You are on page 1of 3

Voltaire's House

and The Bible Society


David Ross

There is a popular anecdote among the Bible Societies of France, who was director of the Institut et
Christian apologists that Voltaire Switzerland and the UK to seek ver- Mus6e Voltaire in Geneva. In
(1694-1778) once remarked that the ification of the story. response to a query from Hills about
Bible would soon become a forgot- the Voltaire anecdote, Besterman
ten book, but the house in which he A categorical denial was received wrote:
made this prediction later became from Pierre Barreto, Communi-
the headquarters of a Bible Society cations Officer of the Alliance ... None of Voltaire's homes is or
who used it to publish or distribute Biblique Franqaise: ever has been connected in any
Bibles. way with any Bible Society. This
That absurd rumor [was] born applies to all Voltaire's homes,
This ironic tale has been repeated in some time ago in the US but it is whether in France, Germany,
many books and web sites [I], fre- completely false: no house Switzerland, or anywhere else.
quently with contradictory details. where Voltaire lived is currently [41
The location of the house is usually or has been occupied by a Bible
given as Geneva [2], sometimes as Society, and not even by a print- Hills concluded by expressing her
Paris [3], and there are even occa- ing company working for a Bible hope that "none of the present
sional references to Germany and Society, neither in France nor in American Bible Society folks are
Austria. Switzerland. guilty of propagating this tale''.

The Bible society in question is var- Dolly Clottu, Secretariat of the And according to another report on
iously identified as the Geneva Bible Societk Biblique Suisse, wrote that: the anecdote:
Society and the British and Foreign
Bible Society. And the date this We don't have and can't find ...the closest affirmation of this
society is said to have occupied any other information about version of the story is that the
Voltaire's house ranges anywhere this popular anecdote. I have British and Foreign Bible
from twenty years to a hundred asked a former General Society depot in Paris stands or*
years after the death ofvoltaire. Secretary who lives in the sur- a site once occupied by a prism
roundings of Lausanne and he is for those convicted of minor
It is also noteworthy that the more definite: he has neves heard offences (embezzlement, debt,
ill-advised versions of the anecdote about this story etc.) in which, according to the
refer to Voltaire as an Atheist when choice of sources, Voltaire may
he was in fact a Deist. Rosemary Mathew, Librarian of the or may not have been confined.
UK Bible Society, responded, "the No other residence of his has
Voltaire Vindicated? question of Voltaire's house is one been an office of any Bible
that crops up every so often and we Society. [5]
Most writers give no sources or cita- have a couple of documents which
tions for the anecdote; if Voltaire prove the story false''. In the face of such authoritative
ever made such a predication about denials, how did the anecdote origi-
the fate of the Bible I was unable to These little-known documents held nate? The earliest mention I have
trace it while researching this arti- by the UK Bible Society include a found occurs in Sidney Collett's The
cle. record of correspondence between Scripture of Truth, originally pub-
Margaret T. Hills (1898-1972), lished in the UK in 1905:
But was Voltaire's house used by a Librarian of the American Bible
Bible society? As a first step to Society, and Voltaire's biographer, Voltaire, the noted French infi-
obtaining an answer, I contacted Theodore Besterman (1904-l976), del who died in 1778, said that

