The Huguenots: A Study in Religious Toleration

Emotion clouds judgment. Leaders fail when emotion gets in the way of sound decision making. In early modern Europe, religion was a constant hot button issue. Wars between Catholics and Protestants engulfed the continent and lasted from the time Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses in 1517 until the Treaty of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years War to an end in 1648. But, religion continued playing an indelible role in the leadership of European nations. Absolute rulers dealt with it in distinctly separate ways.  The prevailing view came from the dominant power of the late 17th century; Louis XIV ruled France with an iron fist. The Catholic Louis refused to compromise with religious minorities and revoked the freedoms of the Huguenots, a Protestant Calvinist sect. This created a brain drain as thousands of citizens fled the country. It also hastened the demise of France as a continental power.  Prussia and the Hohenzollerns were the beneficiaries of this act. Frederick William I, the Great Elector of Brandenburg and the duke of Prussia, welcomed the Huguenots with open arms and granted religious toleration for these persecuted Christians. This became an entirely new way of dealing with religious minorities and many persecuted believers flocked from all over Europe to the Germanic state.  This enlightened reform allowed Prussia to gain the intellectual currency of thousands and helped build the state into a continental power that would eventually replace France as the strongest force in Europe. The lesson from early modern Europe still resonates today: autocratic rule which persecutes religious minorities stifles creativity and weakens a nation both economically and culturally.  Open societies will reap the benefits of tyrannical rule and over time become more economically powerful and culturally vibrant than closed ones.

Louis XIV became the leading figure in Europe as France dominated continental affairs in the second half of the 17th century. Historians have used him as the model to study absolute rulers ever since. Royals across Europe emulated Versailles, Louis’s elaborate palace, when they constructed their own castles. Nothing seemed to go wrong for Louis during his first quarter century on the throne (1661-1685). He consolidated his own power at home at the expense of the French parlement (judiciary) as well as aristocrats. The French well-to-do traveled to Louis’s court at Versailles to seek approval for their activities. Louis created a new elite, the nobles de robe (those subservient to Louis in the bureaucratic corps) which weakened the old noblesse d’épée, or military aristocracy who heretofore held great influence in French society. This fractured French aristocrats, divided loyalties, and ultimately weakened them as a whole. Louis used this schism to consolidate his own power. Abroad, his French army dominated European rivals and became the leading military power of the day. By 1685, nothing appeared able to stop Louis.

Sustained success often leads to hubris and downfall. Louis’s decisions after 1685 suggested that decades of good fortune had gotten to his head. Increased power at home and abroad made Louis a firm believer in the righteousness of his actions. It created a missionary zeal which clouded his shrewd judgment and marked the end of French ascendency. To use a modern metaphor: he believed his own hype. As such, he felt God had pre-ordained his every action and anything he pursued would result in greater glory for himself and France.

The decision to punish French Huguenots (who were members of the Reformed Church) in the early 1680s revealed the change in Louis’s demeanor. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 had become the established precedent of early modern Europe. This principle recognized: “cuis region, euis religio,” the religion of the monarch should be the religion of the country. France had fought wars of religion from the time of Luther until 1589, when Henry of Navarre, a French protestant assumed the throne. He converted to Catholicism, famously proclaiming: “Paris vaut bien une messe” or Paris is worth a mass. Nine years later, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes which granted Protestants religious liberties and protection to worship their religion free from persecution.

A calculated 1685 decision changed this peaceful co-existence. Louis, emboldened by a mistress and a group of advisors who urged the king to crack down on the Huguenots, began revoking the religious rights of minorities in 1679. A year later, the Bourbon monarch ordered his army to attack wealthy Protestants in a campaign of terror. These concentrated efforts, known as the draggonnades, sent Louis’s representatives out to intimidate the religious minority. Atrocities included the raping of women and the brutalization of all non-Catholics. The message was clear: convert to Catholicism or face an onslaught of persecution. Four years later, the religious terror reached its crescendo. Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes and replaced it with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This decision made Protestantism illegal. France closed all its Huguenots churches, Calvinist schools, began a series of forced baptisms, and exiled non-Catholic ministers.

