They lived and died by the tens of thousands for their faith, yet few of us really know who the Huguenots were. Were it not for the research I conducted for my novel, The Space Between Words, they’d be little more to me than interesting footnotes in the annals of Christian history.
Yet in startling ways, there are parallels between the Huguenots and modern day Christianity—right down to the mistakes we’re repeating for similar reasons.
They lived in the 16th , 17th and 18th centuries, followers of Martin Luther who were exterminated for rejecting the control of the Catholic Church and embracing a theology that prized relationship with God. At a time when political clout depended on religious dominance, their departure from state mandated theology was seen as a mutiny—its perpetrators too dangerous to be allowed to speak.
By some accounts, more than 60,000 Huguenots lost their lives to merciless soldiers called dragoons, charged by French kings and loyal noblemen with exterminating the “vermin” whose faith spelled their extinction.
Faced with forced conversion, imprisonment, torture, and death, thousands of these fledgling Protestants fled to more welcoming places, while a majority stayed behind to face unimaginable horrors.
Some chose to fight back. It is those who give me pause today.
The story of those counter-punching Huguenots is not a noble one. It traces the moral decline of believers whose rebellion was fueled by fear—not faith—and enforced by the ungodliest of measures.
Fear is a destructive force. In its combative form, it is dehumanizing too. Beyond the persecution decimating their people, some members of Huguenot nobility also feared losing their power—the leverage and relevance that defined them in their culture. They feared being stripped of their influence and freedoms.
To combat those losses, they chose to remain in France and turned to mercenaries who would fight for their rights—warriors who identified as Huguenots, but were really prize-fighters known for employing the same inhumane tactics the king was inflicting on the protestant community.
There’s no doubt that they fought well—they figure as heroes of major battles. There’s also no doubt that they committed atrocities in the name of protecting the protestant faith. Neither children nor women were spared from the barbaric assaults they plotted and led.
With hindsight we might wonder how the Huguenots fell to such depths. How could so many Christ-believing and God-fearing Protestants align themselves with savages known for methods that stood in abject contradiction to the faith they were protecting? The answer is simple—it’s fear.
- Fear of losing power.
- Fear of losing influence.
- Fear of becoming irrelevant in politics and culture
I see Christians today enlisting modern mercenaries—high profile combatants professing to fight for the values and welfare of believers, but whose character and tactics are no different from their adversaries’. It’s the same fear that drove the Huguenots that motivates us now. Fear of losing power. Fear of losing influence. Fear of becoming irrelevant in politics and culture.
Mind you, it isn’t persecution that pushes us to our extremes, not if we honestly compare our plight to that of the Huguenots. We can worship freely. We can speak of our faith. We can own Bibles and attend Christian summer camps. We can wear our “God is love” t-shirts or wave our “God hates fags” flags (shame on us) without the threat of dismemberment and death.
Is society changing? Yes. Is it diversifying in ethnicity and faith? Absolutely. The United States has become increasingly pluralistic—but ask the Huguenots if sharing the public square with other religions amounts to the kind of suffering they endured.
Yet despite the freedoms we enjoy, there is a movement in the American church to align itself with today’s mercenaries in order to preserve what fear-mongers tell us we’re losing.
If you’ve stood on the sidelines as I have, watching the shift from moral authority to political dominance, you too might feel a grief akin to heartbreak.
It’s made of disappointment—because so many spiritual leaders have contorted their definition of right and wrong to align themselves with mercenaries who boast of their flaws, but vow to employ enough dirty tactics to preserve the Church’s sense of security.
It’s made of embarrassment—because those mercenaries have become the most visible representatives of a faith that should be founded on acceptance, grace, mercy, love, redemption, self-sacrifice and inclusion. On immersive influence, not political clout.
It’s made of pessimism—because I fear the hateful rhetoric, hurtful methods and unChristian attitudes employed by God’s people will indelibly taint his image and our legacy.
The church’s unholy alliance with modern day mercenaries will not be measured in greater freedoms and heightened respect. I fear it will instead be quantified in losses—loss of authority, loss of integrity, loss of identity. Or more tragically yet, the loss of an untold number of souls, onlookers who might have been teetering on the verge of believing, but found their curiosity soured by the unscrupulous methods of spiritual leaders reaching for unbiblical clout.
There are days like today when my integrity feels bruised. Wearied by the calls for unholy compromise. Wounded by the conflation of politics and faith. Disheartened by assertions that God’s agenda requires governmental control.
When the perpetual duel between my fight and flight instincts depletes my emotional energy, I go back to the words I scribbled into the margins of a Sunday-morning bulletin several weeks ago:
God calls me to integrity—to honor and kindness and compassionate truth.
He calls me to a loving and inspiring influence.
Not to a political party.
Not to cultural power or social relevance.
Jesus lived by that call every day of his life. And I want to be like him.
So when the cacophony of defamation “in the name of God” becomes overwhelming, I’m comforted by the Huguenots’ story, which didn’t end with the dragonades that killed so many of them. The Protestant church that found its inception in Luther, then Calvin, that endured unimaginable persecution, then survived decimation and mass evacuation—it lives on today.
And not because of its mercenaries. Because of the fearless faithful who would not surrender and would not compromise.
We cannot fight wrong with wrong. Not even for faith. Especially not for faith.
I see Christ in those who chose death or exile over freedom and power. Just as I see him in Corrie Ten Boom’s hope-filled suffering and Jim Elliott’s uncompromising obedience. I see Christ today in those who choose conversation over debate, persuasion over power. Who seek meaningful influence by legitimate and honorable means. Who will not let their integrity be tarnished or God’s image be distorted by:
- Fear of losing power.
- Fear of losing influence.
- Fear of becoming irrelevant in politics and culture.
God’s Kingdom on Earth cannot be derailed by the politics of men. And it will not be achieved by empowering the mercenaries who claim to fight battles he has already won to protect a faith that cannot be destroyed.
Huguenot prize fighters may have won some battles, centuries ago, but they stand in hindsight as affronts to Jesus’ heart and God’s commands—a shameful stain on our collective history.
Despite the claims of modern Evangelical leaders elevating and endorsing blatantly immoral flag-bearers, the Kingdom God speaks of must begin with le commun des mortels—with the flawed but willing common man. With me. With a commitment to act justly and love mercy in the small but still significant contexts in which I live. With a willingness to shun all wrongs, strategic as they may be, and to embrace instead a more vulnerable good, with the unwavering certainty that in his power and in his time, the Kingdom he promised will finally come.
“He [the devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of
opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking
which is the worse. You see why, of course. He relies on your extra
dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.
But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and
go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern
than that with either of them.”
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