France Church History

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Church History

Research procedures and genealogical sources are different for each religion. It is helpful to understand the historical events that led to the creation of records, such as parish registers, which may list your family.

In France most people have been Roman Catholics but a few other religions have existed for many centuries, namely the Huguenots, Waldensians, and Mennonites.

General Historical Background

The keeping of Catholic parish registers was first required by the church at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The oldest parish register in France, for the city of Givry, dates back to 1334. However parish registers are rare until 1539, when the French king, François I, required priests to keep parish registers. Unfortunately, many of the earlier records have been destroyed or lost.

The efficient recording of baptisms, marriages, and deaths developed slowly. The record-keeping requirement was limited, at first, to baptisms. The requirements developed as follows:

1539: The first laws required baptismal registers showing the date and the hour of the birth.

1563: The Council of Trent required that the godparents' names be recorded in the baptismal certificates.

1579: Death and marriage records were required in addition to baptismal records.

1691: Some preprinted forms were given to priests for uniformity of record keeping.

1792: Civil registration began. Church records became less important as a genealogical source. Most church records before 1792 were turned over to the departmental archives.

Feast Dates. Each day of the year had several patron saints and was a feast day to honor those saints. Some vital events are recorded in church records only by the holy day (feast day) on the church calendar. For example, the feast day called "All Saints Day" [Toussaint] is "1 November." To convert feast dates to days of the month for either the Julian (old style) or Gregorian (new style) calendar, use the following book:

  • Bukke, Inger M., et. al. The Comprehensive Genealogical Feast Day Calendar. Bountiful, Utah, USA: Thomson's Genealogical Center, 1983. (FHL book 529.44 C738; fiche 6054630.)

Roman Catholics

Roman Catholicism has been the predominant faith of France since the 6th century. However, several reform movements gained footholds in France, especially among people in Alsace-Lorraine and in Montbéliard, near Germany and Switzerland.

Protestants (Huguenots and others)

See also: France Hugenots

In France, Protestantism started in 1541. A synod of Calvinist reformers in Paris in 1559 decided that a record of baptisms and marriages of Protestants would be kept by the pastors of the Eglise réformée. Because of wars, intolerance, and other calamities, some of these early Protestant records may have been destroyed.

It is important to recall that not all French protestants were Huguenots: the Lutheran church, la Confession d'Augsbourg was tolerated in Alsace and their church registers date back to 1525. If you have protestant ancestors from Alsace, it is important to know if they were Lutheran or Huguenot (Calvinist). In France, the nickname "Huguenot" was given to the French Calvinist protestants; however, in English the word has come to embrace any protestant refugee from France and also Walloons from Belgium and Dutch-speakers from the Low Countries.

Researching Protestants is difficult because these people moved frequently, sometimes from one nation to another. As with all genealogical research, it is necessary to go from the known to the unknown. To trace a Protestant from America back across the Atlantic, it is necessary to know more than just the name of a person. It is important to know relatives or at least friends who traveled as a group with the ancestor. Knowing the nation where they previously resided will help you search the records of that nation and identify the family and its previous nation of residence.

Most Protestants did not come straight from France to North America, but fled first to nearby nations, especially after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. If your ancestors arrived in North America sometime in the early 1700s, the chances are that the family left France in 1685 and spent the years in between in a European nation such as England, the Netherlands, or Germany, sometimes moving from one nation to another. It may be necessary for you to research everyone with a selected surname, especially if this surname is not too common, rather than research just one ancestor. You also need to be aware that in going from one nation to another, the surname spellings were subject to change to fit in better in the new nation.

It is a good idea to learn all you can about the history of these people and search every record available in the Family History Library in their area of residence. To do so, search the Subject section of FamilySearch Catalog under subjects like:





Look for name indexes and study the history of the area. Identify their date of arrival and their nation of residence before they crossed the ocean. Do not believe everything that has been published previously, but prove information for yourself. The following sources may help researchers looking for Huguenot ancestors. Beginning in 1541 some of the people of France accepted the teachings of John Calvin. Religious wars with the Roman Catholics began as early as 1562 and resulted in turmoil throughout France.

The first large migration of French Protestants (Huguenots) began after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. In 1598 the Edict of Nantes granted religious freedom. Many Protestant records date from that year. They are arranged by town or province, depending on the denomination. But this religious freedom did not last and the peace was punctuated with occasional clashes. In 1685 the revocation of the Edict of Nantes removed all religious freedom and caused Protestants to flee by the thousands to foreign nations. Many Protestant records were destroyed.

The Protestants who could not leave France became Catholics, renounced Protestantism, and had their children baptized in the Catholic church. Converted Protestants are listed in Catholic records, especially after 1685. Some of these "converts" later left France and can be found in the Protestant records of another nation.

During the eighteenth century there were some revivals of Protestantism with various expressions of intolerance, but in 1787 Louis XVI signed the Edict of Tolerance, which again granted freedom of religion to Protestants.

For a history of the Huguenots see:

  • Roche, O.J.A. The Days of the Upright: the Story of the Huguenots. New York, NY, USA: Clarkson N. Potter, 1965. (Family History Library book 944 K2ro; not on microfilm.) Text in English.


The Waldensians were founded by Pierre Valdo (or Waldo) at the end of the twelfth century in Lyon. The movement soon spread to Germany, Flanders, and Aragon. In 1545 hundreds of French Waldensians were executed in the towns of Cabrières and Merindol. Persecutions caused Waldensians to move as far away as Uruguay and Argentina. A branch of this group in Merindol, France, publishes the:

  • La Valmasque: Bulletin de l'Association d'Etudes Vaudoises et Historiques du Luberon (Bulletin of the association for the study of the Waldensian history of Luberon). (FHL book 944.92 H25v; not on microfilm.) The address of the association is:
La Muse, BP No. 4
84360 Merindol


The Mennonites (or Anabaptists) have existed in France since 1523 and are found mostly in Alsace-Lorraine and in the former principality of Montbéliard. For more information about their history see—

Séguy, Jean. Les assemblées Anabaptistes-Mennonites de France (Mennonite congregations of France). Paris, France: Mouton, 1977. (FHL book 944.38 F2sj; not on microfilm.)

Sommer, Pierre. Historique des assemblées (History of the congregations) [France]: Association française d'Histoire Anabaptiste-Mennonite, 1982. (FHL book 944.38 F2s; not on microfilm.)

See also the "Minorities" section.