July 11, 2021 Editor

How to Love an Atheist Spouse

A review of Bernadette Chovelon’s Salt and Light: The Spiritual Journey of Élisabeth and Félix Leseur, translated from French by Mary Dudro

by Stephanie Williamson

July 5, 2021

photo above: Élizabeth and Félix

WN: So beautifully instructive!


For Christians living in a culture prone to “canceling” those with unacceptable views, Salt and Light offers a different perspective. This biography of Élisabeth Leseur and her atheist husband, Félix, is a testament to the vocation of marriage and the transformative power of God’s love. But even more importantly, it points each of us to our ability and duty to – in Élisabeth’s own words – “love souls.”

Élisabeth, a devout Catholic, learned of her husband’s atheism on the eve of their wedding in 1889. While she resolved to keep practicing her childhood faith, Félix intended to reason with his new wife with the goal of “liberating” her from Christianity. He succeeded for a time, but Félix underestimated his wife’s intelligence. The owner of an extensive personal library, Élisabeth maintained a rigorous self-education, learning Latin, Russian, and philosophy.

When Félix gave Élisabeth some reading material he thought would dismantle her Christian beliefs for good, his offer had the opposite effect. Élisabeth saw the weaknesses in arguments proposed by authors like Renan and Voltaire, who had led so many Christians to lose their faith. She immersed herself in intellectual and theological works and built up a wealth of counter-arguments in favor of the existence of God.

But Élisabeth kept quiet about these, choosing to write them down in a diary rather than create debate with her husband. She followed this practice her entire life, believing that controversy, especially within a couple, was pointless. Instead, as her faith blossomed Élisabeth chose to let her joy show the interior peace that faith brought her.

The book takes us through Élisabeth and Félix’s marriage and their vibrant life of travel, their conversations with some of Paris’ greatest intellectuals, and their deep love toward one another. Élisabeth’s lifelong illness surely added strain to their marriage. Felix cared for her lovingly, but much of the pain she bore quietly, secretly offering it up to God for the conversion of her husband. After her death at age thirty-four in 1914, he discovered her personal diaries, which ultimately led to his entering into the priesthood.

While Élisabeth instructs us to stand by our principles, to study our faith in order to defend it, and to show that “one can be both intelligent and Christian,” this masterfully researched account of her life and of Félix’s conversion is proof that nothing is more effective in terms of evangelization than kindness and empathy. Beautifully translated and thought-provoking, this book is not simply the Parisian love story of two people who did not share a faith, but a guide to loving those whose beliefs and ideas differ from our own. It attests to the real pain that can come with being faithful to one’s vocation and to the hope that can be found in trusting God with all things, most especially our loved ones.

Please click on: Love An Atheist Spouse

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.