Liberal opinions taken to extremes
Born in Salies de Béarn into a revivalist family, Félix Pécaut began theological studies in Montauban and completed them in Berlin and Bonn.
In 1850 he accepted a suffragance in his native town, but he had to leave rapidly as he refused to read aloud the Apostles’Creed. He was ordained in 1853, but he never took up pastoral duties, as he deeply disagreed with the dogmatic theology of his time. According to him, the latter did not accompany the social transformations of society. In accordance with his own ethical demands he sets out to resolve problems of education. He founded an institution in Neuchâtel (Switzerland), and then returned to Paris. At the 1872 synod, he reproached the Church with maintaining ties with the State and renounced to all pastoral duties within the Church. From then on, he became a lay militant, and worked with Ferdinand Buisson for a reform of Primary Education. He collaborated in the creation of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay -aux-Roses for the training of young women as teachers in the Ecoles Normales (Primary schoolteachers’ training colleges). He later retired to his native Béarn and took up the struggle in favour of Dreyfus.
Félix Pécaut was a radical liberal, opposed to any dogma, the typical example of a protestant whose ethical commitments are devoted to a secular society.
- LOEFFEL Laurence, La question du fondement de la morale laïque sous la troisième République, PUF, Paris, 2000, p. 272
Theological liberalism was characterised by its extended freedom in doctrinal matters and by a new approach to the Bible resulting from the historical-critical methods of reading.
Protestants and Public Education
During the XIXth century, the July Monarchy and the Third Republic were the two significant periods of intense Protestant participation in the development of the public education system that had initially been established at the time of the Empire.
In 1833, Guizot promulgated the first major law on Public Elementary Education. Though all religious connotations had not yet been abolished, this law was to be extended, under the Third Republic, to making education free, compulsory and undenominational. Some outstanding Protestant personalities had a decisive role in both the conception and the implementing of this new system of education.
Towards the end of the XIXth century, Protestant influence decreased, and some Protestants regretted the excessive anti-clericalism of political leaders.
The Protestants and the Dreyfus Case
Many Protestants took sides in favour of Captain Dreyfus. Some will even take an active part in the movement that will allow the re-examination of the process, such as Scheurer-Kestner, Vice-President of the Senate in 1897, and Francis de Pressensé, one of the founders and first president of the Human Rights League (1898).
Ferdinand Buisson (1841-1932)
One of the main inspirers of school legislation of the third republic, Ferdinand Buisson was a French politician in favour of laity, co-founder and president of the Human Rights League, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Charles Gide (1847-1932)
Charles Gide was a theorist of social economy and a leading figure in the French economic cooperative movement and Christian socialism. A spirit of solidarity pervades all his work.
Georges Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891)
Prefect of the Seine under the Second Empire.
Agénor Étienne de Gasparin (1810-1871)
Gustave Fornier de Clausonne (1797-1873)