The Open Society Volume 77 No 1 Autumn 2004


in one hundred years from his en it to mean that the Bible Society The Hotel Gibbon ceased to be a
time Christianity would be had acquired a property formerly depot of the BFBS in 1858. The
swept into history. But what has owned by Voltaire. The building BFBS Annual Report for 1859 states:
happened? Only twenty-five referred to by Snodgrass was in fact
years after his death the [British a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, The Committee regret to state,
& Foreign Bible] Society was named after a completely different that the depot so long estab-
founded. His printing press, sceptic, the historian Edward lished at the Hotel Gibbon,
with which he printed his infidel Gibbon (1737-1794). Lausanne, has been necessarily
literature, has since been used withdrawn, in consequence of
to print copies of the Word of It seems reasonable to conclude the new proprietor, after a brief
God; and the very house in that someone misread this 19th cen- experiment, declining to charge
which he lived has been stacked tury document and began the himself with the responsibility
with Bibles of the Geneva Bible Voltaire myth that continues to be of superintending the sales.
Society. [61 "commonly reported until this day''. This depot has existed for nearly
twelve years, and during that
The Scripture of Truth (later pub- The Hotel Gibbon time, not fewer that 15,000
lished in the USA under the title All copies had been sold to trav-
About the Bible) remained in print A word needs to be said about the ellers and others frequenting
for many years; and if the Voltaire Hotel Gibbon, which appears to be the hotel. Arrangements have
myth did not begin with Collett he the source of the myth. This hotel been made for transferring the
was at least responsible for giving it was constructed in Lausanne in depot to a well-known book-
widespread circulation. Although 1839, not far from the site of La seller's, situated in a frequent
he gives no sources or references for Grotte, the villa in which Gibbon part of the town. [121
the anecdote, his book continues to completed his famous Decline and
be quoted uncritically by latter-day Fall of the Roman Empire [9]. The It should be noted that although
apologists. [7] hotel served as a depot of the British Voltaire and Gibbon both lived in
& Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) from Lausanne at various times in the
The origin of the myth? 1846-1858. An officer of the BFBS, 18th century [13],neither man lived
James Graydon, "...established on the actual site of the Hotel
The available evidence suggests that depots at Neuchatel, Berne, Zurich, Gibbon.
the entire story probably arose from Chur, St. Gall, Schafthausen,
a misunderstanding of the 1849 Geneva, the Hotel Gibbon at Conclusion
Annual Report of the American Lausanne (in the garden of which
Bible Society (ABS). In the appendix Gibbon wrote the last line of his By now readers may be curious to
of that report we find an account of History in the moonlit night of the know the real fate of the various
a speech given by William 27th June 1787) ..." [lo] houses where Voltaire resided dur-
Snodgrass, an officer of the ABS: ing his life:
A letter from Graydon published in
...The committee had been able the 45th Annual Report of the BFBS Voltaire's mansion in the town of
to redeem their pledge by send- states: Ferney-Voltaire, France, is today a
ing $10,000 to France, the coun- museum and arts centre.
try of Voltaire, who predicted I believe that the Gibbon Hotel
that in the nineteenth century is already quite a brilliant and His mansion in Geneva, Switzerland
the Bible would be known only truly rejoicing exception, as it (Les Delices) is the headquarters of
as a relic of antiquity. He respects the dissemination of the Institut et Musee Voltaire.
[Snodgrass] could say, while on holy writ, in the multitudinous
this topic, that the Hotel Gibbon list of hotels throughout Europe, Voltaire lived in two different houses
(so-called from that celebrated if not the world. And is it not an in Lausanne. Neither of these hous-
infidel) is now become the very extraordinary exception when es is standing today. [141
depository of the Bible Society, we consider that the hotel bears
and the individual who superin- the name, and is built in the Voltaire died at what is now No. 27
tends the building is an agent very ground so long and often Quai de Voltaire in Paris, France.
for the sale and receipt of the paced by him who so thorough- This building is today occupied by a
books. The very ground this ly hated the Gospel and did so restaurant (Le Voltaire) and an
illustrious scoffer often paced, much injury to its blessed antique dealer.
has now become the scene of cause? ... Some 4,000 copies of
the operation and success of an His word have now been sold in As to La Grotte, Gibbon's villa in
institution established for the that very hotel. [l11 Lausanne, the house was demol-
diffusion of the very book ished in 1896 to make way for
against which his efforts were Gibbon was unpopular with devout Lausanne's Central Post Office.
directed. [8] Christians because of his sceptical
treatment of Christianity in his The Hotel Gibbon in Lausanne
An inattentive reader of the above Decline and Fall. ceased to operate in 1920. The
paragraph could easily have mistak- building has now become the head-
The Open Society Volume 77 No 1 Autumn 2004
rn
quarters of the Soqietk du Banque Paine (1737-1809) in his Age of Reason
Suisse. [l5] (1795):

