Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution

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The dechristianization of France during the French Revolution is a conventional description of the results of a number of separate policies conducted by various governments of France between the start of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Concordat of 1801, forming the basis of the later and less radical Laïcité movement. The goal of the campaign between 1793 and 1794 ranged from the public reclamation of the massive amounts of land, power, and money held by the Catholic Church in France to the termination of Catholic religious practice and of the religion itself.[1][2][3] There has been much scholarly debate over whether the movement was popularly motivated.[1]

The French Revolution initially began with attacks on church corruption and the wealth of the higher clergy, an action with which even many Christians could identify, since the Roman Catholic church held a dominant role in pre-revolutionary France, during a two-year period known as the Reign of Terror, the episodes of anti-clericalism grew more violent than any in modern European history. The new revolutionary authorities suppressed the church; abolished the Catholic monarchy; nationalized church property; exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds more.[4] In October 1793 the Christian calendar was replaced with one reckoning from the date of the Revolution, and Festivals of Liberty, Reason and the Supreme Being were scheduled. New forms of moral religion emerged, including the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being and Cult of Reason, with the government briefly mandating observance of the former in April 1794.[5][6][7][8].[9]

Religion and the Catholic Church under the monarchy[edit]

Before 1789[edit]

In 18th-century France, the vast majority of the population adhered to the Catholic Church as Catholicism had been since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 the only religion officially allowed in the kingdom. Nonetheless, there were minorities of French Protestants (mostly Huguenots & German Lutherans in Alsace) and Jews still lived in France at the beginning of the Revolution. The Edict of Versailles,[10] commonly known as the Edict of Tolerance, had been signed by Louis XVI on 7 November 1787 and had given non-Catholics in France the right to openly practice their religions as well as legal and civil status, which included the right to contract marriages without having to convert to the Catholic faith. At the same time, libertine thinkers popularized atheism and anti-clericalism.

The Ancien Régime institutionalised the authority of the clergy in its status as the First Estate of the realm, as the largest landowner in the country, the Catholic Church controlled properties which provided massive revenues from its tenants;[11] the Church also had an enormous income from the collection of tithes.[11] Since the Church kept the registry of births, deaths, and marriages and was the only institution that provided hospitals and education in some parts of the country, it influenced all citizens.

Between 1789 and 1792[edit]

The event that launched the Revolution was the abolition of the privileges of the First and Second Estate on the night of 4 August 1789; in particular, it abolished the tithes gathered by the Catholic clergy.[12]

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 proclaimed freedom of religion across France in these terms :

Article IV - Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights, these borders can be determined only by the law.

Article X - No one may be disturbed for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.

On October 10, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly seized the properties and land held by the Catholic Church and decided to sell them as assignats.

On July 12, 1790, the assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that subordinated the Roman Catholic Church in France to the French government. It was never accepted by the Pope and other high-ranking clergy in Rome.

Fall of the monarchy[edit]

New policies of the Revolutionary authorities[edit]

The programme of dechristianization waged against Catholicism, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, included:[13][14][2][need quotation to verify]

  • destruction of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship
  • destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
  • the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being (spring 1794)
  • the enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight

An especially notable event that took place in the course of France’s dechristianization was the Festival of Reason, which was held in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793.

The dechristianization campaign can be seen as the logical extension[15] of the materialist philosophies of some leaders of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, while for others with more prosaic concerns it provided an opportunity to unleash resentments against the Catholic Church (in the spirit of conventional anti-clericalism) and its clergy.[16]

The Revolution and the Church[edit]

In August 1789, the State cancelled the taxing power of the Church, the issue of church property became central to the policies of the new revolutionary government. Declaring that all church property in France belonged to the nation, confiscations were ordered and church properties were sold at public auction; in July 1790, the National Constituent Assembly published the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that stripped clerics of their special rights — the clergy were to be made employees of the state, elected by their parish or bishopric, and the number of bishoprics was to be reduced — and required all priests and bishops to swear an oath of fidelity to the new order or face dismissal, deportation or death.

French priests had to receive Papal approval to sign such an oath, and Pius VI spent almost eight months deliberating on the issue, on 13 April 1791, the Pope denounced the Constitution, resulting in a split in the French Catholic church. Over fifty percent became abjuring priests ("jurors"), also known as "constitutional clergy", and nonjuring priests as "refractory clergy".

