Lessons from the Synod of Loudun: Government Overreach in the Twilight of Toleration

The adjournment of the synod of Loudun [January 10, 1660] marks the close of the period during which the Huguenots of France enjoyed a good degree of quiet and prosperity in the more or less full enjoyment of the advantages guaranteed to them by the Edict of Nantes. A period of a widely different character was now to ensue.

So wrote Henry M. Baird in The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.1

The Erosion Of Religious Liberty

The reality to which Baird referred was the erosion of the liberties of the French Reformed that began to accelerate in the period between 1660 and 1685, the end of that period being the point at which Protestantism became illegal in France with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.   That Edict, granted by Henri IV in April, 1598 brought about a peace settlement to the decades of war that had raged between the Reformed and the Roman Catholics of France. The resulting situation, odd for its time and persisting until the revocation of the Edict by Louis XIV in 1685, was one in which both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were tolerated by the state. One writer referred to the Edict as one that “allowed for temporary religious co-existence” instead of introducing “a systematic policy of religious toleration.”2

Though the Edict, strictly speaking, did not grant full religious liberty, it did grant freedom of worship and freedom of conscience to Huguenots in towns that were controlled by them in August of 1597, in other towns that had already been granted toleration, and in the homes of Protestant nobles. Though, according to the Edict, the Huguenots had to pay tithes to the Roman Catholic Church, an additional document granted a government subsidy to pay Huguenot pastors. Also, secret articles within the Edict of Nantes allowed the Huguenots the right to hold broader church assemblies at the level of colloquy and synod (roughly equivalent to presbytery and general assembly, respectively, in Presbyterian terms). Another portion of the Edict granted Huguenots the right to maintain a citizen militia or troops paid for by the crown in several hundred towns.3 To borrow the words of Martin Klauber, “The period was an unusual one in which France boasted two state religions, Roman Catholic and Protestant, due to the protections afforded to the latter by the Edict of Nantes. These protections limited the locations in which they could worship, but the clergy were supported by the state.”4

But as Baird indicated, the close of the Synod of Loudun in the beginning of 1660 marked the transition from a period in which the legal privileges granted by the Edict of Nantes were peacefully enjoyed, at least relatively speaking, to one in which those liberties were eaten away, little by little, until the Edict itself was revoked in 1685.5 As Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard explains, this was the king’s long game:

Beginning with his declaration in 1656, the young King Louis XIV devoted himself to continuing the royal policy of a ‘grand design’: the reunion to the Roman Catholic Church of the French Protestants who had previously ‘been separated.’   His desire for one faith, one law, and one king worked alongside the efforts of the French prelates to bring the Huguenots back to the mother Church. Louis explained that the proper work of the king in this regard was to limit the protection afforded to the Protestants by the Edict of Nantes. His method was to promulgate various edicts and laws to limit their freedoms, ‘following the disorder of the recent civil wars.’6

The period from 1660-1665 alone marked the closure of more than one third of the Reformed Churches in France, a ban on Psalm-singing except within designated churches, and the forbidding of preaching in those churches that had already been closed by order of the king.7

Though the erosion of Protestant liberties had already begun, the sessions of the Synod of Loudun give us a window into the government over-reach that was beginning to ramp up and would eventually take away all liberties of French Protestants.

From the 1620’s on, a royal official who was himself a Protestant attended the national synods as the king’s representative to ensure that the synodical assembly “stayed in their lane,” that is, that they only dealt with matters related to the Reformed Churches.8 Near the beginning of a synod would be a speech given by this royal commissioner, and customarily the commissioner’s speech would include commands from the king given to the Reformed Churches, some of which commands were not contradictory to the Edict of Nantes and other edicts which were already in place, and some of which commands did over-ride the liberties which had been granted to the Huguenots by law. Such was the case at Loudun when the last national synod of the French Reformed Churches began in November, 1659.

