He was the parish priest of Etrépigny in Champagne. Every year he gave to the poor whatever remained of his salary after paying the cost of his abstemious life. After thirty years of quiet and exemplary ministry he died, aged fifty-five, bequeathing all his possessions to the people of his parish, and leaving three manuscript copies of a treatise which he entitled “My Testament.” One copy was addressed to his parishioners; this was surely the strangest bequest in history. On the enclosing envelope he begged their pardon for having served error and prejudice through all his career. Apparently he had lost his religious faith before ordination. “If I embraced a profession so directly opposed to my sentiments, it was not through cupidity; I obeyed my parents.”13 Voltaire published parts of the Testament in 1762; d’Holbach and Diderot issued a summary of it in 1772 as Le Bon Sens du curé Meslier; the full text was not printed till 1861–64; it is now long since out of print, and rarely accessible. In all the campaign against Christianity, from Bayle to the Revolution, there was no attack so thoroughgoing, so merciless, as that of this village priest.
He seems to have begun his doubts by studying the Bible. The result showed that the Church had been only moderately wise in keeping the Bible from the common people; she should have kept it from the clergy too. Father John found many difficulties in Holy Writ. Why was the genealogy of Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew so different from that in Luke, if both were authored by God? Why did both of these genealogies end with Joseph, who was soon to be excused from begetting Jesus? Why should the Son of God be complimented on being the Son of David, who was an arrant adulterer? Did the Old Testament prophecies apply to Christ, or were those applications mere tours de theological force? Were the miracles of the New Testament pious frauds, or were they natural operations misunderstood? Should one believe such stories, or follow reason? Jean voted for reason:
I will not sacrifice my reason, because this reason alone enables me to distinguish between good and evil, the true and the false.… I will not give up experience, because it is a much better guide than imagination, or than the authority of the guides whom they wish to give me.… I will not distrust my senses. I do not ignore the fact that they can sometimes lead me into error; but on the other hand I know that they do not deceive me always; … my senses suffice to rectify the hasty judgments which they induced me to form.14
Meslier saw no warrant in reason for believing in free will or the immortality of the soul. He thought that we should be grateful that we are all allowed an eternal sleep after the turmoil of “this world, which causes more trouble than pleasure to the majority of you.… Return peaceably to the universal home from which you come, … and pass by without murmuring, like all the beings that surround you.”15 To those who defended the conception of heaven as a consolation, he replied that on their own allegations only a minority ever reached that goal, while the majority went to hell; how, then, could the idea of immortality be a consolation? “The belief which delivers me from overwhelming fears … appears to me more desirable than the uncertainty in which I am left through belief in a God who, master of his favors, gives them but to his favorites, and permits all the others to render themselves worthy of eternal punishments.” How could any civilized person believe in a god who would condemn his creatures to everlasting hell?
Is there in nature a man so cruel as to wish in cold blood to torment, I do not say-his fellow beings, but any sentient being whatever? Conclude, then, O theologians, that according to your own principles your God is infinitely more wicked than the most wicked of men.… The priests have made of God such a malicious, ferocious being … that there are few men in the world who do not wish that God did not exist.… What morals would we have if we should imitate this God!16
Voltaire thought this was a bit extreme, and in publishing the Testament he did his best to soften the priest’s atheism into deism; but Meslier was quite uncompromising. The Christian God, he argued, is the author of all evil, for, since he is omnipotent, nothing can happen without his consent. If he gives us life, he also causes death; if he grants us health and riches, he sends us, in recompense, poverty, famine, disasters, and war.17 There are in the world many indications of intelligent design, but are there not quite as many signs that this Divine Providence, if it exists, is capable of the most devilish mischief?
All the books are filled with the most flattering praises of Providence, whose attentive care is extolled.… However, if we examine all parts of this globe, we see the uncivilized as well as the civilized man in a perpetual struggle with Providence; he is compelled to ward off the blows which it sends in the form of hurricanes, tempests, frost, hail, inundations, sterility, and the diverse accidents which so often render all man’s labors useless. In a word, I see the human race continually occupied in protecting itself from the wicked tricks of this Providence, which is said to be busy with the care of their happiness.18
After all, was there ever a stranger and more incredible God than this? For thousands of years he kept himself hidden from mankind, and heard without any clear and visible response the prayers and praises of billions of men. He is supposed to be infinitely wise, but his empire is ridden with disorder and destruction. He is supposed to be good, but he punishes like an inhuman fiend. He is supposed to be just, and he lets the wicked prosper and his saints be tortured to death. He is continually occupied in creating and destroying.19
Instead of holding, like Voltaire, that belief in God is natural and universal, Meslier contended that such a belief is unnatural, and has to be infused into the adolescent mind.
