In June Jean Meslier died. Meslier was an obscure and by all accounts kindly French priest who would not be remembered today if not for a manuscript he left behind for his parishioners. Titled Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier, but more commonly known as The Testament of Jean Meslier , this lengthy book of 97 chapters and over pages in the recent English translation by Michael Shreve Prometheus Books, , is an outright and highly polemical defense of atheism. Meslier reportedly made three copies of his manuscript; and in subsequent decades, as other copies were made and circulated, the Testament became a highly prized item in the French underground, or clandestine, book market.
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Jean Meslier, born , in the village of Mazerny, dependency of the duchy of Rethel, was the son of a serge weaver; brought up in the country, he nevertheless pursued his studies and succeeded to the priesthood. At the seminary, where he lived with much regularity, he devoted himself to the system of Descartes.
Becoming curate of Etrepigny in Champagne and vicar of a little annexed parish named Bue, he was remarkable for the austerity of his habits.
Devoted in all his duties, every year he gave what remained of his salary to the poor of his parishes; enthusiastic, and of rigid virtue, he was very temperate, as much in regard to his appetite as in relation to women. Voiri and Delavaux, the one curate of Varq, the other curate of Boulzicourt, were his confessors, and the only ones with whom he associated.
The curate Meslier was a rigid partisan of justice, and sometimes carried his zeal a little too far. The lord of his village, M. But the Sunday which followed this decision, the abbot Meslier stood in his pulpit and complained of the sentence of the cardinal. Therefore, let us pray for the lord of this place. We will pray for Antoine de Touilly, that he may be converted and granted the grace that he may not wrong the poor and despoil the orphans.
There have been scarcely any other events in his life, nor other benefice, than that of Etrepigny. He died in the odor of sanctity in the year , fifty-five years old. It is believed that, disgusted with life, he expressly refused necessary food, because during his sickness he was not willing to take anything, not even a glass of wine.
At his death he gave all he possessed, which was inconsiderable, to his parishioners, and desired to be buried in his garden. They were greatly surprised to find in his house three manuscripts, each containing three hundred and sixty-six pages, all written by his hand, signed and entitled by him, "My Testament.
Leroux, advocate and procurator for the parliament of Meziers, is a simple refutation of all the religious dogmas, without excepting one.
The grand vicar of Rheims retained one of the three copies; another was sent to Monsieur Chauvelin, guardian of the State's seal; the third remained at the clerk's office of the justiciary of St.
The Count de Caylus had one of those three copies in his possession for some time, and soon afterward more than one hundred were at Paris, sold at ten Louis-d'or apiece. A dying priest accusing himself of having professed and taught the Christian religion, made a deeper impression upon the mind than the "Thoughts of Pascal.
The curate Meslier had written upon a gray paper which enveloped the copy destined for his parishioners these remarkable words: "I have seen and recognized the errors, the abuses, the follies, and the wickedness of men. I have hated and despised them.
I did not dare say it during my life, but I will say it at least in dying, and after my death; and it is that it may be known, that I write this present memorial in order that it may serve as a witness of truth to all those who may see and read it if they choose. At the beginning of this work is found this document a kind of honorable amend, which in his letter to the Count of d'Argental of May 31, , Voltaire qualifies as a preface , addressed to his parishioners. If I embraced a profession so directly opposed to my sentiments, it was not through cupidity.
I obeyed my parents. I would have preferred to enlighten you sooner if I could have done it safely. You are witnesses to what I assert. I have not disgraced my ministry by exacting the requitals, which are a part of it. How horrible this monopoly!
I do not blame the disdain which those who grow rich by your sweat and your pains, show for their mysteries and their superstitions; but I detest their insatiable cupidity and the signal pleasure such fellows take in railing at the ignorance of those whom they carefully keep in this state of blindness. Let them content themselves with laughing at their own ease, but at least let them not multiply their errors by abusing the blind piety of those who, by their simplicity, procured them such an easy life.
