Religion and the French Revolution: A Global Perspective

By Bryan A. Banks and Erica Johnson

The French Revolution, though political, assumed the guise and tactics of a religious revolution. Some further points of resemblance between the two may be noticed. The former not only spread beyond the limits of France, but, like religious revolutions, spread by preaching and propaganda.[1]

—Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Ancien régime et la Révolution, 1856.

Was the French Revolution a religious “revolution”? Such a question is often dismissed and in many ways, rightfully so. Surely, the revolution’s affronts to the Catholic Church, the forced marriages of priests and nuns, the resulting renegade refractory priesthood, the counter-revolutionary insurrections like those in the Vendée, and the dechristianization efforts best embodied by the secularization of the French republican calendar or the effacement of the Notre Dame of Paris, to name just a few, emphasize what especially counter-revolutionary figures often construed as the anti-religious character of the French Revolution. Such events led Tocqueville to pay closer attention to the “political” nature of the revolutionary movement, but his allusions to the revolution’s seemingly religious methods reflect the broader religious effects of the revolution itself. The French Revolution, like the religious revolutions of the sixteenth century (i.e. the Reformation), spread across borders, permeated diverse populations by harnessing the power of pseudo-religious demagoguery, and promised a future of possibilities that challenged Christian eschatology.

At the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era a couple of years ago, we decided to rethink Tocqueville’s assertion, and examine the French Revolution through both a religious and a global lens. The byproduct was a fruitful discussion, which then led to the production of our edited collection, The French Revolution and Religion in Global Perspective: Freedom and Faith. The volume’s nine chapters explore the complicated, transnational history of the French Revolution, arguing against the traditional secular narrative, which sees 1789 as the opening up of the anti-religious modern world. Instead of viewing the revolution as attempting to replace religion, we argue that religious communities recalibrated and France rechristianized in a revolutionary, religious process. The French Revolution was of “world-historical” importance for religion.[2]

Book cover of The French Revolution and Religion in Global Perspective by Bryan Banks and Erica Johnson.

The ways in which religion influenced the French Revolution and in which revolutionaries mobilized religion (i.e. their politics of religion) are central themes. How did the transnational religious communities and ideas shape the revolution’s religious policies? Bryan Banks focuses on the role that the Huguenot diaspora played in the rhetoric of the revolutionaries. Early in the revolution, many sought something like reparations for Huguenots upon their return. Specifically, revolutionaries promised to return Huguenot ancestral lands (provided that they remained in the royal domaines), if they returned to France from the diaspora. Revolutionaries imagined the Huguenot diaspora in ways that furthered their universalist claims and tested their relationship with the Catholic populace. Similarly, Blake Smith’s chapter on Anquetil Duperron considers the ways in which Frenchmen encountered Hinduism as a means to rethink the revolution’s relationship with religion. Duperron’s translations of the Upanishads reveal how orientalism could be mobilized to critique the revolution itself. Duperron imagined not the abandonment of religion, but a universal spirituality capable of uniting Catholics and Hindus in a radical new faith.

While Banks and Smith focus on the French imaginings of far-off religions, Erica Johnson and Kirsty Carpenter explore ways in which French émigrés used space to navigate the revolution. Johnson’s chapter focuses on the movement of religious orders and refractory priests around the Atlantic world during the revolutionary period, while Carpenter’s work examines the religious lives of French aristocrats in London. For Johnson, space gave these individuals new-found agency whereas those who remained in the metropole often found their orders and livelihoods ripped apart. For Carpenter, space meant separation, and that separation led to the weakening of émigré Catholicism, encouraging acculturation and eventually conversion.

The second half of the book deals with the religious legacies of the Revolution in a myriad of ways. What impact did the French Revolution have over the long term in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? In many ways, Sarah A. Curtis’s chapter on the religious lives of missionary nuns continues the story that Johnson begins. The French Revolution’s anti-religious campaign empowered French Catholic nuns, who sought refuge in French colonial spaces and found agency through proselytizing.

The Revolution’s religious legacy extended into the French Empire and beyond.  Whitney Abernathy Barnes’ chapter on Tocqueville reconsiders the nineteenth-century theorist through the context of the colonization of Algeria and Tocqueville’s conception of a “civic Christianity.” The crisis of Catholicism drove imperialism, but also individual self-doubt. As Thomas Kselman notes in his chapter, the once seminal proponent of ultramontagnism, Felicité Lamennais, was unable to reconcile the liberal government of the French Revolution and its demands defended by claims to the rights of individual conscience on one side with the Catholic Church’s claim to spiritual dominance on the other. This brought him into direct conflict with the papacy. In the end, the Revolution’s legacy proved too difficult for Lamennais to remain in the Catholic fold.

The last two chapters approach the French Revolution in terms of  statecraft and legacy. Morten Nordhagen Ottosen asks a key question concerning Bavarian politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: did the French Revolution spread religious toleration, or did it stunt an already growing religious toleration in the German lands? Ottonsen defends the latter position, complicating the argument that the French Revolution wrought modernity to the rest of the world – a modernity often defined in terms of liberty, even a religious liberty. Hakan Gungor goes a little further afield to assess how the French Revolution served as a model for the Turkish War of Independence in 1919, and the subsequent creation of the Turkish state. Drawing remarkable comparisons between the political and material cultures of the French and Turkish cases, Gungor ruminates on the creation of a secular state that constantly had to resacralize itself – such a problem, he argues, began during the French Revolution and continues to this day.

Our volume asks a big question: Can thinking about religion during the French Revolution on a global scale offer any particular insight into a period often imagined to be the “crucible of the modern world?” The answer we came up with is yes. The chapters in the volume trace the imagined and real encounters that revolutionaries had with, or left for, the rest of the religious world. The sum total is that the revolution’s legacy is far more complicated than the old secular narrative of modernity would allow. Dechristianization was a key feature of the revolution, but so too was rechristianization, or at the very least, a revolutionary recalibration of faith.


Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He is currently completing a monograph on the role of Huguenots in the making of modern French political culture. He tweets @Bryan_A_Banks.

Erica Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University.  Her book Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan.  She tweets @DrEricaJohnson.

Title image: Anonymous, “Réunion du calvinisme, du jansénisme et du philosophisme pour renverser l’autel et le trône” in Jacques-Marie Boyer Brun, Histoire des caricatures de la révolte des français, 2 vols. (Paris, 1792).


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Ancien régime et la Révolution (Paris, 1856), 40.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. by J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), 285.

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