Friday 28 April 2023

Lavoisier and religion

Lavoisier "anti-clérical"?

Was Lavoisier a sceptical Enlightenment rationalist or (as a number of websites insist) a Christian believer? 

This is a difficult question to answer: in the his writings and in his many letters which have come down to us, there is almost no mention of religion. 

However, in October 1791 he penned the following tirade against clerical education:

Public education as it exists in almost the whole of Europe, has been set up not to form citizens but to produce priests, monks and theologians. The spirit of the Church has always opposed innovation, and because the first Christians spoke and prayed in has been deemed necessary to pray in Latin to the end of time.  For this reason the European education system is almost entirely directed towards teaching Latin.

If one reviews the public acts, the thesis of metaphysics and ethics defended in the Colleges, one sees that they are only an introduction to theology, that theology is the highest form of knowledge, which shapes whole education system. 

The only goal of public education is to form priests.  For a long time the Colleges were open only to those who studied for the priesthood.  Since an ecclesiastical career led to honour and fortune, the catholic nations were naturally divided into two classes: ecclesiastics, who had all the instruction and the illiterate who formed almost all the rest of the nation.   This is how, at first by chance, and then by strategy, all the  means to destroy errors and prejudices was concentrated in the hands of those who had an interest in propagating them.

This era, composed of sixteen centuries almost entirely lost to reason and philosophy, during which the progress of the human mind was almost entirely suspended, where often there were retrograde steps, will always be remarkable in the history of humanity, and one must judge how great will be those in the eyes of posterity who have overturned these antique monuments of ignorance and barbarism.
Introduction to Lavoisier's Reflections on the Plan for Public Instruction presented by M. Talleyrand-Perigord. 
First published in James Guillaume,  Procés verbaux du Comité d'Instruction publique (1894), vol.2, Introduction p. lxiii-lix.

This uncharacteristically forthright piece prefaces a long manuscript which Lavoisier prepared for Talleyrand. The latter had unsuccessfully presented a plan for public education to the Constituent Assembly just days before it adjourned.  The new Legislative then almost immediately created a Committee on Public Education which asked Talleyrand to revise and publish his report.  He  initially consulted Laplace, Monge, Condorcet Vicq d'Azyr and La Harpe, then submitted his second version to Lavoisier, asking for a response within eight days; "I would be most grateful if you would show great severity and tell me frankly what you find displeasing about this lengthy work". Lavoisier replied conscientiously, but in the event Talleyrand chose not to modify his report further and Lavoisier's work remained unpublished.  Lavoisier was later to elaborate his ideas on technical education in his Réflexions sur l'instruction publique, presented to the Convention on behalf of the Bureau de Consultation des Arts et Métiers in September 1793.

Much of the interest of Lavoisier's rather trite diatribe lies in the circumstances of its rediscovery and the light they shines on the arcane and forgotten world of early 20th-century Lavoisier scholarship.

At the centre of the story is the splendid gentleman in the photograph.  He has all the leanness and penetrative gaze of the archetypal left-wing scholar.... and appearances are not deceptive:  this is James Guillaume (1844-1916)  a leading Swiss anarchist, indeed the collaborator and biographer of Bakunin.  Guillaume edited the minutes of the Committee of Public Instruction and between 1893 and 1911 published 36 articles in  Alphonse Aulard's La Révolution française.  The references to the manuscript can be found an article of 1907, somewhat provocatively entitled, "Lavoisier: anti-clérical et révolutionnaire".

At this time the interpretation of Lavoisier was dominated by the monumental biography of Edouard Grimaux, who put a right-wing spin on his subject.  Grimaux, who was a chemist by profession, was not himself so very conservative - he was later to be deprived of his teaching post as a supporter of Dreyfus - but he was dependent on the goodwill of  the pious Chazelles family, Lavoisier's descendants and custodians of their ancestors' archive.  You can still find his authority cited in confirmation of Lavoisier's orthodoxy in the online version of the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia.

In 1892 James Guillaume visited Grimaux at his home in the boulevard Montparnasse.  The two were 
 acquainted in a  round-about route (Grimaux's sister-in-law was the widow of the Vendean freethinker Jérôme Bujeand).  Grimaux had agreed to allow Guillaume access to Lavoisier's papers.

"On one of my visits,going through a pile of unsorted papers...I laid hands on a notebook composed of several sheets of rough paper, on which Lavoisier, in a rapid hand, with numerous crossings out, had scribbled down some notes entitled "Réflexions sur le plan d'instruction  publique présenté... par M. Talleyrand-Périgord".

"Ho ho! I cried to myself, "this could be interesting"

And so it proved.  Grimaux acknowledged that "the manuscript reveals a Lavoisier that I did not know, an anti-clérical as they say today".  Guillaume borrowed the document and took the precaution of having it photographed - in those days a huge palaver which involved the services of a technical laboratory at the École Normale: ""Now, whatever zealous defenders of the Church might do in the future, this irrefutable evidence of Lavoisier's philosophical opinions would be safe from annihilation".  In fact in 1894 Grimaux threw caution to the wind and allowed Guillaume to publish the opening paragraphs in the introduction to his Procès verbaux du Comité d'instruction publique.  Finally in March 1907, following a provocative right-wing speech at the pantheonisation of the chemist Marcellin Berthelot,  Guillaume decided to defend Lavoisier's Revolutionary credentials by publishing the  whole text.  (The speaker, Henry Roujon, had remarked that "nowadays we put people in the Pantheon without guillotining them first'").

Lavoisier's religious opinions?

As a liberal Revolutionary, Lavoisier clearly supported the destruction of clerical privilege and the nationalisation of Church property.  He also advocated a practical, secular education system . However, there is no suggestion his anti-clericalism went as far as dechristianisation;  his love of order and strict adherence to constitutional legality committed him to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. 

In pre-Revolutionary years, he adhered to social proprieties:  Grimaux  notes that, as lay patron of the chapel at Freschines,  he had nominated, by an act of 7th August 1781, a chaplain, the abbé Bellavoine, to whom he gave annually 290 livres. ( Grimaux, p. 53. nt 2)  According to Madame Lavoisier, he also regularly attended the church in Villefrancoeur. 

Lavoisier's personal beliefs elude us.  Grimaux was able to muster only one - much cited - piece of evidence in favour of his orthodox Christianity: in a letter of 20th August 1788, Lavoisier  acknowledges the gift of a work of apologetics by the English theologian Edward King : "You wage a noble cause in defending the revelation and the authenticity of the Scriptures; and what is remarkable is that you now use for defence the very weapons that have many times been employed in attack" (see Grimaux, p.53).  Before reading too much into a throwaway sentence, it is worth noting that Edward King (1735-1807) was a prominent figure in scientific circles:  a member of the Royal Society, a mineralogist and an early supporter of Lavoisier's system of chemical nomenclature - certainly a correspondent to be treated politely.  Lavoisier - who didn't read English - is probably just parroting back the title of King's 1788 book: Morsels of criticism, tending to illustrate some few passages in the Holy Scriptures upon philosophical principles and an enlarged view of things.

Lavoisier, communicant?

In 1958 in an article in the Annals of Science Lucien Scheler and William Smeaton drew attention to a hitherto overlooked contemporary source which claimed that Lavoisier had been reconciled to the Church shortly before his death and taken Communion five times whilst in prison. The work in question is the anonymous Almanach des gens de biens (1795/ 97?), usually ascribed to Galart de Montjoie (the pseudonym of the royalist writer Félix Ventre de la Touloubre (1746-1816)).  Here is the passage in question:

We learn that, during their imprisonment in the Hôtel des Fermes the Farmers-General became of their impending death and turned to the consolation of religion.  A  priest, who was mistook for an agent of the Farm, was able to visit them frequently and offer his ministrations:

Each time this ecclesiastic came to the unfortunate men, two of them, of whom one was a celebrated academician, imbued with the anti-religious opinions so zealously and successfully preached in this century, shrugged their shoulders as if to deplore the blindness of their colleagues and left the room.

Up to this point my story contains nothing extraordinary; but what follows is rather astonishing.  One day these two Farmers-General came to find their colleagues, and the academician declared to them in a loud voice, "We have come to let you know that, on reflection, you have taken the correct course, the only appropriate action in the circumstances".

At first the Farmer-Generals were astonished by this pronouncement which they took for a joke in bad taste; they replied, that the situation was too grave for joking and their remaining time too precious to waste in disputation. The grave yawns open before us, they added;you should not disturb our contemplation of the great and moving truths it brings to mind.  Even though you do not share it, you ought to respect our conviction that a new eternal life awaits us on the other side of the grave.

No, no, the academic replied with emotion;  we are not joking.  We approve your state of mind in all seriousness.  

The Farmers-General were then convinced that their two colleagues had indeed had a great change of opinion; they rejoiced and embraced them.  One of them then addressed the academician:

What you say is true; we are doing the right thing; but we will not hide from you our concern about the worth of our conversion, after we have led  disordered and sinful lives in the world. Might our conversion not be considered  forced, since we face certain imminent death?  Would we feel the same if we were still free, in the noise and bustle of society, where people think of everything except death?

The academician, who was naturally eloquent, replied with a noble and consoling speech on God's infinite mercy and goodness, and the merits of the Christian redeemer.  His listeners were reduced to tears found themselves filled with a sweet hope.

From that time on, the two new converts joined in the same religious observances as their colleagues.  They all took communion five times before going to their death.  They met their end with a serenity which would seem incomprehensible to those who did not know this story. 
Almanach des gens de bien, contenant des anecdotes peu connues, pour servir a l'histoire des evenemens de ces derniers tems
(1795) [On Google Books]

Monjoie gives as his source a letter of Étienne-Marie Delahante to a member of his family. This is  plausible - Delahante's two brothers-in-law, Charles and Alexandre de Parseval de Frileuse,  were extremely pious and, according to the family memoirs, Delahante himself turned more to religion as a result of his experiences..

Scheler and Smeaton conclude judiciously that it is not really possible to know whether Lavoisier  experienced genuine change of heart or simply acted out of regard for his fellow-prisoners: "his bitterness and his compassion were surely sufficient to reunite him with his companions in misfortune during the closing scenes of the tragedy” (Scheler and Smeaton 1958, p. 153)

Certainly there are no expressions of Christian belief in Lavoisier's last letters, penned in extremis. His hopes are all for the recognition of posterity.  The most we have is a passing allusion to a possible afterlife in a letter to his wife.  Writing in early December, he enjoins her not to be mourn him:  he has accomplished all his ambitions, and adds, without a great deal of conviction, "we can still hope to be together again..."


James Guillaume, "Lavoisier: anti-clérical et révolutionnaire",  Études révolutionnaires, Série 1 (1909) p.354-379. Originally published in 1907.
For information on James Guillaume and a bibliography, see  project on

The letter from Talleyrand, and the surviving text of Lavoisier's MS are available in full in "Lavoisier",  Nouveau dictionnaire de pédagogie et d'Instruction primaire (1911) e-version on the IFE website.

For the context, see Jean Pierre Poirier, Lavoisier: chemist, biologist, economist (Engl. trans. 1998)  Available on Internet Archive:  p.336-345

On Grimaux, see Henri Guerlac, "Lavoisier and his biographers" ISIS May 1954, p.51-62 .Guerlac concludes  that there was "perhaps good reason for Grimaux's caution, however much we deplore it."

Lucien Scheler and William A. Smeaton, "An account of Lavoisier's reconciliation with the church a short time before his death. Annals of Science vol. 14(2) (1958) June 1958, p.148-153.

Lavoisier's English biographer, Douglas McKie, accepted Lavoisier's Catholicism: "In that age of atheism, Lavoisier kept his Catholic faith.  When Edward King sent a copy of one of his books, Lavoisier wrote in acknowledging the gift: "You wage a noble cause in defending the revelation and the authenticity of the Scriptures; and what is remarkable is that you now use for defence the very weapons that have many times been employed in attack" ( McKie, Lavoisier (1952) p.256-57)

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