The French Revolution and religion

The period of French Revolution is often seen above all as a violent clash between two orders, the Third Estate and the nobility, culminating in the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. The religious factor is partly relegated to the background. Yet the clergy is an order as well, at least as powerful as the nobility, and above all religion holds a central place in a very religious France and within a monarchy of divine right. We will therefore discuss the relationship between Revolution and religion, starting with the situation before 1789.

Jansenism and Revolution

The crisis of Jansenism left its mark on the France of the Ancien Régime, and even more so the response of the pope with the bull Unigenitus, which revived Jansenism even in Parliaments under the reign of Louis XV, where Jansenism and Gallicanism mingled against the influence of the Pope. For a while, this "parliamentary party" was on the rise, until the expulsion of the Jesuit rivals in 1764 was obtained. 1770s. These various crises tear the Church apart in France, and Jansenism, admittedly defeated, nevertheless spread in many minds, being considered as one of the inspirations of the Revolution. The clergy, for their part, are led to behave as “the king's agent”.

The French clergy on the eve of the Revolution

Officially, the clergy is considered the first order of the kingdom, but the real situation is more complex. At the end of the 1780s, the number of clergy was estimated at 130,000, or 2% of the French population. Half the regular clergy to two-thirds female, and a very unequal secular clergy with on one side a "staff" around the bishops, on the other the mass of priests, vicars or chaplains.

The clergy play a central role in society, at all levels, starting with parish registers (a mine of sources for the historian) and a good deal of education. He obviously has a monopoly on aid and charity. As an order, it also enjoys numerous privileges, both judicial and fiscal, and is one of the kingdom's largest owners.

The clergy was however very divided on the eve of the Revolution, the most important break being between high and low clergy, the former being much more privileged. We can even speak of a crisis within the French clergy, due both to these inequalities and to the damage caused by the Jansenist quarrel. One of the manifestations of this crisis is the consequent drop in clerical recruitment, both regular and secular, the monastic orders being the most affected.

In an atmosphere of desecration of the monarchy, the clergy tried to oppose all the productions of "bad books", by reinforcing the censorship by several ordinances in the 1780s. The problem was that the king did not follow it at all in this way ! It would seem that between the Church and the Enlightenment, the king chose the seconds, even in education, which experienced a "secularization" from the expulsion of the Jesuits, to the chagrin of the bishops.

Protestants and Jews

France is overwhelmingly Catholic, but we must not forget the minorities.

The situation of the Protestants is very contrasted, between the persecutions during the reign of Louis XIV and a certain optimism during that of Louis XV, at least at the very beginning. They must finally continue to live in hiding, and this until only two years before the Revolution, before the edict of tolerance (1787).

The prejudices against the Jews are still very strong at the end of the Ancien Régime, and the question of their emancipation arises only within a few small circles. They are looked down upon by most of the clergy, while commercial and economic circles are resolutely hostile to them. Despite the influence of the Enlightenment and an improvement in the second half of the 18th century, Jews were therefore still subjected to a truly discriminatory regime on the eve of the Revolution.

Religious practice in France

Religion holds a central place in the collective life of the French of the Ancien Régime, we can even say that it sets the pace. However, secularization is gaining ground, in particular through the trivialization of secular festivals.

The situation seems in fact contrasted, going against what we have often read, namely a very religious and very practicing France "broken" by the revolutionary rupture. It is difficult to draw a global picture: some regions are still very religious, others much less, still others are under the influence of "badly uprooted" Protestantism. This diversity will be found in reactions to the religious policy of revolutionaries, and even more to dechristianization.

The situation in religious France on the eve of the Revolution is therefore complex. The clergy is divided and relatively weakened, practice irregular, the Protestant minority still strong, and Enlightenment influence growing. It is therefore logical that this complexity will be found again when the Revolution breaks out.

The notebooks of grievances, the clergy and religion

The Estates General were convened at the end of 1788 to meet on 1er May 1789. It was during this campaign for the election of deputies that the notebooks of grievances, numbering 60,000, were drawn up by rural communities and in towns by trades.

Religion, and especially the clergy, are subjects dealt with in these notebooks, but do not appear among the main ones (one tenth according to Mr. Vovelle). It is noted that the notables of the West and of Franche-Comté are very critical of the clergy who, in these regions, exercise strong control over the mores of rural populations. The West has always called for the removal of tithe and regulars the most, although these are not necessarily areas with the highest tithe and the most religious. On the contrary, in the Southwest, where the tithe is highest, only its reform is requested. For what announces the future Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the most radical measures of the Constituent (such as the complete sale of Church property), the demands are precisely located in a continuous zone extending from the west of the Paris Basin to Brittany; It is in these regions that the notables of the Third State are the most anticlerical, and it is also there that the counter-revolutionary uprisings will be the most important.