200,000 Huguenots (or 1% of the French population) fled in horror. This Diaspora brought immigrants to England, the American colonies, and most notably, to Brandenburg-Prussia. Frederick Wilhelm, a Calvinist himself, welcomed these refugees to his territory with open arms. He inherited the intellectual capital of France and used it to build the Germanic state.

The Great Elector inherited an economically backward territory when he assumed control of Brandenburg-Prussia in 1640. The Thirty Years War, the last continental war of religion, took place on German soil and was particularly harsh to the north-east region of Prussia. Towns became impoverished. The state increasingly depended on its manors and agricultural productivity for its economic power. Its new leader, born during the turbulent period, was a member of the Reformed Church and spent many of his formative years abroad in Dutch exile. But, this Hohenzollern had a clear vision for Prussia’s future and relied on a tradition marked in his family’s recent past.

The worldview of John Sigismund, the Great Elector in the early 17th century, shaped the vision of his descendent Frederick Wilhelm. Sigismund converted to Calvinism in 1613 and became the second Germanic ruler to reject Lutheranism (the dominant religion of the German states). Sigismund differed radically from other Calvinists of his day—indeed from all other leaders of his era. He refused to impose his faith on his subjects and envisioned a society in which Lutherans and Calvinists lived together in peaceful harmony.

Sigismund laid out his philosophy in Confessio Sigismundi, a religious manifesto published in 1614.       In it, he contrasted the Reformed beliefs with the Lutheran faith. Ironically, the great dispute centered on the Eucharist rather than on Calvin’s controversial doctrine of predestination. Calvinists believed that Christ was not physically present in the elements since he had ascended to heaven. They insisted that ubiquity, the notion Lutherans used to justify God’s presence in multiple places at once, was nonsense and an easy segue to the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, in which believers eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.

Theological disputes led to religious wars which had decimated the continent for over a century. Frederick Wilhelm, himself a child of the Thirty Years War, sought a policy of “mutual co-existence.” The Great Elector built upon the foundations of his ancestor and insisted that theological differences between Calvinists and Lutherans were not worth fighting over. Both groups believed in the trinity and believed that Christ alone was the key to eternal salvation. Plus, the two united together offered a coalition that could thwart imperial ambitious efforts from Catholic monarchs on the throne to the east in Austria and the west in France.

Frederick Wilhelm continued the Hohenzollern belief of individual religious liberty. This led him to grant religious toleration for all (including Catholics who received legal protection and basic liberal rights). The state, in the eyes of the Great Elector, must act to secure and protect these rights. This vision led the Prussian Duke into conflict with the Prussian Estates, the aristocratic legislature. Lutherans dominated the assembly and wanted to restrict any protections for Calvinists or Catholics. Frederick Wilhelm fought battles with these nobles for years and his view ultimately prevailed.

Brandenburg-Prussia became a safe haven for religious minorities across Europe. Frederick Wilhelm made it a diplomatic policy to welcome believers of all faiths fleeing persecution in their native lands. Calvinists and Lutherans alike received equal support and protection from the duke, so long as they lived peacefully together. Calvinists across the continent immigrated to the Germanic state and moved into self-administrating centers where they did not have to fear persecution form the Lutheran majority. Many of these believers came from the wealthy merchant class while others possessed artisan skills which helped boost the Prussian economy. A large chunk joined the civil service and strengthened the rule of the Hohenzollerns. Calvinists littered the military; by the 1690s, a quarter of the Prussian army consisted of Huguenots refugees.

Frederick Wilhelm’s open policy helped shift the Prussian state from a tiny, backwards Germanic state into a continental power. Meanwhile, the French began a descent in 1685 that lasted another century and ultimately brought an end to the ancien régime. Louis spent the last half of his reign fighting a series of conflicts that ended in disaster, battling a faulty economy at home, a result (in large part because) of the brain drain caused by the Huguenot Diaspora. The French and the Prussians fought for European supremacy for the next three centuries. The Prussians, with their enlightened reforms, eclipsed the French on the battlefield and in the global economy. This occurred because the Prussian society which valued religious liberty and granted toleration for different faiths developed a more creative, dynamic society which out-performed the efforts of the close-minded French.


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