The Huguenots in France were an important asset to the country, so why was there such opposition to them? A few points have already been touched on, but others need to be examined.
The Huguenots Promoted Heresy
Taking the Bible as their sole spiritual authority (sola scriptura), the Huguenots rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on the mass, its use of images, its prayers for the dead, its sale of indulgences, and its reliance upon tradition and the teachings of the Church Fathers rather than the Holy Scriptures.
The Huguenots Caused Divisiveness within France
The French kings looked upon the Huguenots and their “So-called Reformed Church” as disruptive to the country’s tranquility. The kings often interpreted the Huguenots; repudiation of the Roman Catholic Church as more of a challenge to their royal majesty than as strictly religious differences. The keys to a peaceful kingdom were “Un roi, une loo, une foo” (One king, one law, one faith).
The idea of religious liberties, as in the separation of church and state, was unthinkable to most national rulers. A national church was the principle whether it was in Germany where its Lutheran and Roman Catholic princes dictated the religion of their subjects or in England where their sovereign declared himself or herself to be the head of the Church of England. (The actual titles per religion of the English monarch were defensor fidei et gubernator supremis in ecclesiae in oculi Dei, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church in the Eye/Sight of God.) All other churches in England were declared either illegal or non-conformist, or both. And for that matter, in Geneva where, by governmental force, John Calvin established his own harsh, Protestant theocracy. More accurately, it could be classed a hierocracy, a government by the clergy.
The Huguenots’ Practices in their Temples Sowed Dangerous Ideas
What ideas were so dangerous? Democratic ideas. The organization of Huguenot temples was the antithesis of the hierarchical makeup of the Roman Catholic Church and the French government.
Many, but not all, of the early Protestant movements in Europe attempted to replicate the structure of the New Testament Church. With the biblical account of the New Testament Church as their only guide, the Huguenots created a democratic organization, in which no temple had precedence over another, all members were equal, including their pastors, and the congregations elected their pastors by ballots. Laymen had major roles in both the administrative and spiritual affairs of their temples. This interpretation of the Bible brought into question the Roman Catholic Church’s monarchical establishment with its popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and on down the line.
The Huguenots rejected the idea that bishops (and by extension the pope) had ruling authority over the early church. The Huguenots argued that in the New Testament the word for “bishop”, which in Greek is επίσκοπος (episkopos) means “overseer”, could NOT be distinguished in duties from πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), meaning “elder”. Furthermore in both Philippians 1:1 and Acts 20:28, the word for “bishop” is in the plural, indicating that there was more than one episkopos (“oversee”) in both Philippi and Ephesus. As a result of this interpretation, almost all of the Protestant denominations at this time, with the exception of the Church of England and some Lutherans, rejected the idea of ruling bishops
This return to the biblical source as the model for both theology and church government created more fundamental reforms in the Huguenot temples than were found in either the Lutheran or Anglican churches.
Radical Actions of Other Protestant Groups Reflected against the Huguenots
The more radical ideas and activities of some other Protestant sects alarmed the French kings and their counselors. For example, the Lollards in England objected to clerical celibacy, the “idolatrous feigned miracle” of transubstantiation (in the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, although the outward form or appearance of the bread and wine do not change), and the clergy serving as governmental officials. In 1413, the Lollards had been involved in a plot to overthrow the English government.
On the continent, groups of Anabaptists, for example, called for the separation of church and state. They refused to take oaths. They opposed war under any circumstances. And they claimed — God forbid! — that women were the equal of men!
Neither the Lollards nor the Anabaptists were threats to France, but as Protestant movements they coloured the French kings’ views of all Protestants, including, of course, the Huguenots.
Within France itself, the Protestant Waldenses had periodically been troublesome and had paid for it with harsh persecution, so Protestants of all types were not to be tolerated.
The Huguenots Operated as a State within a State
Earlier mention has been made that the Huguenots had gained from the French kings the right to control, govern, protect (with their own armies), and fortify specific towns in France. These arrangements caused jealousy among the Roman Catholic faction.
By the time that Louis XIV came to the throne, these fortified towns had ceased to exist, but the memory of their existence continued to rankle. There was always the possibility that the Huguenots would regain political power and attempt to revive them.
More and More Huguenots Began to Question the Divine Right of Kings
As the French kings, even before Louis XIV, increased the terrifying acts in order to “persuade” the Huguenots to abjure their faith, many Huguenots began to question the Divine Right of Kings. The idea that a king (or ruler) held his position because God or the gods willed it has a long history in many civilizations. However, the Apostle Paul reinforced that doctrine for Christians in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 13:1-2: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is not authority except from God, and those exist are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinances of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” (The New American Standard Bible)
Most Huguenots felt bound by the Word of God to obey the French kings and their representatives, and most Huguenots remained faithful even as persecutions increased. But when it became more and more and more evident that the kings were attempting to force Huguenots to act against their religious consciences, many Huguenots (and other Protestants, as well) began to develop the belief that civil authorities had jurisdiction only over civil affairs, but not over spiritual matters. Thus they joined in the long, difficult journey toward the separation of church and state, which we enjoy in the United States today to an extent greater than most other nations.
Roger Williams wrote of this separation in the early 1630s. Because of his religious convictions, the Massachusetts Bay officials banished him in 1635, forcing him to flee. He went to Rhode Island, where he purchased land from the Native Americans so that he could found a colony based on absolute liberty of conscience, which would be free of all governmental dictates.
Our Declaration of Independence upholds as God-given the right of citizens to rebel against a ruler “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [the ‘unalienable Rights … (of) Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…” This is a complete repudiation of the Apostle Paul’s directive IF it is interpreted as applying to Christians of later centuries.
It took years before religious freedom was recognized under French law. As a matter of fact, the harsh treatment of the Huguenots and the subsequent depletion of the French economy, caused by the exodus of the Huguenots, brought the country closer and closer and more rapidly to le déluge, the bloody French Revolution.
The first article of the French Constitution of 1791 states, in part, that “…men are born and remain free and equal in their rights.” The tenth clause addresses religion specifically: “No one shall be interfered with for his opinions, not even for his religious opinions, provided their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by law.” Nevertheless, it was not until 1905 that France finally decreed the separation of church and state.