Map of France showing the percentage of juring priests in 1791. The borders of the map are those of 2007, because the data comes from archives of the modern departments.

In September 1792, the Legislative Assembly legalized divorce, contrary to Catholic doctrine, at the same time, the State took control of the birth, death, and marriage registers away from the Church. An ever-increasing view that the Church was a counter-revolutionary force exacerbated the social and economic grievances and violence erupted in towns and cities across France.

In Paris, over a forty-eight-hour period beginning on 2 September 1792, as the Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Constituent Assembly) dissolved into chaos, three Church bishops and more than two hundred priests were massacred by angry mobs; this constituted part of what would become known as the September Massacres. Priests were among those drowned in mass executions (noyades) for treason under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier; priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyons, for separatism, on the orders of Joseph Fouché and Collot d'Herbois. Hundreds more priests were imprisoned and made to suffer in abominable conditions in the port of Rochefort.

Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, as well as by département councils throughout the country. Many of the acts of dechristianization in 1793 were motivated by the seizure of church gold and silver to finance the war effort;[17] in November 1793, the département council of Indre-et-Loire abolished the word dimanche (English: Sunday).[18] The Gregorian calendar, an instrument decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was replaced by the French Republican Calendar which abolished the sabbath, saints' days and any references to the Church. The seven-day week became ten days instead,[19] it soon became clear, however, that nine consecutive days of work were too much, and that international relations could not be carried out without reverting to the Gregorian system, which was still in use everywhere outside of France. Consequently, the Gregorian Calendar was reimplemented in 1795.[20]

Anti-clerical parades were held, and the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gobel, was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red "Cap of Liberty." Street and place names with any sort of religious connotation were changed, such as the town of St. Tropez, which became Héraclée. Religious holidays were banned and replaced with holidays to celebrate the harvest and other non-religious symbols. Many churches were converted into "temples of reason," in which Deistic services were held.[21][14][2][3] Local people often resisted this dechristianisation and forced members of the clergy who had resigned to conduct Mass again. Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety denounced the dechristianizers as foreign enemies of the Revolution, and established their own new religion. This Cult of the Supreme Being, without the superstitions of Catholicism,[22] supplanted both Catholicism and the rival Cult of Reason. Both new religions were short-lived.[23][22] Just six weeks before his arrest, on 8 June 1794 the still-powerful Robespierre personally led a vast procession through Paris to the Tuileries garden in a ceremony to inaugurate the new faith, his execution occurred shortly afterward, on 28 July 1794.[18]


By early 1795 a return to some form of religion-based faith was beginning to take shape and a law passed on 21 February 1795 legalized public worship, albeit with strict limitations. The ringing of church bells, religious processions and displays of the Christian cross were still forbidden.

As late as 1799, priests were still being imprisoned or deported to penal colonies. Persecution only worsened after the French army led by General Louis Alexandre Berthier captured Rome in early 1798, declared a new Roman Republic, and imprisoned Pope Pius VI, who would die in captivity in Valence, France in August 1799. Ultimately, with Napoleon now in ascendancy in France, year-long negotiations between government officials and the new Pope Pius VII led to the Concordat of 1801, formally ending the dechristianization period and establishing the rules for a relationship between the Roman Church and the French State.

Victims of the Reign of Terror totaled somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000. According to one estimate, among those condemned by the revolutionary tribunals about 8 percent were aristocrats, 6 percent clergy, 14 percent middle class, and 70 percent were workers or peasants accused of hoarding, evading the draft, desertion, rebellion, and other purported crimes.[24] Of these social groupings, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church suffered proportionately the greatest loss.[24]

Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, as well as by département councils throughout the country. The Concordat of 1801 endured for more than a century until it was abrogated by the government of the Third Republic, which established a policy of laïcité on 11 December 1905.

Toll on the Church[edit]

Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription, and loss of income, about twenty thousand constitutional priests were forced to abdicate and hand over their letters of ordination, and six thousand to nine thousand of them agreed or were coerced to marry. Many abandoned their pastoral duties altogether.[1] Nonetheless, some of those who had abdicated continued covertly to minister to the people.[1]

By the end of the decade, approximately thirty thousand priests had been forced to leave France, and others who did not leave were executed.[25] Most French parishes were left without the services of a priest and deprived of the sacraments. Any non-juring priest faced the guillotine or deportation to French Guiana.[1] By Easter 1794, few of France's forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses.[1]

