A New Book on “La Famille”

Les Inspirés, cover

Journalist Nicolas Jacquard has produced a book that is much more ambitious than his colleague Suzanne Privat’s, but still relies too much on “apostate” ex-members.

by Massimo Introvigne — After Suzanne Privat’s book, another journalist, Nicolas Jacquard of Le Parisien, has published a book on the French Christian community of Jansenist origin known as “La Famille” (Les inspirés, Paris: Robert Laffont, 2021). This book is much more ambitious than the one by Privat, the author having performed a considerable amount of work in reading academic sources on the Jansenist ancestors of La Famille. He is also to be thanked for having raised several questions that were not addressed in the previous literature on this little-known subject.

The book remains, however, the investigation of a journalist, which is by definition something other than an academic study, and of a French journalist. This means that he shares a certain negative attitude typical of French society, politics, and the media regarding groups described as “cults” or at least suspected of “cultic deviances” (dérives sectaires). This attitude also leads to privilege information coming from “apostates.”

In the sociology of religions, “apostates” is a technical term. The differences between “apostates” and “former members” have been explained mainly by American sociologist David Bromley. Not all “former members” who leave a religion or religious movement are “apostates.” On the contrary, most former members either maintain friendly relations with those whose religious ideas they no longer share but who remain their friends or relatives, or “disappear” into the larger society without engaging in a militant activity to criticize the faith they have left, about which they would often say that it had both positive and negative features.

It is only a minority, the “apostates,” who write against their former religion or movement, contact the media, and demand political or legal action against their former co-religionists. When the religious group they have left has critics who accuse it of being a “cult” or of presenting “cultic deviances” (terms that are normally not used by the great majority of the academic specialists of new religious movements), the “apostates” are supervised and promoted by “anti-cult movements,” and in France also by governmental organizations whose task is “combating cultic deviances,” which multiplies their influence.

“Apostates” can sometimes offer interesting points of view, but no researcher would consider them as the only reliable source of information on a religion or religious movement. It would be like studying the Catholic priesthood by listening only to ex-priests who have left the Catholic Church and become its militant critics, or the institution of marriage by relying exclusively on those who come out of a bitter divorce. Researchers, and of course journalists, do well when they listen to “apostates” but should not consider their testimonies to carry more weight than those of members who remain in the religion that the “apostates” left and are happy to stay, or of former members who did not become “apostates.”

Privileging information from “apostates” creates a circular argument, because it assumes as a premise the negative view of a religion or movement that a balanced survey could perhaps arrive at only as a result of a comparison of different viewpoints, which should be conducted without prior sympathy for either position.

Even though, unlike Privat, Jacquard consulted members of La Famille, it is clear that a man named Alexandre, a typical “apostate” (and with a long criminal record), had the role of privileged witness in his investigation. He was the one trusted in case of doubts or contradictions. Jacquard even says that Alexandre asked him to be indicated as a co-author of his book, which the journalist refused. This is the “original sin” of an otherwise interesting book.

On July 17, 2021, I published an article in Bitter Winter about La Famille. Rather than a review of Jacquard’s book, I prefer to publish a “second edition” of my article, in which I consider the themes raised in the book, adding some clarifications and comments.

Who Is Afraid of “La Famille?”

[ updated version ]

All of a sudden, French media “discovered” a new “cult.” It has been in existence for more than 200 years, and is now threatened by the government.

Les Cousseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne

Les Cousseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne, in the times of the “Uncle Auguste.” It is still the main meeting point of La Famille. From Facebook.

by Massimo Introvigne — “A cult in the very heart of Paris.” This and similar titles could be read in French media from January 2021 on, each media outlet competing with the others for more sensational revelations. Marlène Schiappa, Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship, attached to the Minister of the Interior, and a politician who has decided to jump on the anti-cult bandwagon for her own reasons, announced an investigation (of which, for now, nothing is known). Two journalists, Suzanne Privat (La Famille. Itinéraire d’un secret, Paris: Les Avrils, 2021) and Nicolas Jacquard (Les inspirés, Paris: Robert Laffont, 2021) have published books in which they develop their earlier articles.

However, the “cult” that suddenly became newsworthy is not new. “La Famille,” the most used name for a group without formal structures or organization, has been in existence for more than two centuries.

