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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 in 1789 and the Concordat of 1801, forming the basis of the later and less radical Laïcité 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 programme of dechristianisation waged against Catholicism, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, included:

  • removal of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship
  • destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
  • the institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being,
  • the enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harboured them liable to death on sight.

The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess "Reason" in Notre Damemarker Cathedral on 10 November, 1793.

From a scholarly point of view the dechristianization campaign can be seen as the logical extension of the materialist philosophy of some sectors of the enlightenment, while from a popular point of view it was an opportunity for those who had resentments against the post Tridentine clergy.

The Church under the Ancien Régime

In 18th century Francemarker, ninety-five percent of the population were adherents to the Roman Catholic faith. Under the Ancien Régime, the authority of the clergy was institutionalised in its status as the First Estate of the realm. The Church was the largest landowner in the country whose properties provided massive revenues from its tenants plus enormous income from the collection of tithes. 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.

The Church however had difficulties and these were greatly added to by a deep dissatisfaction within its own ranks. A wide gap in living standards existed between members of the clergy. Senior positions in the Church were occupied by members of noble families, giving them the benefit of the Church's wealth base and enormous annual revenues. In stark contrast, the majority of priests in small communities lived in perpetual poverty.

The Revolution and the Church

In an attempt to stem the growing unrest , in August of 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. In July of 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, 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. One version of the oath had the clergy swear to "hatred" of the nobility.

Map (in French) of the percentage of jurors among French priests.
French priests had to receive Papal 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. Those who accepted were known as the constitutional clergy, and those who obeyed the Pope, the refractory priests or "non-jurors".

In September of 1792, the National Assembly legalised divorce, 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 Parismarker, over a forty-eight hour period beginning on September 2, 1792, as the Legislative Assembly (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. Priests were among those drowned in the Noyades for treason under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier; priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyonmarker, 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 Rochefortmarker.

Festival of the Supreme Being, 8 June 1794.
Many of the acts of dechristianization in 1793 were motivated by the seizure of church gold and silver to finance the war effort. Anti-church laws were passed by the Legislative Assembly and its successor, the National Convention, and by département councils throughout the country such as in Indre-et-Loiremarker, where in November of 1793 the very word dimanche ("Sunday") was abolished. 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. Anti-clerical parades were held, and the Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red "Cap of Liberty." Street and place names with any sort of religious connotation were changed, such as the town of St. Tropezmarker 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 Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Just six weeks before his arrest, on June 8, 1794 the still-powerful Robespierre personally led a vast procession through Paris to the Tuileriesmarker 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 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 captured Romemarker and imprisoned Pope Pius VI, who would die in captivity in Valencemarker, France in August of 1799. Ultimately, with Napoleon now in ascendancy in France, year-long negotiations between government officials and the new Pope, Pius VII, led to the Concordat of 1801, 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, 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.

Toll on the Church

Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription or loss of income, about 20,000 constitutional priests were forced to abdicate or hand over their letters of ordination and 6,000 - 9,000 were coerced to marry, many ceasing their ministerial duties. Some of those who abdicated covertly ministered to the people. By the end of the decade, approximately 30,000 priests were forced to leave France, and thousands who did not leave were executed. Most of France was left without the services of a priest, deprived of the sacraments and any nonjuring priest faced the guillotine or deportation to French Guianamarker. By Easter 1794, few of France's 40,000 churces were open, many having been closed, sold, destroyed or converted to other uses.

Victims of Revolutionary violence, whether religious or not, were popularly treated as canonised martyrs, the place of their killing becoming objects of pilgrimage. Catechising in the home, folk religion and syncretic and heterodox practice also became more common. . The longterm effects on religious practice in France were significant - many who were deprived of their regular religious practice in France never regained it.


  1. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 1, 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  2. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 2, 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  3. Latreille, A. FRENCH REVOLUTION, New Catholic Encyclopedia v. 5, pp. 972-973 (Second Ed. 2002 Thompson/Gale) ISBN 0-7876-4004-2
  4. SPIELVOGEL, Jackson Western Civilization: Combined Volume p. 549, 2005 Thomson Wadsworth
  5. Lewis, Gwynne The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate p.96 1993 Routledge, ISBN 0415054664
  6. Lewis, Gwynne The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate p.45 1993 Routledge, ISBN 0415054664
  7. Harvey, Donald Joseph FRENCH REVOLUTION, 2006 (Accessed April 27, 2007)
  8. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 10, 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  9. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 11, 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  10. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 16, 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  11. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 16-17, 1991 Continuum International Publishing
  12. Tallet, Frank Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789 p. 12, 1991 Continuum International Publishing

See also


  • J. McManners, The French Revolution and the Church (1969)
  • Gwynne Lewis, Life in Revolutionary France (1972)

External links

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