France, the Huguenots, and Deuteronomy 28
How did the most powerful nation in Christendom for several hundred years sink down to the level of such insignificance?
– Covenant Enforced: John Calvin’s Sermons on Deuteronomy 27-28
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Welcome to Episode 53 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will be talking about one of the worst sins of Christian Reconstruction in the eyes of antinomian supposedly “Reformed” seminary professors: namely, its doctrine of covenantal sanctions in history. We won’t talk just in general terms about it, nor will we repeat over and over the theology behind it. This theology has already been expressed sufficiently by men greater than me, like R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, and Greg Bahnsen. In fact, going all the way back to the Reformation, giants like John Calvin and John Knox believed that God visits nations and groups and kings and ruling bodies, in history, with His judgment – whether judgment for blessing for their obedience (as imperfect it can be at times) or judgment for curse for their disobedience. I don’t need to repeat their words; it is your responsibility to sit on your you-know-what and read the big books. No amount of podcasts and episodes can replace solid reading. If you want to know what books speak of this doctrine of God’s covenantal sanctions in history, you can find it developed in Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, in chapters 13 and 15 of his Systematic Theology, and also in his Biblical Philosophy of History, in Greg Bahnsen’s By This Standard andTheonomy in Christian Ethics, as well as in Gary North’s Unconditional Surrender, Dominion and Common Grace, Millennialism and Social Theory, and the economic commentary on Numbers. And you can also revisit John Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy 27-28.
So, in this episode I will be giving a specific historical example. It’s much easier, y’know, after the big guys have written their books, for me to look at history and discover specific examples of a Biblical covenantal principle. Having studied history extensively, I can give tons of them, especially from the history of the Balkans, which I know quite well. But since these last weeks another European country has been in the focus of American conservatives – France – I will use the history of France as an example. And specifically, the history of the Roman Catholics in France as a distinct religious and cultural group.
Several years ago I gave talk at an American Vision conference, titled “Europe as a Mirror to America.” In it, one of the historical examples I gave was the example of the French province of the Vendée and the revolt in the 1790s of its Roman Catholic population against the Republican government in Paris during the French Revolution. While I gave historical accounts of the horrible massacre of Roman Catholics by Republican troops (named officially “the columns of hell”), my focus was rather on the agenda of political secularism in fighting Christendom. In the case of the Vendée revolt, the issue was authority: whether family and church as institutions will be controlled by the government, or will remain as separate and independent in their spheres of jurisdiction. And I explained the reason why the French Republican government, in times of total war on all its frontiers against all of Europe, decided to set aside 20% of its army to not simply pacify, but completely massacre and obliterate a small province which was posing no real strategic threat to the government in Paris. The issue was religious, of course, it was an issue of whether family and church will remain free of government interference, or will become, in everything, subservient to the state.
What I didn’t cover, however, was, why this happened to the Roman Catholics in the Vendée. And, in fact, why it all happened to France. Why did France, which used to be the most staunchly Roman Catholic nation in Europe, suddenly fall into secularism? And even worse, why did it have to happen with such bloodshed? Secularism advanced in other countries as well, but in many of them, while there was a change towards tyranny – because secularism always presupposes the tyranny of man, the new god – very few of them had such domestic genocide as France did. Why did that happen? This question is very important from a covenantal perspective, because it involves a fundamental ethical/judicial issue: why did moral restraint in France fail so spectacularly, to the point of Frenchmen killing Frenchmen by the hundreds of thousands and the millions?
The covenantal importance of this question becomes even more obvious when we consider the traditional role of France in Europe throughout most of the history of Christendom. Today, Americans and most Europeans look at France with a slight dose of condescension and even some disdain. After all, this is the country which, despite its population, got effortlessly defeated by Germany in three major wars (the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, WWI, and WWII). In the two world wars, France had to rely on the help of the United States, which most French disdain as an example of rugged individualism and capitalism; and of national pride and arrogance also. (Although, I would say on the pride and arrogance, the French seem to compete well with us, Americans; just as we seem to be trying to catch up with them in the socialism and collectivism race.) To add insult to the injury, France seems to be never capable of catching up with Germany in terms of economic growth, even when the cards are stacked decisively in its favor. After WWI, France received enormous reparations from Germany, plus control over Germany’s most industrialized province, for several years. After WWII, Germany was devastated, deprived of 1/3 of its previous territory, and split in two. And yet, in both cases, just a decade down the road, France was eating the dust behind Germany’s economic train.
