March 19, 1896
A LITTLE more than a hundred years ago, the civilized world stood within the shadow of the greatest tragedy of modern times. It was the eve of the French Revolution. Thrones which stood in fancied security were to be rudely shaken, and institutions and doctrines which had grown venerable under the sanction of time and tradition, were to be overturned and lost in the great upheaval.
To-day, we are still in the era of revolution. The causes from which political and social mutations take their rise, having their seat in the selfishness of human nature, are not eradicated by the changes which the produce. Neither the lapse of time nor the civilization of the nineteenth century, afford us immunity from their operation.
There are ominous signs upon the horizon of our own national future. In a manner more or less perceptible to all, the air is darkened by the shadows of coming events. It is fitting at such a time that we should note the real causes which culminated in the convulsion of a century ago, and the extent to which, as concerns them, history may be repeating itself to-day.
The French Revolution is commonly spoken of as an outburst of atheism. That this was a prominent feature of the Revolution no one denies; but it is proper to inquire, What produced the atheism? Man is not naturally an atheist. And if we look into the condition of society and the church, as it was in France just prior to the Revolution, we shall find abundant cause for the irreligion which at that time burst forth like a devastating flood upon the realm.
“There were twenty-three thousand monks in France,” says Ridpath; “there were sixty thousand curates and vicars; there were thirty-seven thousand nuns; there were two thousand five hundred monasteries; one thousand five hundred convents, and sixty thousand churches and chapels. In all there were a hundred and thirty thousand persons who enjoyed themselves in the work of saving France from her sins. But they did not begin with themselves.
“There were a hundred and forty thousand nobles in France… The noble families numbered thirty thousand. On each square league of territory, and for each one thousand of the inhabitants there was one castle, one noble family. France was not only saved but she was ennobled. It required a great deal of land to support properly the dignity and office of one of her saviours. The abbey of St. Germain des Pres owned about nine hundred acres. One fifth of all the lands of France belonged to the clergy, one fifth to the nobility, one fifth to the communes and the king. This made three fifths.” 589
This three fifths of the land was the richest and most valuable land in France. Of the value of that part belonging to the clergy we are told: “Its possessions, capitalized, amount to nearly four billion francs; the income from this amounts to eighty or a hundred millions, to which must be added the dime or tithes,—a hundred and twenty-three millions per annum; in all two hundred millions, a sum which must be doubled to show its equivalent at the present day; and to this must be added the chance contributions and the usual church collections.” 590
Coming to particulars, it is stated that four hundred monks at Premontro possessed a capital of forty-five million livres, from which they derived a remedy of more than one million livres. The Benedictines of Cluny, two hundred and thirty-eight in number, enjoyed an income of one million eight hundred thousand livres. The abbot of Clairvaux had a yearly income of more than three hundred thousand livres; the archbishop of Strasburg had an income of more than a million, etc.
In Mexico, when the French monarchy under Maximilian was overthrown, the value of the church property was $300,000,000, and its income was more than that of the Mexican Government. In the United States, the amount of untaxed church property, as shown by the census of 1890, is $679,630,139. Of this the Roman Catholic Church,—the church of France and Mexico, holds $118,069,746; but even she is second to the Methodist Church, which holds in the aggregate of her various bodies property valued at $132,140,179.
In France, at the time of the Revolution,  there were twenty-six millions of people of the laboring classes, and upon them rested the burden of supporting themselves, the privileged classes, and the government. They were taxed without mercy, while the nobles and clergy were exempt.
As a straw showing which way the wind is blowing, it is worthy of note that a bill has been recently introduced into the New York legislature, which provides for exempting from taxation “the personal property of every minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination, or every such minister or priest who is permanently disabled by impaired health from performing the active duties of the ministry, and every such minister or priest who has reached the age of seventy-five years; and the real estate of such minister or priest or such disabled or aged minister or priest, provided such real or personal estate do not exceed the value of one thousand five hundred dollars.”
The parallel is being even more rapidly drawn with respect to the theory of government. Of the epoch which ushered in the Revolution, the historian says: “At this epoch nearly the whole activity of France was displayed in the government. The government was everything. It was meant to be so. The doctrines of paternalism in the State were completely triumphant. The theory reduced to a formula ran thus: It is the duty—the business—of the State to teach men what things to do, and of the Church to teach them what things to believe. As for man, it is his business to be governed. That is—and was—the object of his creation. He must receive with unquestioning simplicity and obedience whatever is doled out to him by the noble and the priest to whom his management, his interests, his destiny, in this world are entrusted.”
