Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Overthrow of Religion

How did the Christian religion fare in all these unquiet times? It fared very badly,—that is, the outer show of it; for, it must be confessed, the ministers of religion were, when the Revolution began, not what they should have been. Had they been so, the Revolution would never have taken place at all.

It was thought by many good Republicans that the French Revolution was really a great effort to realize the Christian religion. Its three watchwords, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, look very fair and sweet to the eye; and no doubt many simple-minded Frenchmen, who were disgusted with the hollow shell of Christianity which was offered them as the highest possible form of religion, did hope that the Revolution would bring not only plenty of bread, but a pure faith also. But, alas for their hopes! how sorely they were disappointed! On every burial-ground it was ordained that these words should be inscribed: "Here is eternal sleep."

No; the temper of the French people was not favorable to the old forms and practices of religion, and in the month of November, 1793, the," Feast of Reason" was appointed in the place of the old Christian feasts of Easter and Christmas. There was to be henceforth no religion but liberty, and the only God to be worshipped was "The People."

Then began the curious and painful scenes of churches losing their bells, which were cast into the melting-pots to come out fused metal for the moulds of cannon; and those old melodious bells, made in happier times to chime their sweetest on holy days, and to call people to the mercy-seat of Our Father, were now forced to assume a new shape, and send forth volleys of deadly missiles. The sacred cups and patens, if of silver, were trundled away to the Mint to become pieces of money; and where the church had only pewter vessels, they were melted and cast into bullets to slay the enemies of France.

The vestries, once full of richly embroidered garments, were left naked and empty. Surplices became shirts, and costly copes were transformed into coats or trousers. The service-books were made into wadding for muskets, and even the graves were broken open for the sake of the lead of which the coffins were made.

The sepulchre of a long line of kings was called St. Denis. This name was not pleasing to the men in power, and it was changed into the name of "Franciade." What cared a red-capped Republican for St. Denis?

So in the winter months of 1793 one might see strange sights in Paris and in other French cities,—drunken men riding on asses, a chalice full of brandy in one hand and a paten with some tidbit on it in the other. The ass, perhaps, would have, as a bit in his jaws, the black or colored silk stole of a priest. A long line of such unseemly rioters, with an immense quantity of church furniture carried on the backs of asses and in wheelbarrows, went to the hall of the Convention, and stood there to receive an ovation, as if they had been engaged in the most praiseworthy work possible. Some witty fellow had written a suitable poem, which was sung; and the chorus was joined in by drunken revelers, who brandished cross and crucifix and swung censers about. Some of the members, Danton especially, were very angry at this wicked spectacle, which was indeed enough to bring the Convention into contempt in the judgment of mankind; but the greater part of those foolish lawmakers seem to have applauded these goings on, and to have permitted the drunken ruffians to dance the carmagnole in the hall; nay, some of the more advanced Republicans, rejoicing in the complete overthrow of the Christian religion (in their eyes a mere sham), came out of their seats and danced with the girls, many of whom were attired in priests' vestments. To such a pass had the French come in the November. of 1793. But when we remember how the old cathedrals in England were treated by the rude soldiers of Oliver Cromwell, we shall be more slow to condemn the French, who were for a time drunk with the new wine of their liberty, and hardly knew what they were doing. The English soldiers were trained, indeed, to hate with a deadly hatred all the "rags of popery," as they called the decent ornaments of the clergy, and the sweet-voiced organs, and the church ornaments, and painted windows; but they never dethroned God, nor set up a miserable opera-singer in his place as the French did. To such a fool's pass did those miserable men come under the guiding hand of a wretched creature who went by the loudly sounding name of Anaxagoras Chaumette. This man had been a sailor in his youthful days, and he was now a great man, or thought so. Anyhow he was a ready speaker, and he had plenty of boldness and a fair supply of wit; but his long curly hair covered a rather vain and empty head.

It was Chaumette who conceived the brilliant notion of a Feast of Reason, and a goddess to match it. A goddess,—yes, none less than a dancer at the opera, named Candeille, who, when well painted and dressed in sky blue, with a garland of oak leaves on her head, was carried first into the hall of the Convention, and afterward into the Cathedral of Our Lady, when she was seated (where does the reader imagine?) on the high altar itself!

[Illustration] from Stories of the French Revolution by Walter Montgomery


This theatre goddess was accompanied to the cathedral by many grave and reverend senators, a number of select citizens dressed as Romans, bands of music, and a vast multitude wearing the red nightcap; and a hymn to Liberty, having been written by a poet, was duly sung. Anaxagoras Chaumette must have felt himself a great man that day; for he had made a religion, and a goddess to boot. It was a grand stroke of business for that curly-headed sailor; but we cannot help thinking he would have been happier and more useful had he stuck to his ship, and left gods and goddesses alone. When he brought the sky-blue dancer into the aisle of Notre Dame, how little he thought he would soon have to meet the God whom he had insulted!

We will not dwell any longer on these painful pictures of blasphemy, profanity, and robbery, which were seen in all parts of France, until almost every house of prayer was stripped and desolate, and the people were left without a religion except those dry bones of a miserable sham called the Feast of Reason. This was the poor man's festival, and an opera-dancer was his deity! Verily, the Revolution was not lucky in its religion; that, at least, must be admitted by every candid mind.