Religion: The Cult of the Supreme Being

Adapting the established strategy of staging public pageantry to win support for a political cause, Robespierre organized a "Festival of the Supreme Being" in the summer of 1794. Having recently eliminated his adversaries Hébert and Danton, Robespierre delivered the keynote speech. In it he explained his idea for a civic religion worshipping a deist "supreme being" while resisting the more extreme tendency of some to eliminate spirituality outright through an atheistic "cult of reason."


The Festival of the Supreme Being (8 June 1794)

At exactly five in the morning, a general recall shall be sounded in Paris.

This call shall invite every citizen, men and women alike, to immediately adorn their houses with the beloved colors of liberty, either by rehanging their flags, or by embellishing their houses with garlands of flowers and greenery.

They shall then go to the assembly areas of their respective sections to await the departure signal.

No men shall be armed, except for fourteen- to eighteen-year-old boys, who shall be armed with sabers and guns or pikes.

In each section, these boys shall form a square battalion marching twelve across, in the middle of which the banners and flags of the armed force of each section shall be placed, carried by those who are ordinarily entrusted with them.

Every male citizen and young boy shall hold an oak branch in his hand.

All female citizens, mothers and daughters, shall be dressed in the colors of liberty. Mothers shall hold bouquets of roses in their hands, and the young girls shall carry baskets filled with flowers.

Each section shall choose ten older men, ten mothers, ten girls from fifteen to twenty years of age, ten adolescents from fifteen to eighteen years of age, and ten male children below the age of eight to stand on the raised mountain in the Champ de la Reunion.

The ten mothers chosen by each section shall be in white and wear a tricolored sash from right to left.

The ten girls shall also be in white and shall wear the sash like the mothers. The girls shall have flowers braided into their hair.

The ten adolescents shall be armed with swords. . . .

Every citizen shall make sure they have their oak branches, bouquets, garlands, and baskets of flowers, and to adorn themselves with the colors of liberty.

At exactly eight in the morning an artillery salvo, fired from the Pont Neuf, shall signal the time to proceed to the National Garden.

Male and female citizens shall leave from their respective sections in two columns, each six abreast. The men and boys shall be on the right, while the women, girls, and children below the age of eight will be to the left.

The square battalion of young boys shall be placed in the center between the two columns.

The sections shall be called upon to arrange themselves in such a way that the column of women is not longer than the column of men, in order to avoid disturbing the order which is necessary in a national festival. . . .

Upon arrival at the National Garden, the columns of men shall line up in the part of the garden on the side of the terrace called "the Feuillants," while the columns of women and children shall line up on the side of the river terrace, and the square battalions of boys in the wide path in the center. . . .

When all the sections have arrived at the National Garden, a delegation shall go to the Convention to announce that everything is ready to celebrate the Festival of the Supreme Being.

The National Convention shall arrive by way of the balcony of the Pavilion of Unity to the adjoining amphitheater.

They shall be preceded by a large body of musicians, who shall be located on each side of the steps to the entrance.

The president, speaking from the rostrum, shall explain to the people the reasons behind this solemn festival, and invite them to honor Nature's Creator. . . .

Robespierre spoke as follows:

The eternally happy day which the French people consecrates to the Supreme Being has finally arrived. Never has the world he created offered him a sight so worthy of his eyes. He has seen tyranny, crime, and deception reign on earth. At this moment, he sees an entire nation, at war with all the oppressors of the human race, suspend its heroic efforts in order to raise its thoughts and vows to the Great Being who gave it the mission to undertake these efforts and the strength to execute them.

Did not his immortal hand, by engraving in the hearts of men the code of justice and equality, write there the death sentence of tyrants? Did not his voice, at the very beginning of time, decree the republic, making liberty, good faith, and justice the order of the day for all centuries and for all peoples?

He did not create kings to devour the human species. Neither did he create priests to harness us like brute beasts to the carriages of kings, and to give the world the example of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood to the world. But he created the universe to celebrate his power; he created men to help and to love one another, and to attain happiness through the path of virtue.

The Author of Nature linked all mortals together in an immense chain of love and happiness. Perish the tyrants who have dared to break it!

Frenchmen, Republicans, it is up to you to cleanse the earth they have sullied and to restore the justice they have banished from it. Liberty and virtue issued together from the breast of the Supreme Being. One cannot reside among men without the other.

Generous people, do you want to triumph over all your enemies? Practice justice and render to the Supreme Being the only form of worship worthy of him. People, let us surrender ourselves today, under his auspices, to the just ecstasy of pure joy. Tomorrow we shall again combat vices and tyrants; we shall give the world an example of republican virtues: and that shall honor the Supreme Being more.

After this speech, a symphony shall be played. At the same time, the president, armed with the Flame of Truth, shall descend from the amphitheater and approach a monument raised on a circular basin, representing the monster, Atheism.

From the middle of this monument, which the president shall set on fire, the figure of Wisdom shall appear.

After this ceremony, the president shall return to the rostrum and speak again to the people, who shall answer him with songs and cries of joy.

Robespierre spoke again, as follows:

He has returned to nothingness, this monster which the spirit of kings has spewed forth over France. Let all the crimes and ills of the world disappear with him. Armed in turn with the daggers of fanaticism and the poisons of atheism, kings still conspire to assassinate humanity. If they can no longer disfigure the Divinity with superstition in order to implicate him in their transgressions, they endeavor to banish him from the earth to reign alone with crime. People, fear no more their sacrilegious conspiracies. They can no more tear the world from the breast of its author than the remorse from their own hearts. You who are wretched, hold up your woeful heads: you can again raise your eyes to the sky with impunity. Heroes of the country, your generous devotion is not a brilliant folly; the minions of tyranny may be able to assassinate you, but it is not in their power to annihilate you completely. Man, whoever you are, you can again think well of yourself. You can attach your transitory life to God himself and to immortality. Let nature thus regain all its magnificence, and wisdom all its empire. The Supreme Being is not destroyed.

It is wisdom, above all, that our guilty enemies want to drive from the Republic. To wisdom alone does it belong to consolidate the prosperity of empires; it is for her to guarantee the fruits of our courage. Let us therefore associate her with all our enterprises. Let us be serious and discreet in all our deliberations, as men who determine the interests of the whole world. Let us be ardent and obstinate in our anger against sworn tyrants, imperturbable in the heat of danger, patient in our work, terrible during setbacks, modest and vigilant in success. Let us be generous toward those who are good, compassionate toward the unfortunate, inexorable toward the wicked, just toward everyone. Let us not count on unalloyed prosperity, on triumph without obstacles, or on anything that depends upon the fortune or perversity of another. Let us depend only on our constancy and our virtue. Alone, but infallible guarantors of our independence, let us crush the ungodly union of kings still more by our force of character than by the force of our arms.

Source: La Convention nationale, réimpression faite textuellement sur le moniteur original, vol. 21 (Paris, 1842), 683–84 (from the Gazette nationale, no. 262, 22 Prairial, an II [10 June 1794]).