The Huguenot Society of America was organized in 1883 to promote the cause of religious freedom, and to commemorate the memory of the Huguenots who fled France and settled in the United States. Much of the organizing and promoting that went into creating this society was facilitated by John Jay II, whose great-great grandfather Auguste Jay made the perilous journey to America in the late 1600s. To understand the importance of this society to its founders and members, one must understand the persecution Huguenots faced in their homeland years before the first of John Jay II’s ancestors arrived in New York.
Huguenot is a term used for French protestants who followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin. Protestantism began to grow exponentially in France during the early 16th century following the Reformation, and the faith was embraced by members of the French nobility and the population at large. The first Huguenot Synod, or council meeting, was in 1559, with only fifteen churches represented. Two years later, at the following Synod, there were over two-thousand Huguenot churches represented, a massive increase in membership in such a short period. Huguenots were initially favored by King Francis I, but he later turned against them for political reasons, which led to increasing persecution throughout the 16th century.
The rapid expansion of the religion increasingly alarmed the Catholic church, which considered any protestant faith as heresy. The French population was also still almost 90% Roman Catholic, and there were frequent clashes between members of each faith as the 16th century went on, often escalating to open warfare in the streets.
Tension peaked in 1572, when Huguenot noble Henry of Navarre was set to marry Catherine de Medici’s daughter, Marguerite de Valois. The marriage would make Henry extremely powerful in Europe, and with many prominent Huguenots gathering for the occasion, his Catholic enemies saw this as a chance to stop his ascension to power. Just days after the wedding, an assault on the Huguenots took place and thousands were killed in what became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Henry barely escaped, but was able to re-consolidate power to fight in the French Wars of Religion that took place in the following several years. After decades of struggle Henry was victorious and claimed the throne as Henry IV of France. As king, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, a monumental shift in the civil structure of France creating religious freedom for all.
Unfortunately the era of religious freedom in France did not last. In 1698 King Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainbleau which revoked the Edict of Nantes and ended religious freedom for Huguenots. Louis ordered the destruction of all Huguenot churches, and the closing of all Protestant schools. The result was a mass exodus of over a half-million Huguenot residents of France, including John Jay’s grandfather Auguste. Auguste Jay arrived in America and was successful almost instantly, establishing a successful trade enterprise, and marrying Anna Maricka Bayard, the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in New York.
The legacy of the Huguenots’ struggle, and subsequent success in America was something their descendants, like John Jay II, wanted to honor. He, and several other significant Huguenot descendants, decided that an organization should exist to keep the memory of their ancestors’ plight alive. The initial idea was to host a grand occasion to commemorate the bicentennial of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. However, when the Reverend Alfred Whittmeyer gave a great lecture on the history of the Huguenots to the New-York Historical Society in March 1883, many descendants began to think that there should be a society of Huguenot descendants in New York.
Most of the prominent descendants involved in the discussion agreed that John Jay II was the only person among them with the personal prestige and prominent family name to be the society’s first president. And his success as a civil rights attorney gave him a unique perspective for forming a society commemorating his own ancestors struggle for civil equality. On April 12, 1883, John Jay II hosted a preliminary meeting to elect the society’s leadership at his New York City apartment. It was unanimously decided that Jay would serve as the Huguenot Society of America’s first president, with Reverend Ephraim de Puy elected chairman, and Reverend Whittmeyer elected secretary. After being named President, Jay gave an address to emphasize the importance of forming this society, as it would continue to advocate the cause of religious freedom in the United States and abroad.
The Society then set out to collect a library and archive of their people’s history from early in France to here in the US, so that the Huguenots’ plight would not be forgotten. There were also scholarships established for students of Huguenot descent who were attending prestigious Universities within the United States. There were strict parameters for being a member of the society: the applicant had to be a practicing protestant and able to trace their family lineage back to a Huguenot who emigrated from France to the United States immediately following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Other than John Jay II, there were Jay descendants who served as President of the Society into the mid-20th century. John’s son Col. William Jay II was president from 1905-1915, followed by a long tenure by William Jay Schieffelin from 1922-1947, and finally Frederick Prime, a distant relative of John Clarkson Jay, from 1947-1950.