French Revolution (1789-1799)

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The French Revolution, the designation of the movement which after a long process of preparation, both political and philosophical, broke out on the night of 4 August 1789, with the removal of all feudal privileges by the National Convention in Paris. The results of this Revolution are ineradicable.

Occasionally in the history of ideas connections are assumed between the intellectual forerunners of the French Revolution, especially Voltaire and Rousseau, and Anabaptists, or between some political phenomena and former Anabaptist demands. The "Declaration of Human and Civil Rights" (1789) expresses the fundamental principle of religious freedom, which is undisputably of Anabaptist origin, and which by remarkable routes, including the Anglo-American constitutional concept, finally achieved universal significance. But these are usually somewhat violent interpretations, and aside from the contradiction to fundamental Anabaptist faith which the excesses of the Revolution revealed, are based on exaggerated and ill-considered comparisons. Even the concept of a direct connection between the French Revolution and the ideas of the sword-bearing revolutionary Anabaptist movement (Münster) is untenable, unless all revolutionary activism is to be forced into one historical line.

But the effects of the French Revolution on the Mennonites were very real, and not only on those under French jurisdiction but everywhere else in Europe, in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Although on the eastern border of France (Alsace) even revolutionaries like Robespierre protected the Mennonite principle of nonresistance, soon afterward the Napoleonic wars led to the abrogation of this protection. Thus the Mennonite confession was suppressed in one of its most essential aspects. In conspicuous contrast to this was the granting of substantial legal privileges as a result of the Revolution to the Mennonites of the German Rhine region. This latter implied an increasing recognition of the Mennonite faith (with the exception of nonresistance) and concerned their private rights (see Ius retractus), especially the regulation of their marriages (see Marriage). The process of equalization instigated by the Revolution finally removed the last traces of the old heresy laws, and had an emancipating effect within the Mennonite congregations themselves.

In Switzerland toleration for the Mennonites, which finally came in 1815, was also the result primarily of the French Revolution. The "Helvetic Revolution" of 1798 in Switzerland, which changed the Swiss confederation (Eidgenossenschaft) into a federal republic, was the result largely of the diplomatic-military action of France together with the Swiss revolutionary party. In 1799 the New Helvetic Republic passed an act of toleration granting religious liberty to every faith, and permitting those who had been banished on religious grounds to return. This act ended active persecution but did not give the Mennonites full equality with the state church, particularly in matters of baptism and marriage. Finally in 1815 the Bernese Mennonites were granted complete religious toleration with full rights of citizenship.

Another consequence of the Revolution was the end of the rule of the Prince Bishop of Basel in the Jura territory. This was initiated with the invasion of the French troops in 1798, and completed with the action of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, incorporating the Basel Bishopric with the Canton of Bern. -- EHC

In the Netherlands, under the influence of the principles of the French Revolution the dominant position and the rights of the Reformed Church were abrogated; since 1796 there has been no state church in this country, and all citizens have equal rights. The dissenters (Mennonites, Remonstrants, Roman Catholics, Jews) were thereafter permitted to hold civil offices, and marriage by civil authorities became compulsory, the church ceremony being permitted only after the civil ceremony had been performed in the town halls. Most Dutch Mennonites were much pleased by the improvement in their social and political status, the more so since the principle of nonresistance was not attacked; it was now possible to avoid compulsory military service by engaging a substitute. In the Netherlands a number of Mennonites eagerly watched developments after 1789. Most of them, but not all, were enthusiastic about the "human and civil rights," for which they had been prepared during the last quarter of the 18th century by a growing liberalism in their congregations, a tendency toward natural religion, and the readings of French and especially English philosophical writings. Besides this, the fact that in this country they were still only tolerated often drove them into the arms of the Patriots against the oligarchy of the Reformed governors of the country. Hence they were among the first to dance around the "trees of liberty" enthusiastically erected when the French army came to the Netherlands; among them were those Mennonites who in former wars had left the country as "Patriots" to save their lives. - VdZ


Geiser, Samuel. Die Taufgesinnten-Gemeinden: eine Kurzgefasste Darstellung der wichtigsten Ereignisse des Täufertums. Karlsruhe : H. Schneider, 1931.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 686.

Zijpp, Nanne van der. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1952: 188-190.

Author(s) Ernst H. Correll
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Correll, Ernst H. and Nanne van der Zijpp. "French Revolution (1789-1799)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 29 Sep 2023.

APA style

Correll, Ernst H. and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1956). French Revolution (1789-1799). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 392. All rights reserved.

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