“Generous Self-Illusions”: Reformed Protestants and the French Revolution

NOTE: this piece first appeared in the Spring 2021 Print Edition of Ad Fontes

In August 2020, The New Criterion ran an essay entitled “The Most Dangerous Place to Be.” It warned against the political utility of defensively allying with or being adjacent to certain totalitarian philosophies: “The most ruthless, radical fringes of all great revolutions,” cautioned the authors, “have drawn much of their initial support from more peaceful, moderate parties.” Revolutionaries were “unvaryingly efficient at eliminating their erstwhile allies once their purpose has been served.” The English Puritan Independents “ditched the Presbyterians, the French Jacobins guillotined the Girondins, the Russian Bolsheviks sent the Mensheviks to the gulag.” Ultimately, they warned, being “to the immediate right of the extreme left is often the most dangerous place to be.”

The aforementioned French Jacobins and their place in the French Revolution is well-trod in the narrative of the French history. What is less known is the place of Protestants in the Revolution. This essay is not a comprehensive history of Protestants and the French Revolution. My purpose is to address French Protestants’ initial interactions with the Revolution to illustrate a Gallican Reformed counterpart to the English and Scots Presbyterian tendency to trust the liberalizing influence of revolutions and revolutionaries. Unlike the Gallican Reformed, the English and Scots Presbyterians would realize only too late the dangers of the totalizing impulse towards “purification” which grips revolutions. This tendency to trust revolutions and their champions, it should be noted, was not Protestant or even Calvinist per se. To illustrate this point, I close this essay with a brief recounting of Protestantism in the Habsburg or Austrian Empire during the same era. In Austria and also in the German states, the Reformed and Lutherans remained intransigent towards the Revolution and were marked by their respective monarchs for their devotion and loyalty. This investigation will enhance our understanding of Protestant political and social thought in modern Europe, and, for contemporary Western Christians, it is a welcome cautionary tale to those who would be adjacent to or engage in political brinkmanship or extremism to achieve desired political, social, or religious outcomes.[1]

Protestant intransigence toward the Bourbon monarchy was perfectly understandable given the history of France in the Early Modern Era. Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau revoked the broad toleration that Protestants enjoyed since Henry IV—a Calvinist convert to Roman Catholicism—promulgated the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Immediately the French monarchy began tyrannizing French Protestants. Thousands emigrated; those who did not leave for Britain, the Low Countries, or Germany were hunted by French authorities. By the third decade of the eighteenth century, Louis XIV and his successor, Louis XV, used a series of stiff penalties to proscribe Protestant doctrine and worship—Calvinist and Lutheran—throughout France. Louis XVI’s reign began auspiciously, and the young king indicated his willingness to revisit the French state’s systematic oppression of Huguenots. Protestants, it should be noted, did not participate in the street violence against the Bourbon regime that occurred in the 1780s. Most Calvinists in the cities formed an important part of the property-owning middle class and were unwilling to engage in more radical forms of civil protest. In 1788, Louis XVI made Jacques Necker, a Swiss Calvinist, his chief minister. Reform lay on the horizon. Protestants might have chosen to publicly demonstrate loyalty to the absolute regime in the hopes that Louis XVI might become a self-conscious protector of Protestants like his brother-in-law, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. Instead, Protestants become conservative revolutionists, hoping that the revolutionary moment would end in a constitutional monarchy.

