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The Religious Revolution in France*

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the May 1881 Sword and Trowel


WE ARE ALL FAMILIAR with the repressive measures adopted recently by the French Government towards the Educational Institutions of the Romish Church in France. It is not surprising that English adverse criticism should have been plentiful. Looking at French action from the English standpoint, we may easily find room for dissent. Liberty in England is the growth of centuries. She has become so strong as to be able to hold her own against all comers. She can afford to give ample room and verge to her enemies. She needs to take no precautionary measures. If her hands were bound with new cords she would burst them asunder as burnt flax. If the iron gates of bondage were shut upon her, she would lift them from their hinges and stride away with them to her own realm. She is the dominant power, and therefore in England we need not suppress institutions that in their spirit are opposed to liberty. We can a afford to leave them pretty much to themselves. They grow in an alien soil. The air is too sharp and keen for them to come to their tropical luxuriance, and we are not likely to be overshadowed by them. And though we consider that even in this native home of freedom Romish institutions, like all others, should be subject to the supervision of the State, and be compelled to let in upon their darkness the peering glance of Liberty whenever she pleases, we can afford to leave them unsuppressed. We stand on our white cliffs, therefore, and look across the Channel at the action of our neighbours with an unfavourable eye.
    But this is unjust. The state of things in France is different from that which prevails in England. The French are beginning to perceive that, with them, freedom is still immature; and, until she arrives at her strength, must be protected against her natural and implacable enemy the Romish Church. Their formula of liberty, equality, and fraternity must not be permitted to delude them into the sophism that liberty, equality, and fraternity must be accorded to Rome. These priceless possessions must be so held as to be secured. The murderess of liberty must not have liberty to accomplish her fell deed. Liberty does not mean the right to destroy liberty. The Romish Church avails herself of the national cry, and claims liberty in France, although if dominant she would not give liberty to France. She employs the watchword of the opposite camp to obtain the key of the position she assails. Liberty! cries she. But the French are awaking to the conviction that they must not give up common-sense under the magic spell of three syllables. If they would defend the fortress of freedom they must not put the key into the hands of the foe.
    This determined attitude of French opinion has been the slow growth of the present century. Amongst its most powerful promoters was Edgar Quinet, a name less known than it deserves to be in England. One of the greatest French thinkers of this century, he devoted his life to the cause of liberty, and to the moral elevation of France. The government recognized his power, and appointed him profesor at Lyons, and afterwards in the College of France. His brilliant lectures showed the general decadence and comparative ruin of Southern Europe to be the work of the Jesuits—the direct result of the counter-reformation inaugurated by Loyola. He aroused such enthusiasm on the one hand, such rage on the other, that the government compelled him to resign; and in 1851 he was one of the great champions of freedom exiled from France by the coup d'état. During this exile of nineteen years he wrote some of his finest works. The little work before us, "The Religious Revolution of the Nineteenth Century," is the introduction to his life of Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde, the friend of William of Orange, and one of the founders of the Dutch Republic.
    Pointing out that the English Reformation preceded the English Revolution, and was at once its cause and guarantee, Quinet lays his finger on the weak point of the French Revolution. It was not preceded by a religious revolution, and it did not lay its foundation in the religion of the people. It committed the mistake of treating all religions as alike, and as alike opposed to freedom, and herein it was unjust and suicidal. All religions are not alike. There is one that proclaims itself the foe of all the rest, and glories in its incompatibility with modern freedom. Had the French Revolution recognized the freedom-loving churches, and welcomed their aid in its war against the church of despotism, it would have succeeded. But by making war on all religion it raised against itself the spirit of religion, and fell.
    To secure enduring freedom in France, she must first be delivered from Rome. While France is Catholic, she cannot be permanently free. But while the Jesuit institutions are permitted to work unhindered, she will remain Catholic. Quinet holds that it is idle to expect that Romanism in France will cease of itself under the spread of education. "The real education of a people is its religion. Good or bad, vigorous or decrepit, it is religion that penetrates into the depths of the people, bringing them life or death." It is an illusion to think that this great church will disappear "at the sound of a few wise words and some excellent advice. What are all the systems laid down in books, and scattered here and there by a few hands, compared with the authority able to surround a nation on every side? While this authority is standing, your philosophical treatises, your warnings, your lessons, your pamphlets, welcomed with applause by a few in the upper crust of the nation, remain ignored by the masses, who only see, hear, and respect the church with which day and night they come in contact. It was this thought that destroyed for me all the joy of teaching in the days when I was permitted to live amidst a crowd of friends in the College of France. I never quitted this living atmosphere without saying to myself, 'Beyond these walls speech, life, is not understood. I have only to cross this threshold, and I shall enter again that opaque, tenebrous mass from which not a single echo of my words will return.'"
