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The Huguenot Christian, Part 1

Gregory E. Reynolds

The European Reformation and the Huguenots

The history of the New Rochelle Huguenots really begins in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. On October 31 Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses on the Wittenberg Castle door. The spark that ignited an already volatile Europe, Luther's statement confronted the corruption of the Roman church. It was a call to search the Scriptures and return to faith in the Christ who was sent by God to save his people from sin and death.

By the middle of the sixteenth century the Reformation had been firmly established in Geneva under the spiritual leadership of Jean (John) Calvin. This Swiss city and its church became a haven for British and French exiles and a center of religious education and training for pastors and laymen returning to those lands. So influential was Calvin's Geneva upon the Reformation that the Scottish Reformer John Knox called it "the most perfect school of Christ since the apostles."

Nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff notes three religious beliefs that competed for the hearts of French citizens in the sixteenth century: (1) the "reactionary and unscrupulous fanaticism" of the leaders of the Roman Church like Jesuit Ignatius Loyola; (2) the "elegant Renaissance culture and frivolous skepticism" of men like Rabelais; and (3) the "high intelligence and uncompromising virtue" of leaders like Calvin.[1] More than any other Reformer, Calvin influenced the French Huguenots.[2] The very name "Huguenot," though probably originally a term of reproach, became synonymous with "professor of the Reformed or Calvinistic religion in France."[3]

The Reformation movement proved a tremendous threat to the political status quo of Europe. In France a long history of tension existed between Gallican nationalism and Roman Catholic influence. The Huguenots simply exacerbated that tension on the Gallican side of the conflict. Since France's political structure was predominantly Roman Catholic in allegiance, the history of the Huguenots in France is a history of intense struggle.

In 1559 the first synod of the Huguenot church met secretly in Paris. It was there that the original draft of the Confession of La Rochelle was penned. During the next three years the church grew by about 2,000 percent![4] But then a decade later, in 1572, on the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle, a persecution of startling severity took place, known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy). Many of the most prominent Huguenots had gathered in Paris, a Catholic stronghold, for the wedding of the king's sister Margaret to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Assassins attempted to kill Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. Two days later on August 23 the king ordered the assassination of Coligny and other Huguenot leaders. The massacres spread throughout Paris and to other French cities, lasting several weeks. Estimates of the dead vary between 5,000 and 30,000.

After years of conflict, the Huguenot churches were officially tolerated by King Henry IV under the terms of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The edict mandated a freeze on Protestant places of worship in an effort to keep peace between Roman Catholics and 1.5 million Huguenots.

This legal settlement was short-lived, however. After twenty-eight more Huguenot synods and many wars, synods were prohibited by the staunch Roman Catholic Louis XIV, "The Sun King," in 1660. He delivered the final blow to the Huguenot church when he revoked the supposedly irrevocable Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Protestants of France became even more of a persecuted remnant, calling themselves "The Reformed Church of the Desert." A royal law issued in 1686 made attendance at secret meetings of Huguenots punishable by death. Gray's history of the French Huguenots reports, "Royal administrator Louvois looked on the breaches of the law with fury. He directed Foucault, in Poitou: '... let orders be given to the dragoons to kill the greatest part of the Protestants that can be overtaken, without sparing the women, to the end that this may intimidate them and prevent others from falling into similar fault.' "[5] Many Huguenots were pulled apart on the rack, burned at the stake, or consigned to the infamous French galleys where no one survived more than a few years; others who sought to leave France were refused permission to emigrate and subjected to numerous restrictions and atrocities instead.

In the years immediately following the Revocation, between 200,000 and 800,000 Huguenots fled from French tyranny; no one knows the exact number.[6] Thousands of these Huguenots eventually settled in the American colonies. New Amsterdam (presently New York City) was a major refuge, and it was from that colony that a small band of Huguenots came to settle New Rochelle in 1688.

Calvinism in France: The Confession of La Rochelle

The beliefs of the New Rochelle Huguenots were the same as those to which their Huguenot forefathers had subscribed more than a century earlier. "The Huguenots adhered to the pure principles of their pious forefathers, as contained in the 'Articles, Liturgy, Discipline, and Canons, according to the usage of the Reformed Church in France.' "[7]

The doctrinal foundation of their beliefs is found in the Confession of La Rochelle, also known as The French Confession of Faith or Confessio Fidei Gallicano. The rough draft of this confession was written by John Calvin himself. Calvin's pupil, Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, assisted him and brought the draft to the Synod of Paris in 1559, where it was revised and approved. Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, delivered the confession to Charles IX at Poissy in 1561. In 1571 the Synod of La Rochelle (seventh Huguenot synod) adopted it as the doctrinal basis for the French Reformed churches. From that point it was called the Confession of La Rochelle. It was "solemnly sanctioned" in La Rochelle by King Henry IV in the presence of the ardent Huguenot Queen of Navarre, Theodore Beza, and Admiral Coligny.[8]

The doctrinal substance of the confession was essentially that of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, though the synod slightly revised the order of topics, placing the doctrine of Scripture first, instead of the doctrine of God. The forty articles that make up the confession sum up the biblical faith of the Protestant Reformation.

The confession begins, where all the Reformers began, with God. Articles 1 and 2 set forth God as one who speaks in creation and in his written Word. Articles 3-5 define the Word as synonymous with the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. This and this alone is the final authority by which "all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed." Therefore, the ancient creeds (the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed), being in accordance with the Word of God, were confessed by the Huguenots. The sixth article sets forth the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as expounded by the ancient church fathers Hilary, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Cyril.