To understand what “La Famille” is all about, one should start from Jansenism, a theological movement born in the 17th century that imported into Catholicism some Protestant elements, including a doctrine of predestination, the autonomy of national churches, and the introduction of readings in French rather than in Latin within the Catholic liturgy. It took its name from Dutch Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638) and was particularly successful in France, where it seduced prominent intellectuals such as philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) and a sizable number of bishops and priests. For political as well as religious reasons, it was suppressed in the 18th century by both the Catholic Church and the French monarchy, although its cultural influence continued into the 19th century and extended to other countries.

Jansenism was not a movement of intellectuals only. A popular Jansenism developed around the cult (not authorized by the Catholic Church) of “saints” such as Jansenist Deacon François de Pâris (1690–1727). His grave in the Parisian cemetery of the Saint-Médard parish church witnessed the first phenomena of the “Convulsionaries,” who convulsed, fainted, screamed, prophesied, and claimed to have been healed from various illnesses. Eventually, the movement of the Convulsionaries spread from Paris to several cities and villages of France, and added to the convulsions extreme practices called secours, where devotees, mostly female, willingly submitted to beating, torture, and even crucifixion to be delivered from their inner torments. Early scholars of Jansenism regarded Convulsionaries as a deviance, while later historians have emphasized continuities between the “cultivated” and the “popular” Jansenism.

It is also interesting to note the presence of earlier prophetic movements in the French context. The Jansenist Convulsionaries appeared some five years after the end of the Protestant movement of the “little prophets,” which had developed especially in the Dauphiné and the Cévennes, and where the young men who prophesied, and who later played a role in the Protestant revolt of the Camisards, were also sometimes called “Convulsionaries.”

The secours

The “secours” in a 18th-century lithograph (credits).

The Convulsionaries never became a unified movement. They formed a network, and a devotee moving from one French city to another might be welcomed by other Convulsionaries. More often, the different small groups criticized and excommunicated each other, particularly after some of the leaders advanced messianic claims for themselves.

Father François Bonjour, Silas
Father François Bonjour, Silas (credits)

One successful group of Convulsionaries developed around Father François Bonjour (1751–1846), later known as “Silas,” the parish priest of Fareins, a village in the French region of the Dombes, some 25 miles from Lyon. Father François’ activities, carried out with the cooperation of his elder brother, Father Claude Bonjour (1744–1814), and other priests, belonged to the extreme wing of the Convulsionaries.

The crucifixion in 1787 of a female devotee, Etiennette Thomasson (who survived, while another female parishioner submitted to heavy secours died), led to police intervention, and the Bonjour brothers ended up in jail. They were released on the grounds of a procedural defect, in the context of the confusion that reigned in the courts during the years of the French Revolution, but Father François decided to leave Fareins and move to Paris. The main reason for this was that, claiming it had been commanded to do so by a divine revelation, the priest had taken two lovers, his servant Benoite Françoise Monnier, and Claudine Dauphan (sometimes spelled “Dauphin,” 1761–1834), the servant of a Convulsionaries leader in Lyon, and both were pregnant.

Eventually, Father François explained the events within the framework of a millenarian theology. Benoite will generate a male child, Jean Bonjour (1792–1868), who will serve as the John the Baptist to the new divine incarnation, Claudine’s son Israël-Elie Bonjour (1792–1866), nicknamed Lili, who will open the path to the Millennium, a world without illnesses or death where the true believers will reign for 1,000 years. Not all Convulsionaries in Paris accepted the strange “holy family” of Father François, but some did, and the birth of Lili was celebrated with great enthusiasm.

A prophetess, “Sister Elisée” (Julie Simone Olivier, who is believed to have died in 1817), joined the group and predicted the imminent advent of the Millennium in no less than 18,000 pages of revelations, although she later broke with the Bonjours and established her own separate group. Journalist Nicolas Jacquard believes that Sister Elisée later reappeared under the new identity of “Maman Yette” (Elisabeth Claude Pelletier, 1767-1847, although Jacquard doubts that Pelletier was her real name), an influential figure in the early years of La Famille: but he offers no evidence for this theory, except for the gossip of some former members.