You render unto me, my brethren, the justice that is due me. The sympathy which I manifested for your troubles saves me from the least suspicion. How often have I performed gratuitously the functions of my ministry. How often also has my heart been grieved at not being able to assist you as often and as abundantly as I could have wished!
Have I not always proved to you that I took more pleasure in giving than in receiving? I carefully avoided exhorting you to bigotry, and I spoke to you as rarely as possible of our unfortunate dogmas. It was necessary that I should acquit myself as a priest of my ministry, but how often have I not suffered within myself when I was forced to preach to you those pious lies which I despised in my heart.
What a disdain I had for my ministry, and particularly for that superstitious Mass, and those ridiculous administrations of sacraments, especially if I was compelled to perform them with the solemnity which awakened all your piety and all your good faith.
What remorse I had for exciting your credulity! A thousand times upon the point of bursting forth publicly, I was going to open your eyes, but a fear superior to my strength restrained me and forced me to silence until my death. The abbot Meslier had written two letters to the curates of his neighborhood to inform them of his Testament; he told them that he had consigned to the chancery of St.
Minnehould a copy of his manuscript in leaves in octavo; but he feared it would be suppressed, according to the bad custom established to prevent the poor from being instructed and knowing the truth. The curate Meslier, the most singular phenomenon ever seen among all the meteors fatal to the Christian religion, worked his whole life secretly in order to attack the opinions he believed false.
To compose his manuscript against God, against all religion, against the Bible and the Church, he had no other assistance than the Bible itself, Moreri Montaigne, and a few fathers. While the abbot Meslier naively acknowledged that he did not wish to be burned till after his death, Thomas Woolston, a doctor of Cambridge, published and sold publicly at London, in his own house, sixty thousand copies of his "Discourses" against the miracles of Jesus Christ.
It was a very astonishing thing that two priests should at the same time write against the Christian religion. The curate Meslier has gone further yet than Woolston; he dares to treat the transport of our Saviour by the devil upon the mountain, the wedding of Cana, the bread and the fishes, as absurd fables, injurious to divinity, which were ignored during three hundred years by the whole Roman Empire, and finally passed from the lower class to the palace of the emperors, when policy obliged them to adopt the follies of the people in order the more easily to subjugate them.
The denunciations of the English priest do not approach those of the Champagne priest. Woolston is sometimes indulgent, Meslier never. He was a man profoundly embittered by the crimes he witnessed, for which he holds the Christian religion responsible.
There is no miracle which to him is not an object of contempt and horror; no prophecy that he does not compare to those of Nostredamus.
He wrote thus against Jesus Christ when in the arms of death, at a time when the most dissimulating dare not lie, and when the most intrepid tremble.
Struck with the difficulties which he found in Scripture, he inveighed against it more bitterly than the Acosta and all the Jews, more than the famous Porphyre, Celse, Iamblique, Julian, Libanius, and all the partisans of human reason. There were found among the books of the curate Meslier a printed manuscript of the Treatise of Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambray, upon the existence of God and His attributes, and the reflections of the Jesuit Tournemine upon Atheism, to which treatise he added marginal notes signed by his hand.
November 17, The National Convention sends to the Committee of Public Instruction the proposition made by one of its members to erect a statue to Jean Meslier, curate at Etrepigny, in Champagne, the first priest who had the courage and the honesty to abjure religious errors. When we wish to examine in a cool, calm way the opinions of men, we are very much surprised to find that in those which we consider the most essential, nothing is more rare than to find them using common sense; that is to say, the portion of judgment sufficient to know the most simple truths, to reject the most striking absurdities, and to be shocked by palpable contradictions.
We have an example of this in Theology, a science revered in all times, in all countries, by the greatest number of mortals; an object considered the most important, the most useful, and the most indispensable to the happiness of society. If they would but take the trouble to sound the principles upon which this pretended science rests itself, they would be compelled to admit that the principles which were considered incontestable, are but hazardous suppositions, conceived in ignorance, propagated by enthusiasm or bad intention, adopted by timid credulity, preserved by habit, which never reasons, and revered solely because it is not comprehended.
