About a month ago, a group of ladies from our church met for their quarterly Book Club meeting. This time they discussed my book, Renée of France (EP, 2013). I led the discussion. I must admit I was not really prepared, but it didn’t matter. I only had to ask one question (what did you like about this book?) and the discussion went on for the full two hours! These are some of the topics we discussed.
1. Most people said they were thankful they don’t live in the 16th century! From arranged marriages to cruel wars waging in the streets, our predecessors make our daily challenges pale in comparison. We can have a romanticized picture of the past, especially some “golden” days like the Reformation, and it’s good to see it in its proper light.
2. We also expressed our thankfulness to God for our church and the clarity of the gospel message we hear week after week. If we think the church is divided today, we can just take a look to the 16th century, when the division was not only between Roman Catholics and Protestants. There were many divisions among Protestants, besides a great variety of actual heresies, and Christians had to exercise a lot of discernment, especially when they lived, as Renée, far from any organized Protestant church.
We wondered how we would fare in her situation, without a pastor most of the time, while facing a barrage of conflicting theological information. We discussed the importance of a serious study of theology, grounded on Scriptures and on the historical creeds and confessions – something that, for various reasons, women today seem to neglect more than men.
3. We talked about the involvement of women in the Reformation. Far from being passive spectators, women (especially of the nobility) were active and vocal, often taking enormous risks. Some brought their husbands to the Protestant faith, partially because they had time to study theology while their husbands were busy fighting wars. In Calvin’s correspondence we read about women abused by their unbelieving husbands. Some of them had to leave to save their lives. A few stayed and convinced the husbands to embrace the Protestant faith.In France, the involvement spread to women of every social status. Sadly, sometimes politics weighed too heavily in this situation.
4. We discussed also the brief life of a Reformation movement in Italy. We rarely speak about an Italian Reformation, but the same ideas that sparked the Reformation in Europe had been brewing in Italy for a long time, especially in Augustinian circles. Later, small nucleus of active Protestants met regularly but quietly in cities such as Ferrara, Lucca, and Neaples.
5. We agreed on the importance of learning church history, to go beyond simplistic explanations and really understand the issues that moved our church family of the past. This small book sheds some light on the position of the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation and on the true struggle Protestants had to face. Some ladies of Huguenot descent were grateful for this chance to learn more about their heritage.
6. Someone mentioned she was surprised by “the aggressive nature of Protestants.” We tend to sanitize so much of our past, but the Reformation was a messy time. We know how Luther opposed the Peasants’ War, but violence continued everywhere and persisted in the 17th century. It’s interesting to see Renée’s reaction to the violence. She helped all the wounded and needy, regardless of their religion, and denounced the violence to Calvin. She was shocked to see even Protestant women taking up arms. In his letters to her, Calvin mentions how he tried to defuse some of the Protestants’ anger, encouraging them to practice moderation. Later, his successor Theodore Beza worked hard to bring some peace to a troubled and divided French church. Calvin’s friend Pierre Viret is particularly remembered as a peacemaker at this time.
6. Most of all, we talked about God’s preservation of Renée and all believers. Calvin’s letters to Renée are a great encouragement in this respect. He encouraged and guided her from the moment he met her to the end of his life, without ever questioning the sincerity of her faith. I find this very interesting, in opposition to the common belief that Luther was all about grace and Calvin added an unhealthy concern about personal salvation. In this case, he kept pointing Renée to Christ and encouraged her to trust the Spirit’s work in her life.
7. As mothers and wives, we also talked about Renée’s discharge of her duties in these areas of her life. She had the greatest influence on her daughters (the boys received a separate education), but she devoted much effort to make sure all her children were exposed to Protestant doctrine and had plenty of books to read on the subject. Even as Paris was in utter turmoil during St.Bartholomew’s massacre, she spent time reading the Bible to her young grandson.
We commented that her duties were so much heavier than any of ours, as she was responsible not only for her personal families, but for her large household. At Montargis, France, she had also some influence on the town. During the French wars of religion, her castle turned into a refugee camp, hospital, and school. I always found much encouragement in Calvin’s exhortations to her in the carrying out of these duties. Once again, while sympathizing with her struggles, he communicated his unswerving confidence in the Spirit’s ability to sustain her and allow her to obey.
Calvin’s letters to Renée gave me great comfort and strength when I first read them and I continue to refer to them when duties or temptations seem overwhelming. I believe the women in our book club shared my feelings.
If you are thinking of using this book in your Book Club, the publisher (EP) has agreed to offer a 50% discount for orders of five or more delivered to one address! You can order at firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free 877-683-6935. Just say you need the copies for a book club. I hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity.