Sorting by

Skip to main content

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the French Revolution. I’m sure it’s been keeping you up at night, too.

Please don’t stop reading! 

As is almost always the case, there’s a lot below the water line here. This isn’t some dry, academic exercise. There’s personal experience and family. And probably senses of loyalty to academic mentors, my lineage. 

More importantly, there is my sense of self-understanding, who I am, how I see the world, what I value.  It might even be about how l live in and engage and collaborate in the world we share. Ooo-la-la!

And then there’s the fact that I just returned from three weeks in France. 

Sophie, my wife, is French. Over our 40+ years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. I was there on Bastille Day, Le Quatorze Juillet, in 1989 when France celebrated the bicentennial of its revolution. (July 14 is the French equivalent of the Fourth of July. It’s the day a mob stormed the bastille/prison in Paris to liberate the prisoners, only to discover a mere handful there.) 

Way back in 1989, I could sense France’s own ambivalence about its revolution. On the plus side, it was theirs. It toppled the monarchy. It ushered in Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

On the minus side, after a while, a lot of people started to lose their heads.

There are all sorts of complexities, characters, and nuances we could get lost in here. No doubt some of you know more about the French Revolution than I. But I think we can all agree it was a landmark In history — the blossoming of the modern, western, enlightened person.

I am going to grossly oversimplify and say what most of my academic training told me — directly or indirectly — the French Revolution was “bad.” Sacre bleu! True, it was a blow for freedom, democracy, and the “common man.” 

Nonetheless, their revolution was just too. . . severe, radical, anti-church, and violent (unlike our genteel and modest American Revolution.) It was drunk on notions of freedom, humanism, and secularism. The reign of terror it brought about is just a sign of how unmoored and excessive it was. Not only did this lead to a lot of guillotine-action in the short term, in the longer term it produced everything that is wrong with today’s modern, western civilization. (That might be an exaggeration!) Individualism. Libertinism. Hedonism. Materialism. Nihilism. Atheism. Rights outstripping responsibility. Freedom without restraint. Casting aside traditions and deeply rooted institutions.

BTW: Don’t think the French Revolution is only the root of hippy-dippy lefty ideas. Right-wingers like Ayn Rand and the NRA and Wall Street are fruit from the same tree. C’est la vie!

Those of you who consider yourself “Kuyperians” might recall Kuyper’s political party in the Netherlands was the “Anti-Revolutionary” party — opposed to the French and revolutionary ideas spreading across Europe. 

My own anti French Revolution sentiments treated it more as a symbol. I wanted to value community and institutions as prior to individuals. I wasn’t convinced that absolute freedom and unlimited choice led to human flourishing. I’ve struggled wondering how much things like democracy, freedom of speech, or human rights are “Christian concerns.” Do they owe more to the French Revolution than to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Don’t forget that through the ages, Christianity has done some of its best work under emperors and tyrants. (I’ve wrestled with these sorts of questions in a 2015 blog after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. Or in 2022, Rethinking Freedom.)

But here’s what got me stirred up this time. Last month I was walking the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in south central France. Much of it goes through the remote region where Protestantism — the French Reformed or the Huguenots —  once flourished in France. 

In a small museum I learned that the Huguenots were supporters of the revolution. Of course, they were! The monarchy and the Catholic Church had been pretty rough on them. Being rid of kings and bishops, or at least taking them down a few notches, had to be a good thing for the beleaguered French Protestants of the 1600s and 1700s. 

There’s more to it than that, however. These Protestants were humanists — just as Reformed people always have been. They promoted reading, learning, and critical thinking. They were dubious of hierarchy and appreciative of equality. These values synced well with the revolutionary agenda. Still today, Protestants in France tend to be learned and leftist, with influence that far exceeds their miniscule presence in the French population.

And how does this help me think or rethink today’s culture wars and political polarization? 

If our Protestant ancestors were on board with the revolution, should we then endorse the legacy of the French Revolution? Should I become more like the persecuted Huguenots and change my evaluation of the revolution?

I’ve always leaned left, but I’ve also seen myself as different from the heirs of the revolution. I thought I was anti-revolutionary and traditional, yet simultaneously progressive. I’ve always held the secular left at arm’s length, with a quiet distrust or distinction. 

Maybe “Christian Steve” can be more accepting of “Leftist Steve.” Maybe I should be more of a joiner and less a stand-aparter. 

Maybe to be anti-revolutionary isn’t so much to value tradition as it is to make space for the inquisition and torture, royalists and authoritarians, closed societies and closed communion. Maybe those hunted Huguenots of France knew something about freedom and humanism I don’t.

I think I’ll have to go back to France again soon to investigate further.

A mosaic of Stevenson and his donkey, Modestine, at a public fountain. We were sans-ass on our trek.

