Stephen M. Davis. The French Huguenots and Wars of Religion: Three Centuries of Resistance for Freedom of Conscience. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021.
Stephen M. Davis states in his book The French Huguenots and Wars of Religion: Three Centuries of Resistance for Freedom of Conscience, France (and indeed, the rest of the world) seems to have largely forgotten the struggle of the Huguenots but that their story must be remembered for its tremendous importance to us living today. This struggle included a bloody battle to retain and defend the freedom of conscience in face of the aggressive persecution of both the royalty and clergy of France during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Huguenot freedom of conscience included “the freedom to be born, to live, and to die outside of the Catholic Church.” Davis defines this struggle as one piece of the larger social and historical war for freedom of conscience for persecuted religious minorities. In this book Davis attempts to answer the question “what were their contributions to upending the Catholic Church in the pursuit of freedom of conscience?” He proceeds to answer this question in a readable, accessible way while still covering so much historical ground.
Many of us have heard of the Huguenots but their legacy in ensuring the lasting thought of the Reformation is something not often looked into. Davis attempts to thrust the French Huguenots towards the center of the Reformation in furtherance of freedom of conscience. His premise is that respect for a free conscience could not come about in history until the monolithic power of the Church had been broken, and that the Huguenots were more influential in making this happen than we might think. But what did the ruling powers of France at the time think of the Huguenots? Davis believes that the Church and monarchy certainly viewed them as a hostile, a competing and dangerous social force and engaged in sporadic, sometimes very violent, persecution of them.
Davis goes a long way in defining exactly who the Huguenots were. Today they are not well-known or necessarily well-studied even amongst church historians and Protestant thinkers though, as mentioned, we have heard of them. Davis explains that the identity of the Huguenots was muddled even back then, as the French authorities frequently referred to them as “Lutherans” and did not differentiate treat them with any extra deference for being French. Like so often in the histories of many other persecuted religious minorities, this otherization led to bloody persecution of the Huguenots.
Our author does a wonderful job of shining a light on the Huguenot persecutions including the places, communities and peoples who composed Huguenot society at that time. He brings to the surface the particulars of the persecution often in gruesome ways. For Davis, it is important for us to understand the price paid for freedom of conscience and how their struggle related to the broader reformation of that time. Staying true to his main thesis, Davis pinpoints the moment that the Huguenot persecution turned toward a struggle for their freedom of conscience to be the failed kidnapping attempt of Francois II in 1560. It was here that the Protestants in France began to stand up for themselves with force of arms and violence against their monarchical and Catholic oppressors. In Davis’ words, the Catholic Church in France was “obsessed with standing against freedom of conscience, establishing her authority, and strengthening her authority.” While this may have been true in many ways, one gets the feeling that this preoccupation rests just as much with Davis as it did the Church or even the Huguenots since Catholic philosophers and theologians, stretching back to Augustine and the Renaissance, also pioneered aspects of freedom of the conscience before it became a bedrock of dissenting Protestant voices. Here it is worth adding that the book would have benefitted from a more crucial framing of his thesis including a contextually accurate definition of “freedom of conscience” as the Church and Huguenots would have understood it.
This book is packed with the back-and-forth history of the status, wars and treaties that defined the times and place in which the Huguenots lived and worshipped. These many trials bore fruit towards a Christian pluralism which Davis sees as good. He jubilantly states that with the Edict of January inn 1562 the Huguenots succeeded – albeit temporarily and not in full – in forcing France to become the first western kingdom to recognize two forms of Christianity at once. Davis does a particularly good job of parsing out the Wars of Religion particularly in how each effected the Huguenots view of reconciling their obedience to the King with their obedience to God, and John Calvin’s influence on the same.
Our author also does a great job of describing the regional intrigue that defined France at the time. His discussion on the impact that such arraigned marriages as Marguerite de Medici to Henri de Navarre had on the conflict introduced some new information as presenting as a character example showing that even in Huguenot aristocracy there was a temptation of being swept up into conversion and bloodshed. Davis’ take on the Edict of Nantes having a settling effect on the national religious conscience of the citizenry of France in the 16th century was particularly interesting. In his estimation the edict had jarred the individual loose to be able to follow their conscience in deciding their personal religious beliefs and affiliation while remaining a loyal subject of the king regardless of their spiritual inner workings. In this way, it offered a supposed peace to the collective conscience of France’s institutions such as the nobility and civic leadership rather than an authentic cohesion between French Catholic and Huguenot believers.
