Napoleon: Strongman of the Evangelicals?

Huguenot statesman François Guizot (1787-1874) served as the last Prime Minister of the Kingdom of France. In February, 1848 Parisian rioters deposed King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) along with Guizot and his government. Elections that year brought Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873) to power as president of the republic. The Prince-President, as he styled himself, owed his massive popularity to the memory of his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who ruled France as dictatorial first counsel and then as emperor from 1799 to 1814. By 1849 Louis Napoleon had settled comfortably into the presidential chair. His coup against the republic lay two years in the future. He eventually crowned himself emperor in 1852. Guizot, as early as 1849, worried over the future of liberalism in France, publishing his reflections as Democracy in France: January 1849. A devout French Reformed Protestant, Guizot lingered in particular on Napoleon I, who he admired with qualifications. A decade earlier, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote an essay comparing Napoleon and Cromwell. “No great man,” wrote Carlyle, “lives in vain. The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.” The presence of the great man was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century, and Protestant-influenced histories had no qualms about celebrating great men as prime movers of historical events. In Europe and in the United States, nineteenth century Protestantism inherited from the Anglophone Protestant tradition an intellectual milieu that baptized figures like Cromwell and George Washington. Far from being an aberration of historic Protestant hagiography, celebration of Napoleon fit with a long tradition of Whiggish Protestants viewing strongmen and perceived masculine paragons as God-ordained means to punish the wicked, protect the righteous, and bring order out of chaos, even as conservative aristocratic and antidemocratic clerical elites, some of whom have also been termed evangelicals—in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States—tended to be the most vocal opponents of Napoleon (and Cromwell before him).[1]

Nineteenth century Protestant intellectuals saw great men as necessary historical actors for the rise of liberalism, religious liberty, and representative government. American, British, Dutch, and Swiss Protestant writers—many of them sons of clergymen—reserved their highest encomiums not for clerics, but for sometimes authoritarian statesmen and warriors. Since the seventeenth century Puritans had offered up Oliver Cromwell as a paradox. Richard Baxter (1615-1691) saw Cromwell as a great man corrupted by power, and English-language Protestant historians–Anglican, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian–believed Cromwell a historic necessity, though an imperfect one. American and British clergymen of the nineteenth century seemed more comfortable with great men, even despots, as an unqualified good than their English and Scottish antecedents of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Presbyterian minister, writer, and sometimes politician J.T. Headley (1813-1897) argued in his history of Napoleon’s marshals that he and so many other Americans had been wrongly duped into thinking Napoleon was a tyrant by the mountains of British-influenced books that formed the corpus of Anglo-American historiography on Napoleon in the two decades after the French emperor’s death. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Headley argued, beclowned himself in his attempt to intellectually defame Napoleon. “That English historians,” Headley sneered, “should attempt to cover their most successful enemy with unmerited guilt, especially when it is necessary to do so, in order to screen their own nation against the accusations which France lays at her door, is to be expected.” Walter Scott “has done himself more injury in his Life of Napoleon than he has the great man he slandered; and Mr. Mitchell, who has lately written three volumes to convince men that Napoleon was a fool, has succeeded only in proving himself one.” [2]

Protestants never pinned their praise for Cromwell or Napoleon on a belief that great men were particularly pious or religious. Rather they saw great men as men who conformed historical events to their own will. Even before Nietzsche, intellectuals and writers had a category for great men that revolved around their ability to shape events through their raw willpower without regard to ideas, religion, or even morality. Even Church of Scotland minister J.G, Lockhart (1794-1854), who hated the Napoleonic legacy, admitted in his 1851 Napoleon biography that the French leader was an obviously great man whose greatness was neither moral nor intellectual. Napoleon’s greatness was “that of action. A great actor may be neither morally or intellectually great in the sense above given to the terms. As an actor he has nothing to do with abstractions.” The French Emperor’s business was “with men and things. Virtue and truth are nothing to him as ends, but are both subservient to the higher end with him of making everything move according to his grand purposes.” He delighted “in Revolutions, and the wild upheavings of society where long-established dynasties sink to nothingness, and powerful thrones crumble to dust in a day. War nourishes him with its scenes of carnage; the roar of battle is sweet music in his ear.” Napoleon’s “joy “was playing “with the wild elements of human passion,” and guiding them “all according to his will.” He wielded scepter and sword. “Court and the camp” were his home. “When a nation is born, his name is written in blood or in tears upon its baptismal register. Men fear, but few love him. He awes all into submission, and makes them live only as he dispenses his favors. Now in this is greatness, and here we must place Napoleon.” Lockhart wrote that Napoleon “was the greatest actor that the world has known since the time of Caesar. He sported with crowns and scepters “as the baubles of a child.” He rode triumphantly to power “over the ruins of the thrones with which strewed his pathway.” Before him, “vast armies melted away like wax before him. He moved over the earth as a meteor traverses the sky, astonishing and startling all by the suddenness and brilliancy of his career.” Napoleon’s “greatness” lay in political action. “The earth will feel his power till its last cycle shall have been run.” [3]

Lockhart could not help a bit of Presbyterian moralizing and sneered that although Napoleon was undoubtedly great, he might have chosen to be “great in his love of virtue or of truth, but he forsook these and chose a meaner end of life. Verily he hath his reward.” Lockhart inserted a poem after his final analysis of Napoleon that offered a caustic indictment of the Napoleonic legacy.