PS: I have no real knowledge about this, but I’ve been told that it was the French Huguenots who fled to the Netherlands who brought religious fervor and serious commitment to the Dutch Reformed, who up to that point had been somewhat more lukewarmish. Historians? Experts? Care to comment? 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I don’t know who told you that last bit but I would not agree. Thomas a Kempis. The Beghards and Beguines. Dathenus. Micron. Valerius. Teelinck. The Puritans. As to your main point, Hendrikus Berkhof in a footnote in his Christian Faith wrote something to the effect that in the end, despite the Revolution’s excesses, and despite all the good Edmund Burke type critique, Kuyper called it wrong. The historian Dale Van Kley made a career of investigating the religious roots of the Revolution, and connected the dots between the Huguenots and, for example, the the Parlement of Paris.

  • RZ says:

    Very thoughtful. Perhaps the provlem with revolution is unregulated zeal and indignation. Mob mentality inherently voids the thinking portion of the brain. Too much attention to deconstruction without a collaborative plan for reconstruction. Post-Lenin Russia, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, and Ottawa County. Democracy is an imperfect but necessary concession to universal sin. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Never forget, Impotence (lack of power) corrupts, and absolute impotence corrupts absolutely. We fear power and for good reason, but a lack of power leads to all kinds of evil. It would do us well as people of faith to embrace power and then wield it, to the best of our ability, as Christ did through the Spirit, to the glory of God.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Des réflexions très intéressantes — merci beaucoup.
    You overlook another achievement of the Huguenots: their evangelical zeal for viniculture when they arrived in, e.g.,, South Africa. Our Dutch fellow Calvinists there were making only sweet wines like muscat and hanepoot. Thanks to the newly arrived persecuted French Protestants, SA began planting new grapes and producing superb reds and whites of every sort, for which my wife and I were grateful when we lived there for a semester.

  • David Landegent says:

    Thanks for this. Now you have my curiosity up, because I’ve always assumed that my family had Huguenot roots, moving north from France to the southern provinces of the Netherlands to escape persecution. We figured that’s why our last name does not sound very Dutch, even though the family had lived in the southern Zeeland providence since the early 1700’s. We could not trace the name any further back When my wife and I went to Paris more than ten years ago, I had fun pronouncing my last name as L’andijon.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Could be, more accurately, “Walloon,” a French-speaking native Netherlander. In the early times they were far more common in the Dutch Republic than were the Huguenots.

  • Steve Wykstra says:

    Interesting ruminations, Steve. On your PS regarding the roots of religious fervor: I recently picked up a free copy of Maurice Hansen’s 1884 book The Reformed Church in the Netherlands, from AD 1340 to AD 1840.
    That year “1340 AD is surprising, n’est pas? But in Chapter II, “The Formative Period,” Hansen goes back to one Gerhard Groote, born in 1340 in Deventer, Overijssel. I’d never heard of him, and found it an amazing chapter. Groote seems to have born into a wealthy family, pursued learning in Paris and Cologne, got a rep for great learning. And then, visiting a Carthusian convent near Arnhem, had a kind of conversion experience, and with permission from the bishop of Utrecht, began addressing the people from the heart of the need for conversion from the heart. He attracted throngs, and was soon told by the Church to shut up. He complied, but had a following of young men whom he’d mentored in both the devout life and in dedicated learning from the Church Fathers and the like. They had a vision for a new life of living together, dedicated to both holy piety and learning. He gave his blessing to their going for it. And thus began the Brethern of the Common Life, which took hold and spread throughout Zwol, Groningen, and other provinces. These communities of devotion and learning, says Hansen, “took a strong hold upon the affections of the people of the Netherlands,” including common working people who did not hesitate “to vacate a room in their house for a scholar.” Hansen concludes: “Thus early was the importance of religious culture to intelligent piety recognized.,” and
    “Gerhard Groote may well be recognized as a stone in the foundation walls upon which it pleased God, two centuries later, to erect the temple of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, This noble man went to his rest in 1384, in the forty-fifth year of his age.”

    “Two centuries later,” says Hansen.

    Still, some three centuries later, even as Voetius and others were working away on that “temple” of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Dutch and their ships were making a fortune on the sugar trade out of the Caribbean, using indigenous people even as they brought in Africans to sell out of Curacao. I wonder: did Voetius or the Dutch Reformed –apart from the derided Labidists– ever breath a word of criticism or protest? Colonialist exploitation –whether Dutch, French, Spanish, or Portuguese– became the “creational norm” for nearly two hundred years, so far as I can see so far.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments, as well as to the six other people who persisted through the entire blog. My PS, while merely a PS, seems to have been debunked. That’s okay. As I mentioned it was a quick comment I once heard, and perhaps it was almost made in jest.
    As to my larger point, perhaps I didn’t really explain the “existential” reaction I had to learning about the Huguenot support for the French Revolution. It is as if I’ve always heard about its excesses and abuse, and then by deduction why its progeny/secular leftists are not like “us”/me and should always be somewhat distrusted. We Christians have this need to always be a bit “distinctive” or non-conforming. I’m not saying I’m now on board with today’s secular left about everything, but the Huguenot support for the revolution messed with my categories and assumptions.
    Maybe more important, one of you, in personal correspondence, pointed out a greater distinction. For many in the anti-revolutionary crowd, the “golden age” was in the past. We’re now trying to hold on, or even return to it. As Christians, the “golden age” is to come, fueling hope and courage and creativity and risk. Amen!

Leave a Reply