John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland

Note: Calvin was to spend the second half of his life in the little city of Geneva and make it famous as the center of Protestantism and a place of refuge for the exiles of his native France and other persecuting countries. But before he entered the city, the surrounding territories and finally the city itself were to be evangelized by William Farel and other ministers, mostly Frenchmen. The stories of their courage and boldness are some of the most thrilling of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. Space does not permit us to recount their mighty deeds in the detail that the reader might wish and it is hoped that this brief introduction will inspire further study of this period which D’Aubigne describes thus: “In no part of the Christian world will the resistance be so stubborn; but no where will the assailants display so much courage.” History of the Reformation, Book XV, 596 (BSI edition).

Farel in the Forest Cantons of Switzerland

Geneva lay in the part of Switzerland which had not been reached by the Reformation preaching of Zwingle. The Forest Cantons had been very resistant and remained obedient to Rome. But William Farel recognized the good to be achieved if these areas could be won to the Gospel. The people of Geneva had long been a freedom loving people who had offered martyrs, not a few, in their fight for political freedom. The location of the city, on the borders with both France and Italy, offered a good place for the headquarters of a work for these nations.

Before entering Geneva he sought to make progress in the surrounding areas. He first worked in Aigle as a school teacher under an assumed name. When his lessons had attracted a congregation of students and their families, he cast off his disguise and announced himself as Farel the preacher. He immediately mounted the pulpit and preached with his characteristic thunderous, yet eloquent voice and with a message which bore the stamp of divine truth. From one sermon, converts were won and the priests became fired with a zeal to rid their domains of this fellow. Despite letters from Protestant Bern, which ruled the area, giving Farel permission to teach the Scriptures, the priests worked the people into an army ready to make war and Farel’s followers were equally ready for the fight. Farel though undismayed decided to move on and carried his message to other towns and villages.

He would at times enter a town and while the priest was offering the mass at the altar, he would mount the pulpit and his voice would drown out the mass. This sometimes resulted in his being pulled violently from the pulpit, but at other times conviction would set in and the priest would throw off his robes and join the people in dismantling the altar and destroying the images. “In three weeks time four villages of the region had embraced the Reformed faith . . . The spring and summer sufficed to establish the Reformed faith in a great part of this region.” Wylie, The History of the Protestant Reformation, Book 14, 249, 250.

In the city of Neuchatel, known for its religious devotion, this man of short stature, red beard, glittering eyes, and stentorian voice, came to the market and announced that he had a religion, not from Rome, but from the Bible. After their first dumb astonishment, the monks and priests cried for his brains to be beaten out, but he lifted his voice above the clamor and the city was taken by storm. He again had to leave the town but returning a few weeks later the people formed around him and escorted him up the hill to the site of their cathedral and placed him in the pulpit. He preached one of his most powerful sermons and the citizens rose up and dismantled the altar, tore down crucifixes and pictures, broke images, and cast the lot down the summit of the terrace where the cathedral stood. They inscribed on a pillar of the great building the words— “On the 23rd October, 1530, Idolatry was overthrown and removed from this Church by the citizens.” Ibid., 250.

Farel’s life was in constant danger and, since it was winter, cold, hunger and weariness were his frequent attendants. The priests used tricks, threats, and violence to try to remove this danger to their “religion” and thus their tithes and offerings. They could not fight doctrine with doctrine since their ignorance prevented this approach. Instead they used violence. Once Farel was beaten nearly to death. He was so disfigured that his friends scarcely recognized him. He had to spend some time recuperating and had barely recovered his strength when he set out again to evangelize.

Due to the battles over religion, the nation was drifting toward civil war and in an attempt to avert bloodshed, a conference was held in Bern to try to work out a compromise. “Thus out of that necessity which is said to be the mother of invention, came the idea of toleration. We deem the mass idolatry, said Protestant Bern, but we shall prevent no one going to it. We deem the Protestant sermon heresy, rejoined Popish Friburg, but we shall give liberty to all who wish to attend it. Thus on the basis of liberty of worship was the public peace maintained. This dates in Switzerland from January, 1532. Toleration was adopted as a policy before it had been accepted as a principle. It was practiced as a necessity of the State before it had been promulgated as a right of conscience. It was only when it came to be recognized and claimed in the latter character as a right founded on a Divine charter—namely, the Word of God—and held irrespective of the permission or interdiction of man, that toleration established inviolably its existence and reign.” Ibid., 255.

