It is our goal to show France’s historical relationship to matters of the Christian faith – which include its relationship to Catholicism and Protestantism – with a focus on those believers who, from historical accounts, we can identify with the basic tenets of the Evangelical movement today.
In so doing we are able to see – with some degree of accuracy – what God has done in, for, and through France, giving us a better understanding of our current historical context in post-(post)-modern France.
The current Evangelical Protestant Church in France traces its origin largely back to the Huguenots who embraced the teachings of Calvin during Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. However, true believers – those who heard the Good News of Christ and converted to Christianity –have been present long before the Reformation…
In the first centuries of the Christian era, the church in Gaul was one of the strongest in the world and had many great leaders. Irenaeus, the church father and bishop of Lyon, played a significant role in defending the world-wide church against heresy. Martin of Tours established one of the first centers of missionary training in the western world. In the following years France sent out many missionaries to evangelize the surrounding nations. Germanus, a renowned healing evangelist, went to Britain. Patrick, who evangelized the Irish, was trained there.
In fact, since Clovis (first king of the Franks in 481) converted to Christianity and broke from the Frankish pagan beliefs, the French crown has had a special relationship to the church. There was no concept of the separation of church and state in France. The Pope gave the kings of France the title of “Most Christian King,” and at his consecration (itself a holy rite) the King takes an oath to extirpate heresy in his realm. In spite of this close relationship, or perhaps because of it, the Gallican church in France has also traditionally enjoyed more independence from the central church hierarchy. The King’s rights to govern the church were unprecedented.
In 1516, the Concordat of Bologna gave the king of France, Francis I, more rights in clerical affairs than the Pope (barring a papal veto that was rarely used). The king of France had enormous powers to dispose of the Church’s wealth and he could (and did) use the offices of bishops, abbots, and so on, to provide sinecures for his faithful followers.
This also meant that lords of the church were usually quite worldly people, often quite unfit for their offices if spirituality or theological learning is considered a requirement. There was no restraint against a single individual holding many simultaneous titles, and there were plenty of bishops who lived well on their revenues and never set foot in their sees. The weaving together of obligation, reward, and responsibility between church and state made for a unique Gallic fusion of church and state, with the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) acting as the scholastic think-tank arm of the church-state complex.
In 1517, a dispute about who was entitled to a cut of the revenues generated by itinerant papal indulgence sellers provoked the controversy that led the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg. The belief that Christians are saved by faith, and faith alone, and that no amount of works (including the purchase of indulgences) made any difference at all, was not perceived to be a threat at first. There were plenty of heterodox views in the air at the time, and Pope Leo X thought the difference between Luther and the Church could be worked out diplomatically.
As it turns out, it could not. However, Luther was not immediately burnt for being a heretic; he was allowed to present his case in court and had a powerful effect on the populace. He also had a powerful patron and protector in the Elector of Saxony, who shielded him from the ecclesiastical authorities. In addition, the media explosion brought on by the printing press spread his message much further than it otherwise might have gone, and made him the focus for all sorts of religious, spiritual, political, and economic discontent.
The right to read and interpret scripture lead to the throwing off of the chains of papal and ecclesiastical authority; and taking this to mean political and economic freedom as well, there were widespread revolts among the German peasantry.
After Luther made it more difficult to be neutral, in France, the rigidly scholastic Sorbonne denounced the Circle of Meaux as heretics in 1525. Created to help the reform program of Guillaume Briçonnet, the members of the Circle generally emphasized the study of the Bible and a return to the theology of the early Church.
Some recanted, some fled into exile, some became avowed Protestants, and some fled to the shelter of Marguerite de Navarre’s court. During the 1520s and 30s the lines between evangelical Christian humanists and Protestants were very vague. Seminal humanists like Erasmus and Lefèvre d’Etaples never left the Church, not wishing to see its fundamental unity destroyed, while others became religious and social radicals.
In spite of the fear inspired by the example of Luther’s followers, the Most Christian King of France was fairly tolerant of the spirit of inquiry and truly valued scholarship. He generally prevented the doctors of the Sorbonne from doing their worst against anyone challenging their medieval views.
