Before Charlie Hebdo: Jacques Hébert, the Extermination of Christianity
, and Religious Intolerance during the French Revolution
by Teddy Wansink
A blade falling from ten feet in the air, bluntly chopping off a nobleman’s head. A painting of a bloody battle scene; a woman with a tricolored flag in hand. A miserable bread thief on the run from the law, passionately singing his emotions on stage.
Although the French Revolution (1789-1799) conjures up a different image for each person, it is impossible to deny its ubiquity in our culture. However, there is one figure of the revolution who remains relatively obscure despite the impactful nature of his contributions to the revolution.
During the mid-eighteenth century, France was the so-called center of the world. Not only was it economically prosperous with a language that had become a standard across Europe, but it also was the center of the Enlightenment, where philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau provoked the people to use reason to question basic concepts relating to government and religion. These new radical ideas contributed to the causes of the French Revolution, but also set the stage for the rise of Jacques Hébert.
Hébert, a French writer of the bourgoisie, was in his early thirties at the time of the revolution. Having been raised during a period of Enlightenment, he was a passionate atheist. He went so far as to claim that concepts of religion were counterrevolutionary and detrimental to the new government, calling for a complete de-christianization of France. Starting in September of 1790, he shared his strong political opinions in his journal Le Père Duchesne. He adopted a different position, however, during the Reign of Terror in 1793. In response to the popularity of deism in France, Hébert and his followers formed a group that called itself the Cult of Reason, which based its belief system off of the ideas of liberty, truth, and of course, reason. The only “saints” were radical revolutionary figures, and there was only one god: the people.
Most notably, the Cult of Reason overtook the Cathedral of Notre Dame in their Festival of Reason, where it transformed the church into a “Temple of Reason” by carving the motto “to philosophy” over the doors and replacing all Christian altars with ones to the goddess of Liberty. Similar transformations were made across France to root out the underlying Catholic culture of France.
One of the most interesting impacts of the de-chrisitianization movement was the idea of the New Republican Calendar. In an attempt to remove the Christian cycle of seven-day weeks ending in Sundays and Christian holidays scattered throughout the year, Hébertists proposed this new organization that divided the year into 30-day months, each with names like Fructidor or Brumaire. Each month would consist of three ten-day weeks called décades, and even the years would restart, with 1789 being named as Year One. What is most shocking about this proposal, however, is that the National Convention actually adopted it; for over a decade, France used this distinct anti-Christian system.
All of these radical ideas ended up creating a special spot on the guillotine for Hébert and his followers, and on March 24, 1794, Hébert was executed, along with seventeen of his associates. However, this obviously did not mark the end of his legacy, and one can examine his actions to give insight on what religious intolerance truly implies. Hébert lived during a time not only of increased religious inquiry in the face of reason, but also of extreme criticism of the Catholic Church; in fact, a major cause of the revolution was class antagonism due to the clergy’s excess power. However, the truth is that Hébert’s push for religious intolerance, instead of joining together the people of France, actually divided them even further by alienating both the peasants and the royalty.
Although Jacques Hébert’s legacy may not have the gruesome imagery of the guillotine or the melodic charm of Les Misérables, it is an important glimpse of forces against religious liberty during the French Revolution.
Teddy Wansink is a junior in the IB Program at Princess Anne High School and is a student research assistant for the CSRF.