Gospel Struggles in Geneva

On his return from the Waldensian synod in the valley of Angrogna, in October, 1532, Farel, with Saunier his companion, was able to visit Geneva. The friends of liberty in that city listened with intense interest to two sermons concerning the authority of the Word of God and the great pardon of God. “They had been shedding their blood for their franchises, but now the Reformer showed them a way by which their souls might escape from the dark dungeon in which tradition and human authority had succeeded in shutting them up . . . ‘This,’ said Farel, ‘is the Gospel; and this, and nothing short of this, is liberty, inasmuch as it is the enfranchisement of the whole man, body, conscience, and soul.’ ” Ibid., 257. His arrival was not unnoticed by the priests and he was called before the council. Thanks to the letters he carried from their Excellencies of Bern, he was released. Next he was invited to an episcopal council under the pretext of open debate but some council members carried weapons under their sacerdotal robes. “Such was their notion of a religious discussion.” Ibid. The event would have ended tragically but for the intervening of two magistrates. Outside the hall they met another armed mob and narrowly escaped. They slept with an armed guard and were escorted early the next morning to Lake Leman, to sail away.

Farel’s name was too powerful to begin the work in Geneva. A lowly minister by the name of Froment was sent to the city and he choose to begin his work, as Farel had, as an instructor of the young. His congregation quickly grew and the homes of the believers were not adequate to hold the crowds. One day the crowd carried their preacher to the market place and he expounded on “free pardon.” A band of armed priests and soldiers arrived and Froment had to be carried into hiding. He too had to quit the city. But the believers continued to meet in homes. They elected one of their number to be their leader, Guerin, who also had to flee the hatred of the priests.

Friends of the Duke of Savoy and of Rome—the Mamelukes, as they were called—determined that the only answer to the crisis was to kill all the Protestants in Geneva without an exception. They took an oath promising to perform their plan the next day. Three hundred armed priests led a host of 2,500 armed men followed by women and children with stones. These moved on a group of 400 Protestant believers who had gathered in the mansion of one of their leaders. They determined to stand their ground. Bloodshed was averted by the interposition of seven merchants from Friburg who stood between the forces and diligently worked to restore calm and succeeded in working out terms of pacification. The priests were not content with this action and a few weeks later went into the streets again armed for battle. In the darkness they fought each other as well as the foe and their leader was killed. This ended the street battles.

The papal prince-bishop of the city invited the leading Protestants to his castle for discussions and then threw them into the dungeon. Even the Catholics on the council could not tolerate this action and after giving over his captives, the prince-bishop, fearing his safety, fled the city.

Geneva’s Prolonged Struggles

With some dangers gone, Farel returned. He delivered sermons to congregations who wore helmets and carried arms. Both sides were ready for battle; some to defend the Word of God and others demanding the burning of all the Bibles in the city. Froment and Viret came to help Farel and their mighty preaching resulted in the majority of the city choosing Protestantism.

The cities’ battles were not over. One plot involved arming a large group who were disguised as pilgrims and duly outfitted, arriving outside the city gates in mass. But the citizens, recognizing a Trojan horse, refused them entry. Another plan had an army hidden without the city, ready in cooperation with the papist Mamelukes inside, to attack when the signal was given. The plot was discovered just minutes before the attack. The army retreated when they learned they were discovered. With the miscarriage of their plot, most of the Mamelukes fled the town and their priests, left without their flock, followed. The Genevans decided that they had to tear down the suburbs surrounding their city in order to have a buffer zone for security. One half of the city lay outside the walls, including the homes of rich and poor alike. They sacrificed their dwellings and gardens, which were demolished brick by brick and the area burned and cleared.

In this time of need all of Geneva’s allies forsook her. Even Bern refused aide. The duke was raising an army to force entrance into the city. The bishop published an excommunication and the Pope added his anathema against the city. It was seen as the dwelling place of devils. The Emperor Charles V joined their foes and demanded their surrender. The citizens were in constant danger when outside the walls. There were tortures and murders, as ferocious bands laid waste the country around Geneva, cut off the supplies coming to its markets, waylaid its citizens, and then tortured, beheaded or otherwise dispatched them.

