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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

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

Chapter 19 — The Night of the Placards

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Inconstancy of Francis — Two Parties in the young French Church: the Temporisers and the Scripturalists — The Policy advocated by each — Their Differences submitted to Farel — The Judgment of the Swiss Pastors — The Placard — Terrific Denunciation of the Mass — Return of the Messenger — Shall the Placards be Published? — Two Opinions — Majority for Publication — The Kingdom Placarded in One Night — The Morning — Surprise and Horror — Placard on the Door of the Royal Bed-chamber — Wrath of the King.

WE stand now on the threshold of an era of martyrdoms. Francis I. had not hitherto been able to come to a decision on the important question of religion. This hour he turned to the Reformation in the hope that, should he put himself at its head, it would raise him to the supremacy of Europe; the next he turned away in disgust, offended by the holiness of the Gospel, or alarmed at the independence of the Reform. But an incident was about to take place, destined to put an end to the royal vacillation.

There were two parties in the young Church of France; the one was styled the Temporisers, the other the Scripturalists. Both parties were sincerely devoted to the Scriptural Reform of their native land, but in seeking to promote that great end the one party was more disposed to fix its eyes on men in power, and follow as they might lead, than the other thought it either dutiful or safe. The monarch, said the first party, is growing every day more favorable to the Reformation; he is at no pains to conceal the contempt he entertains, on the one hand, for the monks, and the favor he bears, on the other, to men of letters and progress. Is not his minister, Du Bellay, negotiating a league with the Protestants of Germany, and have not these negotiations already borne fruit in the restoration of Duke Christopher to his dominions, and in an accession of political strength to the Reform? Besides, what do we see in the Louvre? Councils assembling under the presidency of the king to discuss the question of the union of Christendom. Let us leave this great affair in hands so well able to guide it to a prosperous issue. We shall but spoil all by obtruding our counsel, or obstinately insisting on having our own way.

The other party in the young Protestant Church were but little disposed to shape their policy by the wishes and maxims of the court. They did not believe that a monarch so dissolute in his manners, and so inconstant in his humors, would labor sincerely and steadfastly for a Reform of religion. To embrace the Pope this hour and the German Protestants the next, to consign a Romanist to the Conciergerie to-day and burn a Lutheran to-morrow, was no proof of impartiality, but of levity and passion. They built no hopes on the conferences at the Louvre. The attempt to unite the Reformation and the Pope could end only in the destruction of the Gospel.

The years were gliding away; the Reformation of France tarried; they would wait no longer on man. A policy bolder in tone, and more thoroughly based on principle, alone could lead, they thought, to the overthrow of the Papacy in France.

Divided among themselves, it was natural that the Protestants should turn their eyes outside of France for counsel that would unite them. Among the Reformers easily accessible, there was no name that carried with it more authority than that of Farel. He was a Frenchman; he understood, it was to be supposed, the situation better than any other, and he could not but feel the deepest interest in a work which he himself, along with Lefevre, had commenced. To Farel they resolved to submit the question that divided them.

They found a humble Christian, Feret by name, willing to be their messenger. [1] He departed, and arriving in Switzerland, now the scene of Farel's labors, he found himself in a new world. In all the towns and villages the altars were being demolished, the idols cast down, and the Reformed worship was in course of being set up. How different the air, the messenger could not but remark, within the summits of the Jura, from that within the walls of Paris. It required no great forecast to tell what the answer of the Swiss Reformers would be. They assembled, heard the messenger, and gave their voices that the Protestants of France should halt no longer; that they should boldly advance; and that they should notify their forward movement by a vigorous blow at that which was the citadel of the Papal Empire of bondage — the root of that evil tree that overshadowed Christendom — the mass.

But the bolt had to be forged in Switzerland. It was to take the form of a tract or placard denunciatory of that institution which it was proposed by this one terrible blow to lay in the dust. But who shall write it? Farel has been commonly credited with the authorship; and the trenchant eloquence and burning scorn which breathe in the placard, Farel alone, it has been supposed, could have communicated to it. [2] It was no logical thesis, no dogmatic refutation; it was a torrent of scathing fire; a thunderburst, terrific and grand, resembling one of those tempests that gather in awful darkness on the summits of those mountains amid which the document was written, and finally explode in flashes which irradiate the whole heavens, and in volleys of sound which shake the plains over which the awful reverberations are rolled.

The paper was headed, "True Articles on the horrible, great, and intolerable Abuses of the Popish Mass; invented in direct opposition to the Holy Supper of our Lord and only Mediator and Savior Jesus Christ." It begins by taking "heaven and earth to witness against

the mass, because the world is and will be by it totally desolated, ruined, lost, and undone, seeing that in it our Lord is outrageously blasphemed, and the people blinded and led astray." After citing the testimony of Scripture, the belief of the Fathers, and the evidence of the senses against the dogma, the author goes on to assail with merciless and, judged by modern taste, coarse sarcasm the ceremonies which accompany its celebration.

"What mean all these games?" he asks; "you play around your god of dough, toying with him like a cat with a mouse. You break him into three pieces... and then you put on a piteous look, as if you were very sorrowful; you beat your breasts... you call him the Lamb of God, and pray to him for peace. St. John showed Jesus Christ ever present, ever living, living all in one — an adorable truth! but you show your wafer divided into pieces, and then you eat it, calling for something to drink."

