corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 12 — Calvin's flight from Paris

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25

Out of Paris comes the Reformer – The Contrasts of History – Calvin's Interview with the Queen of Navarre – Nicholas Cop, Rector of the Sorbonne – An Inaugural Discourse – Calvin Writes and Cop Delivers it – The Gospel in Disguise – Rage of the Sorbonne – Cop flies to Basle – The Officers on their way to Arrest Calvin – Calvin is let down by the Window – Escapes from Paris disguised as a Vine-Dresser – Arrives in Angouleme – Received at the Mansion of Du Tillet – Here projects the Institutes – Interview with Lefevre – Lefevre's Prediction.

PEPIN of France was the first of the Gothic princes to appear before the throne of St. Peter, and lay his kingdom at the feet of the Pope. As a reward for this act of submission, the "Holy Father" bestowed upon him the proud title – for so have the Kings of France accounted it – of "Eldest Son of the Church." Throughout the thirteen centuries since, and amid much vicissitude of fortune, France has striven to justify the distinction she bears by being the firmest pillar of the Papal See. But, as D'Aubigne has observed, if Paris gave Pepin to the Popedom, it is not less true that Paris gave Calvin to the Reformation. This is the fact, although Calvin was not born in Paris. The little Noyon in Picardy had this honor, or disgrace as it accounted it. [1] But if Noyon was the scene of Calvin's first birth, Paris was the scene of his second birth, and it was the latter that made him a Reformer. In estimating the influence of the two men, the pen of Calvin may well be thrown into the scale against the sword of Pepin.

As the cradle of Moses was placed by the side of the throne of Pharaoh, the Church's great oppressor, so the cradle of this second Moses was placed by the side of the chair of Pepin, the "Eldest; Son of the Church," and the first of those vassal kings who stood round the Papal throne; and from the court of France, as Moses from the court of Egypt, Calvin went forth to rend the fetters of his brethren, and ring the knell of their oppressor's power. The contrasts and resemblances of history are instructive as well as striking. They shed a beautiful light upon the Providence of God. They show us that the Great Ruler has fixed a time and a place for every event and for every man; that he sets the good over against the evil, maintaining a nice and equitable poise among events, and that while the laws of his working are eternal, the results are inexpressibly varied.

We have seen Calvin return to Paris in 1529. He was present in that city during those four eventful years when the novel and stirring scenes we have narrated were taking place. How was he occupied? He felt that to him the day of labor had not yet fully arrived; he must prepare against its approach by reading, by study, and by prayer. In the noisy combats with which the saloons, the halls of the Sorbonne, and even the very streets were then resounding, Calvin cared but little to mingle. His ambition was to win victories which, if less ostentatious, would be far more durable. Like his old teacher, Mathurin Cordier – so wise in his honesty – he wished solidly to lay the foundations, and was not content to rear structures which were sure to topple over with the first breeze. He desired to baptise men for the stake, to make converts who would endure the fire. Eschewing the knots of disputants in the streets, he entered the abodes of the citizens, and winning attention by his very shyness, as well as by the clearness and sweetness of his discourse, he talked with the family on the things that belonged to their peace. He had converted a soul while his friends outside had but demolished a syllogism. Calvin was the pioneer of all those who, since his day, have labored in the work of the recovery of the lapsed masses.

However, the fame he shunned did, the more he fled from it, but the more pursue him. His name was mentioned in the presence of the Queen of Navarre. Margaret must needs see the young evangelist. [2] We tremble as we see Calvin enter the Louvre to be presented at court. They who are in king's houses wear "soft raiment," and learn to pursue middle courses. If Calvin is to be all to the Church he must be nothing to kings and queens. All the more do we tremble at the ordeal he is about to undergo when we reflect that, in combination with his sternness of principle and uprightness of aim, there are in Calvin a tenderness of heart, and a yearning, not for praise, but for sympathy, which may render him susceptible to the blandishments and flatteries of a court. But God went with him to the palace. Calvin's insight discovered even then, what afterwards became manifest to less penetrating observers, that, while Margaret's piety was genuine, it was clouded nevertheless by mysticism, and her opinions, though sound in the main, were too hesitating and halting to compass a full Reformation of the Church.

On these accounts he was unable to fully identify himself with the cause of the Queen of Navarre. Nevertheless, there were not a few points of similarity between the two which excited a mutual admiration. There was in both a beautiful genius; there was in both a lofty soul; there was in both a love of what is pure and noble; and especially there was in both – what is the beginning and end of all piety – a deep heaven-begotten reverence and love of the Savior. Margaret did not conceal her admiration of the young scholar and evangelist. His eye so steadfast,

yet so keen; his features so calm, yet so expressive of energy; the wisdom of his utterances, and the air of serene strength that breathed around him – betokening a power within, which, though enshrined in a somewhat slender frame, was evidently awaiting a future of great achievements – won the confidence of the queen. [3] Calvin was in a fair way of becoming a frequent visitor at the palace, when an unexpected event drove the young scholar from Paris, and averted the danger, if ever it had existed, of the chief Reformer of Christendom becoming lost in the court chaplain.

