The Theology of the Huguenot Refuge: From the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to the Edict of Versailles. Reformed Historical-Theological Studies, edited by Martin I. Klauber. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020, viii + 334 pages, $25.00, paper.

In 1988 New Rochelle, New York celebrated the tercentenary of the Huguenot founding of the city, based on the immigration of refugees from La Rochelle, France in 1688.[1] I was asked to present lectures at the public library, which I did in four parts: “The Huguenot Christian,” “The Huguenot Family and Education,” “The Huguenot Citizen,” and “The Huguenot Craftsman.” The research for these lectures was done largely at the libraries of Huguenot Society of America and the Huguenot-Thomas Paine Historical Association of New Rochelle. The background of the refugees in France was not the focus of the lectures since I was investigating the refugees in New Rochelle, New York. So the present volume under review has refreshed and expanded my knowledge and appreciation of the situation in France during the long period of persecution from 1685 to 1787. It is easy to forget that, although the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 represented the end of religious wars in Europe, persecution by various governments did not cease.

The Huguenot theology developed in France, and by the exiles, is located in what Richard Muller calls the second phase of high orthodoxy (1685–1725) when Post-Reformation orthodoxy was losing intellectual dominance in the church (142).[2] Even though the period of persecution went all the way to 1787, the theologians cited in this volume wrote during this period of high orthodoxy.

The title of the book is a bit misleading. There is much more history than theology in this fascinating volume. Five very informative chapters look at the history of the Huguenot refuge from various perspectives; they are followed by seven chapters that explore the theology and activity of the exiled French Reformed churches through the lens of the individual lives of prominent theologians and preachers. The book is really a chronicle of many dimensions, highlighting theological themes appropriate to the Huguenot situation.

The importance of the volume lies in the ways in which aspects of Reformed theology were accentuated and amplified by the experience of the Huguenots who remained in France, and the refugees. Thus, the theology of comfort in persecution, the doctrines of religious tolerance, and the relationship between church and state feature prominently in the stories of the seven prominent preachers and theologians. The final chapter examines the first sermon of the fiery preacher Antoine Court.

A Brief Sketch of the History of the Huguenot Refuge

A few odd terms that are unique to the French Huguenot church of the seventeenth century appear in the book. Temple, for example, is the name for a church building. The volume is meticulously researched and footnoted with an excellent selected bibliography. Footnotes are at the bottom of the page for easy access.

The Edict of Nantes (1598), its revocation, the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685), and the Edict of Versailles or Tolerance (1787), mark the boundaries of this history. In 1598 “the best-loved king of France, Henry IV,” proclaimed the Edict of Nantes (9). The edict granted French Reformed Christians, known as Huguenots, the freedom to worship, establish educational institutions, and hold colloquies and synods in certain places. Some cities were allowed to be armed, and Huguenot judges were appointed to some courts (9). Rather than religious toleration, the edict was a peace settlement that ended a decades long war (10). However, this did not end the controversies or the conflicts between the Reformed and Roman Catholic factions in France.

For example, La Rochelle resisted the return of Roman Catholicism until its surrender in 1628. From 1629 on, the Huguenots throughout France were “shorn of their military power” (19–20). After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 the Huguenots experienced a period of peace. However, after 1661 Louis XIV eroded the liberties of the Edict of Nantes, enticing converts from Protestantism to Catholicism, closing Reformed churches (temples), and forcing some Reformed pastors to leave the country (24–25). In 1681, French soldiers, known as the dragonnades, began persecuting Huguenots by entering and living in their homes and pillaging and abusing their inhabitants (25, 39–40).

Finally, in 1685 the king revoked the Edict of Nantes. Reformed pastors were given two weeks to leave or deny their faith; a minority of Huguenots chose to convert to Roman Catholicism, and a few chose imprisonment. Pastors who refused to leave or convert were executed; ordinary Christians were made galley slaves. Church (temple) and school buildings were destroyed. Huguenots began to emigrate to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Brandenburg-Prussia, Hesse, the Palatinate, England, Ireland, and the American colonies of Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina (40–44), thus dividing them between the exiles and those who chose to remain in France (26–27). From peasants to craftsmen and professionals, the Huguenots proved a blessing to most of the places of their exile (44–46).

