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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 2 — Tarel, Briconnet, and the early reformers of France

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A Student from the Dauphinese Alps – William Farel – Enters University of Paris – Becomes a Pupil Of Lefevre – His Doubts – Passes with Lefevre into the New Day – Preaches in the Churches – Retires to Switzerland – William Briconnet, Bishop of Meaux – Briconnet goes on a Mission to Rome – State of the City – His Musings on his Way back – Change at Meaux – The Bible – What Briconnet Saw in it – Begins the Reformation of his Diocese – Characters of Francis I. and Margaret of Valois.

AMONG the youth whom we see gathered round the chair of the aged Lefevre, there is one who specially attracts our notice. It is easy to see that between the scholar and his master there exists an attachment of no ordinary kind. There is no one in all that crowd of pupils who so hangs upon the lips of his teacher as does this youth, nor is there one on whom the eyes of that teacher rest with so kindly a light. This youth is not a native of France. He was born among the Alps of Dauphine, at Gap, near Grenoble, in 1489. His name is William Farel.

His parents were eminently pious, measured by the standard of that age. Never did morning kindle into glory the white mountains, in the midst of which their dwelling was placed, but the family was assembled, and the bead-roll duly gone over; and never did evening descend, first enkindling then paling the Alps, without the customary hymn to the Virgin. The parents of the youth, as he himself informs us, believed all that the priests told them; and he, in his turn, believed all that his parents told him.

Thus he grew up till he was about the age of twenty – the grandeurs of nature in his eye all hours of the day, but the darkness of superstition deepening year by year in his soul. The two – the glory of the Alps and the glory of the Church – seemed to blend and become one in his mind. It would have been as hard for him to believe that Rome with her Pope and holy priests, with her rites and ceremonies, was the mere creation of superstition, as to believe that the great mountains around him, with their snows and their pine-forests, were a mere illusion, a painting on the sky, which but mocked the senses, and would one day dissolve like an unsubstantial though gorgeous exhalation. "I would gnash my teeth like a furious wolf," said he, speaking of his blind devotion to Rome at this period of his life, "when I heard any one speaking against the Pope."

It was his father's wish that he should devote himself to the profession of arms, but the young Farel aspired to be a scholar. The fame of the Sorbonne had reached him in his secluded native valley, and he thirsted to drink at that renowned well of learning. Probably the sublimities amid which he daily moved had kept alive the sympathies of a mind naturally ardent and aspiring. He now (1510) set out for Paris, presented himself at the gates of its university, and was enrolled among its students.

It was here that the young Dauphinese scholar became acquainted with the doctor of Etaples. There were but few points to bring them together, one would have thought, and a great many to keep them apart. The one was young, the other old; the one was enthusiastic, the other was timid; but these differences were on the surface only. The two were kindred in their souls, both were noble, unselfish, devout, and in an age of growing skepticism and dissoluteness the devotion of both was as sincere as it was ardent. This was the link that bound them together, and the points of contrast instead of weakening only tended the more firmly to cement their friendship. The aged master and the young disciple might often be seen going their rounds in company, and visiting the same shrines, and kneeling before the same images.

But now a change was commencing in the mind of Lefevre which must part the two for ever, or bind them together yet more indissolubly. The spiritual dawn was breaking in the soul of the doctor of Etaples; would his young disciple be able to enter along with him into that new world into which the other was being translated? In his public teaching Lefevre now began to let fall at times crumbs of the new knowledge he had gleaned from the Bible. "Salvation is of grace," would the professor say to his pupils.

"The Innocent One is condemned and the criminal is acquitted." "It is the cross of Christ alone that openeth the gates of heaven and shutteth the gates of hell." [1] Farel started as these words fell upon his ear. What did they import, and where would they lead him? Were then all his visits to the saints, and the many hours on his knees before their images, to no purpose – prayers flung into empty space? The teachings of his youth, the sanctities of his home, nay, the grandeurs of the mountains which were associated in his mind with the beliefs he had learned at their feet, rose up before him, and appeared to frown upon him, and he wished he were back again, where, encompassed by the calm majesty of the hills, he might no longer feel these torturing doubts.

