he French Revolution was the beginning of a dark day for European Christianity. The revolution’s impact was felt not on Christianity alone, nor Europe alone, but the entire world. The revolution set off a chain of events that is still affecting the world today. This analysis will attempt to discuss European Christianity in broad strokes — how Europe was changed and suffered wide-ranging impact due to notions of liberty developed by the French “Third Estate”.
This analysis aims to consider the Revolution as a seed of the prevalence and spread of Socialism, Marxism, Communism and even Naziism throughout historical and present-day Europe. The large picture is of a candle snuffer reducing a raging flame to an ember, as man threw off the Sovereign as leader and in like manner, rejected God as sovereign, as the world sailed into the postmodern era.
Immediate Causes of Revolution
Historians have varying views on the beginnings of the French Revolution but most agree that a march on hunger was the catalyst event that sparked the uprising. In each of several resources consulted for this project almost all discussed the cause of unrest as large manifestations of economic uncertainty, price fluctuations, supply shocks leading to mass hunger, and civil unrest. While the historical treatment of the period never quite names famine as a problem some narratives seem to indicate that at least some people were dying from starvation. R. M. Johnston identified the hunger of children as a rallying cry among women.¹⁰
Hunger was at least a large enough problem to begin to cause large revolts. Johnston stories that women marched on Versailles chanting “Pain, pain!” or “Bread, Bread!” because it was the women that had to stand in long lines for hours and days in order to buy meager amounts of bread for their families. This began the first event of what would become a system of popular uprising against sovereign rule and societal stratification. John McManners indicates in his treatment on the revolution that no one really knew who to blame so everyone blamed the next level of authority.¹² This stratification of society into ennobled men and peasantry did not lend itself to solving the economic issues of the day in a fair and equitable manner. Nor did leadership arise from a Sovereign to comfort and rally the people. Absent leadership — revolt ensued.
Greed, usurpation of political power, the fight over taxing authority by nobles, and demand for political and social relevancy all played into seeds of revolution. The political unrest that was evident in the years after 1789 was a series of usurpation by differing strata of society. At first the greed was seen in terms of fiscal irresponsibility of the ruling class. Robert Greene, in relaying an anecdote of the period about Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, discussed that she lived in her own bubble.⁴ She was oblivious to the plight of the poor. Her behavior was increasingly withdrawn into herself and her excessive Utopian world, while at the same time being disdained by both nobles and peasants for spending habits that were excessive and debt-prone. She demonstrated a total air of complacency in terms of fiscal responsibility. It was a situation that quickly reached a fervor. The nobles were indeed ready to act. Johnston discusses the decisions of the nobility that led to a revolution. He calls the overthrow of monarchy a type of ‘reform’, and he writes:
Part of the deputies of the noblesse stood for class privilege, and so did a somewhat larger part of those of the clergy. But a great number in both these orders were of the same sentiment as the deputies of the Third Estate. They were intelligent and patriotic Frenchmen, full of the teachings of Voltaire, and Rousseau, and Montesquieu, convinced by their eyes as well as by their intellect that Bourbonism must be reformed for its own sake, for the same of France, and for the sake of humanity.
Paradoxically, reform that was called for by the nation would rip the entire country apart. The claim was that the reforms were for the sake of humanity — reforms in which at least 17,000 Frenchmen would lose their lives.
Political Structure in France
French political structure was a remnant of the heredity of nobility of the Medieval period. While French society was a highly structured society it was not without baggage. McManners discussed the political class structure as nobles, who were titled landowners, that were by birth given and obtained certain inheritances of land from their ancestry and benefices from the Church. Because of their landowner status as well as their church benefice, many nobles were in both the First and Second Estate positions. These positions produced both a tithe and a pension. Income was the result of tithes exacted from the parishioners of a particular division as well as tax revenue collected on trade through the use of land and waterways.
In order to discuss France and her political and social upheaval it is critical to contrast France temporally. Prior to the 19th Century the country was an absolute feudal monarchy. The Revolution is the event that threw the feudal nature into upheaval, although it did not actually do away with the class system. The royal household was evicted and later executed. The clergy was very nearly tricked into giving up its tithe, and before the end of the National Assemblies the Third Estate had seized all the property owned by the Catholic Church and upon decree was selling the property to the highest bidders at auction. Eventually, the clergy, known as the Second Estate would find themselves at the mercy of the Third, and they were most merciless.
Economic uncertainty and extremism in the Third Estate of France was not the only exacerbate cause for concern. The First Estate, seen as notoriously wealthy on the backs of the poor by the lower class, were in most cases, worth very little. The only thing that many of them actually had that was any value was the ennobled title itself and the land that went with it. It wasn’t much though. Simon Schama discusses the fact that almost 60% of the nobility were poor.¹⁸ So even in that privileged class there were extremes of gentrification. The ironic part about the lower classes rising up is that in some cases many nobles were even worse off than their peasants that rose up against them.
