The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in Germany about 1517, spread rapidly in France, especially among
those having grievances against the established order of government. As Protestantism grew and
developed in France it generally abandoned the Lutheran form, and took the shape of Calvinism.
The new "Reformed
religion" practiced by many members of the French nobility and social middle-class, based on a belief in salvation
through individual faith without the need for the intercession of a church hierarchy and on the belief in an
individual's right to interpret scriptures for themselves, placed these French Protestants in direct theological
conflict with both the Catholic Church and the King of France in the theocratic system which prevailed at that time.
Followers of this new Protestantism were soon accused of heresy against the Catholic government and the established
religion of France, and a General Edict urging extermination of these heretics (Huguenots) was issued in 1536.
Nevertheless, Protestantism continued to spread and grow, and about 1555 the first Huguenot church was founded in a home in Paris
based upon the teachings of John Calvin.
The number and influence of the French Reformers (Huguenots) continued
to increase after this event, leading to an escalation in hostility and conflict between the Catholic Church/State and
the Huguenots. Finally, in 1562, some 1200 Huguenots were slain at Vassey, France, thus
igniting the French Wars of Religion which would devastate
France for the next thirty-five years.
The Edict of Nantes, signed by Henry IV in April, 1598, ended the Wars of Religion, and allowed the Huguenots
some religious freedoms, including free exercise of their religion in 20 specified towns of France.
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in October, 1685, began anew persecution of the Huguenots, and
hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled France to other countries. The Promulgation of the Edict of Toleration in
November, 1787, partially restored the civil and religious rights of Huguenots in France.
Since the Huguenots of France were in large part
artisans, craftsmen, and professional people, they were usually well-received in the countries to which they fled for refuge when religious
discrimination or overt persecution caused them to leave France. Most of them went initially to
Germany, the Netherlands, and England, although some found their way eventually to places as remote
as South Africa.
Considerable numbers of Huguenots migrated to British North America, especially
to the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. Their character and talents in the arts,
sciences, and industry were such that they are generally felt to have been a substantial loss to the
French society from which they had been forced to withdraw, and a corresponding gain to the
communities and nations into which they settled.
Origin of the Word Huguenot
The exact origin of the word Huguenot is unknown, but many consider it to be a combination
of Flemish and German. Protestants who met to study the Bible in secret were called Huis Genooten,
meaning "house fellows." They were also referred to as Eid Genossen, or "oath fellows" meaning
persons bound by an oath. Two possible but different derivations incorporating this concept can be found
in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
1. "Huguenot", according to Frank Puaux, at one time President of the Socitie Francaise de l'Historie
du Protestantisme Francais and author of the article about the Huguenots in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia
"is the name given from about the middle of the sixteenth century to the Protestants of
France. It was formerly explained as coming from the German Eldgenosen,
the designation of the people of Geneva at the time when they were admitted to
the Swiss Confederation. This explanation is now abandoned.
The words Huguenot, Huguenots, are old French words, common in fourteenth and
fifteenth-century charters. As the Protestants called the Catholics papistes, so the Catholics
called the protestants huguenots. The Protestants at Tours used to assemble by night
near the gate of King Hugo, whom the people regarded as a spirit. A monk, therefore, in a sermon declared
that the Lutherans ought to be called Huguenots, as kinsmen of King Hugo, inasmuch as they would
only go out at night as he did. This nickname became popular from 1560 onwards, and for a long time
the French Protestants were always known by it."
2. The current edition Encyclopedia Britannica offers a somewhat different explanation, although agreeing the
word is a derivative of the German word Eldgenosen:
"The origin of the name is uncertain, but it appears to have come from the word aignos, derived from the
German Eldgenosen (confederates bound together by oath), which used to describe, between 1520 and 1524,
the patriots of Geneva hostile to the duke of Savoy. The spelling Huguenot may have been influenced by
the personal name Hugues, "Hugh"; a leader of the Geneva movement was one Besancon Hugues (d. 1532)."