Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution

Dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution

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The dechristianisation 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
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

 in 1789 and the Concordat of 1801
Concordat of 1801
The Concordat of 1801 was an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, signed on 15 July 1801. It solidified the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France and brought back most of its civil status....

, forming the basis of the later and less radical Laïcité
Laïcité
French secularism, in French, laïcité is a concept denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs. French secularism has a long history but the current regime is based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of...

 movement. The goal of the campaign was the destruction of Catholic religious practice and of the religion itself. There has been much scholarly debate over whether the movement was popularly motivated or something forced upon the people by those in power.

The Church under the Ancien Régime


In 18th-century France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, ninety-five percent of the population were adherents of the Catholic Church; most of the rest were Protestant Huguenot
Huguenot
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the 17th century, people who formerly would have been called Huguenots have instead simply been called French Protestants, a title suggested by their German co-religionists, the...

s, who, although greatly outnumbered by the Catholics, nonetheless retained powerful positions in French local governments. (A small population of Jews, amounting to around 40,000, also existed, and very small numbers of Muslims may also have lived in the kingdom; in a country whose total population was at least 27 million, however, these groups were numerically negligible.) Under the Ancien Régime, the authority of the clergy was institutionalised in its status as the First Estate of the realm
Estates of the realm
The Estates of the realm were the broad social orders of the hierarchically conceived society, recognized in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Christian Europe; they are sometimes distinguished as the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners, and are often referred to by...

. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country whose properties provided massive revenues from its tenants plus enormous income from the collection of tithe
Tithe
A tithe is a one-tenth part of something, paid as a contribution to a religious organization or compulsory tax to government. Today, tithes are normally voluntary and paid in cash, cheques, or stocks, whereas historically tithes were required and paid in kind, such as agricultural products...

s. Since the Church kept the registry of births, deaths, and marriages and was the only institution that provided primary and secondary education and hospitals, it was present in everyone's life.

New policies of the Revolution


The programme of dechristianization waged against Catholicism, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, included::
  • confiscation of church lands, which were to be the security for the new Assignat
    Assignat
    Assignat was the type of a monetary instrument used during the time of the French Revolution, and the French Revolutionary Wars.- France :...

    currency
  • removal of statues, plates and other iconography
    Iconography
    Iconography is the branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images. The word iconography literally means "image writing", and comes from the Greek "image" and "to write". A secondary meaning is the painting of icons in the...

     from places of worship
  • destruction of cross
    Cross
    A cross is a geometrical figure consisting of two lines or bars perpendicular to each other, dividing one or two of the lines in half. The lines usually run vertically and horizontally; if they run obliquely, the design is technically termed a saltire, although the arms of a saltire need not meet...

    es, bells and other external signs of worship
  • the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason
    Cult of Reason
    The Cult of Reason was an atheistic belief system established in France and intended as a replacement for Christianity during the French Revolution.-Origins:...

     and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being
    Cult of the Supreme Being
    The Cult of the Supreme Being was a form of deism established in France by Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution. It was intended to become the state religion of the new French Republic.- Origins :...

    ,
  • the enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making all nonjuring
    Non-juror
    A non-juror is a person who refuses to swear a particular oath.* In British history, non-jurors refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary; see Nonjuring schism...

     priest
    Priest
    A priest is a person authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and deities. They also have the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities...

    s and all persons who harboured them liable to death on sight.


The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess "Reason" in Notre Dame
Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris , also known as Notre Dame Cathedral, is a Gothic, Roman Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris, France. It is the cathedral of the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris: that is, it is the church that contains the cathedra of...

 Cathedral on 10 November 1793.

The dechristianization campaign can be seen as the logical extension of the materialist philosophies of some leaders of the enlightenment, while for others with more prosaic concerns it was an opportunity to unleash resentments against the Church and clergy.

The Revolution and the Church


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
Public auction
A public auction is an auction held on behalf of a government in which the property to be auctioned is either property owned by the government, or property which is sold under the authority of a court of law or a government agency with similar authority....

