Huguenot History

The term "Huguenot" is a 17th century franco-term derived from a German term, "Eidgenossen", which literally means, "sworn companions or confederates." In the 17th century, it was originally used by French Catholics as a generic, derogatory label for all French Protestants. But, over time, the term was used to identify a specific group of French Protestants who were followers of Calvinism. John Calvin was a Swiss theologian whose publications challenged both the logic and authority of Roman Catholicism.

Beginning in the early 16th century, the Protestant Movement, influenced by Calvin and Martin Luther, spread rapidly throughout western Europe. France, a predominantly Catholic nation, was also heavily influenced by this movement. Initially, Francis I, the King of France, granted religious and political toleration to this group of religious dissenters because it was both politically and economically expedient. But at this time, France and Spain were the traditional bastions of Catholic influence in western Europe.

To avoid a political rift from forming between the Church and the French monarchy, Pope Leo X granted Francis the ecclesiastical powers to appoint bishops through the Concordant of Bologna (1516). Though this papal act would magnify Francis' political and religious authority in France, he was now bound to papal authority. As a result, Francis reversed his policy of religious toleration and engaged in a policy of harassment and violent persecution beginning in 1534 when Francis outlawed the Protestant faith in France.

These persecutions had a severe backlash which thrust France into a bloody civil war of Protestants vs. Catholics. The persecutions and bloodshed only added fuel to the Protestant movement and its resolve to survive as an underground movement which continued under all four of Francis' Catholic successors. Gradually, the movement garnered enough strength to re-surface and directly challenge the Catholic influence beginning with a 30-year long civil war beginning in 1562. The low point of this violence occurred with the slaughter of thousands of Protestant men, women, and children during the infamous Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572).

By the very late 16th century, the Huguenots would receive a temporary reprieve when Henry of Navarre, a Protestant, ascended the French throne because the last French king failed to produce a male heir. In 1598, Henry granted religious toleration to the Huguenots in the Edict of Nantes. But this reprieve was extremely short-lived. Henry was assassinated in 1610 by Catholic nobles who brought in another heir, Louis XIII (1610-1643), another Catholic.

Louis left the daily political administration of France to his leading advisor Cardinal Richelieu who had advocated the political idea of centralizing the "absolute" authority of the French state. This policy had a profound impact on religion and Catholicism would become the official state religion at great expense to the French Huguenots. "Absolutism" would continue and strengthen during the rule of Louis' successor, his son, Louis XIV (1643-1715). When Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, another wave of religious persecutions swept over the Huguenots. These persecutions were extremely vicious. Weary of the fight, Huguenots decided to flee France in a mass exodus which took them to the Netherlands, southern Africa, England, Ireland, and ultimately the British North American colonies.

Approximately 2,000-2,500 Huguenot emigrants crossed the Atlantic and settled in upstate New York (New Rochelle), Virginia, (Manakin Town Settlement), and the Carolina (Charles Town) colonies where they quickly assimilated into colonial American culture.

Written by Robert Brewton Ryals, 2003