What's a Huguenot?
by Don Silvius

As is the case with most refugees in history, politics as well as religion played a large part in beginning the Huguenot movement in France. The Huguenots were Protestants aligned with John Calvin's teachings who had their beginnings during the Reformation and prospered after 1520.

The word "Huguenot" allegedly derives from Hugeon, a word used to signify persons who walk at night. The Huguenots could only worship safely in caves and behind locked doors. Their basic philosophy, which greatly annoyed the Roman Catholic Church, was that the Bible was a good book to make available to the public. A French monk of the time is quoted as saying in reference to the Huguenots "I see in the hands of a great number of persons a book written in this language (Greek), called the New Testament. It is a book full of brambles with vipers in them."

The politics of the Huguenots, along with their religion, made them natural enemies of the Roman Catholic Church and the French Monarchy. The Huguenots were France's working class, and in time, gained in power and influence. By the late sixteenth century they could include among their numbers some of the French nobility. This did not change the fact that they were looked upon as a threat to both the French government and the Roman Catholic Church.

The French Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici and the Catholic Duke of Guise masterminded the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre during the reign of Charles IX. On August 25, 1572, thousands of Huguenots were killed while they celebrated this religious holiday. French soldiers and the Roman Catholic clergy attacked the unarmed Huguenots as they were gathered to celebrate this event.

Men, women and children were massacred by the bloodthirsty troops. The rivers of France were so full of corpses that fish was not eaten for months afterwards. The massacres spread throughout the area around Paris. In that week, approximately 100,100 Protestants were killed.

In the 1600's France's King Henry IV, a Huguenot leader, wanted the religious conflicts to end. After ascending the throne of France, he proclaimed himself a Catholic, but also gave the Huguenots freedom to practice their religion by evoking the Edict of Nantes. Henry felt that his job as king was to guarantee peace so that God "may be adored and prayed unto by all". He also proclaimed that as long as they agreed on this one principle, it didn't matter which religion people chose.

The Huguenots were tolerated until 1685, when the group had their religious freedom taken from them entirely by Louis XIV, when he revoked the Edict of Nantes. This action began discrimination against and persecution of the Huguenots. All their churches were destroyed or converted to Catholic churches. Huguenot schooling and worship was forbidden and their clergymen were given fourteen days to leave France. Approximately 400,000 Huguenots were forced to attend mass -- and many who refused were condemned to death or imprisonment. The massacres continued for centuries and eventually helped lead to the French Revolution and the overthrow of the Roman Catholic Monarchy.

Like the Palatines, there was a mass exodus of Huguenots from France. In 1660, there were approximately 1.5 million Huguenots in France. Within the next decade, almost one quarter of them left their native country. They went to England, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Holland, even Russia, and eventually to America.

In America, the Huguenots, who were known for their manufacturing skills, settled in places such as Berks and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania, and along the James River and in King William Parish in Virginia, where Huguenot surnames are still found.

The Huguenot immigrants were determined that religious persecution would not trouble them in America. Many prominent founders of the United States were of Huguenot descent. They were responsible for the first two amendments to the Constitution. They knew that religious freedom could not be guaranteed without an armed citizenry.

Among the American descendants of the French Protestant Huguenots who helped transform the United States into the power that it is today were Presidents George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, James Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt. Other Huguenot descendants were Paul Revere, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. More modern Huguenots who were prominent in American history were George Patton and Admiral Dewey, and in the literary field, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As is evident from this list, the French Protestant Huguenots have left their mark in America as well as in Europe.

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Originally published at An Appalachian Country Rag March 20 1998
Created March 29 2001
Updated April 14 2006
© 1998 - 2006 Don Silvius