Monday, March 5, 2012

March 05, 2012

New World Pilgrimage

Where would you take a “Protestant pilgrimage”? The Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, where the 95 Theses were first posted? Geneva, Switzerland, which John Calvin recreated as a bastion of Reformed Protestantism? Plymouth Colony and Jamestown are also great sites, but there is an American site that predates these two historical behemoths. Believe or it not, it’s in Florida. Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville was one of the first American sites where Protestants came to escape European tyranny and live the dream of religious freedom.

The Huguenots had just come out of a war. They were tired and wary, and even the smallest children understood that being a Huguenot was enough to get one killed. No questions asked. If you were a Protestant Christian you were fair game. To fully understand Fort Caroline, we should go back to the year 1562, to another colony, this one named Charlesfort. Charlesfort (present-day Parris Island, South Carolina) was founded by Admiral Jean Ribault and was named after the French king Charles the Ninth. It was not the haven people thought it would be. When starvation set in, the colonists’ grand illusions collapsed. The strongest men decided to return to France and met great hardships aboard ship before they arrived.

In 1564, Jean Ribault’s aide, Rene de Laudonniere, was sent to explore further south. On June 22nd he created a colony named Fort Caroline, also named after King Charles. There was a spark of hope about this place. There was finally a relatively-stable Protestant colony in America, a haven for Huguenots fleeing the black persecution of France. Yet Fort Caroline proved to be unsettled as well. Starvation soon took hold. The local Native Americans of the Timucua tribe were sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, depending on how they were treated. Certain Frenchmen rebelled against authority. It was around this time that the Spanish discovered Fort Caroline’s existence.

Historic sketch of Fort Caroline

During the summer of 1565, Jean Ribault, recently imprisoned in the Tower of London under erroneous charges, desperately sailed for Florida so he might replenish Fort Caroline’s supplies. I can just imagine that moment when the dazed, starving colonists stood at the fort walls and waited to see what flag the ship flew. When the fleur de lis appeared, there must have been a shout of relief that would fill any heart with joy. However, this phase of good luck was soon ended. A hurricane swept up with surprising ferocity. The French grumbled and went to bed. They trusted that the violent weather would be a deterrent to anyone who wished to attack them.

They were wrong.

Spanish captain-general Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his band of conquistadors sloshed through hurricane-muddled landscapes, full of determination. They wanted to wipe out this French colony once and for all. To the conquistadors, the French posed a double threat:  They were Calvinists, which was not to be tolerated in this New World, and they were Frenchmen, whom the Spanish said had no right to settle in Florida. After a weak sunrise on the morning of September 20th, 1565, Huguenot colonists were awoken from their beds by the sound of clanking swords. The Spanish had arrived.

Those same dreams of religious freedom, so recently rekindled, were shattered as sleep-drunk colonists stumbled outside in their nightshirts and were met with the sword. Many of the men were killed outright. Some were later hanged with the inscription “Not as to Frenchmen, but as to Lutherans.” (Most Protestant branches were referred to as “Lutheran” in those days). Women and children were sent to Puerto Rico and other faraway places. Nothing is known of their fate.

Thus Fort Caroline became the scene of a massacre unprecedented in the New World. Today, the National Park Service operates a smaller-scale model of the fort on the grounds of the Timucuan Ecological Preserve. For those who want a real “Protestant pilgrimage,” please go, take some moments of silence, and remember those who died. They were the first Protestants to dare, to dream, and to hope. Though their request was denied, those of us who enjoy religious freedom should bask in the glory they never had the chance to see.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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