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The origins of Baptists in France.

That great Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson was once briefly incarcerated in Bayonne, France, as a prisoner of war. (1)

The experience gave him a burden for that country that he summed up this way: "An evangelized France would be fertile in religious works and would nourish the thinking of all the intelligent classes of Europe." (2) While Judson's dream has never been fully realized, the witness of evangelical Christians and especially French Baptists has been a heroic struggle worth examining.

Many who read this may have visited Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, or the Normandy beaches. Most, however, have never been inside a French Baptist church or know anything about those who have carried the Baptist flame in the land of Moliere. The following hopefully will provide a taste of that special vintage of faith known as "les Baptists Francais."

Christian Gaul

France played a key role in the history of the Christian church. Some have even speculated as to whether Paul himself evangelized there on his way to Spain (see Romans 15:28), but there is no historical evidence to support such a claim. "The Church of Gaul first appeared in history in [connection] with the persecution at Lyons under Marcus Aurelius [in] 177." (3) Thus, from the second century, a Christian presence has existed in France.

Certainly the first major Christian event in France was the baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks. On Christmas day 496, Clovis accepted the religion of his wife and, along with his army, was baptized by immersion in the Rheims River. His conversion opened the way for the Christian faith to develop throughout the country as that first wave of Christianity swept from east to west across Europe from 500 to 1200. (4)

Through the centuries that followed, the Catholic Church helped shape French history and vice versa. For example, the papacy was not always located in Rome, but for a brief time found itself in Avignon, France (1309-1377). The relocation of the papal seat was due in large part to the influence of France and its kings on world politics of their day. (5) David's painting of the coronation of Napoleon, which hangs in the Louvre, underlines this point. In that painting, Napoleon is shown crowning himself and his wife Josephine so that he might avoid accepting Pope Pius VII as his overlord.

France has been and still is, to a large extent, a Catholic country. The French Catholic Church has often been referred to as "la fille ainee de l'eglise" or the "eldest daughter of the Church." Some have said that France has provided more priests and missionaries for the Catholic Church than any other country except for Italy. Yet, France has also had its share of heretics. Many of these groups promoted ideas that later came to be dear to Baptists. For example, the Cathars emphasized the priesthood of the believer; the Waldensians stressed the importance of scripture and preaching; and the Huguenots preached a godly life and grace. One of the greatest tragedies for France was the terrible persecution of these religious groups. The worst of these persecutions was the St. Batholomew's Day massacre that began in Paris on August 24, 1572, with the murder of a prominent Huguenot, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Over the next several months, thousands of Huguenots were slain in Paris, and similar massacres took place in other towns, with an estimated death toll of 100,000 and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of French Huguenots abroad. (6)

One other "heretical" group is especially important for the history of French Baptists. Because they practiced believer's baptism, they were thus dubbed Anabaptists or "re-baptizers." In truth, they rejected infant baptism, and the name "Baptists" would have been more appropriate. (7) Although no direct link has been substantiated between Anabaptists and Baptists, (8) French Baptists today are certainly indebted to the witness and courage of those Anabaptists, of whom many were martyred.

In addition to the influence of Anabaptists, France also felt the effect of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin, although he is often associated with Geneva, Switzerland, was in fact a Frenchman. He was born in Noyon in 1509 and studied theology at the University of Paris. (9) His theology and church polity have greatly influenced religious thought in France and around the world.

In the nineteenth century, in this devoutly Catholic country marked by its own brands of religious dissent, the Baptist faith took root and grew. Subsequent repression and outright persecution came not only from the state and the Catholic Church but also from other Protestants. Despite oppression, ardent believers in Baptist convictions began sharing their message in France in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Modest Beginnings (1810-1830)

Not surprisingly, dispute exists about when and where Baptist work first began in France. Most historians reference the story of a farmer by the name of Caulier in the village of Nomain in northern France. (10) In 1810, as the story goes, Caulier found an old Bible hidden in a dusty corner of his attic. He then gathered his family and neighbors in his home and began a Bible reading group or "circle biblique."

