Geneva: The Protestant’s Rome

Saint Peter's Cathedral in Geneva. Originally built as a Roman Catholic Cathedral but became A Reformed Protestant church during the Reformation. Photo from Geneve.com.

Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. Originally built as a Roman Catholic Cathedral but became A Reformed Protestant church during the Reformation. Photo from Geneve.com.

Escaping persecution in France, many Huguenots made the voyage through the Alps to arrive in Geneva, the free city that would accept French arrivals regardless their protestant faith. To organize records of Huguenot arrivals, officials in Geneva created a registry of refugees in 1549. Upon arrival, Huguenots would be inscribed into the registry as “inhabitant,” (habitants), granting them more permanent status than temporary travelers and visitors, but no political rights. Acceptance in Geneva was conditional on a written statement that the refugee’s reason for being in Geneva was based “solely on the desire to live by the holy evangelical religion” (seulement pour le désir qu’il a de vivre selon la sainte religion évangélique ici purement annoncée).  Some Huguenots would stay in Geneva until they could continue to travel elsewhere (Swiss free cantons—Zurich, Bale, Berne; Germany, England, Ireland, etc…), while others set up a life for themselves in Geneva. Children born to Huguenots in Geneva would have the status “native” (natif) rather than citizen. Some Huguenots gained prestige as bourgeois in Geneva, including Robert d’Estienne, who was eventually even granted citizenship.

Geneva presented itself as an ideal place of first refuge for Huguenots as persecution intensified in France, as a free city with elaborate systems to accept and care for refugees. Geneva was (and still is) widely French-speaking due to its proximity to France, making assimilation and finding work easier for French arrivals.

The city welcomed such masses of Huguenots that it became known as the capital of French Protestantism. Following Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre, the city was taking in 20 Huguenots per day. Some 3,000 of the between 5,000 and 8,000 refugees in Geneva by 1587 returned to France following the news of the Edict of Nantes. A second wave of refugees flowed into the city following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, with nearly 350 Huguenots pouring in daily. In just ten years from 1680 to 1690, around 30,000 protestant refugees had been to Geneva.

While being in Geneva became risky as Louis XIV put the city under French surveillance in 1679, its value as a place of near refuge for Huguenots cannot be understated.[1] Today, Geneva’s protestant roots are evident through the 83% of Swiss nationals in the city who are protestant. [2]

This map depicts Huguenot exodus from 1560-1760, a hot spot is visible at Geneva. (Map from LaVie.fr)

This map depicts Huguenot exodus from 1560-1760, a hot spot is visible at Geneva. (Map from LaVie.fr)

[1] Le Refuge huguenot en Suisse. (2017, November 13). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.museeprotestant.org/notice/le-refuge-huguenot-en-suisse/?parc=31901

[2]Office cantonal de la statistique (OCSTAT). December 2016. RELIGION ET SPIRITUALITÉ À GENÈVE EN 2014.  PDF.  https://www.ge.ch/statistique/tel/publications/2016/analyses/coup_doeil/an-co-2016-58.pdf