When it comes to religion, France is mostly known for both its strong tradition of Roman Catholicism and its occasionally militant form of secularism. Yet the religious makeup of the country is not just these two extremes. In fact, France has a long, complicated religious history, often coated in blood. Although their numbers are not too significant today compared to the French population at large, a group of Protestants known as the Huguenots has called France home since the 1500s. People have waged war and died by the millions throughout French history in the name of religion. The whole idea of religious tolerance and diversity are a pretty recent phenomenon in European history.
So, who are the Protestants of France? What kinds of facts and stories can we learn from these believers who resisted “the eldest daughter of the Church” for hundreds of years?
1. Huguenots Followed the Calvinist Branch of Protestantism
The spiritual forefather of the Huguenots was Jean Calvin, a French cleric and one of the most important personalities of the Protestant Reformation in both France and Switzerland. Born in 1509, Calvin had a legal education as a young man before his break with the Catholic Church at some point in the early 1530s. As a reformist preacher, he was a voluminous writer, authoring Bible commentaries and numerous letters. His most famous work still around today is the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which even saw multiple editions published during his own lifetime. Calvin ended his days in Geneva, a Protestant stronghold, having left a significant impact on the Protestant movement.
Calvinist theology placed more emphasis on the doctrine of predestination than other Protestant denominations, such as Lutheranism. According to Calvin, God would not welcome just anybody into heaven. Instead, God had selected a certain number of people to achieve everlasting life after death before anyone had been born. To Calvin, however, this was not as simple as God choosing someone’s name out of a proverbial hat. The individual identities of the “elect” were less important than their relationship to the church and the sacraments.
2. The Origins of the Term “Huguenot” are Not Completely Clear
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Nobody knows exactly how France’s Protestants came to be called the Huguenots. Some historians believe it derives from an urban legend about the ghost of the tenth-century French King Hugues Capet. Others believe the word has German roots, stemming from the word Eidgenossen (referring to oath-taking confederations in Swiss history). The only thing we know with relative certainty is that the word “Huguenot” was at one point meant as an insult by French Catholics. Protestants themselves would never have labelled themselves “Huguenots” at all. Only in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did French descendants reclaim the term as an ethnoreligious identifier.
3. In Their Heyday, Protestants May Have Comprised Up to Eight Percent of France’s Population
The sixteenth-century saw Protestant numbers in France explode. Inspired by the preaching of Calvin and other local ministers, more than one million people may have converted from Catholicism by the end of the sixteenth century. According to scholar Hans J. Hillerbrand (2004), that amounts to roughly eight percent of the overall French population. Many of the most passionate converts came from the French upper classes. Nobles, artisans, and merchants in particular found the Protestant message especially attractive. However, Protestantism also proved suitable for the less well-off in many areas. The largest percentage of Calvinists lived in the southern and western provinces.
4. The Huguenots Went Through Periods of Privilege and Persecution
History invariably involves the study of change over time. The religious history of early modern France is no exception to this rule. So perhaps it is not surprising that French Protestant communities went through numerous highs and lows. The second half of the sixteenth century was undoubtedly Protestantism’s peak in France.
Nobles, tradesmen, and common people converted, and Calvinists maintained their own armies. Not all was bright for the Huguenots, however. In 1572, thousands of Protestants were murdered across France during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day — a brutal time during the French Wars of Religion. Older accounts claimed Queen Catherine de’ Medici was one of the main instigators of the violence, but some modern scholars have questioned this assertion. Protestants would gain greater religious liberties after the end of the wars in 1598, but these would not last for long. Over the course of the seventeenth century, the Crown would chip away at Protestant freedoms. This came to a boiling point after 1680, during the reign of King Louis XIV.
5. The Huguenot Diaspora Saw the First Modern Usage of the Word “Refugee” in English
By the end of October 1685, Louis XIV was feeling triumphant. In his mind, persecuting France’s Calvinists had paid off. Louis issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, officially declaring Protestantism illegal in his domain and prohibiting laypeople from emigrating. The ban on emigration was not particularly effective. Over 150,000 Protestants escaped from their home country by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Neighboring Protestant-majority powers such as England and the Netherlands welcomed them, despising France’s close ties to the Catholic Church. It was from this point in history that the word refugee (from the French réfugié) entered into common English-language use.
6. About 2,000 Huguenots Fled France for the American Colonies
Fleeing to North America was not most French refugees’ first choice. After all, it was an entire ocean away from their homeland. Still, some Huguenots did make the journey across the Atlantic. Historian Jon Butler (1983) estimated that approximately two thousand French Protestants made the trans-Atlantic crossing between 1680 and the start of the eighteenth century. These new arrivals congregated in particular regions of British North America. The most notable areas of Huguenot settlement included New York, New England, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Once in North America, the Huguenots first tried to establish their own settlements. Some of these towns still exist today, such as New Rochelle, New York. Others were not so lucky. Isolated villages such as New Oxford, Massachusetts, and Narragansett, Rhode Island, fell apart rather quickly due to armed conflict or internal financial struggles. The French Church in Boston survived a little longer, but ultimately caved in the mid-eighteenth century due to a lack of funds and declining membership
7. Many Prominent French Refugees Were Craftsmen and Merchants
Among the Huguenots who escaped France were many merchants and craftspeople. Scholar Owen Stanwood has emphasized the refugees’ economic activities, tracking their movements around the world. In regions from North America and the British Isles to South Africa, they attached themselves to imperial projects, aligning with the British and Dutch against Catholic France (Stanwood, 2020).
