Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
From Conversations with General Bertrand at St. Helena, published 1861. This was published 40 years after Napoleon’s death by the sons of General Bertrand. There is some disagreement on the authenticity of the words attributed to Napoleon, and Napoleon’s religious beliefs remain a bit of a mystery. But whatever the origin of these words, they speak the truth
Napoleon: Such is the fate of great men! So it was with Caesar and Alexander. And I, too, am forgotten. In very little time, the name of a conqueror and an emperor is nothing but the subject for a report in school. Our exploits are tasks given to pupils by their tutor, who sit in judgment upon us, awarding censure or praise. And mark what is soon to become of me. I will die before my time, and my dead body must return to the earth to become food for worms. Behold the destiny, near at hand, of him who has been called the great Napoleon.
What an abyss between my deep misery and the eternal reign of Christ, which is proclaimed, loved, adored, and which is extending over all the earth! The death of Christ! It is the death of God. (For a moment the Emperor was silent; as General Bertrand made no reply, Napoleon solemnly added), If you do not perceive that Jesus Christ is God, very well, then I did wrong to make you a general…
General Bertrand: I can not conceive, sire, how a great man like you can believe that the Supreme Being ever exhibited himself to men under a human form, with a body, a face, mouth, and eyes. Let Jesus be whatever you please– the highest intelligence, the purest heart, the most profound legislator, and, in all respects, the greatest person who has ever existed– I grant it. Still he was simply a man, who taught his disciples, and deluded credulous people. The ascendancy of Jesus over his time was like the ascendancy of the gods and the heroes of fable. If Jesus has revolutionized the world, I see in that only the power of genius and the action of a commanding spirit, which vanquishes the world as so many conquerors have done– Alexander, Caesar, you, sire, and Mohammed– with a sword.
Napoleon: I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity. Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world there is no possible term of comparison. He is truly a being by himself. His ideas and his sentiments, the truth which he announces, his manner of convincing, are not explained either by human organization or by the nature of things.
The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine, everything about Him is above me; everything remains grand, a grandeur which overpowers. His religion is a revelation from an intelligence which certainly is not that of man. There is there a profound originality which has created a series of words and of maxims before unknown. Jesus borrowed nothing from our science. One can absolutely find nowhere, but in him alone, the imitation or the example of his life…
I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ, or anything which can approach the gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature, offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it. Here everything is extraordinary. The more I consider the gospel, the more I am assured that it is beyond the march of events, and above the human mind.
The story of Napoleon is one of the most amazing in all history. In just a few years he rose from being a minor officer in the army to being the ruler of France and conqueror of almost all of Europe. Upon being named emperor of this vast empire, Napoleon’s mother had a brief, but realistic reply. She rolled her eyes and said, “Well, I wonder how long this will last.” It turned out to last not very long at all. There were a few tremendous years, but then a rapid decline; and finally disgrace, exile, and an early death. And that was the end of that little tyrant who marched his army all over Europe making widows and orphans.
But if the above words are in fact from him, he did come to a true understanding of Jesus.
John 1:1… 14 — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Luke 8:25 — “Where is your faith?” (Jesus) asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
Colossians 1:15-17 — (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16a).
Fix Thou our steps, O Lord, that we stagger not at the uneven motions of the world, but steadily go on to our glorious home; neither censuring our journey by the weather we meet with, nor turning out of the way for anything that befalls us. The winds are often rough, and our own weight presses us downwards. Reach forth, O Lord, thy hand, thy saving hand, and speedily deliver us. Teach us, O Lord, to use this transitory life as pilgrims returning to their beloved home; that we may take what our journey requires, and not think of settling in this foreign country. Amen.
–Author unknown, quoted in Eerdman’s Book of Famous Prayers, p. 64, compiled by Veronica Zundel, Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Co., 1983.