Who Are the Huguenots?

If Virginia is for Huguenots, who are the Huguenots? And how did they get to Virginia? 

'Huguenot' is a term that came into use around 1560 to describe members of the French Reformed (Protestant) Church. There are several theories about the origin of the term. Some believe that it morphed from the German Eidgenosse ('confederates' or 'oath-fellows), while other posit a French etymological origin. Regardless, the term became (much like the words Christian and Puritan, a term both of derision and a badge of honor.

French Huguenots are simply a branch of the Reformation. For a time they were also known as "Lutherans," since they broke from the Roman Catholic Church and followed the Scriptures as Martin Luther did likewise; but as the Reformation went on, those in France would give heed to the teachings of the Reformer John Calvin, as they diverged from Luther on points relating to the Lord's Supper, church government, church-state relations, and worship. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536-1559) laid out the theology of French Protestantism, and became a standard reference. The French Reformed Church, also with Calvin's assistance, published the Gallic Confession of Faith (1559), which articulated the chief points of Huguenot theology.

Calvin, meanwhile, along with many other Protestants had to flee France for his own safety. Catholic France persecuted the Huguenots severely by outlawing the Protestant religion, executing many martyrs, and banning Reformed literature, the Bible in French, and even psalm-singing, which was a hallmark of the Huguenots. After the 1534 Affair of the Placards, Calvin ended up in francophone Geneva, Switzerland, where he would spend most of the rest of his life. Persecution of those Huguenots who remained in France was especially hot in the 1550s, and from 1562 to 1598, France was rent by eight Wars of Religion between the Catholics and Protestants. At the height of the persecution, thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572.

The loyalty of French Huguenots to the crown of France was tested during these religious and political struggles. Huguenots were forced to address the question of church-state relations, and whether resistance to tyranny was Biblical. Calvin's Institutes put forth the theory of interposition of lesser civil magistrates, earlier set forth by Augustine, whereby the people were not to resist a tyrant by force on their own, but lesser magistrates were to use the sword, if necessary, to defend the people from such a tyrant. Treatises by Francis Hotman, Theodore Beza and the author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) [1579] -- thought by many to be Philippe Du-Plessis-Mornay -- also strengthened the Protestant theory of resistance to tyranny (and would later influence both the Dutch and American Wars of Independence). Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Covenanter, would later write his famous book enlarging on the theory of "Lex, Rex," that is, the law is over the king, meaning that the king is accountable to the law, which is the constitutional theory of government espoused by French Huguenots.

What motivated the Huguenots on the battlefields, as well as in their homes and hearths, was a fierce love of God, his laws, his worship, his church, and all of his institutions in society. Freedom of conscience to worship God according to the Scriptures was a principle that would be shared by the French Huguenots and Scottish Covenanters, who shed their blood to resist tyranny both in church and in state. John Calvin represented the Huguenot party historically, while his friend John Knox -- who spent time in Geneva and called it "the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the Apostles" -- represented the Covenanters; both were often known as Reformed or Calvinists.

The Huguenots, were a people in awe of the holiness of God, and not a little comforted in their sufferings by the sovereignty of God. They looked to the Bible as the sole authority of faith, worship and life, and found in the Psalms a God-given "hymnal," which Calvin was at great pains to versify for easier congregational singing, with help from Clement Marot, Theodore Beza, Louis Bourgeois, and others. Psalmody became such a badge of the Huguenots that John Quick writes:

This holy Ordinance charmed the Ears, Hearts and Affections of Court and City, Town and Country. They were sung in the Louvre, as well as in the Pres des Clerks, by the Ladies, Princes, yea and by Henry the Second himself. This one Ordinance only contributed mightily to the downfall of Popery, and the propagation of the Gospel. It took so much with the genius of the Nation, that all ranks and degrees of Men practised it in the Temples [churches] and in their Families. No Gentleman professing the Reformed Religion, would sit down at his Table without praising God by singing. Yea it was a special part of their Morning and Evening Worship, in their several houses, to sing God's Praises. (Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, Vol. 1, p. v.)

The Huguenots adhered to Presbyterian church government, but strived to maintain unity with all Reformed Churches. They were prohibited from attending the 1618-1619 Dutch Synod of Dort by the French King, but empty chairs were placed in their honor and they remained empty throughout the proceedings. The Huguenots received a measure of peace after the 1598 Edict of Nantes, but their limited religious liberties were eroded over time. Huguenots retreated to strongholds and enclaves, the greatest of which was the city of La Rochelle. However, King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu found a pretext to launch a full-scale siege of the city (1627-1628). La Rochelle's downfall was the beginning of the end of the French Huguenots in France.

Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 causing thousands of Huguenots to flee the country. There was another period of resistance known as the War of the Camisards (French Huguenots who fought the king's dragoons in the Cevennes area from 1702 to 1715). But the Huguenot Diaspora, which began in 1685, led to a mass emigration, draining France of many of its artisans and intellectuals. What was France's loss became the world's gain. Huguenots streamed into England, Ireland, Holland, Germany, America, South Africa and elsewhere, where they would become good citizens and valuable contributors to society (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). Indeed, many settled in Virginia, where a parish was set up with religious liberties for Huguenots (in an Anglican colony) near Richmond, called Manakintowne. New Rochelle and New Paltz, New York became centers of Huguenot immigration, as did coastal areas of North and South Carolina. French Huguenot-founded churches still exist today in New York City; Manakin, VA; and Charleston, SC.

French Huguenot blood flowed through many Presidents and heroes of American history. The legacy of the French Huguenot also remains in the witness of the Reformed Faith worldwide. There are still some Protestants in France who cherish their Huguenot heritage. But those who, as Calvin did, acknowledge that they live by the grace of God, and who also love the land of Calvin and the history of this race of noble people, nevertheless adhere to the words of Charles Spurgeon, who wrote, "Be not proud of race, face, place or grace." It was a saying of the Scottish Covenanters they fought "For Christ's Crown & Covenant." The Huguenots of La Rochelle and elsewhere had their own saying: "Pro Christo et Pro Grege" ("For Christ and the Flock")

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