Friday, January 7, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we remember the author of the scandalous Telemaque: Francois Fenelon.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 7th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Today join me as we head back to Pre-Revolutionary France and the court of Louis XIV- you may remember him as the “Sun King,” the guy who said “the State? It is I” and built Versailles. Seriously wild character- but today we look to one of his favorite (ironically) bishops, Francois Fenelon. At least he was his favorite until the book… we’ll get there.

This is the era after the Reformation century and the 30 Years War (post-1648) and before the Age of Revolutions. It is an era marked by the Enlightenment and new questions about the role of church and state. In all of this, Francois Fenelon would make his mark on fields from theology to history to education and literature.

Fenelon was born in 1651 to a Noble family. He was educated in Paris and then ordained in 1676. He was named the director of a new college intended to teach women and converts from Protestantism to teach the Catholic faith. Fenelon also served as a moderating influence on the king, who wanted to erase Protestantism in 1562.

One of Fenelon’s biggest faux pas came with his vocal praise and personal attachment to Madame Guyon. Guyon was a famous Christian mystic who was associated with the Quietist movement.

Ok- it sounds like “Pietism,” and this isn’t an accident as they have a very similar internal spirituality and attention to prayer and contemplation. They are both beyond technical definition as social movements and have become pejoratives in the Lutheran and Catholic world. So… Fenelon attaches himself to something seen as heterodox by Catholics. He would have a bullseye on his back for the rest of his life.

And the dude couldn’t help it; he just kept getting into trouble on account of his convictions. Despite being an advisor and beloved by the King, he wrote an anonymous tract condemning the immoral/lavish lifestyle of the king and his autocratic excesses. This could have ruined his career if it was found out who wrote it, but the King ended up making Fenelon an Archbishop in the French Catholic Church. And many Catholics were none too pleased. Soon after this, Fenelon was writing a story based on the character of Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey (not St. Telemachus, whom we talked about recently). It was meant to be anonymous but stolen by a secretary to Francois and published. The story revolves around the son of Ulysses as Minerva teaches him. It was seen as an attack on King Louis as the book primarily contained thoughts about what makes for a good kingdom. (Ironically, by the time of Louis’s successors, the book was beloved by the nobility and seen as a reflection of the kingdom instead of scathing commentary).

He was essentially cut off by society and stuck in his bishopric without regular duties. Essentially on house arrest. During this time, a story is told of him seeing a battle near his church- he is said to have treated both parties with such hospitality that they both agreed to spare his neighborhood.

The rest of his life was spent writing essays and letters in style made famous in the previous century by Montaigne. He wrote on politics, calling for a representative parliament with a written constitution, public education, and church and state separation.

And if I may- very early on in my career as a historian, I came across his definition of history, which has served me ever since. I assure you that any former students listening will know what’s coming and might even mouth the words along with me. Francois Fenelon wrote that history is “a work of literary art that records cultural change with its striking examples of virtue and vice.” Not just names and dates, not just disembodied ideas and ideologies. And this is what we do, especially (hopefully) on the Almanac. Francois Fenelon- a man of great literary and theological ability, died on this, the 7th of January, in 1715

The last word for today comes from Matthew 3- a good comment in Epiphany:

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[d] with whom I am well pleased.”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Madame’s include Guyon, Tussaud, and the super villainesses Rouge and Masque from DC and Marvel comics. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose favorite Madam is NOT the creepy puppet from the 80s show Madame’s Place (look it up — so creepy!) I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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