Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution

From New World Encyclopedia

The dechristianization of France during the French Revolution describes the results of a number of separate policies conducted by successive governments of France between the start of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Concordat of 1801, forming the basis of the later and less radical laïcité (secularism) policies. The aim of the campaign between 1790 and 1794 ranged from the appropriation by the government of the great landed estates and the large amounts of money held by the Gallican Church (the Roman Catholic Church in France) to the termination of Christian religious practice and of the religion itself.

During the course of the revolution, the church was nationalized with priests required to break their allegiance to Rome. Thousands of priests who refused were defrocked and exiled. Churches were ransacked and plundered and hundreds of priests were executed. The church's role in France was permanently altered.

Religion and the Catholic Church under the monarchy

Pre-Revolutionary policies

In eighteenth-century France, the vast majority of the population belonged to the Catholic Church as Catholicism had been since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 the only religion officially sanctioned in the kingdom. The Ancien Régime institutionalized the authority of the clergy in its status as the First Estate of the realm. As the largest landowner in the country, the Catholic Church controlled properties which provided significant revenues from its tenants. The Church also had an substantial income from the collection of tithes.[1] Since the Church kept the registry of births, deaths, and marriages and was the only institution that provided hospitals and education in some parts of the country, it influenced all citizens.

During the eighteenth century writers such as Voltaire and the Encyclopedists wrote biting critiques and satires exposing priestly corruption and the excesses of Catholic institutional power. The impact of their thought helped promote tolerance for other religious groups. Minorities of French Protestants (mostly Huguenots & German Lutherans in Alsace) and Jews still lived in France at the beginning of the Revolution. The Edict of Versailles,[2] commonly known as the Edict of Tolerance, signed by Louis XVI on November 7, 1787, did not give non-Catholics in France the right to openly practice their religions. It did give them the rights to legal and civil status, which included the right to contract marriages without having to convert to the Catholic faith.

This French Enlightenment also popularized atheism and anti-clericalism. It influenced the French Revolution's direct assault on the privileges of the Catholic Church, including the state's confiscation of Church property, the execution of anti-revolutionary churchmen, and mob actions inflicting severe damage to Catholic shrines and art. The dechristianization campaign can be seen as the logical extension[3] of the materialist philosophies of some leaders of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, while for others with more prosaic concerns it provided an opportunity to unleash resentments against the Catholic Church (in the spirit of conventional anti-clericalism) and its clergy.[4]

The Revolution and the Church

The French Revolution initially began with attacks on Church corruption and the wealth of the higher clergy, an action with which even many Christians could accept, since the Gallican Church held a dominant role in pre-revolutionary France. The policies of the earlier phase of the revolution were an attack on some of the church's privileges in the name of promoting greater tolerance.

General collection of writs and instructions relating to the French Revolution (Collection generale des brefs et instructions relatifs a la revolution francoise) of Pope Pius VI, 1798

Revolutionary policies

A milestone event of the Revolution was the abolition of the privileges of the First and Second Estate on the night of August 4, 1789. In particular, it abolished the tithes gathered by the Catholic clergy.[5] 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. In July 1790, the National Constituent Assembly published the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that stripped clerics of their special rights. The clergy were to be made employees of the state, elected by their parish or bishopric. The number of bishoprics was to be reduced and all priests and bishops were required to swear an oath of fidelity to the new order or face dismissal, deportation or even death.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted August 26, 1789, proclaimed freedom of religion across France but in radically different terms.

Article IV – Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.

Article X – No one may be disturbed for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.

On October 10, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly seized the properties and land held by the Catholic Church and decided to sell them as assignats.[6] The revolutionary government seized the property of the Church, through the law of December 2, 1789 and abolished monastic vows in February 1790.

On July 12, 1790, the assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that subordinated the Catholic Church in France to the French government. It would lead to repression of the clergy, including requiring them to take a loyalty oath. The Pope, however, rejected the principle of priests swearing an oath to the state rather than the Church, leading to a schism between those clergy who took the oath and those who refused. The ensuing years saw violent imprisonment and later the massacre of priests throughout France.