                      The warrior's name, 
Tho' pealed and chimed on all the tongues of fame,  
    Sounds less harmonious to the grateful mind,  
  Than his, who fashions and improves mankind.

State church ministers like Lockhart loathed Napoleon. The Church of England hierarchy’s hatred of him was near universal. One parish priest argued that “by no power is [Napoleon] to fall but by British alone, for hitherto no other nation has been able to struggle against this anti-Christ.” Church of Scotland ministers, who like their English brethren tended to be Tories in politics, joined the Church of England in their contempt. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) saw Napoleon as nothing more than a trumped up criminal. In the United States divines in the New England’s Congregationalist state churches felt likewise. In 1811, Byfield, Massachusetts’ minister Elijah Parish (1762-1825) called Napoleon a scourge of God and expressed his horror at how some Protestants in America made excuses for the Corsican in the name of liberty and democracy. The “French Party” in the United States—an unsubtle euphemism for political and religious devotees of former president Thomas Jefferson—represented a “miserable interest” bent on corrupting the American republic. Jefferson’s partisans—Baptists, Methodists, and Southern Presbyterians—were following in the footsteps of Europeans who “called themselves republicans, and their country and themselves. are crushed. They excused the outrages of Napoleon; they apologized for his atheism; they disbelieved his designs of universal devastation, till they felt his sword in their own vitals.” Jefferson’s neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars infuriated ministers like Parish, who sarcastically asked what Napoleon had done for the United States outside of harassing American shipping.[4]

In France however, Protestantism remained a non-elite tradition. Subsequently, liberal Protestants influenced by Britain’s Whig tradition sympathized with Napoleon’s authoritarian regulation of former elites in the state-sustained Roman Catholic hierarchy and the aristocracy. François Guizot saw that, imperfect as he was, Napoleon more than any other French leader helped create the material and political conditions for nascent French democracy. “Democratic France,” said Guizot, “owes much to the emperor Napoleon. He gave her two things of immense value: within, civil order strongly constituted; with-out, national independence firmly established.” Napoleon, however, failed to follow through on the promises that a secure civil society offered French politics. France, lamented Guizot, never had “a government which treated her with greater severity, or showed less complaisance for the favourite passions of Democracy.” Napoleon’s only care regarding the political constitution of France “was to raise power from the abasement into which it had fallen, to restore to it all the conditions of force and greatness. In this he saw a national interest paramount to all others, whether the nation were governed democratically or otherwise.” Napoleon’s essential failing, however, remained the fact that he was a despot. “If he rightly understood and ably served some of the great interests of that new France he had to govern, he profoundly misunderstood and injured others, not less sacred.” Guizot wondered “how was it possible that one so hostile to liberty should be favourable to the political propensities of Democracy?” Guizot understood that he “ran no risk of forgetting that Napoleon was a despot, for I have not to learn it now-I thought so when he was living. It may, however, be asked whether he could have been otherwise? whether he could have tolerated political liberty, and whether we were then in a state to receive it?” Guizot’s conjectures about the sphinxlike nature of Napoleon’s various political beliefs did not keep the former from seeing the French emperor as one of history’s great men. “There are men, and very great men,” wrote Guizot, “who are suited to certain diseased and transitory crises, and not to the sane and permanent state of society. Napoleon was, perhaps, one of those men.” Guizot believed that Napoleon “mistook some of the essential wants of our time… But he reestablished order and authority in the midst of democratic France.” Napoleon, said Guizot, “believed, and he proved, that it was possible to serve and to govern a democratic society without humouring all its inclinations. This is his real greatness.”

