The French Revolution

I got the results back from a Church History essay. To be honest, I was aiming for a pass, so God was most gracious to allow me the fruit of a distinction. It was on the French Revolution; a subject that I initially had a great deal of reservation about but, once I completed, can totally understand why it is of immense importance to study due to its lasting impact on Western society and Christianity. The lecturer achieved his aim, I feel, as I now understand the purpose of his question and the need for me to know the answer.

So here it is. I hope it is as enlightening (you’ll find out why that’s a pun) to you as it was for me learning and writing.


The following essay takes a critical look at French Revolution. Looking first at the causes for the revolution itself, I then examine how these causes impacted upon the church, both Catholic and Protestant. The Established Churches bore the heaviest impact, with a great deal of their temporal power, influence on state matters and material wealth incorporated into the nation state and placed under government jurisdiction as a means of curtailing church authority on society. The consequences of the revolution have been wide ranging, with a reactionary adjustment by mainly the Catholic Church, whilst Protestant churches sought instead to find ways to work within the new social structures and ideologies. Consequently, it could be argued that Protestantism fared better than Catholicism in the fallout of the revolution.


The French Revolution held such impact on the Western world that it is fair to suggest it is seen as a turning point within human history. Lefebvre’s comment that it ‘denotes one step in the destiny of the Western world’ helps to identify the event as one where the ramifications were not restricted to France’s national borders but were felt on a far wider scale.[1] The growing assent to reason as the dominant philosophical basis when forming a worldview led to a new era where the ‘doctrine of human progress’ was ‘popular belief’. [2] Thus, the consequences of the events that took place on July 14th, 1789, had an enormous impact on religions role in society, with the relationship between church and state permanently altered. In particular it broke down the framework of the ancien regime, with the brunt of such an ‘atomic bomb’ being borne most heavily by the Catholic Church but which Christianity continues to deal with today.[3] Both the Catholic and Protestant responses to the crumbling of Christendom and rise of nationalism were multi faceted; Catholicism sought to centralise power to the papacy as well as resist ethos of modernisation whilst the Protestant response was seen in the rise of revivals throughout Europe and America. Both Catholicism and Protestantism sought to fend off the encroachment of secularism and liberal Christianity while working to address social reform through activism. Revivalism and the subsequent overseas mission it resulted in are also to be considered when viewing its response to the increasing secularisation of Europe. As a consequence of the French Revolution, and through the responses by the Catholic and Protestant churches, the foundations upon which the current era now stands were laid and the course of history shaped by its impact.

Causes of the French Revolution

Part of understanding the impact the French Revolution had on the Catholic and Protestant church is examining what created the impetus from whence revolution sprang. A result of the 16th and 17th century scientific discoveries was the dismissing of superstition; Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy captivated readers whilst bringing to the forefront ‘the role of human reason’ and the emphasizing of real world observation as a means of discovering ‘true and significant knowledge’.[4] Byrne surmises that this period, considered the Enlightenment, put forth three specific ideas: that the power of reason can be used to discover the truth regarding both the world and humanity; a level of ‘scepticism’ towards tradition and age-old institutions; and the growing belief that scientific thinking, in comparison to medieval thought, offered a viable alternative to knowledge.[5] As the framework for intellectual though changed from ‘faith seeking understanding’ to ‘faith follows understanding’[6], the stage was being set for a challenge to the ancien regime.