That event fell out thus – Nicholas Cop, Rector of the Sorbonne, was the intimate friend of Calvin. It was October, 1533, and the session of the university was to open on the 1st of next month (All Saints' Day), when Cop was expected to grace the occasion with an inaugural discourse. What an opportunity, thought Calvin, of having the Gospel preached in the most public of all the pulpits of Christendom! He waited on his friend Cop and broke to him his stratagem. But Cop felt unequal to the task of composing such an address as would answer the end. It was finally agreed between the two friends that Calvin should write, and that Cop should read the oration. It was a bold experiment, full of grave risks, of which its devisers were not unaware, but they had made up their minds to the dangerous venture.

The 1st of November arrived. It saw a brilliant assembly in the Church of the Mathurins – professors, students, the elite of the learned men of Paris, a goodly muster of Franciscans, some of whom more than half suspected Cop of a weakness for Lutheranism, and a sprinkling of the friends of the new opinions, who had had a hint of what was to happen.

On a bench apart sat Calvin, with the air of one who had dropped in by the way. Cop rose, and proceeded amid deep silence to pronounce an oration in praise of "Christian Philosophy." But the philosophy which he extolled was not that which had been drawn from the academies of Greece, but that diviner wisdom to reveal which to man the Immortal had put on mortality. The key-note of the discourse was the "Grace of God," the one sole fountain of man's renewal, pardon, and eternal life. The oration, although Protestant in spirit, was very thoroughly academic. Its noble sentiments were clothed in language clear, simple, yet majestic. [4]

Blank astonishment was portrayed on the faces of the most part of the audience at the beginning of the oration. By-and-by a countenance here and there began to kindle with delight. Others among the listeners were becoming uneasy on their seats. The monks knit their brows, and shooting out fiery glances from beneath them, exchanged whispers with one another. They saw through the thin disguise in which the rector was trying to veil the Gospel. Spoken on "All Saints' Day," yet not a word about the saints did that oration contain! It was a desecration of their festival; an act of treason against these glorious intercessors; a blow struck at the foundations of Rome: so they judged, and rightly. The assembly rose, and then the storm burst. Heresy had reached an astounding pitch of audacity when it dared to rear its head in the very midst of the Sorbonne. It must be struck down at once.

Cop was denounced to the Parliament, then the supreme judge and executioner of heretics. Summoned to its bar, he resolved, strong in the integrity of his cause, and presuming not a little on his position as head of the first university in Christendom, to obey the citation. He was already on his way to the Palace of Justice, attired in his robes of office, his beadles and apparitors preceding him, with their maces and gold-headed staves, when a friend, pressing through the crowd, whispered into his ear that he was marching to his death. Cop saw the danger of prosecuting further this duel between the Parliament and the Sorbonne. He fled to Basle, and so escaped the fate already determined on for him. [5]

When Cop was gone, it began to be rumored that the author of the address, which had set Parliament and the university in flames, was still in Paris, and that he was no other than Calvin. Such a spirit was enough to set all Christendom on fire: he must be burned. Already the lieutenant-criminal, Jean Morin, who for some time had had his eye on the young evangelist, [6] was on his way to apprehend him. Calvin, who deemed himself safe in his obscurity, was sitting quietly in his room in the College of Fortret [7] when some of his comrades came running into his chamber, and urged him to flee that instant. Scarcely had they spoken when a loud knocking was heard at the outer gate. It was the officers. Now their heavy tramp was heard in the corridor. Another moment and Calvin would be on his way to the Conciergerie, to come out of it only to the stake. That would, indeed, have been a blow to the Reformation, and probably would have changed the whole future of Christendom. But God interposed at this moment of peril. While some of his friends held a parley with the officers at the door, others, seizing the sheets on his bed, twisted them into a rope, fastened them in the window, and Calvin, catching hold of them, let himself down into the street of the Bernardins. [8]

Dropped into the street, the fugitive traversed Paris with rapid steps, and soon reached the suburbs. His first agitation subsiding, he began to think how he could disguise himself, knowing that the officers of Morin would be on his track. Espying a vine-dresser's cottage, and knowing the owner to be friendly to the Gospel,

he entered, and there arranged the plan of his flight. Doffing his own dress, he put on the coat of the peasant, and, with a garden hoe on his shoulder he set out on his journey. He went forth not knowing whither he went – the pioneer of hundreds of thousands who in after-years were to flee from France, and to seek under other skies that liberty to confess the Gospel which was denied them in their native land. To Calvin the disappointment must have been as keen as it was sudden.

