The Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution

by Alberto M. Piedra  |  January 12, 2018  |  ARTICLES

"Every sensible man, every honorable man must hold the Christian religion in horror."

"Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

"Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness and kept him in ignorance of the real duties of true interests. It is only by dispelling these clouds and phantoms of religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evil, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies and perpetuates them."
-Baron de Holbach

Little doubt remains among scholars as to the dechristianization of France during the French Revolution. This may not have been the objective of the intellectual founders of the revolutionary movement of 1789 which swept over the land of Joan of Arc, causing havoc to all sectors of French society and the death of thousands of Frenchmen. The hatred of religion by not a few well known philosophes (encyclopedistes) and many of their followers is clearly manifested, among others, in the above mentioned quote of the Baron de Holbach, not to mention the well known statement of Voltaire: "Every sensible man, every honourable man must hold the Christian religion in horror."

The Revolution's impact on the spiritual aspects of French culture was the result of a number of separate policies devised by various French governments between 1789 and the Concordat of 1801. They formed the basis of the gradual trend toward dechristianization, later transformed into a less radical laïcité.  Most scholars would argue that the goal of the revolutionary government between 1793 and 1794 ranged from the public reclamation of the massive amount of land, power, and money held by the Church in France to the termination of religious practice and the extermination of religion itself.

La Constitution Civile du Clergé (The Civil Constitution of the Clergy) was a law passed on July 12, 1790 that resulted in the immediate subordination of the Catholic Church in France to the French government.  It proved to be one of the most ill judged, controversial, and disruptive laws of the French Revolution. The attempt to restructure the Church during the time of the National Convention turned into open aggression against Catholicism and religion in general.  Religious practice was outlawed and replaced with the cult of the Supreme Being, a deist state religion.

The program of dechristianization waged against the Christian people of France increased in intensity with the enactment of the Law of 17 September 1793, also known as the Law of Suspects. It was used to carry out more actively the following measures: 1) all priests and all persons protecting them are liable to death on the spot, 2 )the destruction of all crosses, bells and other external signs of worship, 3) the destruction of statues, plaques, and iconography from places of worship.1 In 1793, the Christian calendar was replaced with one reckoning from the date of the Revolution and the festivals of Liberty, Reason, and the Supreme Being were officially established. During the two-year Reign of Terror, anti-clericalism became more violent than any other in history.

An especially notable event that took place during France's process of dechristianization was the Festival of Reason which was held on November 10, 1793 in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.2 On the main nave was placed an improvised mountain on which stood a Greek temple dedicated to Philosophy and decorated with busts of philosophers.  At the basis of the mountain was located a torch of Truth. Some loose living girls took occasion to celebrate at the main altar the cult to the Goddess Reason with Phrygian bonnets on their heads.3

The wave of massacres started in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille by an angry and aggressive mob. To the surprise of the disorderly populace, the historic fortress held only seven prisoners. The infamous Marquis de Sades had been transferred to another location earlier in the month. The Marquis de Laurnay, Commander of the Bastille, had to surrender the fortress because of a lack of supplies but was later seized and humiliated by the mob before being beheaded and his head placed on the top of a pike and paraded through the streets of Paris.  The historian Rene Sedillot writes in his book Le Coût de la Révolution Française that in Paris 1,300 assassinations took place in four days.4

One of the most horrendous acts of hatred perpetuated against the French Royal family were the ones related to Mme. Elizabeth, sister of Louis XVI, and the Princesse de Lamballe, a close friend of Marie Antoinette. In an orgy of violence and hatred by a gleeful crowd keen to show their loathing of the daughter of Marie-Therese, Empress of Austria-Hungary, they did not spare any means to humiliate and violate the most intimate dignity of both women. After their appalling deaths, it is claimed that their heads were placed on pikes and then paraded through the streets of Paris before being waved in front of a window at the Temple, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned. The bodies were later dumped at a boundary stone on the Rue Saint Antoine.5

Newly researched documentation on the bloodthirsty Reign of Terror that swept through France in 1793-1794, personified by Robespierre and the Angel of Terror, Saint Just, clearly indicate the high price paid by France for a revolution that brought havoc and thousands of deaths to the French nation. King  Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793 at the Place de la Revolution later renamed La Place de la Concorde.6  A few months later, Queen Marie Antoinette was convicted of treason and suffered the same fate while a joyous crowd cheered "Vive la Nation."7 Ironically, the two "heroes" of the Revolution, Robespierre and Saint Just suffered the consequences of their own horrendous crimes: the guillotine.