Victims of revolutionary violence, whether religious or not, were popularly treated as Christian martyrs, and the places where they were killed became pilgrimage destinations.[1] Catechising in the home, folk religion, syncretic and heterodox practices all became more common.[1] The long-term effects on religious practice in France were significant. Many who were dissuaded from their traditional religious practices never resumed them.[1]

Gallery[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Tallet 1991, p. 1-17.
  2. ^ a b c Spielvogel 2006, p. 549.
  3. ^ a b Tallet 1991, p. 1.
  4. ^ Collins, Michael (1999). The Story of Christianity. Mathew A Price. Dorling Kindersley. p. 176–177. ISBN 978-0-7513-0467-1. At first the new revolutionary government attacked church corruption and the wealth of the bishops and abbots who ruled the church -- causes with which many Christians could identify. Clerical privileges were abolished ... 
  5. ^ Helmstadter, Richard J. (1997). Freedom and religion in the nineteenth century. Stanford Univ. Press. p. 251. 
  6. ^ Heenan, David Kyle. Deism in France 1789-1799. N.p.: U of Wisconsin--Madison, 1953. Print.
  7. ^ Ross, David A. Being in Time to the Music. N.p.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Print. "This Cult of Reason or Deism reached its logical conclusion in the French Revolution..."
  8. ^ Fremont-Barnes, p. 119.
  9. ^ Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 pp. 1-17 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  10. ^ Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815, p. 212, retrieved July 17, 2016
  11. ^ a b Betros, Gemma (Dec 2010). "THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH". History Review (68): 16–21. ISSN 0962-9610. 
  12. ^ Furet, François. "Night of August 4," in François Furet, and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1989) pp 107-114.
  13. ^ Compare Tallett (1991): "During the course of the year II much of France was subjected to a campaign of dechristianization, the aim of which was the eradication of Catholic religious practice, and Catholicism itself. The campaign, which was at its most intense in the winter and spring of 1793-94 [...] comprised a number of different activities. These ranged from the removal of plate, statues and other fittings from places of worship, the destruction of crosses, bells, shrines and other 'external signs of worship', the closure of churches, the enforced abdication and, occasionally, the marriage of constitutional priests, the substitution of a Revolutionary calendar for the Gregorian one, the alteration of personal and place names which had any eccesiastical connotations to more suitably Revolutionary ones, through to the promotion of new cults, notably those of reason and of the Supreme Being."
  14. ^ a b Latreille, A. (2002). "French revolution". New Catholic Encyclopedia. v. 5 (Second ed.). Thompson/Gale. p. 972–973. ISBN 0-7876-4004-2. 
  15. ^ Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live (L'Abri 50th Anniversary ed.). pp. 120–122. ISBN 1581345364. 
  16. ^ Lewis (1993, p. 96): "Many of the Parisian Sections eagerly joined in the priest-hunt...."
  17. ^ Lewis, Gwynne (1993). The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate. Historical Connections. Routledge. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-134-93741-7. Retrieved 9 May 2017. 
  18. ^ a b Vovelle 1991, p. 180, 182.
  19. ^ Shaw, Matthew (1 March 2001). "Reactions To The French Republican Calendar". Fr Hist. 15 (1): 6. Retrieved 5 March 2017. 
  20. ^ Segura González, Wenceslao (n.d.). "La reforma del calendario" (PDF). EWT Ediciones: 42. ISBN 9788461617296. 
  21. ^ Horne, Thomas Hartwell; Davidson, Samuel (21 November 2013). An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Cambridge University Press. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-108-06772-0. 
  22. ^ a b Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, pp. 92–94.
  23. ^ Fremont-Barnes, Gregory (2007). Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815: A-L. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 237. ISBN 9780313334467. The cult was a deliberate attempt to counter the unsuccessful efforts at dechristianization, and the atheistic Cult of Reason, which reached its high point in the winter of the previous year. 
  24. ^ a b Harvey, Donald Joseph FRENCH REVOLUTION, History.com 2006 (Accessed 27 April 2007)
  25. ^ Lewis 1993, p. 96.

Further reading[edit]

In English[edit]

In French[edit]

  • La Gorce, Pierre de, Histoire Religieuse de la Révolution Française. 10. éd. Paris : Plon-Nourrit, 1912– 5 v.
  • Langlois, Claude, Timothy Tackett, Michel Vovelle and S. Bonin. Atlas de la Révolution française. Religion, 1770-1820, tome 9 (1996)

External links[edit]