French Huguenot Blood in American Presbyterians

Ashbel Green Vermilye once wrote a work titled The Huguenot Element Among the Dutch (1877) in which he noted:

The Church of Jesus Christ is being made up in the same way "out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation." No one people, no one nation is or will be permitted to claim a monopoly of contribution to her glory. Our great Centennial Exhibition, now in progress, where Chinese and Japanese from the gate way of the East, the mighty inventive genius of the West, and so many nationalities of different complexions and grades of advancement are vying together in peaceful competitive display, is not so large and various a combination of materials as will compose the Church and its glory when it shall be seen complete in heaven. We have occasionally heard a rich brogue or accent in the pulpit, and foreign turns of thought and expression, which added greatly to the charm and effect of the sermon or prayer; just as a child's lisp or a woman's voice have sometimes given a new touch of tenderness and beauty to the Lord's prayer. And this same variety, these effects of diverse training, experience, nurture, God is now working into the consummate glory of heaven. Ah! there, too, they shall hear them speak every man in his own language, “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born" — the dear mother tongue;" and the great assembly shall be perpetually reminded of tho largeness and freeness of His grace in Christ Jesus. "Out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation!" In the history of the Church's development thus far, how many names, each name a power, come up in illustration of this thought! What fine fruitage of grace Africa presents in Monica and Augustine, devoted mother, time honored son! But Ambrose, by whose help that son is at length ripened into fruitage of grace, is a branch from distant Gaul [France]. And so, as the ages proceed, and notwithstanding the darkness of some of them, we find the “good seed, the children of the kingdom," ever more widely scattered; and producing among different people and tongues such kings of thought and kingly souls as Bernard, and Luther, and Calvin, and Wesley, and Edwards…

While many American Presbyterians can unsurprisingly trace their ancestory to the Scots-Irish, many others have different backgrounds, which, in the providence of God, combine to make a beautiful tapestry. This post examines a sampling of the writers at Log College Press who share one particular thread of the tapestry - French Huguenot ancestory:

  • Elias Boudinot IV (1740-1821) - “Elias' paternal grandfather, Elie (sometimes called Elias) Boudinot, was the son of Jean Boudinot and Marie Suire of Marans, Aunis, France. They were a Huguenot (French Protestant) family who fled to New York about 1687 to avoid the religious persecutions of King Louis XIV.” - Wikipedia

  • Ephraim Brevard (1744-1781) - An important Presbyterian contributor to both the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the 1775 Charlotte Town Resolves, Ephraim was the grandson of Jean Paul Brevard (1664-1747), a French Huguenot émigré.

  • James Caldwell (1734-1781) - According to Norman F. Brydon’s biography of “the Fighting Parson,” Reverend James Caldwell: Patriot, 1734-1781, the Caldwell family originated from French Huguenot stock, which emigrated to Scotland to seek religious freedom, where they found instead Episcopal persecution. Ultimately, the Caldwell family made it to America where James became a distinguished hero of the faith in the fight for spiritual and political independence.

  • Samuel Jones Cassels (1805-1853) - “Cassels' father was a South Carolinian, a descendant of the Huguenots.” - Lawrence Huff, “Samuel Jones Cassels: A Pioneer Georgia Poet,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec. 1963), p. 408.

  • Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) - Dabney’s biographer, T.C. Johnson, says: “The Dabneys are numerous in Massachusetts, in Virginia and in the Mississippi Valley. It is commonly believed amonst them that they are all related, and it is prevalently held amongst them that their origin, on this side the Atlantic, was in three brothers — Robert Dabney, or d'Aubigne, who came to Boston a short time previous to 1717, and John and Cornelius Dabney, or d'Aubigne, who came to Virginia between 1715, perhaps, and 1720. It is also their prevalent belief that these brothers came to this country from England; that the family had fled thither from France on occasion of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Finally, many in all branches of this widespread family claim descent from the old confessor, Theodore Agrippa d'Aubigne.” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, p. 2)

  • Hampden Coit Dubose (1845-1910) - The famous Southern Presbyterian missionary to China is a direct descendant of the French Huguenot émigré Isaac Du Bosc (1661-1718), who in 1685 following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where Hampden was born 160 years later.