The writer asks "these cope-wearers" where they find "this big word TRANSUBSTANTION?" Certainly, he says, not in the Bible. The inspired writers "called the bread and wine, bread and wine." "St. Paul does not say, Eat the body of Jesus Christ; but, Eat this bread." "Yes, kindle your faggots," but let it be for the true profaners of the body of Christ, for those who place it in a bit of dough, "the food it may be of spiders or of mice." And what, the writer asks, has the fruit of the mass been? "By it:" he answers, "the preaching of the Gospel is prevented. The time is occupied with bell-ringing, howling, chanting, empty ceremonies, candles, incense, disguises, and all manner of conjuration. And the poor world, looked upon as a lamb or as a sheep, is miserably deceived, cajoled, led astray — what do I say? — bitten, gnawed, and devoured as if by ravening wolves."

The author winds up with a torrent of invective directed against Popes, cardinals, bishops, and monks, thus: — "Truth is wanting to them, truth terrifies them, and by truth will their reign be destroyed for ever."

Written in Switzerland, where every sight and sound — the snowy peak, the gushing torrent, the majestic lake — speak of liberty and inspire courageous thoughts, and with the crash of the falling altars of an idolatrous faith in the ears of the writer, these words did not seem too bold, nor the denunciations too fierce. But the author who wrote, and the other pastors who approved, did not sufficiently consider that this terrible manifesto was not to be published in Switzerland, but in France, where a powerful court and a haughty priesthood were united to combat the Reformation. It might have been foreseen that a publication breathing a defiance so fierce, and a hatred so mortal, could have but one of two results: it would carry the convictions of men by storm, and make the nation abhor and renounce the abomination it painted in colors so frightful, and stigmatized in words so burning, or if it failed in this — and the likelihood was that it would fail — it must needs evoke such a tempest of wrath as would go near to sweep the Protestant Church from the soil of France altogether.

The document was printed in two forms, with a view to its being universally circulated. There were placards to be posted up on the walls of towns, and on the posts along the highway, and there were small slips to be scattered in the streets. This light was not to be put under a bushel; it was to flash the same day all over France. The bales of printed matter were ready, and Feret now set out on his return. As he held his quiet way through the lovely mountains of the Jura, which look down with an air so tranquil on the fertile plains of Burgundy, no one could have suspected what a tempest traveled with him. He seemed the dove of peace, not the petrel of storm. He arrived in Paris without question from any one.

Immediately on his arrival the members of the little Church were convened; the paper was opened and read; but the assembly was divided. There were Christians present who were not lacking in courage — nay, were ready to go to the stake — but who, nevertheless, shrunk from the responsibility of publishing a fulmination like this. France was not Switzerland, and what might be listened to with acquiescence beyond the Jura, might, when read at the foot of the throne of Francis I., bring on such a convulsion as would shake the nation, and bury the Reformed Church in its own ruins. Gentler words, they thought, would go deeper.

But the majority were not of this mind. They were impatient of delay. France was lagging behind Germany, Switzerland, and other countries. Moreover, they feared the councils now proceeding at the Louvre. They had as their object, they knew, to unite the Pope and the Reformation, and they were in haste to launch this bolt, "forged on Farel's anvil," before so unhallowed a union should be consummated. In this assembly now met to deliberate about the placard were Du Bourg and Millon, and most of the disciples whom we have mentioned in our former chapter. These gave their voices that the paper should be published, and in this resolution the majority concurred.

The next step was to make arrangements to secure, if possible, that this manifesto should meet the eye of every man in France. The kingdom was divided into districts, and persons were told off who were to undertake the hazardous work of posting up, each in the quarter assigned him, this placard — the blast, it was hoped, before which the walls of the Papal Jericho in France would fall. A night was selected; for clearly the work could be done only under cover of

the darkness, and equally clear was it that it must be done in one and the same night all over France. The night fixed on was that of the 24th October, 1534. [3]

The eventful night came. Before the morning should break, this trumpet must be blown all over France. As soon as the dusk had deepened into something like darkness the distributors sallied forth; and gliding noiselessly from street to street, and from lane to lane, they posted up the terrible placards. They displayed them on the walls of the Louvre, at the gates of the Sorbonne, and on the doors of the churches. What was being done in Paris was at the same instant being transacted in all the chief towns — nay, even in the rural parts and highways of the kingdom. France had suddenly become like the roll of the prophet. An invisible finger had, from side to side, covered it with a terrible writing — with prophetic denunciations of woe and ruin unless it repented in sackcloth and turned from the mass.

When morning broke, men awoke in city and village, and came forth at the doors of their houses to see this mysterious placard staring them in the face. Little groups began to gather round each paper. These groups speedily swelled into crowds, comprising every class, lay and cleric. A few read with approbation, the most with amazement, some with horror. The paper appeared to them an outpouring of blasphemous sentiment, and they trembled lest it should draw down upon the people of France some sudden and terrible stroke. Others were transported with rage, seeing in it an open defiance to the Church, and an expression of measureless contempt at all that was held sacred by the nation. Frightful rumors began to circulate among the masses. The Lutherans, it was said, had concocted a terrible conspiracy, they were going to set fire to the churches, and burn and massacre every one. [4] The priests, though professing of course horror at the placards, were in reality not greatly displeased at what had occurred. For some time they had been waiting for a pretext to deal a blow at the Protestant cause, and now a weapon such as they wished for had been put into their hands.

The king at the time was living at the Castle of Amboise. At an early hour Montmorency and the Cardinal de Tournon knocked at his closet door to tell him of the dreadful event of the night. As they were about to enter their eye caught sight of a paper posted up on the door of the royal cabinet. It was the placard put there by some indiscreet Protestant, or, as is more generally supposed, by some hostile hand. Montmorency and Tournon tore it down, and carried it in to the king. [5] The king grasped the paper. Its heading, and the audacity shown in posting it on the door of his private apartment, so agitated Francis that he was unable to read it. He handed it again to his courtiers, who read it to him. He stood pallid and speechless a little while; but at length his wrath found vent in terrible words: "Let all be seized, and let Lutheranism be totally exterminated!" [6]

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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