French priests had to receive Papal approval to sign such an oath, and Pius VI spent almost eight months deliberating the issue. On April 13, 1791, the Pope denounced the Constitution, resulting in a split in the French Catholic Church. Over fifty percent became abjuring priests ("jurors"), also known as "constitutional clergy," with nonjuring priests known as "refractory clergy."

Map of France showing the percentage of juring priests in 1791. The borders of the map are those of 2007, because the data come from archives of the modern departments.

In September 1792, the Legislative Assembly legalized divorce, contrary to Catholic doctrine. At the same time, the State took control of the birth, death, and marriage registers away from the Church. The more radical revolutionaries had an ever-increasing view that the Church was a counter-revolutionary force. It exacerbated the social and economic grievances and violence erupted in towns and cities across France.

September Massacres

In Paris, over a forty-eight-hour period beginning on September 2, 1792, as the Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Constituent Assembly) dissolved into chaos. Fearing counter-revolution, angry mobs of Marseillais and sans-culottes, at the urging of Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert, entered the prisons and began slaughtering prisoners in the event known as the September Massacres. Outside Paris, three Church bishops and more than two hundred priests were massacred . Priests were among those drowned in mass executions (noyades) for treason under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier. Priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyons, for separatism, on the orders of Joseph Fouché and Collot d'Herbois. Hundreds more priests were imprisoned and made to suffer in abominable conditions in the port of Rochefort.


The program of dechristianization waged against Catholicism during the revolutionary period, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, gained momentum during the period after the dethronement and execution of the king in January 1793 and became more violent. These included,[7][8][9]

  • destruction of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship
  • destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
  • the enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight
  • the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason (fall 1793) and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being (spring 1794)
Fête de la Raison ("Festival of Reason"), Notre Dame, Paris, November 10, 1793

Anti-Church statutes

Anti-Church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, 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.[10] The driving force of dechristianization had less to do with principles, and more to do with anti-clericalism and financial concerns. The churches were frequently "stripped of al sacerdotal objects... Church bells were needed for the arms foundries, gold and silver for the Republics treasure, though a great deal of the latter certainly found its way into the pockets of the dechristianizers."[11]

In November 1793, the département council of Indre-et-Loire abolished the word dimanche (English: Sunday).[12] In October 1793, the Gregorian calendar, an instrument decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was replaced by the French Republican Calendar which abolished the sabbath, saints' days and any references to the Church. The seven-day week became ten days instead.[13] It soon became clear, however, that nine consecutive days of work were too much, and that international relations could not be carried out without reverting to the Gregorian system, which was still in use everywhere outside of France. Consequently, the Gregorian Calendar was reimplemented in 1795 after the Thermidorian reaction.[14]

Anti-clerical parades were held. The Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gobel, was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red "Cap of Liberty." A letter from the curé of Boissise-la-Bétrand read, "I am a priest, a curé, that is to say a charlatan."[15] 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. Many churches were converted into "temples of reason," in which Deistic services were held.[16][17][18]

During the two-year period of the Reign of Terror, the episodes of anti-clericalism grew more violent than any in modern European history. The new revolutionary authorities suppressed the Church, abolished the Catholic monarchy, nationalized Church property, exiled 30,000 priests, and killed hundreds more.[19]

Cult of Reason/Cult of the Supreme Being

New forms of moral religion emerged. Festivals of Liberty, Reason, and the Supreme Being were scheduled. On November 10, 1793 Jacques Hébert, one of the leading figures of the dechristianization movement, organized the atheistic Cult of Reason the Festival of Reason. It was held in Notre Dame Cathedral. While it was popular in Paris, local people often resisted these dechristianization efforts and forced members of the clergy who had resigned to conduct Mass again. [20] In response, the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being was formed, with the revolutionary government briefly mandating observance in April 1794.[21][22]

Maximilien Robespierre, who believed that religion played an important role in people's lives, opposed the Festival of Reason. He and the Committee of Public Safety denounced the dechristianizers as foreign enemies of the Revolution, and established their own new deistic religion. This Cult of the Supreme Being, without the alleged "superstitions" of Catholicism, was intended to supplant both Catholicism and the rival Cult of Reason as a new state religion. 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 to inaugurate the Festival of the Supreme Being, to inaugurate the new faith. Both new religions were short-lived as both Hébert and Robespierre were guillotined within months of their respective events.[23][24][25]

Return of Religion

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 legalized public worship, with strict limitations. The ringing of church bells, religious processions and displays of the Christian cross were still forbidden.