I have now gone through the Bible,


as a man would go through a wood
with an axe on his shoulder, and fell
Acknowledgments
trees. Here they lie; and the priests,
if they can, may replant them. They
In addition to the Bible society offi- may, perhaps, stick them in the
cers quoted in this article the author ground, but they will never make
wishes to thank: Jacquelyn Sapiie of them grow.
the American Bible Society; Carl
Freeman of Ferney-Voltaire; Jean- [4] Margaret T. Hills, Voltaire Did NOT
Jacques Eggler of the Archives de la Say It! Unpublished and undated article
Ville de Lausanne; and Franqois (?c.1960) held by the UK Bible Society.
Jacob of the Institut et Musee Besterman was evidently unaware of the
existence of the Hotel Gibbon, as he
Voltaire, Geneva. goes on to incorrectly state that "there is
no such place; this is obviously a mis-
translation of 'h6tel Gibbon,' which
simply means Gibbon's house".
David Ross is Treasurer of the NZ
Association of Rationalists and [5] Did Voltaire Say It? Unpublished arti-
Humanists, as well as an Editor of cle dated 28 March 1972 with apparent
Open Society signature 'M. B.', held by the UK Bible
Society.

[61 Sidney Collett, The Scripture of Truth.


London: S W Partridge & Co. Sixth
Notes
Edition, 1910,p.63.

[l]"Voltaire declared over a century ago [7] See for example Geisler and Nix, op.
that God is dead, but his house today is cit.; Josh McDowell, Evidence That
headquarters of the Bible Society" - Demands a Verdict (San Bernadino:
Letter to The New Zealand Herald, 3rd Here's Life Publishers, 1979, p. 20). In
August 2003 by Wyn Fountain of correspondence with the present writer,
Kohimarama, Auckland. Here we find a secretarial staff representing Geisler and
confusion within an error: it was McDowell acknowledged that these
Nietzsche, not Voltaire, who pro- apologists could not provide independ-
nounced the death of God. ent verification of Collett's account.

[2]"Voltaire,the skeptic, predicted that [8]Annual Report of the American Bible


the Bible and Christianity would be Society, 1849. Appendix, p. 98.
swept into obsolescence, but only fifty
years after his death the Geneva Bible [9] Louis Polla, "Lausanne D'Hier et
Society used his press and house to pro- D'Aujourd'hui", 24 Heures, 2nd August
duce stacks of Bibles." Norman Geisler 1994.
&WilliamNix, A General Introduction to
the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press), 1968, [lo] William Canton, A History of the
p124. The Voltaire anecdote has been British and Foreign Bible Society.
removed from the revised edition of this London: John Murray, 1904. Some
work (1986). sources incorrectly state that Gibbon
had lived on the actual site of the hotel,
[3] "It was Voltaire, the French sceptic, or that La Grotte was converted into the
who wrote in his study in Paris: 'I will go hotel after his death. The hotel was built
through the forest of the Scriptures and long after Gibbon's death, and was in a
girdle all the trees, so that in one hun- different location from La Grotte.
dred years Christianity will be but a van-
ishing memory.' But the very room in [ll]Cited in Did Voltaire Say It? Op. Cit.
which he wrote those words was later
purchased by the British and Foreign [12]Ibid.
Bible Society, and was packed from floor
to ceiling with Bibles." David John [13] Louis Polla, Rues de Lausanne
Donnan, Treasury of the Christian (Lausanne: 24 Heures), 1981.
World, edited by A. Gordon Nasby (New
York: Harper & Brothers), 1953. [14]Ibid.

The quotation here attributed to Voltaire [15] Louis Polla, "Lausanne D'Hier et
bears a suspicious resemblance to a D'Aujourd'hui", 0p.Cit.
statement actually made by Thomas
The Open Society Volume 77 No 1 Autumn 2004