The French Confession begins to deal with the works of God in Article 7. He is the sovereign Creator of all things visible and invisible. Article 8 declares that God in his providence controls his entire creation, "disposing and ordaining by his sovereign will all that happens in the world." This doctrine is meant to comfort God's children.

Articles 9-11 expound the doctrine of man as God's image. Since Adam's historical fall, all men are totally corrupted by sin in their natures as well as in all of their activities (contrary to the heresy of Pelagius). Man is a rebel against God, but God has graciously chosen to save his elect by his free mercy through Jesus Christ (Article 12).

Articles 13-16 set forth the completeness of the salvation that is provided in Jesus Christ. He is the eternal Son of God who took to himself a human nature by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, he is both fully God and fully man in one person (contrary to the heresy of Servetus). In sending his Son, God shows "his love and inestimable goodness towards us."

Articles 17-20 show the work of Christ on behalf of his people. Through Christ's perfect sacrifice alone his people are fully justified and pardoned of all their sins. It is only through Christ's merits, not any of our own, that sinful man is declared righteous by God. Christ, the only mediator between God and man, provides the confident access of his people to the Father. This justified state is realized by faith alone. Faith depends on the free promises of God revealed in his Word by which he "declares and testifies his love to us."

Sanctification by the Holy Spirit is the subject of Articles 21-23. The Spirit enables the elect to believe and persevere in faith to the end. He gives God's people new life and therefore the power to do good works. These works do not merit justification, however, for the elect are acquitted by Christ's atonement alone. The law of God is the rule of life for the Christian.

Prayer, according to Article 24, is to be offered to God alone through Jesus Christ, our only advocate. Prayer to the saints is contrary to the model of prayer revealed in the Word of God. All other human institutions, such as purgatory, celibacy, indulgences, and works-salvation, are rejected as "imposing a yoke upon the conscience."

Articles 25-28 demonstrate the importance of the church. The church is instituted by Christ's authority and ordered so as to provide the "ministry and preaching of the Word and sacraments." All Christians are to submit to Christ in the church. Only churches that are faithful to the Word and promote growth in their practice of it are true churches; even such churches are prone to be imperfect and harbor hypocrites in their midst. Because the "pure Word of God is banished" from the "papal assemblies," they are not true churches.

Biblical church government (Articles 29-33) establishes the offices of pastors, overseers, and deacons. All pastors are equally under the "one head, one only sovereign and universal bishop, Jesus Christ." No one should appoint himself to the offices of the church. Those men who are recognized as qualified and elected to office by the church should govern wisely and not according to human inventions.

The sacraments (Articles 34-38) are "added to the Word" as aids to confirm and seal God's grace in Jesus Christ to believers. The New Covenant reveals only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Spirit uses these to nourish and strengthen his church through faith.

Articles 39 and 40 declare the civil state to be ordained by God for the restraint of sin. The just magistrate has the power of the sword to "suppress crimes" against the Ten Commandments. Civil rulers exercise a "legitimate and holy authority." Christians should therefore submit to, honor, and reverence them by obeying their laws and paying taxes, even if the authorities themselves are unbelievers.

The text of the Confession of La Rochelle is peppered with Scripture references, demonstrating the seriousness of the Huguenot effort to ensure that their beliefs were "decided by the Word of God."[9] It is praiseworthy that their effort to remain faithful to God's Word became a matter for which they were willing to die. In the dedication of the confession to King Henry IV, the king is reminded "of the persecutions that we have suffered, and suffer daily, for wishing to live in the purity of the Gospel and in peace with our own consciences.... And this is the only reason, Sire, why the executioners' hands have been stained so often with the blood of your poor subjects, who, sparing not their lives to maintain this same Confession of Faith, have shown to all that they were moved by some other spirit than that of men, who naturally care more for their own peace and comfort than for the honor and glory of God."[10]

The French Confession of Faith is a fine summary of what has historically been called Calvinism. And since it was essentially penned by the very man whose name has become associated with that faith, our notion of what was distinctive about Calvin's theology needs to be revised, if not entirely corrected. Calvin was not merely interested in "double predestination," as many have unfairly characterized him. He focused on the larger idea of God's greatness and glory manifested in his marvelous sovereign grace toward needy sinners. Hence Calvin was interested in the totality of God's self-revelation in Scripture. And though Calvin certainly believed that man is a depraved sinner, he also believed that man redeemed by Christ finds his true humanity and potential realized as the image-bearer of God. In short, Calvin submitted his great intellect to the whole counsel of God. And such is the religion our forefathers in New Rochelle brought to these shores in the late seventeenth century.

Endnotes

[1] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 3:356-382. Originally published in 1877 by Harper & Bros.

[2] William Watson Waldron, Huguenots of Westchester and the Parish of Fordham (New York: Kelly and Bros., 1864), 54.

[3] Ibid., 52-53.

[4] Andree Longieret, "France's Huguenots: Survivors of Persecution," The Presbyterian Journal (Oct. 16, 1985), 9-10.

[5] Janet Glenn Gray, The French Huguenots, Anatomy of Courage (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 247.

[6] Ibid., 245.

[7] Gray, French Huguenots, 260.

[8] Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:356.

[9] "Dedication to the King," which begins the French Confession of Faith.

[10] Ibid.

Ordained Servant Online, October 2010.

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