The Christian History of France

The Origin of France and of the French people

The French are not a single, homogenous people. France, once called “Gaul”, was settled by Celts who migrated to the South of Gaul in 800 BC. These Celtic Gauls were in fact dispersed Israelites, most likely from the tribe of Reuben.1 In about 600 BC the Phocaeans, a Greek tribe, founded Massalia (Marseilles), France’s oldest city, which also features France’s most ancient harbour. Marseilles was populated by Celts, Greeks and even Phoenicians, and played a crucial role in the development of trade with Greek cities, Northern Europe and even the Atlantic, by which tin from England was transported. The Franks – Germanic people from central Europe – then settled in France in the early third century AD. Additionally, the Vikings from Norway, led by King Rollo in 911AD, settled the area of Normandy, the “Northmen” eventually becoming the “Normans”. They were also of Israelite descent. Thus the ethnic make-up of ancient France was quite mixed, with a sizeable portion of the population descended from the wandering and exiled tribes of Israel.

The First Christians in France

France received its Christianity directly from Jerusalem in the first century BC. After Christ’s death, Christians were persecuted in Jerusalem and in all cities of Palestine. Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus (resurrected by Jesus), Mary Magdalene, and several other followers of Jesus were all exiled from Israel, and set afloat by their persecutors in an oar-less boat without sail. The boat miraculously reached an area near Marseilles (called today “Les Saintes Maries de la Mer” or “The Holy Mary(s) from the Sea), where Philip had already settled down and begun to preach the Word.2

Joseph of Arimathea was the Virgin Mary’s uncle. He was a tin trader who was well known in Marseille, as his ship would stop there on its way to the tin mines in England. Joseph (with some other disciples) then continued northwards through Gaul, passing through Limoges and Roscoff and across the English Channel before finally reaching Cornwall, where he established the first Christian Church in England (see Christian History of Britain).

Philip (one of Jesus’ twelve disciples) had been given the responsibility of spreading Christianity in Gaul (France), and had commissioned Joseph of Arimathea to help him. Joseph and his group had been in Avalon (modern day Glastonbury, in Cornwall, England) for about four years. During that time, Philip’s disciples won people for Christ and started schools and churches. Philip had sent about 160 Christians from Gaul to be trained by Joseph. In return, Joseph sent many of the workers back to Gaul, including most of the original group that had come with him.
The first one he sent was Lazarus, who was sent to Massialia (Marseilles); Maximin who was “the rich young ruler” and one of the seventy sent out by Jesus, went to Aix. Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome (mother of James and John) and Mary, wife of Cleopas, went to Camargue; Eutropius went to Saintes (in Aquitaine) and later to Orange, Arles and Tarascon. Saturninus went to Toulouse; Martial went to Limoges and Parmenas (one of the deacons mentioned in ACTS 6:5) went to Avignon. Restitutus (the blind man healed by Jesus in JOHN chapter 9) also went to Aix; Zaccheus (who accompanied Joseph of Arimathea) settled in Rocamadour and Sergius Paulus, a deputy of Paphos (the “prudent man” in ACTS 13:7-12) went to Narbonne. Many others who were sent as missionaries to Gaul/France could be mentioned. It should be noted too that Pilate was banished from Jerusalem to Vienne (South Lyon) in AD 38 and Herod Antipas was banished to Lyon in AD 39.3

The Dark Ages

In the following centuries, the French Christians suffered greatly from the Roman Catholic persecutions, and the faithful became increasingly isolated. The Roman Catholic religion, a blend of Christianity and heathen festivals and practices, became stronger and stronger over the following centuries throughout the Roman Empire, including Gaul. The true Gospel was lost in most parts of France and Europe, wars raged, and barbaric invasions muddied things further with their heathen religions, superstitions and ignorance. All the Kings, including the most famous ones such as Clovis and Charlemagne, supported the Roman Catholic church fully, which took the true basis of the Gospel and the work of the disciples, and twisted them into a cruel parody of what the Bible commands the church to be like. In order to maintain supremacy throughout Europe, the Roman Catholic church would persecute, imprison, torture and kill all those opposed to their doctrine. Their victims throughout the centuries numbered into the millions. Yet even in this dark time there were still witnesses in France for the Truth.

