St Bartholomew's Day Massacre

st bartholomew's day massacreThanks to Gil Garcia for reminding us that the week of August 23 is the anniversary of the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. One of the great paradoxes of the history of Reformed theology is that “Calvinism” is often pictured as marching across Europe and the British Isles with Nazi-like efficiency. There are some counter-points, e.g. the work of Bruce Gordon and others. The actual history of the fortunes of the Reformed in the 16th century seem to me to be rather different and nowhere is this plainer than in the case of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It actually extended over several days but it began on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day. When it was over tens of thousands of French Reformed Christians had been murdered by Roman Catholics.I don’t point this to stir up anti-Romanist sentiment but to remind Reformed folk (and would-be Reformed folk) that the history of the Reformed churches in Europe and the British Isles is the history of a suffering people—not the history of a conquering people. Our history and our theology is, properly understood, the history of a people sub cruce (under the cross) and our theology is a theology of the cross (theologia crucis).  Perhaps this is a good reminder to those who envision their ostensibly Reformed denominations to one day be “a part of the mainline” or socially or culturally “influential.” Historically that just hasn’t been our role. Are we bound by the past? No, but it’s just stupid to refuse to be informed by it. Perhaps there’s a reason we’ve rarely been as influential as some folk would like to be.

Nor do I want to play the “victim card,” exactly. I do want to remind us, however, that the Reformed faith was confessed by French, Dutch, and English Christians at considerable cost. Many of them confessed the faith all the way to a matyr’s death. Some of us seem to be all too willing to cast aside that for which our brothers and sisters paid with their blood, whether it is the doctrine of justification sola fide or the regulative principle of worship (i.e. sola Scriptura). Those Reformed folk who died in the frenzy of anti-Protestant violence did not die singing cheap and tawdry choruses. If their tongues were not cut out, they died singing the psalms. It’s fashionable now for trendy, lightweight, wanna-be theologians to tell us that we have to move past the old conflicts and especially the Reformation. Well, perhaps they are willing to go where ever the wind blows, but the gospel is still the gospel and the law is still the law and, in that regard, nothing has changed since the sixteenth century.

If you’re tempted today to go along to get along, take a moment remember the 12,000 or so Dutch Reformed martyrs, who died under Phlip II, and the 30,000-50,000 French Reformed martyrs, who died during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, who only wanted to confess the Gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and who wanted only to worship God in the way that he has commanded and for that were put to death confessing Jesus the only High Priest and Head of the Church and the Word of God as the only norm of the church.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. My only comment would be that these would be historically considered Reformed Churches who used confessions that were not the 3 forms of unity. There is a movement in the broad calvinist tradition that is moving from the insane revivalistic extremet to the other where only church in the Dutch tradition who use the 3 forms of Unity have an historical claim to the title Reformed. For those who have not read La Confession de La Rochelle I would reccomend you read this Reformed Confession. It is still used as a Confession in France and as a suppliment to the Westminster Confession and Heidleberg Catechism here in the Reformed Church in Québec.

    • The numbers are a guess

      The old number (eg D’Aubigne?) used to be c. 100,000. The modern (often Marxist) tendency is to downplay the massacre because it doesn’t fit the paradigm. I don’t know how anyone could know with certainty how many were murdered. The important thing is not to forget.

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Scott
    This whole period was one of intense persecution against the Reformed faith .Leopold Von Ranke in his ‘History of The Popes’ wrote ,” At the request of the Pope, Philip of Spain sent the French an auxilary force of practised troops under experienced leaders. Pius V caused collections to be made in the States of the Church and gathered contributions from Italian princes;nay, the holy father himself despatched a small body of troops across the Alps; that same army to whose leader he gave the ferorious command to kill every Huguenot that might fall into his hands ,and grant quarter to none.” (vol.II, p.45)

  3. This is one of my interest, more on the Huguenots. Any good book recommendation on the french calvinists?

  4. Our church in France uses La Confession de La Rochelle as one of our main confessions (we also have the Heidelberg and Westminster alongside).

    Robin, if you’re interested in a good history (though not the perfect one) of the events of St. Bartholomew’s Day, I enjoyed “Beneath the Cross – Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris” by Barbara Diefendorf. It also explains the rhetoric going on at that period between Catholics and Huguenots. I bought this book while attempting to understand why exactly the Catholics would go to such extremes in their persecution. I always understood why the Huguenots withheld (it was their faith), but what was the motivation behind the Catholics? This books has some good answers.

  5. Unfortunantly, a lot of the good books about the Huguenots are in French – I won’t recommend any of those unless someone else on here speaks French.

  6. Excellent reminder. Of note, Elizabeth’s Calvinistic (if not Puritan) spymaster was in Paris during the period in question. The Massacre forever informed that rock-solid Churchman. Keep bringing us these materials.

  7. St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24, was also the date of the Act of Uniformity (1662), mandating the use of the Book of Common Prayer in British churches, along with prelatical ordination, and causing nearly 2000 Puritan ministers to leave their pulpits for conscience’ sake. Quite a black day in the Protestant church year.

  8. A very black day, indeed, and a very black day for those who could not use that very book, 90% of which is Scripture. Another black stain was the failure of Christ’s Reformed Church in England to retain the Westminster Confession of Faith or its earlier prototype, The Irish Articles, 1615. The blackness of this has also clouded the development of some in maturity and respect.

  9. It is also notable that many French Huguenots in NYC joined Anglican congregations in the colonial period. It is further notable that John Strype, of Huguenot parentage in the late 17th century, ex-pats from France, Calvinists, would take orders in Christ’s Church of England, become a presbyter, and would later become one of the finest historians of the English Reformation. He used that black and horrid book of 1662, which this scribbler uses and has used daily for years.

  10. Overall this is a great reminder to remember the suffering of our theological forebears, but, respectfully, I don’t think it’s exactly appropriate to lump Psalm singing together with justification in this context.

    Sure, the Huguenots believed in the regulative principle, it was a very important doctrine to them, and they died singing the Psalms. But they weren’t massacred because the Romanists insisted they sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and they refused, they were massacred because of their conviction that men are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. To say that those who advocate “singing cheap and tawdry choruses” are turning their back on the sacrifices of these martyrs in the same way that those who deny justification sola fide are, just doesn’t ring true to me.

    • Mike,

      My comments are influenced by my recent study in Calvin’s doctrine of worship. Repeatedly, through his carrer, the two things that Calvin linked together when had to boil the Reformation down to its most basic elements were these: justification sola gratia, sola fide and worship according to the RPW. The rest of the Reformed after Calvin spoke in similar ways.

  11. It is just amazing how religion is used in these ways, I think it has always been like this and will probably always be that way.

    I lived in Heidelberg in 1950 and I knew the church had a wall during the Reformation to seperate Catholics and Protestants.

    What kind of God would ask the followers to kill non-believers? What have humans learned in tens of thousands of years?


    • Richard

      The St B massacres happened a long time ago. The mass murders of the radical atheists gave dwarfed the sins of the sins of the Christians. The atheists killed 100s of millions in the 20th century alone.

Comments are closed.