The French themselves are aware of the inferiority of their own country. Just a few weeks ago, before the elections, one of the candidates, Marie le Pen, stated that no matter what the result of the elections, France will be ruled by a woman: Either Marie le Pen herself, or Germany’s Angela Merkel. How correct that statement is we will leave aside; but the fact that it was accepted as valid by at least 40% of France’s active voters shows that the French do not consider their country powerful or stable enough, and always in danger of being controlled by another nation. A sentiment that would be natural for a small Eastern European country, but hardly expected to come from one of the supposed world’s superpowers.
Strange that this should be so. For much of its history, France was the undisputed political and cultural center of Europe. She was also the undisputed demographic center of Europe. In its modern territories, France reached a population of almost 30 million in the late 1600s and the early 1700s. To compare, Germany at the time (devastated by the Thirty-Year War), was about 10-12 million, and England, Scotland, and Wales numbered less than 7 million total. Four hundred years later, the UK has grown to 65 million (10-fold increase), Germany, with all its wars and disasters and calamities and political turmoil, and within only 2/3 of its previous territory, has grown to 82 million (7-8-fold increase), while France has grown to only 64 million, barely over two-fold increase of the population.
Put it in different terms, if modern stock exchanges existed in the 1500s or the 1600s, and if you asked an investment adviser, “What are the most prosperous and secure economies where I can invest my money for future generations of my children and grandchildren?”, his first answer would be: France. His second answer would be: Spain. These were the most prosperous and the most stable nations in Europe. If anyone suggested that the Netherlands, or Germany, or England, or Switzerland, or Norway would be a good investment, you would laugh at them. And yet, 400 years down the road, France is steadily sinking in the ranking of world’s superpowers, and soon will be nothing more than just another middle-size nation of marginal significance. And that, while nations who previously showed no prospect of any greatness, are now surpassing it on all fronts: economy, culture, technology, influence, etc.
How did that happen? How did the most powerful nation in Christendom for several hundred years sink down to the level of such insignificance?
The answer, of course, is covenantal. France – and specifically the Roman Catholic population of France, as a distinct religious and cultural group – has been under God’s covenantal sanctions. And since this group has historically been the largest cultural group in France, God’s covenantal curse on it has been affecting France as a whole. And the curse has been for committed injustice and murder against a whole group of other Frenchmen, for no other reason but for their conversion to Protestantism. This sin of the French Roman Catholics was not simply a sin of passivity and omission, where the civil rulers commit the injustice and the population just remains silent. (Think of the Holocaust in Germany.) It was a sin of commission, or even of active commitment by the general Roman Catholic population, far beyond the orders of its rulers, and at times, in opposition and disobedience to their rulers’ edicts for toleration. We all know of the French Revolution and of the drunkenness of a whole generation in France and the rivers of blood shed during the last two decades of the 18th century. What is less known is that France had experienced a much worse drunkenness 200 years before that, and had shed rivers of blood for several generations.
To find out about it, we need to go back to the time of the Reformation. France gave the Reformation two of its most illustrious scholars and theologians, namely, William Farel and John Calvin. Calvin, whose name remained in history because of his work in the Reformation in Geneva, but also because of his enormous productivity as an author and his ability to summarize Christian doctrine, wrote in two languages: Latin and his native French. When we today think of Calvin’s influence, we always imagine nations like the Netherlands, Scotland, England, and the United States. The truth is, originally, the first country to be most seriously impacted by his teachings was his native France.
Calvin published his first systematic treatise on the Christian religion, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, in 1536. It was in Latin. Over the next 28 years, with only a small leave of 2 years, he lived and worked in Geneva, expanding his Institutes, and also producing innumerable volumes of sermons, commentaries, and other theological material. He wrote much of it in French, and the Institutes themselves had six French editions, the last one being in 1560. While his material was mainly meant for the French-speaking Swiss and the Savoyards south of Geneva, an unknown number of copies have been smuggled in France and have been re-printed and distributed. Calvin never returned to his native France, but his books were having influence greater than he could ever achieve himself.
