The Huguenot Christian, Part 2: The Church in New Rochelle

Gregory E. Reynolds

It was quite appropriate for New Rochelle to be named after its French sister city since fifteen of the forty-two original families in New Rochelle were natives of La Rochelle, and fifteen more families came from within a twenty-five mile radius of that stronghold of French Calvinism.[1] In any case, all of the original settlers of New Rochelle were French Calvinists.

From the beginning, the Huguenot settlers demonstrated that their lives centered around their religion. Waldron in his book The Huguenots of Westchester notes, "It is much to the credit of the Huguenots in New Rochelle that under all difficulties they attended to the interests of the church."[2] Even the layout of the early settlement was indicative of the centrality of their faith. In 1727 Huguenot Pastor Stouppe remarked in a letter that there were "about a dozen houses round the church."[3]

The year after their arrival in New Rochelle (1689), the Huguenots settled their first pastor, the Rev. David de Bonrepos, D.D. He had come to America with refugees from France.

Somewhere between 1692 and 1697, the first wooden church building in New Rochelle was erected near the Old Boston Post Road, close to the site of the present Trinity Church. It is believed that in the interim the early congregation met in the Guion house on Bonnefoy Point (presently Hudson Park).[4]

In 1695 the church called its second pastor, the Rev. Daniel Bondet, A.M. Born in France in 1652, he studied divinity in Geneva under the famous Calvinist theologian Francis Turretin, who taught theology there from 1653 until his death in 1687. Turretin's influential, systematic, three-volume theology, Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, was published in 1688. This became the basic theological textbook in Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary until Charles Hodge's three-volume work superseded it in the late nineteenth century.

Bondet was widely known for his work with the Indians of eastern New England around Boston. Governor Stoughton and the Reverends Increase and Cotton Mather commended him for his "faithfulness ... industry and ... unblemished life."[5] As a missionary for "The Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts," under the Church of England, Bondet came to New Rochelle.

In 1709 Bondet led all but two members of the Huguenot church in New Rochelle to conform to the Church of England, the established church of the Province of New York. This congregation became the forerunner of the present Trinity Episcopal Church on Huguenot Street. Those few who did not conform continued as a French Calvinist congregation, out of which grew the present Presbyterian Church of New Rochelle on Pintard Avenue.

The record indicates that the reason for conformity to Anglicanism was purely practical. The small Huguenot congregation was unable to pay its pastor a living wage. Bondet was an Anglican minister, and the funding from his denomination's "Venerable Society" solved the monetary problem.[6]

In 1710-11 Bondet oversaw the building of a thirty-foot by forty-foot stone edifice near the site of the present Trinity Church. Every member contributed to the cause: "Even the females carried stones in their hands and mortar in their aprons to finish the sacred temple."[7] The mural on the lobby wall of the present New Rochelle Post Office depicts this scene of industry and dedication—a clear example of the Huguenots' devotion to the church of their Lord.

In 1723 Rev. Pierre Stouppe, A.M., replaced the deceased Bondet. Stouppe, born in 1680, had also studied divinity in Geneva. He was pastor until his death in 1760, when Michael Houdin took over until his death in 1766.

Meanwhile, the little French Calvinistic church continued to worship with support from the Huguenot church in New York City.

A perusal of Seacord's Biographical Sketches and Index of the Huguenot Settlers of New Rochelle 1687-1776 reveals how deeply involved the early settlers of New Rochelle were in their two churches.

Calvinism and the Conformity in New Rochelle

As we have seen, the Huguenots were confessional Calvinists, and they brought this faith to New Rochelle. The two congregations that emerged from the conformity of the majority to the English church in 1709 were both doctrinally Calvinistic. As Darlington observes, "The Church of England was the established church of the Province of New York. In those days the church was more Calvinistic than it has been ever since the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century."[8] Due to this confessional similarity, combined with the fact that the Anglican church was the established church of the English colonies, most Huguenot churches throughout the colonies conformed to the English church.[9] The New Rochelle church was no exception.