The Bonjours’ followers belonged to the faction of the Convulsionaries who welcomed the French Revolution as a deserved punishment for the Catholic Church and the monarchy that had persecuted them (while other Convulsionaries remained loyal to the King and opposed the Revolution). However, the Revolution did not welcome those who were now called “Bonjouristes,” particularly after Napoleon signed in 1801 his Concordat with the Catholic Church. In 1805, the Bonjours, including 13-year-old Lili, were arrested and exiled to Switzerland—or, as others maintain, negotiated with the government a move to Switzerland as an alternative to being jailed.

In Paris, Jean-Pierre Thibout (1762–1836), the concierge of the building where the Bonjours lived, emerged as the leader of the remaining “Bonjouristes.” He later claimed that Lili, before leaving France, had passed his mantle (like Elijah to Eliseus) to Pierre’s son, the then three-year-old Augustin Thibout (1802–1837), known as “St. John the Baptist” among the devotees.

The years after the Revolution were somewhat confused. The Bonjours were allowed to return to France in 1811, but they seemed to have lost interest in their new religion. Lili, who had behaved as a temperamental messiah as a child, married the daughter of a rich merchant, Marie Collet (1794–1829), who gave him ten children. With the help of his father-in-law, Lili became a successful industrialist, as well as a colonel in the National Guard, awarded the Legion of Honor in 1832. He did not play a significant role in the subsequent development of the Bonjouristes, although some continued to correspond with him and received his blessing.

In fact, Jean-Pierre Thibout built a “Bonjourisme” without the Bonjours, which continued to venerate Lili as a mystical presence independently of the real flesh-and-blood Lili, who was busy elsewhere with his businesses. The group has celebrated to this day its reorganization in 1819, and likes to repeat, as often happens in religious movements, a foundation myth: symbolic for some, factual for others. While Thibout was discussing Lili’s mission in a café with his co-religionist François Joseph Havet (1759-1842), the husband of the already mentioned “Mamam Yette,” at the moment of paying the bill, they put two coins on the table, and a third coin, they reported, suddenly appeared, a sign that God was blessing their plans.

But in fact a group of families had kept the faith in Lili, and will continue to meet and intermarry to these days. Some of the men in this group were Freemasons, which was quite common in France at the time among non-Catholics, and which shows that their attitude was more “progressive” than is often believed. This faith recognizes the validity of the convulsionary criticisms of the Catholic Church and the need to return to the primitive church as Jesus had envisioned it. It also sees the return of the prophet Elijah as a mission willed and foretold by the prophet Malachi and Jesus himself, and remains alert to the signs of this possible return. But it is no longer “Bonjouriste,” because it now thinks that either its ancestors in the faith may have been mistaken, in a special period of political and religious effervescence, when they recognized Lili as the incarnation of the spirit of the prophet Elijah, and attributed prophetic roles to Jean Bonjour and Augustin Thibout as well, or else Lili voluntarily renounced his position in relation to Elijah, which in this case is considered as having been real between his birth in 1792 and his departure for Switzerland in 1805.

Those who still sought a visible incarnation of Elijah organized several schismatic groups separate from La Famille, either in Paris or in the former province of Forez (where Fareins was located), including those who believed for a moment that they had found Elijah in one Jean-Baptiste Digonnet (1783-1852), and others who continued to link the prophet’s mission to the Bonjour family. Jacquard insists that “Maman Yette” became close to Digonnet’s followers towards the end of her life, but according to La Famille personal friendships should not be confused with ideological choices.

“La Famille,” as it came to be called, insists it has no leader, even though certain figures are considered important milestones in its history.

Paul Augustin Thibout
Paul Augustin Thibout, “Mon Oncle Auguste.”

Source: Facebook.

One of these characters is Paul Augustin Thibout (1863-1920), a direct descendant of Jean-Pierre Thibout, who was nicknamed “Mon Oncle Auguste.” He is credited with a series of precepts that were to put into practice the convulsionary ideal of separating oneself from the corrupt Catholic milieu, which at the time coincided with the majority of French society. What exactly he prescribed is a subject of controversy between members and opponents. Some of the information about the alleged excesses of “Mon Oncle Auguste” comes from a novel, Après le déluge, published in 1992 by one of his descendants, Fabien Thibout, under the pseudonym François Lorris. It is indeed a novel, in which the author expresses his hatred for La Famille, of which in fact he did not know much, since he had left it at a very young age.

