Another Way of Being a Christian in France: A Century of Baptist Implantation: France Is the Largest Country of Western Europe. Its Cultural Influence Is Very Ancient and Still Strong Today, in Spite of the Fact That, since the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, English Has Gradually Replaced French as the Language of the World's Cultural Elite

By Fath, Sebastien | Baptist History and Heritage, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Another Way of Being a Christian in France: A Century of Baptist Implantation: France Is the Largest Country of Western Europe. Its Cultural Influence Is Very Ancient and Still Strong Today, in Spite of the Fact That, since the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, English Has Gradually Replaced French as the Language of the World's Cultural Elite


Fath, Sebastien, Baptist History and Heritage


In spite of a decline in terms of world impact, France is today the fourth world economic power. Paris, its capital city, has always had worldwide influence. This was even more obvious at the beginning of the nineteenth century, just after the Napoleonic wars and the Revolution of 1789. This privileged position accounts for the fact that France was the first country of continental Europe where Baptists developed, teaching French people another way of being Christian. (1) Rousseau and Lafayette's homeland was a major objective for evangelism. The first French Baptist church appeared as early as 1820. The early years of French Baptist life (1810-32) were characterized by small groups and numbers and a hesitation to forge a specific identity and heterogeneous assemblies. The organized support of British Baptists and even more so of American Baptists brought on a second phase, the time of "pioneer Baptists" in France (1832-70).

This second phase has been shaped by a much more defined identity. This clear identity was shaped both by the presence of American Baptists and by the efficient work of the evangelist and pastor Jean-Baptiste Cretin. A rationalized policy of expansion financed in most part by Anglo-Saxon Baptists developed during this second phase. The hope born after the French Revolution of 1830 led many in London and Boston to believe that the time had come to establish Baptist and Protestant principles in France. France appeared to be the ideal base for evangelizing the rest of continental Europe. The pioneers of Baptist evangelism in France were however confronted by the harsh reality of life under the Second Empire. Progress was slow and opposition was frequent. In fact, three Baptist meeting places were closed down by decree, and religious meetings were subjected to many restrictions. This context did not keep French Baptist membership and local churches from increasing. Around 1870, they made up a circle of about 2,000 with among them 700 members, baptized by immersion, these, having, for the most part, come out of the Roman Catholic Church. Three decades later, French Baptist statistics reached about 6,000, with more than 2,000 baptized members.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in a new era of freedom provided by the Third Republic, many French Baptist leaders like Reuben Saillens or Philemon Vincent thought they would be able to bring almost all French Protestants to adopt the Baptist cause. They thought that freedom and democracy would help them to convince many French people, who were tired of Catholicism and Secularism. If we consider the Baptist impact in France at the end of the twentieth century, those dreams did not come true. In the year 2,000, Baptists are well settled in France, but their numbers remain rather very small (around 12,000 baptized members and about 40,000 followers out of a population of over 60 million). How can we explain such a difference between the initial hopes of growth and the reality of the situation? First, three major cultural struggles inherited from the nineteenth century can help us understand the difficulties of Baptist implantation in France.

The Nineteenth Century's Legacy: Three Major Cultural Struggles

During the nineteenth century, French Baptists existed in a context shaped by three major religious bodies: mainline Protestants (Reformed and Lutheran Churches), the other evangelical Protestant churches (which were quite weak), and the Roman Catholic Church. The Concordat between the state and the official churches (Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran churches), promulgated in 1801 and 1802 by Bonaparte, created specific rules. On one hand, the official churches could benefit from public funds. Priests and pastors (Reformed and Lutherans) were paid by the state. On the other hand, the nonofficial churches ("nonrecognized cults") had to find their own resources in a cultural context defiant to religious pluralism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, French Baptists still had to deal with three cultural legacies of this period. …

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Another Way of Being a Christian in France: A Century of Baptist Implantation: France Is the Largest Country of Western Europe. Its Cultural Influence Is Very Ancient and Still Strong Today, in Spite of the Fact That, since the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, English Has Gradually Replaced French as the Language of the World's Cultural Elite
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