The Lord de Magdelaine served as Louis XIV’s royal commissioner at the Synod.   His speech on that occasion contained many things that the royal commissioners in the past had delivered from the king to the national synods. For example,

all Ministers are enjoyned to keep themselves in all their publick Discourses within the bounds of Moderation, and to give no just cause of complaint of their Conduct; and they be all expressly forbidden in their Sermons or Books, to mention the Word Antichrist, when as they speak of the Pope, nor to style the Catholicks Idolaters, nor to treat the Catholick Religion with scandalous or injurious Terms, such as the Abuse and Deceits of Satan, and other such like, which are to be found in your Confession of Faith.   His Majesty not being able to suffer that such Words should be Sworn in this Synod; and you be all in this matter, which lieth so near to his Heart, invited to testifie that respect and obedience, which you would always render unto whatsoever shall be propounded and ordained by him.9

Likewise, the king forbade “your reception of Foreigners into the Ministry and Pastoral Office among you, or their Admission into your Synods.”   To prevent an

Aversion for Monarchy, which is contracted by them who follow their Studies in Foreign States and Commonwealths, such as Geneva, Switzerland, England and Holland, there shall be a Canon expressly made to this purpose, and shall be accordingly observed, That such Persons as have studied in any of those Foreign Universities, and offer themselves to be ordained, or to be admitted Pastors of any Church, shall not at all be admitted.10


His Majesty enjoyneth all Pastors and Ministers to preach the Commandments of God and that Obedience which People owe unto their King; and that it is utterly unlawful for them to revolt, or take up Arms against their Soveraign upon any cause or occasion whatsoever, upon which Subject there shall be one Sermon at least made, and preached in my Hearing in one of the Sessions of this Synod.   And you be also farther forbidden, from ever using hereafter in your Pulpit-Discourses these Words, Scourges, Persecution, or other such like Expressions, which are apt to stir up the Minds of his Majesty’s Subjects unto Sedition, and to alienate their Affections from his Majesty, who is most desirous to maintain and preserve them in Tranquility.11

Being exhorted to stay in their lane, the Synod was forbidden to air any grievances of the treatment they were receiving under the government.   It was his Majesty’s

pleasure that none of the Deputies [i.e., ecclesiastical representatives at the Synod] shall speak of the infraction of the Edicts, and leave those other ways, which are permitted them to have such Infractions, if any, redressed.   Synods have heretofore done so, but this shall not, for it is no Judge of these matters.   Here matters of Doctrin and Church-Discipline only are to be handled. And whereas ‘tis usual for these Synodical Assemblies to complain of their Grievances, the King commands me to tell you, that he hath far greater cause to complain of the Infraction and Transgression of his Edicts, committed by his Subjects of the Pr. Reformed Religion in contempt of them; for they have dared to proceed unto that Excess of Insolence even since his Majesty began his Reign, as to set up Preachings again in Languedoc, where they had been suppressed; and not only in that Province, but elsewhere also, and that in an open & presumptuous manner against the Publick Peace and general Laws of the Kingdom.12

In addition, the King had resolved that no more national synods should be held “but when as he thinks meet.” Moving forward, all business which had previously been dealt with at the level of the national synod should be dealt with at the level of the provincial synods.13

The Moderator of the Synod was Jean Daille (1594–1670), one of the pastors of the Huguenot temple at Charenton. Daille is perhaps most remembered for his 1632 work A Treatise concerning the Right Use of the Fathers and for the support he lent to Moise Amyraut (1596–1664) in the controversy surrounding the theology of the Academy of Saumur and the doctrine of hypothetical universalism. Daille had himself had received his theological training at the Academy of Saumur. Indeed, his name was so connected with the theology of Saumur that when the Swiss Reformed rejected Amyraut’s doctrine in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675), they listed Daille by name alongside Amyraut and Placeus as one of its representatives. When the controversy over the theology of Saumur was heating up in the 1630’s, in light of the political situation facing the Huguenots, Daille viewed it as “most imprudent if without necessity we cause an uproar at a time when every disturbance is mortally dangerous to us.”>14 He compared the controversy to a man who would accidentally set his house on fire in order to burn a spider.15

