Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798, by Jennifer Powell McNutt, Ashgate Publishing, 374 pp, £70, ISBN: 978-1409424413
In 1753 Voltaire left Prussia after three fractious years at the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. Unable to return to his native France, where he was persona non grata with Louis XV, he settled instead in Geneva, first in the chateau of Les Délices, then in the village of Ferney. He lived there until his return to Paris in 1778. His move to Geneva set the stage for a dramatic culture clash with the city establishment that was played out against the backdrop of religious and political tension. Geneva had been the Protestant counterpart to Rome since Jean Calvin’s time in the 1530s. Theologians and pastors from many European countries were educated in the prestigious academy Calvin founded there. Like most other European states it had little room for religious pluralism beyond a tactical union with Lutheranism in the early years of the eighteenth century, and Catholicism was tolerated only for residents of the small French legation established in the 1680s. In secular terms it was a small republic of around 25,000 people, with power controlled largely by a small oligarchy of wealthy citoyens who were pro-French in sympathy. However, they were under pressure from the so-called représentants, or burghers, in the general council, who wanted more influence in government. They in turn sought support from the traders, artisans and shopkeepers – habitants and natifs – who had no political rights at all.
Voltaire wasted little time in offending Genevan religious sensibilities by criticising the city’s austere lifestyle and setting up his own theatre in Ferney in defiance of the city’s long-established ban on public theatres. His friend, the philosopher Jean d’Alembert, went further with an article in the Paris based Encyclopédie, describing the city’s Calvinism as a diluted form of the sixteenth-century original and its pastors as tolerant deists who no longer believed in hell or the divinity of Christ: “I know of no other city where there are fewer Calvinists than in the city of Geneva.” What was meant as a compliment was taken as an insult, and Genevans found an unlikely ally in Jean-Jacques Rousseau who waded in with a passionate attack on d’Alembert and a defence of the theatre ban. Fat lot of good it did him, as both his Émile and Contrat Social were banned and burnt by the city government in 1762. The debate developed into a running feud between Voltaire and his Genevan hosts that lasted until his triumphant return to Paris.
Jennifer Powell McNutt’s book places this quarrel in the broader context of Genevan Calvinism between the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and the city’s annexation by French revolutionary armies in 1798. Her title is somewhat misleading as Voltaire only takes the stage in Chapter 4, and the real substance of the book is in the subtitle – the work and theology of Calvinist pastors. Successive chapters cover the impact of Huguenot immigration in the 1680s, demographic change in the eighteenth century, the role of the clergy, pastors who left the church, the impact of Voltaire, theological views, and the political influence of the church and its Council of Pastors. McNutt has done extensive archival and secondary research, provides a comprehensive biographical summary of all pastors in three appendices, and succeeds in providing a comprehensive picture of the interaction between religion and moderate social change.
Her introduction provides a balanced literature review of recent work on the relationship between the Enlightenment and religion, rightly arguing that the days of viewing the Enlightenment as an overwhelmingly French event are long gone. Since the 1980s, historians have increasingly seen it instead as a European-wide movement, driven by rationalism and empiricism, but shaped by regional and cultural difference. McNutt also highlights the way in which religion has been brought back into the mix, after Peter Gay’s powerful two-volume tour de force, published in the late 1960s, had pushed it to the margins. However, her application of the notion of religious Enlightenment to the Geneva case risks turning out the light altogether. D’Alembert may well have been wide of the mark in accusing the Genevan clergy of deism and Socinianism, but her alternative argument, that pastors developed a “reasonable Calvinism” which used a modernised rhetoric of reason and happiness, overstates the extent to which this led to a real change in attitude. Traditional scripture-based theology still prevailed and, when reason contradicted the Bible, the latter always won out. Human reason was still inferior to the divine, even if the deity’s rationalism was incomprehensible, and the basic tenets of Calvinist theology remained untouchable. Religious intolerance remained deeply embedded in the city, although the pastors played a mediating role in its political conflicts until the French invasion in 1798. Geneva’s Enlightenment shone a dim light.
Geneva has a particular interest for Irish readers because an abortive revolution in the spring of 1782, put down by Bernese, Sardinian and French armies, forced many of the city’s radicals into exile. One of them, Francis d’Ivernois, contacted the British envoy in Turin, Lord Mounstewart, who encouraged the Genevans to move to Britain. Shortly after d’Ivernois arrived in London the prime minister, Lord Shelburne, gave the go-ahead for his idea of setting up a “New Geneva”, to be populated mainly by the watchmakers who made up a substantial proportion of the Genevan workforce. It was initially intended for England but quickly transferred to Ireland where the newly appointed viceroy, Lord Temple, was keen to strengthen the Protestant presence and boost economic growth. The fate of the project has been covered in a number of articles, among them Thomas Gimlette’s in the mid-nineteenth century and Hubert Butler’s in the late 1940s.
D’Ivernois and his fellow Genevans, who included the future French finance minister Étienne Clavière, arrived in Ireland in February 1782, took Irish citizenship and were allocated 11,000 acres of land near Waterford. By the spring of 1783 detailed plans had been drawn up which included provision for cotton, linen and paper factories as well watchmaking, and an academy to replace the famous Genevan Academy and provide a modern education for local people and immigrants. It was to have two levels, elementary and advanced, be staffed by forty assistants and professors and have an annual budget of £4,000 a year. McNutt has recently co-authored an article on the project which stresses the importance attached to this academy in encouraging Genevans to settle in Ireland.
Within two years the project had failed because too few Genevan watchmakers were willing to move to Ireland, there was insufficient money to assist them and George III became concerned about Genevan radicalism. Yet some of the Genevans involved went on to have real political influence in British politics and in the French Revolution: Clavière as French minister for finance (before being guillotined in 1793), Étienne Dumont as speechwriter for Mirabeau and d’Ivernois as a British diplomatic agent. As for Geneva itself, the French occupation of 1798 ended the three-hundred-year-old Calvinist republic and after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 an enlarged Genevan state was created and incorporated into the new Swiss Confederation. Church and state were separated in 1907 and the city forged a new role for itself as a centre for finance and international organisations. It was a long way from the independent republic of the eighteenth century, yet if the dreams of 1782 had come true Waterford might have come a long way too, housing an international university and replacing Switzerland as the home of the cuckoo clock.
Hugh Gough is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Dublin