. In July of 1790, the National Constituent Assembly
National Constituent Assembly
The National Constituent Assembly was formed from the National Assembly on 9 July 1789, during the first stages of the French Revolution. It dissolved on 30 September 1791 and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly.-Background:...

 published the Civil Constitution of the Clergy
Civil Constitution of the Clergy
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a law passed on 12 July 1790 during the French Revolution, that subordinated the Roman Catholic Church in France to the French government....

 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
Pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

 approval to sign such an oath, and Pius VI spent almost eight months deliberating on the issue. On April 13, 1791, the Pope denounced the Constitution resulting in a split in the French Catholic church. Abjuring
Abjuration
Abjuration is the solemn repudiation, abandonment, or renunciation by or upon oath, often the renunciation of citizenship or some other right or privilege. .-Abjuration of the realm:...

 priests ("jurors") became known as "constitutional clergy", and nonjuring priests as "refractory clergy".

In September of 1792, the Legislative Assembly
Legislative Assembly (France)
During the French Revolution, the Legislative Assembly was the legislature of France from 1 October 1791 to September 1792. It provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and of the National Convention.The Legislative...

 legalized divorce
Divorce
Divorce is the final termination of a marital union, canceling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties...

, 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
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, over a forty-eight hour period beginning on September 2, 1792, as the Legislative Assembly
Legislative Assembly (France)
During the French Revolution, the Legislative Assembly was the legislature of France from 1 October 1791 to September 1792. It provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and of the National Convention.The Legislative...

 (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
September Massacres
The September Massacres were a wave of mob violence which overtook Paris in late summer 1792, during the French Revolution. By the time it had subsided, half the prison population of Paris had been executed: some 1,200 trapped prisoners, including many women and young boys...

. Priests were among those drowned in the Noyades
Noyades
Noyades were drownings superintended during the Reign of Terror at Nantes, between November 1793 and January 1794, by the attorney Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the representative-on-mission....

for treason
Treason
In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one's sovereign or nation. Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife. Treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a...

 under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier
Jean-Baptiste Carrier
Jean-Baptiste Carrier was a French Revolutionary, known for his cruelty to his enemies, especially to clergy.-Biography:...

; priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyon
Lyon
Lyon , is a city in east-central France in the Rhône-Alpes region, situated between Paris and Marseille. Lyon is located at from Paris, from Marseille, from Geneva, from Turin, and from Barcelona. The residents of the city are called Lyonnais....

, for separatism
Separatism
Separatism is the advocacy of a state of cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial, governmental or gender separation from the larger group. While it often refers to full political secession, separatist groups may seek nothing more than greater autonomy...

, on the orders of Joseph Fouché
Joseph Fouché
Joseph Fouché, 1st Duc d'Otrante was a French statesman and Minister of Police under Napoleon Bonaparte. In English texts his title is often translated as Duke of Otranto.-Youth:Fouché was born in Le Pellerin, a small village near Nantes...

 and Collot d'Herbois. Hundreds more priests were imprisoned and made to suffer in abominable conditions in the port of Rochefort
Rochefort, Charente-Maritime
Rochefort is a commune in southwestern France, a port on the Charente estuary. It is a sub-prefecture of the Charente-Maritime department.-History:...

.

Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly
Legislative Assembly (France)
During the French Revolution, the Legislative Assembly was the legislature of France from 1 October 1791 to September 1792. It provided the focus of political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and of the National Convention.The Legislative...

 and its successor, the National Convention
National Convention
During the French Revolution, the National Convention or Convention, in France, comprised the constitutional and legislative assembly which sat from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795 . It held executive power in France during the first years of the French First Republic...

