Black Bartholomew’s Day

Today is a grim day. Reformed Christians have no true “holy-day” except the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10), nevertheless there are seasons and days that are important.[1] Today is one of those important days to me, and it is a grim day.

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, 1572
On August 24th, 1572, the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre was in full effect. Begun the night before with the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, many of the wealthiest French Reformed Christians were in town for the wedding of Henry of Navarre. After a few days, as many as ten thousand were dead.

In Roman Catholic France, the Reformed faith was viewed as wicked and with suspicion, a foreign infection from Frenchman Jean Caulvin (John Calvin) inserting itself from Geneva. But despite the distrust of Protestant theology in Popish France, the Reformed faith was flourishing. In 1555, there were ten churches in all of France that held to Calvin’s Reformed theology. Just seven years later, there were 2,000 churches that were Reformed Protestant strongholds. These Reformed believers went forth boldly under that name “Huguenots.”

Under the direction of the Roman Catholic Queen Catherine de Medici, a bloodbath was loosed on the urban centers of France that quickly spilled out into the countryside. The same Reformed Christians that had championed the Protestant solas, the covenantal truths of Scripture, and the sovereignty of God as they sang psalms in battle were slaughtered. Some historians argue that it was this event that brought the French masacre into common English use.

French Huguenot Duke de Sully, who himself barely escaped to survive the massacre, estimated the casualties at 70,000. More sober figures put the number of dead at 10,000. It was said among the French Catholic that there were so many dead Reformed bodies floating in the river, that the people didn’t drink water for three months. During the most violent hundred years for wars of religion, “it was the worst of the century’s religious massacres.”

But the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre was just the beginning.

Farewell Sermons of the Great Ejection

Great Ejection, 1662
On the same day in August, ninety years later and to the north in England, another tragedy would befall Reformed theology when several thousand pastors were forced out of their pulpits. The Church of England, which enjoyed civil enforcement as well as liturgical ideas that seemed “too Catholicke” to many Protestant ministers, forced all clergy to either conform to government authority by St. Bartholomew’s Day, or lose their preaching license, pulpit, congregation, and livelihood. Known as “the Great Ejection,” thousands of pastors chose exile and faithfulness rather than conformity. These Dissenters, or Nonconformists, had their “Farewell Sermons” published and sought ministerial faithfulness outside the bounds of English Christianity.

Rather than water down the truth of God’s Word, these thousands of souls (and their families) pursued the Lord outside the camp. At great personal cost, they suffered at the hands of the State.

Many of the ministers of continue to bless Christians today through their books suffered during this time, including John Flavel, Thomas Watson, John Bunyan (of Pilgrim’s Progress), Thomas Manton, Joseph Caryl, Edmund Calamy, and (gulp) Richard Baxter. The Puritan and Reformed movement in English-speaking Christianity was drastically shaped by this tragedy.

Death of John Owen, 1683
The spiritual debt I owe John Owen (1616 – 1683) is probably incalculable, so it pains me that on August 24th, 1683 Owen passed from death into life. Two days before his death, Owen wrote to a friend:

I am going to him whom my soul hath loved, or rather hath love me with an everlasting love; which is the whole ground of all my consolation… I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm, but while the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poore under-rower will be inconsiderable… Live and pray and hope and waite patiently and doe not despair; the promise stands invincible that he will never leave thee nor forsake thee.

On his final day on earth, Owen received news that his book, The Glory of Christ, was going into publishing. His last recorded words were in response: “I am glad to hear it; but O brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in the world.”

Though it is blackness to us who sit with these losses on August 24th, Owen is no longer in the dark shadows, but sees the glory of Christ in better light than any of us.

* * *

This year, Black Bartholomew’s Day hits differently. There is less a note of the triumph of the martyrs, and more on the black darkness that unflinchingly pervades. In a moment where the American Reformed church finds itself regularly reminded of abuse, scandal, and division over many theological and cultural issues, the wickedness God’s people face in this vale of tears is more pronounced. As in the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” the Bride of Christ is still seen “sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”

I am grieved for what the Church has faced in former days, and grieved for those heinous sins that still beset us. I am bewildered at the fog in which trauma, gaslighting, toxicity, and other therapeutic terms have abandoned us, with no sight or vision. I am exasperated at how the deconstruction of postmodernism from twenty or thirty years ago has found new oxygen in critical race theory and intersectionality. I am enraged at the Washington D.C. Captivity of the Church. I am disappointed at pastors, leaders, and theologians who have succumbed to their worst tendencies, and seemingly forgotten loving shepherding and gracious discipline. I am filled with trepidation that I might fall where others have stumbled.

And so Black Bartholomew’s Day seems especially dark this year.

* * *

If there is hope to carry on, it is the fact that the Sovereign Lord who sustained the Huguenots, the Dissenters, and Owen, sustains us today, too. “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

maranatha Iesou


[1] See Daniel Hyde “Not Holy But Helpful: A Case for the ‘Evangelical Feast Days’ in the Reformed Tradition” Mid America Journal of Theology Vol 26 (2015): 131 – 49. (link)

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