Even before Martin Luther became a major force in Germany, the French Reformation had already started to stir and show signs of viability. For example, as early as 1512 Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a Roman Catholic priest who had earlier shown concern for reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a commentary on the Apostle Paul‘s epistles, propounding the doctrine of justification by faith — the teaching that become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. His writings were reported to have influenced Luther, who four years later — while in the midst of his own spiritual turmoil — started his intensive studies of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. Luther came to basically the conclusions as had Lefèvre d’Étaples regarding the doctrine of justification by faith. Luther’s studies and beliefs led to his formal excommunication in 1521.
In 1523, Lefèvre d’Étaples published his French translation of the Gospels. Suspected of being a Protestant, he had to flee for his life, eventually settling in Nérac under the protection of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, a supporter of religious liberty.
The Protestant movement spread rapidly through France, as it did in many other countries, because of two interlocking forces: the Bible in translations of native tongues and the printing press with movable type. Once the Bible had been translated into native tongues, it became available for personal interpretation by more and more people outside the clergy. During the same period, the printing press with movable types caused an explosion in the field of communications, this providing a wider readership among theologians and lay people for translations of the Bible (in whole or in part), commentaries on biblical passages, and disputations on theological points.
In the early day of the French Reformation as Luther’s writings reached France, members of the French Reformed Church were often called Lutherans; however, Luther’s influence was soon eclipsed by that of the man who became the preeminent leader of the Huguenots: Jean (John) Calvin. He had escaped to Geneva from France and soon the Genevan Church served as the model for Huguenot temples (as their churches were called in France). This dictatorial Genevan model, fortunately, did not produce exact copies among most of the Huguenot temples.
As their movement began to develop, the Huguenots gathered secretly in homes for worship because the Reformed Faith was considered to be heresy by both the Roman Catholic Church and the French kings. Reading the Bible and expounding its messages were the foci of the Huguenot services. Once temples began to be established openly in many parts of France, the sermon and the pulpit assumed major prominence as the centers of their worship services — in contrast to Roman Catholic mass and altars.
After Clément Marot, one of the greatest poets of the French Renaissance, published his translation of the Psalms in 1542, the Huguenots’ singing of the Psalms became one of their great joys.
Attempting to shun all Romish trappings, the Huguenot temples contained no statues of saints, no painted windows (stained glass) with religious subjects, no crosses (either inside or outside the buildings), and no altars.
The Reformed Church grew, attracting converts from all classes including the nobility and even Roman Catholic clergy. The majority of the Huguenots were from the growing educated and affluent middle class. However, the large numbers of the nobility accounted for the movement’s survival, particularly in the 1500s, because their status and influence provided a degree of protection. Unfortunately, many of the nobility had political goals, which overshadowed their spiritual motives, and in the 1600s, their presence was often a liability for the Huguenots’ continued existence. In the last part of the 16th century, an estimated ten percent of France’s population were Huguenots.