French Protestants participated enthusiastically when the King called for a meeting of the Estates General to mitigate social unrest in 1789. Two years earlier, Louis XVI lifted most civil sanctions against Huguenots, and their lot in French society improved quickly. While they did not delight in absolute monarchy, unlike their American co-religionists, most saw the king as an ally in need of limited guardrails provided by relatively narrow constitutional measures. Many, like Antoine Barnave, simply wanted the King to accede to the relatively restrained demands of Necker. And after the Revolution in the summer of 1789, French Protestants hoped for a constitutional monarchy. Indeed, Republicanism held no special meaning for French Protestants. Calvinists who participated in the National Assembly between 1789 and the instigation of the Terror all remained committed to the conservative cause of maintaining or restoring the monarchy on constitutional grounds. Their conspicuous refusal to participate in radical politics made them particular targets for the increasingly secular leaders of Revolutionary France.[2]

By 1793, a number of former Roman Catholic priests, seminarians, and occasionally even bishops who had turned on the Roman hierarchy led a movement to de-Christianize France; there would be—could be—no middle ground between the secular republic and religious toleration. The few Protestants who placed their hopes in a pluralistic secular republic saw those same hopes dashed in the Spring of 1793 when the leaders of the Revolution unleashed the Cult of Reason on French society. The Cult immediately erased every gain made by Protestants during three years of Louis XVI’s constitutional rule. The first batch of churches closed by the regime included Paris’s main Protestant congregation.

The dean of nineteenth-century French historians, the politician and writer François Guizot, argued that the initial constitutional revolution of 1789/90 enjoyed warm Protestant support but rejected the common Roman Catholic and Counterrevolutionary polemic that Protestants overthrew societal order in the name of en masse liberalization. Guizot’s father died by the guillotine during the Terror, and Guizot despised the accusation that the Revolution and Protestantism were synonymous, a common refrain from some conservative Roman Catholics. Johann Georg Heinzmann, a German writer, traveled through France in 1799 and wrote that “French counter-revolutionaries say that the Protestants are the cause of the Revolution and that they degraded the clergy and disseminated free ideas, which are those of foreigners, not the French.” The Republican French, Heinzmann remarked, valued Protestants and gave “them credit for the first victory of light over dark. The true revolutionary…is a friend of the Protestants.” Guizot, by contrast, spent his life arguing for and eventually serving constitutional monarchy. Although he rejected absolutism, he sneered at the idea that the revolution owed its trajectory to Protestantism. French Huguenots, Guizot mourned, had been ultimately fooled by the promises of the early days of the French Revolution. “The Protestants, who had long bent under a painful yoke which years had scarcely alleviated, found themselves delivered by the dawn of the French Revolution, which they hailed with transport.” But their enthusiasm quickly turned to horror. A “certain number of the constitutionals”—Protestants committed to the Constitutional monarchy of 1789–91—“paid, on the scaffold of ‘The Terror,’ for their generous self-illusions in 1789.”[3]

The Catholic association of French Protestantism with the revolutionary causes sustained the perceptions that Huguenots were particularly devoted to the French Revolution. This led to sectarian conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics in some locales during the early years of the Revolution. Rural Catholic peasants viewed the revolutionary upheavals as largely benefitting urban Protestant merchants at their expense. Somewhat ironically, however, the French Revolution ultimately mitigated sectarian differences between Catholics and Protestants: successive revolutionary governments culminating in the Terror, instigated by Robespierre and the Parisian Committee of Public Safety, grew more violent and totalitarian in their rejection of religion. Tragically, Protestants realized only too late that their natural allies in the Revolution were Catholics who remained publicly devout. Nigel Aston noted that “once members of the Reformed faith felt their dearly won legal status was secure, they were ready to look more kindly on their Catholic neighbors, especially after the Revolution began to turn away from any version of Christianity at all.” Unfortunately for the Reformed, the Revolution’s turn away from Christianity would be murderous, and it set back French Protestantism for a generation.[4]

Between 1790 and 1794 the baneful effects of the Revolution on Christianity broadly and on Protestantism specifically became clearer to Huguenots both in Paris and the provinces. Late-nineteenth century historian William Milligan Sloane lamented that, “of the pastors who had seen the opening of the Revolution, but a handful of exhausted, discouraged men” were left by 1800. “The ranks of the laity had been continuously decimated by shameful apostacies, for the deism of England and Germany had reacted on them and sapped their faith.” Still, Sloane argued, Huguenots did not experience the en masse and high-profile defections that rent Roman Catholicism in France. “The Reformed Church,” Sloane noted, “knew nothing of the throes which shook Roman Catholicism.”