Daille’s perspective in this regard was colored by the events of previous decades. Following the assassination of Henri IV in 1610, the Huguenots became distrustful of their government and in that distrust, two parties arose among them. One of these parties was more militant and one was more political. The militant party wanted to be ready to defend their rights by force of arms if the wars of religion should be reignited. But the events of the 1620’s would prove to break the power of the militant Huguenots. The Huguenot revolt at La Rochelle was put down in 1628, and the Peace of Calais and the Edict of Grace of Nimes, issued the following year, upheld only those parts of the Edict of Nantes that permitted the Reformed the right to practice their religion. The military power of the Huguenots was from that point forward a thing of the past.16

The political party among the Huguenots, on the other hand, had wanted to be loyal to the king and to use peaceful and political avenues to preserve the Reformed faith in France. Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, governor of Saumur and founder of the Academy of Saumur, gave leadership to this political group until 1623, when he died in the arms of his pastor, who was none other than Jean Daille.17 Daille had previously been a tutor to the grandsons of Mornay from 1612 to 1621, and his “relationship to Mornay shaped his entire life, and he remained loyal to Mornay’s cause, his family, and his memory.”18 Daille’s political and theological convictions seem to have been drawn from and firmly tied to Saumur.

This was the man, who at sixty-five years old was Moderator of the Synod of Loudon. Daille responded to the speech of the royal commissioner by expressing the joy of the Assembly at the favor shown to them by the king of being allowed to meet as a Synod and due to the fact that the Lord de Magdelaine was in the position of royal commissioner, “who for Piety and Integrity, for Faith and Vertue, are renowned not only in our Churches, but in the World it self.”19 Coupled with this gratitude for the King and his commissioner was an acknowledgement of their submission to the king. Daille spoke of

that indispensable Obligation lying upon all their Subjects, to yield to them in all things all Honour, Service and Obedience, (not only out of Fear but for Conscience sake,)…This Doctrin the Holy Apostle learnt us, to be subject unto Kings, and those who be Commissionated by them.   This Doctrin we received from the Primitive Christians, that the King is next and under God, and that there is no middle power intervening between God’s and his; and after that Service we owe unto our God, there is none more Sacred or inviolable than his.20

With such strong monarchist declarations, could Daille and the Synod do anything other than capitulate to all royal demands?   Indeed, they could.   After requesting time to consider the different points raised by the commissioner’s speech, Daille responded in the name of the Synod to the commissioner’s speech.

In his reply, Daille expressed how the Reformed Churches had complied with the royal demand that no foreigners be admitted to the ministry, though they took the opportunity to petition the king to allow it.21 They were willing to comply with the demand that their students be kept from studying abroad, but they requested that the king would allow it and assured him that “there shall be no cause to fear that their good Inclinations should be corrupted.”22 Likewise, they pleaded for the allowance to continue to hold national synods.23

But their reverence for the King and his authority only went so far.   They responded to the charge that the members of their churches had violated the King’s edicts by stating:

we are exceedingly grieved and concerned, that those who are near his Majesty do us very ill Offices, and slander us unto him, representing our Actions in very odious colours; so that instead of informing him, that the Exercise of our Religion hath been violently abolish’d and removed from very many places; where it was permitted by the Edicts, and that our Temples have been demolished by main Force, and in an Hostile manner, they have dispersed wicked false Stories   of us at Court, as if we had some new and unlawful Enterprizes and Designs in our Heads.24

They responded to the demand that they be moderate in their language as follows:

And as for that Discreet Carriage required from our Ministers in the Exercise of their Pastoral Office in their Books and Sermons, printed or preached in Defence of our Religion, our Fathers before ever the Exercise of our Religion was permitted by the Edicts, and in the very midst of Fire and Faggot, had Christian Charity in that great Esteem and Commendation, that they by a most plain and Express Article of our Discipline, did prohibit the Usage of any injurious reproachful Terms, which might in the least exasperate Men’s Spirits; so that the Time in which we now live being more calm and peaceable through the Grace of God, and the Goodness of our King, his Majesty may be fully assured, that on this Account he shall always find us yielding a most perfect Obedience, a most exemplary Moderation…

