Remembering the Martyrs of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Psalm 44:23-26 ESV)
So reads the conclusion of Psalm 44. This song begins by recounting God’s faithful protection for His people in times past. His great deeds He performed “in the days of old” to set His people free. Yet that memory only increases the subsequent lament, the prolonged cries to God about the oppression His people now suffer.
On August 24th falls the feast of St. Bartholomew. Every year the Christian calendar celebrates the life and work of this Apostle of Jesus Christ. However, the day has a dark history as well. This year marks the 450th anniversary of the massacre that began on that date in Paris. By its end, at least 12,000 French Huguenots lay dead, murdered by their Roman Catholic rulers and fellow citizens. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre permanently damaged the Protestant cause in France, nearly wiping out its leadership and frightening many of its surviving adherents into converting.
Psalm 44 gives words to the terror these godly men and women faced. This passage of Scripture frames for us the tale of their sufferings —the nature of them, the reason for them, and the reaction to them. (In a bitter irony, Claudius Gaudimelus was among the victims of the massacre, a musician who had helped compose tunes for a French translation of the Psalter.)
“You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.” (vs. 11)
The massacre came through trickery, a perfidious assurance of peace that hid and enabled the sword. Men, women, and children, unaware of their danger, were led to their doom like so many innocent lambs. To understand this treachery, we must see the events that led up to the slaughter. The Wars of Religion had raged in France between the Roman Catholic majority and a substantial Huguenot minority since the Spring of 1562. The “Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye” in 1570 gave some hope for a longer-term break in hostilities. Additional overtures of peace had been made to the Protestants by the Roman Catholic king, young Charles IX. A wedding then sought to cement this peace. On August 18, 1572, the Protestant Prince Henry of Navarre, later King Henry IV, married Margaret, a Roman Catholic and sister to Charles. The French Huguenot nobility converged on intensely Catholic Paris to attend the wedding. Dancing and mirth seemed the order of the time and a potential portent of the future. Four days later, though, an attempt was made to murder Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a leading Huguenot. The plot failed, only wounding him. But it sparked outrage from the gathered French Protestants, who demanded an investigation. The king and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, then either planned, or at least consented to a plan, to eliminate many of the gathered French Protestant nobility still staying in Paris.
On the morning of August 24, the murders began. They started with Admiral Coligny, finishing the work left undone two days earlier. The killings then spread. While the royal plot targeted Huguenot gentry, Catholic Parisians added their Protestant neighbors to the rolls of the slaughtered. The stories turn the stomach. According to a history written by Jacques August De Thou, a survivor of the massacre, an elderly tutor named Briolus was stabbed to death while in the embrace of a student, “who stretched forth his arms, and opposed his own body to the blows.” Neither women nor children were spared, with the Seine River running red with their blood.
Moreover, these episodes led to a long-standing exodus of Huguenots from France, scattering them “among the nations,” including England, Holland, and Geneva. When Protestantism was made illegal in the 1680s, more than 200,000 would leave for other shores, including the English colonies in North America.
“Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (vs. 22)
This verse says not only that God’s people are killed. They are killed on account of their allegiance to God. The Huguenots, too, died for their faith. They died not merely for their personal faith, but for the particular beliefs espoused in the Protestant Reformation. For they confessed the Gospel as the Reformation had revived it in purer form.
We see this wholesome doctrine in the French Confession of 1559, drawn up with the help of John Calvin and confirmed at La Rochelle in 1571 by France’s seventh national synod. First, this confession held to the supreme authority of Holy Scripture. God’s Word “is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation.” This declaration affirmed the doctrine of sola scriptura, reiterating that “no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but, on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them.”
Second, the French Protestant church affirmed salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. The condemnation of sin, “is abolished for the children of God, out of his mere free grace and love.” We cannot in any way earn our salvation, not by our own self-wrought works and not even by those infused into us by the work of God. It is Christ’s work alone for us, who “is given to us for our salvation, and is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” All we do is have faith, and that itself is given to us. “We believe,” the document continues, “that we are made partakers of… justification by faith alone.”
The Huguenots believed these truths. They died for them. They were in every respect Christian martyrs. Thus, Charles Spurgeon listed the Massacre’s victims when he said that in this verse “we clearly hear the martyr’s cry.”
“Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way.” (vs. 18)
This verse recounts the steadfastness of God’s people in their profession of faith. In their martyrdom, the men and women of French Protestantism gave testimony to their steadfast love of the true God as well. Coligny is reported to have said, as he perceived his oncoming demise, “Happy am I who shall perceive my self to die, and who shall die in God, by whose Grace I am raised to the hope of eternal life.” Another man, being led to his death, did not cry out for mercy. Instead, he asked in righteous indignation, “Is this the King’s faith? Are these his promises? Is this the peace? But thou, O most great and most good God, behold the cause of the oppressed, and as a just Judge avenge this perfidy and cruelty.”
In these tales we see that they not only died for their faith. They died well, boldly proclaiming the truth, not ashamed of the Gospel and willing to suffer persecution for its sake.
