Heretics or Heroes?
John Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva, was born in France. He studied theology in Paris for almost six years from 1523 and was ordained a priest during this time. But by 1553 he had left the Catholic Church, believing he had a divine commission to restore the church to its original purity.
Calvin had published his "Institutes" in 1553, dedicating them to the King, Francis I. The Huguenots of France trace their beliefs to Calvin and his Institutes. The Reformation spread across France, becoming strongest in the South and West of the country. The French Protestant Church was officially organized at the Synod of Paris in 1559, along Calvinist lines and beliefs.
Tower of Crest, Imposing prison
Almost immediately the newly formed church faced trouble. These Bible-believing Christians were subjected to almost 30 years of strife as the majority church endeavored to eliminate Protestantism by warfare and persecution, securing recantation, often under duress.
The French Protestants suffered more than similar believers in other European countries, with more dying for what they believed. The most significant even is now remembered as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, on August 24, 1572. Thousands perished in Paris, tens of thousands across France.
Another sad blow for the Huguenots came with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The revocation meant Huguenots had no legal status or existence. Their marriages were not recognized. Their children were considered to be born out of wedlock and thus could not inherit property. The Huguenots couldn't work and their dead weren't allowed to be buried but were thrown on rubbish dumps.
Such measures caused an estimated 300,000 to leave France for Holland, Switzerland, Britain and Prussia, with some even going to South Africa. This forced emigration saw some of the country's best craftsmen and business-people (and Nobles) leave France. The French economy slumped for several decades.
above: Tower of Constance, where Marie Durand carved "Resistenz" into the floor.
The leaders of the Huguenot Church were also forced to flee. Some 1500 pastors left the country in a two-week period. Huguenot books were collected and burned. Prisons were full as the rack, gallows and stake produced scores of martyrs.
Among the best-known heroes of this period was a young woman of about 17 years who was incarcerated in the Tower of Constance, at Aigues Mortes, in southern France. Marie Durand was kept there for almost 38 years. Her crime was that her father and brother were Huguenot preachers.
While in prison she rallied and inspired other women there. Her steadfastness and courage has inspired generations. She refused a liberty that came only at the expense of her faith. Her attitude is epitomized in her Resistenz scratched into the cold stone floor, and still visible today.
Another young Huguenot hero of the time was Jean Court, who likewise dedicated his life to Christ. He became a Huguenot leader and reorganized the churches of southern France during the wars on the Huguenots.
He went to Switzerland, where he established a training college for Huguenot students studying for ministry. Upon graduation, the young students were assigned a church in France. Opposition and persecution was so fierce that the average span of time between graduation and martyrdom was nine months, a measure of their dedication to the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience!
The story of France is interwoven with the lives and deaths of the noble Huguenots. Branded heretics by the government, these people simply desired to live and worship according to their conscience and Scripture.
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