John Calvin and the French Reformation

Anciently, Pepin of France had been the first of the Gothic princes to lay his kingdom at the feet of the Pope. He was awarded the title of “Eldest Son of the Church” for this act of submission and for centuries since, France strove to justify the distinction she bore by being the firmest pillar of the Papal See. Protestantism fought a noble battle in this land, testifying in word and deed and with pen and blood. When Paris drove the Gospel from its gates she knew not that a long and dismal train of woes would follow—faction, civil war, atheism, the guillotine, siege, famine, death. Three hundred years after the first martyr of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation in France was burned in the Place de Greve, France was visited by the French Revolution, and its dreadful instrument of death was set up to accept its first victims in the Place de Greve. (History of Protestantism, book 13, pages 174, 136, 142)

France, although dark for centuries, had never been totally without light. The Albigenses and Waldenses had stood strong for the truth, and witnessed to it with their blood. Their efforts, that kept the Bible alive in France, would bring forth fruits in the the French Reformation. The Reformation begins around 1510; at the same time as it was forming in Germany. Here is the story.

The First Protestant Teacher

In 1510 Jacques Lefevre was nearing seventy. He was a devout Papist and a scholar and theologian. He was a professor in the Sorbonne, or Theological Hall of the great Paris University. Lefevre had a great love for the saints and wished to give them a token, not perishable, like the flowers he offered at their images. He thought to collect and re-write their lives. He was well into the task when he wondered if a study of the Bible might give him any useful insights. “The virtues of the real saints dimmed in his eyes the glories of the legendary ones.” Wylie, Book 13,126. He found a church unlike the Roman Church and he turned from the voice of Rome to the voice of God. He found the plan of free justification and in 1512 wrote a commentary on the Epistles of Paul, saying, “It is God who gives us, by faith, that righteousness which by grace alone justifies to eternal life.” Ibid.

He did not receive the light to hide it under a bushel. He knew the dangers but he began to teach the doctrine of salvation in his classroom. A great commotion arose and soon was felt in the whole University. Objections were heard on every side. Lefevre made it his job to answer the few honest questions, and to make it plain that this was not a new doctrine having been anciently taught by Irenaeus, but that it had come from God as revealed in His Word.

This all took place in 1512, five years before the name of Luther would be heard in France. The Reformation here did not come from Germany but was kindled by the Bible, the Word of God. Peter Robert Olivetan, the translator of the first French Bible, was a cousin of Calvin and it was he who shared the Gospel with Calvin.

( Note: Benjamin Wilkinson, in his book “Truth Truimphant” on pages 215 and 216, states that Oliveton was from the Waldensian valleys and that he used the Vaudois Bible for his translation. In the Preface to his 1535 translation he credits these ancient people for having received the book from the Apostles and having enjoyed and possessed it to that day. This makes the Reformation in France a direct outgrowth of the ancient Bible held by faithful Waldenses through the centuries.)

Early Reformers

William Farel, was a student of Lefevre and like his teacher was eminently pious in the Roman tradition. They often joined each other on their rounds to the shrines, kneeling before the images. As light began to break on Lefevre’s heart he taught it in his classes, and God had prepared Farel to accept it. He had been tortured by doubts as to his ability to save himself, and yet were all of his prayers and visits to the saints for nothing? The Scriptures cleared his doubts, and he wrote that where his heart was once murderous toward any who spoke against the Pope, it was now quiet and harmless, withdrawn from the Pope, and given to Jesus Christ.

While his teacher taught in the classroom, he went forth to preach in the public places and the temples, causing them to ring with his “voice of thunder.” He was driven to Meaux by persecution, but finally labored in his native land, introducing the Gospel in Switzerland; preceding Calvin in the work there.

William Briconnet, Count of Montbrun, and Bishop of Meaux, also played a part in the early Protestant movement. He had been sent by Francis I to Rome as an ambassador to Leo X, the same Pope who is quoted as saying, “What a profitable affair this fable of Christ has been to us!” There he saw the Rome that Baptista Mantuan, a Carmelite, wrote about, saying, “Good and virtuous men, make haste and get out of Rome, for here virtue is the one thing ye cannot practise: all else ye may do.” Ibid., 130 footnote. “The Rome of that age was the chosen—home of pomps and revels, of buffooneries and villanies, of dark intrigues and blood-red crimes.” Ibid., 130.

Briconnet came home much less a son of the Church. He found, on his return, that that Gospel which was a fable to the Pope had become a reality in France and he turned to his old friend Lefevre to tell him what was causing this change. Lefevre put a Bible into his hands and he found it easy to enter into this religion which consisted of love to God and personal holiness. He began immediately to make changes in his diocese. He removed the ignorant pastors and tried to replace them with able men. When this task was found impossible, he started a school of theology to supply the lack of laborers, and preached himself.

His friendship with the king opened the doors of the palace, and to all the court “the bishop made known a higher knowledge than that of the Renaissance. The most illustrious convert in the palace was the sister of the king, Margaret of Valois.” Ibid., 132. The king chose to cast his lot with Rome and he made battle with the Reformation. His sister’s influence was a restraint on Francis, and not a few lives were saved from martyrdom through her interposition.

