The Protestant history of Mulhouse

A story of entrepreneurs

The Saint-Etienne Reformed church, Mulhouse © Valérie Meyer-Goestchy

The Saint-Etienne Reformed church, Mulhouse © Valérie Meyer-Goestchy

In Mulhouse you’ll find a town deeply marked by Protestantism. Mulhouse freely subscribed to the Reformation as from 1523. Later on, the Protestants living there strongly influenced the town’s characteristic industrial development, thanks to their ability to innovate and take risks – such as in English-speaking countries.
The Protestants’ theological conviction is based on the idea that one’s ultimate destiny (or ‘eternal salvation’) depends on God’s sole decision, which helps men not to focus so much on their search for salvation. As they don’t have to ‘earn their own salvation’, they are freed from the fear of their destiny, and feel responsible for taking action where they are, here on Earth. At the same time, by refusing fate or ‘divine decree’ which would freeze society’s unchanging order, Protestants are ‘intendants of the world God entrusts them with’. They thus feel responsible towards the economic and social situations they encounter, as well as liable for transforming society in order to make it a foreshadowing of the Kingdom of God.
These utopian convictions held by Mulhouse’s well-known Protestant industrial families, who often came from nearby Switzerland, led them to dare to make great technological innovations, such as building railways, or social innovations, like creating the first coeducational public school in France.


Coming out of the central railway station, turn right following the tram’s tracks. You’ll arrive at the place de la Bourse, where you’ll notice its superb colonnades and most of all Mulhouse’s “Société Industrielle”, an industrial society and laboratory of ideas, founded in 1826 by Protestant industrials.


At the Place de la République, take the tram 1 going towards “Châtaignier” up to “Cité administrative”, then take the number 10 bus going towards “Austerlitz” up to the stop “Cité Wagner” and visit the Protestant graveyard. Built in 1872 over 12 hectares, the central graveyard has the particularity of being divided into three sectors: Jewish, Catholic and Protestant.
94, rue Lefebvre.


Walk back to the covered market and boulevard Roosevelt. Opposite the war memorial you’ll see the “Clinique du Diaconat”, founded by Mrs Nicolas Koechlin in 1852 to help the “poor workers living in the Chaussée de Dornach” (slums that were going to be absorbed by the construction of the city). Today, this diaconate foundation known as the “Fondation de la maison du Diaconat” has nine premises in Alsace and is the leading private health clinic in the region.


Carry straight on along the rue de l’Arsenal, then turn right into the rue de la Loi up to the rue de la Synagogue where you’ll find the St. Jean temple. Although the building dates from 1836, the creation of this French-speaking Reformed parish (St. Etienne and St. Paul were German-speaking as in Alsace) goes back to 1661. It services were initially for French Protestant officers who were in garrison in Neuf-Brisach and had looked for hospitality in the Republic of Mulhouse. Note that the church adjoins the synagogue built in 1849 by Jean-Baptiste Schacre, also the architect of the Catholic church, St. Etienne (1860), the Protestant temple, St. Etienne (1866) and the central graveyard (1872).


Going down the rue des Trois Rois, you’ll get to the historical centre where, at the place de la Réunion, you can visit the St. Etienne temple. 97m high, it’s the highest church built by Protestants in Europe. Built in the 19th century (1859-1866), its imposing size is also a testament to the pride of the town’s economic success. It is in a neo-Gothic style, but kept the 14th century stained glass windows from the old church’s chancel. This former church was given to the Protestants in the 16th century. Even today, the church is a place of worship for the town-centre’s parish, but also a cultural centre that stages many exhibitions and nearly 70 concerts, with over 85.000 visitors per year.


At the Place de la Réunion, you can see the many Renaissance walls, including the elegant turret of the ‘Maison Mieg’ (1560) as well as those of the town hall (1552). On the latter’s façade, you’ll notice a reproduction of the ‘Klapperstein’. This stone, the original of which is kept in the town’s historical museum, was initially kept in the church; the pastor would hang it on liars’ necks as part of the ecclesiastical and civil discipline in this Calvinist Republic.


Coming back towards the station via the rue Guillaume Tell, go to the place Guillaume Tell and visit the “Musée des Beaux-Arts” (Fine arts museum), created by the Industrial Society in 1864 to promote the work of local artists. It has quite a number of collections from Mulhouse including many modern artists.


From Rue de Sinne, carry straight on up to the avenue Clémenceau and cross the annular building. Turn left into the rue Jean-Jacques Henner and you’ll arrive at the Museum of printed textiles. Here you’ll discover the history of a textile and industrial Protestantism through textile designs. These have been preserved by an industrial society known as the “Societé Industrielle” since 1833.


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