John Calvin and Pre-Revolutionary War America - Part 4: The Huguenots

The Influence of Calvinism on the Huguenot Community in North Carolina

In this final part of our journey, we delve into the captivating world of John Calvin’s influence on the Huguenot community in North Carolina.

Long ago, amidst the tumultuous waves of religious violence in France, brave French Huguenots sought sanctuary from persecution and cast their eyes across the vast ocean to the distant lands of America. As they forged new communities in the warm embrace of North Carolina, their Calvinist faith served as a guiding light, shaping their daily lives, values, and interactions with one another.

While only two independent Huguenot congregations existed in New York City and Charleston during the American Revolution, their contributions profoundly impacted colonial America’s religious and social landscape. In North Carolina’s fertile soil, the Huguenots nurtured their crops and the seeds of their faith. Their adherence to Calvinist teachings instilled a strong sense of community and purpose, inspiring them to build close-knit settlements that reflected their deep-rooted beliefs.

Let us embark on this exciting expedition as we uncover a rich tapestry of faith, resilience, and heritage that endures today. We hope to show you how Calvinism left an incredible legacy on the vibrant tapestry of North Carolina’s and, in turn, the United State’s past, present, and future.

Calvin and the Huguenots

A century before the Huguenots landed on the shores of America, they were already fervent followers of Calvin in France and Europe. The name “Huguenot” was adopted in 1560 when the first French Protestant Huguenot church was established in Paris under the teachings of John Calvin.

The name “Huguenots” was actually given to the followers of Calvin by their Roman Catholic adversaries. Many origin stories explain why they might have used this as a slur. One legend is that the name came from a story about a ghost named Hoguet, believed to haunt the city of Tours at night. Due to the time’s religious intolerance, French Reformers were compelled to hold clandestine night-time gatherings. So, the ghostly legend became an important symbol of identity shared among the French Reformers.

The name “Huguenot,” although meant as a slur, became a badge of pride and resilience in the face of adversity for this devoted community. From there, the movement spread like wildfire, and by 1562, there were approximately two million Huguenots in France, worshipping in around 2000 churches.

In France, John Calvin emerged as a dominant figure leading the French Protestant cause. With natural leadership abilities and unwavering commitment, he energized the movement through his profound teachings and reforms in worship. His intellectual prowess and approach found a strong following among the more educated strata of French society, attracting traders, military personnel, and the elite.

Within France, the Huguenots looked up to Calvin as the guiding light of their church, seeking his wisdom and direction, especially during the early years of the Reformation. Under his teachings, upwards of 2,000 congregations of the “new” Reformed religion sprung up across the country by 1562.

Fierce Persecution

Amidst the vibrant spread of Calvinism in France during the 1550s, the followers of this new faith were met with severe persecution. The Huguenots faced relentless efforts by Roman Catholic authorities to suppress their beliefs and practices. Forced to worship in secrecy, the Huguenots found solace in quiet places like forest clearings or mountain caves, away from the prying eyes of their Catholic adversaries. To attend these clandestine gatherings, they needed a special coin that served as evidence of their right to take communion and participate in the forbidden worship.

As Calvinism gained more converts in France, tensions escalated between the Huguenots and the Roman Catholic majority. Some Huguenots attempted to establish colonies outside France in their quest for religious freedom. In 1555-1567, a group of French Huguenots tried to colonize Brazil, known as France Antarctque, but the Portuguese thwarted their efforts. These setbacks did not deter the Huguenots, and they continued to seek ways to live and worship freely.

The escalating religious conflicts culminated in the infamous Massacre at Vassy in 1562, where Huguenots were ruthlessly attacked by the Duke of Guise, marking the beginning of the French Wars of Religion. These turbulent times pushed many Huguenots to seek refuge in other European countries, particularly England, where they found greater acceptance and the freedom to practice their faith openly. Many also found their way to Calvin’s Geneva, where they attended the Academy to be trained as ministers of the Reformed faith.