The First Protestant Congregation in France

In 1522, Lefevre translated and published the New Testament into French. Bishop Briconnet did all in his power to spread the Bible throughout his diocese, the little city of Meaux being its center. He had copies of the gospels distributed freely to the poor. The effect was that the Bible became the study and theme of talk in town and country alike. The shops where wool was carded, spun and woven, began to have Bible readings during the meal times. These simple people began to be wiser than their former Franciscan monk teachers. “Compared with the husks—on which these men had fed them, this was the true bread, the heavenly manna. . . These disciples had planted their feet not on Briconnet, not on Peter, but on ‘the Rock,’ and that ‘Rock’ was Christ: and so not all the coming storms of persecution could cast them down.” Ibid., 135.

“At the close of the day, their toil ended, they diligently repaired from the workshop, the vineyard, the field, and assembled in the house of one of their number. They opened and read the Holy Scriptures; they conversed about the things of the Kingdom; they joined together in prayer, and their hearts burned within them. Their numbers were few, their sanctuary was humble, no mitred and vested priest conducted their services, no choir or organ-peal intoned their prayers; but One was in the midst of them . . . even He who has said, ‘Lo, I am with you alway’—and where He is, there is the Church.” Ibid.

“The members of this congregation belonged exclusively to the working class.” Their lives were changed and a refinement of character was revealed in their speech and manners giving an example of the effect Protestantism might have had in all the country had it been given freedom. Evidence of the changes could be seen in the complaints of the tavern-keepers and of the monks as the taverns were more empty and the begging friars “returned from their predatory excursions with empty sacks.” Ibid., 136.

The churches were opened to them and the Christians of Meaux were able to hear qualified persons expound the Scriptures. “These were happy days. The winds of heaven were holden that they might not hurt this young vine; and time was given it to strike its roots into the soil before being overtaken by the tempest.” Ibid. But the first mutters of trouble ahead were heard from the Sorbonne. The proud champions of orthodoxy there began to call upon the king to put down these new opinions with force. “Francis did not respond quite so zealously as the Sorbonne would have liked. He was not prepared to patronise Protestantism, far from it; but, at the same time, he had no love for monks, and was disposed to allow a considerable margin to ‘men of genius,’ and so he forbade the Sorbonne to set up the scaffold.” Ibid.,136.

The pleasure-loving king could not be counted on for protection and Lefevre and Farel accepted Briconnet’s invitation to “Come to Meaux.” So Paris lost the lights and Meaux took its place as the center of Gospel knowledge. Visitors carried away French New Testaments as seeds of the Gospel, and founded churches in their own districts. For decades it was said of one who was known to have “Protestant sentiments, that ‘he had drunk at the well of Meaux.’ ” Ibid.

The Commencement of Persecution

Events in Paris were building for a storm. Three persons rose to oppose the Gospel. One was Noel Beda, head of the Sorbonne, who was determined to keep his University uncontaminated by rays from heaven. He drove Dr. Lefevre from the University. The second player was Antoine Duprat who had done a great favor for the king that won him the position of Chancellor of France. He was haughty, greedy, and never scrupled to employ violence to compass his ends. The third actor was Louisa, mother of Francis I. Her house had long hated the Gospel and had been persecutors of the Waldenses. “There were points on which their opinions and interests were in conflict, but all three had one quality in common—they heartily detested the new opinions.” Ibid.

The Franciscan monks of Meaux were very vocal in their protests against growing Protestantism. They found an active audience for their complaints in Duprat and Beda. But it was Louisa who first moved, calling on the Sorbonne to determine “‘By what means can the damnable doctrines of Luther be chased and extripated from this most Christian kingdom?’ The answer was brief, but emphatic: ‘By the stake;’ and it was added that if the remedy were not soon put in force, there would result great damage to the honour of the king and of Madame Louisa of Savoy. Two years later the Pope earnestly recommended vigour in suppressing ‘this great and marvellous disorder, which proceeds from the rage of Satan;’ otherwise, ‘this mania will not only destroy religion, but all principalities, nobilities, laws, orders, and ranks besides.’ It was to uphold the throne, preserve the nobles, and maintain the laws that the sword of persecution was first unsheathed in France!” Ibid., 140, 141.

Bishop Briconnet was called before the Parliment. At first he stood firm and refused any concession, but it was made plain that he must abandon Protestantism or go to prison and perhaps the stake. He declined the stake and obeyed the demands of the Parliament to pay a fine and publish three edicts, restoring public prayers to the Virgin and the saints, forbidding the reading of Lutheran books, and silencing Protestant preachers. This sent Lefevre to Strasburg, and Nerac and Farel turned to Switzerland.