Pastor Moulinars of the French church in New York City, who also ministered in the French church in New Rochelle, objected that the English church was as similar to despised Rome as "two fish."[10] The similarities that disturbed him the most were probably in the areas of church government and liturgy.[11] In any case, he and the dissenting French church in New Rochelle strongly opposed the conformity of 1709. This resistance caused many problems during the ministry of the Anglican Pastor Bondet (1695-1723).

Moulinars's predecessor in the New York City church, Pastor Roux, had taken a different view. He believed the schism between the two Reformed churches in New Rochelle was a scandal. Since his consistory agreed with the separation of the New Rochelle French church, however, Pastor Roux was dismissed and replaced by Moulinars.[12]

Pastor Roux's acceptance of conformity was characteristic of Calvin's advice in favor of not separating from the English church because of the Reformed doctrine expressed in the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles. In 1764 the French consistory of New York City expressed a mediating position when it declared, "We cannot change the form of government of our church. Not that we do not consider the Anglican Church a true church of Jesus Christi but out of respect for our predecessors."[13] On one hand, it was understood that it would be wrong for the Huguenots to separate from the English church. On the other hand, one might in good conscience maintain the Huguenot form of government and worship and refuse to conform without going to Moulinars's extreme of rejecting the validity of the English congregation.

Examples of Calvinism in New Rochelle

One of the most fruitful primary sources of the beliefs of the New Rochelle Huguenots is found in a collection of manuscript sermons written in French by the successor of Pastor Bondet, Pastor Pierre Stouppe, and now located in the library of the Huguenot Society of America in New York City. The fact that Pastor Stouppe took the time to write the complete text of all of his sermons in longhand is a testimony to the importance he placed on preaching of the Word.

Stouppe's theology was no doubt strongly influenced by Francis Turretin's Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (1688). He would have been exposed to this influential work of systematic theology during his studies in the divinity school in Geneva, where Turretin was a professor until his death in 1687. The strongly logical character and order of his sermons indicates this. Stouppe's confessional Calvinism is even more obviously confirmed by the fact that his sermons were biblical expositions of Calvin's Catechism of the Church of Geneva, first penned in 1538. Published in French in 1541, it was "divided into fifty-five lessons, for the fifty-two Sundays of the year and the three great festivals."[14] Stouppe referred to this as "du grande Catechisme." It begins with a question similar to the first question of the Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism (1647):

Q. What is the chief end of human life?
A. To know God by whom men were created.

On Sunday, August 7, 1737 in New Rochelle, Pastor Stouppe expounded on the twenty-seventh lesson of the catechism, which deals with the fourth commandment. His text was Exodus 20:8-11. Stouppe explained that man's Sabbath rest is patterned after God's rest following the six days of creation. God's people are to follow this pattern because He is the "Sovereign Legislator." In the New Covenant the Sabbath is changed from the seventh day to the first day because Christ has come and calls his church to celebrate his glorious resurrection, which signals the fulfillment of all the Old Covenant types and shadows. Hence, though the ceremonial distinctives of the fourth commandment are passed away with Christ's coming, the substance of the commandment is continued in public worship on the Lord's Day. The New Testament examples of our Lord and his apostles (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2) as well as the testimony and practice of the early fathers, such as St. Augustine and Justin Martyr, establish Sunday as the proper day of worship for Christians. Retention of the seventh-day worship would be a rebellious step backwards in the history of redemption, nullifying the "glorious accomplishment" of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. The "new Sabbath" is a day of rich blessing, which believers gladly keep as "our most sacred day."

Stouppe's sermon is full of Scripture references. It is notably God- and Christ-centered, clearly articulated, and very practical. Several decades later, sixty members of "The Venerable Society" testified that "his preaching is much to our satisfaction and edification, his doctrine being very sound and his pronunciation full, clear, and intelligible."[15]

That the New Rochelle Huguenots took Sabbath worship seriously is evidenced by the fact that several Sundays a year (probably for the Lord's Supper when a minister wasn't available in the local French congregation) they walked, shoes in hand, twenty-three miles to the French church in New York City.[16]

The last wills and testaments of New Rochelle Huguenots clearly evince their strong religious convictions. These documents prove to be much more revealing than modern wills, as the wide variety of wording indicates that they expressed the actual beliefs of their authors.

