Jean Meslier (1664-1729) was a priest in the tiny Ardennes parish of Etrépigny. Although virtually unknown in his native France and in the UK (a brief extract from his work in Margaret Knight’s Humanist Anthology, published in 1961, is one of the few mentions of Meslier in the English language), his Memoire (or Testament) amounted to a stunning declaration of unbelief. In effect, he told his former parishioners: “I never believed any of that religious nonsense. There’s no God, there’s no afterlife and the church helps tyrants like Louis XIV to keep you poor and exploited. You’re on your own, but stand up to the bastards and you might just create a fairer world.”

Colin Brewer's page from New Humanist July/August 2007Meslier’s basic thesis was expanded over several hundred hand written pages, whose very survival seems remarkable. Fortunately, he meticulously transcribed three copies which, with letters to his unsuspecting clerical neighbours, were found by his death-bed. In 1729 the establishment could be brutal in its treatment of heretics, and Meslier did not feel like dying for his views: “I did not wish to burn until after my death.” However, he did not care what the furious authorities did with his corpse once the Memoire became known: “They can fricassee it,” he wrote, “and eat it, with whatever sauce they like”. Unable to burn him alive, they buried him in an unmarked grave, but not before his manuscripts had entered the lively world of illicit reproductions. One of them soon reached Voltaire, who distributed hundreds of copies to his friends.

Standing at 97 chapters long, the Memoire does not hold back on its deconstruction of Christianity and attack on the hierarchy of the Church. For Meslier the books of the Bible were the flawed, even fraudulent, works of those who wrote and copied them, of the same standing as “stories of fairies and our old novels”, while Jesus was an “arch-fanatic … equally mad, out of his mind, unhappy rogue, a man of the abyss, vile and despicable.” The idea of the Holy Trinity seemed absurd to Meslier, who equates it to paganism, as was the notion of the host as the body of Christ – “an idol of paste and flour”.

Historians argue about who was the first overt, post-Classical atheist but Meslier was arguably the first to put his name to an incontrovertibly atheist document. That this important event is largely unrecognised (Meslier was absent from both Richard Dawkins’ and Jonathan Miller’s recent TV series on atheism) is due partly to Voltaire who published, in 1761, a grossly distorted “Extract” that portrayed Meslier as a fellow-deist and entirely suppressed Meslier’s anti-monarchist, proto-communist opinions. It seems too that the famous “last priest” aphorism, long attributed to Denis Diderot, flowed first from the pen of Meslier. The Memoire was almost forgotten until a Dutch humanist published 500 copies in 1864. The definitive, annotated French edition did not appear until 1970. Only fragmentary English translations exist.

The Memoire gives us a sense of the love Meslier had for his congregation, and his guilt for misleading them and failing to reveal his true feelings: “How I suffered when I had to preach to you those pious lies that I detest in my heart. What remorse your credulity caused me! A thousand times I was on the point of breaking out publicly and opening your eyes, but a fear stronger than myself held me back, and forced me to keep silence until my death.” In life Jean Meslier may have chosen “to live tranquilly”, but in death he was ready to launch his attack on the tenets of Christianity. Dismissing religion as cruel, fanatical, false and absurd he leaves a message for the congregation he clearly loved so much: “I hope, my friends, that I have given you a sufficient protection against these follies.” ■

Dr Colin Brewer is co-producer of the play The Last Priest, an exploration of the life of Jean Meslier