“Those who hate us have gotten spoil.” (vs. 10)
De Thou’s narrative recounts numerous particular instances where Protestants not only were killed but their money and goods seized. He writes generally of how, “the streets and ways did resound with the noise of those that flocked to the slaughter and plunder.” In fact, some of the attackers acted for this reason only, using religious pretext to enrich themselves at the cost of their neighbors’ and fellow citizens’ lives. But others did it as part of showing their disrespect for those whose doctrine they found heretical, denying the truths the Reformation had sought to recover.
“You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.” (vs. 13-14)
The Huguenots suffered derision in addition to physical violence and economic plundering. The tale of their downfall spread across Europe. Protestant countries, including England, reacted with rage. To his credit, Maximillian II, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, was said to have been horrified by the atrocity. That said, plenty received the news with celebration. It is reported that Philip II of Spain laughed a rare laugh when he heard about the events. Pope Gregory XIII had a medal made to commemorate the slaughter. A jubilee procession took place in Paris even before the killings ended, partly as a triumph over the “heretics” and partly from a false rumor claiming the massacre had thwarted a Huguenot revolt.
“You are my King, O God” (vs. 4)
The massacre initiated deep reflection among Protestants regarding the role, powers, and limitations of the magistrate. Theodore Beza penned De Jura Magistratuum in 1574 in response to the events of 1572. Vindiciae contra tyrannos, written by anonymous Huguenot authors, followed in 1579. These works argued from nature and from Scripture that God alone is the perfect Ruler who alone deserves absolute obedience. Beza wrote that, since “the will of almighty God is the eternal and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that it must be unconditionally obeyed.” The authors of the Vindiciae said that, in contrast, “[t]here is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture, the least justification for unlimited obedience to earthly kings.” Instead, both writings made the argument, common to Protestant political theology, that political rule must follow God’s law as summarized in the Decalogue. That law gave the definition of justice, the purpose of political community, and the limits of political action. Thus, the Vindiciae asserted that in the Decalogue, “the authority of all rulers ought to be as fixed as unremovable boundaries.” They were the permanent and highest standard.
This distinction between God and human rulers meant that when their decrees diverged, we must adhere to God rather than man. This conclusion did not entail disobeying every time an individual disagreed with a law or edict. Beza counseled that, “It befits a wise man to make trial of all things by deliberation before armed force.” But these authors made clear that persistent, egregious, systemic demands prescribing sin or prohibiting righteousness must be defied. To do otherwise partook of idolatry, deifying man, seeking to dethrone God, and harming those made in God’s image.
This stance toward political rule justified certain forms of civil disobedience. But, taken alone, a theology of civil disobedience seemed incomplete. For it still would leave the faithful subject to the oppression of murderous tyrants. In response, these political writings sought additional recourse for believers, a protector for those unwilling to bend the knee to mandated evil. These works looked for this protection to a political community’s lesser magistrates, those holding legitimate political power but acting under the polity’s ultimate human sovereign. When the highest human rulers proved despotic, these lesser magistrates could and should come to the people’s aid. They should act to restore the proper purposes and boundaries of political rule, according both to God’s law and to the statutes of the realm. The Vindiciae spoke here of “the magistrates who are inferior to the king, and whom the people have substituted, or established, an assembly with a kind of tribunal authority, to restrain the encroachments of sovereignty, and to represent the whole people.” Beza wrote that, when a king or other ruler engaged in persistent, crushing tyranny, “it shall be lawful and permitted to the subordinate magistrates to take precautions for themselves and for those over whom they exercise guardianship, and to offer resistance to the tyrant of the people.” This resistance to tyranny could stop at assertion and persuasion if those proved successful. But it also could involve force – often the only language tyrants comprehend.
The persecution perpetuated on St. Bartholomew’s Day helped forge these needed insights within Protestant political theology. Those principles continue to bear fruit, showing even for us today how we might address tyrants who defy God and oppress man. They came at a dear price. We should hold them dear.
“But you have saved us” (vs. 7)
This St. Bartholomew’s Day, we should remember the men and women slain in France 450 years ago. We should remember with sorrow their earthly fate. We should remember with joy their heavenly reward. And we should remember with admiration and emulation their faithfulness.
In so doing, we can acknowledge their imperfections. The Reformation involved persons pursuing social and political objectives, including selfish, sinful ones. But we must never deny the crucial, central role sincere Christian belief and practice played in those events. Some lived and died for worldly motives. Many lived and died because they believed the true Gospel and were willing to pay with their life for it.
Moreover, we should not let our righteous lament for these murdered dead poison our relationship with our Roman Catholic neighbors today. We can also acknowledge and decry the atrocities committed by Protestants against Catholics at various points, in various places, throughout the last 500 years. We thankfully no longer kill each other over our theological disagreements, turning instead to reasoning together as our means of contention. And we can seek common ground with Rome about matters on which we agree. For we face common foes in societal attempts to reconfigure humanity’s moral framework as revealed by God in nature and Scripture.
But these points cannot, and indeed must not, diminish the theological stakes involved in the Reformation. Nor should they paper over the distinctives that divided France then and continue to divide us today. The doctrines articulated in the Reformation Solas remain points of contention between Rome and Protestantism. They remain precious doctrines that we Protestants must defend with clarity and boldness.
In 1572, the Seine ran red with the blood of martyrs, killed for their belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But they were not forgotten, by their God or by us, their brothers and sisters. You did redeem them, O LORD, “for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Psalm 44:26)
*Image Credit: Wikipedia