There are four national Huguenot Societies in the United States. This one isn't the oldest (being founded in 1922), but it certainly has the longest formal name. Can you imagine a member writing that name on his annual dues check? For that and other reasons, many of us simply call it the "Manakin Huguenot Society" for short. It is related to Huguenots who emigrated to the Colony of Virginia, but more about that later after a brief review of Huguenot history. (In the English language, the word "Huguenot" is pronounced hu'-geh-not.)
In France in the early 1500s, a number of clergymen and laymen became so concerned for the worldliness, self-indulgence, and other trends within the Established Church of France that they tried to bring about internal reforms. These attempts at reform failed, and they began to quit the Established Church and form congregations which they felt came closer to their understandings of biblical teachings. In the very earliest days, some of these reformers held considerable political power and the French King even sponsored colonization expeditions for them, under the French flag, to what is now the State of Florida. There for several years, starting in 1564 (43 years before the founding of Jamestown in 1607), the Colony of Fort Caroline existed close to the mouth of the St. Johns River, near present day Jacksonville. It remained under French control until the Spanish captured the place, killed most of the French colonists, and occupied the fort for themselves.
A few years later, the French Royal Court and the Established Church became much stronger allies, conspired, and then jointly decreed that the reformers and breakaway churchgoers, then called "Lutherans," were heretics. Persecutions began and soon became so severe that thousands fled to other countries rather than give up their new found faith. Persecution grew from simple acts of beatings, extortion, and floggings, to torture, midnight raids, robbery, mutilation, house burning, imprisonment, property appropriation, galley slavery, rape, "ordinary" murder, hanging, dismemberment, drowning, and burning at the stake.
After several particularly widespread and tragic massacres (including men, women, and children) of commoners and aristocrats who were among the "heretic" groups, the French King granted them the Edict of Nantes in 1598 giving them limited religious and civil liberties. However, after his death in 1610, some persecution resumed. In 1685, the Edict of Nantes itself was revoked, thus totally outlawing the "heretics", who by now were referred to by the epithet "Huguenots." No one knows for certain today exactly what it means, but it was a derogatory name devised by the French persecutors.
Most people today are quite familiar with the Spanish Inquisition, which was the same sort of "heretic" genocide as the French Huguenot Persecutions, but the French events are not as well known although they were, if anything, more horrifying and widespread. Many thousands of Huguenot refugees escaped to other friendly European countries, and some eventually reached the American Colonies and a few other areas of the world. The English word "refugee" was first used then in reference to the French word "refugie" for the Huguenots. Then, as today, descendants of Huguenots revere the name "Huguenot" and consider it a "badge of honor." For them, the mere mention of the name conjures up the history and memory of the tragic original families and their sufferings, and now suggests strength, stamina, and courage under persecution.
In the year 1699, King William of England, and other prominent leaders in London who were concerned with the welfare of the Huguenot refugees who had reached England, made it possible for some Huguenots to emigrate to the English Colony of Virginia. The first of these refugees came on four ships at different times during the year 1700. The Virginia House of Burgesses granted them 10,000 acres for homes and farms on the south side of the James River, about 25 miles west of present day Richmond. This area was designated King William Parish, and the church established was the Manakin Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church was relatively close to the Huguenot faith in its teachings, and the designation as "Episcopal" was a part of the land agreement with the Colony of Virginia. The name "Manakin" was apparently the early settlers mispronunciation and misspelling of the word "Monacan" for the Monacan Indians who had previously occupied the settlement area. The Huguenots called the "town" part of their settlement, "Manakintowne." The Manakin Episcopal Church has operated continuously there to this day, although in its fifth building on the original site in Manakintowne.
On April 17, 1922, a group of descendants of Manakin Huguenots in the state of California formed "The Huguenot Society of the Founders of Manakin in the Colony of Virginia." In the 1920s, Huguenots and their history were little known in this country. The new society's goals were: to promote interest in the study of Huguenots who settled in and around Manakintowne, Virginia, and the family lines descended therefrom; to erect a lasting memorial at Manakintowne in memory of its valiant refugee settlers; to collect existing documents relating to Manakintowne and its settlers to be placed in the Society's Library for use in Huguenot research; to encourage the preparation of fully documented papers and essays on the Manakin Huguenots and their ancestry for deposit in the Society's Library, and for publication in The Huguenot, the biennial journal of the Society; and to sponsor yearly scholarships, based on written essays, for the education and development of outstanding students.
Some years after its formation, the Society changed the membership requirements from just being a Manakin Huguenot descendant, to include descendants of all Virginia émigré Huguenots up to the year 1786. Likewise, the aims of the Society expanded to include these additional Virginia Huguenots. The very first Huguenots to come to the Colony of Virginia did so in the year 1620. The author's Huguenot ancestor is in this other-than-Manakin category, having come to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley from England in 1740.
Today the Society maintains a modern research library, gift/bookstore, and headquarters building adjacent to the Manakin Episcopal Church. The Society also owns 400 acres of adjacent timber land, which when periodically harvested, provides a moderate income for the society. The first annual national convention, called the National Assembly, was held in 1932 and has convened annually ever since. The Society's governing body is its Board of Management, made up of its officers and certain committee chairmen. State societies, called Branches, are active in many states today, and a few Branches have Chapters as further subdivisions.
State Branches have their own projects and events to better the aims of the Society. The Georgia Branch's most recent project was to publish a book of previously unpublished stories of member's Huguenot ancestor adventures, major events, or lives in general. This project supports the educational and research goals of the Society. The books are not only available for members, but are being placed in genealogical and historical research libraries all over the southeastern states, and to anyone else who would like to purchase a copy. Other Branches have additional scholarships, cemetery upkeep, and charitable programs to fit the needs of the time. All Branches participate in marking the gravestones of Huguenot ancestors and descendants with bronze Society emblems.
There is one positive and lasting legacy of the Huguenots to this country that affects us all. While many citizens today are vaguely aware or totally unaware of the Huguenots and their tragic experiences, the Founding Fathers of the United States were much closer to them in time (some were even contemporaries) and were very well aware of them and the reason for their horrifying experiences - the conspiracy and collusion of a national government and a chosen national church! They wanted to avoid any such calamity in the new USA and addressed the subject in "The Bill of Rights," Amendment I to the US Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;..."
(The author, "Jack" Gibson, is finishing up his second and final year as President of The Georgia Branch of the "Manakin Huguenot Society." He is in his second term as National By-Laws Chairman and first term as National Chaplain. Jack was President of the John Collins Chapter SAR in 2002. His three SAR ancestors of record, all Seviers, were Huguenot descendants. In fact, a total of eight "Huguenot" Seviers from this same extended family fought in the Revolution. There were thousands of other Huguenots and Huguenot descendants who fought, for example, Paul Revere.)