, 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, though exceptions weren't uncommon. In November 1793, the département council of Indre-et-Loire
Indre-et-Loire
Indre-et-Loire is a department in west-central France named after the Indre and the Loire rivers.-History:Indre-et-Loire is one of the original 83 départements created during the French Revolution on 4 March 1790...

 abolished the word dimanche (Sunday). The Gregorian calendar
Gregorian calendar
The Gregorian calendar, also known as the Western calendar, or Christian calendar, is the internationally accepted civil calendar. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII, after whom the calendar was named, by a decree signed on 24 February 1582, a papal bull known by its opening words Inter...

, an instrument decreed by Pope Gregory XIII
Pope Gregory XIII
Pope Gregory XIII , born Ugo Boncompagni, was Pope from 1572 to 1585. He is best known for commissioning and being the namesake for the Gregorian calendar, which remains the internationally-accepted civil calendar to this date.-Youth:He was born the son of Cristoforo Boncompagni and wife Angela...

 in 1582, was replaced by the French Republican Calendar
French Republican Calendar
The French Republican Calendar or French Revolutionary Calendar was a calendar created and implemented during the French Revolution, and used by the French government for about 12 years from late 1793 to 1805, and for 18 days by the Paris Commune in 1871...

 which abolished the sabbath, Saints' days
Calendar of saints
The calendar of saints is a traditional Christian method of organizing a liturgical year by associating each day with one or more saints and referring to the feast day of said saint...

 and any references to the Church.

Anti-clerical
Anti-clericalism
Anti-clericalism is a historical movement that opposes religious institutional power and influence, real or alleged, in all aspects of public and political life, and the involvement of religion in the everyday life of the citizen...

 parades were held, and the Archbishop of Paris
Archbishop of Paris
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Paris is one of twenty-three archdioceses of the Roman Catholic Church in France. The original diocese is traditionally thought to have been created in the 3rd century by St. Denis and corresponded with the Civitas Parisiorum; it was elevated to an archdiocese on...

 was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre
Mitre
The mitre , also spelled miter, is a type of headwear now known as the traditional, ceremonial head-dress of bishops and certain abbots in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in the Anglican Communion, some Lutheran churches, and also bishops and certain other clergy in the Eastern Orthodox...

 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. Robespierre and his colleagues decided to supplant both Catholicism and the rival, atheistic
Atheism
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

 Cult of Reason
Cult of Reason
The Cult of Reason was an atheistic belief system established in France and intended as a replacement for Christianity during the French Revolution.-Origins:...

 with the Cult of the Supreme Being
Cult of the Supreme Being
The Cult of the Supreme Being was a form of deism established in France by Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution. It was intended to become the state religion of the new French Republic.- Origins :...

. Just six weeks before his arrest, on June 8, 1794 the still-powerful Robespierre personally led a vast procession through Paris to the Tuileries garden in a ceremony to inaugurate the new faith.

The dechristianisation of France reached its zenith around the middle of 1794 with the fall of Robespierre. By early 1795 a return to some form of religion-based faith was beginning to take shape and a law passed on February 21, 1795 legalised public worship, albeit with strict limitations. The ringing of church bells, religious processions and displays of the Christian cross
Christian cross
The Christian cross, seen as a representation of the instrument of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is the best-known religious symbol of Christianity...

 were still forbidden.

As late as 1799, priests were still being imprisoned or deported to penal colonies and persecution only worsened after the French army led by General Louis Alexandre Berthier
Louis Alexandre Berthier
Louis Alexandre Berthier, 1st Prince de Wagram, 1st Duc de Valangin, 1st Sovereign Prince de Neuchâtel , was a Marshal of France, Vice-Constable of France beginning in 1808, and Chief of Staff under Napoleon.-Early life:Alexandre was born at Versailles to Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Baptiste Berthier ,...

 captured Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 and imprisoned Pope Pius VI
Pope Pius VI
Pope Pius VI , born Count Giovanni Angelo Braschi, was Pope from 1775 to 1799.-Early years:Braschi was born in Cesena...