So successful were his books, that by the mid-1560s, and estimated 10-12% of the population of France was Protestant, or, as they called themselves, reformés, Reformed. The majority of the Reformed population was in the west of France, along the Atlantic coast, and the south central of France. These were the regions with the best developed urban and industrial culture; cities like La Rochelle, Montauban, Montpellier, were major industrial centers in the economy of France of the time. Since Protestantism largely spread by the power of persuasion of written theological books, the bulk of the Protestants in France was among the educated and the literate: the nobility and the urban industrial elite and factory workers. For their small overall numbers, Protestants could boast with a disproportional representation in the government of the country. The old royal family of Bourbon of Navarre joined the cause of the Protestants, and the brothers de Coligny – Odet, Gaspar, and François – of an ancient noble family of Burgundy also became champions of the Protestant faith in France. The second oldest of these brothers, Admiral Gaspar de Coligny, eventually became the undisputed political leader of Protestantism in France. As we will see, his influence and authority were of such great importance that when the Roman Catholic royal court decided to move against the Protestants, they found it expedient to start their attack with the assassination of Admiral Gaspar de Coligny.
By the early 1560s, the Protestants in France were known as Huguenots, for reasons that no historian today is able to guess. They were now a force to be reckoned with, for the teachings of Calvin were spreading in a number of cities. In 1558, a national Reformed synod was held in Paris. At the time, France was under the rule of Henry II, a king who was tolerant of the Protestants, and even took their sides on a number of issues. Henry, however, died in 1559 of an infected wound from a jousting incident. His son being only 14, the regency was given to Henry II’s wife, the Italian Catherine de’Medici, a devout Roman Catholic, and a brutal and unprincipled political player.
Catherine started the persecutions almost immediately after the death of her husband. Huguenots were rounded up and delivered to Roman Catholic courts on charges of heresy. The first massacre happened in Wassy in north-east France, where the Huguenots were in the minority. A church gathering of Huguenots was attacked by royal troops and by the local Roman Catholic population. Close to 100 people were murdered, and 200 were wounded. After this, he Huguenots started organizing militarily and politically, and by 1562 they held over 60 walled cities, and their leaders, Henry of Navarre and Admiral de Coligny, commanded a significant army. Catherine de’Medici was soon forced to escalate the conflict to keep up with them, forthe Protestants had become a serious threat to the royal government. For the next eight years, the French Wars of Religion continued with no clear promise of victory to either side; the death toll of these wars, however, for that period, was quite high. Close to half million people lost their lives between 1562 and 1570, until the peace of Saint-Germain, which put an end to the wars and restored all the rights and privileges of the Protestant minority.
Ironically, the culmination and the decisive action in the Wars of Religion came only after the peace treaty was signed. Catherine de’Medici, rather tired of the wars and desirous of consolidating the power of her family through diplomacy, offered her daughter Margaret in marriage to the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre; the rationale was dynastic connections and claims, not so much religion. By 1572 Catherine seems to had lost her zeal for religious controversies. The population of Paris, however, hadn’t. The idea of one of their Roman Catholic princesses being married to a Protestant created a number of riots in Paris in 1572, as distinguished Protestant leaders began to arrive in the city for the royal marriage in August. While the government was seeking reconciliation and co-operation, the population of Paris was revolting. On August 18, 1572, a political assassin by the name of Charles Maurevert shot and wounded Admiral de Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots. For the next several days, rumors were spread in the city that the Huguenots were planning a revenge on the city and on the royal family. The rumors became so persistent, and the pressure of the mobs so uncontrollable, that on August 22, Catherine de’Medici reluctantly decided, for safety, to move against the Huguenots. She broke her promise and oath, as well as the peace treaty she had signed, and ordered the massacre of their leaders gathered in Paris.
On the night of August 23, the carnage started. But it didn’t all go by plan. The original orders were to exterminate only the leaders. Once the common people of Paris got wind of what was happening, all Paris was cheerfully given to hunting and barbaric killing of all Huguenots: including women and children. Remember, the French government didn’t order all the executions; the majority of the murders – especially of non-combatants and innocent people – were committed by the common people of Paris. The St. Bartholomew’s Night was not just government injustice; it was truly a national crime of Biblical proportions, of all French Roman Catholics. Innocent blood was shed on that night on the streets of Paris, blood which later repeatedly spelled curse for Paris and the French nation.
There are no official numbers, but estimates of the massacre give anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 Huguenots slain in one night. These were the elite of Protestantism in France, plus their entire households. Gaspar de Coligny was killed in his bed and his body was thrown out of the window, on the street. By the morning of August 24, the streets of Paris were full with the bodies of slain Huguenots and covered with blood.