A Convent Converted

An attempt to poison the three French pastors was made by a woman who claimed to be a Protestant exile, and was employed in the house where they lived. Viret alone ate the poison. He survived but suffered its debilitating results the rest of his life. The woman confessed and accused a priest of planning the attempt. She was executed and the ministers were assigned to apartments in a Franciscan Convent where it was thought they would be safe. The end of the affair was the conversion of almost all the brethren of the convent, including James Bernard, who thought it would be well to hold a public disputation. A date was fixed and invitations published and sent to a wide area. Learned men from both sides came and two Roman champions were chosen to defend the old faith. In the end, both acknowledged themselves vanquished and announced their conversion to the Reformed faith.

Tricks for Miracles

The advance of Protestantism in Geneva was accelerated by some startling revelations of frauds that had been perpetrated upon the citizens in the name of miracles. Investigations were made regarding miracles and relics that brought vast funds into Roman coffers. These investigations revealed tricks in place of miracles, and indignation intensified. Finally the Council met on August 10, 1535, to discuss the question of religion. The Protestant ministers addressed the Council, offering to submit themselves to death if the priests could prove that in the public disputation or in their sermons they had advanced anything contrary to the Word of God. Next the Council called the Cordeliers, Dominicans, Augustines, the canon, the grand-vicar of the bishop, and the parochial cures before them. They recounted the ten years of religious conflicts that had disturbed their city. They offered that the Roman religion would be restored to its former glory if they could prove the truth of their dogmas and worship from the Word of God. They declined. “The prospect of rendering Romanism once more supreme in Geneva, could not tempt them to do battle for their faith . . .They craved only to be permitted to exercise their religion without restraint. The deputation announced to them the order of the Council that they should cease to say mass, and then retired . . .On the 27th of August a general edict was issued, enjoining public worship to be conducted according to the rules of the Gospel, and prohibited all ‘acts of Popish idolatry’.” Ibid. 275.

This action infuriated the duke who determined to crush this city which had scarcely a soldier to defend it and no allies. He would starve the inhabitants with a total blockade by land and water. It so happened that Bern suffered an affront from the duke about this same time and they declared war against him. The combined efforts of Geneva and Bern resulted in a series of disasters for the duke’s army and ended by the Duke loosing not only Geneva his conquest, but Savoy and Piedmont with his capitol. He spent 17 years in humiliation and exile before his death.

Calvin Enters Geneva

Since the outside threats were diminished, the work of teaching the people and leading them to have transformed manners and habits commenced in earnest. There were two parties of the Protestants: those who had been transformed by the Gospel and those who professed a belief but did not expect this to mean any change in their licentious lives. The latter were known as Libertines for their professed love of liberty, which they defined as liberty from all restraint. Farel felt the weight of the task. He was thankfully surprised to learn that Calvin had come to the city. Calvin had been traveling and detoured from his intended route around the armies of Charles V and through Switzerland.

Farel felt that God had sent him the man he most needed to join him in his task and he immediately visited Calvin and urged him to become his comrade in the campaign. Calvin refused, for he felt that his contribution was through his studies and his pen. “But Farel would not stand aside. Putting on something of the authority of an ancient prophet, he commanded the young traveler to remain and labor in Geneva, and he imprecated upon his studies the curse of God, should he make them the pretext for declining the call now addressed to him. It was the voice not of Farel, but of God, that now spoke to Calvin; so he felt; and instantly he obeyed . . . He gave his hand to Farel, and in so doing he gave himself to Geneva.” Ibid., 281.

He was 27 years old and would spend 28 years in the service of this city. “He would display before all Christendom the Institutes, not as a volume of doctrines, but as a system of realized facts—a State rescued from the charnel-house of corruption, and raised to the glorious heritage of liberty and virtue—glorious in art, in letters, and in riches, because resplendent with every Christian virtue. To write Protestantism upon their banners, to proclaim it in their edicts, to install it as a worship in their Churches, Calvin and all the Reformers held to be but a small affair; what they strove above all things to achieve was to plant it as an operative moral force in the hearts of men, and at the foundation of States.” Ibid., 281, 282.

Calvin’s genius for system and organization was seen as he helped to draw up first a simple and brief Confession of Faith, setting forth in twenty-one articles, the leading doctrines of Protestantism. The citizens came forward in relays of ten to take the oath. This was followed by a Catechism for adults which showed the people the moral duties that were demanded by the Protestantism that they professed. “The Genevans had lifted up their hands: had they bowed their hearts? This was the main question with him.” Ibid., 282.