All children are atheists—they have no idea of God.… Men believe in God only upon the word of those who have no more idea of him than they themselves. Our nurses are our first theologians; they talk to children about God as they talk to them of werewolves.… Very few people would have a god if care had not been taken to give them one.20
And whereas most atheists professed admiration for Jesus, Meslier included Christ too in his passionate demolition of religious faith. First of all, what sane man could believe that “God, with the view of reconciling himself with mankind, … would sacrifice his own innocent and sinless son?”21 As for Jesus himself,
We see in him … a fanatic, a misanthrope, who, preaching to the wretched, advises them to be poor, to combat and extinguish nature, to hate pleasure, to seek sufferings, and to despise themselves. He tells them to leave father, mother, all the ties of life, in order to follow him. What beautiful morality! … It must be divine, because it is impracticable for men.22
Meslier moves on to complete materialism. It is not necessary to go beyond matter and ask who created it; the puzzle of origins would be merely put back a step to the child’s natural question, “Who made God?” “I say to you that matter acts of itself.… Leave to theologians their ’First Cause’; nature has no need of this in order to produce all the effects which you see.”23 If you must worship something, worship the sun, as many peoples do, for the sun is the real creator of our life and health and light and warmth and joy. But alas, mourns Meslier, “if religion were clear, it would have fewer attractions for the ignorant. They need obscurity, mysteries, fables, miracles, incredible things.24 … Priests and legislators, by inventing religions and forging mysteries, … have served them to their taste. In this way they attract enthusiasts, women, and the illiterate.”25
All in all, in Meslier’s view, religion has been part of a conspiracy between Church and state to frighten people into a convenient obedience to absolute rule.26 The priests “took great care to make their God a terrible, capricious, and changeable tyrant; it was necessary for them that he should be thus that he might lend himself to their various interests.”27 In this conspiracy the priests are more to blame than the kings, for they capture control of the prince in his childhood and then through the confessional; they mold him to superstition, they warp and stunt his reason, they lead him on to religious intolerance and brutal persecution.28 In this way,
theological disputes … have unsettled empires, caused revolutions, ruined sovereigns, devastated the whole of Europe. These despicable quarrels could not be extinguished even in rivers of blood.… The votaries of a religion which preaches … charity, harmony, and peace have shown themselves more ferocious than cannibals or savages every time that their instructors have excited them to the destruction of their brethren. There is no crime which men have not committed in the idea of pleasing the deity or appeasing his wrath,29 … or to sanction the knaveries of impostors on account of a being who exists only in their imagination.30
This gigantic and self-perpetuating conspiracy of Church and state against man and reason is defended on the ground that a supernatural religion, and even a religion of terror, is an indispensable aid in the task of forming men to morality.
But is it true that this dogma [of heaven and hell] renders men … more virtuous? The nations where this fiction is established, are they remarkable for the morality of their conduct?31 … To disabuse us … it is sufficient to open the eyes and to consider what are the morals of the most religious people. We see haughty tyrants, courtiers, countless extortioners, unscrupulous magistrates, impostors, adulterers, libertines, prostitutes, thieves, and rogues of all kinds, who have never doubted the existence of a vindictive God, or the punishments of hell, or the joys of Paradise.32
No; theological ideas, though professed by nearly all men, have very little effect upon their conduct. God is far away, but temptation is near. “Whom does the idea of God overawe? A few weak men disappointed and disgusted with this world; some persons whose passions are already extinguished by age, infirmities, or reverses of fortune.”33 It is not the Church but the state that produces order and trains citizens to obey laws. “Social restraints [are] more powerful than religion in making men behave.”34 In the long run the best morality is one founded upon reason and intelligence:
To discern the true principles of morality men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods; they need but common sense. They have only to look within themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, to consult their obvious interests, to consider the object of society and of each of its members; and they will easily understand that virtue is an advantage, and that vice is an injury, to beings of their species.… Men are unhappy only because they are ignorant; they are ignorant only because everything conspires to prevent them from being enlightened; and they are wicked only because their reason is not sufficiently developed.35
Philosophers could build a natural and effective morality if they were not frightened into a hypocritical orthodoxy by fear of powerful priests.