However, this tolerance changed with the “Day of the Placards.” Early Sunday morning on October 18, 1534, Parisians and many other citizens of northern France awoke to find the city plastered with broadsides denouncing the Catholic mass as “an insufferable abuse”, condemning the Eucharist in very vitriolic language, and threatening the priesthood for “disinheriting” kings, princes, and so on by its practice. One of these appeared on the king’s bedroom door. This was not just a theological debate, but an attack on the fundamental social fabric. It confirmed the popular suspicion that the “Lutherans” were not only heretics, but rebels and traitors.
A few culpable parties were rounded up and burned, and François Ier responded to this challenge to his dual role as head of the state and the church in France by holding a massive procession of the Holy Eucharist through Paris, in which all the royal and parliamentary institutions participated. Sporadic suppression of Protestantism followed, but it was all very inconsistent. Rabelais wrote his satirical works during this time and managed never to be burnt for them, while others went to the stake for much less.
In the wave of suppression that followed the Day of the Placards, one of the exiles was a evangelical humanist named Jean Cauvin (Calvin), from Noyon in Picardy. He had studied law and had made a bit of name in humanist circles with a work on Seneca.
In 1536, Calvin published The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Basel. He sojourned in Strasbourg from 1538-1541, refining his thoughts on how to create God’s kingdom on earth, and ultimately landed in Geneva. The Institutes were published in French in 1541, and had the most profound effect of any book save the Bible on the development of Protestantism in France. Ironically, the first edition of this book was dedicated to King François, perhaps in the hope that the generally open-minded king could still be persuaded to adopt the reformed religion.
Calvin did not really add anything particularly new to Protestant theology in the Institutes, but he gave much more logical and analytical structure to its doctrines. His book was an effective educational tool, intended to be the foundation for organizing a new Christianity (and by implication, a more godly new society).
French Protestants during this Reformation period were called Huguenots. Used originally as a term of derision, the derivation of the name Huguenot remains uncertain. It may have been based on the name Besançon Hugues, or a French corruption of the German word Eidgenosse, meaning a Swiss person – Geneva, Switzerland was John Calvin’s adopted home and the center of the Calvinist movement.
In Geneva, Hugues was the leader of the “Confederate Party,” so called because it favored an alliance between the city-state of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation. This theory of origin has support from the fact that the label Huguenot was first applied in France to those conspirators (all of them aristocratic members of the Reformed Church) involved in the Amboise plot of 1560: a foiled attempt to usurp power in France from the influential House of Guise, a move which would have had the side-effect of fostering relations with the Swiss. Thus, Hugues pluseidgenot becomes Huguenot, with the intention of associating the Protestant cause with some very unpopular politics.
But French Protestantism would never have amounted to the potent social force it became if it had remained a religion of artisans. In the 1550s and 1560s, large numbers of noble elites were attracted to it. Calvin made a concerted effort to recruit them, sending Geneva-trained French evangelists into the country with a mission to influence the powerful decision-makers. Very often, these decision-makers were reached through the influence of their mothers and wives.
Marguerite de Navarre’s early humanist patronage blossomed into a full-fledged Protestant conviction in her daughter, Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre, Duchess d’Albret, Countess of Bearn and Vicomtesse of Foix. Jeanne brought along her waffling and opportunistic husband, Antoine de Bourbon, raised her son Henri de Navarre in the religion, and made the reformed faith the state religion in her territories. This rock of reform made for a powerful base in the Southwest, where the Huguenots enjoyed more popular support than anywhere else.
Among the other noteworthy converts were the Prince de Condé, another Bourbon and prince of the blood, and the Châtillon brothers:Gaspard de Coligny, Odet Cardinal de Châtillon (who never gave up his cardinal’s hat), and François d’Andelot. Many of the nobles no doubt took this course out of opportunism, loyalty to their patrons, and similar motives, but some like Coligny seem to have been genuinely motivated by personal conscience. [Catherine de’ Medici is reputed to have disliked Coligny because she couldn’t understand a person who was not motivated by personal gain and self-interest.]
Very quickly these Reformed churches established under Calvin’s influence grew to include up to 1,500,000 people, approximately 10% of the population. They held their first National Synod in 1559 in Paris, at which they approved the “Confessio Gallicana”and rules for church government.