The Constitution for the Republic was also considered and Calvin again helped to revise the form of government of the State. There was to be a General Council which consisted of all the people, which would meet once a year to elect the four Syndics and at other times in case of an important emergency. The Syndics served on the Council of Twenty-five which actually governed the city in both legislative and judicial matters. There was also a new power to be added, the Consistory, which was to handle Church scandals. It was composed of five ministers and twelve laymen and met every Thursday. The strongest powers given this body was that of excommunication which they defined as the power to withhold the Sacraments from one whose life was “manifestly unholy.” (It did not seek to determine man’s condition before God.)

Calvin did see the need of distinguishing between the powers of the religious and the civil bodies. The religious body had no powers in the civil government but he did not clearly separate from the civil bodies, power over religious matters. Calvin held a “profound distinction between the civil and the religious community. Distinction, we say, and by no means separation . . . In this great question as to the relations between Church and State, Calvin desired and did more than his predecessors . . . he secured to the Reformed Church of Geneva, in purely religious questions and affairs, the right of self-government, according to the faith, and the law as they stand written in the Holy Books.” Ibid., 285.

Calvin’s attempts to establish a theocracy in Geneva with the government as the guardian over things both civil and spiritual, we, from our vantage point in history, “regard as a grave error.” Ibid., 284.

Sumptuary Laws

“Calvin’s theological code was followed by one of morals . . . The clergy were notoriously profligate, the government was tyrannical, and the people, in consequence, were demoralized. Geneva had but one redeeming trait, the love of liberty . . . It was clear that Protestantism must cleanse the city or leave it. Geneva was nothing unless it was moral; it could not stand a day. This was the task to which Calvin now turned his attention.”

“This introduces the subject of the sumptuary laws . . . The rules now framed forbade games of chance, oaths and blasphemies, dances, lascivious songs, farces, and masquerades. The hours of taverners were shortened; every one was to be at home by nine at night, and hotel-keepers were to see that these rules were observed by their guests. To these were added certain regulations with a view of restraining excess in dress and profusion at meals. All were enjoined to attend sermon and the other religious exercises . . . The second battle with the citizens proved a harder one than the first with the priests, and the reformation of manners a more difficult task than the reformation of beliefs.” Ibid., 285, 286.

“The Libertines, as the oppositionists began now to be called, demanded the abolition of the new code; they complained especially of the ‘excommunication’ . . . The reproofs which Calvin thundered against their vices from the pulpit were intolerable to many, perhaps to most . . . It was mortifying to find that very Protestantism which they had struggled to establish turning round upon them, and weighing them in its scales, and finding them wanting.” Ibid.

Calvin and Farel Banished

One principle which Calvin was determined not to compromise, for he believed that the Reformation would stand or fall with that principle, was that holy things were not to be given to unholy men. A question arose over whether unleavened bread should be used with the communion. Calvin and Farel said that the church could decide this issue, but that the more serious question was whether the communion should be given at all to those guilty of blasphemies and immoralities. The Libertines at this time enjoyed a majority on the Council and this left the pastors alone to uphold the standard.

The day of communion arrived and the ministers determined not to hold the ordinance at all. The Churches were filled with worshippers, many of whom had come with their swords at their sides. Farel held the services in one church and Calvin in another. When it became apparent that the Lord’s Supper was not going to be dispensed, there was a great uproar. Swords were unsheathed and men rushed toward the pulpit. They were met with resoluteness by both pastors. It was a miracle, many believed, that no blood was shed.

On the morrow, the Council banished their pastors. Farel went to Neuchatel where he completed his life’s labors. Calvin moved to Strasburg where he was able to study and commune with many other reformers. He spent three years here preaching and performing all the duties of a pastor. He lectured daily at the Academy and he attended several conferences between the Reformed leaders and the Papacy. He suffered from poverty as he was not paid for his labors and had to sell his books for his support. He met Melancthon and they became fast friends. He also married during his time in Strasburg. Idelette de Bure was to be his dearest companion. And from afar he kept Geneva from the attacks of the papacy, which was determined to reenter the city.

Calvin Returns to Geneva

Meanwhile in Geneva, the government passed more measures to try to control the manners of the populous, but without moral leadership these were ineffective. Finally after mighty turmoils, four Syndics were charged with sedition; two fled, another died trying to flee and the forth was hanged. Recognizing their need of Calvin, they sent a delegation to ask him to return. He considered this like lying on a bed of nails but agreed to return if his brethren so advised. They did, and he traveled back to his former field, ready to face the sneers, laughs, rage, plots and hatred that he would encounter for some years to come.

