Chapter 2: Religious Revolutions
1. The importance of the study of Religious Revolutions in respect of the comprehension of the great Political Revolutions.
A portion of this work will be devoted to the French Revolution. It was full of acts of violence which naturally had their psychological causes.
These exceptional events will always fill us with astonishment, and we even feel them to be inexplicable. They become comprehensible, however, if we consider that the French Revolution, constituting a new religion, was bound to obey the laws which condition the propagation of all beliefs. Its fury and its hecatombs will then become intelligible.
In studying the history of a great religious revolution, that of the Reformation, we shall see that a number of psychological elements which figured therein were equally active during the French Revolution. In both we observe the insignificant bearing of the rational value of a belief upon its propagation, the inefficacy of persecution, the impossibility of tolerance between contrary beliefs, and the violence and the desperate struggles resulting from the conflict of different faiths. We also observe the exploitation of a belief by interests quite independent of that belief. Finally we see that it is impossible to modify the convictions of men without also modifying their existence.
These phenomena verified, we shall see plainly why the gospel of the Revolution was propagated by the same methods as all the religious gospels, notably that of Calvin. It could not have been propagated otherwise.
But although there are close analogies between the genesis of a religious revolution, such as the Reformation, and that of a great political revolution like our own, their remote consequences are very different, which explains the difference of duration which they display. In religious revolutions no experience can reveal to the faithful that they are deceived, since they would have to go to heaven to make the discovery. In political revolutions experience quickly demonstrates the error of a false doctrine and forces men to abandon it.
Thus at the end of the Directory the application of Jacobin beliefs had led France to such a degree of ruin, poverty, and despair that the wildest Jacobins themselves had to renounce their system. Nothing survived of their theories except a few principles which cannot be verified by experience, such as the universal happiness which equality should bestow upon humanity.
2. The beginnings of the Reformation and its first disciples.
The Reformation was finally to exercise a profound influence upon the sentiments and moral ideas of a great proportion of mankind. Modest in its beginnings, it was at first a simple struggle against the abuses of the clergy, and, from a practical point of view, a return to the prescriptions of the Gospel. It never constituted, as has been claimed, an aspiration towards freedom of thought. Calvin was as intolerant as Robespierre, and all the theorists of the age considered that the religion of subjects must be that of the prince who governed them. Indeed in every country where the Reformation was established the sovereign replaced the Pope of Rome, with the same rights and the same powers.
In France, in default of publicity and means of communication, the new faith spread slowly enough at first. It was about 1520 that Luther recruited a few adepts, and only towards 1535 was the new belief sufficiently widespread for men to consider it necessary to burn its disciples.
In conformity with a well-known psychological law, these executions merely favoured the propagation of the Reformation. Its first followers included priests and magistrates, but were principally obscure artisans. Their conversion was effected almost exclusively by mental contagion and suggestion.
As soon as a new belief extends itself, we see grouped round it many persons who are indifferent to the belief, but who find in it a pretext or opportunity for gratifying their passions or their greed. This phenomenon was observed at the time of the Reformation in many countries, notably in Germany and in England.
Luther having taught that the clergy had no need of wealth, the German lords found many merits in a faith which enabled them to seize upon the goods of the Church. Henry VIII. enriched himself by a similar operation. Sovereigns who were often molested by the Pope could as a rule only look favourably upon a doctrine which added religious powers to their political powers and made each of them a Pope. Far from diminishing the absolutism of rulers, the Reformation only exaggerated it.
3. Rational value of the doctrines of the Reformation.
The Reformation overturned all Europe, and came near to ruining France, of which it made a battle-field for a period of fifty years. Never did a cause so insignificant from the rational point of view produce such great results.
Here is one of the innumerable proofs of the fact that beliefs are propagated independently of all reason. The theological doctrines which aroused men's passions so violently, and notably those of Calvin, are not even worthy of examination in the light of rational logic.
Greatly concerned about his salvation, having an excessive fear of the devil, which his confessor was unable to allay, Luther sought the surest means of pleasing God that he might avoid Hell.
Having commenced by denying the Pope the right to sell indulgences, he presently entirely denied his authority, and that of the Church, condemned religious ceremonies, confession, and the worship of the saints, and declared that Christians should have no rules of conduct other than the Bible. He also considered that no one could be saved without the grace of God.
