Meslier, Jean (1664-1729): French apostate, atheist and communist.
Jean Meslier’s importance derives from the posthumous circulation of his Testament, a vitriolic denunciation of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Ordained in 1688, he served as the parish priest of Etrépigny, in Champagne, from 1689 until the time of his death. Meslier’s life as a village curate was outwardly unremarkable, with the exception of one confrontation with a local lord owing to his mistreatment of the peasantry. Meslier secretly devoted his later years, however, to the composition of a manuscript, intended for publication only after his death, in which he criticized both the content of religion and its role in perpetuating social injustice.
Meslier’s Testament, as the manuscript came to be known, purports to demonstrate that all religions are false; the tenets and liturgical rituals of Christianity are as absurd and rife with superstition as those of any other religion. He argues, moreover, that the powerful use religion to dominate and exploit the weak, and to sanction pervasive economic inequalities.
The Testament was not published in its entirety until 1864, yet both Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de and Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron d’ published extracts from it during the 18th-century. Although many of Meslier’s arguments prove unoriginal, the comprehensiveness of his indictment of Christianity and his analysis of religion as an instrument of class oppression, together with the sheer virulence of his condemnation, make the Testament a unique contribution to rationalist religious criticism.
Maurice Dommanget, Le curé Meslier: Athée, communiste et révolutionnaire sous Louis XIV, 1965.