  • George Duffield II (1732-1790), and his descendants, including George Duffield IV (1794-1868), and George Duffield V (1818-1888) [and perhaps other notable Duffields, such as John Thomas Duffield (1823-1901) and Samuel Willoughby Duffield (1843-1887)] “were of Huguenot origin, their forefathers having escaped from France on account of religious persecution. The name was originally Du Fielde, but became Anglicised after the family settled in England.” (Biographical Annals of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, Vol. 1, p. 362)

  • John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898) - George A. Blackburn, citing records from Charles W. Baird’s History of Huguenot Emigration to America, affirms that “In this illustrious company were the ancestors of John L. Girardeau.” (The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LLD., pp. 7-8)

  • Francis James Grimké (1850-1937) - One of the most interesting stories found here is that of the son of Henry Grimké, a white slaveowner from Charleston, South Carolina, and Nancy Weston, a slave of European and African descent, with whom Henry Grimké, as a widower, had a common-law relationship. Henry was the grandson of John Faucheraud Grimké (1752-1819), an eminent member of Charleston society, whose maternal grandparents emigrated from France to South Carolina to escape persecution after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. When Henry died in 1852, his will directed that Francis (and his brothers Archibald and John) be treated as members of the family. But, after they were claimed as slaves by their half-brother Montague in 1860, it was not until 1868, when a an address by Archibald at Lincoln University that was highlighted in The Anti-Slavery Standard received attention from Henry’s sisters, the abolitionists Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimké Weld (1805-1879), that Francis and his brothers were officially welcomed with open arms into the family and given financial support to pursue their higher education, which, for Francis, enabled him to graduate from Princeton and become a Presbyterian minister.

  • Charles Hodge (1797-1878) — and other notable Hodges, such as Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886); Caspar Wistar Hodge, Sr. (1830-1891); and John Aspinwall Hodge (1831-1901) — had a connection to the French Huguenot diaspora through Charles’ great-aunt “Aunt Hannah.” A.A. Hodge writes in his biography of his father: “Mrs. Hannah Hodge, known for many years in the family as Aunt Hannah, was recognized in all the city as a mother in Israel. She was born in Philadelphia, January, 1721, the daughter of John Harkum, of English descent. Her mother, whose maiden name was Doz, was the child of a Protestant who fled from France on account of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantz, 1685, and afterward with other French Protestants, was principally instrumental in founding the First Presbyterian Church, then standing on Market Street above Second, of which the Rev. Jedidiah Andrews was pastor.” (The Life of Charles Hodge, p. 2)

There are likely many more American Presbyterians on our site with French Huguenot heritage, but this sampling gives an idea of the interesting stories that highlight the providence of God in building his Church. Get to know these men and their writings, and the various threads of God’s tapestry.

What did a 19th century African-American think of Presbyterianism's relationship to African-Americans?

Matthew Anderson entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1874, and was the first black student to reside in the main seminary building. He became the pastor of Berean Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA, and in 1897 he wrote Presbyterianism: Its Relation to the Negro. As the 21st century church seeks gospel peace and harmony among various ethnicities, this book would be an interesting and important source from which to learn how our heritage has thought through these issues in years gone by.

In the preface to his work, Anderson remarks, "We have always thought, and we believe rightly, that the Presbyterian Church has an important mission to perform among the colored people of the United States. The doctrines held by the church are the best calculated to correct the peculiar faults of the Negro, his legacy from slavery, and thus give him that independence and decision of character necessary to enable him to act nobly and well his part as a man and a citizen of our great republic" (7-8). In spite of what from our vantage point could be viewed as a paternalistic tone from Anderson toward his own people, yet his conviction is sound: the Presbyterian Church does indeed have a great and important mission to perform among - and the doctrines of our church are best calculated to correct the faults of - white, black, brown and every other color of skin under the sun. 

Ed. note: This post was originally published on July 8, 2017, and has been only slightly edited.