The French Revolution was not a crusade for religious freedom but an effort to replace religion with reason and rationalism. France, boasting the largest population in Europe, had trouble feeding its masses. Multitudes, including local clergy, lived in direst poverty while royalty and high church officials—cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and abbots—lived richly.
On June 8, 1794, a disciple of Rousseau named Robespierre and the French National Convention formally inaugurated a new religion. It was a form of deism, the belief that there is a God who, having created the universe, more or less disappeared. The Convention ordered people to recognize the existence of a supreme being and the immortality of the soul, but to reject the “superstition” of Christianity. The seven-day Christian week was exchanged for a ten-day week, and new holidays were commissioned celebrating the great events of the Revolution. Saints were replaced with political heroes. Churches were designated “Temples of Reason.” A statue called the Goddess of Reason was erected in Notre Dame. The salaries of Catholic clergy were stopped, and priests were forbidden to teach. June 8 became France’s “Holy Day,” the “Festival of the Supreme Being.” The revolutionaries vowed to replace the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost with a new trinity—“Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”
It didn’t work. “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” deteriorated into fear, bloodshed, and the guillotine. The weeks following June 8, 1794 saw the heads of 1,400 people fall “like slates from a roof.” Chaos paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte who, on May 18, 1804, recognized the church once again. He planned to be consecrated by Pope Pius VII. But at the last moment the little dictator took the crown from the pope and set it on his own head. Pius excommunicated Napoleon, and Napoleon imprisoned Pius.
“Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” proved inadequate gods, as did Rousseau, Robespierre, and the Revolution—and Napoleon himself. In the end they offered only misery.
Be silent! I am the Lord God. … I will punish national leaders And sons of the king, Along with all who follow foreign customs. I will punish worshipers of pagan gods And cruel palace officials who abuse their power. (Zephaniah 1:7a,8,9)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). June 8.