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Remember the Huguenots

The enduring legacy of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre


Huguenot immigrants istock

Remember the Huguenots
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If you look at a liturgical calendar, Aug. 24 is the Feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle. Christians have traditionally understood him to be the apostle Nathanael in John’s Gospel: the Israelite in whom there was “no guile” and a martyr who was apparently skinned alive and beheaded. But many recognize this feast because of one of the most horrific events in church history: the massacre of Protestant Huguenots in 1572.

The Huguenots were French Protestants that looked to the Reformed tradition coming out of Switzerland, including French-speaking Geneva and its luminary John Calvin. The Huguenots boasted brilliant scholars, a prosperous bourgeoisie of the rising urban middle class, and members of the nobility. By 1572, an estimated 2 million people—ten percent of the French population—were Huguenots. Almost inevitably, the Huguenots clashed with French Roman Catholics, leading to a sporadic, decades-long civil conflict known as the French Wars of Religion. The darkest day of that conflict was the notorious St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

It all started with a wedding. Henry of Navarre, then a Huguenot king, married Margaret of Valois, sister of King Charles IX and daughter of Catherine de Medici. The marriage took place in Catholic-dominated Paris. The cream of Huguenot society attended this momentous occasion, including political leaders, military commanders, and wealthy aristocrats. The leaders of the burgeoning Protestant movement found themselves concentrated in one place—in Catholic territory. Catherine plotted with Catholic nobles to exterminate the Huguenot leadership, and her son Charles IX complied. He gave the order on the Eve of St. Bartholomew’s Day. What started as coordinated assassinations snowballed into an anti-Huguenot bloodbath that flowed out of Paris and into the surrounding provinces.

As a result, fear and hostility rose dramatically. Pope Gregory XIII celebrated the event with a medal. The rest of the Protestant world stood agape in horror. And the Huguenots? Some converted to Roman Catholicism, some peacefully endured, some violently resisted, and some fled. Throughout the next century, Huguenots in France suffered a roller-coaster ride of efforts to attain religious toleration and crushing political persecution, particularly at the hands of France’s absolutist monarchs. Waves of the Huguenot diaspora sought refuge in other Protestant countries and colonies, often integrating with their new countrymen and local Protestant church bodies.

Many ended up in America, a land that still serves as a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution from despotic regimes. And while many today decry concerns over religious liberty as a mere dog-whistle for partisan politics, anyone familiar with Huguenot history will know just how precious such liberties are. We must all realize the disaster that often falls upon regimes and countries that make it their business to quash Christians.

What started as coordinated assassinations snowballed into an anti-Huguenot bloodbath that flowed out of Paris and into the surrounding provinces.

After all, in time, the heavy-handed tactics of the Catholic nobility grew loathsome and odious in the eyes of the French people. Arguably, the terror inflicted upon Huguenots and others helped delegitimize the crown’s rule and authority, even though the later relations between Protestants and unbelieving secular philosophes could be quite strained at times, to say the least.

Some have even argued that Counter-Reformation Catholics, desperate to defeat the devastating logic of Huguenot apologists, aided a virulent skepticism that served as a seedbed for revolutionary unbelief, paving the way for the bloody, epoch-defining French Revolution. All in all, it could be said that the persecution of the Huguenots played a significant role in creating the world we inhabit.

Sadly, it is a world where faithful Christians still have to fear for their lives and livelihoods. But it is also a world where refuge can be found in nations that value, uphold, and protect justice and liberty.

This morning, I plan to drive down Huguenot Road and across the Huguenot Bridge to lead worship in a church that upholds Protestant doctrine and practice, where at least one congregant claims descent from Huguenot settlers, many of whom later joined Anglican churches. I will think on the evil that men do to each other, on how the world violently opposes the gospel, and remember the strange mixture of ambition, courage, faith, and desperation that drove the Huguenots to Virginia’s shores.

And, as I muse on the sufferings of those who clung steadfastly to the biblical faith, I will remember a promise made centuries ago to a man who sat under a fig tree: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” This is the martyr’s blessed vision and the Christian’s hope. And so while we may mourn the flaying of apostles and the massacres of innocent Christians, we also proceed with a confident joy that our Redeemer lives, and that we shall one day see Him in all His glory.


Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.


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