There was in such a system no development of manhood, no formation of stable character, no quickening of the conscience. The moral nature was dwarfed; all the better impulses of human nature were palsied; hate and malignity were engendered; and the scenes depicted in our illustration were only the inevitable result when once restraint was thrown off.
To-day, in our own land, the doctrine of paternalism is fast displacing the theory of government espoused by the founders of the Republic. The sphere of individualism has been contracted to very narrow limits. Men are taught that their first duty to the State is obedience to the law, whether the law be good or bad; they are taught to set “law” above justice, thus virtually ignoring their prerogative of self-government, which asserts that they are free from obligation to any form of legalized wrong.
The Church, with all her religious allies, has entered the arena of politics, and assumes the right to dictate the law for nation, State, and city. The Church and the aristocracy of wealth, control the government; and the people—the mere toilers and producers—exist to be governed and to pay the taxes. The doctrine of individual inalienable rights is relegated to the background; the scheme of government has been transferred from the basis of individual rights, recognized by the Declaration of Independence, to the undefinable one of the “best good of the majority.” And the clergy and the “nobles,” the “better classes,” speak for the majority.
The French Revolution was a struggle for the mastery between the privileged classes and the people. “It was,” says Ridpath, “simply a revolt, an insurrection of the emancipated mind of France against the tyranny of her social, civil ad religious institutions—a rebellion of man against his masters—a struggle of the human spirit to break an intolerable thralldom which had been imposed upon it by the past.” The spirit of self-exaltation, making unscrupulous use of the power pertaining to wealth and station, had made the multitudes slaves both in soul and body, to human taskmasters. It had bound them in the chains of both a civil and a spiritual tyranny. And when the spirit of liberty in the breasts of the downtrodden asserted itself and burst those chains, the popular demonstrations against the Church and religion were as natural as were those against the nobles and royalty.
The atheism of the French Revolution was the legitimate fruit of the spiritual despotism imposed upon the people by the Papacy. In the papal system, the spirit of self-exaltation finds its fullest and most conspicuous embodiment. By it a mortal man, under the name of pope, is exalted to the place of God, while other fallible mortals, such as cardinals, bishops, and priests, are held up to their fellow-motals as invested with the authority and prerogatives of God. And when man is put in the place of God, the result is always a spiritual tyranny. It cannot possibly be otherwise; for the power and wisdom of man cannot rise to the level of divinity. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty;” 591 but the spirit of man cannot give liberty in the religious life. The despotism breeds revolt; and revolt, when directed against religion, naturally manifests itself in atheism. The papal religion is full of the seeds of this baleful fruit.
“The religion of the French Revolution,” says Prof. Goldwin Smith, “was a State church which, deserted by the convictions of the people, but retaining their outward allegiance, reduced them to hypocrisy and to atheism.”
There is nothing in Christianity that tends to the violence of revolution. The revolution accomplished by Christianity is the revolution of the individual. Christianity means freedom through the Spirit and power of God; and having this soul freedom, men are more desirous of imparting the same blessing to others than of laying violent hands upon the fabric of government. They seek to promote the welfare of themselves and of mankind through the uplifting power of the gospel of Christ, rather than by the violence of carnal warfare; and while conducting themselves at all times as the champions of the cause of humanity and the rights of the people, will if possible, follow after the things which make for peace.
Had the people of France known the freedom of the gospel instead of the despotism of the Papacy, the terrible scenes of the French Revolution would never have been. But the seeds of atheism, and of resistance to the restraints of both God and man, had been sown by a religion which put man in the place of God, tradition and dogma in the place of God’s word, and the law of man in the place of conscience. The prevailing conditions gave opportunity for its perfect development, and the world shuddered at the harvest. But the lesson was not sufficiently understood and appropriated by mankind. And now, in these United States, as well as elsewhere in the civilized world, the same influences are at work to bring man into a position where they will be ready to make a like mad and blind effort to reform government and society, and realize the good to which they feel they have a birthright claim. But the hope of mankind lies in the divinely-revealed assurance that the Author of liberty and of every blessing is about to take the affairs of earth into his own hands, to root out of it all things that are evil, and to usher his righteous people into the eternal era of happiness and peace.