Chapter 3 explores the Camisard rebellion, the rebellion of the peasants of the mountains of Languedoc (coastal region in southern France, extending from Provence to the Pyrenees Mountains and the border with Spain). They were Reformed Protestants without pastors of ecclesiastical structure who ambushed royal patrols and burned Roman Catholic churches (51). Under the influence of the apocalyptic views of Rotterdam exile Pierre Jurieu, itinerant preachers, known as prédicants, like Claude Brousson, preached that the persecuted Huguenots, known as the “desert church,” were represented in the Book of Revelation as part of end times events (54). His charismatic, prophetic preaching spawned a generation of self-proclaimed prophets, many of whom were women and children, versed in apocalyptic biblical vocabulary (56). In the end these beleaguered, unorganized Protestants surrendered, but they formed the “base on which Antoine Court and the pastors ‘of the Desert’ would attempt to rebuild the shattered Reformed church in France” (68–69).

Apart from those who converted to Catholicism, the remnant, known as the “Church of the Desert,” worshipped and held Bible studies clandestinely (28–30). Chapter 4 focuses on this church, whose existence was entirely denied by the French throne (71). Despite 130,000 Protestants being “officially” converted in the September after the revocation (1685), the church went underground and survived for over a century (72). Pauline Duley-Haour helpfully divides the period of persecution into three eras: 1) 1685–1715, thirty years of the “relative absence and silence for the exiled pastors,” a time of “isolation and sometimes despair for French Protestantism”; 2) 1715–44, a period in which several pastors restored the discipline of the French Reformed churches, along with the support of the exiled churches and the Protestant churches of Europe; 3) 1744 to the French Revolution, the church was emboldened to make their presence more public and seek legal status (72).

Several important preachers led in the preservation of the church during its desert period. Pierre Jurieu, exiled refugee pastor in Rotterdam, published letters of pastoral encouragement to the desert church. In France preachers such as Claude Brousson risked their lives to minister to the persecuted church (73–77). During the period of reconstruction, Antoine Court initiated reform of the French Reformed church at the Synod of the Desert (1715). The “reinstitutionalization was one of the strongest factors in preserving Protestantism in France” (89). From 1744 until the French Revolution, the desert church made a broad appeal for support to the exiled Huguenot churches and the Protestant churches of Europe.

Chapter 5 completes the historical section by exploring the conclusion of the desert church history with the Edict of Versailles or Tolerance of 1787. Marjan Blok makes a very important point: “the use of the word tolerance already implies a superior position of some sort, assuming the power to allow others a measure of existence. The word pluralism may hence be more accurate in general. For the study at hand, tolerance is likely the more appropriate term” (91, fn. 2).

The king’s desire to have a unified religion in his realm had proved untenable and thus, over time, he was forced to move toward pluralism (92). Blok traces the origins of the idea of religious tolerance and notes that the invention of the printing press played a crucial role in the movement towards pluralism (94). Enlightenment thought exemplified in Voltaire was a major component in this transformation, but Huguenot theology also made a significant contribution. While the Edict of Versailles failed to grant full citizenship to Huguenots, it was a move in the right direction.

The Theology of Eight Huguenots

In chapter 6, Martin Klauber describes the ministry of Pierre Jurieu (1637–1713) as a preacher of apocalypticism and “one of the most prominent voices of the exiled Huguenots” (114). Jurieu wanted the Reformed church to be the official church of France. He ardently believed that the pope was the antichrist (119). He interpreted parts of the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of the Huguenot situation (120). Unlike most of his peers he supported the miraculous events connected with the prophets of the Cévennes of Languedoc.

In chapter 7 David Martin (1639–1721) is presented by Richard Muller as typical of the Reformed Huguenot exiled pastors, who ministered at a distance via the written and printed word. In true Post-Reformation orthodox form he was first and foremost an exegete of the biblical text in the context of the biblical languages, commentaries, and the church fathers (129). Muller has been a most persuasive apologist for the biblical orthodoxy of the so-called Scholastic theologians of the Post-Reformation era. With his keen insight into hermeneutical concerns, he is alert to Martin’s opposition to the “historical-critical exegesis” (136). Thus, “Martin sought to oppose the attraction of rationalist argumentation against Christian doctrine and piety” (140). Muller’s chapter is among the most theologically oriented in the book. Martin’s theology “bears witness to the philosophical transformation of Reformed orthodoxy in the waning years of Protestant scholasticism” (142). The challenge of Cartesian rationalism (of René Descartes) was coordinated by Martin, as is seen in his assertion that “‘Divine Revelation’ offers ‘doctrines infinitely higher than natural Reason’” (143). “The presence of both a priori and a posteriori patterns of argument in Martin’s Traité de la religion naturelle (Treatise on Natural Religion) is quite characteristic of the Cartesian Reformed theologies of the era” (146). Martin sought to overcome the doubts of the persecuted Huguenots by using proofs of the existence of God (145).