The group quickly realized that what they were reading did not correspond to their Catholic experience. So with their own money they built a small temple or church in 1811. At this point in France, the word "eglise" (church) was reserved for Catholic places of worship and the term "temple" (temple) was used for other types of Christian churches. Even though the members of Caulier's group were no longer Catholic, in 1811, they were also not yet clearly identifiable as Baptists. (11)

About this same time, French history opened another avenue for the Baptist movement to enter the country. Following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, British soldiers were stationed in the north of France, including in Nomain, and many were housed in the local homes. Some of these soldiers were pious French-speaking Christians, and at least one solider attended the meetings at Caulier's little Nomain church. Other soldiers in the area shared their faith and distributed scriptures, which resulted in the conversion of several Catholics. (12)

During this period, Henri Pyt (1796-1835) entered the flow of French Baptist history. Pyt was born in Switzerland and served as a pastor in Geneva until 1818. He then left for France where he worked for the Continental Society (for Evangelism) as a colporteur distributing Bibles and preaching. (13) His travels brought him to Nomain in 1819, where he connected with Caulier's church. Pyt remained in the town for eighteen months and did much preaching and teaching. (14)

The Continental Society required their workers to evangelize but not to propagate their specific denominational views. Pyt and his wife were pressed, however, by the Nomain church on the question of baptism. Eventually, the Pyts acquiesced and shared their views about adult baptism, which led in the summer of 1820 to the baptism of five persons. They were baptized by immersion in a nearby stream, making them the first true Baptists in France. (15)

In 1821, a larger church building had to be built in Nomain as the congregation had grown to almost 200 members. This number was verified in a local police report, which gave information on the Baptists because they participated in what was still considered a non-legal faith. Most of the members of the Nomain congregation were former Catholics who were dedicated to following God's word according to their conscience. (16) They shared their Baptist faith and evangelized in France at least ten years before the first Baptist foreign missionaries arrived in the country in 1831.

Members of the Nomain church were not in agreement on the question of infant baptism, and eventually a split occurred, which is perhaps even more proof that they were indeed Baptists! The pedobaptist group remained in Nomain and continued meeting in their temple. Those holding to believer's baptism left in 1821 to start another church in the nearby village of Nix. (17) This disagreement was the first of many over baptism that beset early French Baptist churches--something that is understandable in a Catholic and Protestant culture where infant baptism was the norm.

The Aix group was led by Louis Caulier who had participated in the early Bible circle in Nomain. Caulier was a farmer and a good student of the Bible. Eventually, he was chosen to be their pastor, (18) making him perhaps the first French Baptist pastor. By 1822, Caulier's group had built a small temple that included a baptistery, and the Aix Temple became the first Baptist church built on French soft. (19)

Pastor Caulier baptized and trained a number of the early Baptist leaders in France, including Jean-Baptiste Cretin who became a pioneer evangelist and hymn writer. Caulier also influenced Joseph Thieffry who would later became the first French Baptist pastor to receive a formal theological education. (20)

Much of northern France was evangelized by itinerant colporteurs trained by Pyt and others. Baptists, too, carried on this type of "tentmaker" evangelism, and one of those colporteurs, Esther Carpentier, is worth noting. Mademoiselle Carpentier was from Hargicourt in the Aisne region of France. Around 1825, she was baptized by immersion by Theophile Poulain, the pastor at Reumont. (21) She then spent most of her life there and in the surrounding area sharing the gospel.

To avoid detection by the authorities, Carpentier hid copies of the scriptures and gospel tracts among the needles and thread that she sold, and she shared the gospel with people as the Spirit led her. She has been credited with helping to start a number of the first Baptist churches in northern France. For example, Carpentier shared the gospel with a family near Chauny in 1830. Following their conversion, the family along with other believers built a small temple around 1835. (22) Such activities resulted in Aime Cadot labeling Carpentier "la pionniere de nos troupeaux" or "the pioneer of our (Baptist) flocks." (23)

By 1830, only a handful of Baptist churches were located in northern France. These churches were fragile and lacked trained leadership and the financial means to develop their ministry. The young French Baptist faith struggled to survive in an overwhelmingly Catholic and hostile environment, (24) but God in his providence provided assistance from Baptists abroad.

Baptist Help from Abroad (1831-1850)

In 1831, Howard Malcolm, an American Baptist pastor, traveled to France and made contact with those early French Baptists in the north. Malcolm recognized the opportunities for evangelism in the area and returned home in 1832 to share this burden with the Triennial Convention. The convention responded by commissioning and sending as missionaries Casimir Rostan, a Frenchman who had become a Baptist in America, (25) and Ira Chase of the Newton Theological Institution. (26)

Upon their arrival in France, Rostan and Chase began a successful work in Paris among intellectuals. Following the untimely death of Rostan in 1834 of cholera, Isaac Willmarth, an American who had been converted in Paris, was commissioned as a missionary. Paris may have been touched earlier by Baptists via the work of colporteurs. Emile Guers reported that Pyt and another evangelist had visited the capital in 1821. (27) But with the arrival of Rostan and other Americans in 1832, Baptist work in the French capital began in earnest.