It is certain that “Mon Oncle Auguste” expressed little sympathy for the public schools. He is also credited, but wrongly, with instructions limiting holidays, which however are successive to him as he died before paid holidays were introduced in France. It is also rumored that he forbade the members of La Famille to own property, which would explain why in Paris they are mostly tenants rather than owners of their homes. But “Mon Oncle Auguste” was a landlord himself, and there is a possible confusion here with anti-property statements attributed by historians to François Bonjour and made in the climate of the French Revolution.

That Auguste preached, as it is said, against the colors white and red as “colors of the Devil” is undoubtedly false, considering that they were the colors of the religious vestments of the Jansenist nuns of Port-Royal, to which La Famille has always continued to refer. Contradictorily, he is also credited with suggesting that a white shirt be kept ready for the day of Elijah’s return, which is not true but probably derives from a confusion with the fact that the deceased of La Famille are buried in a white shirt and sheets used as shrouds, according to a custom that was once common in France. Mon Oncle Auguste is also credited with a distrust of vaccines, which in fact existed in French society at the time, as it still does today.

These precepts are largely ignored today, and the children of La Famille (with the exception of those from a minority of arch-conservative families, who prefer to be home-schooled) attend public schools (often with very good results), take vacations with their parents, enjoy modern music, and can achieve significant professional results in careers that “Mon Oncle Auguste” might not have approved of (only professions requiring swearing or bearing arms remain proscribed, as in other Christian groups). The number of owners, especially of second homes outside Paris, is growing.

Today’s women do not necessarily wear long shirts or keep their hair long, as it happened in the community’s origins, in a different historical context, although some prefer not to wear pants, thus interpreting the precept of Deuteronomy 22:5, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment.” Almost all members of La Famille have received the vaccinations prescribed or recommended by the French state. What remains of the old precepts, however, is that La Famille does not proselyte and no longer accepts new members from outside, and devotees do not marry “gentiles,” i.e. non-members. This has led to a situation where all the members of La Famille are identified by the same eight last names.

“Mon Oncle Auguste” inaugurated the practice of celebrating the main feasts of the country and the movement in his property of Les Cosseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne, which still belongs to La Famille, and was restored after a fire in 2013, attributed to an arsonist, perhaps an angry former member, by some of the media at the time, while the cause could also have been an accident. Today, at the meetings of La Famille—now suspended at Les Cosseux because of COVID (and not, as journalists have argued, to avoid journalists after articles were published, although in a sense COVID may have paradoxically happened at the right time)—wine is drunk in moderation, while critical voices have claimed that excesses were common in other times—which, however, was the case in French society in general. Some 3,000 members—although precise statistics are difficult to establish—live mostly in the same areas of Paris (11th, 12th and 20th arrondissements), often in the same buildings.

La Famille remained largely unknown to both media and scholars until in 1960 a member of the Thibout family, Vincent (1924–1974), who had visited Israel, decided to establish a kibbutz in Pardailhan, Hérault, and took with him some twenty families from La Famille. Although the experiment, which collapsed in 1963, was disavowed by the Paris community and led to a total separation from La Famille, it attracted the attention of several media, which also mentioned the Famille origins of the founders.

After the end of the Pardailhan experiment, Vincent Thibout established two businesses ruled according to the kibbutz philosophy. After his death, one of his successors was incriminated for physical violence against other devotees. Critics use this incident to attack La Famille. This seems unfair considering that members of Vincent’s group, now called Community of Malrevers, describe their religion as closer to Judaism and, if anything, are highly critical of La Famille’s theology and lifestyle.

Members of the Pardailhan community

Members of the Pardailhan community, 1961. Source: Facebook.

Another element that took La Famille out of its comfortable shadow was the prevalence of government-sponsored anti-cult campaigns in France. These were noticed by ex-members of La Famille, who contacted the governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES in the 2010 decade. In 2017, the MIVILUDES published a note that showed that it was difficult to apply its “cult” model to La Famille. French anti-cultists believe that in each “cult” there is a “guru” exploiting gullible followers, who was nowhere to be seen in La Famille. But opponents continue to look for “cultic deviances” (which MIVILUDES admitted in 2017 it had not found), a notion invented in France and used to find “cultic” problems in many groups denounced by ex-members and anti-cultists.

