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Religion in the American and French Revolutions

Updated on October 2, 2012
Parts of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris were destroyed and plundered during the French Revolution
Parts of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris were destroyed and plundered during the French Revolution | Source

The French Revolution and American Revolutionary War differed in a number of significant ways. One of the greatest differences was the place of religion, Catholicism in France and a set of Protestant denominations in the case of America. Religion occupied a different place in the political order and was treated differently by revolutionaries in each case.

George Whitefield, 18th century Evangelical preacher, was well-known in Britain and America
George Whitefield, 18th century Evangelical preacher, was well-known in Britain and America

Religion in 18th century France and America

Religious authorities were part of the established political order in France. By contrast, religion was a refuge owned by the people in the early US. The clergy comprised the “First Estate” in the three-estate French political system (the other two being the Nobility and the Commoners). The Church was responsible for a variety of social functions, including registering births and deaths, and managing schools and hospitals. In return, the clergy enjoyed disproportionate political and economic power, controlling large amounts of land, a key voice in legislative and judicial decisions, and little or no tax obligation.

Essentially, religion was owned by the state in France, but owned by the people in America. If religion had been completely owned and dominated by the colonial government in the US, it likely would have met a similar fate as in France.

But a variety of religious groups had come to the US precisely for religious freedom, and there was a dynamic mix of religious belief in the 13 colonies. As a result, religion was not rejected by the revolutionaries, but rather embraced and elevated by them. Religious freedom was later enshrined in the American Constitution as a core national principle. Religion was an instrument of oppression in France, and an instrument of liberation in America.

And the French pattern was representative of other European countries as well. Across the continent, religion had been co-opted by the state. It was a tool that secular rulers used to consolidate and maintain their power. Religion was a top-down phenomenon, imposed onto the people, and controlled either by state authorities (the English king was the head of the Church of England) or by religious authorities irrevocably allied with the state. Secular and religious leaders ruled the people as a team.

18th century French cartoon depicting the confiscation of church lands and neutering of church power by the Revolution. The fat clergyman comes out skinny the other end.
18th century French cartoon depicting the confiscation of church lands and neutering of church power by the Revolution. The fat clergyman comes out skinny the other end.

Revolution’s effect on religion

A campaign of "dechristianization" was pursued by the revolutionary French government, which included the destruction of Christian symbols and iconography, the confiscation of church land, de-recognition of Christian holidays and the creation of new civic cults. Church officials were persecuted by the state and by mobs during the Revolution, and thousands of priests were imprisoned, deported or executed across France.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, things were very different. Many early American religious leaders viewed rebellion with suspicion. But many others actively supported it, and some even took up arms against British troops.

The Anglicans, the second largest denomination after Congregationalists, were in a particularly awkward position because the head of their church was the King of England. Anglican ministers had sworn an oath of loyalty to the King. Many Anglicans left the church during the Revolution. Others altered their doctrines to match the political reality.

Unlike France, the religious landscape of America was far more diverse than a single denomination. And although British Loyalists were concentrated in the Church of England, the church was not a primary instrument of oppression by Britain. Despite some tension, a counter-religious or anti-church movement never developed.

The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity. From the day of the Declaration...they (the American people) were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of The Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct. -John Quincy Adams

Religion, revolution and new political theory

The American Revolution took place against a backdrop of religious enthusiasm, revivalism and evangelism in the thirteen colonies. The First Great Awakening of the early 18th century had already occurred by the time of the war. And the Second Great Awakening lasted from the late 18th century to the mid 19th century.

In France, religion was integral to the established order. Any revolutionary thought was destined to be in competition with it. French revolutionaries were mostly God-believing men, but drew their inspiration from secular reason. They were critical of traditional religion and deeply suspicious of supernatural thinking in general.

By contrast, in America, new Christian denominations and movements actually contributed to and enhanced revolutionary principles. A new, quintessentially American, conception of the divine viewed rights flowing directly from God to the people, contrasting with the centuries-old established wisdom in Europe in which rights flowed from God to the monarch, and then to the people.

While naturalistic reason was the alternative to established religion in France, a novel, more puritanical and more democratic religious experience was the alternative in America. And these trends would continue to affect society and politics in each country for many years, including to this day.

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