This last theory, known as that of predestination, was in Luther rather uncertain, but was stated precisely by Calvin, who made it the very foundation of a doctrine to which the majority of Protestants are still subservient. According to him: ``From all eternity God has predestined certain men to be burned and others to be saved.'' Why this monstrous iniquity? Simply because ``it is the will of God.''
Thus according to Calvin, who for that matter merely developed certain assertions of St. Augustine, an all-powerful God would amuse Himself by creating living beings simply in order to burn them during all eternity, without paying any heed to their acts or merits. It is marvellous that such revolting insanity could for such a length of time subjugate so many minds—marvellous that it does so still.
The psychology of Calvin is not without affinity with that of Robespierre. Like the latter, the master of the pure truth, he sent to death those who would not accept his doctrines. God, he stated, wishes ``that one should put aside all humanity when it is a question of striving for his glory.''
The case of Calvin and his disciples shows that matters which rationally are the most contradictory become perfectly reconciled in minds which are hypnotised by a belief. In the eyes of rational logic, it seems impossible to base a morality upon the theory of predestination, since whatever they do men are sure of being either saved or damned. However, Calvin had no difficulty in erecting a most severe morality upon this totally illogical basis. Considering themselves the elect of God, his disciples were so swollen by pride and the sense of their own dignity that they felt obliged to serve as models in their conduct.
4. Propagation of the Reformation.
The new faith was propagated not by speech, still less by process of reasoning, but by the mechanism described in our preceding work: that is, by the influence of affirmation, repetition, mental contagion, and prestige. At a much later date revolutionary ideas were spread over France in the same fashion.
Persecution, as we have already remarked, only favoured this propagation. Each execution led to fresh conversions, as was seen in the early years of the Christian Church. Anne Dubourg, Parliamentary councillor, condemned to be burned alive, marched to the stake exhorting the crowd to be converted. ``His constancy,'' says a witness, ``made more Protestants among the young men of the colleges than the books of Calvin.''
To prevent the condemned from speaking to the people their tongues were cut out before they were burned. The horror of their sufferings was increased by attaching the victims to an iron chain, which enabled the executioners to plunge them into the fire and withdraw them several times in succession.
But nothing induced the Protestants to retract, even the offer of an amnesty after they had felt the fire.
In 1535 Francis I., forsaking his previous tolerance, ordered six fires to be lighted simultaneously in Paris. The Convention, as we know, limited itself to a single guillotine in the same city. It is probable that the sufferings of the victims were not very excruciating; the insensibility of the Christian martyrs had already been remarked. Believers are hypnotised by their faith, and we know to-day that certain forms of hypnotism engender complete insensibility.
The new faith progressed rapidly. In 1560 there were two thousand reformed churches in France, and many great lords, at first indifferent enough, adhered to the new doctrine.
5. Conflict between different religious beliefs—Impossibility of Tolerance.
I have already stated that intolerance is always an accompaniment of powerful religious beliefs. Political and religious revolutions furnish us with numerous proofs of this fact, and show us also that the mutual intolerance of sectaries of the same religion is always much greater than that of the defenders of remote and alien faiths, such as Islamism and Christianity. In fact, if we consider the faiths for whose sake France was so long rent asunder, we shall find that they did not differ on any but accessory points. Catholics and Protestants adored exactly the same God, and only differed in their manner of adoring Him. If reason had played the smallest part in the elaboration of their belief, it could easily have proved to them that it must be quite indifferent to God whether He sees men adore Him in this fashion or in that.
Reason being powerless to affect the brain of the convinced, Protestants and Catholics continued their ferocious conflicts. All the efforts of their sovereigns to reconcile them were in vain. Catherine de Medicis, seeing the party of the Reformed Church increasing day by day in spite of persecution, and attracting a considerable number of nobles and magistrates, thought to disarm them by convoking at Poissy, in 1561, an assembly of bishops and pastors with the object of fusing the two doctrines. Such an enterprise indicated that the queen, despite her subtlety, knew nothing of the laws of mystic logic. Not in all history can one cite an example of a belief destroyed or reduced by means of refutation. Catherine did not even know that although toleration is with difficulty possible between individuals, it is impossible between collectivities. Her attempt failed completely. The assembled theologians hurled texts and insults at one another's heads, but no one was moved. Catherine thought to succeed better in 1562 by promulgating an edict according Protestants the right to unite in the public celebration of their cult.
