Impact of the French Revolution on 18th Century Europe and Relevance to Contemporary Christianity


INTRODUCTION

Events of 1789 formed the catalyst that exploded the powder keg of accumulated grievances in France. Indeed “the French Revolution began when Louis XVI called the States-General to provide money for his bankrupt government” (The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol.7, 1991, p.450). The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 produced intense hostility to Christianity because “the Roman church was identified by the people with the earlier government of France and suffered greatly” (Harman and Renwick, 1999, p.170). Lefebvre (1947) observed that in a total population of probably twenty three million, there were certainly not more than one hundred thousand priests, monks and nuns, and four hundred thousand nobles. The rest constituted the Third Estate. This secular event shows the contemporary Church the peril that awaits a nation that rejects God. The point of the observation is that although the French Revolution negatively affected Christianity, the attempt at deChristianization was unable to blot the ‘faith of our fathers living still’.

RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND TO THE CONFLICT

According to Noll (2000), “a number of long-festering conditions had prepared the way for this attack on Christianity” (p.247). Paradoxically, some of these were of Christian origin. Centuries earlier, Augustine had declared that man should not have dominion over man, for he is a rational creature made in the image of God. Bellarmine, the Jesuit Cardinal opined that it depended on the consent of the people whether kings, consuls or other magistrates were to be established in authority over them. He further observed that the people should change a kingdom into an aristocracy if there was legitimate cause. Latourette (1953) therefore referred to the French Revolution as “a secularized version of the heavenly city as perceived by Christians” (p.1007).

Before the outbreak of the revolution in France, bad economic, political, social and legal conditions, the successful example of the English Revolution of 1689 and the American Revolution of 1776 were fused by the development of an ideology that rationalized the right of popular revolution against Louis XVI. This ideology was the result of the teachings of the philosophes. While Rousseau and Montesquieu provided the political atmosphere for revolution, Voltaire criticized the church. Cairns (1981) admitted that there were grounds for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church in France. It owned much land and was as responsible as the secular state in the dealings with the people. The public resented various tithes imposed by the church, rigorous repression of religious dissenters, and the non-productive monkish orders. Nichols (1932) suspected that “the greatest cause of the hostility of the church was its enormous wealth and the selfish use made of it” (p.96) since the masses were ruined by cruel taxation at the expense of higher clergy who were generally lazy, luxurious and immoral.

If the 17th century was the age of orthodoxy, the eighteenth was the age of nationalism, a result of cold orthodoxy and scientific developments. The deadly result was that “revelation tended to take the back seat to reason and knowledge gained by sense perception” (Vos, 1960, p.99). When scientists investigated the form of the universe, they formed the idea of a clockwise universe – God’s world was seen as gigantic, well-ordained giant clock.

IMPLICATIONS FOR 18TH CENTURY EUROPE

The French Revolution is viewed as a turning point because it was seen as an important stage in a succession of movements that later spread across the globe to ultimately affect the life of mankind.

It is observed that the effects were especially serious for Christianity since they brought actions which struck at the privileges and status of the Roman Catholic Church. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 26 1789 held that “the source of all sovereignty is located in the nation; no body, no individual can exercise authority which does not emanate from it expressly” (Noll, 2000, p.247). The peasants were relieved of a burden which had taken about a twentieth of their produce when tithes were abolished. Consequently, the church was deprived of one of its chief sources of revenue. Church land, which comprised about a fifth of the area of France was confiscated and became the property of the state. In July 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was enacted by the National Assembly. Among other things, bishops were to be elected by the voters who chose the civil officials and the pope was merely to be notified of their choice. Payment of the clergy by the state was no blessing in disguise since the former was to take an oath of allegiance to the latter. [It must be observed that Spener criticized caesaropapism (doctrine of state control over the church) in his significant publication way back in 1675]. The pope’s power was reduced to that of stating the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed “churchmen felt this new act meant secularization of the church and they were violently opposed to it” (Cairns, 1981, p.390).

Unlike the situation in the United States, separation of church and state by the French Revolution and later in the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence was an attempt to totally exterminate the church and to replace it with nationalism. The Roman Catholic Church and the French state were completely separated during the reign of terror of 1793 and 1794 when so many were executed for counter revolutionary activities.

