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September 5: Religion and Terror

The Reign of Terror (1793)
and the Churches

Maximilian Robespierre

It was on this date, September 5, 1793, that an 11-month Reign of Terror began in France. Sometimes called the Red Terror, to distinguish it from the equally brutal but little-mentioned White Terror which followed it, the Reign of Terror lasted until the execution of Maximilian Robespierre on 28 July 1794. In less than a year, about 18,000 people were killed, an average of 55 a day. The massacres and beheadings were excessive, and supervised by the Committee of Public Safety, in which Georges Danton and Robespierre were influential members. Religious writers, when they speak of the French Revolution at all, are fond of pointing to the Terror as proof that people deprived of their religion turn into beasts with no moral compass. Is that true?

First, the Terror was not part of the French Revolution: the revolutionists had succeeded in 1789 – replacing a desperately brutal feudal system, a 90% illiteracy rate and the divine rule of kings with a republican government – and the men and women who had secured the freedom of France left the governing to others. The Terror took place four years after the French Revolution.

Second, anyone who is familiar with the history of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages may recall, if they were ever taught, that compared to the 50,000 slaughtered in a few days during the St. Bartholomew Massacre some 220 years earlier, or the quarter of a million Albigensian men, women, and children slain from 1211-1215, the Reds had a lot to learn from the Catholics about random murder.

Third, the Committee of Public Safety, supported by the people of Paris, was created to preserve the reformed government and to put down threats from inside the country. The clergy, in league with the nobles, were plotting the reversal of the Revolution. Robespierre took the lead and the Terror was installed to defeat the insurrection and to repel opportunistic foreign invaders, since this was in every sense a national emergency. And yet, less than 10% of those killed in the Terror were clerics – 67% belonged to the mostly republican working class.

The clerical-royalist conspiracies were real: the crowned heads of Europe wanted to smother democratic ideas in the cradle. The former French nobility wanted their inherited privilege returned. The Catholic Church was similarly addicted to unearned advantage, but they had also been made into employees of the state, and required to take a loyalty oath. Half of them refused and fought for the failure of republican government, enlisting the aid of foreign powers. As it is unlikely that foreign invaders would not demand a piece of France for their services, it was fortunate that the republican army defeated the Austrian, English, Prussian and Spanish invaders.

A contemporary French cartoon: the Third Estate (workers) is shown bearing the full burden of taxation. The nobility (left) leans unhelpfully on his labor; the clergy (right) gives token help.

Fourth, there was an internal quarrel between the Girondists and the Montagnards. Robespierre led the Montagnards to victory – but he not only believed in God and hated Atheism, he decreed the worship of God as the State religion, which alienated the populace. It was under the God-loving Robespierre that the despicable acts of the Terror took place. The Terror ended when Robespierre was overthrown and an appalled public demanded his execution.

Fifth, as soon as Robespierre fell, there was an equal and opposite reaction from the clerical-royalists: a White Terror to restore the monarchy. Perpetrated largely by Catholics, the displaced masters of France took revenge on the republicans, killing thousands without even the pretence of a trial. Eventually, more moderate men took over, but they also abolished Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being. With the resulting general indifference to religion, France became relatively tranquil and prosperous.

So not only were the greatest excesses of the Reign of Terror perpetrated under a man of God, but the reactionary clerical-royalists dipped their hands in blood, as well. France is a secular republic today because, unlike the US and some other nations, France knows what religious strife is really like.

NB: The facts of the Red Terror and the White Terror are related in the following sources: Cambridge Modern History Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Ernst Daudet, La Terreur blanche.. Quantin, 1878; Ernest Lavisse. Histoire de France Contemporaine. 10 vol., 1920-1922; Richard Lodge. A History Of Modern Europe From The Capture Of Constantinople,1453, To The Treaty Of Berlin, 1878. New York: Harper & Bros., 1898.

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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December 12: Erasmus Darwin

"In regard to religious matters," he wrote, "there is an intellectual cowardice instilled into the minds of the people from their infancy; to inquire or exert their reason is denounced as sinful."

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