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LETTER FROM AMERICA: Legacy of the Huguenot Church

October 2018 | by Ben Wilkerson

Emigration of the Huguenots 1566
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On October 18 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Consisting of 92 articles aimed at promoting civil and religious liberty, the Edict of Nantes had been issued by Henry IV in 1598 in an attempt to end civil war and grant some liberties to the Huguenots, which the French government and Roman Catholic Church saw as heretical.

With the protections revoked, relentless state and church-sponsored persecution harried the French Protestant Church and nearly half a million French citizens left France for the safety of neighboring Protestant nations or further abroad. Although the Huguenot church is not widely heard of today, the legacy and impact of the Huguenot church is seen throughout the globe.

While most would think that the Reformation in France began with the writings and teaching of former Catholic priest Jean Cauvin (John Calvin), the actual origins began much earlier (similar to England) in the Middle Ages. Twelfth century reformer Peter Waldo translated the Bible into Arpitan, a regional language in France and formed the group known as the Waldensians.

Known for voluntary poverty, the group criticized many of the doctrines of the Catholic Church including purgatory and transubstantiation and were staunch defenders of Scripture. Although they spent much of their history in seclusion in northern Italy and the French Piedmont, they met with French and Swiss reformers (one of which was William Farel) and joined their Reformed brothers and sisters in 1532. After this point the Waldensians either assimilated into the Huguenot church or were nearly exterminated in persecution.

John Calvin
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The work of John Calvin

The Huguenot church does owe much to the work of John Calvin. Although his ministry was largely based in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin’s influence spread greatly through his writings and pastoral work in the French church in Geneva. His heart longed to see the Reformed faith spread in his homeland and his works reflected that.

One writer states: ‘But not until Calvin settled at Geneva and began to write extensively in French was the [Protestant] cause presented in a form capable of appealing to the average Frenchman. Calvin gave not only the best apology for his cause but also furnished it with a definite organization and a coherent program. He supplied the dogma, the liturgy, and the moral ideas of the new religion, and he also created ecclesiastical, political, and social institutions in harmony with it. A born leader, he followed up his work with personal appeals. His vast correspondence with French Protestants shows not only much zeal but infinite pains and considerable tact in driving home the lessons of his printed treatises’ (The Age of the Reformation, Preserved Smith, 201).

He pastored hundreds of French expatriates in Geneva and many of these were trained as ministers for gospel work in France. Nearly a hundred ministers were sent to France and with them they carried the doctrine and liturgy of the Reformed faith. Not only were the Huguenots influenced by the doctrines of grace and Calvin’s Presbyterian polity, they also embraced many of his political and social ideas as well, making them not just a religious movement but also a political one as well.

Growth of the Huguenots

By 1572, there were two million Huguenots in France gathering in over 2,000 churches (History.com). This population amounted to about 10 per cent of the population and was centered in the southern and western parts of France. Although they might only have made up a tenth of the population, the Huguenots were largely comprised of either nobility or urban bourgeoisie while the lower-class citizenry remained Catholic. This meant that throughout the extent of the 16th century, the Huguenots held great station and influence.

Due to the fact that the government and church of France were practically inseparable at this time, the Huguenots were affected by turbulent periods between war and persecution on one hand and tolerance on the other. Through the 1560s until 1572, the Huguenot church continued to grow despite civil war.

But when Henry of Navarre married Margaret of Valois in August of 1572 in an attempt to bring peace between Catholic and Protestant factions in France, a massive massacre ensued in which nearly 3,000 Huguenots were killed in Paris and 7,000 in other areas of France during August. Some historians suggest that between 30,000 and 100,000 more were martyred in the months that followed.

Crippling blow of persecution

This crippling blow to the Huguenot church initiated large numbers of Huguenots to leave France for other countries. Wars continued to rage between the Huguenots and Catholics until Henry IV came to the throne in 1594. After issuing the Edict of Nantes, persecution of the Huguenots lessened greatly and the Huguenots enjoyed greater liberties than before.

However, under Louis XIV, ‘Practice of the “heretical” religion was forbidden. Huguenots were ordered to renounce their faith and join the Catholic Church. They were denied exit from France under pain of death. And, Louis XIV hired 300,000 troops to hunt the heretics down and confiscate their property’ (Huguenot society of America website).

These ‘dragonnades’ harried the Huguenots so ferociously that nearly half a million Huguenots left France for the safety of Protestant states such as Netherlands, Germany, and England. Due to the fact that most Huguenots were well educated bourgeoisie or ruling class, this left a huge vacuum in French society. This so called ‘brain-drain’ depleted France of her finer citizens.

As one author put it, ‘France had opened her own veins and spilt her best blood when she drained herself of her Huguenots, and everywhere, in every country that would receive them, this amazing strain acted as a yeast’ (Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942).

Impact on the Americas

Huguenots left France for nearly any country that would receive them. During the height of persecution, many European powers were focusing their efforts on colonizing the New World. As early as 1555, Huguenots left France to start their own colony in the New World.

Some 500 settlers landed near what is now Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and controlled a small area from 1555 to 1567. They built Fort Coligny to protect the small colony from Portuguese and native attacks but the colony did not last long. In 1560, Portuguese troops captured some of the Huguenots and threatened to kill them if they would not convert. The Huguenots produced a Confession of Faith, known as the Guanabara Confession of Faith as their defence. The Portuguese subsequently executed them for supposed heresy.

Other settlements of Huguenots were established on the South Carolina and Florida coasts: Charlesfort and Fort Caroline, respectively. While those early settlements were extirpated by the Spanish, the Huguenots continued to leave France in the thousands, seeking religious freedom.

England played a vital role in harboring the Huguenots during those years and also sent many as settlers to the British colonies in the Americas. During the 17th century, nearly a thousand adult Huguenots arrived in the New World and many settled in what is now New York and New Jersey. They settled in two new towns, New Platz and New Rochelle, and also settled in what is now Brooklyn.

L’Église Française du Saint Esprit in New York City was one of the first Huguenot churches in the Americas and although it is now an Anglican church, it still has services in French in honor of its rich history. Throughout the course of the 17th century, French Protestant immigrants settled in what is now New York, New Jersey, Virginia and South Carolina.

George Washington
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Descendants of the Huguenots

While most of these communities of Huguenots assimilated into the colonial society, they were vital to the colonial economy as most were artisans and tradesmen. Not only did they bring practical expertise to the colonies but political and religious fervor. Many influential men in the American Revolution were descendants of Huguenots including George Washington, Paul Revere, Francis Marion, and Henry Laurens.

Many US presidents also claim Huguenot ancestry: Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford and Lyndon B. Johnson. While the Huguenots may have assimilated quickly into the American populace, their influence as church leaders, military officers, politicians, and craftsmen helped prosper the young American nation.

As the Huguenots enjoyed religious liberties in the new colonies, their departure spelled disaster for the nation of France. In the wake of the persecution and subsequent exodus, France no longer maintained its brilliant and educated working class. As the powerful house of Bourbon continued its tyrannical rule and corruption, there were no powerful Huguenots to counteract. Revolution was coming.

Today you can find descendants of the Huguenots throughout Western Europe, Canada, the United States, and even South Africa and Australia. Their sons and daughters have influenced political authorities throughout the world and many descendants still hold on to the Reformed faith. In the years following Louis XIV’s ‘dragonnades’, the brightest lights of France have not illuminated that country but other countries around the world. We owe much to the French Huguenots and their faithful stand against the Catholic Church.