Christianity in the Revolutionary Era

views updated

Christianity in the Revolutionary Era

Christianity and Enlightened Despotism.

Frederick the Great (r. 1740–1786) of Prussia and Joseph II (r. 1765–1790) of Austria were among Europe's two most successful enlightened despots. They were rulers who applied the rationalistic and scientific approaches to their governments recommended by Enlightenment thinkers. Since the rise of the Enlightenment in the early eighteenth century, intellectuals had attacked the church as a bastion of privilege and irrational superstition. In both Prussia and Austria Frederick and Joseph pushed through reforms in the churches during the second half of the eighteenth century. Their attacks on the power and authority of the state church were not motivated by a desire to suppress Christianity, but to fit its practice into their rationalized schemes of government. By the second half of the eighteenth century most Protestant countries in Europe provided de facto forms of religious toleration, and although legal codes did not always recognize freedom of religion, minority faiths practiced their religion in these places relatively freely. England had led the way in this regard since it had allowed dissenting forms of Protestantism to flourish from the 1690s and had also provided a space for the expansion and evolution of Methodism. The migration of Irish Catholics into the country in the eighteenth century added a new dimension to England's already pluralistic but mostly Protestant religious landscape, and the presence of Catholic workers in the country's thriving industrial factories by the later eighteenth century prompted government officials to relax their persecution of Catholicism. In 1753, the English Parliament also passed a Jewish Naturalization Act, though popular anti-Semitism later forced its repeal. These kinds of measures were quickly imitated elsewhere in Europe. In Prussia, Frederick the Great went even further than the English, and in his revision of the Prussian legal code, the Allgemeine Landrecht, published a year after his death, Prussia granted legally recognized religious toleration to all subjects in the country. For the first time in the history of Europe, citizenship was separated from religious considerations. While Prussian innovations in this regard were great, it was in Joseph II's Austria that the Enlightenment made its most spectacular mark. Since the grim days of the Thirty Years' War, Habsburg policies in Central Europe had freely used force to convert Protestant subjects to Catholicism. In 1781 Joseph II reversed more than 150 years of policy and declared that while public worship was to remain an exclusive right of the Catholic church, Protestant minorities might now practice their faith privately. Joseph also considered issues that were of importance for traditional Catholicism, and the measures he fostered were intended to strengthen local religious practice. He created more than 500 new parishes throughout his lands to accommodate recent population growth. Like most rulers influenced by Enlightenment ideas, Joseph aimed to curtail monasticism, which by this time was seen by most intellectuals as a wasteful, even parasitical, occupation. Governments concluded that religious orders should be eliminated and their wealth dedicated to the sorts of social improvements recommended by Enlightenment thinkers. In France during the 1760s, a royal commission closed 426 religious houses. In Sicily, a number of monasteries stayed open only by honoring the government's request that they provide free schooling for the poor. But Joseph II outdid these examples and closed between 700 and 750 monasteries in his lands. The enormous sum that the Crown netted from the sale of these institutions' properties funded Joseph's new parishes as well as new medical training facilities in Vienna. The Jesuit order suffered the most under these measures, since they had been singled out by many Enlightenment thinkers as the most manipulative of the Roman church's many groups of clerics. Already in 1758, Portugal had begun to pressure the Papacy to suppress the order, and an ever-growing chorus from other Catholic governments joined the call for the Jesuit's dissolution. In 1773, the Papacy surrendered to these demands and dissolved the Society of Jesus, the institution that had long played such a vital role in the missionizing efforts of Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits were to rise anew from this embarrassment several generations later, but never again was the order to play the key role in shaping political and governmental policies that it had in the early-modern world.

The French Revolution and Dechristianization.