An elite group that was also initially attracted to the religion included the judges of the parliamentary courts. This was particularly threatening to the social order, and Henri II took steps to deal with it. One of the famous early Protestant martyrs was Anne du Bourg, a Protestant magistrate who defied the king in the Parliament of Paris and was burned for his intransigence in 1559. Significantly, the charges were not just heresy but sedition and lese majesté. The year 1559 also saw the untimely death of Henri II, which set the stage for the transformation of the social issues of the Reformation into out and out civil war.
During this period, the Catholics battled the Calvinist Huguenots for control of the monarchy. The fact that France had two weak monarchs: Charles IX (r. 1560-74) and Henry III (r. 1574-89) allowed rival aristocratic factions to align along opposing religious lines. The minority Huguenots, led by Gaspard de Coligny and Louis I de Conde, were supported from 1562 to 1576 by external Protestant armies in their conflict with the Catholic crown.
The watershed event during these wars was clearly the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. After the peace treaty of St. Germain (the Third War), Catherine de’ Medici exerted a great deal of diplomatic effort trying to create harmony between Catholic and Protestant leaders. Admiral de Coligny, now the chief military leader of the Huguenots, was welcomed into the king’s council, Elizabeth of England entertained the prospects of marriage to one of King Charles’ younger brothers, and Catherine negotiated with Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, to marry her daughter Margeurite (Margot) to Henri de Navarre, the ranking Huguenot prince of the blood. However, the common people felt no such harmony, and tensions grew in the towns and countryside.
Protestant rhetoric had become increasingly revolutionary in the late 60’s, with leading thinkers advocating that Christians did not have the obligation to obey leaders who themselves defied God. Calvin himself came to the conclusion, after advocating for many years that obedience to the civil authorities was a Christian duty, that a prince that persecuted the church had forfeited his right to be obeyed. François Hotman’s Francogallia was written during this time (although not published until 1573). It advocated the existence of a mythical Frankish constitution whereby the kings of France were elected by the people and governed only through their consent. This was all very frightening and served to unite the Protestant faith with treason in the mind of the average person.
Along with these more abstract issues, tension between Catholics and Protestants had more economic and social elements. Protestants were often represented in the newer and more lucrative trades, such as printing, out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. The Protestant emphasis on literacy as the basis for understanding the Bible made for a generally better educated group. Protestantism was more an urban than a rural phenomenon (except in the Southwest), one well-suited to capitalists and merchants. For example, the 100 or so Catholic feast days that they didn’t celebrate made for more days to do business. This wasn’t viewed as being much of an advantage by the peasants, but was viewed as an unfair advantage by other Catholic townsmen.
The years of persecution had created a cell-like structure of congregations, consistories, and synods where people in the group stuck together and helped each other, both in matters of religion and everyday business. Like that other minority in Europe, the Jews, this engendered a feeling of suspicion about their “secret” organization.
The participation of women in the church service, with men and women singing together and studying the Bible, was viewed with a range of emotions: from a sign that society was collapsing when cobblers and women could debate the meaning of the Bible (even the Protestants were sometimes alarmed at the effects of their doctrine about “the priesthood of all believers”), to a conviction that Protestant worship must involve some kind of orgiastic rituals.
Prices had also risen very sharply between the beginning of the century and the 1560s, especially the prices of food, fuel, and shelter. This might seem irrelevant to matters of religion, but the sense of stress about making ends meet, increasing homelessness and poverty in the towns, a sense of anxiety about the future, and all the other things that go with this kind of economic pressure make for a fearful and hostile society looking for scapegoats.
Many Catholics felt that the toleration of heresy in their midst was like a disease in the body of Christ that threatened the very contract between God and his people. There was an increasing rhetoric among the popular preachers to purge this infection to restore God’s favor and with it, social stability.
All of this tension is important background to the watershed event of the wars: the evening of August 23, 1572 — the feast of St. Bartholomew. The 19 year-old Henri de Navarre and Margot de Valois were married in Paris on August 17 and the festivities were still going on. The entire Huguenot leadership came to Paris for this wedding. Henri himself brought 800 mounted noblemen in his train.
