VOLTAIRE’S PREDICTION, HOME AND THE BIBLE SOCIETY – TRUTH OR MYTH?

A story which Christian apologists have told for years involves the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778). The story purports that Voltaire, in his voluminous writings against Christianity and the Bible, predicted in 1776, “One hundred years from my day, there will not be a Bible on earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity-seeker.” As the story claims, within fifty years after his death, in an ironic twist of Providence, the very house in which he once lived and wrote was used by the Evangelical Society of Geneva as a storehouse for Bibles and Gospel tracts. The story has been used repeatedly through the years by Christians as an example of the enduring intrinsic quality of the Bible and the futility of those who oppose the Inspired Volume.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

For years there have been those who dispute this story as to its validity. Humanists, rationalists, agnostics, and atheists have called it an apocryphal story fabricated by Christians to bolster their argument that the Bible is inspired and possesses an intrinsic quality that enables it to withstand attacks by unbelievers. David Ross wrote an article in the Journal of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, vol. 77, no. 1, Autumn 2004, entitled “Voltaire’s House and the Bible Society,” in which he went to great lengths to dismiss the story as having any real basis in fact. Ross contends the story has been either fabricated or it began as a misunderstanding and has spread. Ross’ article and others like it are of such a convincing nature that books like Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler  & William Nix, left it out of later editions. [1]

The question to consider, is there any validity to the story? Did Voltaire ever make such a prediction? Is there proof that the home in which Voltaire once lived, that after his death, was used as a storehouse for Bibles? After much research this writer has come to the conclusion that the story is true and that those who seek to discredit the story do so because it gives credence to the argument of apologists of God’s providential preservation of His Word.

Voltaire was born in Paris, France in 1694. As a philosopher, historian and free thinker, he became a most influential and prolific writer during what has been called the Age of Enlightenment. From the beginning, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for criticisms toward the government. He twice served brief prison sentences in the Bastille for being critical of a Regent. His first literary work appeared in 1718. During his life he wrote more than 20,000 letters and some 2,000 pamphlets and books and was a successful playwriter. While a Deist, he vehemently opposed the Christian faith and wrote many rather scoffing works expressing his disdain for the faith and the Bible. His railings against Christianity are filled with poisonous venom, calling the Christian faith the “infamous superstition.” [2]

Several examples of his slanderous words against the Christian faith and the Bible are cited.

In 1764 he wrote, “The Bible. That is what fools have written, what imbeciles commend, what rogues teach and young children are made to learn by heart” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 1764). “We are living in the twilight of Christianity” (Philosophical Dictionary). In a 1767 letter to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, he wrote: “Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and bloody religion that has ever infected the world…My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise of extirpating the world of this infamous superstition.” Voltaire ended every letter to friends with “Ecrasez l’infame” (crush the infamy — the Christian religion). In his pamphlet, The Sermon on the Fifty (1762) he attacked viciously the Old Testament, biblical miracles, biblical contradictions, the Jewish religion, the Christian God, the virgin birth and Christ’s death on the cross. Of the Four Gospels he wrote, “What folly, what misery, what puerile and odious things they contain [and the Bible is filled] with contradictions, follies, and horrors.” [3] Voltaire regarded most of the doctrines of the Christin faith – the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Trinity, Communion – as folly and irrational. [4]  And finally, “To invent all those things [in the Bible], the last degree of rascality. To believe them, the extreme of brutal stupidity!” [5]

Many more such quotes could be cited as to Voltaire’s disdain for Christianity, but those will suffice. Voltaire’s writings were so divisive that in 1754 Louis XV banned him from Paris. Relocating in December 1754 to Geneva, Switzerland, he purchased a beautiful chateau called Les Delices (The Delights). He lived there for five years, until 1760, when as the result of his antagonistic writings and plays attacking Christianity, he was virtually driven from Geneva by the Calvinist Reformers. To escape the pressure from the Calvinists, Voltaire moved across the border to Ferney, France, where the controversial Frenchmen lived for eighteen years until the end of his life in 1778 at age 83. He continued to write until his hand was stilled in death.

Now the question arises as to the veracity of what some call an “apocryphal story.” While Voltaire’s disdain for the Bible is evident, did he ever make such a prediction and did any Bible Society ever use either of his residences, from where he wrote his blasphemous words against the Bible and the Christianity, as a warehouse to store Bibles? The answer to that question is an emphatic, “YES!”

The second part of the story will be dealt with first.

In August 1836, only fifty-eight years after Voltaire’s death, Rev. William Acworth of the British and Foreign Bible Society saw with his own eyes Voltaire’s former residence in Geneva, Switzerland, Les Delices, being used as a “repository for Bibles and Religious tracts.” The house at this time was occupied by Colonel Henri Tronchin (1794-1865), who served as the president of the Evangelical Society of Geneva from 1834-39. [6] The Tronchin family had long had associations with Voltaire that could be traced back to the 18th century. One of Henri Tronchin’s ancestor’s, Francis Tronchin, was Voltaire’s doctor. The Tronchin’s were prominent and wealthy residents of Geneva and even helped finance Voltaire in the publishing of some of his works. [7]

Henri Tronchin (1794-1865)

While the Tronchin family was prominent and wealthy citizens of Geneva, they were not predominately spiritual. However, though it is not known exactly when, Henri Tronchin came to faith in Christ and embraced Protestantism. Studying literature at the Academy of Geneva, he later served as artillery captain on horseback in the Dutch army. Eventually rising in ranks to lieutenant-colonel of artillery, he married in 1824. A superb organizer and a great leader, he helped found the Evangelical Society of Geneva (c1833). He served as president of the Society from 1834 to 1839. Born 100 years after Voltaire, and occupying the former home of the infamous infidel, Tronchin used the spacious house to store Bibles and Gospel tracts. Rev. William Acworth of Queens College, Cambridge, appointed an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1829, was an eye witness to the stored Bibles and Gospel tracts.

In The Missionary Register for 1836 of the BFBS, Acworth is recounting his travels in the spread of the Gospel. Having traveled over 2,000 miles in France on the business of the Society, in the summer of 1836 his travels took him to Switzerland in August of that year. Acworth recounts:
I went through Geneva, and was much refreshed by meeting the Committee of the Evangelical Society, with whose proceedings and objects I was so much gratified, that I wrote to this Society to make a liberal grant of 10,000 copies of the French Scriptures to promote the objects of that Society. Our committee have only granted 5,000; but I have no doubt they will, err long, send the other 5,000. Before I left Geneva, my friend observed. “Probably you will like to see the house where Voltaire lived, and where he wrote his plays.” Prompted by the spirit of curiosity, so characteristic of an Englishman, to visit the house of the celebrated infidel, I was about to put on my hat to walk into the county, when he said, “It is not necessary you should put on your hat” and he introduced me over the threshold of one room to another, and said, “tis the room where Voltaire’s play were acted for the amusement to himself and his friend.” And what was my gratification in observing that that room had been converted into sort of Repository for Bibles and Religious Tracts. Oh! my Christian Friends, that the spirit of infidelity had been there, to witness the results of other vaticinations [acts of prophesying] respecting the downfall of Christianity! I know that Voltaire said, that he was living “in the twilight of Christianity” but blessed be God! It was the twilight of the morning, which will bring on the day of universal illumination. [8]

Only fifty-eight years after his death the former home of Voltaire in Geneva, Switzerland, was indeed serving as a storehouse for Bibles and Gospel tracts. While the Evangelical Society of Geneva did not actually purchase the house, Henri Tronchin, president of the Society, resided in the house, and used some of the rooms to store Bibles which Voltaire so vehemently opposed and prophesied Christianity’s downfall! Yes, an ironic twist of divine Providence.

Have established that Bibles were actually stored in Voltaire’s former Geneva residence, did he ever make such a prediction that one hundred years after his death the Bible would no longer be read? A man who wrote 20,000 letters in his lifetime, it would be impossible to know all the statements he wrote or spoke. However, it was generally acknowledge and understood by those near the time Voltaire lived that he had made such a prediction either verbally or in a writing which may no longer exist. Rev. Acworth in 1836, only fifty-eight years after Voltaire’s death, referred to the infidel’s “vaticinations [act of prophesying] respecting the downfall of Christianity! Such a remark indicates it was common knowledge that such a bold prediction had been made by Voltaire. In 1849, only seventy-one years after Voltaire’s death, William Snodgrass, an officer of the American Bible Society, stated in the giving of ABS’s annual report that “the committee had been able to redeem their pledge by sending $10.000 to France, the country of Voltaire, who predicted that in the nineteenth century the Bible would be known only as relic of antiquity.”  [9] Again, such a remark indicates it was commonly acknowledged that Voltaire had made such a prediction.

Found in a biography of Voltaire written in 1823, only forty-five years after his death, the author details the fact that the Frenchman only sought to inspire contempt for the Christian faith and saw himself more influential than Martin Luther and John Calvin! Voltaire wanted a “religion to be without code, without laws, without dogma, without authority” and “laughed all these Christians who believed their religion was truly divine.” The author states that Voltaire in his fight against Christianity would stop “at nothing to annihilate” the Christian faith. [10] It is obvious those in Voltaire’s day  believed his efforts were for the purpose of dismantling Christianity.

While this writer could not find the exact quote that usually accompanies the story, a similar quote he made in 1776 was found. In 1776, at age 82, Voltaire brought to a culmination his disdain for the Bible when he published La Bible Enfin Expliquée (The Bible Fully Explained).  [11] The two-volume work was Voltaire’s commentary on the whole Bible. His purpose in writing was to “make the whole building [of Christianity] crumble.”  [12] Writing with feigned credulity in satirical and scoffing manner, he wrote viciously, mockingly critical and skeptically of practically every book and verse in the Bible. He sought to expose, as he saw it, the foolishness and irrationality of belief in the Bible. Of his massive tome, in which he derided the Bible on every page, he stated, “The subject is now exhausted: the cause is decided for those who are willing to avail themselves of their reason and their lights, and people will no more read this [Bible].” [13]

From such an arrogant declaration it is clear Voltaire delusionally believed as result of his La Bible Enfin Expliquée, he had struck a death blow to the Bible’s believability and the sun was setting on the Book’s influence and in time the Volume would become irrelevant. However, instead of the Bible becoming irrelevant and no longer believed, the Inspired Volume begin to increase in circulation….his former house, only forty-eight years after his death, being used as a storehouse to house Bibles and Gospel tracts!

Like all stories that are repeated over the years, the exact details and wording may vary, but it seems clear the key components of the story are very much true. The story of Voltaire serves as an example and a reminder that the foolish predictions and efforts of man to extinguish the Bible will come to naught. No skeptic’s scoffing hammer has ever made a dent in the Eternal Anvil of God’s Word. To those who attempt to do so, Jesus emphatically declares, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

Amen!

Blessings,
Dr. Dan

Endnotes:

1. Norman Geisler and William Nix, Introduction to the Bible, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), 124.

2. Sarah Coakley, Faith, Rationality and the Passions, (MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), 37.

3. Voltaire, Trans. Joseph McCabe, Selected Works of Voltaire, “The Sermon on the Fifty,” (London: Watts & Co., 1911), 178-180.

4. Voltaire, ed. H.I. Wolff, Philosophical Dictionary, “Arius,” (New York, 1924), 253.

5. Quote of Voltaire from his work God and Man, chapter xliv, found in James Parton, Life of Voltaire, Vol. II, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1881), 429.

6. Stelling-Michaud, Suzanne, Le livre du Recteur de l’Académie de Genève (1559-1878) (Vol 6). Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1980, 72; also, Jean-Yves Carluer, “Henri Tronchin,” December 16, 2017, http://le-blog-de-jean-yves-carluer.fr/2017/12/16/henri-tronchin/ (Accessed March 12, 2019). In 1929 the Les Delices property was purchased by the city of Geneva, and now houses the Institute et Musee Voltaire, a museum founded in 1952 dedicated to the life and works of Voltaire.

7. On Voltaire’s relations with the Tronchin family, see Deidre Dawson, Voltaire’s Correspondence: An Epistolary Novel, (New York: Peter Lang, 1994), 101–126; also, George Valbert, “The Genevese Councilor François Tronchin and his relations with Voltaire”, The Revue des Deux Mondes, 1895, 205-216

8. The Missionary Register for 1836, William Acworth, “Bible Notices in Switzerland and Italy,” (London: L&G Seeley, 1836), 352.

9. Annual Report of the American Bible Society, 1849, Appendix, 98.

10. Claude Francois Nonottee, Erreurs de Voltaire, (Paris, 1823), 285-305.

11. Arnold Ages, “The Technique of Biblical Criticism: An Inquiry into Voltaire’s Satirical Approach in La Bible Enfin Expliquée,” A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, September 6, 2013, 67-79.

12. Voltaire, La Bible Enfin Expliquée, (Alondres), 1776, 2.

13. Voltaire, La Bible Enfin Expliquée, (Alondres), 1776; also; James Parton, Life of Voltaire, Vol. II, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1881), 543.

 

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