Claude Brousson (1647–1698) was the “bellicose dove” in Bryan Strayer’s account in chapter 8. He risked his life as a lawyer turned preacher in a way that few others did during this era. He sought, as an ardent Calvinist, to help reorganize the church of the desert (153). As a gifted lawyer he successfully resisted very attractive bribes to convert to Roman Catholicism (156). He advocated obedience to the government, except where it demanded what was contrary to the Word of God (159). But he launched a powerful campaign against revocation of the Edict of Nantes, citing the perpetuity of the edict stated in the document itself (160). He eventually personally renounced the use of force in defying the king, while enlisting the help of other armed Huguenots to fight his battles (167–68). He advocated a “carefully reasoned . . . plain-speaking, hard-hitting, prophecy-laden style of preaching” (172). He was martyred in 1698 (181).

In chapter 9, another of the three chapters written by Klauber, Jacques Basnage (1653–1723) is described as heir to “distinguished lawyers and Huguenot pastors” (183). He was educated at the Reformed Academy of Saumur and the Academy of Geneva, which exposed him to the debates surrounding the adoption of the Helvetic Formula Consensus, in which Pierre du Moulin opposed the hypothetical universalism of Moïse Amyraut (184). As a pastor Basnage also refuted subtle arguments luring Huguenots into the Roman Catholic fold as nouveaux convertis (188, 191). He advocated trusting God in the worst circumstances of the persecuted French Protestant church (189). He did allow that one could be a nouveaux convertis as long as one “professed one’s true faith in public and refused to participate in the Mass” (193). The Mass, Basnage insisted, was idolatrous (194) and insulted the perfect efficacy of the cross of Christ (199). In his effort to comfort Huguenots who remained in France, he also “advised them to flee rather than remain subject to such enormous pressure to abjure their beliefs” (200).

In chapter 10 John Roney shows the influence of three major works of Jacques Abbadie (1654–1727) that influenced the progress of religious freedom in Europe. Remarkably his writing had a “wide appeal among both Protestants and roan Catholics” (201). The first volume, Traité de la vérité de la religion chrétienne (Treatise on the Truth of the Christian Religion), was a work of apologetics written during Abbadie’s pastorate in Berlin and published in 1684.

His second volume, L’Art de se connoître soiméme; ou, la recherche des sources de la morale (The Art of Knowing Yourself; or, The Search for the Sources of Morality), was composed during his ministry in England and Ireland and published in 1692. “Abbadie reflected traditional Reformed theology and also engaged the currents of contemporary intellectual thought” (201). He interacted with the rationalism and “more radical ideas” of René Descartes (1596–1650) and especially the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) (206). He responded brilliantly to the challenges of the early Enlightenment presented by “a small but vocal group of atheists . . . , Deists, and Socinians who had employed the methods of Stoicism and Epicureanism to establish an understanding of a viable social system” (208). Abbadie also defended the inspiration of Scripture and the deity of Christ.

The third volume, Défense de la Nation Britannique ou les droits de ‘Dieu, de la nature, & de la societé clairement établis au sujet de la revolution d’Angleterre, contre l’auteur de l’avis important aux Refugiés (Defense of the British Nation or the clearly established rights of God, Nature, & Society regarding the Revolution of England, against the author of the Important Notice to Refugees), was also written during this same period in England and Ireland and published in 1693. This work “became one of the most important arguments in support of William of Orange and Mary Stuart’s accession to the throne in England’s Glorious Revolution” (201).

Roney presents an interesting discussion of the influence and presence of Aristotelian categories in Post-Reformation dogmatics (211–12). He rightly refuses to condemn the Reformed scholastics as rationalistic, concluding: “Abbadie’s appropriation of Aristotelian logic offered a common field of argument in which he could engage skeptics in his day” (212). This chapter is on a par with Muller’s in terms of theological analysis, demonstrating the important legacy of Abbadie in defending historic Christianity and promoting religious freedom.

