Our Huguenot Heritage
by R. Andrew Myers
As young man, I spent several years studying French in high school. By God´s grace, soon after my conversion to Christ at college in North Carolina, I was introduced to the Reformed Faith and learned about John Calvin, whereupon my interest in French was again piqued. French -- to some, la langue d´amour -- was the language of Huguenots, those French-speaking people of the Reformation who sang psalms, fought for ecclesiastical and civil liberties, colonized the world and glorified God through great personal sacrifices. As a student of church history and genealogy, I would ultimately come to learn that two great interests of mine would converge in a remarkable providence.
French Huguenots were much like Scottish Covenanters in the 16th and 17th centuries. Both held to the Reformed Faith and the systematic teachings of Calvin. John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, studied under Calvin at Geneva during his exile. Both shared a common bond of suffering and even exile: Covenanters were martyred during the "Killing Times" of the 1680's and some were sent to the Americas as white slaves, while French Huguenots were persecuted for years by their kings culminating in the St. Bartholomew´s Day massacre of 1572 and, a century later, in the world-wide "Diaspora" which followed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
As an American Reformed Presbyterian, I was fascinated to learn about this history of our spiritual forefathers, which was all new to me having been educated in the public school system sans religious instruction. The determination and perseverance of our godly forebears who stood fast for the true faith despite their suffering was a powerful testimony to me in our age of relativism and it inspired me to learn more. Were there any French Huguenot people, places or things left today? What is the legacy today of those remarkable French Huguenots?
One striking aspect of the Huguenot Diaspora of the 17th and 18th centuries that has been noted is how quickly the refugees assimilated into their new surroundings. Many were skilled artisans, craftsmen or farmers who brought with them valuable resources with which they could become an integral part of their new political, economic and spiritual environment. So many Huguenots came to England, Germany, Holland, Ireland, and the Americas (at one point there were more French Huguenots in Berlin than Germans, and elsewhere at one time a quarter of the population of New York City was French Huguenot), and yet they did not retain their unique ethnicity for more than a few generations, unlike Italian, Jewish, Chinese and other immigrant groups that are more well-known today. Is this a failure on the part of French Huguenot culture? On the contrary, it may be looked upon as a strength, that French Huguenots adapted so well and fit in so easily that their influence could be diffused far more widely than if they simply remained in segregated communities of their own. The absence of those Huguenots who left France, many with tears in their eyes as they watched the shores of their native land disappear from view, is perhaps the most powerful testimony to the leaven of this remarkable group -- within a century of their departure, the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy and France has mostly remained spiritually dark ever since.
Nevertheless, French Huguenots in America and elsewhere have not left us without visible reminders of their presence. As I began to explore their history, I learned that America, in particular, owes a great debt to this people. The first Protestant colony in America was settled at Port Royal, South Carolina, by French Huguenots in 1562; the second, near Jacksonville, Florida in 1564, the site of which is known as the Fort Caroline National Memorial, both many years before Jamestown or Plymouth. A block from where I work in Washington, D.C., there is a church which honors those Presidents with Huguenot blood in their veins -- this accounts for 21 of our 43 official Presidents. Even the very first President of the Congress of the United States and first president of the American Bible Society, Elias Boudinot, had a French Huguenot great-grandfather. French Huguenots founded and settled in large numbers at such towns as New Rochelle, New York; New York City, New York; New Paltz, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Bath, North Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina. The National Huguenot Society, located in Bloomington, Minnesota, is testimony that thousands of people, spread all across America, share a heritage that is far more prevalent than one might imagine.
This heritage is truly world-wide as is indicated by the legacy of French Huguenots who came to Brazil, South Africa, Canada, the Carribean and many other shores as well. Finally, I learned that around 300 years ago, several shiploads of French Huguenots came from England and Ireland to the shores of Virginia and sailed up the James River to found a new colony near Richmond called Manakintowne. Both of my parents were born in Virginia, so as I explored this history further, I was amazed to learn from a relative that Fontaine was a family name (which, as I knew, has Huguenot connection). She told me that Matthew Fontaine Maury, the great oceanographer and "Pathfinder of the Seas," was part of our family tree.
As I kept digging, I connected the dots and found that I am lineally descended on my father´s side from Francis Fontaine, who was a minister at Manakintowne and later established the Department of Oriental Languages as a Professor of Hebrew at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (the town where my parents were married), and served as Chaplain to the Virginia House of Burgesses. His father, James, also a Huguenot minister, wrote a fascinating autobiography in which he tells of his exciting escape from France across the English Channel, and then his travel to and adventures in Ireland, the place from which his son Francis immigrated to the colony of Virginia. That book became for me a source of awe as I humbly considered God´s amazing providence in the story of the Fontaine family, just one of many thousands who fled France in order to worship Him in freedom, and how three centuries later, one student of history would rediscover his Reformed roots, Huguenot heritage, and French connection.
With my family, I was privileged to visit the Manakintowne site last year and walk the grounds where Francis once preached the gospel to other Huguenot refugees. As I look forward to telling my own children someday, all of God´s people are children of Adam and Noah, as well as Abraham, and there is no particular benefit in being physically descended from one particular branch thereof, but the covenant is a blessing, and I do pray that we may today honor that past and continue to plant seeds for the future, so that people yet unborn may acknowledge that God is faithful from generation to generation.