Eighteenth-century enlightened despots like Frederick the Great or Joseph II had sought only to reform their state churches along lines advocated by Enlightenment philosophers. But the revolutionaries who came to power in the years following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 frequently tried to destroy the church altogether. The French revolutionaries, in particular, have often been accused of taking the rationalism of the Enlightenment to its logical conclusions. These political leaders were not trying to accomplish some pre-existing political agenda, but were caught in reacting to the moment. Like many of the events of the revolutionary years that followed 1789, they were carried away by the course of events. The same pressure of revolutionary events that prompted France's revolutionaries to execute their king and queen also led them to disestablish the Catholic church. Several generations ago, historians coined the term "dechristianization" to describe the pervasive intellectual sentiments in France in the years leading up to the Revolution. Many scholars argued that there was a discernible decline in the practice of the Christian faith in these years among intellectuals. Unfortunately, the measures that were used to demonstrate this decline were problematic. Just as in England and other parts of the Continent, Christian sensibilities were changing in France on the eve of the French Revolution, but they were not disappearing. French Catholics, in fact, were not initially opposed to the Revolution, and members of the clergy formed the majority of delegates in the National Assembly, the revolutionary body that voted first to nationalize church lands and later to dissolve monasteries. But conflicts soon arose between the Revolution and Catholics concerning the Civil Constitution of 1790. This document made the church into a department of state, and significantly, required churchmen to swear an oath of loyalty to the new government as state employees. The papacy, however, refused to permit the clergy to swear the oath, and churchmen were thus forced to decide whether their loyalties lay with the Revolution or with Rome. About half of France's clergy, including some initially sympathetic to the Revolution, refused to swear, and were soon persecuted as traitors. Devout Catholics soon rose to defend these "refractory" priests, creating an underground religious movement in France in which traditional Catholic rites were practiced in violation of the Revolution's dictates. This underground became the nucleus of opposition to the new government and thus condemned Catholicism in the minds of many revolutionaries as a reactionary force. As the movement's leaders saw it, the only way for France and the Revolution to go forward was to destroy any connection with the country's Catholic past, and thus a decided policy of active dechristianization took shape. Catholicism was jettisoned as the official faith of the French Republic; the government appropriated and sold churches and their furnishings. And in one of the most curious moves, the Revolution's leaders even abandoned the traditional Christian week and calendar. In 1793, "Year One" of the Revolution, the week was reorganized into ten days known as "decadi" and the months were given new revolutionary names. Even more important than these measures were the Revolution's efforts to replace Christianity with the practice of a new Cult of Reason, a mixture of ideas and values drawn from science and history. To counter what he took to be the atheism implicit in this Cult of Reason, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), the leader of the Revolution at the time, commandeered Paris' Cathedral of Notre Dame and staged an extraordinary ceremony during which he paid homage to a "Supreme Being," a projection of his own Deist sensibilities. The Cult of the Supreme Being did not catch on, nor did the Cult of Reason, and Catholicism continued to be practiced in France, albeit out of public view, until the historic relationship between France and Rome was reestablished by Napoleon in 1801.

Toward the Future.

The French Revolution's spectacular attempts to escape the Christian past arose in part from the very controversial nature that the state church and its institutionalized religion had long played in early-modern Europe. While generally accepted and established as a force of state domination throughout Europe for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the state church was an institution that had never worn well on the sensibilities of many Europeans. As Europe had grown more religiously pluralistic in the course of these years, the established church had come to seem to both serious Christians and the religiously indifferent ever more like a relic of a distant past. But while France's revolutionaries hoped to build a new state divorced from traditional religious considerations, their deism and atheism proved to be largely out-of-step with a nation that still revered Christian teaching. In the century that followed, Christianity made a dramatic resurgence, not only in France, but also throughout Europe. The new realities of this revival meant that religion was forced to compete, as were any of a number of ideologies, for the hearts and minds of Europeans. The traditional systems of compulsion, intolerance, and indoctrination that had held such force in the states of early-modern Europe were now to have little impact in a world in which Europeans were free to believe or disbelieve as they chose.


Jack R. Censer and Lynn Hunt, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

Timothy Tackett, Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

Michele Vovelle, Religion et Révolution (Paris: Hatchette, 1976).

About this article

Christianity in the Revolutionary Era

Updated About content Print Article


Christianity in the Revolutionary Era