As late as 1799, priests were still being imprisoned or deported to penal colonies. Persecution only worsened after the French army led by General Louis Alexandre Berthier captured Rome in early 1798, declared a new Roman Republic, and also imprisoned Pope Pius VI, who would die in captivity in Valence, France in August 1799. However, after Napoleon seized control of the government in late 1799, France entered into year-long negotiations with the new Pope Pius VII, resulting in the Concordat of 1801. This formally ended the dechristianization period and established the rules for a relationship between the Catholic 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 Catholic Church suffered proportionately the greatest loss.

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 to nine thousand of them agreed or 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 several hundred who did not leave were executed.[26] Most French parishes were left without the services of a priest and deprived of the sacraments. Any non-juring priest faced the guillotine or deportation to French Guiana. 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. Catechizing in the home, folk religion, syncretic and heterodox practices all became more common. The long-term effects on religious practice in France were significant. Many who were dissuaded from their traditional religious practices never resumed them.[27]

Napoleon Bonaparte reestablished the Church's rights in 1801, but under terms which made the Church clearly subservient to the state. The Concordat of 1801 endured for more than a century until it was abrogated by the government of the Third Republic, which established a policy of laïcité on December 11, 1905.



  1. Gemma Betros, "The French Revolution and the Catholic Church," History Review issue 68, Dec. 2010, 16–21.
  2. Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815, 212. Retrieved August 20, 2022.
  3. Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2005, ISBN 978-1581345360), 120–122.
  4. Gwynne Lewis, The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 1993, ISBN 978-1134937417), 96. "Many of the Parisian Sections eagerly joined in the priest-hunt...."
  5. François Furet, "Night of August 4," in François Furet, and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, ISBN 978-0674177284), 107-114.
  6. Assignats were paper currency issued by the government secured by church lands.
  7. Frank Tallett and Nicholas Atkin, "Dechristianizing France: The year II and the revolutionary experience," in Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 (London, UK: Hambledon Press, 1991, ISBN 978-1852850579), 1–28 "During the course of the year II much of France was subjected to a campaign of dechristianization, the aim of which was the eradication of Catholic religious practice, and Catholicism itself. The campaign, which was at its most intense in the winter and spring of 1793-94 [...] comprised a number of different activities. These ranged from the removal of plate, statues and other fittings from places of worship, the destruction of crosses, bells, shrines and other 'external signs of worship', the closure of churches, the enforced abdication and, occasionally, the marriage of constitutional priests, the substitution of a Revolutionary calendar for the Gregorian one, the alteration of personal and place names which had any eccesiastical connotations to more suitably Revolutionary ones, through to the promotion of new cults, notably those of reason and of the Supreme Being."
  8. A. Latreille, "French revolution" in New Catholic Encyclopedia: v. 5 (Second ed.). (Farmington Hill, MI: Thompson Gale, 2002, ISBN 978-0787640040), 972-973.
  9. J. J., Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Combined Volume (Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2006, ISBN 978-0534646028), 549.
  10. Lewis, 45.
  11. Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1989, ISBN 978-0394559483), 776-777.
  12. Michel Vovelle, The revolution against the Church: From reason to the Supreme Being, translated by Alan José. (1988; Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1991, ISBN 0814205771), 180, 182.
  13. Matthew Shaw, "Reactions To The French Republican Calendar," French History, 15(1), March 1, 2001, 6.
  14. Wenceslao Segura González, "La reforma del calendario," EWT Ediciones, ISBN 9788461617296), 42.
  15. Schama, 778.
  16. Thomas Hartwell Horne and Samuel Davidson, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-1108067720), 30.
  17. Latreille, 972-973.
  18. Spielvogel, 549.