    A baneful superstition can be rooted up only by removing the superstition itself from the eyes of the people. Men easily detach themselves from that which they no longer see. It was thus the Roman church itself destroyed Paganism. Constantine recognized in the church a new instrument of domination, and grasped it for his own purposes. "A shipwrecked mariner could not have thrown himself with more impetuosity upon a plank in mid-ocean than the despots of the Decline and Fall seized hold of the unity of the church, hoping thereby to save their empire, breaking up in all directions. The imperial soul of the C'sars passed into the church, and it grew old at once by many centuries." Then was promulgated the decree of extinction against paganism, "LET SUPERSTITION CEASE!" The very temples were razed to the ground. The legions were sent against the stones. "The old religion, until then tranquil and supreme, suddenly found itself surprised, surrounded, struck down, ruined, and utterly crushed out of existence." Such action, tempered, of course, by the modern spirit of humanity, of justice, of equity, is the action needed, according to Quinet, to overthrow the tyranny of the Romish Church in France. Her own weapons must be turned against herself. "Worn-out religions resemble those old trees that are nothing but bark. They go on vegetating and casting their shadow over the soil until the day comes that a flash of lightning, or the axe of the woodcutter, strikes them, and they fall a heap of dust."
    And there is reason for accelerating this fall. The Romish Church is a poisonous upas tree, striking all under its branches with moral and political death. Very vividly our author states this fact: "As far as experience yet goes, there has been no time nor place in which the Catholic Church has been allowed to remain with unfettered hands by the cradle of Liberty, but what in a short time Liberty has been found stifled in its swaddling-clothes." And yet the modern spirit—equal rights to all—a spirit which cannot be too sincerely commended, may betray the unwary into the danger of losing their own while the inveterate robber of human rights exists in the midst of the nation. To quote again from Quinet:—"Wherever, being in authority, Catholicism meets with Liberty, it swears to destroy it, and as a matter of fact it does destroy it. In return, wherever, being in authority, Liberty meets with Catholicism, it swears to respect it. Overthrown Liberty raises Catholicism up again, craves for it quarter. Can this arrangement last for ever? Honest Brutus!" exclaims Quinet, "magnanimous dupe! are you going on for ever raising up your fallen enemy? for it is you who are always reopening the way for Antony. You wish Antony to mount the platform and make his speech, and should anyone better informed oppose it, your voice it is that cries to the crowd, 'Silence! listen to the noble Antony!' But I answer, 'Take care! Antony will ruin you, if you do not ruin Antony.'" Yes; popery will ruin liberty if liberty does not ruin popery.
    In order, then, to allow liberty breathing space to grow and become powerful, Catholicism must be for a time restrained. Then, when the change is pretty well complete, it will become possible to slacken the rein, to restore the common right, and reopen the door, as in England and America, to the Catholic church without incurring too great a peril.
    Our author meets the theory of those who persuade themselves that the loss of the temporal power disables the papacy from working more harm:—"There are two men in the pope, the prince and the pontiff; whenever the prince has been driven away the pontiff has always led him back again by the hand. If the Reformers had been half-hearted, and had contented themselves with merely tearing the temporal power from the Papacy, their work would soon have come to an end. The spiritual would very quickly have got repossession of the temporal. The keys of St. Peter would in a short time have brought back the sword." Against this spiritual force of the church all the beliefs that have struggled against Rome must be enlisted. "I should appeal," says Quinet, "to every oppressed belief, every persecuted church, every temple that can show its martyr. It is not only Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant who are with us against the eternal oppressor, but also Luther, Zwingle, Calvin, Marnix, Herder, Channing, and a whole legion of minds who in their day fought the very enemy who now blocks up our road. All these great mental athletes will find a place in our ranks." "No one," he says elsewhere, "can read Marnix to the end and believe any longer in Catholic dogma. It will become for him as the site of a church that has been demolished and abandoned to the whistling and laughter of the winds; a final form of paganism exposed in all its nakedness; the scattered remains of another Diana of the Ephesians; and above these ruins the conscience of modern humanity, courageously seeking, examining, and tracing out for itself a return to God and Liberty through the Gospel."
    Quinet draws a terrible picture of what would happen if Catholicism were victorious. His closing appeal to his country is stirring, and should be influential. "What, then, ought to be done? I have told you. I repeat it, since you have not heard me. Come out of the old church, you, your wives, your children. Come out, while there is yet time, before she has herself walled up the gate. Come out by every open way, in order that you may not perish of pauperism, moral or physical . . . I would that the nations should come out in crowds from the old church by the thousand doors which the modern religious spirit has opened up in the walls of Christendom. The way is open; it is simple, it is wide, it is multiple enough to suit itself to the liberty of everyone. Choose as you will! What do you fear? The obstacles are conquered, the way is sure, it has been proved by thousands of men and many nations before you. There is no need to wait for a prophet, a revealer. The modern ages have broken open the door and made wide the breach. It is only now a question of following in the footsteps of those who have been emancipated before you. Of what are you afraid? You have remained here the last of all. What delays you? What are you waiting for? Onward, men, advance, and come out!"
    God grant that such appeals as these, wrought out by powerful reasoning enforced by clear historical example, illumined by brilliant illustration and wit, sharpened by cutting sarcasm, driven home by soul-impelling earnestness, may not be lost upon Quinet's countrymen. Ah! and in these days of insidious popery in the Established Church there is reason for their being deeply pondered even in free Protestant England.

*The Religious Revolution of the Nineteenth Century. From the French of Edgar Quinet. Forming an explanation and a defence of the principle of the policy of the French Government with reference to the Roman Church in France. London: Trübner and Co. 1881.

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