On the other hand, the geography of the grievance books is different when we tackle more strictly religious and not ecclesiastical questions, such as the reduction in the number of non-working holidays. The regions most demanding are then the Mediterranean basin, but also a Picardy / Lyonnais area, including the Paris region. Regions subsequently among the most affected by dechristianization.

As for the clergy themselves, the grievances are in part a reflection of their divisions. Most of the clergy notebooks defend privileges, religious monopoly, and condemn edicts of tolerance. However, we hear some voices from priests, mainly to enhance their social status. They are supported in this by certain notebooks of villagers from the Third Estate.

However, in none of these notebooks of grievances we notice any questioning of religion as such.

"These are the damn priests who made the Revolution"

This famous quote is attributed to an anonymous aristocrat, and if we should not take it literally, it illustrates the unfolding of the events of spring 1789. We must first ask ourselves what is the weight of the clergy (in its diversity ) to the States General, then to take an interest in the acts of its members from the opening of the States General until the night of August 4, 1789.

In the States General, the clergy is represented by 291 deputies (out of 1,139), most of whom (more than 200) are parish priests. There are indeed only 46 bishops who sit for the clergy. Most of the lower clergy are for change (although there will be opposition from Abbé Grégoire / Abbé Maury later).

In the heated debates of the meeting of the States General from May 5, 1789, the priests play more and more a role, as the Third Estate resists the king's decisions and the pressures of the nobility and the high clergy. Following the Mirabeau offensive on June 12, three and then sixteen priests left their order to join the Third Estate; among them, the priest Jallet who, to the prelates who reproached him for this rallying, answers: "We are your equals, we are citizens like you ...".

At the same time, on June 17, 1789, it was under the leadership of Father Sieyès that the States General were transformed into the National Assembly. Two days later, by a majority of its members, the clergy decided to unite with the Third Estate, while the nobility chose the king's camp. This culminated in the Oath of the Jeu de Paume on June 20, 1789, with Abbé Sieyès still playing a central role, and the presence, among others, of Father Grégoire. However, we must partly relativize the clergy's adherence to this enthusiasm, because it remains divided, especially among the prelates, still attached to privileges. And in the context of the rising insurgency, in the countryside in particular, members of the high clergy are not spared.

The night of August 4

Events accelerate, the king is overwhelmed. On July 9, the deputies proclaimed the National Assembly "constituent". On July 14, 1789, it was the storming of the Bastille. The movement is spreading in the countryside, it is the Great Fear.

It is in this turbid and euphoric context that unfolds the famous night of the abolition of privileges, although well prepared in advance. During this sleepless night of August 4, 1789, the members of the clergy were not inactive, on the contrary, since they were among the privileged. However, we sometimes witness an increase in generosity on the part of certain members of the old order or of the nobility, with crossed proposals, such as the abolition of the hunting rights launched by the Bishop of Chartres, to which answers the idea of ​​the nobility to abolish the tithe ... Concretely, the consequences are immense for the clergy, by decisions concerning them more or less directly: the abolition of feudal royalties also affects chapters and abbeys, and obviously the abolition of privileges as such deprives the order (which officially disappears) of its fiscal privileges. The clergy are then more directly affected by the abolition of the casual (payment by the faithful for religious acts), proposed by pastors, and obviously by the abolition of the tithe. It is this last point, contested even by Sieyès, which has the most consequences since it obliges the state to provide for the needs of the clergy, deprived of most of their income for the exercise of worship.

The context helping, there remains a feeling of unity and always a little euphoria in the weeks and months that follow. We thus see celebrations of worship and revolutionary celebrations taking place jointly, and the priests take on responsibilities, in particular in municipal structures. Nobles are much more wary than priests. This "honeymoon" lasts at least until the spring of 1790, despite some tensions and especially the appearance of real differences during the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 26, 1789.

Ultimately, it was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of August 24, 1790 that would ignite the powder ...

The rise of tensions

Despite the dissolution of the clergy as an order, despite the participation of a number of priests in the first decisions of the Constituent Assembly, an anti-religious feeling seemed to rise in the country from the end of the year 1789. Indeed, “the happy year Is not as quiet as it has long been thought, and the elements which will constitute the religious crisis are being put in place.

These are first of all decisions, such as the temporary suspension of the issuance of religious vows (October 28, 1789), the making available to the Nation of the goods of the clergy (November 2), while at the beginning of 1790 there was discussion of the citizenship of non-Catholics, Protestants or Jews.

It was then the debate on religious freedom that arose, during the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789. The discussions were heated and finally resulted in article 10:"No one should be worried about their opinions, even religious ones, as long as their manifestation does not disturb public order."