The Albigenses

The massacre of Bezier The Albigenses (also called “Cathars”) originated in the area of Albi and Toulouse around 1100 AD. A revival “wind” came from Eastern Europe, bringing the light of the Gospel to the common man. The Albigenses were “reformers before the reform”, believing in salvation through receiving the Holy Spirit and being changed by the Word. They read the Bible in the common language (The Latin Vulgate ), which was forbidden by the Roman Catholic church. As a result, they were accused of heresy for using a non-Catholic Bible. They increased so rapidly that many cities were inhabited exclusively by them, and several eminent noblemen embraced their doctrines. Among the latter were Raymond VI, Earl of Toulouse, and the Earl of Foix.

Pope Innocent III thus initiated a crusade against them. He was helped by Simon of Monfort and the Northern Barons. The Albigenses were viciously tortured and killed, regardless of sex or age. In Bezier, those who refused to abjure their faith were taken in a storm of cruelty. The Catholic legate, during these infernal proceedings, enjoyed the carnage, and even cried out to the troops “Kill them, kill them all, kill man, woman and child. Kill Catholics as well as Albigenses, for when they are dead the Lord knows his own.” Bezier was reduced to a heap of ruins and 60,000 people were murdered.
Some of the Albigenses fled to the Piedmont area where the Waldenses also found refuge after suffering persecution from the Catholic Church. Despite the small number of Albigenses who escaped the persecutions, they kept firm in their faith.

The Waldenses

Many people place the Waldenses as having started in the 12th century, but they date their lineage as being much earlier. Their teaching can be traced back to the 4th century. Although many churches along the centuries had already been brought under the power of the Papacy, Bible doctrine was still preached in many of the churches of Lombardy and Piedmont. Images were removed from churches, justification by faith was preached, and purgatory and the use of relics and pilgrimages to attain merit were rejected.

In 1059 the churches in Northern Italy submitted to the pope, and though the plains were conquered, the mountains remained free. Those who did not want to submit fled into the Cottian Alps of North-West Italy. The Bible-believing churches held a strong evangelical testimony and were fiercely persecuted. Some of the Christians crossed the Rhine and preached the Gospel as far as Cologne, where they were branded as Manicheans, and many were burned at the stake.

In 1173, Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant from Lyon, France, was converted. Some say that he received his surname through his association with the Waldenses, who most certainly had an evangelical testimony before the time of Waldo. While a majority of historians name Peter Waldo as the originator of the Waldenses, the Waldensian ‘Noble Lesson’ dates from at least the year 1100, long before Waldo was born. Waldo was excommunicated in 1183, after being denied the right to preach. His followers were dispersed, and a number of them fled to the Waldensian Valleys. The great Dominican persecution of the Albigenses began in the 13th century. Many of these Christians also fled to Waldensian safety.

The importance of the Waldenses as a cause of the Reformation is often overlooked. They were evangelistic as well as being evangelical. They travelled throughout southern and central Europe, often disguised as peddlers, until they brought forth from their hearts treasures greater than the gems and silks they sold. They penetrated into Spain, and went as far east as Germany, Bohemia and Poland. Their footsteps can be traced not only by the evangelical churches that were founded, but by the stakes upon which many were martyred. The seed of the Gospel was often watered by the blood of those who had sowed it.

The Reformation in France and the Huguenots

The persecution by the Roman Catholics plunged France into spiritual darkness for several centuries. In 1517 Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany, criticizing Roman Catholic doctrines. This was the starting point of the Reformation that spread throughout Europe. Calvin, a French reformer convinced by Luther’s ideas, was forced to leave Paris and stayed in Basle, Strasbourg and Geneva, where he settled in 1541 (see the Christian History of Switzerland). In France, the followers of the Protestant faith were called Huguenots.

The Huguenot coat of armsThe Huguenot coat of arms. The 4 hearts represents loyalty and the dove represents the Holy Spirit.
After a long period of troubles in France, the Roman Catholic church, seeing they could not overcome the Huguenots by open force, began to devise how they might entrap them by subtlety, and that by two ways: first, by a pretend commission sent into the Low Countries, which the prince of Navarre and Conde was to command. The aim was merely to learn what power and force the Admiral de Coligny, one of the leaders of the Protestant Party, had under him, and who they were.

The second was by a marriage between the Prince of Navarre (who was Huguenot) and the king’s Roman Catholic sister, Queen Margot, to which were to be invited all the principal protestants of France. Even the Prince’s mother, the famous Jeanne d’Albret came to Paris. She fell sick shortly after her arrival and died within five days, not without suspicion of poison (the Roman Catholic king’s mother, Catherine de Medicis was an expert on that matter). Notwithstanding, the marriage still proceeded. All the protestant chiefs were invited by letter from the Roman Catholic king, which guaranteed safe passage to and safety within Paris. The trap was now set and the marriage took place on the 19th of August, 1572. Four days after this, the Admiral de Coligny, returning from the council table, was shot at with a pistol charged with three bullets, and wounded in both arms.