On August 22, as Admiral de Coligny was returning to his lodgings from a visit with the king, an assassin fired at him, breaking his arm and wounding him severely, but not killing him outright. The Huguenots were outraged and demanded justice from the king. Everyone suspected the Guises of the attack. When various Huguenot leaders counseled Coligy to flee the city — certainly at this time they could have easily made it to the safety of a Protestant stronghold — he reputedly refused, feeling that it would show a lack of trust in the king. However, the Huguenots were threatening riot in the streets if something wasn’t done, and it was a very hot summer.
At some point during the night of August 23, the decision was made at the Louvre to kill Coligny and the Huguenot leaders gathered around him. Charles IX was certainly there, Catherine de’ Medici, Henri d’Anjou. It may not have been originally intended to be a general massacre. Charles IX was reputedly badgered into this decision by Catherine and his councilors, and when he finally broke he is alleged to have said, “Well, then kill them all that no man be left to reproach me.”
During the early hours of Sunday morning, a troop of soldiers came to Coligny’s door. They killed the guard that opened the door, and rushed through the house. Coligny was dragged from his bed, stabbed, and thrown out the window to the pavement below. Reputedly the Duc de Guise mocked the body, kicking him in the face and announcing that this was the king’s will. Rumors ran thick and fast, and somehow the militia and the general population went on a rampage, believing themselves to be fully sanctioned by the king and the church.
Catholics identified themselves with white crosses on their hats, and went around butchering their neighbors. The neighborhood militias played a very significant role in the slaughter. The killing went on for 3 days or so, with the city councilors and the king unable to bring the whole thing under control. There are numerous tales of atrocities, occasional ones of courage and compassion. Historians have debated what really happened and why in excruciating detail ever since.
The Louvre itself was not immune. Henri de Navarre slept in his bridal suite with an entourage of 40 Huguenot gentlemen, all of whom were killed. Henri and his cousin, the Prince de Condé (another Henri, the son of the late Louis who had been the champion of the churches), were dragged before the king and threatened with death if they did not convert. They did, and Navarre became a prisoner of the court for the next four years, living in constant fear of his life.
The massacres spread to the provinces over the next few months. Some thought they had directives from the crown to kill all the Protestants, others thought there was no such thing. The actions of the governors and mayors depended very much on the individuals and the circumstances in their areas. Areas with vocal Protestant minorities often suffered the most.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, as it came to be known,destroyed an entire generation of Huguenot leadership. Henri de Navarre was a prisoner, not yet a known quality as a leader. Condé eventually escaped to Germany, and Andelot, Coligny’s younger brother, was an exile in Switzerland. Although it wasn’t clear at the time, this was the beginning of the decline of the Protestant church in France. In spite of the wars, the ’60s had seen an enthusiastic growth in the movement. Over the months following, many Protestants despaired and abjured their faith. The experience radicalized many of the survivors, creating a profound distrust of the king, an unwillingness to disarm, and an upsurge in the political rhetoric of resistance. Works with titles likeThe Defense of Liberty against Tyrants were to come off the Huguenot presses.
The Huguenot “state within a state” became solidified, as the churches organized themselves into an efficient hierarchy for communications and self-protection. They collected their own tithes, maintained their own armies and garrisons, and provided for the governance and social welfare of the Protestant communities.
Henry III’s Catholic son, Duc d’Anjou, died in 1584 and Henri de Navarre (a Huguenot) became heir presumptive to the throne of France. The Catholicity of the crown and the special sacral role of “The Most Christian King” were principles widely assumed to be fundamental to the constitution of France. Thus, the threat of a Protestant accession to the crown was very disturbing. The pope, Sixtus V, immediately excommunicated Navarre and his cousin, Henri Prince de Condé, declaring that as heretics they were unfit for the throne. Guise revived the Catholic League with the goal of preventing any heretic from coming to the throne.
The Treaty of Nemours, signed in 1585, revoked all the previous edicts of pacification: banning the practice of the reformed religion throughout the kingdom, declaring Protestants unable to hold royal office, ordering all garrisoned towns to be evacuated, and requiring all Protestants to abjure their faith within six months or be exiled.