In line with the changing philosophical landscape was the growing unrest within France itself. This stemmed in part from the ‘absolutist’ reign of the monarchy, who considered their control over to be part of the ‘divine right’ placed on them by God.[7] A combination of the government’s fiscal mismanagement leading them towards bankruptcy and famine resulting from a series of poor harvests ‘inflamed the political tension’ that existed in France at the time.[8] Such tension was also felt within the French Catholic Church. Although the church held immense wealth and benefited from state-sanctioned immunities, Cragg identifies ‘the church’s refusal to accept its dues share of the national burden became increasingly intolerable.’ He further highlights that the church ‘aggravated the hostility’ of  its critics who believed it didn’t deserve the privileges and immunities offered to it by the state due to its failure to properly maintain the social services it provided such as hospitals, education etc. This behaviour was the doing of the high clergy within the ecclesiastical structure and highlighted the split between those in the church that reinforced the ancien regime and those low clergy who shared the same plight as their parishioners.[9]

As 1789 approached, the coalescing of a philosophical framework that viewed absolute rule and institutions like the Church sceptically along with the mismanagement of the French kingdom by its leaders and the abuses of the church created a climate favouring reform. This confidence in reason emboldened the likes of men as Voltaire and Diderot, who ‘aimed at effecting a fundamental revolution in the prevailing pattern of thought.’[10] Change was clearing taking hold when, on December 12, 1788, the princes sent Louis XVI an entreaty, stating:

The State is in danger… a revolution of governmental principles is brewing… soon the rights of property will be attacked, inequality of wealth will be presented as an object of reform… Let the Third Estate cease attacking the rights of the first two orders…[11]

This entreaty identifies that the burden of the peasant class, who made up the majority of the Third Estate along with the bourgeois, had reached breaking point. As famine spread due to grain crops failure in 1788, the kings convening of the convening of the Estates General[12] for 1789 was viewed as an opportunity to change the fate of ‘the people’; consequently, the aligning of interests between the peasantry and bourgeoisie allowed the Third Estate to ‘became a dynamic source of revolutionary idealism.’[13]

The Third Estate, which had increased say in the Estates General due to the kings decision to increase their representation in order outweigh clergy and nobility resistance, used their newfound  leverage to push for voting reform within the council.[14] This proved the lynchpin that set in motion the final events leading up to the French Revolution; the Third Estate declared themselves a ‘National Assembly’ who represented the majority of the nation before responding to the kings deposing of the popular financial minister of France, Jacques Necker, by storming the Bastille.[15] This event is considered symbolic beginning of the French Revolution, as from then on, the transfer of power to the National Constituent Assembly was rapid.[16]

The Impact of the French Revolution on the Church

The impact on the Catholic Church in France, who was initially receptive to the revolution and played a part in its construction, was almost immediately felt.[17] The Declaration of Rights of Man, although not directly impacting the church, held within it a cultural shift of authority. Where once the church played a leading role in the composition of the nation, its position, at least ideologically, was undergoing a significant change to its place within society. Beik aptly writes that ‘the source of all sovereignty is located in essence in the nation; no body, not individual can exercise authority which doesn’t emanate from it expressly.’[18]

This shift in ideology was played out by the Assembly’s next move. Intending to develop a national church along the same lines as England but with Catholic doctrine, the Assembly then passed the ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ in 1790.[19] The decision to move the church in this direction was not surprising since the monarchy from Louis XIV had attempted to align the church to be a vehicle for political purposes; consequently, the French church had often acted and viewed itself as independent of the Roman papacy and closer in mind with the ruling body – a position referred to as Gallicanism.[20] Diarmond considered the constitution as the most ‘extreme form’ of Gallicanism, although Vidler adds that it simply ‘implemented’ the ‘pre-revolutionary Gallican principles.’ The result of the constitution were that bishops would be elected by the total male population of the country including Jews and Protestants, the pope would be nothing more than a figurehead and church lands were confiscated.[21] These changes were radical, with the Constituent also decreeing that all who held office in the church were required to swear allegiance to the Civic Constitution; this in effect divided the church, with the clerical representative in the Assembly believing the pope needed to ‘baptize’ such a decision. [22] The popes condemning of the Civil constitution saw the Assembly ‘declare war’ on the ‘old institutions’; an honest effort to reform the church then turned, with the assistance of radicals, into an effort to replace the church with a new religion, which Diarmond describes as ‘constructed out of classical symbolism mixed up with the eighteenth century’s celebration of human reason’.[23] It is from here that we begin to see the more permanent impact of the revolution on Christendom.

