Was Napoleon religious?

Napoleon Bonaparte was religious in that he believed in God. However, he was not devoted to any particular religious doctrines or practices. Napoleon respected the power of religious belief and used religion to further his political goals.

Napoleon and religious imagery

Allegory of the Concordat of 1801, by Pierre Joseph Célestin François

Napoleon’s belief in God

Napoleon was born into a Catholic family in Corsica in 1769. He was baptized, raised, and educated as a Catholic. As an adult, Napoleon was not a devout Catholic, but he was certainly not an atheist or even an agnostic. Napoleon’s private secretary, Claude-François Méneval, wrote that Napoleon was “penetrated with a profound and mysterious sentiment of the divine omnipotence. His habit of involuntarily signing himself with the cross, on hearing of some great danger; or on the discovery of some important fact, where the interests of France or the success of his plans were concerned, at the news of some great and unexpected good fortune, or of some great disaster, was not only a reminiscence of his early religious education, but also another manifestation of the feeling which led him to attribute these favours or these warnings to the Author of all things.” (1)

Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, who served as a valet to Napoleon, reported that when Napoleon came out of his room in the morning he would often say to the valet on duty, “Open the doors and windows, and let in the air which God has made.” (2) This is something I have Napoleon say when he is fictionally in New Orleans in Napoleon in America. Saint-Denis also wrote:

Was the Emperor religious in the sense which devotees give to the word? I never saw any proof of it. But he was religious in the meaning which philosophers give to it. Although the Emperor went to mass, was present at religious ceremonies, and had heard some sermons during his life, that was no reason why he should attach importance to religious observances or set much store by them. His mind rose higher, and consequently his belief was different from the common run of men who go to church. But it will be said that he went to mass. Yes, but how did he understand it? He stood up when he had to stand up, he sat down when everybody did, knelt with them and kissed the Bible when it was handed to him. During divine service his bearing was serious, his hat was under his left arm when he did not put it on the chair in front of him, and his right hand was generally in his trousers pocket (and rattling some small change in it, at the Island of Elba). But he never made any other outward demonstration after the fashion of devotees. (3)

Another one of Napoleon’s secretaries, Louis-Antoine Bourrienne, observed:

On the subject of religion, Bonaparte’s ideas were very vague. ‘My reason, said he, ‘makes me incredulous as to many things; but the impressions of my childhood and early youth throw me into uncertainty.’ He was very fond of talking of religion. In Italy, in  Egypt, and on board the Orient and the Muiron, I have known him to take a part in very animated conversations on this topic. He readily yielded up all that was proved against religion as the work of men and time; but he would not hear of materialism. I recollect that, one fine night, when he was on deck with some persons who were arguing in favour of materialism, Bonaparte raised his hand to heaven, and pointing to the stars, said, ‘You may talk as long as you please, gentlemen, but who made all that?’ (4)

Henri-Gatien Bertrand, Grand Marshal of the Palace, who was with Napoleon from 1813 until the latter’s death in 1821, wrote:

In his will the Emperor declared that he had died in the Catholic faith, in which he had been born. … In actual fact the Emperor died a Theist, believing in a rewarding God, the principle of all things. Yet he stated that he had died in the Catholic religion, because he believed that to be compatible with public ethics. (5)

Religion as statecraft

Napoleon took a practical view of religion. He thought that religion played a crucial role in preserving order and promoting useful values within a society.

I do not see in [religion] the mystery of the incarnation, but the mystery of social order, the association of religion with paradise, an idea of equality which keeps the rich from being massacred by the poor…. Society could not exist without an inequality of fortunes, and an inequality of fortunes without religion. A man dying of starvation alongside of one who is surfeited would not yield to this difference unless he had some authority which assured him that God so orders it, that there must be both poor and rich in the world, but that in the future, and throughout eternity, the portion of each will be changed. (6)

Religious leaders had moral authority. Napoleon sought to use this to his advantage. He did not believe in the separation of church and state.

I have been in vain endeavouring to establish the proper limits between the civil and religious authority. In truth, these limits are quite chimerical. I have looked into the subject to no purpose. I can see nothing but clouds, obscurity, and difficulty. The civil government condemns a criminal to death; the priest steps in, gives him absolution, and ensures him a place in paradise! (7)

When Napoleon was attempting to conquer Egypt and Syria in 1798-99, he proclaimed his admiration for Islam and took part in the religious ceremonies of the Muslim rulers, in an attempt to win their support. He used quotations from the Koran and other Islamic arguments to justify his rule. He also put forward decrees on behalf of the Jews and the Coptic Christians, but these went down less well with the local population. Bourrienne noted:

