ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)