The temple of Charenton (94). © Reymond
It is often said that Faith can move mountains, and certainly the Huguenots were profoundly tested. When the order was given that their temples were to be razed to the ground, fortunately not all were destroyed, and today we are still able to visit several of these original temples and some of those that were later rebuilt to stand as testimony to the courage of those who chose to worship God in a simpler form.
The Edict of Nantes,1598, had stipulated temples could not be built within five leagues of Paris, a blow to those Parisians eager to regularly hear their sermons as they would now need to travel to towns and villages some distance away, but this inconvenience clearly did not deter Huguenots. Attitudes did eventually soften when in 1606 Huguenots were finally permitted to build a temple at Charenton just east of Paris by King Henri IV, who, when his decision was queried due to Charenton being less than five leagues from Paris, stated that from now on, "Charenton will be regarded as being five leagues from Paris".
In 1623 the temple at Charenton was burned down following anti-heretical riots, but within two years work had begun on building a new temple just a few hundred metres from the site of the original. The new temple was much bigger than its predecessor, being 33m long and 19.5m high, and was in fact the largest temple in the whole of France.
On 18th October 1685, Louis XIV formally revoked the Edict of Nantes thus depriving the Huguenots of religious and civil liberties, and the demolition of their temples, including the great temple of Charenton, began shortly afterwards. Its site became a focal point for the Parisian Huguenot community, who in turn celebrated it as having been the ideal model for a Reformed temple. But not all mourned the loss of this magnificent temple. On 27th January 1687, Abbot Talemand stated at the Académie Française: "Blessed ruins, the most beautiful trophy France has ever seen. Arches of triumph and statues honouring the king will not elevate it higher than this heretic temple brought down by his piety."
Huguenot worship, post Revocation, was to become a clandestine affair adopting the form of Churches in the Desert - gatherings in isolated, difficult-to-reach places, aided by portable pulpits often disguised as barrels. By 1743 these gatherings began to be held during daylight hours in an attempt to show the King that the Huguenots were still in existence.
On 29th November 1787, the Edict of Toleration was signed ending years of persecution. Huguenots were legally permitted to worship as they chose, but a caveat, added when the Edict was formally registered in January 1788, stipulated that Catholicism was to be recognised as the official religion of France. Crucially, the Edict also provided for a legally binding, non-religious marriage service to be performed before the King’s judge. Many Huguenot families now elected to have their marriages and children's baptisms, celebrated at churches in the Desert, legalised by the registrar. Within nineteen months of this edict becoming law a further edict was signed on 27th August 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen at one stroke of the pen gave all French citizens equal status. However, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who decided to implement a thorough review of French laws, and in 1804 the first of these contained the significant phrase, within the civil code, ‘every French person is equal before the law’. Huguenots had already been heartened two years earlier when Napoleon had signed the Concordat that not only gave their temples official recognition but permitted those of the Protestant faith to organise their own church affairs. In 1811, Napoleon generously gave the Oratoire du Louvre, next to the famous royal palace, to the Parisian reformed community as their place of worship, and services continue to be held there every Sunday.
Communities were, in some cases, allowed to acquire derelict buildings to repair and transform into places of worship. One such example is the Temple du Salin in Toulouse. This building had fallen into disrepair having previously been a royal treasury, a royal residence and then a convent. In 1904 under the law separating church from state, the religious order was disbanded, and the estate was sold in eight lots. Two Protestant tradesmen purchased the treasury building and later sold it to the Protestant congregation, who engaged the Protestant architect Léon Daures (1877-1951) to restore the edifice in a neo-Gothic style. He was able to incorporate within the restored building various examples of medieval embellishments including some original masonry. The first service in this newly purposed temple was conducted by Pastor Edmond Lengereau (1864-1942) in November 1911.
Some years ago, I visited this beautiful temple. As you enter the main doors, on your right-hand side is a stone wall-mounted monument to the Huguenot martyr Jean Calas. Jean Calas had been broken on the wheel and then strangled before his body was burned and his ashes scattered. He had been accused of filicide shortly after the body of his son, Marc Antoine, had been found hanging in the family textile shop in Toulouse one evening. Jean Calas had tried to cover up what appeared to be his son’s suicide. Eventually Voltaire became aware of what was known as the Calas Affair, and his intervention helped to ultimately win a posthumous pardon for Jean Calas.
Other communities began to tentatively plan the rebuilding of their temples. One such community was in the little town of Luneray in Normandy who, in 1806, decided the time was right to build a new temple. The Consistory, led by their Pastor, approved the construction, which took six years to complete. All the families of the Protestant community either contributed cash donations or materials. A few contributed through subscriptions on an ad-hoc basis when they were financially able to. The shortfall to the budget was met via a loan with various members agreeing to sponsor the rebuild.
The beautiful temple of Luneray presents a simple brick exterior with a clean unpretentious interior. Within, to the right at the back of the building, can be seen a framed copy of the original document that is kept safely preserved elsewhere and which lists the sponsors. The day of the temple’s dedication is 6th September 1812 and the Minutes of this event begin by praising Bonaparte, and recalling that: "This temple is intended to replace two rooms of prayers dedicated to this use since the edict of November 1787 and to revive the memory of that which existed in the town until the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes."
Pastor Laurent Cadoret (1770-1861) also oversaw the opening of the first French Sunday school in Luneray in 1814. The temple was listed as an historical monument on 9th July 2003
Some temples did fortunately survive the Revocation. Thereby a precious piece of Huguenot history can still be visited today. An example of a rare original temple is in the village of Le Pöet-Laval, in the Drôme region. It survived simply because it had been a common house until 1622 and was then converted into a Huguenot temple. When the Edict of Fontainebleau was signed in 1685, the temple was preserved by reverting to its original use, a domestic dwelling.
Two major historic events, firstly the Edict of Toleration in 1787 and then the French Revolution in 1789 gave rights to Huguenots. Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen states that "no one should be worried about his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law."
In 1860 the common house of Le Pöet Laval was repurposed into a temple. It has retained the characteristic aspect of the temples of the reformed faith of the 16th and 17th centuries, with its central pulpit and its pews arranged in a circle or square as can be seen in the temple at Luneray. It became part of the Musée du Protestantisme Dauphinois in 1959 and is still used as a temple even today.
Pierre Lheureux, Les Protestants de Luneray et Leur Eglise en Pays de Caux, 1937, pp. 50-52
Tessa Murdoch (ed.), The Quiet Conquest: The Huguenots 1685-1985, London, 1985, pp. 25,26,45,46,47
F. H. Maugham, The Case of Jean Calas, London, 1928, pp. 1,9-15
David D. Bien, The Calas Affair, Princeton, New Jersey, 1960, pp. 150-157
Musée virtuel du protestantisme: https://museeprotestant.org/en