This tolerance, very admirable from a philosophical point of view, but not at all wise from the political standpoint, had no other result beyond exasperating both parties. In the Midi, where the Protestants were strongest, they persecuted the Catholics, sought to convert them by violence, cut their throats if they did not succeed, and sacked their cathedrals. In the regions where the Catholics were more numerous the Reformers suffered like persecutions.
Such hostilities as these inevitably engendered civil war. Thus arose the so-called religious wars, which so long spilled the blood of France. The cities were ravaged, the inhabitants massacred, and the struggle rapidly assumed that special quality of ferocity peculiar to religious or political conflicts, which, at a later date, was to reappear in the wars of La Vendee.
Old men, women, and children, all were exterminated. A certain Baron d'Oppede, first president of the Parliament of Aix, had already set an example by killing 3,000 persons in the space of ten days, with refinements of cruelty, and destroying three cities and twenty-two villages. Montluc, a worthy forerunner of Carrier, had the Calvinists thrown living into the wells until these were full. The Protestants were no more humane. They did not spare even the Catholic churches, and treated the tombs and statues just as the delegates of the Convention were to treat the royal tombs of Saint Denis.
Under the influence of these conflicts France was progressively disintegrated, and at the end of the reign of Henri III. was parcelled out into veritable little confederated municipal republics, forming so many sovereign states. The royal power was vanishing. The States of Blois claimed to dictate their wishes to Henri III., who had fled from his capital. In 1577 the traveller Lippomano, who traversed France, saw important cities— Orleans, Tours, Blois, Poitiers—entirely devastated, the cathedrals and churches in ruins, and the tombs shattered. This was almost the state of France at the end of the Directory.
Among the events of this epoch, that which has left the darkest memory, although it was not perhaps the most murderous, was the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, ordered, according to the historians, by Catherine de Medicis and Charles IX.
One does not require a very profound knowledge of psychology to realise that no sovereign could have ordered such an event. St. Bartholomew's Day was not a royal but a popular crime. Catherine de Medicis, believing her existence and that of the king threatened by a plot directed by four or five Protestant leaders then in Paris, sent men to kill them in their houses, according to the summary fashion of the time. The massacre which followed is very well explained by M. Battifol in the following terms:—
``At the report of what was afoot the rumour immediately ran through Paris that the Huguenots were being massacred; Catholic gentlemen, soldiers of the guard, archers, men of the people, in short all Paris, rushed into the streets, arms in hand, in order to participate in the execution, and the general massacre commenced, to the sound of ferocious cries of `The Huguenots! Kill, kill!' They were struck down, they were drowned, they were hanged. All that were known as heretics were so served. Two thousand persons were killed in Paris.''
By contagion, the people of the provinces imitated those of
Paris, and six to eight thousand Protestants were slain.
When time had somewhat cooled religious passions, all the historians, even the Catholics, spoke of St. Bartholomew's Day with indignation. They thus showed how difficult it is for the mentality of one epoch to understand that of another.
Far from being criticised, St. Bartholomew's Day provoked an indescribable enthusiasm throughout the whole of Catholic Europe.
Philip II. was delirious with joy when he heard the news, and the King of France received more congratulations than if he had won a great battle.
But it was Pope Gregory XIII. above all who manifested the keenest satisfaction. He had a medal struck to commemorate the happy event, ordered joy-fires to be lit and cannon fired, celebrated several masses, and sent for the painter Vasari to depict on the walls of the Vatican the principal scenes of carnage. Further, he sent to the King of France an ambassador instructed to felicitate that monarch upon his fine action. It is historical details of this kind that enable us to comprehend the mind of the believer. The Jacobins of the Terror had a mentality very like that of Gregory XIII.
Naturally the Protestants were not indifferent to such a hecatomb, and they made such progress that in 1576 Henri III. was reduced to granting them, by the Edict of Beaulieu, entire liberty of worship, eight strong places, and, in the Parliaments, Chambers composed half of Catholics and half of Huguenots.
These forced concessions did not lead to peace. A Catholic League was created, having the Duke of Guise at its head, and the conflict continued. But it could not last for ever. We know how Henri IV. put an end to it, at least for a time, by his abjuration in 1593, and by the Edict of Nantes.
