Monday, August 23, 2010

Religion in France during the French Revolution

Various governments of France, beginning with the start of the French Revolution in 1789, implemented the following policies:

  • The deportation of clergy and the condemnation of many of them to death,

  • The closing, desecration and pillaging of churches, removal of the word “saint” from street names and other acts to banish Christian culture from the public sphere

  • 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 large scale destruction of religious monuments,

  • The outlawing of public and private worship and religious education,

  • Forced marriages of the clergy,

  • Forced abjuration of priesthood, and

  • 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 climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess “Reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.

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.

The March 1793 conscription requiring Vendeans to fill their district's quota of 300,000 enraged the populace, who took up arms and fought. They stated that, in addition to opposing the conscription, they were fighting above all for the reopening of their parish churches with their former priests. A massacre of 6,000 Vendée prisoners, many of them women, took place after the battle of Savenay, along with the drowning of 3,000 Vendée women at Pont-au-Baux and 5,000 Vendée priests, old men, women, and children killed by drowning at the Loire River at Nantes in what was called the "national bath" - tied in groups in barges and then sunk into the Loire.

With these massacres came formal orders for forced evacuation; also, a 'scorched earth' policy was initiated: farms were destroyed, crops and forests burned and villages razed. There were many reported atrocities and a campaign of mass killing universally targeted at residents of the Vendée regardless of combatant status, political affiliation, age or gender. By July 1796, the estimated Vendean dead numbered between 117,000 and 500,000, out of a population of around 800,000.

The irony is that these atrocities - ruthlessly carried out against anyone who was a Christian, or even seemed to be a Christian - were the product of a revolutionary government which had come to power, in part, to seek freedom of religion!