This article is part of a series on the Ideology of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, which aspired to establish a new utopia for mankind, shifted into a ‘democratic’ despotism during the Terror. The ideology that inspired democracy, civil rights, and emancipation in 1789 also gave justification for the totalitarian regime of the Terror in 1793-4. The Terror instead of contradicting revolutionary beliefs, was a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution.


The new synthesis of ideas spurred by the Enlightenment would eventually challenge the presence of the Catholic Church, an institution whose practices, roots, and beliefs go back to antiquity. However, this was not always the case, as enlightenment thinkers were neither opposed to Catholicism nor supported it, and vice versa. In fact, many priests and lay members of the church were well versed in enlightenment literature. Friction between the Church and the philosophes arose with the advent of deism, which rejected dogmas of traditional Catholicism, including the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of original sin, and instead found faith in a creator who did not interfere in human affairs, and whose domain was exclusively in the natural world.[1] Rousseau’s ideas of a natural religion contributed to the spirituality of his followers who did not see his teachings as anti-religious, but rather, as something of the soul from which religion came.[2] When France became a republic in 1792, the political cult of Rousseau found reason to dismantle the institutions of Christianity, believing that the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘republic’ were mutually exclusive. Rousseau says in the Contract Social, “Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime. Genuine Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and don’t much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.”[3] Rousseau put forth the idea of a civic religion, which among other principles, would enshrined in citizens, “the sanctity of the social contract and the laws”, and “The punishment of the wicked.”[4] Radical republican extremists took the philosophe’s words to heart, and during the Reign of Terror, fervently pursued the cause of de-Christianization.

The most radical Jacobins believed that the tenets of Christianity were incompatible with those of the revolution, and ardent Christians felt the same. Perhaps some of the most gruesome atrocities committed in the name of the republic were on the Christians in the Vendee, and the counter-revolutionary priests they protected. Atrocities such as the noyades at Nantes, saw boatloads of rebels, priests, women and children sunk and drown in the Loire river. [5] It was in letters to the Committee of Public Safety in which Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the Terrorist of Nantes, would refer to the drownings as ‘miracles in the Loire’, and to which Carrier’s ally in the Committee, Herault de Sechelles responded, “We can be humane when we are assured of being victorious.”[6] Even Robespierre, who disagreed with the de-Christianization movement, was silently complacent with massacres such as these which were ignored for the time, being for the reason of political expedience. Because de-Christianization was one of the main causes for the civil war in the Vendee, it became tied to the ideology of the Terror that demanded a purge to rejuvenate the republic. Whether by outright brutality, or by softer methods, the revolutionaries during the Terror believed that the power and influence of Christianity was fading, and that a civic religion with patriotism as the new faith was destined to take its place.[7] In his assessment on the lasting effects of de-Christianization Nigel Aston said, “Routine, regular public worship stopped. Dechristianization shattered the habits of open observance, and half a generation of young people missed out on formal religious teaching. The damage to a collective Catholic culture was soon there for all to see.”[8]


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