The Church prior to the French Revolution is very often represented as having failed to produce the goodness and holiness that is preached in the gospel and which she claims to be her cherished heritage. That there were and still are serious failures among her members and religious organizations, not excluding bishops and high hierarchical leaders, cannot be denied.  However, it is also true that there were many devoted priests and nuns totally dedicated to a life of prayer and works of charity, who gave up their lives for the faith they professed.

Perhaps one of the best examples is the massacre, better called the genocide, of La Vendée.  General François Westerman of the revolutionary army claimed with pride that, in his efforts to crush the rebellion of the Vendéens, carried out against the abuses and crimes of the Convention, he ordered, in accordance with the decree of August 2, 1793, the systematic destruction and burning of the entire countryside, including all crops and the mass assassination of all rebels in sight.8

Can we call the massacre at La Vendée a genocide?  The term was used in 1944 to describe the horrors of the holocaust and the drama experienced by the Jews under Nazism. If we relate the number of men women and children slaughtered by the revolutionary army under the banner of liberté, égalité, and fraternité with the total population of France's western provinces, the number is even higher than what the Jews had to suffer under the inhuman policy of Hitler's National Socialism. In both cases, there was a deliberate will of extermination.9

The French revolution reveals the titanic struggle between good and evil. Among the first targets of the fury of the revolutionaries, following the dictates of many of the so called philosophes, were the contemplative religious communities. The blood of innocent people lost in the years 1792-1794 staggers the imagination. The campaign against the Church was as much diabolical as cruel.

On July 17, 1794 in the final days of Robespierre's fiendish leadership in revolutionary France, sixteen members of the Carmel of Compiègne: eleven Discalced Carmelite nuns, three lay sisters, and two externs fell under the blade of the guillotine for refusing to take the obligatory oath called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. They were buried in a common grave where nowadays a single cross marks the remains of over one thousand victims of the guillotine. It is claimed that on their way to their death they sang either Veni Creator Spiritus or Salve Regina. Others believe it was Psalm 117 Laudate Dominus. Pope Leo XIII declared the nuns of Compiègne Venerable, a first step to sanctity. The Carmelite martyrs remind us that their example is not confined to a bygone age of suffering and war in a Europe gone mad by the abuses of the French Enlightenment.          

In the course of the 20th century, the Martyrs of Compiègne have been the object of much scholarly work.  In 1931, Gertrude von de Fort wrote an account of the life and martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns for her novel Die Letzte am Schaffot.10 Perhaps the better known of these works is Francis Poulenc's opera Le Dialogue des Carmélites.11 My deceased wife, Edita, and I had the privilege of seeing it at the Opera in Paris: a great tribute to the Martyrs of Compiegne.

Let me conclude this essay with the sincere hope that the tragic events that occurred in France during the Reign of Terror 1792-1794 will never repeat themselves either in "la Douce France" or any other country in the world. In this relativistic world of ours, where the distinction between good and evil and the belief in an objective moral truth are, to say the least, blurred, anything is possible. Maybe what we need is more Joan's of Arc who died in defense of her ideals and country. Mark Twain describes her as "far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced."12

1. The University of Chicago Encyclopedia Britannica puts the number of detainees as a result of the Law of September 1793 at more than 200,000, noting that most never stood trial, although they languished in disease infested prisons where 10,000 perished. Military and revolutionary tribunals gave death sentences to another 17,000.  See: The First French Republic, Encyclopedia Britannica, online.

2. Le Culte de la Raison, (The Cult of Reason) was the first state sponsored atheistic religion. It was based on the principles of the Enlightenment and anti-clericalism. Its objective was the perfection of mankind through the attainment of Truth and Liberty.