The reaction of Christendom – whether Roman Catholic or Protestant – was unanimously negative. Protestant countries, of course, immediately cut their diplomatic ties with France, and for a generation, France – previously dominant on the European scene – lost both its ability to conduct a successful foreign policy and its control over the trade routes and market. (Protestant merchants, Dutch and English, who were gaining ascendance in the developing trade with Asia and America, simply preferred to avoid French ports.) The Roman Catholic world first reacted with joy to the news: the prospect of losing the most populous and most powerful European nation to Protestantism was a nightmare to the Papacy. When the details of the massacre became known, however, most Roman Catholics outside France changed their minds. The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, father-in-law of the French king Charles IX, described the massacre as “shameful.” Pope Gregory XIII, who first praised the massacre, later had misgivings about it. When the killer of Gaspar de Coligny, Charles Maurevert, wanted an audience with him, the Pope declined under the pretext that Maurevert was a murderer. The massacre became such a focal point of the attention of all Europe that even the Russian Czar, Ivan the Terrible, himself never flinching from shedding the blood of his own people, used it as an argument in a letter to Maximilian II concerning the dynastic succession in Poland. At the end of that letter, he added completely out of context, “You deplore, my brother, the horrible massacre of so many innocents on St. Bartholomew’s Day! All Christian monarchs ought to be distressed on that account!”
The murder of innocents didn’t stop there, however. The King sent orders to the provincial governors to refrain from violence and to abide by the terms of the peace of Saint-Germain. Once the news of the massacre reached the provinces, however, nothing could stop the local Roman Catholic population, goaded by the local clergy, from committing the same crimes. In many cities of France where there was a sizable Huguenot minority, there were massacres. Between August and November 1572, a number of French cities were entirely cleared of Protestants. Nobles and commonfolk, men and women and children were murdered indiscriminately. While numbers it is not possible to have exact numbers, estimates are that only in these months, more than 100,000 Huguenots were killed in France, in addition to the massacre in Paris. Many Huguenots escaped by fleeing deep in the south of France where the influence of Roman Catholicism was weaker. Thousands fled the country towards the Netherlands and England.
The culmination of Protestantism in France was 1572. The Huguenots numbered over 2 million. The pogroms of 1572 decapitated their community. From there, Protestantism started its decline in France. A decline caused not by its weakness, but by the treachery and bloodthirstiness of its enemies.
The persecutions didn’t stop in 1572. The French government tried to restrain the population, and in 1589 an edict of toleration was declared. But that edict was violated multiple times by the central government and by the local governments. And, worstof all, the common population of France continued its hostilities against the Huguenots, despite the government attempts at greater restraint. Eventually, in 1685s, the Sun-King Louis XIV repealed the edict of toleration and declared Protestantism illegal in France. The sanctuary cities of the Huguenots – among which were Montpelier, La Rochelle, and others – were besieged by the army and their walls rased to the ground. Huguenot families were subject to official harassment by army officers, taken to court on trumped-up charges, their children taken away from them, or left to be lynched by the mobs. Within a few years, due to murders or emigration, France lost about 1 million Huguenots, many of whom fled to America or South Africa. By the end of his Reign, Louis XIV bragged that he left not a single Protestant in his realm.
It wasn’t until the French Revolution that a French government officially erased the legal discrimination between the different Christian faiths. But God had more in store for France.
The decline of France as the greatest power in Europe started with the decline of Protestantism, in the late 1500s. For one, since the Huguenots at the time were disproportionately represented among the nobility and the industrial class (factory owners, factory workers, and craftsmen), the death and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of these people made France lose a significant share in the economy of Europe. Blacksmiths and goldsmiths, weavers, technicians and engineers, military commanders and executives took their knowledge and experience with them to the Netherlands and England. The loss of talent and skill is seldom replaceable within one generation; the loss of so much talent and skill was irreplaceable, period. Losing a significant portion of its middle class, France lost its economic advantage over the rest of Europe. The country was pacified, but only at the expense of losing the productivity which the peace was supposed to protect. Peace without rising productivity is the formula for stagnation, and for the next 200 years, France experienced only stagnation, watching its smaller competitors, the Dutch and the English, take over the ocean trade, build mighty fleets, and even challenge France on the battlefields of Europe. In the 1700s, this economic stagnation brought economic crisis, and even widespread famine. It is such famine that eventually became the trigger for the French Revolution; and it also became the context for the famous phrase ascribed to Marie-Antoinette, “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cakes.” God started his covenantal judgment on France immediately after its national crime in 1572.