On May 10, 1835, Willmarth officially founded the first Baptist church in Paris, which met at 17 Rue des Beaux Arts, not far from the present-day Rue de Lille Baptist Church. The founding church members included the young Jean-Baptist Cretin, a future leader in French Baptist work. (28)

Willmarth had a fruitful but brief five-year ministry during which he connected with the Baptists in northern France. Because of failing health, he was replaced by Erastus Willard who had arrived in Paris in 1835 (29) and who labored in France for the next twenty-one years. Willard helped establish a church in Douai as well as several others. In 1849, he led fifteen churches in organizing the first French Baptist Association, which was located in northern France. (30)

Perhaps Willard's greatest contribution to French Baptists was the establishment of the Baptist pastors' school in Douai. Beginning in 1836, the school trained an entire generation of Baptist pioneers, including Hector Boileau, Jean-Baptiste Cretin, Alexandre Dez, Louis Foulboeuf, Irenee Foulon, Francois Lemaire, Victor Lepoids, Jean-Baptiste Pruvot, and Francois Vincent. (31) Willard's and the school's influence are difficult to measure, but no doubt both played significant roles in solidifying the Baptist presence in France.

While Baptist missionaries from America worked in Paris, French pastors continued ministering elsewhere. Joseph Thieffry, who was baptized by Louis Caulier in Nomain, was ordained as a pastor in 1835. He labored in northern France, evangelizing and organizing churches until his death. (32) Other Baptist leaders trained at the Douai School began Baptist congregations during this time, and the history of French Baptists of the period is punctuated with their names.

Simultaneously, Baptist foreign mission organizations were at work in France. In Brittany, for example, a Baptist presence was established by Welsh Baptists in 1834. (33) In the Alsace region of eastern France, Baptist work was advanced by Johann Gerhardt Oncken, well know in European Baptist history as an evangelist and church planter. (34) Significant work was also done in Lyon by T. T. Devan, a missionary who had previously labored in the Baptist church in Paris. (35)

During this early period in French Baptist history, churches tended to be very small--often with less than ten members. Some congregations had buildings (temples), but many did not. Few churches had baptisteries, and as a result, as was true in other countries, baptisms generally took place outdoors. One of the most remarkable stories from this period occurred in the middle of winter in Denain before a local congregation even existed. There, in the middle of a field in a ditch, the ice was broken so that the first member of the future church could be baptized by immersion. (36) No doubt, such acts of courage were repeated many times, and they give testimony to strong Baptist convictions.

After a timid country-wide gathering of Baptist churches and pastors in 1849, a more official general assembly took place in Servais on May 15, 1850. The list of attendees reads like a "Who's Who" of early Baptist pioneers in France, including Willard, Thieffry, Cretin, Lepoids, and Foulon. The group's first concrete action was to create the French Baptist Missionary Society, (37) which pointed to their overwhelming desire to work in unison for the evangelism of their country.

Persecution and Growth (1850-1870)

The growth of Baptists, especially in northern France, did not go unnoticed by the Catholic Church or by the government. By 1850, French authorities began to take legal action, and several pastors were imprisoned and some churches were closed. (38) With the coming of the Second Empire, French Baptists experienced a period of persecution and growth.

Baptists were not recognized as a religious movement (culte non reconnu) by the Imperial government. Furthermore, the evangelistic activities of Baptists, both by pastors and lay-people, incited anger among other Protestants and especially among Catholics. This situation brought close scrutiny by the police and other officials and resulted in Baptist repression and persecution. (39)

For example, Baptist pastors got into trouble when they presided over graveside funerals. For unrecognized churches, this type of public display was deemed illegal and resulted in churches being closed, which was the case for the two significant Baptist churches: Chauny where Victor Lepoids was pastor and Servais-La Fere where Foulon was pastor. Both churches were closed by local authorities in 1852 and not reopened until 1866. Similar persecutions continued throughout France until 1870, and some Baptists chose to leave the country in order to worship freely. (40) During this period of persecution, Baptist congregations did grow, and in fact, this period may have been when their greatest growth occurred.