The political anxiety and violence was indeed noticed away from France. Englishman Edmond Burke had his own hesitations about the political movement.¹ He was quite unsure about what his countrymen were doing championing the overthrow of any monarchy as they were representatives of the King of England in their learned societies. In his rather wordy letter he wrote to a “gentleman in Paris”, he tells of his disappointment that groups of educated men in England would even be so brave as to champion a cause of overthrow of a monarchy because they were themselves subjects of a monarchy. He questioned whether there was some form of guilt by association. He even went so far as to question whether some of the British subjects in the Royal societies were paid to go on about the happenings in France.
France in those days turned toward the philosophy of Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau as if it were a comfort.
Reason vs. Religion
It is difficult to come to terms with the enormity of what people in France dealt with in terms of their faith and political life. In viewing it from the perspective of an American this author finds that there is a lot of work that goes into gaining perspective on the matter. It is not for the faint of heart. Even from the perspective of a Southern Baptist who has immense freedoms in Christ, it is a work in itself to take those freedoms and transposition them in terms of revolutionary France. Even more so to look back to pre-revolutionary France and create an analysis of to where the nation had come.
There were so many wars and with those — death. In the author’s view, senseless death. To those involved it was not all senseless at the time. War has a way of bruising a nation’s collective conscience. Just as Americans have traditions of shared personal views on the wars that the nation has been involved in, the French as members of humanity had the same issues to deal with as a nation.
It was as if the nation had rejected God collectively in favor of reason.
The nation of France in those days turned toward the philosophy of Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau as if it were a comfort from the perception of heavy-handedness from the church. Justo Gonzalez discusses the philosophers of the day and their impacts on the faith of the French people.³ At the height of the Revolution, everything came to a head, so to speak. Noll discusses the fact that the hard rule of the church was rejected and reason was adopted. In an attempt to de-Christianize France, over 1400 streets were renamed.¹⁴ Schama talks about a reverse church service that was held in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris where “Liberty (played by a singer from the Opéra), dressed in white, wearing the Phrygian bonnet and holding a pike, bowed to the flame of Reason and seated herself on a bank of flowers and plants.”
America was founded with the acknowledgement of God-given rights and the need to teach three things in the schools: Religion, Morality, and Knowledge.
Alexis de Tocqueville attempted to study something similar. His look at the Revolution took him to examine in very vivid detail and with amazing firsthand knowledge, the idea of what composed the Old Regime as well as the Revolution and how religion was a component. He said that after his study he could find no fault in the Catholic clergy that was exceptional. He said that the faults of the clergy would have been faults that were common to any organization of their size. One example is that there was an urge to have a sense of organizational self-defense. That is understandable. What was put forward as political goals by the clergy seemed very sensible to de Tocqueville. The clergy, in de Tocqueville’s opinion, were a champion for true freedoms to men in legal representation, ownership of property, free labor, and rights as given by the government. He also very astutely commented that there was no mention from the clergy regarding God-ordained rights to men. On this they were silent.
Contrast with American Foundation
One cannot help but want to look lovingly at the American revolution and her documents, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and compare them to the products of the French Revolution. This has been done by many scholars. Two distinctive emerge in how the two countries handled their foundational premises. These differences are completely transformational in how they changed the fundamental direction of the country. The first is that America was founded with the acknowledgement of God-given rights and the need to teach three things in the schools: Religion, Morality, and Knowledge. In France, there was a desire to have schools but two different types of schools emerged. Parish schools run by the clergy and government schools. The government sanctioned schools were far more popular because they gave a higher quality of education. Burdette Poland says that the clerical schools did not impart a very broad or deep variety of knowledge.¹⁵ In contrast, founders of America desired from the beginning that education would be used to teach religion because the founders knew that it was essential to gain mastery of the other two areas, and that it would be foundational.
The second transformational difference between France and America was that while the U.S. Bill of Rights severely limited the laws that the Government could impose on men, the French Rights of Man and Citizen² severely limited man by subjecting him to law. This is the fundamental establishment of a socialist state vs a democratic state. Another way of putting it, is the establishment of an Enlightened State under man versus the establishment of a Republic State under God. The French called themselves a republic but the authority in the French republic was the law subject to man. The framers of the US Constitution had the mindset that the citizen’s authority rested with God. The difference is seen in the direction in which America grew, honoring God first at each juncture, but its roots lay in its political division as a Constitutional Republic. France in a sense went down a long rabbit hole and we find socialism at the other end. Once it is out in the open with philosophy as its guide and the Third Estate as its action force, we are left with the laws of diffusion to send it as an export to the rest of Europe and Asia.
