The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview
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Providence for the Revolutionary People

Erica Joy Mannucci

Generally speaking, we can say that in the revolutionary debates and decisions on religious issues we can recognize the accomplishment of the classic Enlightenment critique of clerical religion. Secularization and a drastic reduction of the material and moral power of the clergy are, indeed, among the major political questions of the French Revolution. In different ways, different political leaders tend toward a reorganization of the religious apparatus, concepts and sentiments.

In the Gironde circles there were nonbelievers--heirs to encyclopedism and to a certain skeptical tradition--like Condorcet or Brissot, who wanted for the New France a constitutional Catholic Church, which in their opinion, would have contributed to political stability. And there are Catholics, like Bishop Fauchet, one of the founders of the Cercle Social in the early years of the Revolution, who tempered his traditional faith with a certain amount of both tolerance and sentimentalism. In the inaugural address for the Confédération n Universelle des Amis de la Vérité (Universal Confederation of the Friends of Truth), Fauchet, saluting "this era of regeneration, better, of veritable creation, where the moral universe is finally to emerge from the chaos of dissension, hatred and discord, to enter, after the upsetting that necessarily goes with the conquest of the rights of nature, into the eternal order of amity, union and harmony, "exclaimed: "Homage to Providence! She has long prepared the means; the revolution was needed to use them."1

Among the Jacobins, Robespierre is heir to the tradition of "natural religion," a nonclerical religion of the Supreme Being, guaranteed by the idea of the immortality of the soul. Robespierre knowingly renounces the interiority of this faith to make it into a constitutional article. 2 For him, as well, France cannot do without a God linked to a public cult. Robespierre sees faith in the Supreme Being as the faith of the oppressed, and he proclaims himself morally and politically opposed to what he calls "atheism." 3 He speaks about providence as well, using a notion of it that is purified of the dogmatism of revealed religion: "To invoke the name of Providence," he says in March 1792 at the Jacobin Club "and to express the idea of a Supreme Being guiding the destinies of nations and seemingly keeping most particular vigil over the French Revolution is to voice ( . . . ) a sentiment that comes from my heart

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