- During the Reformation, Protestantism spread rapidly and forcefully in France, and it took 150 years for the Roman Catholic Church to reestablish complete control. Tolerance was not achieved until the late 18th century, and the country's Christian community remains predominantly Catholic until today.The Protestant movement that began in German-speaking countries - Saxony and Zurich - soon spread to French-speaking lands. The ground was laid by the humanism that had spread from ITALY in the mid-15th century. The first prominent humanist was Guillaume Budé (14671540), who became librarian to King Francis I (r. 1515-47). His contemporary Jacques Lefèvre d'Estaples (1455-1536) produced a French translation of the New Testament (1523-25). In his commentaries on the Scripture, he relied on his own reading of the text, while ignoring the medieval Catholic commentaries. Lefèvre had significant influence on Catholic bishop Guillaume Briçonnet (1470-1533), who turned his diocese of Meaux into a humanist center that thrived through the crucial decade of the 1520s; another of his students was William Farel, among the founders of the Reformed church in Geneva.Lutheran writings began to filter into France soon after their issuance. In April 1521, the faculty at the University of Paris condemned some 100 propositions that it claimed had been found in Martin Luther's writings. In 1523, Briçonnet felt compelled to ban Lutheran pamphlets from his diocese. However, his own milder calls for reforms were blunted in 1525, when the Paris faculty, well on their way to assuming leadership in the anti-Protestant battle, declared that Lefèvre's French Bible fostered heresy The reform-minded leaders at Meaux subsequently dispersed, and even Lefèvre moved to Strasbourg, then a free city. Francis I, though personally favoring the humanists, was drawn into the conservative camp by his need for their support. As Protestant sympathies grew in France, his policies wavered between active suppression and benign neglect, the latter an attempt to pacify his Protestant neighbors in Germany. Periods of suppression would generally come in reaction to some flagrant attack upon Roman Catholic sensitivities.In the meantime, Protestant activists, most notably Farel and John Calvin, had fled to French-speaking Switzerland and had gained considerable support in Geneva. In 1536, Calvin released his Institutes of the Christian Religion, destined to become the leading statement of the Reformed theological position. In absentia, Calvin became the titular leadere of French Protestants. In 1540, Francis took a definite stand and issued the Edict of Fontainebleau calling for the repression of Protestantism. Two years later, the Sorbonne faculty issued their attack on the Institutes. The first group to feel the severity of systematic persecution were the Waldensians of the Durance valley, in Provence (near the Italian border). The following year, a group of 14 reformers from Meaux were executed.The Protestant movement moved underground. Francis's successor, Henry II, in 1548, set up a special court to try heretics; years later, he issued the Edict of Chateaubriand to codify all the anti-Protestant laws and regulations. However, Protestantism continued to grow and to gain support among influential and noble families. Converts included those of royal blood. In 1561, the French Protestant leadership gathered in Paris to compose their statement of faith, the Gallican Confession.various parties tried to work out compromises that would allow some degree of toleration for the Huguenots (as the Protestants were now known). In 1561, Catherine de' Medici (1519-89), mother of the new boy king, Charles IX (r. 1561-74), invited Protestant leaders to a colloquy at the town of Poissey. It failed to budge either group. In 1562, a series of violent incidents, including the massacre of a group of Protestants who had gathered near vassy in a barn for worship, set off a civil war. An initial peace was reached in 1570, in which toleration was granted to the Huguenots, but it did not last long. on August 24, 1572 (see St.Bartholomew's Day Massacre), Catherine and her supporters launched a sudden attack on the Huguenots, some 20,000 of whom were killed in the next few days. France was once again beset with a series of wars between the various factions, that continued until Henry IV (r. 1589-1610) assumed the throne in 1589. He slowly settled with each group and finally brought the wars to an end in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. The edict proclaimed the Catholic Church as the state church of France, but granted religious and civil rights to the estimated 1.25 million Huguenots.The Huguenots were able to rebuild a strong community, and some of their leaders were appointed to high government positions. However, under Louis XIII and Louis XIV their favored position began to erode. Cardinal Richelieu, who became prime minister of France in 1624, began the process of denying public offices to Huguenots. In 1660, they were forbidden to hold their national synods. Over the next 25 years, Louis step by step abrogated all the provisions of the Edict of Nantes, which he abruptly revoked in 1685. Protestants were not allowed to gather for public worship, even in their homes. Protestant ministers were ordered out of France, and the Catholic Church took charge of baptizing and schooling Protestant children. Those who did not leave the country reverted to the underground. Those who did flee were largely artisans, craftsmen, and/or professional people, who were usually welcomed by other countries.Only in 1787, under Louis XVI, was a new Edict of Toleration granted. For the first time in over a century, Protestants were allowed to be legally married before a magistrate and to have the births of children officially recorded. Shortly thereafter, Protestant churches were again opened for public worship, and the Protestant community took its place on the French religious landscape.Today, the Protestant community in France is represented by the Reformed Church of France (the primary descendants of the Huguenots), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France, the Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine, and the Church of the Augsburg Confession of Alsace and Lorraine (all members of the World Council of Churches). While the Reformed Church of France carries much of the history of persecution and survival, that history is also shared by the much smaller Lutheran community.One section of the country is unique, Alsace and Lorraine. Protestantism gained an early foothold in Strasbourg, and Alsace became predominantly Protestant. The region was ceded to France in 1648. The two Protestant churches in the region have remained autonomous.In the early 19 th century, the missionary enthusiasm in England and Switzerland spread to France. Protestants began to organize informal prayer groups that led in 1822 to the founding of the Paris Mission (the Sociétée de missions évangéliques des Paris). It established branches in Italy, Holland, and French-speaking Switzerland, and in 1829 commissioned its first missionary, who was sent to South Africa. As France joined its European neighbors in founding a global empire, the Paris Mission took the lead in evangelizing the residents of the colonies. Many of its missions have resulted in the emergence of new Reformed bodies in other parts of the world.In the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominance of the Reformed and Lutheran Churches in the French Protestant community has been challenged by the introduction of a spectrum of Protestant bodies primarily from North America. Among the newer groups are the Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches, the Christian Brethren, the Salvation Army, the Assemblies of God (and its sister ministry among the Gypsies, the Eglises Tziganes), the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, the latter group now being one of the largest religious bodies in the country.A number of Protestant groups have banded together in the Protestant Federation of France, founded in 1913. At the beginning of the new century, the Protestant community includes approximately 1.5 to 2 percent of the population.in the 1990s, following the suicide of members of a small esoteric group, the Solar Temple, the French government moved against what it saw as a number of dangerous sect groups (or cults), and a potentially repressive law was passed in 2001. included in a list of dangerous groups were several of the newer Protestant groups, including the Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Besançon, and the Neo Apostolic Church of France as well as some of the post-World War II groups such as the International Churches of Christ in France and the Jehovah's Witnesses. The older Protestant churches joined with human rights organizations to oppose these measures.Further reading:■ Annuaire de la France (Paris: Fédération Protestante de France, issued annually)■ Frederic Baumgartner, France in the Sixteenth Century (New York: St. Martin's, 1995)■ Jean-Jacques Bauswein and Lukas Vischer, eds., The Reformed Family Worldwide: A Survey of Reformed Churches, Theological Schools, and International Organizations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999)■ Mack P. Holt, The French Wars of Religion 1562-1629 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)■ George A. Rothrock, The Huguenots: A Biography of a Minority (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1979).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.