Historical Legacies

The French Revolution, the period between 1789 and 1799, radically transformed the relationship between the citizen, the church, and the state and gave rise to the French secular ideal. The Revolution led to a decade long break with the Catholic Church, and after the Revolution, a state-sponsored attack on Catholicism. Following the Revolution came the first full separation of church and state in modern times. While the conflicts between the church and state were mitigated to a certain extent during the Napoleonic era, the legacy of the Revolution continues to affect understandings of citizenship, laïcité, and the role of the church and state today.[1]

Prior to the French Revolution, France was a multi-religious society with small communities of Jews, Calvinists, and Lutherans, and yet in terms of numbers and influence, the Catholic Church remained by far the most powerful. Although the Church had been threatened during the Wars of Religion (1562– 98), by the 17th century it had tens of thousands of churches, chapels, monasteries, convents, schools, and hospitals, and counted 28 million people as Catholics. In contrast, the community of 500,000 French Calvinists (Huguenots), fought to hold on to their religious practice after the Edict of Nantes (1598) was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. While the Edict of Toleration of 1787 gave them increased rights, such as state recognition of births and marriages, they were still unable to practice their religion in public. In contrast, in Alsace, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) protected the community of nearly 200,000 French Lutherans. The 50,000 Jews that lived in France were divided between Ashkenazi communities in Alsace, where they were not even allowed to own land, and Sephardic communities in Bordeaux, Avignon and Bayonne.[2]

On the eve of the Revolution, the Catholic Church governed most aspects of collective life and civil society including education, medical, and social services, and was also the predominant force granting legitimacy to the French monarchy. By the late 18th century, the people’s commitment to the church was varied. Some authors have argued the majority of the French people remained devoted to the Church and contend that many hoped that the Revolution would inspire religious reform and renewal.[3] Yet, others contend that many urban intellectuals questioned the role of the clergy, and that anticlericalism grew increasingly popular first among the French elite and court magistrates, and then among groups within the Parisian working class.[4] Some of this was due to internal religious struggles, notably between Jesuits and Jansenists, whereas external factors also affected anti-clericalism, such as the fiscal crisis tied to French participation in the American Revolution and the public’s views of King Louis XVI’s failure in leadership.[5]

Revolutionary leaders oversaw the seizure of Church property in France, severed foreign ties with Rome, changed the internal structure of the French Catholic Church, and transformed its institutional role within the state. However, attitudes towards religion were not uniform among revolutionaries, and changed over time. For example, some revolutionaries were entirely anti-religious, hoping to abolish public expression of religion, and to replace them with a celebration of the Republic instead, while others identified with Jesus and argued that he would have supported the revolution.[6] Despite this, the political events in the aftermath of the Revolution, such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 (which required priests to swear an oath of allegiance to the Revolution and be elected by the French people, rather than named by Rome) created a break between the church and the post-Revolutionary regime by forcing clergy to choose between state and Pope.[7] In separating oath-taking “constitutional” priests from “non-juror” priests who refused to take the oath, the Civil Constitution also created a schism among the clergy and their parishioners.[8]

The post revolutionary period, beginning with the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), saw bloody and immensely destructive confrontations between revolutionaries, citizens, and members of the clergy.[9]  By 1794, a de-Christianization campaign had spread in France, where radical revolutionaries closed down churches, forced priests to resign, destroyed religious symbols, and invented new Republican cults. The Directory (1795–1799), the post-Revolution Republican regime, experimented with separating church and state and continued to view Christianity as potentially subversive and pursued anticlerical or de-Christianizing policies.

