It is the 10th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1762.
The south of France had long been a headache for the Catholic Church. You might remember the “Albigensian” crusade was against the commune of Albi in southern France (those heretics were also called Cathars). The Reformation era saw sectarian blood spill across the nation such that by the 18th century, you might understand why many had abandoned the church. However, by this time, the hotbed of strident and aggressive Catholic confessionals had moved to the south of France. In the southwest of France, Toulouse was a center of Catholic intolerance that, in 1762, was preparing to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Wars of religion and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. That Massacre (being celebrated!) included targeted assassinations of prominent Protestants and the brutal killing of thousands.
All this to say that if you were a Protestant in Toulouse in 1762, you might want to keep quiet about it. And Jean Calas tried to do precisely that.
Jean Calas was a cloth merchant in Toulouse. Despite his education, he could not hold certain positions in the city because he was a Huguenot (a French Protestant). Calas son, Marc-Antoine, had studied law, but as a Protestant, he was unable to find employment. Marc-Antoine had allegedly not taken his inability to practice the law lightly and had succumbed to gambling and drink.
In October of 1761, Jean found his son dead inside the family cloth factory. The young man had hung himself. To save the family, the shame of suicide, Jean lowered his son to the ground and claimed local marauders must have killed him. That lie to save face would come back to haunt him.
Rumor had it that Marc-Antoine was considering converting to Catholicism to practice law. This evolved into the claim that Marc-Antoine was, in fact, murdered by his father for considering a conversion.
With no trial by a jury of his peers and no sympathy for a Huguenot, Jean Calas was found guilty and sentenced to die on the 10th of March in 1762. The story of his torture is unpalatable, and I will state simply that he was subjected to racks and wheels and waterboarding. His refusal to confess to a crime he didn’t commit was so exasperating that the executioner eventually choked Calas to death.
So, this is a terrible story. But stick with me.
As a Huguenot, the family had connections in Geneva. The story of Calas became something of a lightning rod for discussions regarding religious tolerance. The tragic killing of a man who was also mourning the suicide of his son became the foundation for one of the most critical modern treatises on religious toleration. Within a year of this event, Voltaire published his treatise on tolerance. The full title of this monumental tract is “The Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas from the Judgment Rendered in Toulouse.”
The Catholic Church, at least officially, rejected the idea that a man, such as Voltaire, with no confession, could be the arbiter of peace between competing Christian confessions. But perhaps this was the genius of this work. Voltaire aimed at both parties and claimed that intolerance and ignorance seem to pervert even the most robust confession. He wrote, “the supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear to have food while we rend each other for paragraphs.”
Voltaire’s work went beyond the treatise as he engaged friends to take up the case of Jean Calas. Under growing pressure, the French authorities reopened the case and questions about the charges against him. On the 9th of March in 1765, French authorities posthumously acquitted Calas precisely three years from his guilty verdict and death on the next day, which is this day, the 10th of March 1762.
The reading for today comes from our Episcopal and Anglican brothers and sisters, from their Book of Common Prayer.
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who, if he didn’t exist, I would have to invent him, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.