Huguenot Expansion in the New World

The Huguenots, seeking refuge from religious persecution, embarked on a courageous journey to the New World, looking for a place to practice their faith freely. However, their quest for religious freedom did not lead them exclusively to North Carolina.

Indeed, in the early 1560s, Huguenot Jean Ribault led a group on three expeditions to establish Fort Caroline, Florida. This Huguenot settlement, dating back to 1562, predates the arrival of the Puritans by over 50 years and stands as a testament to the enduring quest for religious freedom in the New World.

Around the mid-1680s, approximately 2,000 Huguenots settled in various regions of the New World, including New York, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. These resilient settlers established themselves in bustling port cities like Charleston, New York, and Boston, where they could forge new lives and contribute to the growing colonial societies. Additionally, they founded rural communities that exist today, such as New Paltz and New Rochelle in New York, Orange Quarter and French Santee in South Carolina, and Manakintown in Virginia.

Initially, the Huguenots attempted to live together, founding French Reformed churches to preserve their religious traditions. However, they intermingled with English settlers over time through marriage, naturalization, and political involvement in colonial assemblies and offices.

In North and South Carolina, the Huguenots flourished economically and socially. By the 1720s and 1730s, the Huguenots had fully integrated into colonial society while maintaining their French language and ties to their original French church for a brief period.

Among the various colonies that welcomed Huguenot settlers, North Carolina held particular significance as it became a haven for Huguenot refugees, further contributing to the state’s diverse cultural landscape and fostering a legacy of religious freedom that remains an integral part of North Carolina’s history.

Calvin in North Carolina

In 1690, a group of Huguenots settled on the Pamlico River in North Carolina. These Huguenots were once prosperous merchants and landowners in France, but the revocation of the Edict of Nantes stripped them of their religious liberties and forced them to leave.

Settling in North Carolina, they established a humble plantation, tempered by the realization that great fortunes might not be within their grasp. Nevertheless, the Huguenots embraced their new lives, finding contentment in modest wooden houses and enough land to provide for their needs.

Underlying the Huguenots’ resilience and adaptability was the profound influence of John Calvin’s teachings on their religious beliefs and outlook on life. Calvinism had instilled in them a sense of steadfastness and the understanding that prosperity should not be measured solely in material wealth but in finding contentment in life’s basic necessities. As they settled in North Carolina, the Huguenots carried with them Calvin’s emphasis on hard work, frugality, and the pursuit of a godly life, which played a vital role in shaping their community.

Religious Liberty

John Calvin’s teachings also instilled in the Huguenots a profound longing for genuine religious freedom. He emphasized that true freedom lies in willingly obeying God’s law, not out of compulsion, but as a heartfelt response to the grace they had received. As he wrote in the Institutes, “Unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known” (Vol 3, Ch. 19, Sc. 1). Calvin’s ideas resonated deeply with the Huguenots, who, having faced persecution and the loss of religious liberties in France, yearned for a place to practice their faith without constraint.

In North Carolina, they found solace in the freedom to worship according to their conscience, unburdened by oppression. Calvin’s belief in the transformative power of grace and adoption further reinforced their sense of liberation, allowing them to embrace their faith with a newfound sense of freedom and assurance in their relationship with God. As they settled in Carolina, the Huguenots carried with them the spirit of religious liberty that Calvin’s teachings had instilled in them, shaping the foundation of their community and the communities around them.

A Lasting Legacy

Being present in 10 of the original 13 colonies, the legacy of the Huguenots on the founding of America is profound. They played pivotal roles in molding essential aspects of American society, including attitudes toward religious freedom, individual rights, education, and representative government. Their descendants include prominent founding fathers like John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, and George Washington, making the Huguenot spirit forever enshrined in our nation’s history.

While John Calvin didn’t physically found America, his profound influence on the religious and philosophical landscape of early American settlers, including the Huguenots, played a crucial role in shaping the nation’s values and institutions. Calvin’s emphasis on the importance of education and scholarship also contributed to the development of American intellectual and academic traditions. The legacy of John Calvin can be seen as a foundational force in the building of the United States of America.