The League pressed for a meeting of the Estates-General, which was held in Blois in the fall. Their proposed heir to the crown was the Cardinal de Bourbon, Navarre’s uncle. On Christmas Eve in 1588, when Guise was at Blois for the meetings, Henri III invited him to his quarters for some discussion where Guise was assassinated. The same fate was visited on his brother, the Cardinal de Guise. This cut the two best heads from the house of Guise, but it still left the younger brother, the Duc de Mayenne, who now became leader of the League.
The League sent an army against Henri III, and Henri III turned to Navarre for an alliance. The two kings joined forces to reclaim Paris. In July 1589, in the royal camp at St. Cloud, a monk named Jacques Clément begged an audience with the king and put a long knife into his spleen. At first it was thought the king might recover, but the wound festered. On his deathbed, Henri III called for Navarre and named him his heir.
The League continued to fight and Henry IV did not fare well. At this point, Henri IV made his “perilous leap” and abjured his faith in July 1593, in the church of St. Denis, reputedly with the famous witticism that “Paris is worth a mass.” A coronation was arranged for him at Chartres, rather than at the traditional Reims, which was in the hands of the League. This was a blow to the League, as it removed the chief objection of many of the more moderate Catholics to Henri IV. Many people did not trust the conversation, including the Protestants who hoped it was not for real. Still, some of Henri’s hardcore Protestant supporters withdrew from him. In the end, he won over enough moderate Catholics to strengthen his position.
Finally, in the spring of 1594, Henri IV entered Paris without firing a shot, and the Spanish garrison marched out. It wasn’t over yet, but Henri was now in possession of his capital. He began a vigorous program of winning over the support of moderate Catholics with a combination of charm, force, money, and promises. A great deal of money was spent guaranteeing various nobles pensions and positions in exchange for the support, and a great deal of money was given to the towns in exchange for theirs.
1598 saw the publication of the Edict of Nantes, which granted Huguenots freedom of worship and civil rights for nearly a century, until Henri IV’s descendent Louis XIV revoked it in 1685. The king revoked the “irrevocable” Edict of Nantes in 1685 and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. After this, huge numbers of Huguenots (with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 500,000) fled to surrounding Protestant countries: England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Prussia —whose Calvinist Great Elector Frederick William welcomed them to help rebuild his war-ravaged and under populated country.
The exodus of Huguenots from France created a kind of brain drain from which the kingdom would not fully recover for years. The French crown’s refusal to allow Protestants to settle in New France was a factor behind that colony’s slow population growth, which ultimately led to its conquest by the British. By the time of the French and Indian War, there may have been more people of French ancestry living in Britain’s American colonies than there were in New France.
Frederick the Great of Prussia, a strong believer in religious tolerance, invited Huguenots to settle in his realms, and a number of their descendants rose to positions of prominence in Prussia. The last Prime Minister of the (East) German Democratic Republic, Lothar de Maizière, was a scion of a Huguenot family.
The persecution and flight of the Huguenots greatly damaged the reputation of Louis XIV abroad, particularly in England; the two kingdoms, which had enjoyed peaceful relations prior to 1685, became bitter enemies and fought against each other in a series of wars from 1689 onward.
The Reformed Church in France was weakened, but not, however, destroyed. It lived on underground in the years following 1685 and formed the “Church in the desert.” Above all, the Huguenots in Cevenol met secretly for church services. Hopes for the retraction of the Edict of Fontainebleau were shattered, and there subsequently arose between 1702 and 1704 a large revolt in the South of France, which also became known as the Camisards War or Cevenol War.
It became clear in the course of this that the aim of the French state to root out the Protestants had failed. In the first half of the 18th Century the persecution of the Reformed Protestants was no longer carried out so systematically or to such a great extent. Phases of relative quiet alternated with persecution and oppression. There were scarcely any Reformed Protestants in the towns, but the communities continued to exist in the country, often holding church services in the castles of Reformed nobility. From 1750 a reorganization of the Reformed Church began and synods were held. Finally in 1787, a good hundred years after the abolition of the Edict of Nantes, the Reformed Protestants were awarded full citizenship.
By the time of French Revolution in 1798, the Reformed Church in France had grown to almost a million members. Although the French Revolution had first of all granted religious freedom in its constitution, the radicalization of the French Revolution in 1793 led to the oppression of the Reformed Church. This brief episode caused a considerable weakening of the Reformed Church. From the 205 pastors of the time before 1789, there were only 120 left in 1794 when the reconstruction of the Reformed Church was undertaken.