In 1853, due to local pressure in Douai, Erastus Willard moved the Douai pastors' school to Paris. While this proved to be fatal for the Baptist church in Douai, it greatly aided the Baptist work in Paris. The little pastors' school continued to operate until Willard's return to America in 1856.

During this pivotal moment in French Baptist history, the great British preacher C. H. Spurgeon entered the scene. One Sunday in 1861, while he was in Paris, Spurgeon preached at a Baptist church meeting at la rue Saint-Roch. He had some difficulty in finding the building due to restrictions against posting any type of sign because of the church's proximity to the Saint-Roch Catholic Church. Once Spurgeon recognized the plight of this congregation, he preached a passionate sermon to the working-class Baptist gathering. At one point, he stated that "no religious movement that started with the rich had ever succeeded" and that "a flame burns more steadily when it starts at the bottom." (41)

By 1870, French Baptists numbered about 2,000 followers, 700 of whom were baptized church members. The Parisian Baptist church that began in 1850 built it first building in 1872 with the help of American Baptists. (42) Although the ten or so churches that existed during this period were small, their influence especially in northern France was significant. Furthermore, French Baptists emerged from this period of repression with a clear understanding of who they were and what they believed.

French Baptists Today (1870-Present)

While the emphasis in this article is on the origins of Baptist work in France, perhaps a few words about the last 130 years are in order. With the start of the French Republic in 1871, French Baptists experienced a new era of relative freedom. Although non-denominational, the establishment of McAll Mission (Mission Populaire Evangelique) in Paris in 1872 played a significant role in Baptist life. One of its best workers was Reuben Saillens, who later became famous not only as a Baptist pastor but as gifted and prolific hymn writer. Saillens eventually organized the second Baptist church in Paris and worked tirelessly as both a pastor and an evangelist.

In 1879, Edward C. Mitchell established in Paris a theological school, which later continued under the leadership of Henri Andru. Many young French Baptist ministers studied there, and like those trained in Douai, these men also went on to play significant roles in the development of Baptist work. (43)

"At the opening of the twentieth century there were in France thirty Baptist churches with approximately twenty-five hundred members." (44) By that time, French Baptists had divided into two groups: the Federation of Baptist Churches located in northern France, Brittany, and French-speaking Belgium; and the Federation of Franco-Swiss Baptist Churches found in the urbane centers, the southern Cevennes, the Pays de Monbeliard, and French Switzerland. This division was in part due to geography and in part due to the influence of foreign mission organizations. In 1919, these two groups joined to form the Federation Baptist Union. (45)

World War I greatly affected Baptist work in France, resulting in the deaths of church members and pastors, the destruction of church buildings, and the scattering of congregations. When the war was over, French Baptists were obliged to rely heavily on outside assistance to survive and rebuild. World War II again brought devastation but also stories of heroism, especially by pastors such as Henri Vincent of the Avenue du Maine Baptist Church in Paris. He was often questioned by Gestapo in his office at the church while Jews were being hidden nearby. (46) At the close of the World War II, French Baptist leaders reported that all the churches were still operating and two new congregations had been started. (47)

Beginning in 1945, a renewed missionary zeal manifested itself in France and Baptist work accelerated. This development was due in part to the growing number of Baptist missionaries and the aid received from their sending agencies. Today, at least three distinct groups of French Baptists exist: The Federation Baptists (La Federation des Eglises Evangeliques Baptistes de France); the Association Baptists (L'Association Evangelique des Eglises Baptistes de Langue Francaise); and a smaller group of Independent Baptist Churches.

The first group, the Federation Baptists, is the largest and is a member of the Baptist World Alliance. Historically, this group has had close ties with Southern Baptists and Cooperative Baptists as well as with sister Baptist Unions in Europe, and missionaries from these groups have worked in France. French Baptists have sent their own missionaries to work in Africa through the work of European Baptist Mission.


Kenneth Scott Latourette did not fully do justice to the witness and ministry of Baptists in France when he wrote "that Baptist churches originated from the work of missionaries from the United States." (48) In truth, those churches grew out of the faith and courage of a small but committed number of French men and women who laid the foundation.