Future Diffusion and Questions
In his long analytical volume on innovation and how change diffuses among systems and societies, Everett Rogers discusses how social structure impacts diffusion of ideas across boundaries¹⁶. He says that members of a society act, whether together or separate, they act. To the extent that members in a society act differently or respond differently to different situations, there then exists a social structure within that boundary or system. The social structure is what gives order and regularity to a society. In the terms of Royal France, what de Tocqueville calls the “Ancien Regime”²⁰, that social structure was apparent as a very stratified environ. Based on research by Rogers, France with its intense social stratification would be ripe for diffusion. We also see a similar sense of diffusion in Europe.
About 115 years passed between the time of the revolution of the Estates in France and the Bolshevik’s in Russia.
Still, the beginning came from France. The idea of Reason and the Rights of Man as well as the throwing off of the Royal house and the clergy as the lower classes revolted — it all started in Paris. It would be fifty years before a name would be given to this idea of the proletariat, but that is exactly what it was. While this document is far from a survey of Communism’s spread across Europe, it can be stated rather obviously that it spread. It started as a giant bang with the French Revolution when the Third Estate became the Marxist proletariat.
The Communist Question
One of the first major nations to pick up the spirit of Marxism was Russia. Sydney Harcave discusses how Russian society changed as the Soviet state took power.⁵ He discusses the Orthodox Church which was forced on the people in order to put forth “Russification”. He says, “Russification activities were accompanied, wherever possible, by the imposition of the Russian Orthodox faith on those who lacked it, the aim being both to Russify the non-Russians and to bring back to the Orthodox fold those Russians who had left it.” The Bolshevik revolution that brought Communism to Imperial Russia was the same type of revolution as the one in France, with some of the very same events as the French Revolution. The only difference being time transposed about 115 years.
We see a country attempt to give revolution to its citizens for “freedom” and “liberty” only to steal it back by forcing people into religion, monopolizing labor and creating central planning, and executing or banishing its sovereign head of state. Communism was ugly for the entire world. Is it possible that Russia took a drink of a powerful French export in the form of Revolution?
The Nazi Question
The jump from Revolution to Naziism notwithstanding, where did the jump come from? That would be from the French philosophe, members of French society that had a direct impact on the religion of reason that was so popular in the enlightenment period. Yes a religion it was indeed. Formed by philosophers such as Kant and Voltaire, and even following along to a young man named Karl Marx who, while living in London, was known to have written a document that would go on to change the world, the Communist Manifesto. Even Hitler asserted that his idea of National Socialism and Marxism were one and the same.
The statement has been made that the events in France impacted Christianity, it certainly impacted French Christianity. One of the most notable events that came out of the political unrest and change was that the entire Catholic Church was socialized. It was brought under government control. There would be a repeat of this in Germany about 100 years later. The German church would be socialized. In a letter by Dietrich Bonhoeffer¹³ on the eve of the days that would see the Barmen declaration, he implored action and wrote: “The question at stake in the German church is no longer an internal issue but is the question of the existence of Christianity in Europe” as they advocated a break from the Reich Church in Germany to form a Free Church in Germany. Most of the German people ended up being forced to join the Reich Church as nationalism prevailed and the world could look the other way as Naziism purged the State’s unwanted. The Reich Church was an accomplice in those terms as there were many in Germany that did not stand up to Hitler.
This is another example yet again of the way that a movement of man making his own rules instead of striving to obey God’s put a major world nation — Germany, the fatherland of the Reformation — in great peril. It was nationalism and usurpation of the people rising up to bestow their power to a man that would become a ruthless and brutal dictator and conqueror. Did they learn well from their French brothers? Perhaps so well that they even occupied France twice in a century.
The French Revolution produced a country that was eventually strong economically and now forms a strong component of modern Europe. It is not strong spiritually. The revolution in France seems to have taught man that he can throw off his yoke and that violence is a part of revolution. We see that the ideas that were expressed in revolutionary France would impact the world as socialism and Marxism. Also in extreme cases as Communism. Globally we would see dictators rise up from the people. The idea of turning a society on its head upside down has indeed been perfected through fear, hate and death. It is only when we look to America and see that placing the power of revolution squarely on the rights given by God, and when we practice those rights and teach them to our children that we continue to prosper. It is only by following God that we can continue to teach the world a different lesson.
A lover of history, Danny has been writing in the humanities since 2017 as a seminarian. I have an appreciation for technical things as well as art, religion, and informing the future of the past..