At the beginning of the reign of Napoleon I in 1799, the situation changed. Although Napoleon granted the Protestants the right of existence, he simultaneously opposed the independence of the Church. No national synods were planned. The Church was divided up by the French State into districts – 80 consistorial churches, each with about 6000 members. This had the consequence that many formerly independent parishes were integrated into larger units, for local parishes were not recognized legally. The pastors were paid by the state and conversions were not allowed. The state regulated the church life.
As a counter-movement to the strong influence of the state, there arose from 1817 the revivalist movement (Reveil), which led to the establishment of new communities. After 1848 this revivalist and evangelistic movement was fostered above all by societies independent of the church and in part also free churches. An integration of these new communities into the French Reformed Church succeeded only in a few cases. The lack of a national synod also led to a situation in which various currents within the Protestant Church were able to break free.
It is at this time – early in the Nineteenth Century – that the state played a pivotal role in controlling the types of churches and religious movements. This has been referred to as the “concordatary game” (Basdevant-Gaudemet 1988), which regulated a State-controlled pluralism of recognized religious confessions. The term “concordatary” refers to the Concordat, a special law drawn up in 1801 between the Vatican and the French State, which gave new public privileges to the Catholic church (priests received State salaries). Later an extension of this system was applied to the Reformed and Lutheran Protestants (1802) and to the Jews (1808), to the exclusion of all other confessions. It is no wonder that new religious identities like Baptists came to be typified as “unrecognized” (non-reconnus), or “dissenters” (dissidents).
A cultural wall of separation was built between the established (concordatary religion) and the outsiders (“non-recognized” religion). It is among the “non concordatary” and the “non recognized”Protestants that the proto-French Evangelical movement appears.
This tendency gathers a few Quakers (Van Etten 1947), Moravians, Anabaptists (Séguy 1977). After the Geneva Revival, it is reinforced – as was the whole of French Protestantism – by reinstating conversion and the inspiration of the Bible (Wémys, 1977). The growth of international Protestant mission work also encouraged the development of new Churches such as Methodist and Baptist churches in France (Fath, 2001, 2002) during the first third of the Nineteenth Century. In spite of discrimination linked to their non-concordatary status (Baubérot, 1966, Fath, 2001/2), Evangelical “dissenters” focused on conversion and Biblicism grew up gradually until the onset of the Twentieth Century. At this point, this movement enjoyed full religious freedom thanks to the establishment of the Third Republic (since 1875) and the separation of Church and State (1905) which granted the same status to all religions and confessions.
Also in 1905, the Federation of Protestant Churches in France (Fédération Protestante de France) was founded after Protestants were put aside during the process of preparing the law separating state and religion. Protestant churches were not consulted or given a chance to be involved in the process even though the then new law affected them. Five main Protestant churches formed the organization so they could negotiate with the state jointly.
At the opening of the Twentieth Century, the rare French Evangelical Protestants, mostly Baptists, Methodists, Brethren Assemblies and Free Churches, reinforced also by a large reformed current, succeeded in affirming the traits of a new religious culture based on choice rather than tradition, on the community of believers (Professing Churches) rather than on a mass institution, on local democracy rather than on vertical authority. The success of the Salvation Army’s implantation from 1881 on (Allner, 1994, Kirchleger, 2003), something unimaginable fifty years before, confirms this turning point. Even an area like Brittany (Bretagne) characterized by an age old catholic monopoly counted a dozen Evangelical communities at the onset of the Twentieth Century (Carluer, 1991, 1993).
After First World War, Evangelical Protestants can be estimated at over 25 000 against about 5000 (stricto sensu Professing Churches) in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. This growth takes place in a dispersed fashion. The deficit of institution, proper to “Protestant precarity” as shown by Jean Paul Willaime (1992) is particularly characteristic of these circles. Isolation and dispersion dominate in spite of different interdenominational works such as the Mc All Mission (Morley 1993). The founding of an Evangelical Protestant interdenominational Bible Institute in 1921 at Nogent-Sur-Marne, is a direct reaction to the network deficit. This creation marks a new turning point due to Jeanne and Ruben Saillens, a couple who played a considerable role in Protestant evangelism between the end of the Nineteenth Century and Second World War. With this institute, French Evangelical Protestants were equipped for the first time with a durable inter-Evangelical institution. Tens of students each year received training there in order to enter pastoral, evangelistic or missionary ministry, and the Evangelical theology and professing Ecclesiology acquired at Nogent’s Bible Institute had a considerable impact on further development of Churches. From 1921 to 1965, the Nogent Institute was the main “hub” of the French Evangelical movement. It is not surprising that several of the Evangelical parachurch works created later on established their headquarters and offices there.