  19. Michael Collins and Mathew A Price, The Story of Christianity (Tyndale House Pub, 1999, ISBN 978-0842331975), 176-177. "At first the new revolutionary government attacked Church corruption and the wealth of the bishops and abbots who ruled the Church — causes with which many Christians could identify. Clerical privileges were abolished ..."
  20. Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989, ISBN 978-0300044263), 343.
  21. Richard Helmstadter, Freedom and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, ISBN 978-0804730877), 251.
  22. David A. Ross, Being in Time to the Music (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-1847180872), "This Cult of Reason or Deism reached its logical conclusion in the French Revolution..."
  23. Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815: A-L (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007, ISBN 978-0313334467), 237. quote=The cult was a deliberate attempt to counter the unsuccessful efforts at dechristianization, and the atheistic Cult of Reason, which reached its high point in the winter of the previous year.
  24. Jack R. Mason and Lynn Hunt, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0271020884), 92–94.
  25. Vovelle, 180, 182.
  26. Lewis, 96.
  27. Frank Tallett, Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 (London, UK: Continuum International Publishing, 1991, ISBN 978-1852850579), 1-17.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780-1804. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0813209777.
  • Betros, Gemma. "The French Revolution and the Catholic Church," History Review issue 68 (Dec. 2010): 16–21.
  • Byrnes, Joseph F. Priests of the French Revolution: Saints and Renegades in a New Political Era. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0271063775
  • Collins, Michael, and Mathew A Price. The Story of Christianity. Tyndale House Pub, 1999. ISBN 978-0842331975
  • Cooney, Mary Kathryn. "May the Hatchet and the Hammer Never Damage It!: The Fate of the Cathedral of Chartres during the French Revolution," Catholic Historical Review 92(2) (2006): 193–214.
  • Desan, Suzanne. "Redefining Revolutionary Liberty: The Rhetoric of Religious Revival during the French Revolution," Journal of Modern History 60(1) (1988): 2–27.
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815: A-L. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 978-0313334467
  • Furet, François and Mona Ozouf (eds.). A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Boston, MA: Belknap Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0674177284
  • Gliozzo, Charles A. "The Philosophes and Religion: Intellectual Origins of the Dechristianization Movement in the French Revolution," Church History, 40(3) (1971)
  • Helmstadter, Richard. Freedom and Religion in the Nineteenth Century. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0804730877
  • Horne, Thomas Hartwell, and Samuel Davidson. An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1108067720
  • Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0300044263
  • Kley, Dale K. Van. "Christianity as casualty and chrysalis of modernity: the problem of dechristianization in the French Revolution," American Historical Review 108(4) (2003): 1081–1104.
  • Kley, Dale K. Van. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0300080858
  • Latreille, A. "French revolution" in New Catholic Encyclopedia: v. 5, 2nd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: Thompson Gale, 2002. ISBN 978-0787640040.
  • Lewis, Gwynne. Life in Revolutionary France. London, UK: Batsford Books, 1972. ISBN 978-0713415568
  • Mason, Jack R. and Lynn Hunt. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0271020884
  • McManners, John. The French Revolution and the Church. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1969. ISBN 978-0313230745
  • Ross, David A. Being in Time to the Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1847180872
  • Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2005. ISBN 978-1581345360
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1989. ISBN 978-0394559483
  • Shaw, Matthew, "Reactions To The French Republican Calendar," French History, 15(1) (March 1, 2001)
  • Spielvogel, J.J. Western Civilization: Combined Volume. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0534646028
  • Tackett, Timothy. Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. ISBN 9780691054704
  • Tallett, Frank. Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing, 1991. ISBN 978-1852850579
  • Vovelle, Michel. The revolution against the Church: From reason to the Supreme Being, translated by Alan José. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1991 (original 1988). ISBN 0814205771

External links

Retrieved August 25, 2022.


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