This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.
In October 2018, I stumbled upon a peculiar photo in the BNF’s Gallica database. It is of the église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île’s doorway. Engraved into the limestone above the entryway is a well-known inscription – LIBERTÉ EGALITÉ FRATERNITÉ. I tweeted the battle cry of the French revolutionaries, which had been etched into face of the church. Quickly, Twitterstorians responded. Revolutionary ideology met religious materiality. The legacy of this encounter, too, had its own history that I and a couple others were interested to piece together.
— David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress) October 16, 2018
The origins of the inscription are easily ascribed to the period of dechristianization when such spaces were claimed for the nation, becoming temples to Reason, while the fate of Catholicism hung above the insurrectionary battlefields of the Vendée, and the private consciences of those who clung to their faith despite such violence. Relatively few books focus on the small church, dwarfed by her island neighbor, the famed Notre Dame de Paris. Yet, in Jacques Hillairet’s 1967 book L’Ile Saint-Louis: rue par ure, maison par maison, we get a glimpse into the history of the building. “Came the Revolution. The church was closed in 1791 and one proposal had it to be demolished for a market for those on the island in the center of the city. The church escaped this destruction but not completely; all of her works of art were stripped from her; the organs tubes were melted into musket balls; the altar served revolutionary orators.” All other material wealth inside the space was sold for the national good. “A certain Fontaine purchased the church on July 31, 1798 for 60,000 francs; he then returned it to the Catholic community for their use, but his heirs sold it on December 15, 1817 to the city of Paris, which began restoration of the church in 1864.” An abbé Bossuet took over the church in 1879 and made great strides in rehabilitating it. Catholic spaces in nineteenth-century France were eventually rebuilt, but they often took time, and for many, including the église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, they continued to bear the mark of the revolutionary era.
When and who removed the inscription proved far more difficult to pinpoint and remains elusive. All of those who wrote of the building note the prolific work abbé Bossuet did to restore the building. None of the texts I’ve consulted specify the year or the person responsible for removing the inscription specifically. One would assume that he would have effaced the revolutionary inscription, but the photo that started this search most likely dates from after Bossuet’s tenure at the church (circa 1888). The Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris only commissioned the well-known photographer, Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857-1927), to photograph the older parts of Paris in 1906, an effort to document the city as waves of modernization began to transform the city itself. Sometime after 1906, the inscription disappeared, but its time there should not be discounted. This is significant, especially given the tumultuous debates that surrounded the formal declaration of laïcité the preceding year in 1905.
Our series “Faith in Revolution” explored the many religious legacies of the revolutionary period. We wanted to open to the door of the religious world and intentionally walk under the banner of revolutionary ideology. Our authors answered the problematique: how can we write the history of revolution with the history of religion? Their answers explored many connections, and while I don’t have the space to connect all 21 of our contributions, I would like to draw readers’ attentions to some of the major themes. Contributions ranged greatly in time and space, rarely conforming to a national boundary. Revolutionary displacement of religious communities, efforts by the religious to recast their faith alongside revolutionary ideals, and the ways that religious ideals shaped those revolutionary ideologies were arguably the most prominent themes. Taken together, the posts in this series show how scholars of religion during the revolutionary era emphasize the vibrancy of faith in light of a revolutionary upheaval often characterized as secular on one end and anti-clerical on the other. Religion remained a formidable mode of identity in an age of nationalism, and religious ideals continued to shape and be shaped by emergent revolutionary ideologies.
Revolution oftentimes displaced those who held tightly onto the privileges of the pre-revolutionary world. Erica Johnson explored those refractory priests who were forced into exile in places as far-flung as French Guiana. And in the process of revolutionaries undermining religious communities, they inadvertently sparked revolutions in their own right – in both the Italian and Iberian peninsulas as Shaun Blanchard and Glauco Schettini showed in their respective posts.
Could revolution be religious? According to Joseph Harmon, French revolutionaries like Durand de Maillane believed the revolution would initiate a period of Catholic renewal rather than destruction. Catholics attempted to shape a revolution often thought to be anti-clerical to its core in Harmon’s reading, just as in Ian Coller’s contribution to the series, we see Muslims participating in revolutionary shifts and attempting to shape their place in a revolution touted as universal. For women, religious community could be conducive to revolutionary change. Corinne Gressang showed how nuns waded through the revolutionary tumult, insisting on the value of their work, as justification for their inclusion. For individuals like Elizabeth Seton, a Catholic convert who founded the US’s first Catholic-vowed religious community in 1808, religious community provided the outlet for what amounted to a revolutionary change in her life, argued Catherine O’Donnell. It was not always a personal revolution either. Arturo Chang explored the ways both Catholic religious passions as well as “indigenous cosmologies” aided in “collectivizing Pan-American revolutionary discourse.” Faith shaped revolutionary republicanism.
And as is often the case, our “Faith in Revolution” series inspired our next efforts to foster conversation – “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon,” coming to an internet connection near you this summer. Markus Weidler, a philosopher and scholar of aesthetics, focused on Heidegger to tease apart ideas related to spiritual fascism. Blake Smith returned to Emile Durkheim to assess how thinking about revolutionary change as a spiritual phenomenon may encourage us to more critically consider revolutionary developments including the rise of human rights discourse. In both cases, the implicit, if not explicit, question was who belongs in the revolutionary canon and how might revisiting the canon lead to new ways of parsing the revolutionary epoch.
Entrances to churches, temples, mosques, or any holy space are culturally significant (rites of) passages. Martin Luther may have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, sparking what Antoine Varillas referred to as a series of “revolutions” in the sixteenth century. Revolutionaries certainly placed their mantra above the door of the église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île intentionally, to remind those who entered of their revolutionary piety and so, one can presume, did the inscription continue to remind church visitors of said piety in the century that followed the revolutionary upheaval.
Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History at Columbus State University. He is currently completing a monograph on Huguenot refugees in the long eighteenth century.. His work has appeared in Eighteenth-Century Studies and French History. He also co-edited a volume entitled The French Revolution and Religion in Global Perspective: Freedom and Faith (New York: Palgrave, 2017). He tweets @BryanBanksPhD.
Title Image: Tympanum of a church in Aups, Var department, which was installed after the 1905 law on the Separation of the State and the Church. Such inscriptions on a church are very rare; this one was restored during the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution.
 Jacques Hillairet, L’Ile Saint-Louis: rue par ure, maison par maison, (Paris, 1967), 219.
 Antoine Varillas, Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans l’Europe en matiere de religion, 6 vols. (Paris, 1686-9).