Regarding some of the big-ticket items such as the Edict of Nantes signed in 1598, Davis does an admirable job of viewing it through a political lens that correctly deduces that it was a treaty that provided political rights while still keeping the Huguenots religiously disadvantaged. Their consciences remained bound and their religious identities hindered though on paper there was something of a dualism of the Christian religion in France. Moving into the early middle of the seventeenth century our guide does a succinct job of tracking the morphing motives of the ruling class in France. As long as the Huguenots existed in France, the king would never completely be in control of the kingdom. This would include mitigated foreign escapades and shows of power.
The consciences of the nearly one million Protestants at this time were attempted to be forced into conversion through continued threats and terror.
As Davis states, the Huguenots died but their convictions did not. Here the more extreme Edict of Revocation kicked in. A fiction took existence assuming that all Protestants had been converted or exiled. All that remained were the unfaithful and obstinate and King Louis XIV would ensure that such people were appropriately dealt with. Here the auth again bring this conflict back to one of conscience directed by power and coercion. Without political protection, the collective conscience of France’s Protestants was vulnerable and, hopefully for the monarchy, malleable. Davis does a satisfying job of highlighting the issue of conscience for the Huguenots in the wake of the Articles of Revocation. For example, the forbidding of hundreds of thousands of French Protestants the liberty of emigrating. There were waves of forced inauthentic conversions and it is here at the intersection of religious liberty and personal conscience where Davis drives his main thesis home.
The Church threatened to take away literally everything from the Protestants and their families. What resistance could be expected of even the most ardent and brave Huguenots? Davis answers this question by demonstrating the impressive, inspiring and ultimately sad stand that the Huguenots continued to take in the face of extreme compulsion. Davis builds a near airtight case in proving that the Crown and Church were aligned not simply with Protestantism. Rather it was a war against the principle of the freedom of Christian conscience, religious liberty and free thought.
In Davis’ opinion the Huguenots sought freedom of conscience “above all things” which he defines as “the freedom to practice their religion without interference from the State and the established Church.” He openly admits a Protestant-bias which does not hamper his reporting of events from a historical perspective, but one wishes he could have taken the more formal view of free conscience that had developed in the Renaissance and defended by the Reformers during the so-called Wars of Religion: the freedom to worship God and the moral order according to the truth known to the soul by Holy Writ. Freedom of conscience wasn’t just about preventing interference from the State or an established church, it was primarily undergirded by the belief of a knowable God and knowable moral order revealed through Scripture which transformed the rational soul to be united with the One, True, God. This is also true among the antecedent Catholic theologians who influenced the Reformers in their arguments against “interference from the State and the established Church.”
Davis makes it clear that even a supposed benefit of the persecutions of the Huguenots was to assuage the conscience of the French people into what he perceives as a mirage of unity accomplished by the force of the state but failing at the real issues of the heart and soul of France. Even Augustine himself was used as a weapon by the Catholic elites to convince the French people that the terrors perpetrated by the Church were in fact servants being compelled to enter the royal feast.
Davis concludes the book with a discussion on how the persecution of the Protestant conscience in France was ironically and tragically a precursor to the French Revolution where this time it was the French aristocratic and Catholic religious establishment that found themselves on the end of receiving violent punishment for their stands of conscience. As Davis notes it was not until the Revolution that Huguenots were finally considered full French citizens. He then surmises that France today is facing a similar dilemma in appraising Islam versus secular French identity in a way that calls to the carpet issues of conscience, culture and religion in a way that when viewed through the lens of this book is not so new at all. Understanding the rights and limits of conscience in the face of a real or supposed crisis of national identity in a Biblical way that cherishes the rights of Christian people to be both loyal Christians and citizens (in that order) is something that this book helps to shed further light on. In this way the struggle of the Huguenots is not merely historical, it rhymes with the experience of this Christians of all stripes today who feel that their conscience is being assaulted by a worldview and way of life that is not their own. For everyone’s sake let us hope that Christianity—Catholics and Protestants—survive and thrives in a way that the sacrifices of the Huguenots were not in vain and the Catholic embrace of freedom of conscience remains paramount. Defense of the freedom of conscience, which is tied to the God and the Good, is something that Christians of all stripes can use in an increasingly secularizing culture.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More