In 1795, the legislature voted that the state would no longer recognize or finance any religion, and religious practices and assemblies could only occur in private homes.[10] Interestingly, this separation of church and state gave Protestants and Catholics the same legal status for the first time, with neither of them receiving state aid nor public recognition. When Napoleon came to power in 1799 by overthrowing the Directory, he negotiated a new settlement with the pope (Pius VII). The Concordat (1802) re-established Catholicism in France and sought to make it dependent upon the state. It gave Catholics the freedom to worship in public, ended the Directory’s separation of church and state, and continued to structure the relationship between the state and the Church through the 19th century. While the Concordat acknowledged the legal status that was granted to Protestants and Jews in 1789, Catholicism was acknowledged as “the religion of the majority of the French.” The secular clergy and bishops would become salaried employees of the state and Napoleon convinced the pope to recognize as permanent the sale and transfer of church lands to the state. Just before the acceptance of the Concordat, Napoleon added his own set of Organic Articles without the knowledge or agreement of the papal envoy. These seventy-three articles created a new Ministry of Religion (Cultes) to oversee and negotiate with the Church.[11] 

The Articles also granted recognition to Lutherans and Calvinists, and smaller sects, such as Mennonites were unofficially tolerated. While Jews had been granted full citizenship rights in 1789, they were not included in the Concordat. Napoleon set up institutions to communicate between the Ministry of Religion and Jewish leaders, often creating tensions in the Jewish community over official representation for the Jews, as well tying the Jewish community closer to the control of the state.

The Revolution and Concordat left their indelible mark on conceptions of citizenship in the French state. In the wake of the Revolution, the foundational relationship was no longer between the King and  the Church, but between the King and the people.[12] Citizenship in the post-revolutionary state was redefined as a collective belonging to the nation, and religious affiliation could no longer be used to bar citizens’ political participation, although attempts at instituting religious tolerance for Jews and Protestants were met with resistance from the majority Catholic population.

While the concept of laïcité has roots in France long before the 18th century, the practice of laïcité evolved in the immediate aftermath of the revolution as French leadership experienced conflict and, later, cooperation with the Catholic Church. Laïcité is generally understood as the separation of church and state (seen for example in the prohibition of state funding for religious edifices and activities) as well as the attempt to circumscribe religious expression and practice to the private realm.[13] The understanding of laïcité and the relationship between the church and state changed again with the passing of the 1905 law that barred the French state from officially “recognizing” religion. The legacies of the Revolution, the Concordat, and the law of 1905, are considered among the major historical events that continue to frame understandings of the relationship between the church and the state, as well as the relationship between the citizen’s religious practice and the state.

←Overview                                The Colonial Era →


[1] Timothy Tackett,“The French Revolution and Religion to 1794,” in The Cambridge history of Christianity. Vol. 7, eds. Stewart J. Brown and Timothy Tackett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[2] Ibid, p. 537.

[3] Nigel Aston, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780–1804, (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2000).

[4] Timothy Tackett,“The French Revolution and Religion to 1794,” in The Cambridge history of Christianity. p. 539–541.

[5] Dale K. Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560–1791 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[6] Suzanne Desan, “The French Revolution and Religion, 1795–1815,” in The Cambridge history of Christianity. Vol. 7, eds. Stewart J. Brown and Timothy Tackett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[7] Nigel Aston, Religion and Revolution in France, 1780–1804 (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2000).

[8] Desan, “The French Revolution and Religion, 1795–1815,” p. 558.

[9] John Bowen, Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 22; T. Jeremy Gunn, “Religious Freedom and Laicite: A Comparison of the United States and France,” BYU L. Rev. No. 419 (2004), pp. 419–504.

[10] Desan, “The French Revolution and Religion, 1795–1815,” p. 4.

[11] Ibid, p. 17.

[12] Gunn, “Religious Freedom and Laïcité: A Comparison of the United States and France.”

[13] John Bowen, Can Islam be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Jean Bauberot, Histoire de la laïcité en France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).




Image Sources:

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), "La Liberté Guidant le Peuple" (1829), Wikimedia Commons.



Jacques François Joseph Swebach-Desfontaines (1769-1823), Désaffectation d'une église (1794), Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, Wikimedia Commons.