Here in dark moments, they also quarrelled. But of many, the officials had to write in their books behind their names: her faith is unchanged.

Marie Durand also acted as an official correspondent, penning letters for those who could not write and sending petitions to government officials to inform them of the prison’s horrible conditions. Many of her letters still exist today and are a testimony to Marie’s tireless efforts. She never wavered in strength or in faith.

In 1767, Prince de Beauveau, the governor of Languedoc expressed his disapproval of the horrific conditions the women endured inside the Tower of Constance. Against the will of Louis XV, he ordered their release. In 1768, Marie Durand was one of the last women to leave the tower. Marie returned to the home of her family, although by then she was the only family member that survived the attacks that had been mounted against their faith. She spent her last days in poverty, supported by a church, until her death in 1776. Today, in the tower of Constance, one can still see the floor of that cell where she scratched the words: resister (resist). This was a word of faith, of patient endurance, and resting on the promises of God’s Word.

The Church of the Désert
The Church in France became known as the Church of the désert (wilderness), for the churches had to meet in secrecy, in hidden places. At the time of the death of King Louis XIV, the French Reformed churches had suffered severely. However, his death brought no reprieve, because his successor, Louis XV (1715-1774), had made it his goal to eradicate the Protestant faith. But the fire of God’s Word could not be quenched. Again, ministers were sent back into France. In deep secret, churches would grow and continue to draw people.

Many ministers had to flee the country and then returned illegally to support the afflicted Reformed Churches. Many of these were killed, hanged or sent to the galleys. From 1746 until 1752, in the space of six years 1600 people were condemned to the galleys for their work of Reformed church planting. Ministers were killed; some died singing like Pierre Durand, who was publicly hanged in Montpellier. Soldiers were assembled to beat their drums, but this could not hinder the people from hearing clearly that Durand died singing Psalm 23 and Psalm 51.

In spite of all these persecutions in the 1770s the Reformed Church in France still numbered around half a million members. It is moving to hear the account of a gathering in the open air held in a remote place during those years. A Swiss minister visited the area of Languedoc and related what happened:

It was Christmas Day 1773. The place where the local congregation met was half an hour distance outside the city. Along difficult and rocky ways we came to the place. It was a most desolate area and difficult to access. There were deep ravines and huge boulders. Eventually, we came into an open area surrounded by massive rocks. People were gathered all around. The total number present was about 13,000 people. A portable pulpit was erected and in front of the pulpit were rocks placed in a circle on which the elders were seated. A table was set for the Lord’s Supper.

All who approached the open place first kneeled in prayer before entering. Some were singing Psalms. The deacons went around requesting three nickels per person for the care of the poor. People sat on cushions they had taken along from home, and many just sat on the ground. Around the clearing were many horses and mules. While Psalms were sung, three ministers entered the clearing and the worship service started. The old French Reformed liturgy was followed and included a lively sermon. When the sermon was finished, the Form for the Lord’s Supper was read and the congregation prepared for the celebration of the Supper. Bread and wine were given out and the ministers held short meditations. Here and there groups of women or men kneeled together in prayer or softly sang Psalms.

At the end of the service, the elders stood at the outside of the clearing to ask the members for a second and final offering. The people dispersed while the elderly women were carried in portable chairs. The pulpit was dissembled and taken away. Everywhere along the road one would see booksellers selling Bibles and Reformed books. There were also scores of Roman Catholic beggars because the Protestants were known to give alms.

Postscript

In 1795, under Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Reformed churches received permission to fully practice freedom of religion. But at that time liberalism had started to creep into the French churches. It would take another half a century, the 1840s, when these churches would again be revived due to evangelical preaching.

Presently in France only 1% of the population is Protestant, amounting to about half a million. About 40% of the Protestants belong to Evangelical Reformed churches so that presently there are only approximately 200,000 Evangelical Reformed believers in France.

Nevertheless, the Reformed Church in France had a major influence outside of France. Many important persons around the globe and various American presidents like George Washington, John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt were of Huguenot descent (Gray, p. 257). Many of the descendants of the Huguenots still stand for loyalty to the Scriptures and uphold a rigorous Church Order. Wherever they are, they are a minority, but this minority continues to supply leadership abilities, and places emphasis on education, independence of thought, high moral standards and industriousness.

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.