The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution
By Dale K. Van Kley
Yale University Press, 390 pages, $35

Once upon a time, as one story goes, men and women rose up in defiance against religious superstition and oppression to split the thousand-year tyranny of Catholic Christendom. They succeeded in ending Catholic domination in much of northern Europe and provided the foundation for a remarkable growth of free thought, free economic activity, political democracy, and modernization. Britain and Holland were the first beneficiaries of these developments, having led the way in the more radical stage of the Protestant Reformation. But through colonization, especially in America, freedom in church, state, economy, and personal life spread all over the globe.

Once upon a time, as another story goes, people rose up in rebellion against God and His Church, precipitating the Protestant Reformation in which apostolic religious truth gave way to political calculation, economic greed, sinful individualism, and other works of the Antichrist. Much of Europe lost the true faith, but”thanks to divine guidance of the Counter-Reformation”the losses to the Catholic Church in Europe were more than compensated for by the spread of the faith to the Americas and to parts even more distant. The spirit of impiety, individualism, and rebellion took many forms both religious and secular. The Protestant Reformation was the ultimate cause of political revolution”from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the victory of Bolshevism. Satan used Protestantism to attack belief in traditional Christianity, and Protestantism’s children to attack all belief in God.

The problem is, of course, that both these stories are fairy tales, Voltaire’s “pack of tricks we play on the dead.” And in a curious way, they are the same fairy tale, both seeking to explain the growth of unbelief, disobedience, and freedom after these had been held in check for a millennium by God’s Holy Church. Protestant, liberal, and Anglo-American historians repeated without challenge the heroic defense of freedom by Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican reformers, by Dutch freedom fighters against Spanish cruelty and tyranny, and by intellectual opponents of religious obscurantism in the eighteenth century. Here is essentially the Whig Interpretation of History. In the aftermath of the French Revolution conservatives trotted out theories about the ultimately Protestant origins of political revolt: disobedience towards God had led in short order to disobedience towards all constituted authority, with the French Revolution finally attempting and the Bolshevik Revolution finally achieving the abolition of Christianity. Here is the analysis and prophecy of Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors . Liberal and ultra-conservative theory agreed essentially about the course of modern life and thought. Their approval or disapproval alone distinguished their otherwise parallel interpretations of the course of modern history since the Renaissance, for the liberals ascribed all virtue to liberal Christianity and all vice to authoritarian Catholicism while their ultra-conservative colleagues in debate simply reversed the order. For both, religion was the driving force of history.

Dale Van Kley’s new book, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution , seeks to revive a sort of Whiggish interpretation of the French Revolution as the struggle for freedom against sacral monarchy, with much of the ideological discourse of the revolutionaries deriving from little expected religious controversies”beginning with the rise and fall of Calvinism in Catholic France, continuing through the struggles over theological Jansenism, and ending in the political struggles of the French high courts of justice, the parlements , with the administrative monarchy of the eighteenth century. Where historians ever since 1789 have sought the causes of the French Revolution in the philosophy of the Enlightenment or in the rise of the bourgeoisie against feudal-aristocratic society and monarchy, Van Kley believes the time is right for a renewed look at the more remote but more profound influence of the struggle between rival Christian notions of the good society. In simpler terms, although nothing in this volume is simple, the struggle between sacral monarchy (as favored by the ultra-montanist Catholicism of the Jesuits) and a more contractual political order (as defended by the Jansenists) is the real history of the period between 1560 and the French Revolution.

No one would doubt that before the privatization of religion, which is the chief sign of secularization, religion pervaded the entire world of early modern Europeans and there were religious roots to everything as there were nonreligious entanglements in everything deemed religious. Before the “disenchantment of the world,” something for which Protestants generally and Calvinists most especially can be credited or blamed, the presence of the divine in human affairs was everywhere acknowledged, however much some might deplore the more “superstitious” responses to it.

Thus, in the story of the growth of monarchic absolutism in France, religion was central and political discourse and action were always rooted in religious doctrine and belief. The strife caused by the spread of Calvinism, the attempt of the monarchy to create a royal religion which could not be used to undermine monarchic authority, and the resistance to a coercive and intolerant state all created a place for religious discussion about tyrannicide, contract theory, divine right, and religious tolerance. As the divine right monarchy came increasingly in the eighteenth century to defend its positions on the grounds of administrative reason and enlightened reform, the discourse of those resisting its rule also relied less on traditional religious appeals and more on secular ones, but the religious roots of all sides of the political and social debate were only obscured, never severed. Thus far, no one can differ with Van Kley.

Van Kley has founded his academic career on the discovery or rediscovery of the importance of disputes once dismissed as too traditional to be relevant. For this he has long deserved thanks and has amply received it. But as he extends his reach, he seems to lose control of his legitimate thesis. His first work, The Jansenists and the Expulsion of the Jesuits from France, 1757-1765 (1975), convincingly identified the chief actors in that drama as a small group of Jansenists in the Gallican parlements and not the anticlerical philosophes of the Enlightenment. His second book, The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Regime, 1750-1770 (1984), tried to use the bungled attempt by Damiens to assassinate Louis XV to demonstrate the decline of reverence for the sacral monarchy of the Bourbons, a less successful attempt to extend his general thesis about the role of religious ideas.

And with this book, Van Kley has attempted to drive his insights all the way to the causes of the French Revolution. He seems fixated on the Jansenists as the chief force behind opposition to the French monarchy, at times exaggerating their importance while at other times deploring their only partial resemblance to Calvinists. Van Kley seems to deplore those features of Jansenism that were truly Catholic and to prefer a more radically Calvinist break with Catholic discourse and worship. He even regrets the complicating influence of a Pascal who was much too apolitical and too Catholic for revolutionary purposes.

Like Edgar Quinet, the nineteenth-century liberal French historian, Van Kley really wishes that France had become Protestant in the sixteenth century. It could thus have joined the modern, liberal world with less pain, less conflict, and less ambiguity. This may be fine for Protestants who believe that Catholicism simply perpetuates feudal ideas and superstitious belief, but it is not a very helpful point of view when trying to understand the French with sympathy. One result is that Van Kley’s attitude towards the Jesuits necessarily displays both prejudice and misinformation. Where he views the Jesuits as the chief ideologues of sacral monarchy and oppression, historians like J. N. Figgis find in the Jesuits plausible friends of liberty and progress. The fourth Jesuit vow to the Pope, for instance, involved not absolute obedience to his every whim but rather a promise to obey any missionary venture he might require in partibus infidelium . Such misunderstandings and biases raise the question of whether an author so unsympathetic to Catholicism should be writing the history of what is, after all, a Catholic nation.

The Religious Origins of the French Revolution can enlighten those willing to grapple with a mass of tough material, but it will not convince many.

Norman Ravitch is Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside.