Infidel Death-Beds

by G. W. Foote and A. D. McLaren

Published for the Secular Society Ltd.
The Pioneer Press (G.W. Foot and Co. Ltd.)
61, Farringdon Street, E.C.4

FRANCOIS MARIE AROUET, generally known by the name of Voltaire, was born at Chatenay, on February 20, 1694. He died in Paris, on May 30, 1778. To write his life during those eighty-three years would be to give out intellectual history of Europe. While Voltaire was living at Ferney in 1768, he gave a curious exhibition of that profane sportiveness which was a strong element in his character. On Easter Sunday he took his Secretary Wagniere with him to commune at the village church, and also "to lecture a little those scoundrels who steal continually." Apprised of Voltaire's sermon on theft, the Bishop of Anneci rebuked him, and finally "forbade every curate, priest, and monk of his diocese to confess, absolve or give the communion to the seigneur of Ferney, without his express orders, under pain of interdiction." With a wicked light in his eyes, Voltaire said he would commune in spite of the Bishop; nay, that the ceremony should be gone through in his chamber.

Then ensued an exquisite comedy, which shakes one's sides even as described by the stolid Wagniere. Feigning a deadly sickness, Voltaire took to his bed. The surgeon, who found his pulse was excellent, was bamboozled into certifying that he was in danger of death. Then the priest was summoned to administer the last consolation. The poor devil at first objected, but Voltaire threatened him with legal proceedings for refusing to bring the sacrament to a dying man, who had never been excommunicated. This was accompanied with a grave declaration that M. de Voltaire "had never ceased to respect and to practice the Catholic religion." Eventually the priest came "half dead with fear." Voltaire demanded absolution at once, but the Capuchin pulled out of his pocket a profession of faith, drawn up by the Bishop, Which Voltaire was required to sign. Then the comedy deepened. Voltaire kept demanding absolution, and the distracted priest kept presenting the document for his signature. At last the Lord of Ferney had his way. The priest gave him the wafer, and Voltaire declared, "Having God in my mouth," that he forgave his enemies. Directly he left the room, Voltaire leapt briskly out of bed, where a minute before he seemed unable to move. "I have had a little trouble," he said to Wagniere, "with this comical genius of a Capuchin; but that was only for amusement, and to accomplish a good purpose. Let us take a turn in the garden. I told you I would be confessed and commune in my bed, in spite of M. Biord." ['Parton's Life of Voltaire,' Vol. II., p. 410-415]

Voltaire treated Christianity so lightly that he confessed and took the sacrament for a joke. Is it wonderful if he did the same thing on his death-bed to secure the decent burial of his corpse? He remembered his own bitter sorrow and indignation, which he expressed in burning verse, when the remains of poor Adrienne Lecouvreur were refused sepulture because she died outside the pale of the Church. Fearing similar treatment himself, he arranged to cheat the Church again. By the agency of his nephew, the Abbe Mignot, the Abbe Gautier was brought to his bedside, and according to Condorcet he "confessed Voltaire, receiving from him a profession of faith, by which he declared that he died in the Catholic religion, wherein he was born." Condorcet's 'Vie de Voltaire,' p. 144.] This story is generally credited, but its truth is by no means indisputable; for in the Abbe Gautier's declaration to the Prior of the Abbey of Scellieres, where Voltaire's remains were interred, he says that when he visited M. de Voltaire, he found him "unfit to be confessed."

The curate of St. Sulpice was annoyed at being forestalled by the Abbe Gautier, and as Voltaire was his parishioner, he demanded "a detailed profession of faith and a disavowal of all heretical doctrines." He paid the dying Freethinker many unwelcome visits, in the vain hope of obtaining a full recantation, which would be a fine feather in his hat. The last of these visits is thus described by Wagniere, who was an eyewitness to the scene. We take Carlyle's translation: -

Two days before that mournful death, M. l'Abbe Mignot, his nephew, went to seek the Cure of St. Sulpice and the Abbe Gautier, and brought them into his uncle's sick room; who, on being informed that the Abbe Gautier was there, "Ah, well!" said he, "give him my compliments and my thanks." The Abbe spoke some words to him, exhorting him to patience. The Cure of St. Sulpice then came forward, having announced himself, and asked of M. de Voltaire, elevating his voice, if he acknowledged the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ? The sick man pushed one of his hands against the Cure's calotte (coif), shoving him back, and cried, turning abruptly to the other side, "let me die in peace (Laissez-moi mourir en paix)." The Cure seemingly considered his person soiled, and his coif dishonored, by the touch of the philosopher. He made the sick- nurse give him a little brushing, and then went out with the Abbe Gautier. ['Carlyle's Essays,' Vol. II. (People's Edition), p. 161.]

A further proof that Voltaire made no real recantation lies in the fact that the Bishop of Troyes sent a peremptory dispatch to the Prior of Scellieres, which lay in his diocese, forbidding him to inter the heretic's remains. The dispatch, however, arrived too late, and Voltaire's ashes remained there until 1791, when they were removed to Paris and placed in the Pantheon, by order of the National Assembly.

Voltaire's last moments are described by Wagniere. We again take Carlyle's translation: He expired about a quarter past eleven at night, with the most perfect tranquillity, after having suffered the cruelest pains in consequence of those fatal drugs, which his own imprudence, and especially that of the persons who should have looked to it, made him swallow. Ten minutes before his last breath he took the hand of Morand, his valet-de-chambre, who was, watching him; pressed it, and said, "Adieu, mon cher Morand, je me meurs -- Adieu, my dear Morand, I am gone." These are the last words uttered by M. de Voltaire. [Carlyle, Vol. II., p. 160.]

Such are the facts of Voltaire's decease. He made no recantation, he refused to utter or sign a confession of faith, but with the connivance of his nephew, the Abbe Mignot, he tricked the Church into granting him a decent burial, not choosing to be flung into, a ditch or buried like a dog. His heresy was never seriously questioned at the time, and the clergy actually clamored for the expulsion of the Prior, who had allowed his body to be interred in a church vault." [Parton, Vol. II., p. 165.]

Many years afterwards the priests pretended that Voltaire died raving. They declared that Marshal Richelieu was horrified by the scene and obliged to leave the chamber. From France the pious concoction spread to England, until it was exposed by Sir Charles Morgan, who published the following extracts from a letter by Dr. Burard, who, as assistant physician, was constantly about Voltaire in his last moments: --

I feel happy in being able, while paying homage to truth, to destroy the effects of the lying stories which have been told respecting the last moments of Mons. de Voltaire. I was, by office, one of those who were appointed to watch the whole progress of his illness, with M.M. Tronchin, Lorry, and Try, his medical attendants. I never left him for an instant during his last moments, and I can certify that we invariably observed in him the same strength of character, though his disease was necessarily attended with horrible pain. (Here follow the details of his case.) We positively forbade him to speak in order to prevent the increase of a spitting of blood, with which he was attacked; still he continued to communicate with us by means of little cards, on which he wrote his questions; we replied to him verbally, and if he was not satisfied, he always made his observations to us in writing. He therefore retained his faculties up to the last moment, and the fooleries which have been attributed to him are deserving of the greatest contempt, It could not even be said that such or such person had related any circumstance of his death as being witness to it; for at the last, admission to his chamber was forbidden to any person. Those who came to obtain intelligence respecting the patient, waited in the saloon, and other apartments at hand. The proposition, therefore, which has been put in the mouth of Marshal Richelieu is as unfounded as the rest.
Paris, April 3, 1819. (Signed) BURARD.82

Another slander appears to emanate from the Abbe Barruel, who was so well informed about Voltaire that he calls him "the dying Atheist," when, as all the world knows, he was a Deist. In his last illness he sent for Dr. Tronchin. When the Doctor came, he found Voltaire in the greatest agony, exclaiming with the utmost horror -- "I am abandoned by God and man." He then said, "Doctor, I will give you half of what I am worth, if you will give me six months' life." The doctor answered, "Sir, you cannot live six weeks." Voltaire replied, "Then I shall go to hell, and you will go with me!" and soon after expired. When the clergy are reduced to manufacture such contemptible rubbish as this, they must indeed be in great straits. It is flatly contradicted by the evidence of every contemporary of Voltaire.

Our readers will, we think, be fully satisfied that Voltaire neither recanted nor died raving, but remained a skeptic to the last; passing away quietly, at a ripe old age, to the "undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns," and leaving behind him a name that brightens the tracks of time.

Back to main page. 1