The programme of deChristianization gained momentum when the convention decreed that a commune had the right to renounce the Catholic form of worship. The calendar adopted on October 3 1793 made every tenth day rather than Sunday a day of rest. On November 7, 1793, the Archbishop of Paris appeared before the Convention and “solemnly resigned his Episcopal functions” (Encyclopaedia Britiannica, vol.15, 1989, p.498). A certain Mademoiselle Maillard, an opera dancer, wearing the three colours of the new republic on November 10, 1793 was enthroned as the goddess of Reason upon the high altar of Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Paris, and there she received the homage of the revolutionists. Notre Dame was rechristened the Temple of Reason. Another step adopted by the Convention was the ordering of churches and parsonages to be used as school houses and poor houses thus effectively preventing public and official worship. The Feasts of Reason both at Paris and elsewhere soon “degenerated into mere orgies, disreputable women playing the part of goddesses and enacting bacchanals in the churches” (Martin, 1877, p.552). The precarious situation during the Reign of Terror forced many Christians to renounce their trust in God. Assessing the situation, Kuiper (1964) pointed out that “it is not possible to say how many Protestants as well as Catholics renounced their faith at this time, but the number was large” (p.310). Although the Convention passed a decree reaffirming the principle of the freedom of worship, the Directory and its regime were basically anti-Christian. The interests of Christianity and European civilization were no longer regarded as two expressions of the same reality. In other words, there was a signal of the demise of Christendom.

Kings initially viewed themselves as God’s representatives on earth and considered all disobedience and rebellion to be sinful. A dangerous feeling of infallibility, considerable serenity and moderation therefore gained control of monarchs. The French Revolution completely repudiated this divine right of kings and “asserted the doctrine that the right to rule came from the people” (The World Book Encyclopedia, vol.5, 1971, p.199). Although Napoleon eventually recognized the Roman Catholic religion as the religion of the great majority of French citizens, he did not make it the established religion. The clergy were to be paid by the state but the property taken from the Roman Church in 1790 was not to be returned to it. In fact, Latourette (1953) observed with brutal truth that Napoleon “regarded the church as an institution which must be recognized and used for his purposes” (p.1011).

The French Revolution and Napoleon brought grave embarrassment to missions. The direct result was a sharp decline of the faith in some geographic frontiers. Few missionaries were sent from Europe and it was difficult to render aid to those already in the field. The Society of Foreign Missions of Paris was compelled to seek headquarters outside of France. The Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, the bureau through which the Papacy supervised missions abroad, was driven out of Rome. This led to a marked falling off in numbers and morale of the Roman Catholic community in India. Adverse domestic conditions coupled with the handicaps in Europe threatened the extinction of the church in China. The occupation of Spain by Napoleonic armies and the attack on Portugal greatly affected missions in Latin America. Conditions in Russia were also adverse. Parishes lost the right of electing their clergy, a privilege enjoyed since the era of Peter the Great. In a brilliant summary, Noll (2000) commented that “turmoil from the French Revolution and then the wave of national liberation movements fostered by Napoleon further diminished European concern for cross-cultural Christian expansion” (p.274). The revolution greatly affected Lutherans in the German states. War and suffering revealed that skepticism and infidelity were not sufficient to meet the needs of the human spirit and multitudes turned again to religious faith. The old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, stimulating the strengthening of independent states like Austria and Prussia. Later in the century, this contributed to the unification of the German people under the leadership of Prussia. Calvinism in Europe also felt the shock of the French Revolution. Skepticism had already weakened this group in France, Switzerland, the German states and the Low Countries. According to Baker (1959), the “political conditions that continued through the Congress of Vienna in 1815 brought disorganization and uncertainty to continental Calvinism” (p.321).

Beyond the dark clouds were shades of silver lining, which several scholars tend to overlook. Perhaps a positive view was that “society was being directed toward the good of the whole community instead of toward the benefit of a tiny elite of kings, nobles and bishops” (Noll, 2000, p.248). Grievous as were the losses suffered by Christianity, “there was ample evidence that the faith was by no means moribund” (Latourette, 1953, p.1012). Indications of vitality (old and new) were evident. These could be found among the Roman Catholics of the eastern churches and in Protestantism. If anything, “secularization of the west was not going to blot out the faith” (Noll, 2000, p.260). Liberal, sectarian and traditionalist responses to the marginalization of European Christendom all had notable vigor though at varying degrees. European thought was skillfully sifted in a new world in order to preserve an intellectually vigorous Christian faith. Groups like the Oxford Movement applied lessons of the early church of the perils of the present. In his stimulating Church History lectures at West Africa Theological Seminary, Lagos, Nigeria, Dr. William Faupel observed that secularization is not inherently evil and argued that there must be a positive interaction, that is, taking the gospel in the mindset of the people.

RELEVANCE TO CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANITY

Many biblical scholars agreed that the punctuation of papal power in France was a fulfillment of prophecies of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13, which they believed predicted the demise of Roman Catholicism. In this light, Faupel (1996) observed that “the French Revolution became the Rosetta Stone by which all scriptural prophecy could be correlated with the events of human history” (p.92). The lessons for contemporary Christianity are significant.

Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is indeed a reproach to any people. Even today, the Wesleys are credited with saving England from a bloody, political revolution such as befell France. While the common people were as oppressed and deprived as the French, the English people could cope with their oppression because of their faith in God and their adherence to Christian principles. The English revival caused the people to look to God for hope whereas the French had only politicians and atheistic philosophers. The lesson is that God can avert destruction in a nation that acknowledges Him as Saviour. The situation in Sierra Leone in May 2000 is a case in point. God miraculously saved the nation at a time when destruction loomed large. The nation responded to the call to shout ‘Jesus’ at 5:00 p.m. on Monday May 9 2000. God honoured this demonstration of faith and reliance on Him as the only hope. The peaceful elections in May 2002 and August/September 2007 could also be attributed to the redeeming work of God in a land where He is exalted. In like manner, Horton (1993) firmly believed that “God brought about a peaceful change in the protestant land of England, in contrast to the turmoil of the Roman Catholic France” (p.72).

Secondly, the church in any nation should not fraternize with the state to oppress masses since the latter could rebel with frenzied violence. In France, the revolutionists demonstrated that “they could break down barriers if they were driven to desperation” (Rowe, 1931, p.420). Furthermore, ideas that glorify man and sentence God to temporary or permanent exile could be dangerous to any nation. The French Revolution shocked Europe and awakened people to the power of ideas and forces that had become part of western culture. For many, “those ideas and forces connoted the disruptions and destruction that could be expected from unrestrained rationalism” (Manschreck, 1974, 298).

From the study, the researcher realizes that pagan religions and ideas could penetrate areas once dominated by Christianity as a result of the state of the church. During his lectures, Dr. Faupel lamented that an impending doom could await the church in North America because of inherent weakness including racist Christian policies. As Rodney observed (1972), “racism…[was] a set of generalizations and assumptions, which had no scientific bias, but…rationalized in every sphere from theology to biology” (p.99). Contemporary Christianity should realize that it should not be the cold impotent ash (like the church in France before the revolution) but a vibrant church fulfilling the Great Commission. Sumrall (1980) caustically dismissed refusal to spread the gospel as “reckless spiritual homicide” (p.8). The contemporary church must be willing to sacrifice like Christ and the saints of old if the earth should be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Houghton (1980) hoped that the contemporary church would be mindful of the fact that “when the church goes astray, denying Him who had bought His people with His precious blood, the Lord [sends] trials and afflictions to correct His unfaithful children” (p.34).

CONCLUSION

The above notwithstanding, the blood of a martyr is seed for the church. After the French Revolution, Christianity, probably to the dismay of the revolutionaries, did not die. Truth (Jesus) was in the grave for three days but eventually resurrected. Persecution, in the history of Christianity, could be regarded as a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block. Fire did not beget cold and impotent ash. After the French Revolution, the church became much more involved in speaking on relevant issues of the day. Christianity was viewed from a different perspective. Evangelism was given a thoughtful consideration. In spite of all the negative effects of the French Revolution, the brand of Christianity that emerged transformed itself by positively interacting with the philosophical mindset of the day.

LIST OF REFERENCES

Baker, Robert A. 1959. A survey of Christian history. Nashville: Broadman Press.

Cairns, Earle E. 1981. Christianity through the centuries: a history of the Christian Church. 2nd ed.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corporation.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1989 ed., s.v. “French Revolution”.

Faupel, William. 1996. The everlasting gospel: the significance of eschatology in the development of Pentecostal thought. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Harman, A.M. and A.M. Renwick. 1999. The story of the church. 3rd ed. Leicester: Varsity Press.

Horton, Beka. 1993. 1980. Sketches from church history. Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth.

Kuiper, B.K. 1964. The church in history. Michigan: The National Union of Christian Schools.


Latourette, Kenneth S. 1953. A history of Christianity. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Lefebvre, George. 1947. The coming of the French Revolution. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, C.S. 1970. God in the dock: essays on theology and ethics. Michigan: William E. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Manschreck, Clyde L. 1974. A history of Christianity in the world: from persecution to uncertainty.

New York: Prentice Hall.

Martin, Henri. 1877. A popular history of France from the first revolution to the present time, Vol.1.

Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2000. Turning points: decisive moments in the history of Christianity. 2nd ed.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Rodney, Walter. 1972. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications.

Rowe, Henri K. 1931. History of the Christian people. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Sumrall, Lester. 1980. Where was God when pagan religions began? Indiana: LeSEA Publishing Co.

Vos, Howard F. 1960. Highlights of church history. Nebraska: Back to the Bible Publishers.

The World Book Encyclopaedia, 1971 ed., s.v. “Divine rights of kings”.

The World Bank Encyclopaedia, 1971 e.d., s.v. “French Revolution”.

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