Jacques Bénigne Bossuet

The French prelate and writer Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) is best known for his sermons and orations. His ecclesiastical career traversed the principal milieus and encompassed the major religious questions of his time.

Jacques Bossuet was born in Dijon on Sept. 27, 1627. He was raised by his uncle Claude, the mayor of Dijon. Bossuet was tonsured at the age of 10, a logical step for a seventh son in eventual need of a career. He distinguished himself at the Collège des Godrans in Dijon and later at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he received a doctorate of theology in 1652. Ordained that same year, he was a leading figure in Parisian theological circles and also frequented the fashionable salon of Madame de Rambouillet.

Bossuet might have pursued a worldly career had he not come under the influence of Vincent de Paul, whose apostolic ideal included charity to the poor, missionary zeal, and counterreformatory activity. Partially motivated by him, in 1653 Bossuet took up residence in Metz, a frontier city with a diverse religious population. Until 1659 he was immersed there in religious studies, Catholic-Protestant relations, the Jewish apostolate, and civil and ecclesiastical affairs. His Réfutation du catéchisme de Paul Ferry (1655; Refutation of the Catechism of Paul Ferry) exhibits the firm but nonpolemical spirit which he brought to Catholic-Protestant relations.

After his return to Paris in 1659, Bossuet devoted himself to preaching in convents and churches as well as at court. In 1662 and 1666 he preached before the King during Advent, but it was not until the Advent sermons of 1669 that this worldly milieu was completely receptive to him. Between 1655 and 1687 he pronounced his famous funeral orations; among these were the orations for Anne of Austria (1667), Henrietta of France (1669), Henrietta of England (1670), Maria Theresa (1683), and the Prince of Condé (1687).

In 1669 Louis XIV named Bossuet bishop of Condom and in 1670 tutor of the Dauphin. Bossuet strove to provide a practical education for his charge, composing such works as the Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History) and the Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise on the Knowledge of God and of Oneself) for the Dauphin's use. During this period he continued to address himself to the Protestant question, publishing L'Exposition de la doctrine catholique (1671; Exposition of Catholic Doctrine), and exercised a moderating moral influence at court. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1671.

Named bishop of Meaux in 1681, after the completion of his pedagogical task, Bossuet devoted himself to his pastoral duties with Vincentian zeal. He played a leading role in the Assembly of the Clergy (1681), which decreed the subordination of the national churches to the pope. The Histoire des variations des églises protestantes (1688; History of Variations of Protestant Churches) was Bossuet's last counterreformatory work. His Instruction sur les états d'oraison (Instruction in States of Prayer) and Relation sur le quiétisme (1698; Report on Quietism) were instrumental in the condemnation of the doctrine of quietism.

Chronic kidney stones gradually forced Bossuet to give up his pastoral duties, and he died at Meaux on April 12, 1704.


Further Reading on Jacques Bénigne Bossuet

Translated selections from Bossuet's works are available in Bossuet: A Prose Anthology, edited by J. Standring (1962), and in Bossuet's Selections from Meditations on the Gospel, translated by Lucille Corinne Franchère (1962). A biography of Bossuet in English is Ernest Edwin Reynolds, Bossuet (1963). Background studies include Albert Léon Guérard, France in the Classical Age: The Life and Death of an Ideal (1965), and G. R. R. Treasure, Seventeenth Century France (1966), which discusses Bossuet at length.

Additional Biography Sources

Lanson, Gustave, Bossuet, New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Meyer, Jean, Bossuet, Paris: Plon, 1993.