Thousands of street names changed because they referred to Christian saints, Catholic priests forced to marry, Jesus Christ described as a revolutionary—these are some of the stupefying details of the French Revolution.
The attack against the authority of the Catholic Church and, above all, the assault of the French state against the Christian religion—an unprecedented event since the time of the Roman Empire—turned the French Revolution (1789-1799) into one of the major moments in the history of Christianity. Needless to say, the main causes of the revolution were not of a religious nature.
In 1789, France was on the verge of bankruptcy because of its involvement in the American Revolution, but also because of a deficient leadership that favoured the opulence of the upper social classes. What began as a political and social reform movement, the Revolution quickly experienced a mutation from anti-clerical attitudes to an anti-Christian policy, to the point where it seemed that the religion of Christ had reached the edge of its own grave.
Daughter of the Enlightenment
The French Revolution was called by historians “the daughter of the Enlightenment.” Thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot were among those who anticipated the revolutionary movement through a severe critique of the social order, of an outdated regime based on norms and hierarchies that no longer corresponded to the spirit of the time.
Given that the Old Regime meant a strong alliance between the Church and the monarchy, it is not surprising that the attacks of the Enlightenment philosophers also targeted the Church to a great extent. Rousseau, for example, accused Christians of hypocrisy, arguing that after they took power in the Roman Empire, they abandoned the discourse of the spiritual Kingdom (to come) in order to establish “the most violent despotism in this world.”
Of course, he did not lack arguments. The history of France offered examples of religious wars and bloody events such as the “St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.” “In general, anticlericalism provided a major ingredient of Enlightenment thought,” E. J. Wilson writes. And not only the Church, but also the Bible was criticised, Voltaire being the loudest voice that “fought the Bible, attacked it, ridiculed it.”
Enlightenment anticlericalism was justified even by the French ecclesiastical system. The Catholic clergy dominated the religious landscape of the time, benefiting from numerous economic advantages as well as political influence. In 1789, all Catholic bishops came from aristocratic families and did not even live in their dioceses, which were pastored through representatives.
The inequalities imposed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy caused dissatisfaction among the lower clergy, who accused their superiors of grabbing a large part of the Church’s income. It is not surprising that, in the tumult of the revolution, many of the lower clergy joined the revolutionaries, as they wanted a more democratic Church, in which access to higher hierarchical positions depended on commitment, hard work, and talent, and not on “accidents” such as birth into a noble family.
“French Cancan” at the Notre Dame
During the years of the revolution, the Catholic Church received a series of strong blows, comparable in force to those during the Protestant Reformation. In November 1789, the National Assembly confiscated its properties, which were sold to the peasants, the bourgeoisie, and even some of the nobles.
At the beginning of the following year, the monasteries were suppressed, and a few months later the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” was promulgated, which reduced the number of bishops. The document also stated that bishops and priests would be elected by French citizens, just as civil servants were. All that remained for the Pope was to acknowledge the nation’s choice—a heavy blow to the pontifical authority!
Moreover, clerics had to swear loyalty to the French state. Other measures followed, bewildering for that era: religious processions were banned, crucifixes were removed from churches, and priests were given the right to marry (some even being forced to do so). A new calendar was even instituted according to which the “week” was 10 days long. Adopted in 1793, the calendar was kept until 1804. Sunday was thus abolished as a day of rest, and holidays dedicated to Catholic saints were replaced by days dedicated to patriots or martyrs of the revolution.
The years of the revolution, but especially the period known as the “Reign of Terror” (from the fall of 1793 to the summer of 1794), saw serious efforts to dechristianise France. Some of the revolutionary leaders wanted to replace Christian “superstitions” with a new religious cult, devoted to Reason.
The Christian trinity was replaced by the revolutionary “trinity”: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In a burlesque show, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was transformed into the Temple of Reason, while a young actress was crowned and cheered as the Goddess of Reason. Thousands of other churches in the province would soon become similar temples.
Of course, there was also a current against the process of dechristianisation. The opposition manifested itself by ignoring the new calendar, by remaining indifferent to the cult of the nation’s heroes, and by participating in the traditional rituals of the Church. The general tone, however, was one of the denigration of Christianity.
Revolutions pass, Christianity remains…
Once the Reign of Terror ended, the dechristianisation of France decreased in intensity, although Christianity was still viewed as a religion with subversive potential. Still, things started to change for the better, not only in France, but also in other European countries. If in its first years, the French Revolution had enjoyed a positive perception among European nations, with the horrors of the Reign of Terror, the perception changed. The fears created by the unexpected direction of the Revolution inspired and encouraged religious revivals both in France and in Europe.
The Sunday School movement in England gained momentum as lay people became interested in studying the Bible and Christian doctrines. Thus, while in 1788, English Sunday schools had approximately 60,000 participants, by 1811, their number reached 415,000. The end of the 18th century also brought the establishment of the first English missionary societies: the Baptist Missionary Society (1792), the London Missionary Society (1795), and the Church Missionary Society (1799).
Religious awakenings took place in the heart of pietist communities in Germany, in whose opinion the events in France were the fruit of the false philosophies of the Enlightenment. The Scandinavian countries also experienced spiritual revivals, with Christians there going from door to door to study the Bible with interested people. It was also during this period that Bible societies appeared: the British Bible Society (1804), the German Bible Society (1804), the Prussian Bible Society (1805), etc.
Paradoxically, the anti-Christianity of the French revolutionaries also gave birth to an interest in the prophecies of the Bible (especially those in Daniel and Revelation), the period of the Revolution and the Napoleonic empire being known for its appetite for millenialism. Not a few were those who connected the events in France with the biblical prophecies about the return of Christ.
After a nightmarish end of a century, Europe entered a new century, known as the great Christian century of religious revivals and expansion of the Christian religion beyond European borders.
“The Christian awakenings between 1790 and 1815, with their belief in divine intervention in human affairs, their emphasis on personal faith and devotion, and their calls for social activism, did much not only to preserve European Christianity against the unprecedented onslaught of the French Revolution, but also to strengthen it for the challenges and opportunities of the nineteenth century,” Stewart Brown writes.
Christian men and women again looked with confidence to Christianity as a force capable of regenerating the European spirit and giving them the meaning they had not found in a society where human reason wanted to ascend God’s throne.
Florin Bică is a children’s book author, writing both fiction and non-fiction for this exacting audience.