Daniel de Superville (1657–1728) spent most of his career as an exile in Rotterdam according to Martin Klauber in chapter 11 (225), but he had been educated initially at the Reformed school in Saumur where he was born. The school was made famous by “its illustrious and controversial faculty, led by Moise Amyraut” (225). Superville then studied at the Academy of Geneva in the midst of the controversial adoption of the Helvetic Formula Consensus (1675). This confession condemned some of the errors taught in Saumur, including Amyraut’s hypothetical universalism, mentioned in chapter 9 (226). Having escaped the persecution that eventually came to Saumur, he generally avoided controversy and focused on consoling the exiles in the large church in Rotterdam and the persecuted Huguenots in France (228). This was done through publishing sermons and letters under three major titles: On the Duties of the Afflicted Church (1691), The Truths and Duties of Religion (1706), and The True Communicant (1718) (229). Thus, he developed a theology of consolation, exploring themes such as God’s providence, the vanity of the world, and devotion to Christ.

This chapter, in a pointed way, shows how history shapes theological concerns. For Superville these concerns expressed in his sermons “displayed an amazing degree of empathy for the displaced French Huguenots” (240).

Michael Haykin describes “extraordinary pulpit oratory” of Jacques Saurin (1677–1730) in chapter 12. After fleeing France with his parents at age nine, he studied in Calvin’s Academy, graduated with high honors, and ended up taking a call to the ministry in London. He went on to become the chaplain in the royal palace of the House of Orange (245). The religious tolerance of the Netherlands also provided fertile soil for the rejection of religious authority (247–48). Saurin sought to replace autonomous reason with reason subordinated to the authority of the Bible.

Saurin’s preaching emphasized the love of God, especially as it has been revealed through the person Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. He asserts that the mystery of God’s love for sinners demonstrated by the cross could never be discovered by the reasoning of the greatest philosophers (250).

The final chapter (13), by Otto Selles, explores the preaching of Antoine Court (1695–1760) through Court’s first sermon. While he begins by declaring that “Court was no theologian,” he describes Court at age ten being known in his town as “Calvin’s eldest son” (257). At age twenty the autodidact “turned a meeting of fellow preachers into what has become known as the ‘first synod’ of the Church of the Desert” (258). Court “effectively pivoted the Desert churches away from both armed rebellion and worship based on extemporaneous prophetic preaching” (260). He almost single-handedly, along with Claude Brousson of chapter 8, restored order to the Desert church, demonstrating that the church that abandons the means of grace and the basic ecclesiastical structure of the New Testament will not survive.

Court’s first sermon is given in full, based on the text of Hebrews 10:25 “Let us not abandon our mutual assemblies, as some have the habit” (266–82). Court’s knowledge of Scripture (learned initially at the knee of his mother) is extensive and his quotations from the Reformers and the Fathers (no doubt due to two years spent in exile in Geneva) show what a quick study this zealous young man was. He understood the mode of the church’s existence as one of pilgrimage. This serves as an inspiration to every pastor who preaches from week to week in an increasingly hostile environment.

This volume reminds us of the special importance of Reformed orthodoxy to God’s people in extremely difficult times. The presence of the French Confession of Faith (1559), trained pastor-preachers, and the means of grace in an organized church—these are what sustain the church at all times, but especially in hard times. The seven pastor-theologians portrayed in this book were also, and really foremost, preachers who desired to bring strength and comfort to Christians in France as well as the exiles to whom they directly ministered. Brousson and Court, of course, were exceptions, since they risked their lives by ministering to the Church of the Desert in France.

Evil powers during the Huguenot refuge sought to cancel the truth of God’s Word through political force, similar to the soft persecution of contemporary forces like cancel-culture in America today. We may apply the same robust theology to ourselves as we endure the hardship our Savior told us we would inevitably face in every culture and under even the most benevolent governments. Biblically the church of Jesus Christ is always the church of “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). This volume simply amplifies the importance of the means God has provided for his church in this present evil age. I highly recommend this fascinating, inspiring, and detailed exploration of the French Huguenots of the refuge.


[1] This review was originally published in Mid-America Journal of Theology, Volume 31 (2020): 227–33.

[2] See Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume One, Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 30–32.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, October 2022.

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