“The fire is lit…”
The rapid growth of the Reformed Churches posed considerable problems for Geneva, and for Calvin in particular. The Churches in France began to hover on the brink of civil disobedience holding Psalm-singing demonstrations and iconoclastic (image-breaking) protests. Calvinism moved towards the brink of civil war. As early as May 1558, Jean Macar, the minister of the Reformed Church in Paris wrote to Calvin, telling him:
The fire is lit in all parts of the kingdom and all the water and sea will not suffice to extinguish it.
A few weeks later, crowds of Calvinists began to gather on the banks of the Seine in open defiance of the law, and for six nights running some 3-4,000 gathered to sing Psalms. This coincided with renewed attempts at repression by the royal government which culminated in the Edict of Ecouen (2nd June 1559), a fresh outlawing of Protestantism.
Calvin himself had always insisted theologically on a policy of obedience to secular government. He had allowed ‘passive resistance’, that is, breaking the law by meeting together for worship on the grounds “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In 1559, however, Calvin, under pressure from high ranking nobles in France such as Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre and his brother, Louis, Prince of Conde, softened his theological position. In the final edition of the Institutes Calvin legitimized armed resistance, providing it was led by “lesser magistrates” such as princes or high ranking nobles who were offering political leadership to the movement in France. All of this was taking place in a rapidly changing political situation. In 1559, the same year as the final edition of the Institutes was published, the French King Henry II was killed in a jousting accident. Calvinist hopes of a change of monarch might result in a change of policy were not to be realized. The new King, Francis II, was controlled by the Guise faction which was strongly opposed to the Reformed faith. Just a year later, however, Francis II died an even more horrible death than his father – he died of an ear infection which caused an abcess in his brain. Calvin’s eventual successor, Theodore Beza, was quick to spot God’s providential hand in all of this. Francis was:
A miserable child whose horrible death was even more opportune than that of his father.
Thus we see that the beginnings of a more militant Calvinism in France (Psalm-singing demonstrations etc) was caused by events in France and was not directed by Calvin from Geneva. Indeed, Calvin wrote of his considerable difficulty at this time in providing any sort of adequate leadership to the movement in France:
Vacant posts are fought over as if the reign of Christ has been peacefully established in France… But our resources are exhausted. We are reduced to searching everywhere, even in the artisans workshop, to find men with some small smattering of doctrine and piety as candidates for the ministry.
He also commented at this time:
The people want ministers with a desire as great as the sacraments are covered amongst the papists.
In this period, although the Guise aristocratic faction were vehemently opposed to the Reformed cause, maybe as many as 40% of the French nobility converted to Calvinism. The dominant Reformed factions were the Bourbons and the Montmorencis. Some historians have sought to suggest that noble conversions tended to go little more than skin deep. But this was by no means always the case. When Francois d’Andelot from the Montmorenci clan converted in 1558, for example, he decided to go on an evangelistic crusade of his wife’s lands. In the next few months, he planted no less than 12 Churches, and saw great fruit amongst the local nobility.
This post forms part 7 of the series Why I am a little bit Reformed.