Today, Baptists of all kinds in France number only about 10,000 with approximately 200 churches. (49) In a country of over 60 million, the number of Baptists is indeed small. Much like the French-speaking population of Canada that makes up the largest unreached people group in North America, France is part of that forgotten mission field of which J. D. Hughey once wrote. (50)

French Baptists continue to depend heavily on overseas partners for financial support, for missionaries to serve as church planters, and even for pastors of established churches. More distressing still, Baptists are such a small minority that they are considered a sect by many of the French. Despite the small numbers, witness, especially during the decades of repression and persecution outlined earlier, is admirable and inspirational.

(1.) Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 89.

(2.) The author's translation of Robert Dubarry, "Atravers notre histoire, Historique du baptisme Paris," Lien Fraternel, 9, Novembre 1912, 11-12 as cited by Sebastien Fath, Une Autre Maniere D'Etre * Chretien en France (Geneve: Labor et Fides, 2001), 137.

(3.) "Catholic Gaul," Catholic Encyclopedia,, accessed December 12, 2006.

(4.) Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), 122-23.

(5.) Ibid., 262

(6.) "Huguenot," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopeida,, accessed December 12, 2006.

(7.) Walker, History, 327.

(8.) William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1975), 203, 206ff.

(9.) Walker, History, 348ff.

(10.) Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1965), 169.

(11.) Fath, Une Autre Maniere, 103.

(12.) Ibid., 105.

(13.) Jacques Pannier, "Depuis la Revolution jusqu'au Reveil" (from a paper presented at Saint-Quentin, June 1, 1923, for the 110th anniversary of the Walincourt Temple), http://huguenots.picards., accessed December 15, 2006.

(14.) Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 169.

(15.) Jean-Baptiste Cretin, Notes sur los debuts du baptisme en France (typed by Jacques Blocher, from the archives of Blocher-Saillens), 3.

(16.) Samuel Mours, Un siecle d'evangelisation en France (1815-1914), tome 1 (Flavion: Librairie des eclaireurs unionistes, 1963), 24.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Cretin, Notes, 3.

(19.) Fath, Une Autre Maniere, 116.

(20.) Ibid., 117.

(21.) Ibid., 121.

(22.) Cretin, Notes, 5.

(23.) Aime Cadot, Notes et recits sur los origines des eglises baptistes du nord de la France et de la Belgique et sur quelques uns des ouvriers de cette oeuvre (Mont-sur-Marchienne: Imprimerie Evangelique, 1907), 88.

(24.) Fath, Une Autre Maniere, 128.

(25.) H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 484-85.

(26.) Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 394.

(27.) Emile Guers, Vie de Pyt, Ministre de la Parole de Dieu (Paris-Toulouse-Londres: Societe des Livres Religieux, 1850), 129.

(28.) Dubarry, "A travers notre histoire," 9 Fevrier 1913, 10.

(29.) Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 169.

(30.) McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 485.

(31.) Sebastien Fath, "Los Cahiers de l'Ecole Pastorale," Decembre 1999, Hors-serie no.l, 8.

(32.) Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, 394.

(33.) Fath, Une Autre Maniere, 155.

(34.) Oncken was the first great European Baptist missionary, organizing over 280 churches and 1,200 preaching points in the Balkans, Hungary, France, Prussia, and Russia. He also began the first Baptist newspaper in Europe and a four-year seminary in Germany. He is credited with saying, "Every Baptist a missionary." See Albert W. Wardin, Jr. ed., Baptists Around the World, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995).

(35.) Fath, "Les Cahiers," 8-9.

(36.) Ibid.

(37.) Cadot, Notes et recits, 155.

(38.) Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003), 317.

(39.) Fath, Une Autre Maniere, 175.

(40.) Ibid., 185.

(41.) Ibid., 188-91.

(42.) Leonard, Baptist Ways, 318.

(43.) Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, 395-96.

(44.) Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 170.

(45.) Ibid.

(46.) From the author's unpublished notes of interviews with Pastor Henri Vincent shortly before his death in 1990.

(47.) Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 170-71.

(48.) Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Nineteenth Century in Europe: The Protestant and Eastern Churches (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 232.

(49.) Albert Wardin, "Who are the Baptists?", accessed December 12, 2006.

(50.) J. D. Hughey, Europe: A Mission Field? (Nashville: Convention Press, 1972). Hughey was a missionary to Europe from 1943 until 1964 when he returned to the United States to become the area director of Europe for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board.

T Thomas is the coordinator of the Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. He spent twenty-three years in France as a missionary.
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Author:Thomas, T.
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Date:Jan 1, 2007
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