Huguenots in the World

By Jonathan Den Hartog

With apologies to the Dos Equis Man, "I don't always find articles in the AHR interesting, but when I do I try to blog about them."

That definitely fits my experience with the most recent American Historical Review (December 2013, Vol. 118, no. 5, for those keeping track) which I finally got around to reading this past month. The lead article is by Owen Stanwood of Boston College and is entitled "Between Eden and Empire: Huguenot Refugees and the Promise of New Worlds."

The Empire ReformedStanwood has written an important book about British North America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution. He also contributed an impressive essay periodizing how Anti-Catholicism functioned in colonial America in Chris Beneke and Chistopher Grenda's collection The First Prejudice. So, I was glad to see his developing a new project on the international spread of Huguenots in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

After the Wars of Religion in France, French Protestants had received limited toleration from Henri IV Bourbon in the Edict of Nantes. With Louis XIV's ascent to the throne, however, he aimed to reestablish Catholic uniformity under his absolutist rule. This strategy culminated in 1685 with Louis' Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Huguenots were ordered to convert to Catholicism or lose their property. The result was a mass exodus of refugees from France. They scattered, not only to England, the Netherlands, and the German states, but throughout the Atlantic World and beyond.

Stanwood's piece turns on the irony of expectations and results. Most of Huguenot refugees hoped to establish small pockets of Eden--peaceful settlements where they could enjoy peace and the productions of their own labor, under the guidance of a properly-Reformed Huguenot church. There, they could regroup and live well until the moment when they could return to France. By contrast, these refugees found themselves dependent on the support and power of other Protestant states, especially England and the Netherlands. These empires--limited as they were--came to value and deploy these refugees, not for their religious witness but for their ability to support imperial designs.

In the North American context, this meant seeing them as economic and strategic actors. The French background of the Huguenots made them appear just the right skilled artisans to launch American production of wine and silk--indeed many of the Huguenots had come from the Bordeaux region. Further, colonial governors assigned Huguenot settlements in both Massachusetts and Virginia to border regions where they would likely confront Indian attacks. They hoped these settlements would also provide ideological defense, as French Protestants could counter French Jesuit preaching among the Indians. Although these hopes were not realized, they did produce an increase of Huguenots in British North America.

It should be noted that Stanwood interacts with the major previous writers on North American Huguenots--scholars such as Jon Butler, Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, and Neil Kamil. Stanwood's theoretical contribution here is to demonstrate first the global spread of the Huguenot refugees. He gives good attention to those who ended up in the Dutch Cape Colony, for instance. Other (unrealized) plans attempted to carry them into the Indian Ocean and to the East Indies. Second, Stanwood suggests that religious practice--even in this period of weak, "negotiated," and "elusive" empires--was still affected by state power. Thus, empire in 1700 could still move people across oceans, enact assimilation policies, and empower or disempower subjects.

To my mind, Stanwood's other main contribution--and we can look forward to further attention--is to keep the subject of Huguenots as a religious minority in early America before our attention. Although Stanwood points out that Huguenots persisted by "blending in," it's worth thinking more about Huguenot distinctives that they contributed to American Protestantism. Although Huguenot refugees were often forced to worship in another Protestant setting, how did they choose to worship when they were free to do so? Was Huguenot piety distinct? I would love to see further investigation here, perhaps extending some of the work done by Barbara Diefendorf on the Huguenot Church in Paris. Further, I wonder how this experience of exile shaped outlooks to international Protestantism, to the British empire, and to self-defense. A little digging can find Huguenot connections all over the American Revolution--Paul Revere, John Jay, and Elias Boudinot all possessed Huguenot ancestry. I wonder how this may have influenced their readiness to break with a tyrannical king. Is there a Huguenot religious history of the American Revolution?

I leave these questions, as well as the opportunity to offer any reflections on Huguenots and American Religion, for commentators down below.


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