Whereas the first decades of the Twentieth Century are marked by the “end of parish civilization” (Hervieu Léger & Champion, 1986), as Yves Lambert (1985) has shown in the parish of Limerzel in Brittany, networks of converted Evangelicals structured in “elective fraternities” (Hervieu-Léger, 2000), begin to branch out. In the span of forty years, the Evangelical landscape becomes diversified all the while developing its networks. Pentecostals begin implanting in the 1930’s (Stotts, 1981, Jeter, 1993, Pfister, 1995), independent Evangelical Reformed Churches come out from the unified Reformed Church of France in 1938 (Longeiret, 2003), and the Bible Christian Union (M. and Mme. Phelps) were working in the Parisian suburbs before the second war.
American Evangelical mission boards initiate works in France after 1945. A European Bible Institute is founded in Chatou in 1952 and then later situated in the Lamorlaye Castle purchased by the Greater Europe Mission. During forty years, over a thousand students studied Bible and music there. In a different setting, the “Groupes Bibliques Univérsitaires” (University Bible Groups) founded in 1943 in France by the Swiss René Pache (1904-1979) gave a voice to Evangelical identity in student circles, alongside the existing Christian student outreach work. Many other networks were built during this period, weaving a net that connects the Evangelical archipelago more and more. This networking goes along with numerical growth which adds up at the beginning of the Sixties to a total of about 100,000 Evangelicals in France. This attracts new attention from observers (Chéry, 1954, Séguy, 1956).
From the Sixties to the years 2000, the French religious market has continued to diversify in the context of globalization and consumer society deployment. Religion in France is now lived out on the pilgrim and convert mode (Hervieu Léger, 1999) : the consumer of religious goods intends to choose between different spiritual offers and his appropriation of religion is related to a personal decision (conversion) and no longer to the passive acceptation of a tradition. This period is marked by accelerated secularization but Evangelicals seem to escape (at least partially) this trend. Between the Sixties and the year 2000, their number grows from 100,000 to about 350,000 with 200,000 Pentecostals, 40,000 Baptists but also Charismatics (Veldhuizen, 1995), members of Brethren Assemblies, independent Evangelicals, Mennonites, Methodists and many others. Whereas the Catholic Church has had to close seminaries, Evangelical Protestants on their part had to answer increased demand for training. The creation of the Free Faculty of Evangelical Theology in Vaux-sur-Seine (Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangélique), inaugurated in 1965, then later the opening of the Free Reformed Theology Seminary at Aix-en-Provence in 1974, (Faculté Libre de Théologie Réformée) are the result of this increased demand. This period is still poorly documented. One of its characteristics is a new visibility. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, French society took much more notice of Evangelical networks and activity. Many had thought of this new culture as a something proper to the United States but they were surprised to discover that, for instance, in a city like Montpellier, there are four times more Evangelical assemblies than Reformed ones. And in dozens of French cities, the only French Protestant churches are Evangelical.
Billy Graham’s French campaign in 1986 (Baubérot, 1988, Fath, 2002/2), strongly supported by the French historian and Sorbonne Professor Pierre Chaunu, was one of the large media events meant to publicize Evangelical presence in France. The Evangelical Alliance has multiplied such spectacular events in the last 25 years : Charles Colson’s visit in Paris in 1980, the “Fête de l’Evangile” (Gospel Celebration) in the arena of Nîmes in 1980, the astronaut James Irwin’s visit in 1984 (Paris and province), the “Fête de la Jeunesse” (Youth Festival, in 1985 at the Parc Floral in Vincennes), “Mission France” with Billy Graham (1986, Paris and province), “Fêtons l’Evangile” (Celebrate the Gospel) (1996, Nimes arena, with 10,000 participants), “Mondial sport et foi” (A World Sports and Faith meeting, in Paris and province), “Pentecost 2000” a interconfessional youth rally in Valence). At the same time, Evangelical representatives are taking a more active and prominent part in the French Protestant Federation (whose role is also increasing among French Protestant Churches). We can name in particular André Thobois and Louis Schweitzer who were respectively vice-president and secretary general of the FPF and the Pentecostal leader Christian Seytre who is the successor to Louis Schweitzer. Most recently, the FPF has named Claude Baty – a Free Evangelical Church pastor – as official candidate to head the FPF (elections in March 2007).
