Henri Grégoire

Catholic Priest, Activist, and Defender of Science

Henri Jean-Baptiste Grégoire was not only a French Roman Catholic priest, but during the French Revolution he became an important figure as a constitutional bishop and a member of the National Convention. He used his position to promote equality by avidly supporting the abolition of human slavery and spreading the word of universal suffrage. Through the years he continued to profess his faith but also advocated for abolishing the monarchy and nationalizing the Catholic church in France. Henri Grégoire also understood the importance of preserving significant scientific artifacts, leading him to become a founding member of The Bureau des longitudes, The Institut de France and The Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

Born on December 4, 1750, Henri Grégoire grew up in a lower-class family as a son of a tailor in a small village called Vého. He entered into the Jesuit College of Nancy from 1763 to 1768, then went onto the seminary of Metz from 1769 to 1771. After being ordained in 1775, he taught at Pont-à-Mousson, became a member of the clergy at Marimont and then a pastor at Embermenil in 1782. Throughout his education, he distinguished and popularized himself through his tolerance and acceptance of the Jewish community. In 1789, he was elected to the Estates-General and later to the National Convention as a representative of the Clergy, which launched his political career.

During Grégoire’s lifetime, he spoke about and published pamphlets, letters, and books on equality, promoting a view that was at odds with the National Convention and Clergy. He advocated and fought for the abolition of slavery in France, universal suffrage, freedom of worship, and equal civil rights despite gender, race, and religion. He raised the idea that people of color were equal in all ways to white people, especially intellectually. He not only became an advocate for colored people but also for the Jewish community. As a Catholic priest advocating for the Jewish community, he demanded full naturalization which included political rights. His ideas were radical for the time period, but he continued to defend his beliefs although they clashed with those of the Church.

Not only was Grégoire a human rights activist, but he understood the importance of preserving scientific and industrial artifacts. In 1794, he established the Conservatoire National Des Arts et Métiers (National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts), which originally intended to offer scientists, inventors, and craftsmen access to a technical education. The school has since become an educational institution for engineering.  Situated next to the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Crafts), housed in the abandoned priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, it is the world’s first science and technology museum. The museum collection consists of over 80,000 objects and 15,000 drawings, of which only 2,500 objects are on display. In the wake of the French Revolution, Henri Grégoire was a founding member of both Bureau des longitudes (Bureau of Longitudes) and the Institut de France (Institute of France). The Bureau was created to improve nautical navigation, standardize time, and promote geodesy and astronomy research. The Institute houses five academies; the French Academy, the Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. Today both the Bureau and Institute serve as educational institutions in Paris.

Henri Grégoire died in Paris on May 28, 1831, at 80 years old. Above all else, he considered himself as a devout Catholic, but due to his radical views, the clergy was absent from his funeral. In a symbolic gesture, the horses pulling his hearse were freed and students continued to pull the hearse to the cemetery of Montparnasse, with a crowd of about 20,000 following. In 1989, his remains were moved to the Pantheon as a way to celebrate the model of excellence he created by advocating for equal human rights. He is considered to be a man before his time, leaving an inspiring legacy that is still a little known.



The Musée des Arts et Métiers - 60 Rue Réaumur, 75003 Paris, France