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Gilbreth column: Viewing a distant mirror to current church politics

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French Huguenot Church, 136 Church St. The Huguenots greatly influenced early Anglican worship in the early Charleston colony. Wade Spees/Staff

Good morning and I hope everybody is having a Happy Easter and Passover season. And now for a column that I’ve been kicking down the road for a while because, frankly, it’s too complicated to worry my pretty little head about, above my intellectual pay grade and when I think too hard about something I get a terrible headache.

The subject has to do with religious tensions in Charleston. Of course the first thing everybody thinks of is what’s currently taking place in the world of Episcopalians and other denominations, but what we’ll be discussing pertains to early religious tensions among Protestants.

Tension may not be the exact right word because, since its founding in 1670, Charleston has shown overall remarkable religious diversification and tolerance, ranging from Jews, English Quakers, French Huguenots, Welsh Baptists, Scots and Irish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, English Anglicans and Catholics.

Certain disputes were unavoidable and yet dealt with peacefully. I draw heavily from the scholarly research of two friends, Julian V. Brandt III (Vic) and Park R. Dougherty, each of whom has an interest in the Huguenot church’s interfacing with Anglicanism and presented papers to one of their gentlemen’s and/or theological societies.

The purpose of their research was to determine which church may have had the greater influence on the other while maintaining relatively pure philosophical autonomy.

You may recall that the French Huguenots fled their homeland in droves after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, in 1685. Many would take up residence in the Province of Carolina because of its reputation for religious tolerance, based largely on the impact of English Enlightenment thinker John Locke and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who worked together in the drafting of the colony’s Fundamental Constitutions of 1669.

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Nonetheless, the Huguenots encountered some difficulty after settling in the Lowcountry and complained to the Lords Proprietors (the eight men to whom Charles II had deeded Carolina) about the inconvenience of having to begin divine worship at the same time as the English, as many lived in rural areas and were dependent on tides for travel. Additionally, the Huguenots were told that their marriages were not lawful because their ministers were not ordained by Anglican bishops, suggesting Huguenot children were bastards.

Although such concerns were handled favorably for the Huguenots by the Lords Proprietors, the tolerance of dissenting Protestants in public office would be short-lived with the rise of the Church Party, made up of the Anglican establishment and their desire to establish the Church of England as the state church and thereby creating a theocracy (and aristocracy) of sorts.

On Nov. 30, 1706, the famous Church Act was passed, requiring thereafter all persons chosen to be members of the Commons House of Assembly to conform to the religious worship of the Church of England and to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper according to the rights and usages of that church. The Church Act of 1706 created 10 parishes, including St. Philip’s in Charleston, Christ Church in Mount Pleasant, St. Thomas in Cainhoy and St. James, Santee. The parishes established English taste and solidified Anglican authority in rural Carolina.

By 1712 there would be a backlash in the form of Philip Richebourg, a French minister by birth and part of the French Colony in Mannikintown, Va., who was called to serve the French at St. James Santee and who began taking liberties with the Canons and Rubrics of the church. Other violations followed and by 1713 the Bishop of London had had enough and weighed in with imprecations and reprimands.

Nonetheless, there was tension among Huguenots to the extent that some chose to be Conformists (to Anglicanism and a sort of pseudo-Catholicism) as opposed to remaining true to their culture and collective interpretation of French Protestantism (heavily influenced by Calvinist doctrine.)

Mr. Dougherty spent years studying and researching the matter and concludes, based on sound evidence, that Huguenot conformity with the Church of England was not an abjuration of faith at all. Indeed, the Huguenots had an enormous impact on the birth of Neo-Anglicanism in America, which is to say they altered the Church of England and Anglican doctrine in Carolina to such an extent as to change it from recognizably Catholic to recognizably Protestant. “It is essential to recognize the ‘Huguenization’ of the Anglicans,” he writes.

Mr. Brandt says church politics of the 17th and early 18th centuries are a distant mirror to the present, that over 300 years after the passage of the Church Act, Calvinism and Neo-Anglicanism are still at odds with each other, in one form or another, and that you know things have come full circle when lawyers are reading the Gospel and bishops are reading the law.

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