The struggle was quieted but not terminated. Under Louis XIII. the Protestants were still restless, and in 1627 Richelieu was obliged to besiege La Rochelle, where 15,000 Protestants perished. Afterwards, possessing more political than religious feeling, the famous Cardinal proved extremely tolerant toward the Reformers.
This tolerance could not last. Contrary beliefs cannot come into contact without seeking to annihilate each other, as soon as one feels capable of dominating the other. Under Louis XIV. the Protestants had become by far the weaker, and were forced to renounce the struggle and live at peace. Their number was then about 1,200,000, and they possessed more than 600 churches, served by about 700 pastors. The presence of these heretics on French soil was intolerable to the Catholic clergy, who endeavoured to persecute them in various ways. As these persecutions had little result, Louis XIV. resorted to dragonnading them in 1685, when many individuals perished, but without further result. Under the pressure of the clergy, notably of Bossuett, the Edict of Nantes was revoked, and the Protestants were forced to accept conversion or to leave France. This disastrous emigration lasted a long time, and is said to have cost France 400,000 inhabitants, men of notable energy, since they had the courage to listen to their conscience rather than their interests.
6. The results of Religious Revolutions.
If religious revolutions were judged only by the gloomy story of the Reformation, we should be forced to regard them as highly disastrous. But all have not played a like part, the civilising influence of certain among them being considerable.
By giving a people moral unity they greatly increase its material power. We see this notably when a new faith, brought by Mohammed, transforms the petty and impotent tribes of Arabia into a formidable nation.
Such a new religious belief does not merely render a people homogeneous. It attains a result that no philosophy, no code ever attained: it sensibly transforms what is almost unchangeable, the sentiments of a race.
We see this at the period when the most powerful religious revolution recorded by history overthrew paganism to substitute a God who came from the plains of Galilee. The new ideal demanded the renunciation of all the joys of existence in order to acquire the eternal happiness of heaven. No doubt such an ideal was readily accepted by the poor, the enslaved, the disinherited who were deprived of all the joys of life here below, to whom an enchanting future was offered in exchange for a life without hope. But the austere existence so easily embraced by the poor was also embraced by the rich. In this above all was the power of the new faith manifested.
Not only did the Christian revolution transform manners: it also exercised, for a space of two thousand years, a preponderating influence over civilisation. Directly a religious faith triumphs all the elements of civilisation naturally adapt themselves to it, so that civilisation is rapidly transformed. Writers, artists and philosophers merely symbolise, in their works, the ideas of the new faith.
When any religious or political faith whatsoever has triumphed, not only is reason powerless to affect it, but it even finds motives which impel it to interpret and so justify the faith in question, and to strive to impose it upon others. There were probably as many theologians and orators in the time of Moloch, to prove the utility of human sacrifices, as there were at other periods to glorify the Inquisition, the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the hecatombs of the Terror.
We must not hope to see peoples possessed by strong beliefs readily achieve tolerance. The only people who attained to toleration in the ancient world were the polytheists. The nations which practise toleration at the present time are those that might well be termed polytheistical, since, as in England and America, they are divided into innumerable sects. Under identical names they really adore very different deities.
The multiplicity of beliefs which results in such toleration finally results also in weakness. We therefore come to a psychological problem not hitherto resolved: how to possess a faith at once powerful and tolerant.
The foregoing brief explanation reveals the large part played by religious revolutions and the power of beliefs. Despite their slight rational value they shape history, and prevent the peoples from remaining a mass of individuals without cohesion or strength. Man has needed them at all times to orientate his thought and guide his conduct. No philosophy has as yet succeeded in replacing them.
 The doctrine of predestination is still taught in Protestant catechisms, as is proved by the following passage extracted from the last edition of an official catechism for which I sent to Edinburgh:
``By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.
``These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
``Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
``As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ; are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.''
 The medal must have been distributed pretty widely, for the cabinet of medals at the Bibliotheque Nationale possesses three examples: one in gold, one in silver, and one in copper. This medal, reproduced by Bonnani in his Numism. Pontific. (vol. i. p. 336), represents on one side Gregory XIII., and on the other an angel striking Huguenots with a sword. The exergue is Ugonotorum strages, that is, Massacre of the Huguenots. (The word strages may be translated by carnage or massacre, a sense which it possesses in Cicero and Livy; or again by disaster, ruin, a sense attributed to it in Virgil and Tacitus.)