He had fondly hoped that the scene of his conversion would be the scene of his labors also. He saw too, as he believed, the Gospel on the eve of triumphing in France. Was it not preached in the churches of the capital, taught from some of the chairs of the Sorbonne, and honored in the palace of the monarch? But God had arranged for both France and Calvin a different future from that which the young evangelist pictured to himself. The great kingdom of France was to harden its heart that God might glorify his power upon it, and Calvin was to go into exile that he might prepare in solitude those great works by which he was to instruct so many nations, and speak to the ages of the future.

Turning to the south, Calvin went on towards Orleans, but he did not stop there. He pursued his way to Tours, but neither did he halt there. Going onwards still, he traveled those great plains which the Loire and other streams water, so rich in meadows and tall umbrageous trees, and which are so loved by the vine, forming then as they do at this day the finest part of that fine country. After some weeks' wandering, he reached Angouleme, the birth-place of Margaret of Navarre. [9] Here he directed his steps to the mansion of the Du Tillets, a noble and wealthy family, high in office in the State, famed moreover for their love of letters, and with one of whose members Calvin had formed an acquaintance in Paris. The exile had not miscalculated. The young Du Tiller, the only one of the family then at home, was delighted to resume in Angouleme the intercourse begun in Paris. The noble mansion with all in it was at the service of Calvin. [10]

The mariner whose bark, pursued by furious winds, is suddenly lifted on the top of some billow mightier than its fellows, floated in safety over the reef on which it seemed about to be dashed, and safely landed in the harbor, is not more surprised or more thankful than Calvin was when he found himself in this quiet and secure asylum. The exile needed rest; he needed time for reading and meditation; he found both under this princely and friendly roof. The library of the chateau was one of the finest of which France, or perhaps any other country, in that age could boast, containing, it is said, some 4,000 volumes. Here he reposed, but was not idle. As Luther had been wafted away in the midst of the tempest to rest awhile in the Wart-burg, so Calvin was made to sit down here and equip himself for the conflicts that were about to open. Around him were the mighty dead, with nothing to interrupt his converse with them. An occasional hour would he pass in communing with his friend the young Louis du Tillet; but even this had to be redeemed. Nights without sleep, and whole days during which he scarcely tasted food, would Calvin pass in this library, so athirst was he for knowledge. It was here that Calvin projected his Institutes, which D'Aubigne styles "the finest work of the Reformation." Not that he wrote it here; but in this library he collected the materials, arranged the plan, and it may be penned some of its passages. We shall have occasion to speak of this great work afterwards; suffice it here to remark that it was composed on the model of those apologies which the early Fathers presented to the Roman emperors on behalf of the primitive martyrs.

Again were men dying at the stake for the Gospel. Calvin felt that it became him to raise his voice in their defense; but how could he better vindicate them than by vindicating their cause, and proving in the face of its enemies and of the whole world that it was the cause of truth? But to plead such a cause before such an audience was no light matter. He prepared himself by reading, by much meditation, and by earnest prayer; and then he spoke in the Institutes with a voice that sounded through Europe, and the mighty reverberations of which have come down the ages.

An opponent of the Reformation chancing to enter, in after-years, this famous library, and knowing who had once occupied it, cast around him a look of anger, and exclaimed, "This is the smithy where the modern Vulcan forged his bolts; here it was that he wove the web of the Institutes, which we may call the Koran or Talmud of heresy." [11]

An episode of a touching kind varied the sojourn of Calvin at Angouleme. Lefevre still survived, and was living at Nerac, near to Angouleme, enjoying the protection and friendship of Margaret. Calvin, who yearned to see the man who had first opened the door of France to the Reformation, set out to visit him. The aged doctor and the young Reformer met for the first and last time. Calvin was charmed with the candor, the humility, the zeal, and the loving spirit of Lefevre – lights that appeared to shine the brighter in proportion as he in whom they dwelt drew towards the tomb. Lefevre, on his part, was equally struck with the depth of intellect and range of view exhibited by Calvin. A Reformer of loftier stature than any he had

hitherto known stood before him. In truth, the future, as sketched by the bold hand of Calvin, filled him with something like alarm. Calvin's Reform went a good way beyond any that Lefevre had ever projected. The good doctor of Etaples had never thought of discarding the Pope and hierarchy, but of transforming them into Protestant pastors. He was for uniting the tyranny of the infallibility with the liberty of the Bible. Calvin by this time had abandoned the idea of Reforming Catholicism; his rule was the Word of God alone, and the hoped-for end a new structure on Divine foundations. Nevertheless, the aged Lefevre grasping his hand, and perhaps recalling to mind his own words to Farel, that God would send a deliverer, and that they should see it, said, "Young man, you will be one day a powerful instrument in the Lord's hand; God will make use of you to restore the kingdom of heaven in France." [12]

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology