Conscience and Conversion

Religious Liberty in Post-Revolutionary France

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Thomas Kselman
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Conscience and Conversion offers an important contribution to the religious history of 19th-century France, an area that has not received the same attention as has religion in the early modern period. Kselman’s stated goal is to examine how people make religious choices. He approaches this question by focusing on conversions after the revolution, when French men and women had religious freedom guaranteed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man. These rights were then enshrined in Napoleon’s Concordat (1801) and Organic Articles (1802). The author sets the context for his argument with a first chapter that briefly traces the development of the concept of toleration, an idea that grew out of the Reformation, to the concepts of freedom of public worship and of conscience, embraced by the revolutionaries. He argues that after the revolution, the French were preoccupied with conversion because of their uncertainty about the meaning, practice, and contradictions inherent in this new right. 

After tracing the development of the concept of religious liberty, the author includes a chapter on the image of the “Wandering Jew,” a theme in the French culture of the time. In subsequent chapters, Kselman’s method is to focus on case studies of individual conversions. He first turns his attention to those of several prominent French Jews to Catholicism. These two chapters reflect his original research question, which was about Catholic-Jewish relations. He also devotes a chapter to a case study of the circle of Madame Schwetchin, an orthodox convert to Catholicism, and especially to the conversion of Ivan Gagarin, a prominent Russian Orthodox diplomat in France. Notably, given the history of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in France, he says little about Protestant conversions to Catholicism or vice versa. In the second half of the book, Kselman addresses Catholics who “converted” in the sense that they questioned and eventually fell away from the church. These chapters focus on well-known Catholics and intellectuals Félicité Lamennais, George Sand, and Ernest Renan. 

These case studies illustrate different dimensions of the newfound freedom to make religious choices after the revolution. To tie these examples together, Kselman has made clear that “conversion” did not always mean converting from one religion to Catholicism. Instead he defines conversion more broadly as crossing religious boundaries (204). Indeed, he views the exercise of religious choice as a process that involved agonizing soul-searching, with the same individual often moving back and forth before making a definitive decision.

By using case studies of prominent individuals, Kselman’s study of necessity focuses on elites. He has several good reasons for doing so. First, his point is to look at conversion and religious choices as agonizing individual decisions about salvation and belief. Examination of specific people allows him to get at the individual ways in which French men and women struggled with religious liberty. Second, Kselman wants to highlight the ways in which the idea of conversion captured the public imagination because of general anxiety about this new freedom in the post-revolutionary world. The prominence of these figures meant that their choices were often public, at least among their social circles, and sometimes more widely publicized given that many of them wrote about their spiritual struggles. Finally, to be able to look at the ways in which people wrestled with religious choice, Kselman selects cases in which enough documentation has survived to illustrate the inner struggle of these individuals.

Each of these case studies not only captures a variety of experiences and types of conversion, but also demonstrates some common themes. One of the most important is the ways in which choosing to convert or to fall away from Catholicism often involved tense family dramas as their religious choices alienated them from loved ones and friends. The author also demonstrates the ways in which religious choices were not made in isolation, but were also the product of coming to terms with the social currents of the day. Many of the individuals addressed here were driven by their reaction to divisions within the Catholic Church over authority, the “social question” about poverty, and issues of political liberty. All of them made their choice in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris, which allowed them greater freedom to exercise their right of religious liberty. Finally, his study focuses on new possibilities for constructing the self after the revolution in a context in which they were free to adopt new religious identities.

This study of conversion provides an excellent addition to the scholarship on religion, particularly Catholicism in the 19th century. By focusing on the implications of post-revolutionary religious freedom, Kselman makes a major contribution to understanding the implications of the revolution for the experience of religion in 19th-century France. Most important, he reveals that the religious freedom inaugurated by the French Revolution was not just a given; it had implications that had to be processed and understood by members of French society as people exercised their right to choose.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca McCoy is Associate Professor of History at Lebanon Valley College.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Kselman is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame and a former president of the American Catholic Historical Association.


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