The seeds of change that were laid in the evolving philosophical landscape had sprouted and the place of Christianity within society was to be irrevocably transformed. Chadwick considers the French Revolution as the time where the interests between church and society began to move apart, otherwise called secularisation.[24] This is, in many ways, very accurate. By trying to force the church to submit entirely to the Assembly’s wishes, the revolution was essentially changing the place of the church in society. The tremors of this groundbreaking decision reverberated throughout Europe and are still being felt today.

These shudders affected the wider church in a number of different ways. The emergence of nation-states within Europe had an enormous impact on the temporal position of the Roman Catholic Church. It initially suffered the indignity of having papal territories in the Holy Roman Empire confiscated and handed over to secular governance in 1803 before Emperor Francis II’s transformation into Emperor Francis I of Austria brought with it the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.[25] This reshaping of the territory controlled by the church was completed in 1870 when King Victor of Italy annexed all but the Vatican, Lateran and Castel Gandolfo from Rome; a move that, whilst not recognised until 1929 by Pius XI, was significant.[26] Although it still retained a degree of influence, this reshaping was symbolic of the temporal shift in power away from the church and towards the nation states itself.

Vidler notes that England’s initial reaction to the French Revolution was to ‘stiffen their conservatism’.[27] The Established Church, that is the Church of England, fought to protect their privileges within English society, which were based in restrictions on the Nonconformist churches.[28] These privileges, which prevented full civil and religious equality, were eventually granted in a limited way with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Act in 1828 before the Reform Act of 1832 provided the Free Churches with representation in parliament.[29] Although great detail could be entered into, the prevailing impact on England, like the rest of Europe, was the distancing of state from church and the changing relationship the two shared.[30] Nevertheless, the more orderly manner in which equality was given to the Nonconformists doesn’t deny the steady change towards religious equality within England, which exists still today.

Similar examples of secularisation of government existed as a response to the changing political environment in Europe.  Liberal rebellion in Portugal in 1820 put the country on the path to secularisation before a final separation of church and state was achieved in 1911.[31] Spain, under Isabella, forced the closing of all monasteries and seizing of church property by the state.[32] Bismarks path to the unification of Germany in 1871 included the defusing of church authority; a path that Italy, too, followed.

It is clear that the impact of the French Revolution was to change the entire landscape of Europe. McCulloch aptly sums it up, writing:

The established Churches of Europe, and Churches throughout the world which sprang out of them, had to adjust to these new realities, to compete with new messages which the revolutionary years spread from the elegant tracts of philosophes into a much wider public domain. So much could not be unsaid: the French Revolution’s slogan of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ could not be forgotten.[33]

The French Revolution set into play a domino effect amongst the European governments, the effects of which would spill over into the rest of the world. It provided model for government that didn’t require the support of a state religion, was founded on the ideology of equally distributing power amongst all a nations citizens and was approved by intellectuals of the time. The indelible mark the French Revolution left on European thought has in turn shaped the way Europeans have influenced the world.

The Response of the Church to the French Revolution

What we must now examine is the way the church has responded to this watershed event. Within the Catholic Church there was a growing sympathy towards Ultramontanism, which emphasises the ultimate authority of the church lying in the pope. This sprung up as a reaction to the ‘horror and anarchy of revolution and against the influences of the Enlightenment’; a conservative approach that Knight believes ‘identified the papacy as an extremely conservative institution.’[34] Other responses that supporting the conservative response by the papacy include Pius VI condemning the Civil Constitution; Pius IX seeking to resist modernisation by listing a number of propositions Catholics must reject; the declaration of papal infallibility during the First Vatican Council; and Leo XIII’s papal bull declaring democracy to be incongruent with church authority were.[35] As can be seen, the responses by the Catholic Church put it at odds with the ‘modernising’ and ‘secularising’ of society. For instance, hindsight grants us the perspective to see that an opportunity existed for the church to encourage such statements as the Declaration of Rights as affirming biblical truths, which could have allowed further dialogue into the revolution movement and helped lessen the impact of the revolutions fallout on the church.

