The Limits of Religious Liberty: Rabaut Saint-Étienne and the French Revolution

By Bryan A. Banks

In 1685, Louis XIV revoked Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes and effectively outlawed Calvinism in France. This led to the expulsion of around 200,000 Huguenots into the Diaspora and inaugurated a period of forced conversions at home within the French hexagon. Historians normally refer to the next 100 years as the Désert period in French Protestant history. The biblical allusion was not lost on them. French Calvinists languished in the wilderness, practicing their faith in remote spaces in the hopes of avoiding the king’s infamous dragonnades.

It was in this period that Rabaut Saint-Étienne (1743-1793) came of age. He grew up in Nîmes and was educated by his father, a rather well-known, clandestine Calvinist pastor who sent his children to Lausanne to study at the seminary. In 1769, Saint-Étienne returned to Nîmes an educated Calvinist pastor and then in the 1780s, he moved to Paris to join a coterie of enlightened defenders of the disenfranchised Calvinists in the country. Their efforts led to Louis XVI’s Edict of Toleration (1787), which granted Calvinists the right to record their births, marriages, and deaths. Calvinists became second-class subjects.

While many rejoiced following the kind measures of their king, Saint-Étienne recognized the limits of tolerance. Toleration, by its very definition, required a majority that allowed a minority to exist with limited privileges or rights. Louis XVI’s Edict failed to fully recognize the Calvinist subjects and while legally they would no longer be the subject of state-sponsored Catholic persecution, the precarious nature of Louis XVI’s tolerance left Saint-Étienne certain that the French Calvinists would soon be the target of violence again. As David A. Bell has noted, the Wars of Religion were “perhaps the most basic political reference point during the last two centuries of the Old Regime.”[1] I would further add that the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes too continued to represent the ills of a close-knit Church and State. Louis XIV had revoked the actions of a previous French king. Surely this could happen again.

Engraving of men gathered in a large room for the Tennis Court Oath.
Jacques-Louis David, Étude pour Le serment du jeu de paume, 1790.

Saint-Étienne joined the Estates General of 1789 and soon after sat as a deputy to the National Assembly. He became so well-known for his stance on religious liberty that Jacques-Louis David placed Saint-Étienne at the center of his famous depiction of the Tennis Court Oath, alongside the Carthusian dom Gerle and the Roman Catholic, abbé Grégoire. Metaphorically, David’s engraving of the foundational revolutionary point of political rupture centered around an inter-confessional concord.

In August 1789, Saint-Étienne approached the National Assembly and called for religious liberty for all. And in doing so, he identified, rather unintentionally, another limit of toleration. When religious toleration shifts to complete, unadulterated religious liberty, it is left to the multi-religious community to uphold said tenets. Catholics who were accustomed to religious privilege in pre-revolutionary France would undoubtedly find any formal attempt at instituting religious equality  to be oppressive in nature.

Religious violence and public security remained of paramount concern. In Saint-Étienne’s mind, the Catholic Church was the primary threat, but in the minds of the other deputies, the French Calvinist Church too had equally been known for its false prophets hell-bent on riling up internecine violence. Antoine Court, Saint-Étienne mentor in Lausanne, had written a history of the Camisard Wars (1702-1715) decrying the clarion calls of wayward Désert Calvinists earlier in the century.[2]

Public spaces and public worship were lynchpins in the debates over religious freedoms. The Edict of Toleration (1787) had explicitly limited public worship to the Catholic Church. At the close of Saint-Étienne’s speech in 1789, he insisted on the right to public worship for all Christians. 

I have an important point to add: it is that a free cult for which I am asking you is a common cult. All cults require many [followers]. A cult [composing] of one [person] is adoration; it is prayer. But none of you can ignore that no religion has ever existed without common worship … Christians cannot deny Christians of [communal] worship, without violating their own principles, since all believe in the necessity of public worship… [Th]e idea of public, common worship is a dogma, an article of faith. It is therefore a religious opinion, in all the justice of the expression.[3]

The National Assembly’s solution rested on valorizing public safety and reducing religion to opinion. The tenth article of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen states: “No one should be disturbed for his opinions, even in religion, provided that their manifestation does not trouble public order as established by law.”[4] In this form, Calvinists could enjoy public worship as long as they did not trouble public order and the article protected them from Catholic aggression.

From August 1789 onward, the Revolution nationalized Catholic Church property, closed monasteries and convents, and abolished the tithe. Catholic polemicists and conspiracy theorists explained equalizing attacks on their faith and their institutional Church in a number of ways. Some imagined a backroom secret alliance between Protestant and revolutionary; others blamed foreigners, sinners, atheists, Jews, or Jansenists.[5] What most Catholics could agree on is that the revolutionary government had abused its power in the realm of religion. Such an accusation must have sounded familiar to those, like Saint-Étienne, who spent much of their life trying to dismantle the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Saint-Étienne’s discourse highlights an often understated quality of the Age of Revolutions. The period was not defined solely by democracy — à la R.R. Palmer — or individual rights.[5] A better definition of the period would underscore the balance between individual rights and the social order. That balance shifted over the course of the French Revolution in dramatic ways. Arguably, the pursuit of such an equilibrium still defines our multi-religious, multi-cultural world today.

Bryan A. Banks is lecturer of history at Georgia State University. He is a religious and intellectual historian of France with an interest in Atlantic and World History. You can tweet him @Bryan_A_Banks.

Title image: Les Coups de Rabot : [estampe] / [non identifié]. In this image, Rabaut Saint-Étienne appears in black robe with a snake’s form protruding from beneath. He claims to have more venom than a snake. From his pen come the names of several sectarian conflicts, massacres, and intended targets like Catholic priests and executive authority. The five Ps stand for “Pauvre Peuple Protestant Prends Patience” or “Poor Protestant people have patience.”

[1] David Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 2003), 30.

[2] Antoine Court, Histoire des troubles des Cévennes ou de la guerre des Camisards (1760). 

[3] Archives Parlementaire, 8:480.

[4] See “Declaration of the Rights of Many and Citizen,” in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 77–79.

[5] See the title image. 

[5] R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Further Readings:

Geoffrey Adams, The Huguenots and French Opinion, 1685-1787: The Enlightenment Debate on Toleration. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1991.

André Dupont, Rabaut Saint-Etienne, 1743-1793: un protestant défenseur de la liberté religieuse. Paris: Labor et Fides, 1989.

David Garrioch, The Huguenots of Paris and the Coming of Religious Freedom, 1685-1789. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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