Some, says Montaigne, make the world believe that which they do not themselves believe; a greater number of others make themselves believe, not comprehending what it is to believe. In a word, whoever will consult common sense upon religious opinions, and will carry into this examination the attention given to objects of ordinary interest, will easily perceive that these opinions have no solid foundation; that all religion is but a castle in the air; that Theology is but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system; that it is but a long tissue of chimeras and contradictions; that it presents to all the different nations of the earth only romances devoid of probability, of which the hero himself is made up of qualities impossible to reconcile, his name having the power to excite in all hearts respect and fear, is found to be but a vague word, which men continually utter, being able to attach to it only such ideas or qualities as are belied by the facts, or which evidently contradict each other.
The notion of this imaginary being, or rather the word by which we designate him, would be of no consequence did it not cause ravages without number upon the earth. Born into the opinion that this phantom is for them a very interesting reality, men, instead of wisely concluding from its incomprehensibility that they are exempt from thinking of it, on the contrary, conclude that they can not occupy themselves enough about it, that they must meditate upon it without ceasing, reason without end, and never lose sight of it.
The invincible ignorance in which they are kept in this respect, far from discouraging them, does but excite their curiosity; instead of putting them on guard against their imagination, this ignorance makes them positive, dogmatic, imperious, and causes them to quarrel with all those who oppose doubts to the reveries which their brains have brought forth.
What perplexity, when we attempt to solve an unsolvable problem! Anxious meditations upon an object impossible to grasp, and which, however, is supposed to be very important to him, can but put a man into bad humor, and produce in his brain dangerous transports.
When interest, vanity, and ambition are joined to such a morose disposition, society necessarily becomes troubled. This is why so many nations have often become the theaters of extravagances caused by nonsensical visionists, who, publishing their shallow speculations for the eternal truth, have kindled the enthusiasm of princes and of people, and have prepared them for opinions which they represented as essential to the glory of divinity and to the happiness of empires.
We have seen, a thousand times, in all parts of our globe, infuriated fanatics slaughtering each other, lighting the funeral piles, committing without scruple, as a matter of duty, the greatest crimes. To maintain or to propagate the impertinent conjectures of enthusiasts, or to sanction the knaveries of impostors on account of a being who exists only in their imagination, and who is known only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon the earth.
Originally, savage nations, ferocious, perpetually at war, adored, under various names, some God conformed to their ideas; that is to say, cruel, carnivorous, selfish, greedy of blood.
We find in all the religions of the earth a God of armies, a jealous God, an avenging God, an exterminating God, a God who enjoys carnage and whose worshipers make it a duty to serve him to his taste.
Lambs, bulls, children, men, heretics, infidels, kings, whole nations, are sacrificed to him. The zealous servants of this barbarous God go so far as to believe that they are obliged to offer themselves as a sacrifice to him. Everywhere we see zealots who, after having sadly meditated upon their terrible God, imagine that, in order to please him, they must do themselves all the harm possible, and inflict upon themselves, in his honor, all imaginable torments.
In a word, everywhere the baneful ideas of Divinity, far from consoling men for misfortunes incident to their existence, have filled the heart with trouble, and given birth to follies destructive to them. How could the human mind, filled with frightful phantoms and guided by men interested in perpetuating its ignorance and its fear, make progress? Man was compelled to vegetate in his primitive stupidity; he was preserved only by invisible powers, upon whom his fate was supposed to depend.
Solely occupied with his alarms and his unintelligible reveries, he was always at the mercy of his priests, who reserved for themselves the right of thinking for him and of regulating his conduct.