But as for those Words Antichrist in our Liturgy, and Idolatry, and Deceits of Satan, which are found in our Confession, they be Words declaring the Grounds and Reasons of our Separation from the Romish Church, and Doctrins which our Fathers maintained in the worst of Times, and which we are fully resolved as they, through the Aids of Divine Grace, never to abandon, but to keep faithfully and inviolably to the last Gasp.25

The attitude of the Synod is aptly summed up by the command of 1 Peter 2:17 to fear God and honor the king.   And thus they replied to the demand to preach one sermon on obedience to the king by saying,

we are well assured that before the breaking up of this Synod, your Lordship, my Lord Commissioner, shall see not in one single Exhortation only, but in many, those inviolable Inclinations we have unto the Weal and Happiness of the Government, and that Obedience which we are all unanimously resolved to render unto the Will and Laws of our Prince, when as they be not contrary to that of the Law of God, who is the King of Kings.26

It is hard to disagree with Alexandre Vinet’s synopsis of the situation: “Daille’s remarkable speech well depicts the situation of affairs, a false and violent situation which in the nature of things could not last.”27 And the situation did not last.

Though the circumstances of the Huguenots at the Synod of Loudon were unique to them, they demonstrate in their response to an increasingly hostile government a godly goal of functioning as faithful citizens of both the Kingdom of France and the Kingdom of Christ.   And in this they serve as an example to all Christians in this world, who have to simultaneously function as citizens in an earthly, civil state, all the while recognizing that their ultimate citizenship is not here but in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

Some Applications To Our Circumstances

Being removed from these scenes at Loudon that unfolded 360 years ago and being removed from the precise political situation of the Huguenots, are there any lessons to be learned from the conduct of the French Reformed at the Synod and the broader situation in which they found themselves?   There are.   I’ll mention three.

1. Respect civil authority even when the demands of civil authority are unreasonable and unlawful.

One of the remarkable notes that resounds continually throughout Daille’s response is the respect that he has for the King and his desire to give due honor to him as King. Even when he announces that the Reformed Churches will not comply with the King’s demands, he does so with utmost respect and with reasoned defense, hearkening back to legal precedent or giving the theological reason for their non-compliance. Daille demonstrated meekness and a gentle spirit all throughout. This is a helpful example, given the tendency of the times toward an anti-authoritarian bias. We are told in Romans 13:2 that “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” And if Peter could command servants to be submissive with all respect, not only to the good and gentle masters but also to the unreasonable (1 Peter 2:18), then surely a spirit of submissive respect should characterize our attitudes toward a government that is being unreasonable as well.

2.Respect for the civil authority and godly submission unto them does not mean blind obedience to them.

As already mentioned, Daille’s submissive stance toward the King did not mean that he would submit to whatever the King demanded.   When the royal demands contradicted what was allowed by law, Daille was willing to plead with the king. When the royal demands contradicted the Law of God or that which seemed to flow as good and necessary consequence from the word of God, the Synod refused to comply with the King’s demands. They were always respectful, and they would obey to a certain point, but no further. They were unanimously resolved to render obedience “unto the Will and Laws of our Prince, when as they be not contrary to that Law of God, who is the King of Kings.”

Indeed, the line held by the Synod of Loudon in 1659–60 was reminiscent of the line held by their Reformed forefathers one hundred years earlier, when they submitted their Confession of Faith to King Francis II in 1560. Attached to their Confession was a letter of petition in which the Huguenots stated,

And we hope that you yourself will be the judge of our innocence, knowing that there is in us no rebellion or heresy whatsoever, but that our only endeavor is to live in peace of conscience, serving God according to his commandments, and honoring your Majesty by all obedience and submission…And if that should not please you, Sire, to listen to our voice, may it please you to listen to that of the Son of God, who, having given you power over our property, our bodies, and even our lives, demands that the control and dominion of our souls and consciences, which he purchased with his own blood, be reserved to him.28

To put the issue in biblical terms, when push comes to shove, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

3.Be prepared for things to get worse.