In Guizot’s reading of history, Napoleon did for France what Cromwell did for England. It is unsurprising that Guizot’s interest in Napoleon dovetailed with the former’s interest in the English Civil Wars. Guizot wrote a massive history of the English wars of the middle of the seventeenth century. Cromwell, not Charles II, emerged from Guizot’s pages as the great man who reoriented England’s government away from the arbitrary divine right caprice of Charles I, and away from the fanatical anarchy of the Puritan parliamentarians. Guizot praised Cromwell for understanding that the government planned by the parliamentary forces was destined for failure. “Cromwell perceived that the government which it was attempted to establish would not succeed; that neither the institutions nor the men would do.” In the parliamentary plan for the institutions “there was no unity, no stability, no future; Intestine war and permanent uncertainty would exist at the seat of power.” Cromwell knew the parliamentary men held “narrow or chimerical views” and were led by “mean or blind passions.” England’s “revolutionary struggle would be perpetuated between the governing power and the country.” The Lord Protector “foresaw the ruin of the parliament and of its leaders; determined not to fall with them, he desired to elevate himself by their side.” Like all “men who are great in action,” Cromwell’s genius lay in his reliance on his “instinct” and in his “ambition.” Napoleon, for Guizot, brought order out of chaos in the mold of Cromwell. Both men freed their countries, if only briefly, but they laid the legacy of freedom that culminated in the liberal July Monarchy in France and in the United States’ republic.[5]

American Protestants of liberal inclinations read the history of the Modern Era since 1500 as a narrative of political development that inevitably led to the American political and religious settlement. This reading of history—the Whig theory of history—began in eighteenth century Britain and reached its apotheosis in the nineteenth century United States. Keith Sewell helpfully describes Whig history “as the nineteenth-century school of historiography that praised all progress and habitually associated Protestantism with liberal views of liberty.” Seminaries that identified with the burgeoning evangelical movement that swept Protestant churches between 1800 and 1830 wedded a healthy regard for political liberalism with relative theological orthodoxy. Andover Seminary exemplified this trend. During the era of state church disestablishment in the Early Republic, the seminary went from a culture of establishmentarian suspicion of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson—perceived by many elites as a sort of American Caesar—to an institution comfortable with a Whig narrative of history that included strongmen like Cromwell and Napoleon.[6]

John Lord (1810-1894), an Andover graduate and Congregationalist minister in Massachusetts, wrote in his A Modern History: From the Time of Luther to the Fall of Napoleon that Cromwell was the “hero” of the English Civil War that brought Puritan conceptions of the “power of faith” and “loyalty of consciences” into the English political milieu. Of Napoleon, Lord wrote that he “had enlightened views, and wished to advance the real interests of the French nation, but not until he had climbed to the summit of power, and realized all those dreams which a most inordinate ambition had excited.” Napoleon, argued Lord, “doubtless rescued his country from the dangers which menaced it from foreign invasion; but his conquests and his designs led to still greater combinations, and these, demanding for their support the united energies of Christendom, deluged the world with blood.” Even Napoleon’s failings did not keep him from being a force for good. Napoleon proved to be an “Angel Death” whose “grim terrors,” punished “men for crimes.” Lord wrote that while war was so awful, “and attended with all the evils of which we can conceive, or which it is the doom of man to suffer, yet warriors are not necessarily the enemies of mankind.” Napoleon the warrior was the instrument “of the Almighty to scourge a wicked world, or to bring, out of disaster and suffering, great and permanent blessings to the human race.” Lord echoed J.G. Lockhart’s assessment of Napoleon as a great man who made events submit to his will. “His extraordinary and astonishing energies were called into exercise by the circumstances of the times; and he, taking advantage of both ideas and circumstances, attempted to rear a majestic throne, and advance the glory of His country, of which he made himself the absolute ruler.”[7]

Another Andover graduate, John S.C. Abbott (1805-1877), adored Napoleon. Abbott, who Carolyn J. Lawed noted had an “evangelical understanding of orthodox Congregationalism,” lamented that “the history of Napoleon has often been written by his enemies. This history is from the pen of one who reveres and loves the emperor.” Abbott admired “Napoleon because he abhorred war, and did everything in his power to avert that dire calamity; Because he merited the sovereignty to which the suffrages of a grateful nation elevated him.” Napoleon, argued Abbott, “consecrated the most extraordinary energies ever conferred upon a mortal to promote the prosperity of his country.” The French warlord “was regardless of luxury, and cheerfully endured all toil and all hardships that he might elevate and bless the masses of mankind.” Abbott rejected characterizations of Napoleon as without honor or virtue. The Emperor “had a high sense of honor, revered religion, respected the rights of conscience, and nobly advocated equality of privileges and the universal brotherhood of man. Such was the true character of Napoleon Bonaparte.”[8]

