Recent revolutionary events in the Mideast bring to mind this country’s history. Most Americans know little of that history, much less that of other countries. And in that void of historical awareness current leaders are able to lead people down paths they would certainly avoid if they truly understood where those paths have led before. At this point in American and world history, it would be wise to look back and learn from two countries, the common intersection they came to, and the very divergent paths they took.
Much has been written about the American and French Revolutions: their similarities, their common heroes, and their vast differences. It is important to avoid simplistic answers for why the two revolutions ended with such different results. Equally essential is to resist the temptation to point a finger at the faults of one while ignoring the faults of the other. The French Revolution was not without its heroes and admirable qualities. In the same way, one should be careful about romanticizing the American Revolution as though it were a work of perfection. Slavery was not dealt with in a land founded on the ideal of freedom, and many states still sought to institute church states within their borders. Most of our Founding Fathers understood their noble experiment was a work in progress and often wondered if it would succeed.
With all this in mind, consider the similarities and differences in the spiritual and cultural atmosphere between France and the American colonies in the years before their respective revolutions.
France – A people who had lost their soul
France had been on a steep downward spiritual slope for over 200 years before its revolution. In the 1500s, the French were given the gift of a Bible translated into their own language. As had occurred across the continent, Reformation fires began to burn in the hearts of the people. However, with one-third of the French people turning to Reformation truths that challenged the Catholic Church State of France, it was inevitable blood would flow. During a few horrific weeks in 1572, the French Catholic Church planned and loosed a monstrous rampage of death and destruction against the Reformers that began with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August of that year.
The purge began in Paris and marched across France with a vengeance. Men, women and children fell by the thousands before bloodthirsty troops and mobs driven to frenzy by instigators of the state Church. In just one week, over 100,000 Protestants perished. Historians wrote that the rivers of France were so filled with dead bodies that for many months no fish were eaten from the bacteria-laden water. Packs of wolves roved for miles, devouring the fallen bodies.
Jesuit Cardinal Richelieu, under orders from Rome, acted as prime minister of France to wage a bloody war against the French Huguenots. A powerful biblical revival was trampled underfoot by both Church and state. The end result was a nation cut off from personal accountability before God and a sense of personal relationship to Him. By the 1700s, France was mired in a deep spiritual malaise that left it a country without a soul. The French Revolution was born in the hearts of a people with no moral compass and the result was mob rule and near anarchy. The people had been initially kept as peasants and simply were not equipped to take a role of leadership in the establishment of a democratic republic. The sad end of this long weary tale is that France ended up with a dictator in the person of Napoleon for its leader.
The American Colonies – An Imperfect but Hopeful People
The American colonies had seen their own spiritual decline during the late 1700s, but not because of outward oppression. For them, it was more of a generation that arose that didn’t remember Pharaoh. The religious persecutions that had driven them were dim memories for the children of those who risked much to come here. While the Reformation in France was stamped out by the heavy boot of Rome, many American colonists were simply too satisfied with the bounty of their new land to think much about God anymore.
By the mid-1700s much of New England had grown cold and sterile toward all things spiritual. That is not to say the people didn’t attend church, because they did. The problem was that most went out of societal expectation rather than devotion to God. When Jonathan Edwards took the place of his grandfather as pastor of the Northampton Church, he soon realized he was leading a largely unconverted congregation. Edwards’ prophetic messages (like his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), along with the preaching of men like George Whitefield, ushered in the First Great Awakening among the colonists.
In 1737 Edwards published an account of the beginnings of this awakening called, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton.” In that tract he wrote:
The town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It never was so full of love, nor so full of joy and yet as full of distress as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house.
George Whitefield, a Calvinistic Methodist, traversed the Atlantic an amazing 13 times and preached 18,000 sermons before his death in 1770. Though he himself was enamored with the worldliness of France, Benjamin Franklin developed a friendship with Whitefield and attributed the improving character of America to Whitefield and the Awakening. While France had all but forgotten its soul, the American colonials were rediscovering theirs. So much so, it is estimated one out of every five colonists was converted to Christ during a 30-year period.
Learning from History
So what is to be learned from this brief history lesson? It certainly isn’t that America is a decidedly Christian nation. It wasn’t in the beginning and it most assuredly isn’t now. Men like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were not what most would consider Christian. But the New Englanders in particular were solidly evangelical and had undergone an intense spiritual revival in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Their influence served as a foundation for a different kind of political change than in France.
The French, lacking generations of spiritual underpinnings, were not ready to take the lead of any kind of government. Instead, they plunged from bad to worse and were primed to look to a dictator as their savior. Rather than bring them redemption, Napoleon led them toward yet even more bloodshed. The American colonists, though flawed, had something the French did not – a general sense of God’s presence.
History is the culmination of events already past, an unchangeable eddy of actions that have brought us to where we are today. Unlike history, however, our future is not yet set in stone. Just as the original colonists found hope in the sense of God’s presence, it’s in that same presence, though diminished from choices we’ve made, that we still hope.
And because that hope still remains, anything is possible.