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (24th August 1572)

Soldiers had been appointed to different parts of Paris, to be ready at the command of the king. Upon the watchword being given, they burst forth, slaughtering all the Protestants, beginning with the leaders and the Admiral himself, who was cast out of the window into the street, where his head was struck off, embalmed and sent to the pope. His martyrdom had no sooner taken place, than the troops, with rage and violence, ran about slaying all the Protestants they knew or could find within the city gates. This continued many days, but the greatest slaughter was in the first three days in which more than 10,000 men and women, young and old were murdered.

This massacre extended to other cities like Lyon, Orleans, Toulouse and Rouen, where the cruelties were, if possible, even greater than in the capital. In one month, 30,000 Huguenots were slain.4 When he was crowned king, Henri IV denied the Protestant faith and made compromises with the Roman Catholic Church. He brought peace back to the land in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes that granted religious freedom to the Protestants.3

One famous protestant leader, John Welch, son-in-law of John Knox, was exiled to France in 1606 for 14 years until Louis XIII attacked the area of La Rochelle. He was in St. Jean d’Angely, where it is recorded that he raised the dead; was protected from cannonballs when Louis XIII’s army surrounded the city; made the army flee and then even preached while the king was residing in the city, which was forbidden.5

Then came the Thirty Years War - a war waged by the Roman Catholic countries against those areas that accepted the Reformation.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the Wilderness Period

In spite of the Edict of Nantes which “officially” brought peace for Protestants for some decades, the Hugenots were in fact still constantly persecuted. Children were taken from their families, and fathers and preachers sent to the galleys or imprisoned, if not executed. Many Protestants fled abroad (see histories of South Africa and Canada). King Louis XIV then argued that considering there were no Protestants in France anymore, he could revoke the Edict of Nantes, as it was no longer relevant.

The Revocation (or cancelling) of the Edict of Nantes, signed by Louis XIV in 1685, caused more French Protestants to flee. Pastors were commanded either to leave the kingdom or be sent to the galleys as punishment. Furthermore, Protestant churches were closed down and destroyed.

Protestants were forbidden to praise God either in public or at home. For this reason many attempted to flee, but were captured and sent to the galleys as slaves. This was a very dark time for Protestants. Protestant children born after 1685 also had to be baptised by Roman Catholic priests. Those who had decided to stay assembled secretly in houses, but when this became too dangerous, they met in forests and in quiet, deserted places in the South of France. These meetings were called “wilderness gatherings”.3

In July 1702, the War of the Cévennes began, also called the War of the Camisards, which set a whole area (Montélimar-Le Puy-Montpellier) on fire from 1702 to 1704. The royal troops of Louis XIV tried to slaughter the population of this mountainous central area, where thousands of Protestants found refuge. This war was prolonged until 1710 with many tragic episodes, which included the famous "burning of the Cévennes" in December 1703. The War of the Camisards mobilized 20,000 men of the royal troops and resulted in the death of 25-30,000 men, women and children of both Catholic and Protestant confessions.

During the whole 18th century, persecution of the Huguenots continued. Their civil rights were abolished and faithful preachers and believers who did not want to compromise were sent to the galleys. About 250,000 French Protestants left France during that period, as the only choices they had were to convert to Catholicism, be deported or sent to the galleys, or to die. Thousands of tradesmen, professors, qualified workers, farmers, doctors, etc left France with their families and belongings and migrated to England, North Germany, Holland, Switzerland and even to South Africa or North America.

In 1787, Louis XVI proclaimed the Edit de Tolérance, which gave some liberty to the Protestants again. During the French Revolution, with the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme proclaimed in 1789, the Church and the state were separated and each person was free to choose their religion.

The Christian Awakening in the Late 19th Century

The beginning of the 19th century was quite tragic for France, with incessant wars. More than a quarter of the French population died during the slaughters of the revolution and the Napoleonic wars. During the whole century, the Roman Catholic religion was still the most wide-spread in France and people had to wait for the peace following the 1870 war (the first French-German war) to see the light of the Gospel shine again. It came mostly from across the Channel, as missionaries were sent from England to France (Normandy), and some areas like Chambon (in the Cévennes, between St. Etienne, Le Puy and Valences in Southern France) experienced revival. The people also rose up against the rigid protestant institutions, which had grown cold and formal over time.