While most French Protestants lived in the countryside, the most prominent and visible Huguenots lived prosperously as merchants in France’s Atlantic port cities. Protestants experienced the coercive power of the secular French state when the Republic obliterated all laws protecting merchants from having to do business on Sundays in 1791. The prominence of Protestants among France’s merchant class meant they could be easily targeted by Republican officials eager to prosecute the enemies of the Revolution. Protestantism’s minority status also meant that they also represented relatively helpless victims. Protestants often outnumbered Roman Catholics among the targets of Revolutionary murder, especially in southern France. During the Terror, Revolutionaries guillotined 150 men and women in the district of Gard; 117 of them were Protestants.[5] The Terror’s grotesque extremes ultimately created an ecumenism of blood between France’s Catholics and Protestants. Like all Christians, Sloane noted, Protestants “were persecuted and terrorized. Many abandoned their faith and cause. The organization of the church was substantially destroyed.”[6]

Even if Reformed churchmen fared better than their Catholic brethren, their relatively small numbers and massive emigration during the Terror meant that “almost the only faithful were…the plain people in towns like Nîmes and Montauban, who retorted on the violence of radicals and Catholics with blow for blow.” The Protestant middle class opted for less violent means of survival and “nourished their faith in secret and took refuge from trouble behind an outward conformity.”[7] Occasional efforts to “reconstitute the Protestant congregations were made under the Directory, and in some cases they met with success,” but the enervated French Protestantism sustained by the initial enthusiasm of the French Revolution in 1789 died with the judicial murder of Louis XVI and the end of the Constitutional monarchy. Although the French Protestant church endured until its rescue by Napoleon and the Empire, “it could barely maintain itself, and played no decisive rôle in religious affairs. Its seminaries were closed, its people disheartened, its pastors dismayed, its voice almost hushed.”[8] In sum, then, French Protestants flirted with revolution but ultimately broke with the revolutionaries once it became clear that a secular democratic republic, not a constitutional monarchy, was the final goal of revolutionary leaders.

The actions of French Protestants stand in stark contrast to those Protestants in Habsburg dominions, however, who were enthusiastically committed to defending their Roman Catholic sovereigns and societal order from revolutionary doctrines at the outset of the upheavals of 1789. They had good reason for their loyalties. Emperor Joseph II ended the en masse civil persecution of Protestants in the 1780s and his successors gave Protestants comprehensive civil rights and even basic political rights. Holy Roman Emperor Francis II—later Emperor Francis I of Austria—assumed the throne in 1792 and went considerably further than French monarchs when he stopped coerced conversions and removed the ability of Catholic activists to act with impunity towards Protestants. Scott Berg noted that Habsburg monarchs seemed keen on bringing Protestants into fuller civil and social participation in what was still a Catholic monarchy. Calvinists—a sizable population especially in Hungary—and Lutherans “enjoyed Habsburg patronage by the 1790s, as the state enforced laws that were fair (or even favorable) to Protestantism, provided assistance to build Protestant churches, and standardized the organization of Protestant communities.” Francis I also allowed Protestant princes to secularize church property outside Habsburg domains in return for continued loyalty against France, a loyalty that would have been given even without the gains from church property. Secularizing church property allowed local Calvinist and Lutheran princes to solidify their own temporal rule without having to compete with the local Roman Catholic hierarchy on questions of land title, distribution, and use. Permitting Calvinist and Lutheran princes to seize church property benefitted the Habsburg emperors as much as it did the Protestants, since the former would no longer have to maintain far-flung garrisons to protect various prince-bishops and other ecclesiastical rulers outside of the Austrian monarchy’s heartland of Austria proper and Hungary. Protestants rejected French propaganda and trumpeted their commitment to the emperor in his fight against the forces of revolution. One Protestant newspaper declared that it “knew of no suppression and burdensome restriction. We enjoy the protection of the government to its fullest extent.”[9]

