This article is about the Marsellaise, Rouget de Lisle, and the French revolution (1789-1799).

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1996. 3 pages.

The Marsellaise

It is said that when one has been instructed in knowledge one has been “enlightened.” For a Christian the deepest form of enlightenment is the Bible. The period known in history, however, as the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th century, was a turning away from the Bible. Human understanding and human reason were regarded as truth. The doctrine of total depravity was ridiculed, Jesus' divinity was mocked and the merciful grace of God was laughed at. The sovereignty of man, rather than the sovereignty of God, became the norm.

The French Revolution (1789-1799) took place at the end of the Enlightenment. It was the result of economic, political and spiritual problems – a storm that destroyed much in its wake. Although we will never fully understand the length and the breadth of this storm, we may rest assured that this volcanic time period was fully under God's control, moving towards purposes which He foreordained.

The French Revolution was a time in which bishops, chosen by the people, swore allegiance to the state; a time in which the pope's decrees were condemned and the pope himself was burned in effigy; it was a time in which divorce became possible by mutual consent; a time in which baptisms, marriages and funerals no longer took place under the auspices of the church; a time in which Sunday and Christian holidays were abolished; a time in which at least 2000 churches were destroyed in the name of Reason; and a time in which the song known as “the Marsellaise” was born.

To Arms, Citizens!🔗

It was on April 20, 1792, that Louis XVI, a weak and ineffective ruler and under house arrest by the revolutionaries at the time, declared war against Austria and Prussia. French troops were immediately called out and volunteers were enrolled in every village and town. As artillery wagons rumbled by and trumpets resounded over roads, excitement reigned. The declaration of war was dutifully read in all town squares throughout the country. It was a declaration that was almost always followed by the words, “Aux armes, citoyens!” (To arms, citizens!) and “Marchons, enfants de la liberte!” (March, children of liberty!). Many families, however, were not eager for their husbands and fathers and sons to leave home. Had there not just been a revolution? Had not much blood been shed in that event? And what had the revolution actually brought them? Shutters closed and often people ignored the call to arms.

The French mayor of Strasbourg also read the declaration of war. He was a patriot. He somehow believed that the world would be a better place if the summons was obeyed. He was eager to have men volunteer. He wanted enthusiasm for the war effort. “To arms, citizens! Let us march! Let us save the country! The time has come to make the revolutionary tricolor wave over all the world! Let each man fight for the King, for the flag and for liberty.” The response to his speech was lukewarm. Knowing that music often got people very excited, the mayor of Strasbourg asked a young captain by the name of Rouget de Lisle to write a patriotic march for the troops who would be going to the front. Rouget agreed.

Rouget was a poet and a composer whose poems were rarely printed and whose songs were hardly ever performed. A child of the Enlightenment, he was flattered by the mayor's attention and began work on the march that very evening. Sitting in his small room, he bit the end of his quill thoughtfully. Words resounded in his mind – words from speeches and proclamations. “Aux armes, citoyens! Marchons, enfants de la liberty!” Stimulated by the memory, he wrote the first two lines:

Allons, enfants de la patrie, (March, children of the fatherland,)
Le jour de gloire est arrive! (Your hour of glory is here!)

Rouget liked the words. They made him think of human power – of human glory – and of his own worth and strength. He picked up his violin and a melody came to him. It was a wonderful melody; in between the notes he could hear the marching of a thousand feet, the beating of a thousand hearts and the love of human liberty. Rouget put down the violin and wrote more words and more words and the melody poured through his veins as he wrote. Before dawn the song was complete and Rouget was exhausted. He sank down on his cot and slept. But the table next to his bed held verses and music – verses and music that would go down in history.

The next day Rouget took his composition to the mayor of Strasbourg. Pleased with the song, the mayor had his wife make some copies of it so they could sing it with their company that evening. Rouget was extremely proud that the mayor liked his efforts. He sang the song over and over to his friends and sent copies of it to generals out on the front. None of the generals, however, had the song sung or played by marching soldiers; not until several months later, that is.