On April 17, 1694 John Machett, a "ship carpenter" from New Rochelle, testified in his will, "In Primis I Commend my soul to God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth."[17] He was quoting the Apostles' Creed.

On February 27, 1790 Jacob Coutant, a chairmaker in New Rochelle, began his will by declaring, "First of all, I give and recommend my soul into the hand and keeping of my most merciful Creator hoping for Salvation through the Merits and Suffering of my blessed Redeemer." He requested his body to be buried "in a Christian like manner," in the hope that "at the General Resurrection I shall receive the same again by the mighty power of God."[18]

In a newspaper article written in 1885, Charles Lindsley, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, related the story of the Dubois family, who moved from New Rochelle to the wilderness of New Paltz in the early 1700s. While Dr. Dubois was away, his wife and daughter were captured by the Indians. Tied to a tree and about to be burned, the two women began to sing French psalms, a practice that persecuted Huguenots in France had often resorted to in similar circumstances. So amazed were the Indians by this behavior that they ceased their planned execution—and Mr. Dubois soon came to the rescue. Lindsley went on to record the fact that "many of the children of these sturdy old defenders of the faith of Calvin and the early reformers are today among the most zealous and consistent members of the various Protestant churches, both here in New Rochelle" and elsewhere.[19] Lindsley himself was probably a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, which in his day was still a bastion of American Calvinism.

The Decline of Calvinism and the Impact of Thomas Paine

In the eighteenth century a strong force was at work that consciously undermined the Christian faith of the heroic Huguenots. Known as the Enlightenment, it was a movement that sought to find truth based on reason alone, independent of the revelation of God in Scripture. Its initial form, known as Deism, posited a god who created the "laws of nature" and left the world to run on its own. At its heart, Jesus Christ was rejected as the divine Redeemer of sinners.

In the late nineteenth century Pastor Lindsley noted the fruits of the Enlightenment in the decline of Huguenot faith in the New York area. After extolling the ardent Christian faith and dedication of the early Huguenots, he lamented, "It is a matter for regret that some of these, while surrounded by all the means and facilities for religious worship, have so far degenerated from the pious practices of their forefathers as to be seldom or never found within the walls of any church, or any denomination, upon the Christian Sabbath. They have inherited the names without some of the highest virtues of their ancestors."[20]

It is ironic that New Rochelle is also known as the home of Thomas Paine. He is an excellent example and an important perpetrator of the "new faith" of the Enlightenment.[21]

In his book The Age of Reason, Paine declared his radical departure from the Christian faith embraced by the Huguenots. For Paine, creation was his Bible.[22] "My own mind is my own church,"[23] he declared confidently. There are "three frauds: mystery, miracle and prophecy."[24] The Book of Genesis, according to Paine, is "an anonymous book of stories, fables and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies."[25] "The New Testament is a forgery of the councils of Nice and Laodicea, the faith founded thereon, delusion and falsehood,"[26] he stated. The majority of Paine's book is a virulent denial of the integrity, authenticity and authority of the sixty-six books of the Bible. As a Deist, Paine believed in God as Creator, but that was, according to him, the extent of his creed.

"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life,"[27] he said.

Jesus Christ, his sacrificial death and historical resurrection, fall into the category of pagan myth for Paine.[28] He did believe in the afterlife, however, but hoped to achieve happiness in it by "doing good,"[29] instead of through faith in the Redeemer. Bolton testifies that on his deathbed Paine cried out for help from the Lord Jesus.[30]

"The religion of Deism is superior to the Christian religion,"[31] wrote Paine. "He that believes in the story of Christ is an infidel."[32] "As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism—a sort of religious denial of God."[33]

Paine curiously wished to retain much of the morality of the Bible while emphatically denying its supernatural redemptive religion. This, of course, was true of other prominent eighteenth-century American Deists such as Thomas Jefferson (see The Jefferson Bible).

