In its impact on France and on Europe, the French Revolution stands as one of the pivotal moments in the recent history of Christianity. It led not only to a decade-long schism within the Catholic Church, but also, for a time, to a state-sponsored assault on Christianity itself unlike anything in the European experience since the early Roman Empire. In its later stages it produced the first full separation of church and state in modern times. Although some of these conflicts were attenuated under the Napoleonic regime, the memory of the Revolution continued to exercise a powerful influence on anticlerical and antireligious movements and on the church itself well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Religion in France on the eve of the Revolution
The strength of religion and the church in France on the eve of the Revolution has been much debated by specialists in the field. For Michel Vovelle and a number of French historians, the Catholic Church was already in full decline at the end of the ancien régime and the term ‘de-Christianization’ might well be used for describing certain trends among the laity. In the view of John McManners, by contrast, the period constituted a ‘golden age of the French Church’. ‘Never’, he argues, ‘had there been … so many laymen living lives of well-informed belief and pious practice’. In fact, as we shall argue here, there are elements of truth in both interpretations, depending on the period, the region, and the social group under consideration.