At the turn of the seventeenth century, European monarchs began to consolidate power, undermining old feudal institutions, such as representative bodies and the nobility, in order to establish absolute rule. This radical centralization of government power required a philosophical foundation to justify it. Jacques Bossuet, a Catholic bishop who was Louis XIV’s court preacher, provided this foundation in Politics Derived from Sacred Scripture, in which he laid out the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Bossuet used Scripture to justify royal authority without checks and balances, claiming that God has placed kings on their throne and it is the responsibility of the people to obey divinely appointed authorities without question. Rebellion against the king is rebellion against God.
James I of England (and VI of Scotland) was an advocate of the Divine Right of Kings and published some of his own texts about the subject, which he shared with his son, Charles I. According to James, while a king could not be limited in his authority by the people, a king would be called upon to account for his actions at the Last Judgment. With this in mind, Christian kings were expected to conduct themselves with the fear of God, acting as “God’s lieutenants” on earth. Louis XIV of France was another advocate of the Divine Right of Kings. His decision to rescind the Edict of Nantes, which had granted limited toleration to French Protestants, was partly an attempt to fulfill his obligations as a divine right monarch. He did not want to hear from Jesus, “Louis, why did you allow your people to practice a false religion?”
A great deal of the evidence that Locke used was from the Bible, arguing that people had the right to form governments by virtue of their common descent from Adam. Thomas Paine, in an effort to encourage American colonists to sever ties with the British monarchy, referenced anti-monarchy passages from the Bible in Common Sense.
Both Locke and Paine used ideas from Enlightenment philosophy in order to argue against divine right monarchy. Enlightenment philosophers valued rational thinking and did not place the same weight on sacred texts, such as the Bible, as a foundation for arguments. Of course, both still used the Bible in their works – Locke because he was a Christian writing in the seventeenth century, and Paine because he knew that references to the Bible would be seen as credible by his audience.
In Western Europe, divine right absolutism did not survive the Enlightenment era. In England and Scotland, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 obliged the monarch to share power with Parliament. The French Revolution saw the abolition of the French monarchy, although it returned in various forms in the nineteenth century. In Central and Eastern Europe, “enlightened absolutists” continued to wield absolute power but attempted to do so according to Enlightened ideals.
I am a history teacher who creates YouTube videos and instructional materials. I use this blog to publish lecture notes and occasionally to share personal reflections inspired by history, politics, and literature.