Contrary to the Ultramontanism reaction by the Catholic Church was the Liberal response. This liberalism is best described as having ‘a right to have your own opinions, to propagate your own opinions, and to behave according to your own opinions’.[36] It was, in essence, an opposite response to the revolution to what the Catholic Church took. This ‘liberalism’ sought to ‘overthrow the evils that afflict mankind’ whilst insisting the church had no basis to push its moral standards onto the general public.[37] The suggestion that religion is a private affair and politics stands independent of Christian ethics is a view that has had a lasting impact on Western thought to this day.

Within the Protestent church, the response to the revolution varied. The Oxford Movement took a similar position as the Catholic Church; considered ‘high-church’ within the Church of England, they sought to recover their Catholic roots. It emphasised a return to traditional liturgy, conservative doctrines and ritual.[38] This contrasted with the ‘low-church’ of the Church of England. Forming the ‘evangelical’ party, they worked to affirm traditional doctrine in the face of what they considered the ‘attacks of science’ as well as other disciplines. Rather than affirming the authority of the church, they sought instead to highlight the authority of the bible. This same evangelical view was characteristic of many churches in America.[39]

Many of the Protestant churches responded to the changing landscape by seeking to address social needs. Intending to reach the ‘poor and ignorant masses’, Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists worked to create organisations that addressed the concerns of the time. [40]Denominations, such as the Salvation Army, grew out of a desire to ‘reach the impoverished and unchurched urban masses.’[41] Men such as William Wilberforce succeeded in abolishing social injustices like slavery. [42] The marked difference of Catholicism’s response to the changing world to that of Protestantism is summed up aptly by Gonzales:

The result was that, while Roman Catholicism looked upon the new times with extreme caution, many Protestants looked upon them with unwarranted optimism.

Whilst the French Revolution posed a threat for the established churches, it did provide new and different opportunities to spread and share the gospel. The advent of revivalism, which flourished through Europe in the period after the revolution, identifies that whilst, as an institution, the church was being attacked, the gospel message was still as valid and able to adapt to the changing environment.


The French Revolution was indeed a watershed in the history of human civilisation. It represented a monumental shift in the interaction of church and state, which had been a pillar of European history since the time of Constantine. Without doubt it struck at the core of Christendom and had a devastating impact on the established churches of the time; the greatest of impact being felt primarily by the Catholic Church. The papacy’s temporal power was diffused as the rise of nation states and the secularisation of society removed the power the church held over government and culture. The response by the Catholic Church was viewed as ‘conservative, reactionary and anti-nationalistic’, which put it at odds with the society it was trying to reach.[43] By contract, Protestantism was seen as ‘more tolerant of liberalism, democracy and modern innovations’, allowing it to converse with the changing times and progress the gospel in different ways. As the effects and ideology of the French Revolution continue to be felt in the 21st century, a critical understanding of its impact on society and the responses made allows the opportunity for the current church to better understand how it can remain ‘a light unto the nations’ whilst working within the framework of current society.[44]


Beik, Paul Harold; The French Revolution (New Yokr: Walker, 1970),

Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne; Sermons choisis de Bossuet, Goole eBook; accessed on 29th of September, 2012

Byrne, James M.; Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant, (Louisville, Ky.: Westminister John Knox, 1996)

Chadwick, Owen; The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975)

Cragg, G. R.; The Church and the Age of Reason (Penguin Books, 1962)

Gonzalez, Justo L; The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, Volume 2 (Harper One, 1984)

Hill, Jonathan; The History of Christianity (Lion, 2007)

Knight, Frances; The Church in the Nineteenth Century (I.B. Tauris, 2008)