A wise conqueror supports his triumphs by protecting, and even elevating the religion of the conquered people. Bonaparte’s principle was, as he himself has often told me, to look upon religions as the work of men, but to respect them everywhere as a powerful engine of government. … If Bonaparte spoke as a Musselman, it was merely in his character as a military and political chief in a Mussulman country. To do so was essential to his success, to the safety of the army, and, consequently, to his glory. In every country he would have drawn up proclamations, and delivered addresses, on the same principle. In India, he would have been for Ali; at Tibet, for the Dalai-Lama; and in China, for Confucius. (8)

Concordat with the Pope

After coming to power in France in the Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), Napoleon took steps to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with the French state. His aim was to bolster the authority of his new regime. During the French Revolution, the church had been suppressed in France. Napoleon negotiated an agreement with Pope Pius VII, known as the Concordat of 1801, which returned France to Catholicism. Sunday worship was again permitted, and exiled clergy were allowed to return to France. The church was not restored to its former authority, however. Catholicism was not recognized as the French national religion, but rather as the religion of the majority of the French. Confiscated church property was not returned. Bishops who might be sympathetic to the old Bourbon regime were removed so that they could be replaced by candidates nominated by Napoleon. The state would pay clerical salaries. The clergy swore an oath of allegiance to the state. French historian Hippolyte Taine later described the situation as follows:

Each prelate posted in his diocese is maintained there in isolation; a watch is kept on his correspondence; he can communicate with the Pope only through the Minister of Worship; he has no right to act in concert with his colleagues; all the general assemblies of the clergy, all metropolitan councils, all annual synods, are suppressed. The church of France has ceased to exist as one corps, while its members, carefully detached from each other and from their Roman head, are no longer united, but…confined to a circumscription like the prefect; the bishop himself is simply an ecclesiastical prefect. (9)

The number of monastic orders was greatly reduced, as was the number of feast days and processions. August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, which happened to be Napoleon’s birthday, also became the feast of “Saint Napoleon,” a re-named and probably mythical Roman martyr.

Although the Pope was present at Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself. This gesture symbolized that the Pope (a foreign prince) was not above the new Emperor. In 1806, Napoleon published the Imperial Catechism, which all Catholic children had to learn by heart. It included such passages as:

We especially owe to our Emperor, Napoleon the First, love, respect, obedience, fidelity, military service, and tributes ordained for the preservation of the empire and his throne…. For God has raised him up for us in times of peril that he might restore public worship and the holy religion of our fathers and be its protector. (10)

Priests had to preach on behalf of conscription, and that it was a sin to try to escape from it. Pastoral letters had to pass through censors; bishops were furnished with ready-made drafts. Relations between Napoleon and the Pope deteriorated. In 1808, French troops occupied Rome. In 1809, Napoleon annexed the Papal States to his empire. The Pope responded by excommunicating Napoleon. When one of Napoleon’s officers took the initiative of kidnapping the Pope, Napoleon did not release the pontiff. Instead Pius VII was moved to Savona, and later to Fontainebleau, where Napoleon could pressure him directly. Eventually, in 1813, the Pope signed a new concordat, which he soon revoked. The Pope remained in French captivity until January of 1814. Napoleon abdicated in April of that year.

Tolerance of other faiths

Both as a result of his personal beliefs and as a matter of statecraft, Napoleon was tolerant of other faiths besides Catholicism. Lutheranism, Calvinism and Judaism were given equal status with Catholicism. Bourrienne wrote:

Policy induced Bonaparte to re-establish religious worship in France, which he thought would be a powerful aid to the consolidation of his power; but he would never consent to the persecution of other religions. He wished to influence mankind in positive and temporal things, but not in points of belief. (11)

This did not mean that religious communities were free to do whatever they wanted. Napoleon dominated the clergy of all faiths within his Empire. In the words of Taine:

So long as belief remains silent and solitary, confined within the limits of individual conscience, it is free and the state has nothing to do with it. But let it act outside these limits, address the public, bring together in crowds for a common purpose, manifest itself visibly, it is subject to control; forms of worship, ceremonies, preaching, instruction, and propagandism, the donations it provokes, the assemblies it convenes, the organization and maintenance of the bodies it engenders, all the positive applications of the inward rosary, are temporal works. In this sense, they form a province of the public domain and come within the competency of the government of the administration and of the courts. The state has a right to interdict, to tolerate, or to authorize them, and to direct their activity at all times. (12)

Napoleon’s religious faith at his death

During his final years, which were spent in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon took a greater personal interest in religious faith. He read the Bible and speculated to his companions that he might come to believe again, as he did when he was a child. He told Bertrand that he doubted there was anything after death, but he expressed his wish that Abbé Vignali, one of the priests in his household, should administer communion, extreme unction, and whatever else was usual in the circumstances. There was nothing religious in his last words. Saint-Denis wrote:

No one ever knew or knows whether the Emperor, during the last days of his life, had recourse to the consolations and help of religion. No one ever saw anything – what can be called seeing. Abbé Vignali is the only person who knew whether or not the Emperor indulged in the practices of religion. (13)

