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Theophilanthropists

Deistic sect formed in France during the latter part of the French Revolution

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Theophilanthropists, or “Friends of God and Man“, a deistic sect formed in France during the latter part of the French Revolution. The legal substitution of the Constitutional Church, the worship of Reason, and the cult of the Supreme Being in place of the Catholic Religion had practically resulted in atheism and immorality. With a view to offsetting those results, some disciples of Rousseau and Robespierre resorted to a new religion, wherein Rousseau’s deism and Robespierre’s civic virtue (regne de la vertu) would be combined. Chemin wrote the “Manuel des theophilanthropes”, and Haiiy offered his institute for the blind as a provisional place of meeting. When, later, the Convention turned over to them the little church of Sainte-Catherine, in Paris, the nascent sect won a few followers and protectors; still its progress was slow till La Revelliere-Lepeaux, an influential member of the Directory, took up its cause. But it was only after the Revolution of 18 Fructidor, which left him master of the situation, that his sympathy bore fruit. Then was the apogee of Theophilanthropism. Blended in a way with the culte decadaire, it came into possession of some of the great churches of Paris like Notre-Dame, St-Jacques du Haut-Pas. St-Medard etc.; it took a conspicuous part in all the national celebrations, and from the metropolis passed into the provinces, chiefly the Department of Yonne. The movement, in spite of a strong opposition not only on the part of Catholics but also from Constitutionals and Philosophers, was gradually taking hold of the masses when the overthrow of the Directory brought it to an abrupt end. The First Consul set his face against the new religionists and they disbanded. Sporadic attempts at reviving Theophilanthropism were made in the course of the nineteenth century. In 1829, Isambert circulated a manifesto for the purpose of grouping the French deists, but nothing came of it. In 1854 Henri Carle founded “L’alliance religieuse universelle” with “La libre conscience” as its organ, but both society and periodical disappeared during the Franco-Prussian war. In 1882, Decembre and Vallieres, through “La fraternite universelle” and many similar publications, sought directly to reorganize the sect, but the attempt failed and, in 1890, Decembre confessed the impossibility of rousing public interest. Camerlynck’s voluminous book, “Theisme”, published at Paris in 1900, had a similar aim and met a similar fate.

Theophilanthropism is described in the “Manuel du theophilanthropisme”, of which there were new editions made as the work progressed. The governing body consisted of two committees; one called “comite de direction morale”, in charge of the spiritual, the other styled “comite des administrateurs”, in charge of the temporalties. No dogmatic creed was imposed on the adherents of the new religion, the two fundamental tenets, viz. the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, being purely sentimental beliefs (croyances de sentiment), deemed necessary for the preservation of society and the welfare of individuals. The moral teaching, considered as by far the principal feature of the movement, held a middle position between the severity of Stoicism and the laxity of Epicureanism. Its basic principle was: good is all that tends to preserve and perfect man; evil is all that tends to destroy or impair him. It is in the light of that axiom and not of the Christian standard—in spite of the phraseology—that we should view the commandments concerning the adoration of God, the love of our neighbor, domestic virtues, and patriotism. Theophilanthropist worship was at first very simple and meant chiefly for the home: it consisted in a short invocation of God in the morning and in a kind of examination of conscience at the end of the day. A plain altar on which were laid some flowers and fruits, a few inscriptions appended to the walls, a platform for the readers or speakers, were the only furnishings allowed. The founders were particularly anxious that this simplicity be strictly adhered to. Nevertheless, the progress of the sect led gradually to a much more elaborate ceremonial. It is a far cry from the early meetings where the minister, or Pere de famille, presided at prayer or mimicked Christian baptism, First Communion, marriages, and funerals, to the gorgeous display of the so-called national festivals. There even was a Theophilanthropist Mass, which, however, came much nearer to a Calvinist service than to the Catholic Liturgy. Of the hymns adopted by the sect, some taken from the writings of J. B. Rousseau, Madame Deshoulieres, or even Racine, breathe a noble spirit but, side by side with these, there are bombastic lucubrations like the “Hymne de la fondation de la republique” and the “Hymne A, la souverainete du peuple”. The same strange combination is found in the feasts where Socrates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and St. Vincent de Paul are equally honored, and in the sermon where political harangues interlard moral exhortations. Quite noteworthy is Dubroca’s funeral oration of George Washington, wherein the orator, under cover of the American hero, catered to the rising Bonaparte and laid out for him a whole political program which, read in the light of subsequent events, sounds like irony. Despite the hint, Bonaparte chose to be the Cromwell rather than the Washington of the new religionists.

Under the appearance of moderation, Theophilanthropism was really an anti-Christian movement. Whenever superstition was mentioned, it meant the Christian religion. There is no doubt that the first Theophilanthropists were Freemasons and that Freemasonry was the leading spirit of the movement throughout. Neither can a secret collusion between Protestantism and Theophilanthropism, at least in the beginning, be denied. The first idea of the sect really belongs to David Williams, an English minister who exercised a considerable influence in Paris during the Revolution. Chemin consulted the French Calvinists before launching his “Manuel”. If later a controversy arose between Protestants themselves as to the merits of Theophilanthropism, this was due to the imprudence of the Theophilanthropists, who, elated by apparent success, lifted the mask. The constitutional clergy, in the national council held at Notre-Dame in 1797, protested against the new religion, and Gregoire wrote in his “Annales de la Religion” (VI, no. 5): “Theophilanthropism is one of those derisive institutions which pretend to bring to God those very people whom they drive away from Him by estranging them from Christianity. …Abhorred by Christians, it is spurned by philosophers who, though they may not feel the need of a religion for themselves, still want the people to cling to the faith of their fathers.” Catholics went further in their denunciations and exposed, beside the anti-Christian and masonic spirit that animated the sect, the political intrigues hiding under the mask of religion. Pope Pius VII, May 17, 1800, placed an interdict on the churches that had been desecrated by the deistic rites, and Cardinal Consalvi, in the course of the negotiations regarding the Concordat of 1801, demanded that a speedy end be put to the Theophilanthropists’ profanation of the Catholic temples.

J. F. SOLLIER


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