The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, enacted by the French National Assembly on July 12, 1790, reorganized the structure of the Roman Catholic Church in France. The act ended Catholicism's status as the official religion of France and declared the Church was no longer under the authority of the Pope. Though it was clear the act's purpose was to diminish the power and status of the Catholic Church, the directive applied to some Protestant ministers and affected French Protestants as a whole.
Right of Protestants to Hold Office
French Protestants had few rights prior to the French Revolution. Since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, French Protestants were not recognized as citizens. The Edict of Tolerance, enacted by Louis XVI in 1787, allowed Protestants to resume private worship, and a religious liberty act in 1789 gave Protestants the right to hold public office. Because the Civil Constitution of the Clergy made bishops public employees elected by a vote of all taxpayers -- including non-Catholics -- Protestants could vote someone of their own religion to the office of Catholic bishop.
Protestants' Right to Catholic Property
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was preceded by other decrees that increased France's control of the Catholic Church. To help pay France's national debt, the National Assembly decreed that property held by the Catholic Church would be confiscated and sold. Even church-occupied land was confiscated if the church was not considered constitutional under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. One of these churches, Paris' Saint-Louis du Louvre, was leased by the Council of Paris to Protestants. In May 1791, the Rev. Paul-Henri Marron celebrated the first legal Protestant worship service there.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy deepened the resentment already existing between Protestants and Catholics. Catholics saw the Constitution as the attempt of Protestant Assembly members to avenge their past religious persecution. In addition, Protestants in some regions of France were required to take the oath supporting the Constitution. Catholics viewed this as the Protestant community's first step toward Protestant ministers' salaries being paid by public funds. Protestants also were known to push for strict application of the Constitution and for assisting in the expulsion of priests who did not comply with the Constitution.
Protestants' Loss of Protection
Louis XVI abolished torture and the death penalty in 1780. However, Louis himself was executed in 1793, in part for accepting Holy Communion from a priest who had not signed the oath supporting the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Louis' execution marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror. During this period, Protestants and Catholics alike faced execution if they were deemed enemies of the revolution. Shortly after Louis XVI's death, five Protestant members of the National Assembly -- two of them Protestant ministers -- were beheaded for their political beliefs.
- Hanover College: History Department: Hanover Historical Texts Project: The Civil Constitution of The Clergy (1790)
- Cumberland College Department of History and Political Science: The Upsilonian: The Subjugation of The Catholic Church: A Failed Attempt
- Musee Virtuel Du Protestantisme Francais: Religious Freedom: French Protestants Were Granted Religious Freedom During the Revolution
- The Emancipation of Catholics, Jews and Protestants: Minorities and The Nation State in 19th Century Europe; Rainerr Liedtke, Stephan Vendehorst
- Society of Archbishop Justus: Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians
- Musee Virtuel Du Protestantisme Francais: Dechristianisation During The Reign of Terror (1793-1794)
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