This article is part of a series on the Ideology of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, which aspired to establish a new utopia for mankind, shifted into a ‘democratic’ despotism during the Terror. The ideology that inspired democracy, civil rights, and emancipation in 1789 also gave justification for the totalitarian regime of the Terror in 1793-4. The Terror instead of contradicting revolutionary beliefs, was a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution.

The Cult of Reason was born from the revolutionary festivals, and the de-sanctification of cathedrals and churches into ‘temples of reason.’ The ceremonies and rituals that played out shared similar practices and symbolism pertain to the revolution but varied in meaning. There was a belief among staunch revolutionaries that during the summer of 1793, a natural civic religion would emerge spontaneously, one that would replace Christianity with republicanism.[1] It is difficult to tell how far the dogmas of republicanism permeated into the hearts and minds of the people as well-meaning devotees of the Cult of Reason met a lot of resistance from Christians, especially in more rural areas of France. While some surely did believed in the revolution, at the same time, many citizens did not feel a need to replace the church with a civic religion. Much of the participation during Festivals of Reason was due to public pressure and fear of reprisal for opposition to revolution.[2] Principles such as virtue and patriotism could do little to console the miseries of death, sickness, and starvation which were daily reality for the poor peasants of France.[3] Yet the problem with the Cult of Reason was that it was not established by the revolutionary government, and was merely a reaction to the surge in radical idealism. The Cult of Reason could not decide if it would embody the spiritualism of Rousseau, or the atheism of Voltaire. Rousseau a devout deist who saw God everywhere in the natural world, and Voltaire an atheist who believed that religion only existed to pray upon the superstitious. De-Christianization, therefore, created a fracture among the revolutionaries and in the spontaneous celebrations of the Cult of Reason. Rousseau’s civic religion took over in the end in what was the Cult of the Supreme Being. This new civic religion was an attempt by the revolutionary government to distance itself from atheism while donning the revolution in the spirituality of Rousseau.

The Cult of the Supreme Being was not only a response to the rampant atheism and attack of religious freedom, but also an extension of Robespierre’s own beliefs, and that which he shared directly with many revolutionaries who were followers of Rousseau.[4] The opposition to radical dechristianization was put on show during the Festival of the Supreme Being, which was lead in ceremony by Robespierre. During the ceremony, Robespierre linked the destiny of the Republic as the spiritual culmination of the Supreme Being, saying “Is it not he who, from the beginning of time, decreed the republic and placed on the order of the day, for all centuries and all peoples, liberty, good faith, and justice?”[5] Upon completing his first speech, Robespierre set fire to a large effigy of Atheism, which no doubt had cause some confusion among the crowd as a backdrop for a religious festival. As the fire destroyed the figure of atheism, an effigy of wisdom emerged from the ashes. After which Robespierre said a prayer, “Our blood flows for the cause of Humanity; Hear our prayer, consider our sacrifices; Accept the worship that we offer Thee!”[6] Despite its brief flare, the prominence of the Cult of the Supreme Being fell with Robespierre and his followers after Thermidor[7], and the major population did not continue it practices. Yet, the cult remains significant to the Reign of Terror, further giving evidence of a thriving ideological radicalism among the most powerful revolutionaries.

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Sources Cited

  • [1] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 263.
  • [2] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 263.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid, 271.
  • [5] Robespierre, Speech at Festival of the Supreme Being, 1793.
  • [6] Charles Lyttle, “Deistic Piety in the Cults of the French Revolution.” Church History 6, no. 1 (1933): 29. /stable/3691955.
  • [7] Aston, Religion and Revolution, 275.