The “Legion of Honor” (Légion d’Honneur), a State honorary distinction granted to André Thobois, a leading figure of Evangelicalism in France after 1945 is another sign, on a symbolic level, that the Protestant Federation of France and the French society at large are taking into account Evangelical Protestant presence and input. At a more general level, several publications, such as two special issues of L’unité des Chrétiens or a generalist work by the Dominican Father Philippe Larère (1991) point out that the Evangelical movement is being taken seriously at the end of the Twentieth Century.
This visibility, this “actuality”of French speaking Evangelical Protestantism (Sinclair 2002) has been translated into an exponential growth of academic studies on this field : three social sciences conferences were devoted to this subject during 2001 and 2002 in Lausanne, Paris and Strasbourg (see Campiche, 2002, Fath, 2004, Bastian, 2004).
The Roman Catholic Church, always the principal target for the anti-clericalism that characterizes French thinking, declined steeply at the end of the twentieth century, and mainline Protestantism fared little better. But this is not to say that religion in France is dying. Islam is making an impact. It is estimated that there are as many as 4 million Muslims, largely made up those of North African descent and the cults and sects are flourishing. The occult is big business, with large numbers of mediums, witches and spiritists, as well as every variety of cult, on the scene. This “supermarket” approach to religion (take a little of what you like) makes it difficult for the Gospel, which is regarded as just another religious product that you can buy into if you want to or it is regarded with overt hostility because it claims to be the only way to God.
Problems with many of these cults have led to legislation that has tried to limit the influence they have on people. The French Government hopes to restrict the activity of those that exploit or manipulate people. The legislation has laudable aims, but the wording is vague and there are dangers that other groups (such as evangelicals) that the secular mindset does not understand will find themselves in the firing line, too.
However, the number of evangelical Christians has quadrupled since the war, to approximately 350,000, representing about one third of French Protestants. Since 1970 the number of evangelical churches in France has increased by 141%. There are more churches now than ever before.
There is also a concerted effort to reinforce relationships between the many different movements. The National Council of Evangelicals in France was created in 2001 in a context of public repentance for past wrongs, reconciliation, and discussions leading to the establishment of the year 2003 as the national “Year of the Bible”. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this same process continues at a local level all over the country.
Less tangible, but perceptible nonetheless, is a creative dissatisfaction in the churches, and a real longing for fruitfulness. We see a commitment to evangelism, but the lack of obvious fruit is making Christians restless. There is a longing for another “reformation”, a return to the heart of what the Church is, what Pastor Philippe Joret refers to as “a fiancée in love, a convivial family, a school for repairing and preparing, an enterprising mission and an army of servants showing compassion to the suffering.”
France is possibly the key to reaching Western Europe. French thinking has played a vital role in world history: John Calvin shaped the Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the Reformation; René Descartes started a philosophical train of thought at the end of the seventeenth century that spawned what we know as the Enlightenment, which has shaped the way Western Europe thinks to this day; and Post-Modernity, that is defining the way 21st Century people think, grew out of Enlightenment thought and has its origins in French philosophical writings of the past forty years. Truly, if we can reach France with the Gospel, we will reach the world.
For more information on the current state of Evangelicals in France visit our Evangelical France page.
Sources: Wikipedia, Christian Renewal Ministries, Greater Europe Mission, www.beyond.fr, www.lepg.org (seewww.lepg.org/biblio.htm for references), www.reformiert-online.net, paper presented by Sebastien Fath at the Association for Sociology of Religion in 2003.http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/sociology_online_articles_fath.html
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