Historical Reformer: François Fénelon

Written by Thaddeus Tague
Jul 11, 2019

The War of Spanish Succession had ravaged his diocese and farmland more times than he could count. François Fénelon stood from his crouched position, lifting the half-dead body of a Spanish soldier into sitting position. His old frame ached. As he wiped the blood off the forehead of the injured invader and enemy, his mind wandered. He took stock of his life and thought about the first time he had encountered someone labeled an “enemy.”  

It was almost twenty years earlier, and he had been tasked by the French king to lead the endeavor to convert the Huguenots—an ethnoreligious group comprised of French Protestants—to Catholicism. The Reformation was still in relative motion, altering religious communities all over Europe, and the Catholic church was bifurcated on how to respond. In France, leading authorities began persecuting Protestants in an effort to maintain power.

Fénelon agreed to enter Huguenot communities as the king demanded—but to befriend the people, not to oppress them. Though Catholics who had ventured into the Protestant areas of Paris prior to him had been killed, the priest chose to go alone, without guards. When the king questioned his decision, he replied, “Sire, ought a missionary to fear danger?.. I would rather perish by the hands of my mistaken brethren than see one of them exposed to the inevitable violence of the military.” 

A Life Devoted to Ministry

François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon was born into French ministerial family in 1651. His family was vocationally religious and prepared him to enter the ministry from his childhood. At age 15 Fénelon preached his first sermon and was praised throughout his schooling for his oratorical gifts. 

Fénelon was tall and lanky, with a narrow face and even narrower hands. His active lifestyle led him to keep an athletic posture and an even more active mind. His appearance was described as both elegant and striking at the same time. One scholar wrote of his portrait, “Eyes from which fire and genius poured torrents (…) it cost an effort to turn away one’s eyes.” 

During the time he spent studying for the priesthood, Fénelon began to distill his thoughts that would later turn into writings. Rejecting “self” as he coined it, wasn’t based on surrendering or on fake piety—which, he noticed, religiosity tends to hold in high regard—it was based on a continual inner search for those areas of our lives that we choose over Christ daily. 

After receiving his ordination as a Catholic priest, Fénelon accepted a position in leadership at the Saint-Sulpice, a refuge for French girls who had been cast out of their families for their conversion to or sympathy towards Protestantism. He would later write a book on the subject and was a harsh critic of the treatment in education towards young women at the time. This book, Traité de l’éducation des filles (Treatise on the Education of Girls), is how his name first appeared on the theological and academic stage. 

Only a few years prior to this, King Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes, which gave rights and free expression to all French Calvinists and Protestants. No sooner had Louis done this than the Catholic church, which was a veritable arm of the French government itself, sprang into action to combat religious oppression and any tendency towards violence that majority-Catholic regions might have harbored. 

Prominent Catholic officials oversaw the outreach to nearby Protestant districts in Paris and broader France, disobeying direct orders by the French government to oppress the Protestants. Fénelon joined them. As he would throughout his life, he practiced civil disobedience when theology was used as a justification for oppression. 

During the time that he helped lead outreach to the Huguenots, Fénelon’s apologetic knowledge and gifted oratory were a key asset to de-escalating religious violence in Paris. He treated no one as an enemy.

When Louis XIV ordered him to lead the endeavor to forcibly convert Protestants back to Catholics in the Hugenout-saturated areas of France, he responded to the king—the most powerful man in Europe’s most powerful country at the time—with two conditions. First, Fénelon alone would choose the priests he would work alongside. Second, armored dragoon divisions of French soldiers stationed in Huguenot districts had to be withdrawn. He told King Louis, “The work of God is not affected in the heart by force; that is not the true spirit of the Gospel.”

He then worked to befriend and educate the Huguenot people. Because he stressed nonviolence, the Hugenouts respected him greatly. His name was a balm to the violence-laden areas of France.

Educating The Prince

His notoriety once again reached King Louis XIV’s ears, and the king once again set a task in front of him. This time, it was the education of the Duke of Burgundy, only a child at the time. The young prince’s ill temper and riotous spirit had driven away all prior mentors. Fénelon began the lessons by authoring a story that he and the child could read together. This book, Les Aventures de Telemaque, was a book about a prince, with whom the young would-be-king could empathize. 

One scholar called Les Aventures de Telemaque “the true key to the museum of the eighteenth-century imagination.” Within a short time, Fénelon’s book was translated into every European language and later into Latin. Embedded in this child’s tale, Fénelon gave free roam to his own political philosophy. The book is considered a telling rebuke of past and current French monarchs. Catholic theologian and historian Thomas Joseph Shahan said, “Fénelon ranks forever as one of the most elegant writers in the French language.”

“As he would throughout his life, he practiced civil disobedience when theology was used as a justification for oppression.”

Those surrounding the prince marveled at his change and noticed that even after Louis left Fénelon’s tutelage, he carried with him prudence and piety. Fénelon’s theology of rejecting self and embracing service had taught the prince the value of the responsibility he carried. Fénelon would outlive the prince and later would write that the day of young Louis’ death was one of the hardest in his life. 

Theology of Humility

Fénelon’s writings are extensive, but his most poignant pieces deal with what he calls “death to self.” To him, this meant the battle against and removal of the sinful desires that so comprehensively pervade our lives. Fénelon argued that God uses trials as a method of assisting us in denying our sin nature. Suffering, he wrote, is “God’s gymnasium.”

Shortly after his appointment to the Archbishopship of Cambrai in 1695, Fénelon found himself on the outside of King Louis’ inner circle and exiled to his estate in Cambrai. When the War of Spanish Succession struck, he opened the estate as a haven for displaced locals. His barns housed their livestock while his rooms and hallways sheltered hundreds of people. His theology of self-denial was seeing its own logical conclusion. 

During the war, his reputation of humility and kindness grew so widespread that even invading Spanish soldiers protected his land against roaming brigands. Even hundreds of years later, French and Spanish residents of Cambrai were known to name their children Fénelon in honor of his selfless help to their families. 

About this time, all of France was undergoing famine-like conditions due to the previous harsh winter.  Without hesitation or invitation, Fénelon sent his own large stores of grain to King Louis XIV. Using his grain as collateral for his exile would have been contrary to his nature and theology; instead he reached out in love towards the man he had the most reason to hate. 

“His reputation of humility and kindness grew so widespread that even invading Spanish soldiers protected his land against roaming brigands.”

In his most-read compilation of letters entitled “Let Go,” Fénelon writes, “The love of God, on the other hand, desires that self should be forgotten, that it should be counted as nothing, that God might be all in all.” Fénelon’s interpretation of rejecting our sin nature embraced Paul’s theology of weakness found in 2 Corinthians. He saw suffering as the surest mechanism to orient our hearts to Christ, arguing that the love of God and love of our own flesh cannot co-exist. When we are in trial, Fénelon believed, we should rejoice that our ego is under the surgical knife of God’s working. 

He wrote that true surrender is not a heroic sacrifice but rather the act of “simply resting in the love of God, as a little baby rests in its mother’s arms. A perfect surrender must even be willing to quit surrendering if that is what God wants!” 

Fénelon’s legacy offers a glimpse into how tumultuous religious circumstances should not change how we treat humans, and especially how we treat the real enemy: our own sin nature. He worked to correct each injustice he found in his own sphere of influence. God placed him in both high and low places, and within these he defended the poor and helpless, advocated for the downtrodden, and grew to understand that God’s grace is the ultimate equalizer of us all. 

Support independent Christian storytelling

Nations Media is funded by the generosity of donors