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  1. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, translated by Robert H. Sherard, Vol. I (London, 1895), pp. 381-382.
  2. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena; Personal Recollections of the Emperor’s Second Mamluke and Valet, Louis Etienne St. Denis (known as Ali), translated by Frank Hunter Potter, New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1922, p. 222.
  3. Ibid., p. 220.
  4. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1831), p. 278.
  5. Paul Fleuriot de Langle, ed., Napoleon at St. Helena: The Journals of General Bertrand from January to May of 1821, translated by Frances Hume (Garden City, NY, 1952), pp. 163-164.
  6. H.A. Taine, “Napoleon’s Views of Religion,” The North American Review, Vol. 152, No. 414 (May 1891), p. 568.
  7. Basil Hall, Napoleon in Council, or The Opinions Delivered by Bonaparte in the Council of State, translated from the French of Baron Pelet (de la Lozère) (Edinburgh and London, 1837), p. 241.
  8. Bourriene, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, pp. 163-164.
  9. Taine, “Napoleon’s Views of Religion,” p. 575.
  10. Ibid., pp. 577-578.
  11. Bourriene, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, p. 278.
  12. Taine, “Napoleon’s Views of Religion,” p. 574.
  13. Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, pp. 221-222.

17 commments on “Was Napoleon religious?”

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Hello Shannon,
    I like this article very much. However, I would like to state that Hippolyte Taine is not a very credible source, as historian. His book on the Napoleonic period is incredibly prejudiced and devoid of objectivity and is, nowadays, not really much used or quoted anymore by historians (Les origines de la France contemporaine).Furthermore, I would like to say that the Pope was NOT ” liberated ” by the Allied troops in 1814, he had already been sent back to Rome earlier by Napoleon and arrived there on the day of Napoleons abdication in April 1814. He had signed a second concordat with Napoleon in 1813 but,to my knowledge, he revoked that later on and withdrew his signature.

  • Paul Kreider says:

    A most interesting article, thank you.

  • Helen Webberley says:

    And it wasn’t just religion that he used to pursue his political goals. He left the love of his life to marry his more royal, younger second wife.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for mentioning this, Helen. I had thought of mentioning Napoleon’s divorce in the article, so I’m very glad you brought it up.

  • Kathleen Van Lierop says:

    Very interesting article!

  • Addison Benjamin Jump says:

    Thanks, an interesting study of the interplay of the political man and the vulnerable, strife-crossed, frightened, individual man. I have often wondered how men like N avoided PSTD. He must have know men for years, shared their dangers, admired their courage, and then, after a moment of agony, they were gone forever. He must have asked the questions all men ask. I expect his “beliefs” changed from day to day, according to his thinking, mediation, and mood.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      You’re welcome, Addison. Thanks for bringing up how Napoleon’s beliefs should also be considered in the context of his battlefield experience.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    To Helen: Yes, he left the love of his life to marry a younger woman from an old, well established ruling family in order to fuse and legitimize his young dynasty with the existing political system and, above all, to have a legitimate son who was meant to stabilize his dynasty while at the same time being descended from an older dynasty as well. A very conscious and intelligent strategy. However, the arrogance of the established aristocratic rulers would not ever lead to his being accepted by them. They forever regarded him as being a parvenu, not worthy of their acceptance. And his divorce from the love of his life caused him immeasurable emotional pain. That is a well-documented fact.

  • Catherine McGreevy says:

    I’d been wondering about this. Thanks for the informative article!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your comments, Irene. Much to Napoleon’s frustration, the Pope would not declare the marriage to Josephine invalid, so 13 of France’s 27 cardinals refused to attend the wedding to Marie Louise. Napoleon stripped the offending cardinals of their property and ecclesiastical offices.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Hello Shannon,
    Yes,thats true.
    They were then called the ” black cardinals “, to my knowledge.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    To Addison,
    Napoleon was very upset by the death of two of his senior officers whom he considered to be friends, namely Marshall Lannes and General Duroc who both died of wounds received in battle. Marshall Lannes died of gangrene after one of his legs had to be amputated, and General Duroc had his entrails torn out by a cannonball. The death of Marshall Lannes caused Napoleon to shed abundant tears (1809) and the death of General Duroc likewise (1813). In this case, Napoleon is said to have spoken the words “Adieu, my friend, there is another life where we will meet again”, after having visited him lying on his death-bed. He was then despondent for a long while and ordered all military operations to cease that day.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for bringing up Napoleon’s words on General Duroc’s death, Irene. I didn’t know he reportedly said that.

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Was the Emperor religious in the sense which devotees give to the word? I never saw any proof of it. But he was religious in the meaning which philosophers give to it.

Louis Étienne Saint-Denis