As a Deist, however, Paine was unique in his blatant denial of the historic Christian faith.

The great mistake of Paine, like Jefferson, was his hope to retain biblical ethics without special revelation and its supernaturalism. In radically denying the foundation of Scripture as God's infallible Word, however, the superstructure of Christian morality is doomed to collapse. The Age of Reason was a virulent attack on the Christian faith, and one that we should not gloss over, however much we may admire Paine for stirring popular sentiment to favor the American War for Independence. The saddest result of denials like Paines is not the loss of Christian ethics, but the loss of the only narrative that gives life meaning and offers the hope of the good news that God has invaded history with the redeeming power of his Son's perfect loving and just life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection as the first born of a new humanity.

The Huguenots would not have been sympathetic with Paine's religion at all, as he was not with theirs. The Huguenots rightly believed that divine revelation (i.e., God's written Word) is a divinely inspired account of the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ. Their courageous lives were motivated by this central concern of their religious beliefs. As we shall see, this faith became the foundation for every aspect and activity of their lives.

I think it safe to say that the Huguenots would be saddened by the lack of hearty biblical faith among us today. In celebrating their settlement of New Rochelle they would want—and expect—their belief in the God of the Bible to be memorialized above all else.


[1] Peter Steven Gannon, "Our Huguenot Foundation" (unpublished paper, 1988), 5.

[2] Waldron, Huguenots of Westchester, 51.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4]Henry Darlington, Jr., "The Significance of New Rochelle as a Huguenot Settlement," in Huguenot Refugees in the Settling of Colonial America (New York: Huguenot Society of America, 1985), 237.

[5] Gabriel P. Disosway, The Earliest Churches of New York and Its Vicinity (New York: James G. Gregory, 1865), 262.

[6] Ibid., 262-63.

[7] Ibid., 264.

[8] Darlington, "Significance of New Rochelle," 238.

[9] Gray, French Huguenots, 253-54 (cf. South Carolina Act of 1706. Most French churches in the colonies conformed to the English Church).

[10] Disosway, Earliest Churches, 266.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 265-66.

[13] Alfred V. Whittmeyer, ed. Registers of the Births, Marriages and Deaths of the Eglise Francoise a la Nouvelle York from 1688 to 1804 (New York: Huguenot Society of America, 1886). Introduction, xlix.

[14] Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1:469.

[15] Disosway, Earliest Churches, 269.

[16] Lucien J. Fosdick, The French Blood in America (New York: Rochelle Press Almanac, 1880), 236; Waldron, Huguenots of Westchester, 43f.

[17] Westchester County, N.Y. Record Book of Deeds, Liber B, 173.

[18] Westchester County, N.Y. Record Book of Wills, Liber B, 58.

[19] Charles E. Lindsley, "The Huguenot Settlement of New Rochelle," New Rochelle Pioneer (Sept. 5, 1885).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Robert Bolton, A Guide to New Rochelle and Lower Westchester (repr. 1842, Harrison, NY: Harbor Hill Books, 1976), 28-34. Bolton not only reveals Paine's virulent opposition to Christian faith, but is also critical of the reasoning of Common Sense, and The Age of Reason, especially as he contrasts Paine's radical assertions with the wiser position of the British statesman Sir Edmund Burke, whose support of the American War of Independence was prudently cautious of its tendency towards a pure democracy, which was at the heart of his criticism of the French Revolution.

[22] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason in The Complete Religious Works of Thomas Paine (New York: Eckler, n.d.), 29, 67, 186.

[23] Ibid., 6.

[24] Ibid., 174.

[25] Ibid., 89.

[26] Ibid., 190.

[27] Ibid., 5.

[28] Ibid., 9.

[29] Ibid., 262.

[30] Bolton, A Guide to New Rochelle, 34.

[31] Paine, The Age of Reason, 404.

[32] Ibid., 249.

[33] Ibid., 34.

Ordained Servant Online, November 2010.

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