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Enlightened philosophers directed a relentless assault on political institutions that were seen as not reflecting the natural laws and 'inalienable rights' of man, as endowed by the Creator and revealed through reason. Such 'corrupt' political institutions included a distant British monarchy and an imperial parliament imposing taxation on its colonies without due representation, or a divine-right French monarchy granting fiscal privileges to certain social orders or corporate bodies. Moreover, the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s had played an important role in shaping an American identity and a sense of shared destiny under Providence. In France, the Jansenist criticisms of church and state throughout the eighteenth century contributed to the formation of a revolutionary discourse.

Once the revolutions began, they divided Christians. For some Christians, revolution was a rebellion against the divinely ordained order, a revolt, born of sin, against the 'powers that be', the worldly authority provided by God. For others, however, revolution was part of the providential plan for humankind, a movement that promised to strip away corruption and restore both church and state to purer forms; it would end clerical privilege, extend religious toleration, and elevate human aspirations. Many of these Christian supporters welcomed the way in which both the American and French revolutions aroused powerful support to the anti-slavery movement.

While the American Revolution did inspire, in the name of freedom, attacks upon the principle of established churches, it did not bring a break with Christianity. In France, however, the revolution ultimately went much further. After an initial period of support for a reformed Catholic Church within a regime of religious toleration - reforms that led, however, to a schism with Rome -the most radical French revolutionaries turned in 1793 against Christianity itself, portraying it as the ideological prop of the old order and a rallying centre for reaction, which would have to be swept away. To be sure, even the most radical de-Christianizers commonly maintained an attachment to the ethical teachings ofJesus, sometimes portrayed as a 'sans-culottes revolutionary'. Yet at the height of the 'Reign of Terror' they pursued their attacks on all clergy -Catholic and Protestant - and on the physical infrastructure of the church with brutal determination. While the de-Christianization campaign eased in the late 1790s, the churches remained subject to varying degrees of harassment and persecution by revolutionary officials. As the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies advanced beyond the borders of France, moreover, they spread the revolution's anticlerical and even anti-Christian policies to many other parts of Europe. The religious policies of the French Revolution thus stand as a landmark in the history of Christianity.

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