When 100,000 Christians Died for the Bible
By John S. Stratton
-- “Don’t Eat the Fish:” This might have been the headline of The Paris Times in the autumn of 1572, if such a newspaper had existed.
On Aug. 24, 1572 – St. Bartholomew’s Day – and several days thereafter, Frenchmen slaughtered 100,000 of their Huguenot countrymen throughout France – 10,000 in Paris alone. The favorite disposal site, the Seine, the Rhone, and the rivers of France were stained red by the oozing corpses left rotting.
Another 6,000 slain downriver in Rouen would have injected the Seine with a fetid ribbon of crimson as it meandered towards the Atlantic. The Loire River valley, so strewn with corpses, brought normally shy and unseen packs of wolves streaming down from their cover in the hills to feed on the freshly killed. The fish from the rivers of France would be unsafe to eat for months.
This incident, known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, would be the bloodiest week in the history of the Huguenots – French Protestants – and the blackest day in French history. Their story is marked by unrelenting episodes of harassments, property seizures, tortures, executions, and slaughters.
While spurned in feudal France, their ideas borne from their Calvinistic Christianity would eventually triumph in the formation of America. Their steadfast faith in the face of death is an everlasting testimony to the church in all ages.
Around 1520, Jacob Lefevre translated the first French-language Bible. A literate group of emerging entrepreneurs devoured its early printings, meeting secretly in homes to study. Near the Franco-Flemish border where the Dutch were interspersed with the French, they referred to themselves as “Huis genooten,” which in Dutch is translated as “House oath fellow” and eventually, Huguenot.
The Huguenots were different in three ways. First, they were literate when only the clergy and nobility could read. Second, they were economically independent from the old agrarian feudal systems of land-owning nobles and land-working serfs – most were artisans and business owners. And third, they wanted a participatory Christianity where they could read the scriptures themselves and meditate upon their meaning.
It was a “bottom up” system of Christianity. By contrast, the medieval Catholic Church, with the mass and priests at the head, spoon-fed parishioners what they wanted them to know in a “top down” system.
One law, one king, one faith – this was the essence of the feudal establishment. To break church law was to break the law of the king. The king ruled by “divine rule.” If church law said it was heretical and punishable by being burnt at the stake to own a French-language Bible, the throne was obligated to carry out the punishment.
The Huguenots trusted the Apostles’ Creed and the writings of Augustine. They attributed these to an earlier, purer time in the church. By going back to the source, the Bible, they believed they could rediscover a true faith that could prove a reliable guide for their salvation and personal conduct. They also questioned the concept of divine rule which they could not find reason for in their Bibles.
A few notables pressed the Huguenot cause leading up to the massacre in 1572. Among them was the visionary Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who persuaded the throne to establish a North American colony in present day Jacksonville, Fla. Five hundred people were transported there in 1564 to set up the first European settlement in North America. Called Fort Caroline, it would quickly suffer the same fate of many professing Huguenot families in France.
Related ChurchWatch Blog: The Masacre of the Huguenot Christians in America
The Spanish fleet of King Philip II moved 2,700 troops into what is now nearby St. Augustine, Florida, with orders to remove the French and Protestant presence in the New World. In 1564, in what would become known as the Matanzas Massacre, Ft. Caroline was wiped out by the Spanish and with it the hopes of a permanent Huguenot colony.
It is believed that only 15 to 20 French survived this carnage, among them the remarkable artist, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. The fort would have established a French colony on North American soil several decades before the first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, was founded in 1607 on the James River in Virginia. Its leader was Reverend Robert Hunt who dedicated this continent to the Lordship of Jesus Christ at nearby Cape Henry.
English historian A.L. Rowse attributed the idea of American colonization by England from Huguenot influence.