But the economic judgment was nothing compared to what was coming; God was only preparing the stage for visiting the crimes of the fathers on the children. When the French Revolution started in 1789, its leaders specifically targeted Roman Catholics and their priests exactly the way 200 years earlier the Roman Catholics targeted Protestants. A predominantly Roman Catholic population which had previous rejected having Protestant political and economic elite was now subject to the bloodthirstiness and cruelty of a secularist elite. Ironically, as if to remind the Roman Catholics that this is God’s judgment on them, some of the leaders of the French Revolution justified their acts of terror against Roman Catholicism with the fact that Roman Catholics were themselves guilty of terrorism against the Huguenots. And if this was not enough to point to God’s judgment, the worst massacres of Roman Catholic population in France happened exactly in the same areas of France (in the west, that is, in the Vendée, and in the south) where for the last 200 years Huguenots were massacred. It is ironic that in the Vendée revolt against the republican government, the rebels raised a flag with a motto which 200 years prior was a motto of many Huguenots (some of whom were anti-monarchists): Dieu le Roi, God the King. And just as Huguenots used to be slaughtered under that motto in the 1570s, in the 1790s, hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic Vendeans were slaughtered by the soldiers of the “columns of hell” sent by the republican government. For anyone who was paying attention in France, what was happening was clearly God visiting the nation and treating it the way it treated the Huguenots. Within two decades, the body of France was eaten from the inside. In 1815, all that was left of the old superpower was a defeated, bankrupt nation subservient to other, new superpowers.
God is not mocked. A nation can ignore His words in Deuteronomy 28, but it can’t escape their implication. And until there is repentance in France, and Protestantism is revived again, as it was in the 1500s, France will continue to sink, slowly but surely. Even today, we Americans imagine that the population of France is predominantly secularist. The truth is, it is predominantly Roman Catholic. Remember, just last year, millions of ordinary French people demonstrated on the streets of France against the socialist government’s attempt to legalize sodomite “marriage.” Apparently, France still has more Roman Catholic influence than we can see on the surface. But this Roman Catholic population is ruled by a secularist elite. There is a reason why. And that reason is God’s covenantal sanctions in history.
We would be fools if we stopped here, however. Every time we see God visiting a nation with His judgment, we need to stop and consider our own situation, as American Christians and conservatives. Is there a similar judgment of God on us as a religious and cultural group in America? And if there is, we need to pay attention and look for the reasons for it.
Indeed, there is such a judgment. Ever noticed how for the last 40 years, ever since the rise of Moral Majority, we as Christians seem to lose the cultural battles in America? No matter what we do, no matter how much effort we put into it, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend on conservative politicians and lobbying and political action councils, all we get is lies, broken promises, corruption, and new lies. No matter how much we spend on seminaries, evangelical celebrities, churches and pastors, we continue to see a decline of the influence of Christianity in our culture, and the cultural ascendance of the enemies of God. It’s time for us to stop and consider: There is covenant judgment in action. It is still in its preliminary stages, but it is there and it is real. The question is, What brought it upon us? We must have committed injustice, in beliefs, words, or actions, against others. We need to find where the covenantal root of the problem is.
And indeed, we have committed many injustice. We have been silent and passive about the slaughter of unborn babies in our nation. We could have stopped this slaughter many years ago, if we cared. We have been silent about police brutality, especially against minorities. We have been silent about government schools – and we have even supported them. We have supported unjust immigration restriction laws. We have supported injustices like the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex. We have said nothing against the Federal Reserve and the IRS. Our pulpits have babbled about basic issues, but they have never touched on the tow pillars of God’s Throne, Righteousness and Justice.
And there is judgment in progress. We better start making corrections in our faith, word, and action. Or our kids will pay the price for our complacency.
The book I will assign this week is The Covenant Enforced: John Calvin’s Sermons on Deuteronomy 27 and 28. Read and consider how our nation, and we as Christians may fall under the curse section of these verses.
Remember also, I don’t want donations for myself. There is a mission field which I have in my heart, and where I want to see God’s Covenant enforced: Eastern Europe. Visit BulgarianReformation.com to read more about Bulgarian Reformation Ministries. Subscribe to the newsletter, and donate.