Calvinists had a long and tumultuous history in France. They first gained the right to worship according to their creed in 1598 when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes to end the wars of religion between Catholics and Calvinists. Louis XIV revoked that edict in 1685 and initiated a massive campaign to forcibly convert all of the Calvinists in France. For more than a century, public worship by Calvinists remained illegal, though many worshiped in private and some became leading merchants or businessmen in their local communities. Finally in 1787, Louis XVIs government proposed a new edict of toleration (the decision became official in January 1788). It granted Calvinists civil rights, including the right to practice their religion, but no political rights. Although the reference to nonCatholics might seem to promise a broader toleration including other groups as well, the edict applied only to Calvinists, for Jewish and Lutheran communities were not covered here. The preamble to the edict, with its evasive and tormented logic, shows the many pressures felt by the government as it tried to navigate between the demands of a powerful Catholic Church and a longoppressed minority that had the support of many influential writers and jurists.
When Louis XIV solemnly prohibited in all of the lands and territories under his authority the public exercise of any religion other than the Catholic religion, the hope of bringing around his people to the desirable unity of the same worship, supported by the deceptive appearances of conversions, kept this great king from following the plan that he had formed in his councils for legally registering the births, deaths, and marriages of those of his subjects who could not be admitted to the sacraments of the church. Following the example of our august predecessors, we will always favor with all our power the means of instruction and persuasion that will tend to link all our subjects by the common profession of our kingdom's ancient faith [Catholicism], and we will proscribe, with the most severe attention, all those violent routes [of forced conversion] which are as contrary to the principles of reason and humanity as they are to the true spirit of Christianity.
But, while waiting for divine Providence to bless our efforts and effect this happy revolution [the conversion of all non-Catholics], justice and the interest of our kingdom do not permit us to exclude any longer from the rights of civil status those of our subjects or resident foreigners in our empire who do not profess the Catholic religion. A rather long experience has shown that harsh ordeals are insufficient to convert them: we should therefore no longer suffer that our laws punish them unnecessarily for the misfortune of their birth by depriving them of the rights that nature constantly claims for them.
We have considered that the Protestants, thus deprived of all legal existence, were faced with an impossible choice between profaning the sacraments by simulated conversions or compromising the status of their children by contracting marriages that were inherently null and void according to the legislation of our kingdom. The regulations have even assumed that there were only Catholics in our states; and this fiction, today inadmissible, has served as a motive for the silence of the law which would not have been able to legally recognize followers of another belief in France without either banishing them from the lands of our authority or providing right away for their civil status. Principles so contrary to the prosperity and tranquility of our kingdom would have multiplied the emigrations and would have excited continual troubles within families, if we had not provisionally profited from the jurisprudence of our courts to thrust aside greedy relatives who contested the children's rights to the inheritance of their fathers [relying on the laws against Calvinists]. Such a situation has for a long time demanded our intervention to put an end to these dangerous contradictions between the rights of nature and the dispositions of the law.
We wanted to proceed in this matter under consideration with all the maturity required by the importance of the decision. Our resolution had already been fixed in our councils, and we proposed to meditate for some time still about the legal form it should take; but the circumstances appeared to us propitious for multiplying the advantages that we hoped to gain from our new law, and we have determined to hasten the moment of publishing it. It may not be in our power to put a stop to the different sects in our states, but we will never suffer them to be a source of discord between our subjects. We have taken the most efficacious measures to prevent the formation of harmful organizations. The Catholic religion that we have the good fortune to profess will alone enjoy in our kingdom the rights and honors of public worship, while our other, non-Catholic subjects, deprived of all influence on the established order in our state, declared in advance and forever ineligible for forming a separate body within our kingdom, and subject to the ordinary police [and not their own clergy] for the observation of religious festival days, will only get from the law what natural right does not permit us to refuse them, to register their births, their marriages and their deaths, in order to enjoy, like all our other subjects, the civil effects that result from this.
Article 1. The Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion will continue to enjoy alone, in our kingdom, the right to public worship, and the birth, marriage, and death of those of our subjects who profess it will only be registered, in all cases, according to the rites and practices of the said religion as authorized by our regulations.
We will permit nonetheless to those of our subjects who profess another religion than the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion, whether they are currently resident in our state or establish themselves there afterwards, to enjoy all the goods and rights that currently can or will in the future belong to them as a property title or title of successorship, and to pursue their commerce, arts, crafts, and professions without being troubled or disturbed on the pretext of their religion.
We except nevertheless from these professions all the offices of the judiciary, controlled either by the crown or the seigneurs [nobles controlling local judicial offices], municipalities having regular offices and judicial functions, and all those places that include public teaching.
Article 2. As a consequence those of our subjects or foreigners resident in our kingdom who are not of the Catholic religion will be able to contract marriages in the form hereafter prescribed; we wish these marriages and their children, in the case of those who contracted them according to the said form, to have the same effects in civil society as those contracted and celebrated in the ordinary way by our Catholic subjects.
Article 3. We do not intend nevertheless that those who will profess a religion other than the Catholic religion be able to consider themselves as forming in our kingdom any particular body, community or association, nor that they be able under such a designation to formulate any collective demands, make any representations, take any deliberations, make any acquisitions, or take any other such acts. We very expressly prohibit any judge, registrar, notary, lawyer, or other public official to respond, receive, or sign such demands, representations, deliberations, or other acts on pain of suspension; and we forbid any of our subjects to claim themselves authorized by the said alleged communities or associations on pain of being considered instigators and protectors of illegal assemblies and associations and as such punishable according to the rigor of the regulations.
Article 4. Nor will those who consider themselves ministers or pastors of another religion than the Catholic religion be able to represent themselves as such in any act, wear in public any clothing different from that of others of the same religion, or appropriate for themselves any prerogative or distinction; we forbid them in particular from interfering in the issuance of certificates of marriage, birth or death, and we declare any such certificates to be from this moment null and void, without our judges or any others giving them consideration in any case whatsoever.
[Thirty-three other articles followed, most of them concerned with regulating the celebration of non-Catholic marriages.]
Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 4043.