, who would die in captivity in Valence
Valence, Drôme
Valence is a commune in southeastern France, the capital of the Drôme department, situated on the left bank of the Rhône, south of Lyon on the railway to Marseilles.Its inhabitants are called Valentinois...

, France in August of 1799. Ultimately, with Napoleon
Napoleon I of France
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

 now in ascendancy in France, year-long negotiations between government officials and the new Pope, Pius VII
Pope Pius VII
Pope Pius VII , born Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti, was a monk, theologian and bishop, who reigned as Pope from 14 March 1800 to 20 August 1823.-Early life:...

, led to the Concordat of 1801
Concordat of 1801
The Concordat of 1801 was an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, signed on 15 July 1801. It solidified the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France and brought back most of its civil status....

, formally ending the dechristianisation 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. Of these social groupings, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church suffered proportionately the greatest loss.

While persecution of certain Roman Catholic clerics and monastic orders occurred during the Third Republic
French Third Republic
The French Third Republic was the republican government of France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed due to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, to 1940, when France was overrun by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the German and Italian occupations of France...

, the Concordat of 1801
Concordat of 1801
The Concordat of 1801 was an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, signed on 15 July 1801. It solidified the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France and brought back most of its civil status....

 endured for more than a century until it was abrogated by the government of the Third Republic, which established a policy of laïcité
Laïcité
French secularism, in French, laïcité is a concept denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs. French secularism has a long history but the current regime is based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of...

 on December 11, 1905.

Toll on the Church


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 were coerced to marry. Many abandoned their pastoral duties altogether. Nonetheless, some of those who had abdicated continued covertly to minister to the people.

By the end of the decade, approximately thirty thousand priests had been forced to leave France, and others who did not leave were executed. Most French parishes were left without the services of a priest and deprived of the sacraments. Any non-juring priest faced the guillotine
Guillotine
The guillotine is a device used for carrying out :executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which an angled blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the head from the body...

 or deportation to French Guiana
French Guiana
French Guiana is an overseas region of France, consisting of a single overseas department located on the northern Atlantic coast of South America. It has borders with two nations, Brazil to the east and south, and Suriname to the west...

. By Easter 1794, few of France's forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses.

Victims of revolutionary violence, whether religious or not, were popularly treated as Christian martyrs, and the places where they were killed became pilgrimage destinations. Catechising in the home, folk religion
Folk religion
Folk religion consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of an organized religion, but outside of official doctrine and practices...

, syncretic and heterodox practices all became more common. The longterm effects on religious practice in France were significant. Many who were dissuaded from their traditional religious practices never resumed them.

See also

  • Atheist state
  • Persecution of Christians
    Persecution of Christians
    Persecution of Christians as a consequence of professing their faith can be traced both historically and in the current era. Early Christians were persecuted for their faith, at the hands of both Jews from whose religion Christianity arose, and the Roman Empire which controlled much of the land...

  • Roman Catholicism in France
    Roman Catholicism in France
    The Roman Catholic Church of France, sometimes called the "eldest daughter of the Church" owing to its early and unbroken communion with the bishop of Rome, is part of the worldwide Catholic Church...

  • People engaged in the campaign: Jacques Hébert
    Jacques Hébert
    Jacques René Hébert was a French journalist, and the founder and editor of the extreme radical newspaper Le Père Duchesne during the French Revolution...

    , Pierre Gaspard Chaumette
    Pierre Gaspard Chaumette
    Pierre Gaspard Chaumette was a French politician of the Revolutionaryperiod.-Early activities:Born in Nevers France, 24 May 1763, his main interest was botany and science. Chaumette studied medicine at the University of Paris in 1790, but gave up his career in medicine at the start of the Revolution...

    , Joseph Fouché
    Joseph Fouché
    Joseph Fouché, 1st Duc d'Otrante was a French statesman and Minister of Police under Napoleon Bonaparte. In English texts his title is often translated as Duke of Otranto.-Youth:Fouché was born in Le Pellerin, a small village near Nantes...


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