One notable merchant was Pierre Baudouin — the founding patriarch of New England’s renowned Bowdoin family. Baudouin originally settled in Ireland but later settled in Maine after petitioning the colony’s governor, Edmund Andros, in 1687. Another merchant was Gabriel Bernon, who attempted to establish a French settlement in Oxford, Massachusetts. While this effort ultimately collapsed, Bernon would move to Boston and finally to Rhode Island, where he converted to the Church of England.
8. In the British American Colonies the Huguenots Intermarried with English Protestants
As stated above, the French in the British American colonies were never great in number. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after a while they started to intermarry with their English-descended neighbors. Jon Butler (1983) tracked down colonial marriage records from the early eighteenth century and found that French settlers initially married among their own communities, but gradually started to marry English Protestants as the eighteenth century went on. Due to the relatively low number of Catholics in the colonies and the intense stigma surrounding interdenominational marriage, Protestant-Catholic unions were rare.
9. French Ministers Established Connections with Leading New England Puritans
Both the Huguenots and the Puritans stood at the center of an increasingly connected world. Puritan ministers were paying attention to their French counterparts’ plight almost as soon as it began. Cotton Mather, of Boston fame, was especially invested in the Huguenot predicament. In 1689, he became friends with French refugee minister Ezéchiel Carré and even wrote the preface to Carré’s sermon on the Good Samaritan parable.
For Mather, the crisis in France was part of a larger, apocalyptic battle, pitting the evil Catholic Church against true Protestant Christianity. The Puritans and the Huguenots were the religious vanguard against the further spread of Catholicism around the world.
10. One French Congregation Still Exists in Charleston, South Carolina
By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly every French congregation in the United States had faded away. However, one independent church still survives in Charleston, South Carolina. The current, Gothic-style church building dates back to 1845, following the destruction of the original structure in 1796. Since its beginnings, the Huguenot Church of Charleston has changed. Ministers now conduct services exclusively in English, with the exception of one day each spring. Services on Sunday end with a meal for visitors, with wine included. The church has even become a popular stop for visitors from outside of Charleston. Members of the congregation do not need to have Huguenot heritage in order to join
11. Paul Revere is One of the Most Famous Huguenots
Every American schoolchild has heard the name Paul Revere — the “midnight ride” and all. But not nearly as many people know that Paul Revere had Huguenot ancestry. His father, Apollos Rivoire, fled France in 1715, at the young age of thirteen. A silversmith by trade, Rivoire anglicized his last name while in the colonies, and had twelve children with his wife, Deborah Hitchbourn. Young Paul, of “midnight ride” fame, was the second-oldest son and followed his father’s career as a silversmith before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Although a committed Protestant, it is unclear what Paul Revere thought of his French ancestry. Other notable figures of the Revolutionary period with French ancestry include John Jay and Alexander Hamilton
12. Some Huguenots in France After 1702 Waged an Insurgency Against King Louis XIV
The exodus of the 1680s was not the end of the Protestant presence in France. In one area in the south of the kingdom called the Cévennes, remaining Huguenots engaged in guerrilla warfare against the royal army. Unlike during the sixteenth century, when many Huguenots belonged to the upper classes of French society, the rebels (called the Camisards) mostly came from the rural poor. The main phase of the revolt lasted from 1702 until December 1704, although low-intensity combat did continue in some areas until around 1710.
13. Protestants Did Not Regain Their Right to Worship Until the French Revolution
Although Louis XIV died in 1715, the French monarchy did not let up in persecuting its Protestant population. Although the monarchy paid less and less attention to the Huguenot issue as time went on, Calvinists could not practice their religion in public until just before the outbreak of the French Revolution. The Edict of Versailles in 1787 offered an imperfect solution to this issue. The law kept Catholicism as the state religion and upheld the ban on Protestants’ rights to hold office of any kind. Still, it was the culmination of years of debate in France regarding the status of non-Catholic minority groups. From that point, Calvinists could worship once again.
14. Commemorative Societies for the Huguenots Exist Across the Diaspora
The late-nineteenth century actually saw a reawakening of Huguenot consciousness in the English-speaking world. Scholars wrote detailed histories of the French Protestant experience, and Huguenot societies were formed in both Britain and the United States. One of the largest, the New York-based Huguenot Society of America, was started by John Jay’s grandson in 1883, in anticipation of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Edict of Fontainebleau. The Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded two years later in 1885 to commemorate the more than 50,000 French refugees who escaped to England during the seventeenth century. In 1924, the United States Mint even issued a half-dollar coin in remembrance of the founding of New Netherland (now in modern New York and New Jersey). These commemorative societies engage in genealogical research, offer scholarships for college students with French Protestant ancestry, and maintain libraries.
15. The Huguenots Remain the Subject of Extensive Scholarship Today
Most people have probably never heard of the Huguenots, especially not outside of a university classroom. Yet France’s Protestant minority has played a large role in scholarship since the 1980s. Jon Butler’s book The Huguenots in America kicked off the modern phase of Huguenot studies in 1983.
Since then, historians have taken a number of angles in their analyses of the world’s first true refugee crisis. Some have written books for a broader audience, while others have examined the Huguenots’ religious and economic connections not only in the United States but across the so-called Atlantic world. Sadly, little has been written about the Protestants who stayed in France after Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes. Perhaps one day, historians will take a look at these underappreciated people and the contexts in which they lived.