By 1541, John Calvin, wrote the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” in Geneva, Switzerland. Within a few years, the French Reformed Church of the Huguenots would adopt Calvin’s work to define their theology, fundamental beliefs and church structure, which featured a representative form of church government. Laymen could cast votes for the members of its board of elders in each church. Local churches were grouped into classes and nationally, a synod met for the most important matters. This “bottom up” church government made the Huguenots a people where every man had a vote. It began to fuel the dreams of a new kind of democratic government.
Within thirty years they had progressed from a ragtag network of secret home churches, to a competing expression of the Christian faith. In Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” he expressed the most logical and well conceived Protestant theology ever written. The Huguenots were now a direct threat to the established church.
France was called the eldest daughter of the Roman Catholic Church and Europe’s most populous country. Popes had resided in Avignon, France, and the city was still owned by the Church. The Catholic Church stiffly resisted the Huguenots in their efforts to establish a competing form of Christianity.
The Huguenot’s “heresy” lay in their sincere belief they were not founding something new but were purifying or reforming the Church and restoring it to its pristine early years, rejecting both scholastic and papal errors. The feudal establishment of kings, bishops, and popes held the assertion that their institutions needed no reform and would for decades to come, derisively refer to the Huguenots as the “so called Reformed Church.”
Leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, Huguenots had been severely persecuted. Most had faced their oppressors – be it priest or governmental official – with dignity and without protest. Typically a local spy would turn them in and they would have to answer charges. They were asked to recant their Calvinist faith or suffer the consequences. Few recanted, and whole families had their property confiscated, and were executed, usually by being burnt at the stake.
“Ratting out” their Huguenot neighbor became a thriving business in France. The typical Huguenot family, due to their business and artisan skills, had a higher per-capita wealth than the average French household. And the informer received one-third of the confiscated wealth of the Huguenots in question and two-thirds was split between the churches and nobles. This may partly explain why the Roman Catholic Church owned over 40 percent of France at this time.
This 50-year persecution culminated in the gruesome St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre that made it unsafe to eat the fish in France’s rivers. It started with the assassination of Adm. Coligny. The order to kill him, and incite the Parisian mobs to “kill all the heretics,” was a joint agreement betweens Catherine of Medici, regent to young King Charles the IX, and the Guise brothers of Lorraine. The mob terror spread rapidly throughout France.
Within a week, up to 100,000 Huguenots were slain.
The murder of Coligny and other prominent Huguenots nobles is probably all Catherine intentioned. But once the bloodletting started, the Catholic mobs, (already stirred up by the priests under the Guise and Papal direction) set upon every Huguenot household and nobleman they could find.
Parisian bookbinder Niquet became a typical victim of the carnage. He, his wife, and seven children, were roasted to death by a fire made of his own books. Scenes like these were repeated throughout France for several days. In many towns, the Huguenots would be herded into the jails by officials for “protection.” They would then be executed, like cattle in a slaughterhouse. This happened in Lyons, Meaux, Rouen, Troyes, Tours and Toulouse.
Estimates of the magnitude of the slaughter vary from 60,000 to 100,000. The latter figure was given by the Catholic Archbishop of Paris, Hardouin Beaumont, and by John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs.”
The Huguenots hungered for self-expression and freedom in their worship, business pursuits and government. For this they were a persecuted vanguard in a medieval world not ready for their ideas.
Their strivings, along with those of their fellow Calvinists; English Puritans, Scots Presbyterians, and Dutch Reformers, brought to America a talented and highly energetic group of nation-builders. It was the Huguenots, through Adm. Coligny, where the English idea of a North American settlement first arose. Rights taken for granted, from freedom of religion to the right to bear arms, were all influenced by the Huguenot experience.
As American Christians we should pay homage to their steadfast faith. As the saying goes, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The blood shed into Frances’ rivers in 1572 might well have been the floating seed of our American faith and government.
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Related ChurchWatch Blog: The Masacre of the Huguenot Christians in America
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John S .Stratton is a businessman from Wheaton, IL. He has a B.A. in History from Stanford University and writes about church history and other topics. He dedicates this article to his grandmother, Imogene Delon Stratton.
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