Calvin returned with a broader education which he received in banishment. His vision had enlarged with his travels and communications with Reformer’s throughout Europe. He learned to work for the work’s sake and although he longed for human sympathy he learned to be satisfied with the sympathy of his Master only. He also knew more of the selfishness, cruelty, and craft in the hearts of men, for he had felt the pain of receiving his deepest wounds in the “house of his friends.” His wife followed him to Geneva to be his companion during nine of the most laborious and stormy years of his life.

He saw a storm coming in the pantheistic doctrines that were flooding Europe. German Protestantism was weakened with her political involvements and Calvin with his clear, calm judgment, constructive skill and his profound submission to the Bible, was the man to lead the fight in this battle. Wittemberg had battled Romanism but Geneva was to battle Romanism and pantheism.

Upon his return he began the large task of organizing the church. The Consistory was to act in Church disorders and met weekly. The pastors were to meet weekly for mutual correction and improvement. His schedule was grueling. He delivered three theological lectures weekly, spoke in the pulpit every Sunday, and everyday of the alternate weeks, presided over the Consistory on Thursdays, gave a public exposition on Fridays, and carried a full load of pastoral duties with visitations. He studied early and late and carried on a vast correspondence, never failing to write to one awaiting martyrdom and advising the kings, queens, and princes as well as other government officials throughout Europe.

For years he battled the Libertines whose influence was still strong in the city. The grossest immoralities were spoken of as desirable and adding to the perfection of the saints. He suffered a persecution not felt by other reformers. He was met with insults and scoffing daily as he traveled the streets. His detractors named their dogs Calvin, they stuck out their tongues and hissed as he passed, but he remained above the outrages he was forced to endure in the streets. He maintained a consciousness of the great task that he was performing and rode out the long storm. During this time his wife of just nine years grew ill and died. He was deeply bereaved.

Servetus Burned in Geneva

One dreadful event of those years was the execution of Servetus. We today are shocked and saddened by the blot on Reformation history. Servetus was a scholar who had written a book on anti-Trinitarian doctrine which was also filled with pantheism. He had sent his work to Calvin who had condemned it. His native Vienne had tried him in the Inquisition and condemned him to die. He escaped and came to Geneva where Calvin called for his arrest. Messengers were sent to many Reformation leaders who advised that Servetus be condemned and executed. After a long trial he was found guilty of publicly promoting opinions treasonous to society and burned at the stake.

We are horrified by this verdict and none the less with the knowledge that that century saw thirty or forty thousand stakes kindled by Rome and one by the Protestants. “We deplore—we condemn—this one pile. It was a violation of the first principles of Protestantism.” Ibid., 338.

The Libertines next tried to have the public presses closed. A strange act for those so named for their love of liberty. They were finally banished from Geneva following their open attacks on the refugees of the city. They resented the refugees being supported by public resources and after slandering these exiles they vowed to massacre all. The refugees were among the most distinguished citizens of the countries they had fled. They represented almost every nationality and Geneva was elevated by their coming to her but they came nearly penniless and the city had been generous in their support. Its citizens had saved and even chosen to eat sparingly in order to accommodate them. When the night of the massacre arrived, not one refugee was found or killed, but the Libertines suffered the beheading of four of their number following the trial and the banishment of the lot.

Calvin’s Last Years

Calvin’s influence was felt in fields near and far but especially did he work for France. He urged the Protestants there to “eschew politics, shun the battle-field, and continue to fight their great war with spiritual weapons only.” Ibid., 359. He believed that more was to be gained by martyrdoms than politics. He was able in his last years to build an Academy in Geneva.

“The position which Calvin now filled was one of greater influence than perhaps any one man had exercised in the Church of Christ since the days of the apostles. He was the counselor of kings; he was the advisor of princes and statesmen; he corresponded with warriors, scholars, and Reformers; he consoled martyrs, and organized Churches; his admonitions were submitted to, and his letters treasured, as marks of no ordinary distinction. All the while the man who wielded this unexampled influence, was in life and manners in nowise different from an ordinary citizen of Geneva. He was as humbly lodged, he was as simply clothed, and he was served by as few attendants as any burgess of them all. He had been poor all his days, and he continued so to the end.” Ibid., 359 He died, before seeing his fifty-forth year, in May of 1564, after years of weakness and illness and months restricted to his bed. He was buried in a common cemetery without a stone marker, the exact spot is unknown today.

The End