From the most remote periods theology alone regulated the march of philosophy. What aid has theology given it? It changed it into an unintelligible jargon, … with words void of sense, better suited to obscure than to enlighten.… How Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, and many others have been compelled to invent hypotheses and evasions in order to reconcile their discoveries with the reveries and the blunders which religion had rendered sacred! With what precautions have not the greatest philosophers guarded themselves, even at the risk of being absurd … and unintelligible, whenever their ideas did not correspond with the principles of theology! Vigilant priests were always ready to extinguish systems which could not be made to tally with their interests.… All that the most enlightened men could do was to speak and write with hidden meaning; and often, by a cowardly complaisance, to shamefully ally falsehood with truth.… How could modern philosophers, who, threatened with the most cruel persecution, were called upon to renounce reason and to submit to faith—that is, to priestly authority—how could men thus fettered give free flight to their genius, … or hasten human progress?36
Some philosophers have had the courage to accept experience and reason as their guides, and to shake off the chains of superstition—Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus, Strabo. “But their systems, too simple, too sensible, and too stripped of wonders for the lovers of fancy, were obliged to yield to the fabulous conjectures of Plato, Socrates, and Zeno. Among the moderns, Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, and others have followed the path of Epicurus.”37
Meslier mourned the loss to mankind from this domination of philosophy by theology. He pleaded for freedom of thought as the basic right that “alone can give to men humaneness and grandeur of soul.”38
It is only by showing them the truth that they can know their best interests and the real motives that will lead them to happiness. Long enough have the instructors of the people fixed their eyes upon heaven; let them at last bring them back to earth. Tired of an incomprehensible theology, of ridiculous fables, of impenetrable mysteries, of puerile ceremonies, let the human mind occupy itself with natural things, intelligible objects, sensible truths, and useful knowledge.39
Let thought and speech and print be free, let education be secular and unconstrained, and men will move day by day toward utopia. The existing social order is iniquitous; it makes a small minority idly rich and corrupt with luxury, at the cost of keeping millions of men in a degrading poverty and ignorance. The root of the evil is the institution of property. Property is theft, and education, religion, and law are adjusted to protect and sanctify this theft.40 A revolution to overthrow this conspiracy of the few against the many would be quite justified. “Where,” Meslier cried out in his final fury, “where are the Jacques Clément [who killed Henry III] and the Ravaillac [assassin of Henry IV) of our France? Are there men still alive in our days to stun and stab all these detestable monsters, enemies of the human race, and by these means deliver the people from tyranny?”41 Let the nation appropriate all property; let every man be put to moderate work; let the product be equally shared. Let men and women mate as they wish and part when they please; let their children be brought up together in communal schools. There would then be an end to domestic strife, to class war, and poverty; then Christianity would at last be real!42
Having said all this, Jean Meslier concluded his Testament with a defiance to all who, as he knew, would execrate him.
Let them think and judge and say and do what they will; … I shall pay little heed.… Even now I have almost ceased to heed what happens in the world. The dead, whose company I am now about to join, have no more troubles, and disquiet themselves no more. So I am putting finis to all this. Even now I am little more than nothing. Soon I shall be nothing indeed.43
Was there ever a testament like this in the history of mankind? Picture the lonely priest, shorn of all faith and hope, living out his silenced life in a village where probably every soul but his own would have been horrified to learn his secret thoughts. So he talked freely only to his manuscript; and there, recklessly and without any wide knowledge of the nature of man, he poured out his resentment in the most complete antireligious declaration that even this age would ever know. All the campaign of Voltaire againstl’infâmewas here, all the materialism of La Mettrie, the atheism of d’Holbach, the devastating phantasies of Diderot, even the communism of Babeuf. Hesitantly issued by Voltaire, joyfully published by d’Holbach, the Testament of Jean Meslier entered into the ferment of the French mind, and shared in preparing the collapse of the Old Regime and the ecstasies of the Revolution.