The French have given Protestantism a mixed reception. A number of years ago the Minister of Finance, Alain Peyrefitte, himself a Roman Catholic, wrote a two-volume work entitled Le mal français (French evil, or what is wrong with France). His conclusion? The banishing of the French Calvinists known as the Huguenots in the eighteenth century. In so doing, France missed a great chance to benefit from their talents and hard work, and in the bargain delayed—by decades, if not centuries—the move into modernity with its commitment to pluralism.
Today in France, awareness is better, but still low. The press regularly characterizes Evangelicals as a sect or cult. Fortunately, certain Evangelicals with credibility, such as scholar Sebastien Fath, have been able to counter this view with more or less success. There is still polarization. Charles de Gaulle’s wife, Yvonne, would never, on principle, invite a Protestant into the house. When I was a youth, growing up in Paris, our literature textbook cited John Calvin as a good writer but obsessed with predestination. In 2009, the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s death, many French people suddenly realized that this brilliant man was French, not Swiss! And in recent surveys, the French sometimes realize that they have great approval of Protestant values. Often without being familiar with their history, French people will tick “Huguenot sympathies” on surveys.
A careful reading of The Theology of the Huguenot Refuge, edited by Martin Klauber, should bring a good deal of light to the subject. Studies abound on the theology developed during the Edict of Nantes, which granted Protestants substantial rights in France in 1598. One thinks of Bernard Cottret’s magisterial book, Le siècle de l’édit de Nantes (Paris: CNRS, 2018). And volumes have been written on the history of the “Desert” period in Huguenot history, but there is relatively little focusing on the theology of that Desert era. The present volume goes a long way toward filling that aperture.
This anthology comprises the contributions of eleven authors. While there are a few drawbacks to an anthology, such as overlap and some—a very few—omissions, there is remarkable harmony in this volume. It is organized into two major sections, (1) the history of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and ensuing decades and (2) various significant individuals considered. The first essay, by Jeanine Olson, is one of the best short introductions to the history of the Huguenots that I have encountered. She not only covers the period under review but brings us up to date in France and the world. The other four historical examinations are first-rate. Then in the second part, the choice of figures to study is good, including Pierre Jurieu, David Martin, Claude Brousson, Jacques Basnage, and Antoine Court. I could have wished for a piece on (or mention of) Marie Durand, prisoner in the Tower of Constance for thirty-eight years, whose letters to Paul Rabaut and others are deeply spiritual. But where would the list stop?
Some Huguenots stayed in France, but many fled to places such as Holland or Prussia or Great Britain, from which they could minister in absentia to those who stayed. Nearly all the persons discussed had great concerns for Reformed Christians in France living under heavy persecution. Often writing from Holland, the exiled leaders encouraged the people with different degrees of severity. “Nicodemism,” or converting to Protestantism while outwardly continuing Roman Catholic practices, was sometimes roundly condemned, but at other times considered a necessity. If the Apostle Paul could legitimately escape persecution by traveling from place to place, so could the Huguenots. Claude Brousson, the “bellicose dove,” declared that God was punishing France for persecuting Protestants. After fleeing the country several times, he was finally caught and died a horrible death, but defiantly quoting the church’s most notable martyrs.
Many engaged with apocalyptic concerns. Some of the Huguenot prophets were rare birds, claiming the voice of God’s Spirit to preach or even trying to reproduce biblical miracles. A number, including Jurieu, Basnage, and Daniel de Superville, engaged in interpreting the times using language from Daniel or Revelation.
During the eighteenth century, polemics were strong. Christian apologetics against Roman Catholics were widespread. David Martin and Jacques Abbadie are typical of Huguenot apologists who reacted to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, arguing as they do for biblical authority in matters of history and cosmology. Protestants fought among themselves as well. Several of the more conservative Huguenots debated Pierre Bayle’s ideas. Others, such as Jacques Saurin, were more retiring, preaching on the love of God without revisiting the controversies of the previous century about his sovereignty and our free will.
While there were a few published theological tomes, often funded by friends from Holland, Switzerland, or Great Britain, much of the material presented here, understandably, is either in sermons or in correspondence. An entire chapter is devoted to a single sermon by Antoine Court, the most influential pastor to the refugees in the Desert. A largely self-taught, tireless minister, Court founded a seminary in Lausanne whose diplomas were dubbed certificates of death, since graduates would return to France to encounter Louis the XIV’s dragoons and be executed or sent to row themselves to death in the king’s war galleys. Addressed to his widowed mother, the sermon is a wide-ranging meditation on the providence of God and the hope of the New Creation.
A few of the omissions in this volume are surprising. It might have been useful to define “Huguenot” or try to explain the origins of the word. Also, there is no mention of Maria-Cristina Pitassi, who has done much of the heavy lifting on the theology of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, this anthology is excellent. Indeed, everything Martin Klauber does turns to gold. These extraordinary believers, whom I count in my own ancestry, are a great inspiration, the more so as I am writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic, which presents a different kind of persecution, but requires the same wise theological reflection.
The author is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary.
The Theology of the Huguenot Refuge: From the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the Edict of Versailles, edited by Martin L. Klauber, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020. Paperback, 314 pages, $19.00.
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