Thus man was, and always remained, a child without experience, a slave without courage, a loggerhead who feared to reason, and who could never escape from the labyrinth into which his ancestors had misled him; he felt compelled to groan under the yoke of his Gods, of whom he knew nothing except the fabulous accounts of their ministers. These, after having fettered him by the ties of opinion, have remained his masters or delivered him up defenseless to the absolute power of tyrants, no less terrible than the Gods, of whom they were the representatives upon the earth.
Oppressed by the double yoke of spiritual and temporal power, it was impossible for the people to instruct themselves and to work for their own welfare.
Thus, religion, politics, and morals became sanctuaries, into which the profane were not permitted to enter. Men had no other morality than that which their legislators and their priests claimed as descended from unknown empyrean regions. The human mind, perplexed by these theological opinions, misunderstood itself, doubted its own powers, mistrusted experience, feared truth, disdained its reason, and left it to blindly follow authority.
Man was a pure machine in the hands of his tyrants and his priests, who alone had the right to regulate his movements. Always treated as a slave, he had at all times and in all places the vices and dispositions of a slave. These are the true sources of the corruption of habits, to which religion never opposes anything but ideal and ineffectual obstacles; ignorance and servitude have a tendency to make men wicked and unhappy. Science, reason, liberty, alone can reform them and render them more happy; but everything conspires to blind them and to confirm them in their blindness.
The priests deceive them, tyrants corrupt them in order to subjugate them more easily. Tyranny has been, and will always be, the chief source of the depraved morals and habitual calamities of the people. These, almost always fascinated by their religious notions or by metaphysical fictions, instead of looking upon the natural and visible causes of their miseries, attribute their vices to the imperfections of their nature, and their misfortunes to the anger of their Gods; they offer to Heaven vows, sacrifices, and presents, in order to put an end to their misfortunes, which are really due only to the negligence, the ignorance, and to the perversity of their guides, to the folly of their institutions, to their foolish customs, to their false opinions, to their unreasonable laws, and especially to their want of enlightenment.
Let the mind be filled early with true ideas; let man's reason be cultivated; let justice govern him; and there will be no need of opposing to his passions the powerless barrier of the fear of Gods. Men will be good when they are well taught, well governed, chastised or censured for the evil, and justly rewarded for the good which they have done to their fellow-citizens.
It is idle to pretend to cure mortals of their vices if we do not begin by curing them of their prejudices. It is only by showing them the truth that they can know their best interests and the real motives which will lead them to happiness.
Long enough have the instructors of the people fixed their eyes on heaven; let them at last bring them back to the 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.
Freethought and Freedom: Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier — , was a Roman Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism. Described by the author as his "testament" to his parishioners, the text denounces all religion , and argues the superiority of atheist morality. Jean Meslier was born January 15, , in Mazerny in the Ardennes. He began learning Latin from a neighborhood priest in and eventually joined the seminary. He later claimed, in the Author's Preface to his Testament , that this was done to please his parents. One public disagreement with a local nobleman aside, Meslier was to all appearances generally unremarkable, and he performed his office without complaint or problem for 40 years.
Our content is free to read but not free to produce. If you can help, support us today. After all, apart from being perhaps the first European since Roman times to put his name to an overtly atheist document, Meslier was an early agrarian socialist and an anti-monarchist. Too scared to speak his mind to anyone during life, in he left by his death-bed three copies of a sarcastic and well-referenced denunciation of supernatural beliefs.
Testament by Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier, born , in the village of Mazerny, dependency of the duchy of Rethel, was the son of a serge weaver; brought up in the country, he nevertheless pursued his studies and succeeded to the priesthood. At the seminary, where he lived with much regularity, he devoted himself to the system of Descartes. Becoming curate of Etrepigny in Champagne and vicar of a little annexed parish named Bue, he was remarkable for the austerity of his habits. Devoted in all his duties, every year he gave what remained of his salary to the poor of his parishes; enthusiastic, and of rigid virtue, he was very temperate, as much in regard to his appetite as in relation to women. Voiri and Delavaux, the one curate of Varq, the other curate of Boulzicourt, were his confessors, and the only ones with whom he associated.