Lefebvre, Georges; The French Revolution; From its Origins to 1793 (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, Broadway House, 1971)

MacCulloch, Diarmaid; A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, 2009)

Noll, Mark A.; Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)

Olson, Roger; The Story of Christian Theology; Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999)

Shelley, Bruce L; Church History in Plain Language (Word publishing, 1995, 2nd Edition)

Vidler, Alec R.; The Church in an Age of Revolution (Penguin Books, 1976)

[1] Lefebvre, Georges; The French Revolution; From its Origins to 1793 (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, Broadway House, 1971), page Xvii

[2] Shelley, Bruce L; Church History in Plain Language (Word publishing, 1995, 2nd Edition), pg354

[3] Vidler, Alec R.; The Church in an Age of Revolution (Penguin Books, 1976), 11.

[4] Shelley, pg314, Gonzales pg185

[5] Byrne, James M.; Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant, (Louisville, Ky.: Westminister John Knox, 1996), pg 5 – 10

[6] Olson, Roger; The Story of Christian Theology; Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), pg523

[7] Noll, Mark A.; Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), pg 247. King Louis XIV held to Jure Divino, or ‘Divine Right of Kings’. The claim is articulated well in a sermon by French prelate Bousset in a translation of a sermon he gave before the King: “The reign of kings is from Me, says Eternal Wisdom; and from this we may conclude that not only the rights of royalty are established by His laws, but also the choice of individual [to occupy the throne] is a result of His providence.”   Accessed on 29th of September, 2012.

[8] MacCulloch, Diarmaid; A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, 2009), pg 807

[9] Cragg, G. R.; The Church and the Age of Reason (Penguin Books, 1962), pg 200 – 203

[10] Cragg, pg 236

[11] Lefebvre pg 104

[12] Gonzales pg262- The Estates General were ‘the French equivalent of parliament, and were composed of three “estates” or “orders”: the clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie.’

[13] Lefebvre pg119 – 120. The populace of the Third Estate would elect the bourgeoisie they wished to represent them.

[14] Gonzalez, Justo L; The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, Volume 2 (Harper One, 1984) pg263

[15] Gonzalez p 263

[16] Gonzalez, pg263 Louis XVI, at his capitulation, ordered the First and Second Estate to join with the Third Estates ‘National Assembly’.

[17] Vidler, pg15 Vidler identifies that the Gallican Church ‘played a decisive part in breaking the power of the nobility, and indeed of the absolute monarchy’

[18] Beik, Paul Harold; The French Revolution (New Yokr: Walker, 1970), pg95

[19] MacCulloch, 807 – 808

[20] Cragg pg22

[21] MacCulloch pg 808, Vidler pg 16, Lefebrve pg 159

[22] Gonzalez, pg264, Lefebrve, pg168

[23] MacCulloch, pg808-809

[24] Chadwick, Owen, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pg 5,9

[25] MacCulloch, pg 812

[26] Gonzalez pg 269-70, 348

[27] Vidler, Page134

[28] MacCulloch, pg 839 Nonconformist churches were also known as Dissenters or Free Churches, and included Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians.

[29] Vidler, pg 135

[30] Knight, Frances; The Church in the Nineteenth Century (I.B. Tauris, 2008), pg 149

[31] Hill, Jonathan; The History of Christianity (Lion, 2007), pg368.

[32] Hill, pg 368

[33] MacCulloch, pg 812

[34] Knight, pg58-9

[35] Gonzalez, pg 264, Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors were Pius IX’s two encyclicals

[36] Shelley, pg 358

[37] Shelley, pg 359

[38] Hill, pg 364 / 365

[39] Hill, pg365

[40] Gonzalez, pg272

[41] Gonzalez, pg272

[42] Gonzalez, pg272

[43] Knight, pg 65

[44] Isaiah 42:6


About Drew

Trying to walk in line with the truth of the Gospel
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