Andover evangelicals fit the undeniably autocratic Napoleon comfortably into their pantheon of liberal evangelical Protestant heroes who paved the way for the rights of conscience, freedom of religion, and the egalitarian universal brotherhood of man. But not every evangelical shared Abbott and Lord’s affection for Napoleon. Charles Hodge (1797-1878), who enjoyed the reputation as a—if not the—leading evangelical Protestant of the nineteenth century United States saw Napoleon’s legacy as one of militarist mediocrity at best. Hodge mocked the Bonapartes, Napoleon I and his nephew Napoleon III. France, said Hodge, “seems to me like a great bear led about by a soldier and ridden by a monkey, —if it be not wrong to speak thus of rulers. What is to come of all this God only knows.” France and all liberal Europe in the 1850s were faced with a return to Napoleonic “military despotism or socialistic anarchy, and, therefore, it is not wonderful that so many are willing to choose the former.” Hodge and the Princeton Seminary he oversaw firmly opposed the increasingly democratized age they inhabited and rejected that same democratization in both politics and religion. Hodge’s Princeton, notes Paul Gutjahr, “positioned itself in firm opposition to America’s post-Revolutionary exultation of individuality, autonomy, and self-empowerment.” The Seminary, Gutjahr argues in his biography of Hodge, stood athwart “against the dangers of democracy run amok.” Princeton’s anti-democratic tendencies came from the fact that the faculty tended to be from Federalist backgrounds who prioritized elitism and aristocratic conformity to institutional norms, the very tendencies that Napoleon sought to destroy in his tenure as ruler of France. Liberal Andover’s embrace of Napoleon and antidemocratic Princeton’s dismissal of the Bonapartist legacy represented two dueling perceptions of the place of strongmen in liberalism’s historical development, but both were within the Whiggish Evangelical Protestant paradigm.[9]

In the early twenty-first century, historians and journalists have argued in recent years that in their support of Donald Trump, evangelicals departed from a tradition of liberal democracy and embraced undemocratic politics or authoritarianism. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history gender studies at Calvin University, argued in her Jesus and John Wayne that “for nearly fifty years, evangelicals were looking for a protector, an aggressive, heroic, manly man, someone who wasn’t restrained by political correctness or feminine virtues, someone who would break the rules for the right cause.” In Unholy, Sarah Postner posited Trump was “the strongman the Christian right had long been waiting for.” Russell Moore, the Editor in Chief of Christianity Today, penned a passionate denunciation of what he perceived to be evangelical Christianity’s unrecognizable embrace of strongmen and authoritarians. Yet although it is true that Protestants—evangelicals included—in the United States broadly inherit the Whig Protestant tradition that views liberalism and representative government as political and social goods, the fact is that this tradition also included acceptance of and even submission to strongmen in order to preserve liberty in the case of anarchy or mob rule. Regardless of its right and wrongs, it is simply not the case that evangelical support for Donald Trump amounts to an unprecedented departure from an unbroken evangelical tradition of rejecting strongmen. Napoleon got there first.[10]

Miles Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College

  1. François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2002), x-xi; Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), 26.

  2. E.S. de Beer, “Some Recent Works on Oliver Cromwell,” History 23, no. 90 (1938): 120–34; J.T. Headley, Napoleon and His Marshals Volume 1 (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1846), 10.

  3. J.G. Lockhart, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte: Emperor of France (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1851), iv.

  4. Lockhart, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, iv; William Gibson, The Church of England 1688-1832: Unity and Accord (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 222; Thomas Chalmes, Thoughts on Universal Peace: A Sermon Delivered on Thursday, January 18, 1816, The Day of National Thanksgiving for the Restoration of Peace (Glasgow, William Lang, 1816), 11-12; Elijah Parish, A Sermon Preached at Byfield, on the Annual Fast, April 11, 1811 (Newburyport, MA: E.A. Allen, 1811), 6, 21, 25.

  5. François Guizot, On the Causes of the Success of the English Revolution 1640-88 (London: John Cassell, 1851), 17-18.

  6. Keith C. Sewell, “Butterfield’s Critique of the Whig Interpretation” in Keith C. Sewell ed., Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 30-47; Danial Day Williams, The Andover Liberals: A Study in American Theology (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1941), 24.

  7. John Lord, A Modern History: From the Time of Luther to the Fall of Napoleon (Philadelphia, PA: Cowperthwait, Desilver, & Butler, 1849), 167, 496-497.

  8. Carolyn J. Lawes, “Capitalizing on Mother: John S.C. Abbott and Self-Interested Motherhood.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 108, no. 2 (1998): 343; John S.C. Abbott, The History of Napoleon Bonaparte Volume I (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1855), iii.

  9. John W. Stewart and James H. Moorehead eds,, Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, MA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), vii; A.A. Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge D.D. LL.D. professor in the Theological Seminary Princeton N.J. (), 394; Paul Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2011), 94-96.

  10. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liverlight, 2020); Sarah Posner, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump (New York: Random House, 2020), xiii; Russell Moore, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (New York: Sentinel, 2023), 72.


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