A tiny band of angry ex-members also noticed the development of anti-cult campaigns on social networks, and one started operating a Facebook group. He rendered a service appreciated by scholars by digitalizing and posting otherwise inaccessible hand-written material from La Famille, but he also applied to his former movement the usual French stereotypes about “cults.”

La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secretReporters liberally used the material he supplied, and articles on the “secret cult in Paris” started appearing, and proliferated in 2021. In the same year, journalist Suzanne Privat published La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret (Paris: Les Avrils), a book that she says she started researching after discovering that young members of a religious community she knew nothing about, physically resembling each other and with a limited number of surnames, were in the same schools in Paris with her two children. This could be a literary expedient, as she admits that it was the contact with a rabid ex-member called Alexandre that gave her most of the material she exploited in her text.

Privat provides several pieces of information, although not all of them are accurate (and, for reasons I do not understand, she changed the last name “Havet” to “Brin,” perhaps to protect the privacy of the Havet family). She also produced a very readable book, where she acknowledged that several members reported positive experiences of La Famille on social media. Lacking a religious background, however, she accepted at face value the ideas about “les sectes” (the cults) of the MIVILUDES, ignoring the criticism they had been subjected to by most international scholars of new religious movements. Since she did not interview any current member of La Famille, she only talked with hostile ex-members, which made her book less balanced that she would probably have preferred it to be.

Nicolas Jacquard, on the other hand, has done a much more ambitious job, consulting several academic sources on the Convulsionaries and the “Bonjouristes” and, unlike Privat, he spoke with some members of La Famille. However, this is still the work of a journalist, and of a French journalist who also accepts at face value the ideas of MIVILUDES and anti-cult associations on “cultic deviances” and the credibility of hostile former members. It is finally this same Alexandre, the ex-member who created the Facebook page and who also informed Privat, who remains the privileged source, whose interpretations prevail upon those coming from inside La Famille. And this even though Jacquard is aware that Alexandre has personal motivations because of his divorce from a woman who remained in La Famille and disputes with her over the custody of their children, that he has a heavy criminal record, and continues to go in and out of prison. It is he who laid siege to MIVILUDES until they made a note about La Famille, and who continues to publicly ask the same MIVILUDES and Minister Schiappa to investigate.

But what, exactly, are the “problems” of La Famille that Minister Schiappa is now promising to investigate? Privat notes that children are socialized in a conservative environment (though she found teens using social networks and also familiar with contemporary music), their choices are largely controlled by their families, and girls marry young and quickly give birth to many children. As endogamy leads them to marry more or less distant cousins, Privat and Jacquard claim that genetic diseases are frequent among children. The appreciation of wine, according to Privat, generated problems of alcoholism in the past (common in French society at the time rather than specific to La Famille; today, wine is most often replaced by non-alcoholic beverages), and some ex-members also claim that some incidents of sexual abuse were not reported to the authorities (a problem, if real, that is not exclusive to La Famille, which for its part absolutely denies that it advises victims not to file complaints). As in other groups, ex-members report that they are shunned by members.

The presence of hostile ex-members on Facebook also led some members to counter their claims, and tell a different story of united families that find safety and happiness in a community perceived as more benevolent than the cold and materialist society “out there.” Interestingly, one member also stated that he was aware of the problem of genetic diseases caused by consanguinity and, although he found some of the reports of their prevalence in La Famille to be quite exaggerated (where in fact genetic diseases would affect only 1–2% of the group’s population), the issue and the solutions that could be adopted while preserving the principle of endogamy are under discussion within the community.

Following hostile former members, journalists who have written about La Famille have mentioned an anomalous presence of Bloom’s syndrome and miscarriages and a lower life expectancy compared to the general French population, which they attribute either to endogamy or to an alleged mistrust of doctors and hospitals. La Famille disputes these statistics, which have been circulated by hostile former members, and denies any distrust of modern medicine, noting that journalists may have generalized the accusations of a young former member of La Famille about the death of her grandmother.