The First Martyrs

“Briconnet had recanted: but if the shepherd had fallen the little ones of the flock stood their ground. They continued to meet together for prayer and the reading of the Scriptures, the garret of a woolcomber, a solitary hut, or a copse serving as their place of rendezvous. This congregation was to have the honour of furnishing martyrs whose blazing stakes were to shine like beacons in the darkness of France.” Ibid., 141. Denis, one of the “Meaux heretics,” was apprehended and was there visited by his former pastor, Briconnet, who was forced on such tasks to add to his humiliation. The bishop detailed how a recantation would buy his liberty. Denis listened and then “fixing his eyes upon the man who had once preached to him that very Gospel which he now exhorted him to abjure, said solemnly, “Whosoever shall deny me before men, him shall I also deny before my Father who is in heaven!’ Briconnet reeled backwards and staggered out of the dungeon. The interview over, each took his own way: the bishop returned to his palace, and Denis passed from his cell to the stake.” Ibid., 142.

This stake was followed by one for Pavane who at first recanted but found this to be one hundred times harder than the stake to which a hasty trial of this “relapsed heretic” brought him. Hermit of Livry was burned before the steps of Notre Dame as bells tolled, drawing people from all parts of Paris. The spectators were told that this man was on his way to the fires of hell but his step was firm and his look undaunted as he offered up his life.

Calvin : His Birth and Education

Calvin was born July 10, 1509, the grandson of a cooper and the son of the secretary to the bishop. From a young age Calvin was thoughtful and scholarly. His father hoped that his son would be great in the church.

The Black Death came to Noyon, his home town, and his father fearing for his fragile health sent him to study in Paris. At fourteen years he entered the college of La Marche, learned Latin and came to understand the power of language and the written word and worked to perfect his skills. He proved a great scholar. After three years, in 1526, he passed on to the College of Montaigu, one of two seminaries in Paris—the Sorbonne being the other—for the training of priests. Here the old dogmas filled the air and Calvin satisfied even the most scholastic and churchy of his professors, for he was never absent from mass or failed to fast or to keep a holiday to the saints. In his studies he was ardent, often missing meals and keeping late hours, well past midnight, poring over his books. “His teachers formed the highest hopes of him. A youth of so fine parts, of an industry so unflagging, and who was withal so pious, was sure, they said, to rise high in the Church.” Ibid., 149.

Calvin ’s Conversion

Before Calvin could play a role in the true Church he must be brought out of darkness himself. God had provided a way of reaching him through his cousin Olivetan, a disciple of Lefevre, who now came to Paris. They were often together and their debates were heated. Olivetan pointed out the two classes of religion, one of works and the other of salvation by grace. Calvin was angry to think that his cousin thought he had lived in error all his life, but his words had gone deep, and when they parted, Calvin would fall into prayer with tears, and vent his doubts and anxieties. Calvin ‘s struggles grew into “the sorrow of death.” He had come to see one holier than the saints and he began to see his own vileness. “The severity of Calvin ’s struggle was in proportion to the strength of his self-righteousness.” His blameless life and the punctuality of his devotions had helped to nourish this feeling into “a pride which had been waxing higher and stronger with every rite he performed, and every year that passed over him.” Ibid., 153.

Finally he agreed to open the Bible and search for himself. “He began to read, but the first effect was a sharper terror. His sins had never appeared so great, nor himself so vile as now.” But he continued to read as he seemed to find help nowhere else. Finally he caught a glimpse of the great Sufferer bruised for our iniquities. “‘O Father,’ he burst out—it was no longer the Judge, the Avenger— ‘O Father, his sacrifice has appeased thy wrath; his blood has washed away my impurities; his cross has borne my curse; his death has atoned for me!’ In the midst of the great billows his feet had touched the bottom: he found the ground to be good: he was upon a rock.” Ibid., 153.

He had one formidable obstacle yet to meet—the Church. “How many have fallen over this stumbling-block and never risen again; how many even in our own age have made shipwreck here! . . . How many have commenced this battle only to lose it! They have been beaten back and beaten down by the pretended Divine authority of ‘the Church,’ by the array of her great names and her great councils, and though last, not least, by the terror of her anathemas. . . Must he leave this august society and join himself to a few despised disciples of the new opinions? This seemed like a razing of his name from the Book of Life.” Ibid., 154. Calvin could not have conquered here if he had “not had recourse to the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God . . . He sought for the Church as she is there shown—a spiritual society, Christ her Head, the Holy Spirit her life, truth her foundation, and believers her members—and in proportion as this Church disclosed her beauty to him, the fictitious splendour and earthly magnificence which shone around the Church of Rome waned, and at last vanished outright.” Ibid.

“‘There can be no Church,’ we hear Calvin saying to himself, ‘where the truth is not.’ . . . ‘The Pope,’ concluded Calvin, ‘is but a scarecrow dressed out in magnificences and fulminations. I will go on my way without minding him.’ In fine, Calvin concluded that the term ‘Church’ could not make the society that monopolised the term really ‘the Church.’ High-sounding titles and lofty assumptions could give neither unity nor authority; these could come from the Truth alone; and so he abandoned ‘the Church’ that he might enter the Church—the Church of the Bible. The victory was now complete . . . He stood in the liberty wherewith Christ had made him free. Here truly was rest after a great fight—a sweet and blessed dawn after a night of thick darkness and tempest.” Ibid. The year was 1527 and the place—Paris.

The End