The Chambon had a long protestant history, with the first preachers arriving there in 1491. Since this time, there was always a very strong and lively protestant influence that never ceased, despite persecution. Pastors also held “Wilderness gatherings” there during the 18th century. The Protestant children escaped Catholic schools and found themselves in unofficial schools run by courageous teachers. At the end of the 19th century, teaching farms were created to help city children and teach them about the Gospel. Those who went to these schools were taught how to work on a farm as well as to restore their faith and learn about the Word.

In 1881, the Salvation Army (see the Christian History of Britain) was established in Paris by Kate Booth, the 22-year-old daughter of General Booth (the second building was built in Le Chambon in 1882). Helped by three comrades of her own age, Catherine settled in the popular district of Belleville-Ménilmontant. The beginnings were hard as they suffered scoffing, gibes and uproars (Catherine was called "the Marshal's wife" by the Parisians). “Night after night, for six months, she stood out against a grimy wine-flushed audience of taunting ‘ouvriers’. At last, when they sought to convert a prayer meeting into a riotous dance, Kate turned the tide with a clever challenge: “Mes amis! I will give you twenty minutes to dance if you will give me twenty minutes to speak!” At once a dark handsome workman in a blue blouse leapt to his feet: “Citizens, it is only fair play.” Then, standing watch in hand, he timed their capering to the minute, before calling on Kate. Eighty minutes later, with her audience still spellbound, she knew that God has granted her a precious victory. Soon she was preaching nightly to crowds 400 strong: by year’s end, only a new hall on the Quai de Valmy, seating 1,200 could contain them.”6 The Evangelisation was accompanied by a great social work involving popular hotel trades, houses for vulnerable girls etc. Many stations of the Salvation Army were created throughout France.

Christianity in the Twentieth Century and the Pentecostal Movement

From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1930s, there were two main events in the Pentecostal movement in France. One was brought about by the revival which took place in Wales at the same time (see Christian History of Britain); people prayed and worked to see the same revival in France. Many meetings were also held in an alcohol-free hotel-restaurant, the "Blue Ribbon" in Le Havre (Normandy), owned by Miss Hélène Biolley. Missionaries arrived there and Smith Wigglesworth, the famous British evangelist, visited several times. People received the Holy Spirit and were healed; they prayed for a revival in France. Miss Biolley’s "Blue Ribbon" quickly became the Christian evangelical centre in Normandy. Books were translated there (mainly from M.B. Woodworth Etter), and those who were converted could then go to England to Bible schools (such as the Elim Biblical Institute in London).

 Douglas Scott and his wifeDouglas Scott and his wife

In January 1930, Douglas Scott and his wife, newly married, arrived at Le Havre to learn French as they planned to move to the Congo as missionaries. Without waiting to learn the language, Douglas Scott immediately began to preach the Gospel. He held meetings, and people were baptised with water and received the Holy Spirit. Many were healed of various diseases. Converted alcoholics stopped drinking and thieves gave back the goods they had stolen. Until the late 1930s, baptism services were organized every 5th day. However, this small revival did not spread beyond Le Havre and was also limited in duration.

In general, there are very few Pentecostal or Evangelical churches in France, which has remained mostly Roman Catholic.

Conclusion

After the severe persecution French Protestants have undergone throughout the centuries, France has now become a “secular state”, which means that there is a clear separation between state and religion. However, as the most established religion in France is Roman Catholicism, there has been a growing suspicion toward Christian churches in recent years. The 2002 “Anti-Cult Law” shows this very clearly. Since the law’s implementation, true Christian churches have suffered persecution, since no difference is now made between pagan sects and real Christians. Article 10 of the French Constitution states that “nobody should be troubled as to their own ideas, including religious ones, as long as they do not disturb the public order as established by the Law”. Although this was originally intended for the protection of individual freedom of religion, it is now being used to stop the spreading of the Gospel and to undermine freedom of speech, making it an offence to tell someone they must obey the Bible to be saved in eternity. As a result, France has slid into an ever-worsening state of sin and corruption.

We pray that the French nation turns again to the Bible that many of its people once believed in, and starts following God’s command as described in JEREMIAH 6:16: “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls …”

  • 1. Valerie Martlew, A Remnant of Israel in France
  • 2. John W. Taylor, The Coming of the Saints, Coventant Publishers (1969)
  • 3. a. b. c. Henry W. Stough, Dedicated Disciples, Artisan Publishers (1987)
  • 4. John Foxe, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, edited by William Byron Forbush
  • 5. Ethel Barrett, The Man Who Couldn’t Be Stopped - John Welch
  • 6. Richard Collier, The General Next to God, The Story of William Booth and the Salvation Army, Collins (1965)