Vinet was correct in his remark that such a situation as that at Loudon could not last. The next quarter-century brought about the complete destruction of all Protestant liberties in France. I am no prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet. Amos was herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs, and I grew up doing landscaping and working on a nursery. No one knows what the future holds in regard to how the relationship between church and state will play out in the United States over the next few decades. I can only say, though, that given the present-day trends of an increasingly hostile culture and a political environment that is increasingly hostile to Christians, and given the way these kinds of trends have played out in the past, we would do well to prepare ourselves, our churches, and our children for hardship.   Our Lord Jesus has told us in John 15:18-19 that “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.   If you ​were of the world the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” If we would be Christians, we must acknowledge that reality and seek to be ready for whatever manifestation that hatred may take, all the while keeping our eyes fixed on the eternal realities of the life to come and not losing heart on account of the hardships of this life (2 Cor 4:16-18).



1 Henry M. Baird, The Huguenots and the Revocation of Edict of Nantes, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), Vol. 1, 415.

2 Mack Holt, French Wars of Religion, 166, cited in Jeannine Olson, “The Cradle of Reformed Theology: The Reformed Churches from Calvin’s Geneva through Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes,” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, ed. by Martin I. Klauber, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 20.

3 Jeannine Olson, “The Cradle of Reformed Theology: The Reformed Churches from Calvin’s Geneva through Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes,” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, ed. by Martin I. Klauber, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 20–21.

4 Martin I. Klauber, “Introduction” in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, ed. by Martin I. Klauber, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 20.

5 See Marianne Carbonnier-Burkhard, “The Edict of Nantes ‘a la Rigueur’ (1661-1685)”, trans. by Martin I. Klauber, in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, ed. by Martin I. Klauber (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 156–66.

6 Ibid., 156.

7 Ibid., 160.

8 Theodore G. Van Raalte, “The French Reformed Synods of the Seventeenth Century”, in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, ed. by Martin I. Klauber (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 80.

9 John Quick, Synodicon in Gallia Reformata (London: Parkhurst & Robertson, 1692), 2:507–08.

10 Ibid., 508.

11 Ibid., 508.

12 Ibid., 508.

13 Ibid., 509.

14 Quoted in F. P. van Stam, The Controversy over the Theology of Saumur, 1635-1650: Disrupting Debates Among the Huguenots in Complicated Circumstances (Amsterdam & Maarssen: APA- Holland University Press, 1988), 72.

15 Ibid., 73.

16 Ibid., 7-8.

17 Ibid., 5-6.   See also Martin I. Klauber, “Whose Side Are They On?   Jean Daille (1594-1670) on the Church Fathers”, in The Theology of the French Reformed Churches, ed. by Martin I. Klauber (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 237.

18 Klauber, 237.

19 Quick, 510.

20 Ibid., 511.

21 Ibid., 513.

22 Ibid., 517.

23 Ibid., 516.

24 Ibid., 515.

25 Ibid., 513.

26 Ibid., 514.

27 Alexandre Vinet, Histoire de la Predication parmi les Reformes de France au dix-septieme sificle, 192.   Cited by Baird, 414.

28 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Sixth Edition, 1931, reprint (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) , 3:358–59.

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One comment

  1. I also recommend “Days of the Upright.”

    After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, most of the Protestants left France for the Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa, and the Americas. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes was effectively the end of French Protestantism, though a remnant held on in the country. Simonetta Carr has written about this. The level of government meddling at this stage, arguably, exceeded that of the Romans. The point is, the same factors that brought Protestants to this country could cause them to leave.

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