Today is the 450th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre when the French King and supporters slew thousands of French Protestants, with implications and lessons for today regarding social stability, democracy, and religious freedom.
Protestantism in 16th century France maybe never exceeded ten percent of the population. But Protestantism was threatening to the monarchy and the Catholic Church because it included many nobles and was especially popular in the middle class and among urban artisans. The Protestants were overwhelmingly Calvinist and wanted a France that was fully Reformed. Both the monarchy and the Catholic Church naturally opposed this project but also resisted any systematic toleration.
The French Wars of Religion consequently lasted decades, with the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Massacre a particularly dark chapter. It began when the young King Charles IX, influenced by his mother, ordered the assassination of Protestant nobles in Paris to attend a Protestant/Catholic royal wedding that supposedly would facilitate coexistence. The mass murders spread to other towns, killing at least several thousand and possibly more than 10,000. Mayhem continued until relative religious toleration was established with the Edict of Nantes in 1592.
But thousands of Protestants were already leaving France for Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and later America. These refugees were disproportionately middle class, educated and skilled. Their emigration strengthened the Protestant nations economically and technologically. The tribulations of the French Protestants also embedded into especially the Netherlands and Britain, later America, a deep fear of persecution by Catholic monarchs and a greater appreciation for religious toleration. Benjamin Franklin recalled that in his Boston boyhood he heard his Puritan preacher inveigh against French King Louis XIV, who had revoked the Edict of Nantes and criminalized Protestantism in France.
Louis XIV governed as an almost absolute monarch and confirmed the worst fears of British and Dutch Protestants both politically and religiously. The example of French religious persecution heightened the fears of Puritans and nonconformists in Britain, who were sensitive to any hint of replication, which drove their opposition, including civil war, to King Charles I and his sons. James II’s conversion to Catholicism and discovered correspondence with Louis XIV about how to handle dissident Protestants, fueled the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with Dutch William and Mary invited by the British parliament to displace James II. William signed the Act of Toleration in 1689, granting unprecedented religious freedom.
Britain’s struggles of the 1600s resulted in parliamentary supremacy over the crown and a Bill of Rights against overreach by the state. In contrast, in France, all power focused on the crown, with pseudo parliaments called only occasionally, with limited powers, subordinate to the crown. When insolvency forced Louis XVI to summon a wider parliament in 1789, it unsurprisingly unleashed long repressed resentments that exploded into the French Revolution. Royal absolutism was replaced with republican tyranny, generating new ideologies justifying bloodthirsty dictatorship in pursuit of utopian equality and justice.
Britain had followed a different course because its clashing political and religious forces of the previous century had, however reluctantly, learned from and accommodated each other through compromise and toleration. This evolving Whig tradition esteemed liberty, order, limited government, progress, freedom of speech and religion. Voltaire would credit Britain’s relative toleration and stability with its penchant for commerce, in which economic self-interest outweighs religious prejudice, so “the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Church of England man accepts the promise of the Quaker.” Or as Voltaire also reputedly said, two religions equal civil war, one religion equals tyranny, many religions, as in Britain, equal toleration and freedom.
Had the French Catholic establishment and monarchy compromised with the French Protestants on a permanent settlement of toleration, preventing an absolutist monarchy tyrannical in religion, politics, and economics, maybe France could have been spared the calamity of revolution. Such religious pluralism, which both many Catholics and Calvinists would have deemed idolatrous in their time, would have benefited all parties, the nation, and ultimately the world.
There is today in America, and the world, a rising tide of intolerance and impatience with if not disdain for liberty, democracy, “liberalism,” and religious freedom. Why should “false” beliefs be tolerated? Why should people who are “wrong” have the same liberty with the people who are “right?” Isn’t freedom chaotic, decadent, and ultimately unsustainable? Doesn’t the common good require a central political and religious authority dictating the terms under which all shall live?
Some of these post-liberals are Catholic integralists who romanticize France’s old regime in which throne and altar were partners in silencing dissent. Other post-liberals are arch Calvinists who insist a truly godly society must be legislated accordingly to their theology, as in perhaps Calvin’s Geneva.
These illiberalisms ignore the bloody lessons of compromise and accommodation that led to toleration in Britain and Holland, thanks partly to the sufferings of the French Protestants, and eventually to full religious freedom, freedom of speech and democracy, with protected equal rights for all. Regimes that dogmatically enforce what is religiously “right” typically betray the intent of their own professed religions and create the conditions of their own destruction.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre should remind us of the dangers of absolutism and demands for coerced religious and political conformity. It was a tragedy and loss both for its victims and its perpetrators with dire implications for generations to come. Killing, jailing, silencing, and intimidating the “wrong” voices in society may seem more appealing. But the hard work of patient mutual co-existence has proven to better protect a more authentic common good.