With the end of the Constituent Assembly approaching, some are trying unsuccessfully to impose an article making the Catholic religion the state religion, or the "national religion." On April 12, 1790, Dom Gerle went so far as to demand that Catholicism be the only public worship, provoking an outcry, the Constituents seeking conversely to put the different religions on an equal footing.

The suspension of solemn vows, meanwhile, aims to attack the chapters, the Revolutionaries believing that freedom should not stop at the door of convents. The Treilhard decree of February 13, 1790 then allows religious of both sexes to free themselves from their vows, and to leave their monastery or convent, granting them a pension. The congregations are spared, for the moment, even if they are also affected by the confiscation of their property (like all those of the clergy). With the teaching orders, however, they were abolished on August 18, 1792.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy

The major decision in the religious question is certainly the vote of the civil constitution of the clergy. It was a question of organizing the Catholic Church, and the Ecclesiastical Committee of the Assembly began to think about it in August 1789. This Committee was reinforced in February 1790 by patriotic priests, as tensions were so high within it. The basis of the discussion starting in April is the project of Martineau, a Gallican Catholic, who wants to clarify the procedures for appointing priests and avoid privileges, especially those from Rome. It is the Nation that will have to pay the members of the clergy. The question then arises of the pope, who is not consulted, and tensions are growing.

Despite everything, the project was passed on July 12, 1790, without any real difficulty, and the king accepted it on July 22. However, this does not calm tensions, on the contrary. The protests come mainly from the bishops, who want to appeal to the Pope (who did not condemn the Constitution until March 1791), while demanding a national council - which Robespierre refused. However, it is even more the constitutional oath that ignites the powder.

The constitutional oath and the explosion

This oath is a logical continuation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. He responds to the bishops' refusal to apply the latter. On November 27, 1790, the obligation for religious public officials to take an oath of loyalty to the Nation, to the Law, to the King and to the Constitution was voted on. In the Assembly, only seven bishops take the oath, following Gregory. The Constituents were surprised by this lack of membership and, in 1791, there was a little more than 50% of "constitutional", that is to say having signed the oath, regional disparities being often very important.

We can therefore speak of schism within the Church of France, which provokes clashes and violence at the local level, both against the constitutionalists and the refractory, and this despite the efforts of the Assembly to enforce religious freedom while imposing the constitutional Church. Punitive expeditions, collective humiliations, even stoning, are practices that are developing, and not only among the Sans-Culottes. On November 29, 1791, the rebellious activists were "suspected of sedition"; on May 27, 1792, they were liable to be deported. The fall of Louis XVI also caused a great emigration among the refractories.


To these growing tensions around the question of the Church, not to mention more local violence (in the South) with Protestants, is added a parallel rise in anticlericalism. The year 1793 thus marked the beginning of a period when the rejection of Christianity was not the result of spontaneous revolt or of the revolutionary government.

The phenomenon is already present in the revolutionary festivals, since the feast of the Federation on July 14, 1790. In the same spirit, the feast of Regeneration or of the Unity and Indivisibility of the French, on August 10, 1793, which is a true secularized ceremony, marks a date. But the offensive intervened during the winter of the same year, on the initiative of politicized circles. We are thus witnessing renouncements of worship in rural communities, or anti-religious demonstrations at the instigation of figures like Fouché, in the Nièvre. Elsewhere, churches are transformed into temples of Reason (this is the case of Notre-Dame on November 10, 1793), the priests are married, and the fire-burning is practiced ... The regions most affected are the Paris region, the Center, North, part of the Rhone Valley and Languedoc. In a less radical spirit, on October 5, 1793, the Convention abandoned the Gregorian calendar for the republican calendar.

This de-Christianization shocks even the Committee of Public Safety and Robespierre, in a speech of November 21, 1793, severely criticizes "aristocratic atheism". Following it, the Convention condemns "all violence and all measures contrary to religion". However, dechristianization continued in the countryside until the spring of 1794.

The end of the period of dechristianization saw Robespierre's deist influence grow and appear, following the other revolutionary cults, that of the Supreme Being. The year 1795 is also that of the first law of separation of Church and State ...

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- J. Le Goff, R. Rémond (dir), From the Very Christian King to Republican Secularism, 18th-19th century, History of religious France, Points Histoire, 2001.

- M. Vovelle, The fall of the monarchy (1787-1792), New history of contemporary France, volume 1, Points Histoire, 1999.

- C. Langlois, T. Tackett, M. Vovelle, Atlas of the French Revolution (Religion), volume 9, EHESS, 1996.

Video: The French Revolution: Crash Course European History #21 (January 2022).