French military successes spurred the Austrian Emperors to greater religious inclusiveness, especially for German and Magyar-speaking Protestants. Maintaining a polyglot empire flung across Western and Central Europe hampered the Monarchy’s ability to fight the Revolutionary armies effectively. From the reign of Joseph II, German-speaking leaders of Austria wanted to retrench and build the Empire around its German and Magyar core. Protestant participation in Hungary and in Austria proper, therefore, became a necessity for the Monarchy’s very survival. The emperors and their Protestant subjects recognized this, and the milieu created by the French Revolution in Austria allowed the Austrian monarchs and their Protestant subjects to enjoy a cooperative relationship that kept the Habsburg Empire from suffering any serious sectarian disputes until its dissolution in 1918. It also allowed Protestants a measure of political and religious flourishing that outpaced all other Catholic monarchies on the continent during the nineteenth century.

Contemporary conservative Protestants active in politics have been quick to view disruption as a political benefit; too often they adopt the position, at least rhetorically, that any government or societal arrangement can be better than the one that preceded it. Bradford Littlejohn noted this tendency toward brinkmanship recently in Breaking Ground. Christians in the twenty-first century “hunger for eschatological judgment. And rightly so; it is this hunger that drives us to fight corruption and seek reform rather than throwing up our hands in complacency or despair.” Littlejohn noted that Christians “must fight racism, tyranny, and fraud wherever they rear their heads. But we must do so as a public, not as vigilantes, and that means we must enact justice with sometimes maddening imperfection.” The lesson for Christians in the twenty-first century West is not dissimilar to that for French Protestants at the end of the eighteenth. Surely the Bourbon monarchy qualified as a government as maddeningly imperfect as the neoliberal American republic. And certainly, Christians have every right to hope for reform. But slipping from the desire for reform into a desire for revolution leads to the unfulfilled nihilism that comes when the earthly eschaton is either disappointing or incomplete. The ecclesiastical or doctrinal decimation that always attends modern revolutions leaves communities worse off than they were before. In 1788, French Protestants were able to live with modest restrictions upon their religion; in 1798, they were hunted. Christians in the West might understandably complain about their lot in 2021. Still, prudent living as Christian citizens and members of the public means we must rely even on maddening imperfection.[10]

Miles Smith IV is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. His scholarly interests center on intellectual and religious life in the Nineteenth Century Atlantic World.

  1. Julia Friedman and David Hawkes, “The Most Dangerous Place to Be,” New Criterion, Aug 2020.
  2. Ian Davidson, The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny (New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2016), 72.
  3. Darrin M. McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 77–83; Johann Georg Heinzmann, Voyage d’un Allemand à Paris et retour par la Suisse (Lausanne, 1800), 158, 172–3; François Guizot, France Vol. VIII (New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1898), 213.
  4. Nigel Aston, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780–1804 (Washington: Catholic University Press, 2000), 247.
  5. John G. Lorimer, An Historical Sketch of the Protestant Church of France: From Its Origin to the Present Times (Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1841), 531.
  6. William Milligan Sloane, The French Revolution and Religious Reform (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 239–243.
  7. Sloane, The French Revolution and Religious Reform, 239–243.
  8. Sloane, The French Revolution and Religious Reform, 239–243; Burdette C. Poland, French Protestantism and the French Revolution: Church and State, Thought, and Religion 1685–1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 193–228.
  9. Scott Berg, “‘The Lord Has Done Great Things for Us’: The 1817 Reformation Celebrations and the End of the Counter-Reformation in the Habsburg Lands,” Central European History 49 (2016): 69–92; Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 66–68.
  10. Brad Littlejohn, “Justice in a Time out of Joint,” Breaking Ground, January 13, 2021, https://breakingground.us/justice-in-a-time-out-of-joint/.


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