Laws may prohibit marriage between cousins (although French law does not), but they cannot prevent them from sleeping together and having children. Often, marriages in La Famille are only stipulated with a religious blessing, and are not legally registered. This tradition derives from an old reluctance towards a state that La Famille considered still too tied to the Catholic church. The reluctance ended with the laws of separation of church and state in France in 1905, which does not prevent the persistence of some traditions. The genetic problems of endogamy are common to other groups, and can only be solved by the community itself.

Today’s La Famille celebrates the Convulsionaries as saintly ancestors, but does not repeat their practices, just as Roman Catholics venerate saints who practiced extreme austerities but do not imitate them. La Famille reads about Lili and commemorates August 18, the date of his birth, as a day in which it reminds itself of its expectation of Elijah. Indeed, its theology expects the spirit of the prophet Elijah to return in some way to usher in the Millennium, but its millennialism is not so different from that of countless other Christian groups and does not play a significant role in the daily lives of the faithful.

What bothers Ms. Schiappa and the anti-cultists about La Famille is its alleged “separatism.” They have survived for centuries by largely keeping to themselves. Some (but not all) of them do not vote in elections (or vote with a blank ballot), and do not even participate in the French cult of the dead, which is both secular and religious, their dead being buried in plot allocated for ten years (but not, as Jacquard claims, in the sector of the poor, now called “of the fraternity”) in the Parisian cemetery of Thiais.

Jacquard also reports that placing the deceased in the coffin is done by the (male) relatives of the deceased and not by professionals (which is true, but not forbidden in France), that during the three-day wake the windows remain closed “to prevent the devil from entering,” and that at the end of the wake everyone kisses each other, which may make it even easier to transmit diseases. Indeed, if the windows remain closed it is to avoid the acceleration of decomposition, without reference to the devil, and for about fifteen years the members have not kissed each other during the funeral vigils. On this point, as on others, critics and journalists often repeat information from ex-members who left La Famille decades ago and are not aware of the most recent developments.

Some also mention the non-presence of women at burials. Originally, only women participated for financial reasons (the men would have lost a day or a morning’s work). Then, the practice was reversed, and women pray or read religious books at the home of the deceased while men accompany the body to the cemetery. But women also go there, without this causing any problems.

Today, members of La Famille work in a wide variety of occupations, pay their taxes, and for the most part send their children to public schools, which does not fit the notion of “separatism” that was raised in 2020-21 during parliamentary debates about the so-called French law on separatism.

It is true that in La Famille there is a minority of about 100 people (out of 3,000) who advocate a closer separation from society, including through homeschooling. The journalist Jacquard echoed the derisive term “Sapinus” used by some to describe these conservatives. But most of the members of La Famille, without sharing their ideas, think that their concerns should be respected and provide a balance to the opposing criticisms of some “reformers.” Criticism sometimes takes the form of “revelations” written by members who claim to be “moved” by the Holy Spirit. These texts are viewed by La Famille with great caution, and often are read only by intimate friends.

La Famille is not surprised by what is happening to them, as persecutions were predicted in their prophecies. They are a good test showing how French anti-cultism and “anti-separatism” produce intolerance of lifestyles that, while unusual, would not be regarded as illegal in most democratic countries. Children also live somewhat differently from their schoolmates, but a large majority of them meet the legal schooling requirements. Objecting that adults can choose their own lifestyles but not “impose” them on their children is hypocritical. Without socialization of the new generations, no religion can survive.

Does La Famille has a right to continue its century-old experiment, including by passing its lifestyle to its children, and be left alone? International principles of religious liberty and liberty of education would suggest that the answer is yes, but French anti-cultism and anti-separatism may lead to a different answer.

A while ago I commented a U.S. Supreme Court decision about the Amish, allowing them to forbid their children not only the use of cell phones, but of telephones in general (that adults do not use as well), and even to refuse to install modern septic tanks in the name of a rejection of modernity based on their theology. I was reminded that the best decision the Amish took in their history was to migrate to U.S. and Canada from Alsace, which is now part of France (others came to North America from Switzerland). Had they remained in France, the Amish would now be targeted by Ms. Schiappa and the MIVILUDES, and compelled to renounce their century-old lifestyle in the name of anti-cultism and anti-separatism.

Source: Bitter winter