Carlyle’s history was published in 1837. So, not only were the excesses of the revolution known to him, but so were the Napoleonic wars and the tumult of post-Napoleonic France. Still, his pessimistic declaration concerning what would follow from the convening of the Estates General in 1789 turned out to be remarkable as prophecy: “Two centuries; hardly less; before Democracy go through its due, most baleful, stages of Quackocracy; and a pestilential World be burnt up, and have begun to grow green and young again.” (The Berlin Wall fell 200 years later. But “Quackocracy” seems still to have some staying power.)
Given Carlyle’s view of the revolution and its consequences, it’s striking that Danton receives almost heroic treatment: His physical stature is sometimes described as having been “colossal” or “massive”, so his dominance in the revolutionary scene had a physical, as well as a political dimension. An added dimension to this was the fact that he was a strikingly ugly man. In more than one sense, he was a revolutionary giant. At the conclusion of his treatment of Danton’s death, Carlyle states, “So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valor, ostentation, fury, affection and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, ....”
As for Danton’s character, one can find references to it on the Internet as “dissolute”. Moreover, Carlyle condemns his participation in the horrors of the period: “But neither did Danton shriek; though, as Minister of Justice, it was more his part to do so.” He then quotes Danton as saying in defense of the Terror, “We must put our enemies in fear!” However, Carlyle offers testimony that, in response to personal entreaties that someone might be spared, Danton granted the request “always”, and, more strikingly, “neither did one personal enemy of Danton perish in those days.”
Before long, the Terror began to feed on its own, and Danton was himself one of its victims. He was subjected to the usual show trial, and fought back, showing no cowardice. Carlyle then describes the scene, “At the foot of the Scaffold” in the spring of 1794: Danton apparently cried out, “O my Wife, my well-beloved, I shall never see thee more then!” But he then caught himself with, “Danton, no weakness!” Then his last words to the executioner were, “Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.”
Perhaps the most heroic part of Carlyle’s portrayal of Danton is set two years before his death: In the spring of 1792, the Assembly of Revolutionary France declared war on Austria and prepared to advance on the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). However, their disorganized army was quickly faced with invasion by a Prussian army and defeats that summer threw the Assembly into confusion and panic. Were noises in the distance the sound of alarms that enemies would soon enter Paris? Enter Danton into a wavering Assembly: “... it is not the alarm canon that you hear: it is the pas-de-charge against our enemies. To conquer them, to hurl them back, what do we require? To dare, and again to dare, and without end to dare!” Later that month, French armies would finally start to win victories, but, had the political will to resist evaporated - as it had seemed about to do - those battles might never have been fought. Danton, at a crucial point, was the Revolution’s backbone.
The point in recounting these details of Danton, and Carlyle’s treatment of him is to put forward something of a touchstone which we can use when we consider topics like the “Angry Young Christians” and the “Destabilizers” which Jailer treated, and the “revolutionaries” whom many in the church, seem to idolize. When we talk of these, it’s useful to be able to compare them with “the real thing”. And, whatever else he was, Danton was certainly that. Consider the following points:
First, what is at stake?:
The case that 1789 ushered in “two centuries of Quackocracy” is a strong one, but the revolutionaries - and Danton in particular - saw themselves as bringing in a wonderful new era of popular sovereignty, in which, as they saw it, dramatic change would transform history for the better.
To turn from secular history to church history, consider the principal issue at the heart of the Reformation, “Justification by Faith”. The reformers saw themselves as re-engaging in the fight that Paul had fought, and it’s no accident that Luther’s commentary on Galatians has had the influence it has had since: “For in the righteousness of faith, we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.”
How do most “revolutions” in the church measure up against this kind of standard? How often is it the case that the “issues” behind the turmoil are petty matters of style - what sort of hymns are being sung, or the way the minister speaks, or what sort of youth group the congregation will have?
The pettiness of so many church “revolutions” can often be explained by the fact that, in the last analysis, the issues are simply personal:
Recall the appraisal reported by Carlyle that “neither did one personal enemy of Danton perish in those days.” This is not to say that the Revolution did not produce some very petty and vicious men, like Robespierre, but, for Danton at least, the nature of the cause was too great to allow the time or inclination for personal pettiness.
Jailer mentions the division in the Reformation on the doctrine of the presence of the Lord in the sacrament. Luther especially could be violently outspoken on the matter, and Calvin, in particular, experienced his ire, but did not take it personally, as the following passage from MacNeil’s “History and Character of Calvinism” shows: “After a violent pamphlet by Luther in 1544, Melanchthon wrote to Bullinger: ‘I cease to hope for the peace of the churches.’ Calvin, still calling Luther ‘my revered father,’ tried to soften the resentment of the Zwinglians and wrote to Melanchthon: ‘I reverence him [Luther] but I am ashamed of him.’” Here too, the issue was too great for personal pettiness on Calvin’s part.
In contrast to this, I know of an instance where differences in a local church over the ministry of its pastor led to members on different sides standing up in church meetings and reading imprecatory psalms at one another!
Finally, consider the matter of consequences when real issues are at stake:
In the American Revolution, a much tamer affair than the French one, Ben Franklin remarked, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. Real issues involve real stakes. Remember that Danton was guillotined.
A good case can be made that the “theme psalm” for the Reformation was the 46th: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is based on that psalm. Nations were in turmoil. Men like Tyndale were killed. John Knox spent 19 months as a French galley slave.
Contrast these with the consequences we usually see in contemporary church “revolutions”: Personal relationships may be (and often are) sundered. The losers in a faction fight may form a new church, or just move down the road to another one. Matters like these are painful, true, but they hardly bear comparison with being strangled to death, while tied to the stake, like Tyndale (whose body was then burned).
One way of putting these points together is to think of how important it is to have certain people on our side, when it really matters:
Carlyle, reporting on Danton's speech ("Ours is to dare!") in 1792 says, "Old men, who heard it, will still tell you how the reverberating voice made all hearts swell, in that moment; and braced them to the sticking place; ...."
The danger for Martin Luther in going to the Diet of Worms in 1521 was so acute that Frederick the Wise had him kidnapped on the way home, just to save his life. Yet he went, because he was convinced that the issue at stake was the gospel itself. For the same reason, when it was demanded that he recant, he was convinced he had no choice but to decline, his concluding words being, "I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." Almost 500 years later, those words still matter!
But, in most contemporary church "revolutions", this matter can't come up: The issues and the consequences simply won't support it. What conclusion then can we draw from thinking this way about these "revolutions" and the “angry young (and old) men (and women)” who foment them? Frankly, I don’t think they measure up. Instead of Luther's famous, "Here I stand", what we have too often is something like, "I'm not being fed". In Macbeth’s words, most of the time, it's just “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. In the end, their basic meaning turns out to be just, “Look at me!”