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Supreme Being, Cult of the


A religious belief established during the french revolution by a decree of the National Convention (May 7, 1794). The feast of the Supreme Being was celebrated on June 8, 1794, to replace Pentecost Sunday. Maximilien robespierre and his supporters, particularly Georges Couthon, who claimed that atheism was aristocratic and belief in a Supreme Being was republican, inaugurated the new cult with an elaborate ceremony in the Tuileries Gardens. Jacques David, the official painter of the Revolution, and Gardel, ballet master at the opera, designed the pageant, which the National Convention and a large concourse of Parisians attended. Robespierre presided as pontiff, although some of his colleagues referred to him as dictator or tyrant. This function marked the apex of Robespierre's domination; even during the ceremony murmurs assailed him. The cult was based on the ideas of rousseau and had two tenets: the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul. The temple of this Being was the universe; nature was His priest. The only worship to be rendered to this Supreme Being was the practice of "the duties of man"; chief among these were detestation of tyranny and defense of the oppressed. The cult was philosophically and theologically weak, and it depended on rhetoric to gain adherents.

Extreme radicals considered the cult reactionary, since it burned atheism in effigy and replaced it by a fireproof symbol of wisdom. Some naïve Catholics concluded that the cult marked the end of the Revolution's period of dechristianization. The city proletariat was not convinced by this spiritualist propaganda. Even the Parisians who participated in the cult's inauguration considered it part of the religion of patriotism. They had grown accustomed to references to the Supreme Being in official statements since 1789. The official cult was short-lived; when Robespierre fell (July 28, 1794), it quickly disappeared. A similar cult, theophilanthropy, replaced it. Both used Volney's Catéchisme du citoyen as their handbook.

Bibliography: f. aulard, Le Culte de la raison et de l'être suprême (179394) (Paris 1892). a. sicard, À la recherche d'une religion civile (Paris 1895). a. mathiez, Contributions à l'histoire religieuse de la révolution française (Paris 1907). r. r. palmer, Twelve Who Ruled (Princeton 1941). a. latreille, L'Église catholique et la Révolution française, 2 v. (Paris 194650). g. lefebvre, The French Revolution, tr. e. m. evanson et al., 2 v. (New York 196164).

[m. lawlor]

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