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Revival, revolt and a colonial cult - A Huguenot ‘Waco’ in early Carolina

June 12, 2019

Gun battles. Murders. Executions, fantastical prophesies — all in the Palmetto State’s own parish of St. Denis. It’s a sensational tale of colonial life on the French Santee, one incident among many that has resurfaced thanks to the recent publication of The Huguenot Church in Charleston.

 

When the early Huguenots arrived, there was no official state religion in the colony; it was 20 years before the Church Act of 1706 established parishes. St. Denis was created for the French Calvinists within the larger Anglican parish of St. Thomas.

 

The arrangement had its flaws. The Huguenot parishioners were of modest means, not of the landed planter class. They eked out a meager livelihood on small tracts of land by raising cattle and other agricultural pursuits. They were poorly educated, quarrelsome and had difficulty conforming to Anglican rituals, thus creating large pockets of institutional resistance to the established order.

Meanwhile in Charles Town, Commissary Alexander Garden, a new representative of the bishop of London, arrived in 1719. He faced many challenges, for his arrival coincided with the “Bloodless Revolution” that overthrew the Lords Proprietors. In addition to civil unrest, the colony was plagued with inflation and high taxes that caused small farmers to go under. The stage was set for disaster. As historian Bertrand Van Ruymbeke commented, “all that was needed was a spark to set [it] off.”

 

This occurred in 1724 when an itinerant evangelist visited the Huguenot parish of St. Denis and handed out religious pamphlets. The Dutartres family, one in “low circumstances,” was particularly receptive to the apocalyptic message. They began to withdraw from public worship, thinking that they alone had the true knowledge and worship of God.

 

It was not long before Pierre Rembert, the husband of Pierre Dutartre’s eldest daughter, claimed that God had revealed to him a vision of the destruction of all mankind except one family (his of course) whom He would preserve as He had preserved Noah. Rembert shared this divine mission with his father-in-law and claimed that he had been divinely instructed to take up with his wife’s younger sister to preserve the “holy seed.”

 

Pierre Dutartre was astonished by this revelation of Rembert. But the self-proclaimed prophet assured him that God would give him a sign on their going to the next plantation, where the first living creature they should see there should be “… a horse … or a hog.” Not surprisingly, Rembert’s prophesy was fulfilled. Flattered to be among God’s chosen people, the deluded Dutartre patriarch obligingly gave Pierre Rembert his daughter Judith, with whom he promptly lay without any further ceremony.

 

The repercussions of the apocalyptic prophesy continued. In rural areas, roads were maintained by commissions appointed by the Assembly who were usually drawn from local men. The Dutartres persuaded themselves that as God’s chosen people, they could ignore all civil authority and refused to repair highways and to serve in the local militia on the pretense that God had told them not to bear arms. The civil disobedience alarmed the local authorities who issued a warrant for their arrest. And when it was learned that Judith Dutartes was pregnant, she was subpoenaed to the Court of General Sessions for bastardy.

 

This tragic tale played itself out when Peter Simons, the eldest son of Benjamin Simons of Middleburg Plantation, was sent to arrest the miscreants. Simons was justice of the peace and a captain of the local militia. When Simons tried to serve the summons, the Dutartres barricaded themselves in their house and opened fire as the militia approached the compound. It was a bloody encounter. Captain Simons and a woman were killed before the defenders were arrested and taken to Charles Town.

 

The court decided not to try Judith Dutartres but convicted and executed Pierre Dutartre, Pierre Rembert and one Michael Boinneau, all of whom still believed that they would be resurrected on the last day. Dutartre’s younger sons were pardoned when they recanted their apocalyptic beliefs, but one later returned to the delusional fantasy and murdered an innocent person for no apparent reason.

 

Commissary Garden duly informed the bishop of London about the Dutartre insurrection. Although the bishop took no action, Garden made a series of addresses about the affair, warning lay ministers to beware of false pretenses of their teachers and included “the bloody effects of enthusiasm in the case of the Dutartres, which resulted in the murder of two persons and execution of four more for those murders.”

 

As the “enforcer” of Anglican orthodoxy, Commissary Garden faced many challenges in the new colony. Today, he is best remembered for getting second St. Philip’s church built or for his dramatic confrontation with evangelist George Whitefield.

 

In time, the Huguenots assimilated into the local culture and some descendants were among South Carolina’s founding fathers. As is too often the case, modern readers are rarely exposed to the colorful backwoods tales that are an integral part of our Lowcountry heritage.

 

I offer my sincere appreciation to Grange Simons and Mackey Hill for contributing to this article. Anyone who wishes to relate an interesting Huguenot anecdote is invited to contact: pegeastman@comcast.net.

 

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