Calvinism’s Civil War image

Calvinism’s Civil War

During the brief reign of Francis II (July 1559 – December 1560) the French court was increasingly dominated by the king's uncles, the Guise. It was in this period that Calvinism became highly politicized, particularly through the Conspiracy of Amboise which was instigated by Louis, Prince of Conde. The Conspiracy was an attempt to abduct the young King, Francis II, and arrest the leaders of the Guise faction, thus freeing France from the extreme anti-Calvinist policies that had been pursued. Calvin knew of the plot but disapproved which was one of the reasons it failed so dismally.

However, the plot was opposed by Calvin not because it involved armed resistance, per se, but because the resistance was not led by Anthony of Bourbon, King of Navarre. According to Antoine de la Roche Chadieu, following the line taken in the 1559 edition of the Institutes that resistance was legitimate if it was led by a “lesser magistrate” i.e. A prince of the blood, Calvin had said: -

“If some great man of the King’s Council, someone who has a right to be at the head of the kingdom… declared himself… then it would be proper for such a man to take control…”

However, Calvin, to be fair, also warned: -

“Once a single drop of blood was spilt, the gutters would run red with it everywhere, and that nobody would be able to prevent the most horrible disorder, and that it would be better for us all to die than to bring the Gospel into such disrepute…”

Calvin showed a similar ambivalence in his sermons from 1 Samuel, preached in 1562-3 but unpublished until 1604. In his 29th sermon in which he describes the ungodly rule of King Saul, he addresses the precise question of resistance to a tyrant stating: -

“People have a duty of patiently submitting to the yoke.”

But, almost in the same breath, he adds: -

“If the supreme magistrate should fail in his office and if we have been granted inferior magistrates as part of God’s gift to us, then they are able to constrain the prince in his office and even to coerce him in the name of upholding good and godly government.”

Maybe by this point Calvin was unable to exercise control over his more radical followers – it is a moot point. From hereon in Calvinism was on a course towards civil war which lasted, off and on, from 1562 to 1598. At the end of the French Wars of Religion the Calvinists had gained a measure of toleration, though on far from equal terms with Catholicism but, more to the point, it was tainted with blood. The Calvinist Churches never grew beyond the numbers they had attained in 1562 whereas, on the eve of civil war, it had seemed like the conversion of the whole of France was a distinct possibility.


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