Friday, 10 April 2009

Jean-Paul Rabaut de Saint-Étienne

For the past couple of weeks I’ve managed to escape from my computer screen, and what reading I have done has been from the printed page. Instead of reading about current affairs, and thinking about freedom in modern Britain, I’ve been reading a little history and thinking about the quest for freedom in France in days gone by.

And in my reading, I encountered Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, French pastor and revolutionary. He was born in Nîmes in 1743, the son of Paul Rabaut, a leading pastor in the French Reformed (Protestant) Church. At that time, Protestantism was illegal in France, having been banned by Louis XIV in 1685, and being a Protestant pastor was a capital offence. As the 18th century progressed, repression tended to ease, and the last execution of a Protestant pastor was in 1762. Rabaut de Saint-Étienne was ordained as a pastor two years later, and served until 1786, when, at the urging of the Marquis de Lafayette, he went to Paris and devoted himself full-time to working for freedom of religion. The following year, partly due to his efforts, the Edict of Toleration gave French subjects the right to profess religions other than Catholicism.

In 1789 he was elected to the French National Assembly, and was involved in discussions with Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (who was then American Minister in Paris) about proposals for a possible declaration of rights. That August, the National Assembly passed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, with Rabaut de Saint-Étienne speaking strongly in favour of Article X: “No one must be disturbed because of his opinions, even in religious matters, provided their expression does not trouble the public order established by law.”

Rabaut Saint-Étienne was to be a major figure in the French Revolution, being elected President of the National Assembly in March 1790. And this was to be his undoing. As a leader in the moderate Girondist faction (the faction supported by Thomas Paine), when the Revolution went sour in 1793, and started devouring its own children, he was arrested, and later guillotined.

Ironically, the revolution’s lack of commitment to freedom of religion was to strike down his old father, Paul Rabaut, who had survived the years of persecution and who had rejoiced in the freedom of religion that the revolution had brought. In October a program of dechristianisation instituted the Revolutionary Calendar, and the clergy were ordered to move within a week a distance of about 70 miles from their churches. Paul Rabaut did not move and so was arrested. He spent a few months in prison, but was released after the fall of Robespierre. The imprisonment had, however, taken its toll on his health, and he died shortly afterward.

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