3. "Dans un décor d'inspiration antique , ou disipant toute reference a la Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris, quelques jeunes filles , pretresses de la philosophie celebrerent le culte a la deesse Raison, personifie par une jeune femme vetue d'une tunique drape et d'un bonnet phygien."

4. "Les massacres ont commence des 1789, avec la grande peur dans les campagnes, comme avec le meotre de la garnison de la Basrtille, de l'intendent de Paris et du prevot des marchands.  Ils se multiplient en Septembre 1792, quand le pouvoir deborde laisse egorger les suspects entasses dans les couvents et les prisons; de 150 a 200 victimes a l'abbaye, 300 a la Conciergerie, 180 a la Force, 215 au Chatelet, 115 aux Carmes, 200 a Bicetre, don't 33 enfants; 72 aux Bernardins, 75 au seminaire Saint-Fermin...(estimations voisines de celle de Frederic Bluche, La Massacre de septembre).  Seuls sont epargnes Saint Lazare, Sainte- Pelagie.  Bilan der massacres : 1300 morts rien que poyr Paris en quetre jours. Se n'est qu'un banc d'essai.  See:Rene Sedillot, Le Cout de la Revlution Francaise, Paris: Librairie Academique Perrin,  Collection Verites et Legendes 1987. p, .22

5. See: Graeme Fife, The Terror, The Shadow of the Guillotine France 1792-1794, London, Portrait, 2009. For a different view of the French Revolution see also:  Alexis de Tocqueville The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Chapter Two,  New York: Anchor Books, DOUBLEDAY, 1983.

6. See: Andre Castelot, Histoire de France, Le temps des bouleversements, 1789-1814, Chapter VI. Perrin, 2001.  Lois Phlippe, Duc d'Orleans (later Philippe Egalite) in a sign of cowardice voted for the death if his cousin King Louis XVI.  Even Danton and Robespierre were disgusted at such an act of treachery.  See: op.cit., Andre Castelot, Histoire de France, 1789-1814, ibid., Perrin 2001. p.127.

7. "Entre l'instant ou elle est apparu sur la plate-forme et celui ou la foule a entendu le bruit sourd, il s'est ecoule quatre minutes.  L‘un des aides ramasse la tete degoulitante de sang la tient par les cheveux blancs et, tamdis qu'o l'applaudit , la promene autour de l'echafaud". See: Andre Catelot, ibid. Chapter X , pp.204-216.

8. "Il n'y a plus de Vendee!  Ele est morte sous notre sable libre, avec ses femmes et ses enfants.  Je viens de l'enterrer dans les marais de Savenay.  J'ai ecrase les enfants sous les pieds de mes chevaux, massacres les femmes qui n'enfanterons plus de brigands.  Je n'ai pas un prisonnier a me reprocher.  J'ai tout extermine ...Les routes sont semees de cadavers.  Il y en tant que sur plusieurs points ils font des pyramides." See Renee Sedllot.  " Le Cout de la Revolution francais

9. "Faut'il parler de genocide?  Le mot ne date que de 1944, et il a ete forge pour designer le drame juif.  Certains commentateurs , qui le trouvent trop porteur d'une charge emotionelle et symbolique, lui preferent, en, la circonstance, le mot massacre.  La nuance est subtile.  Mais si l'on s'en tient a la proportion des victims par rapport au people concerne, les habitants des provinces sous la Revolution ont paye de leur vie plus encore que les Israelistes sous l'occupation hitlerienne..  Dans les deux cas, on note une meme volonte deliberee d'extermination."

10. Baroness Gertrude von Le Fort was greatly influenced in her life by the influential Protestant religious philosopher of religion Ernst Troeltsch.

11. George Bernanos wrote the libretto for the first presentation of Poulenc's opera.  His writings served as the basis for the composer's  opera Dialogue des Carmelites.

12. Mark Twain, Joan of Arc, Appendix, p.451, San Francisco. Ignatius Press,  1989.