Church-Planting in France and Beyond
Early on in his ministry, Calvin offered very little practical help to his followers suffering persecution in France. Some people had adopted a policy of outward conformity and inner dissent, continuing to go to Catholic Mass but secretly holding to a Reformed position. Calvin denounced this practice of “secret discipleship” or “Nicodemism”, holding that true faith demands an outward confession. Quoting the prophet Elijah he faced people down with a stark choice: -
“How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Calvin presented his followers with a stark choice – martyrdom or exile. Some went the exile route and fled to Geneva or other Swiss or German cities. Others, however, paid the ultimate price. Most of us have probably heard of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (first published in 1554), or Acts and Monuments, to give it its proper title. We are perhaps less familiar with Jean Crespin’s French equivalent published in the same year. Like Foxe, Crespin records the sufferings and faithfulness of those who paid the ultimate price for their Reformed faith. He tells a graphic and moving account, for example, of the martyrdom of 5 young students at Lyons in May 1553.
At this stage Calvin made no attempt to encourage the organization of Reformed Churches in France. It may have been that Calvin simply had enough problems of his own to worry about in Geneva. It may have been that, like Luther, he was extremely wary of schism because he identified it with Anabaptism. Writing to his followers in Antwerp in 1531, for example, Luther was adamant that his followers should disband their meetings where they had been gathering to break bread and study the Scripture. By 1554, however, Calvin was advising a French congregation on how to “gather” a Church. He began to draw a distinction between groups which simply met for Bible study and properly “gathered” Churches. A truly “gathered” Church needed, as far as Calvin was concerned, a properly appointed leadership, preaching (as opposed to simply Bible study), the Sacraments properly administered (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), prayer and an established community or membership.
The first Church of this kind was established in Paris in 1555. Others followed quickly and between 1555 and 1562 there were as many as 1,750 Churches planted across France. Some of these groups would have been Churches of 20 – 30 people, but others were far bigger. The Church at Nimes pastored by Pierre Viret, for example, numbered 8,000 committed members and, along with other Churches in places such as La Rochelle, Toulouse, Rouen, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Poitiers, Orleans and Paris, had several pastors, which was normally an indication of a particularly large congregation. The geographic spread of Calvinism was not uniform. Historians have identified a “Huguenot Crescent” sweeping across south and western France as the heartland of French Calvinism.
This post forms part 5 of the series Why I am a little bit Reformed.