The Soldiers' Song🔗

On June 22, 1792, a banquet was given in Marseilles for 500 young volunteer soldiers. In the middle of the banquet a young man stood up. He did not make a speech but he sang Rouget's song. None of the volunteers at the banquet had ever heard the song before. These young men, about to go to the front, were tremendously stirred by the words and the melody. As several stanzas went by and the refrain was repeated again and again, a wild enthusiasm sprang up. Before long 500 male voices thundered the refrain together. Passersby in the street could not help but hear. They listened and joined in the chorus after the rousing last stanza which avowed:

O Liberty! can man resign thee,
Once having felt thy gen'rous flame?
Can dungeons, bolts and bars confine thee?
Or whip thy noble spirit tame?
Too long the world has wept bewailing
That falsehood's dagger tyrants wield;
But freedom is our sword and shield,
And all their arts are unavailing.

The soldiers perceived human freedom as a sword and shield – as something no man could tame. It was not freedom in God – but freedom to do as they pleased. It is Satan's delight to make lies seem like the truth to all who will listen and the 500 men who sang Rouget's song were pleased with a distorted truth. They had no inkling that the Lord could be a shield and that true freedom is only found in Him.

The 500 volunteers took copies of Rouget's song with them to the front. They sang it on marches, through villages and towns and before long it was known as the marching song of the Marsellaise. When the volunteers marched back into Paris at the end of July, singing their song with one voice, the Marsellaise was truly born as the voice of the French Revolution. It was only a matter of time before all of France was humming, singing and playing it. This powerful song, sung by thousands upon thousands of voices, was like a wave that swept enemy forces down. The song stormed the Tuileries and decapitated more than could be counted. When Louis XVI was guillotined, his blood spattered onto the crowd of onlookers, one of whom called out, “The blood of Capet is holy water.” At this, everyone began singing the Marsellaise and the guards dipped the tips of their swords into the red, sticky liquid that oozed over the wooden platform. A popular slogan ran thus: “Only through a stream of blood we will reach Paradise.” But the blood of those who were beheaded did not redeem – and the blood that flowed was not redemptive but vengeful. The people of the Enlightenment denied the grace of God and, as a natural consequence, could not be merciful. They became slaves of death and ultimately found no true freedom in their Reign of Tenor.

And what of Rouget? His name was not printed on the innumerable copies of the song that were being circulated throughout France. Rouget had become disenchanted with the new government and the Revolution. He saw the mayor of Strasbourg, the first one who had applauded the song, sent to the guillotine. Rouget himself was also arrested on a charge of treason. Angry and disgusted, as his song resounded on the streets of Paris and elsewhere, he sat in a dank cell awaiting death. By the hand of providence, the prison was stormed and Rouget was released.

Now that he was free again, Rouget no longer kept up any degree of patriotism. He felt, however, that he had attained some measure of greatness by writing the Marsellaise. But the song lived without him. He could hear it being sung everywhere, but no one knew or cared that he had written it. Embittered and angry, Rouget lived out his days in obscurity. He did not make an honest living but was often involved in shady dealings. No one was very fond of the captain drop-out who had turned into a sour, shifty character. Creditors trailed him. He spent much time in the debtors' prison and never stopped complaining about the hard blow he had suffered at the hands of the government by not receiving credit for the song he had written.

When Napoleon became emperor, he banned the Marsellaise as being too revolutionary. After Napoleon, the Bourbons likewise prohibited the song. In 1830, under Louis Philippe Napoleon, the song was finally brought back and Rouget, who was an old man by this time, was given a small pension for having written it. He did not enjoy the pension for long. Rouget de Lisle died in 1836. His grave received a mean, miserly man who had been interested only in furthering his own interests – not those of his country – certainly not those of his God.

Suppose Rouget's words had read,

Spirit of Truth! Can man resign Thee,
Once having felt Thy gen'rous flame,
Can dungeons, bolts and bars confine Thee?
Or cause Thy faith and worship shame?
Too long the world has wept bewailing
That Satan's liars daggers wield,
But the Lord is our song and shield,
And the devil's arts unavailing.

Would the Revolution have taken a different turn if these words had been sung? But there is only one road in history and God has designed its every turn. Nevertheless, Rouget will be responsible for his words.

Many years later, long after the Marsellaise had become the French national anthem, the government of France ordered the body of Rouget exhumed. It was reburied near the bones of Napoleon. Would knowing this have made a difference to the little poet-composer so intent on self-glory? When it comes right down to it, should any good we think we do be permitted to reflect back on ourselves? For doesn't the Bible teach “Let him who glories, glory in the Lord”? Poor Rouget when he holds out his composition to God on Judgment Day, will it perhaps condemn him?

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