Farel had two courses before him, he must either press forward with Lefevre into the light, or abjuring his master as a heretic, plunge straightway into deeper darkness. Happily God had been preparing him for the crisis. There had been for some time a tempest in the soul of the young student. Farel had lost his peace, and the austerities he had practiced with a growing rigor had failed to restore it. What Scripture so emphatically terms

"the terrors of death and the pains of hell" had taken hold upon him. It was while he was in this state, feeling that he could not save himself, and beginning to despair of ever being saved, that the words were spoken in his hearing, "The cross of Christ alone openeth the gates of heaven." Farel felt that this was the only salvation to suit him, that if ever he should be saved it must be "of grace," "without money and without price," and so he immediately pressed in at the portal which the words of Lefevre had opened to him, and rejoined his teacher in the new world into which that teacher himself had so recently entered. [2] The tempest was at an end: he was now in the quiet haven. "All things," said he, "appear to me under a new light. Scripture is cleared up." "Instead of the murderous heart of a ravening wolf, he came back," he tells us, "quietly like a meek and harmless lamb, having his heart entirely withdrawn from the Pope and given to Jesus Christ." [3]

For a brief space Jacques Lefevre and Guillaume Farel shone like twin stars in the morning sky of France. The influence of Lefevre was none the less efficient that it was quietly put forth, and consisted mainly in the dissemination of those vital truths from which Protestantism was to spring among the young and ardent minds that were gathered round his chair, and by whom the new doctrine was afterwards to be published from the pulpit, or witnessed for on the scaffold. "Lefevre was the man," says Theodore Beza, "who boldly began the revival of the pure religion of Jesus Christ, and as in ancient times the school of Socrates sent forth the best orators, so from the lecture-room of the doctor of Etaples issued many of the best men of the age and of the Church." [4] Peter Robert Olivetan, the translator of the first French Bible from the version of Lefevre, is believed to have been among the number of those who received the truth from the doctor of Etaples, and who, in his turn, was the means of enlisting in the service of Protestantism the greatest champion whom France, or perhaps any other country, ever gave to it.

While Lefevre scattered the seed in his lecture-room, Farel, now fully emancipated from the yoke of the Pope, and listening to no teaching but that of the Bible, went forth and preached in the temples. He was as uncompromising and bold in his advocacy of the Gospel as he had aforetime been zealous in behalf of Popery. "Young and resolute," says Felice, "he caused the public places and temples to resound with his voice of thunder." [5] He labored for a short time in Meaux, [6] where Protestantism reaped its earliest triumphs: and when the gathering storm of persecution drove him from France, which happened soon thereafter, Farel directed his steps towards those grand mountains from which lie had come, and preaching in Switzerland with a courage which no violence could subdue, and an eloquence which drew around him vast crowds, he introduced the Reformation into his native land. He planted the standard of the cross on the shores of the lake of Neuchatel and on those of the Leman, and eventually carried it within the gates of Geneva, where we shall again meet him. He thus became the pioneer of Calvin.

We have marked the two figures – Lefevre and Farel – that stand out with so great distinctness in this early dawn. A third now appears whose history possesses a great although a melancholy interest. After the doctor of Etaples no one had so much to do with the introduction of Protestantism into France as the man whom we now bring upon the stage. [7] He is William Briconnet, Count of Montbrun, and Bishop of Meaux, a town about eight leagues east of Paris, and where Bossuet, another name famous in ecclesiastical annals, was also, at an after-period, bishop. Descended from a noble family, of good address, and a man of affairs, Briconnet was sent by Francis I. on a mission to Rome. The most magnificent of all the Popes – Leo X. – was then in the Vatican, and Briconnet's visit to the Eternal City gave him an opportunity of seeing the Papacy in the noon of its glory, if now somewhat past the meridian of its power.

It was the same Pope to whom the Bishop of Meaux was now sent as ambassador to whom the saying is ascribed, "What a profitable affair this fable of Christ has been to us!" To Luther in his cell, alone with his sins and his conscience, the Gospel was a reality; to Leo, amidst the statues and pictures of the Vatican, his courtiers, buffoons and dancers, the Gospel was a fable. But this "fable" had done much for Rome. It had filled it – no one said with virtues – but with golden dignities, dazzling honors, and voluptuous delights. This fable clothed the ministers of the Church in purple, seated them every day at sumptuous tables, provided for them splendid equipages drawn by prancing steeds, and followed by a long train of liveried attendants: while couches of down were spread for them at night on which to rest their wearied frames – worn out, not with watching or study, or the care of souls, but with the excitements of the chase or the pleasures of the table. The viol, the tabret, and the harp were never silent in the streets of Rome. Her citizens did not need to toil or spin, to turn the soil or plough the main, for the corn and oil, the silver and the gold of all Christendom flowed thither. They shed copiously the juice of the grape in their banquets, and not less copiously the blood of one another in their quarrels. The Rome

of that age was the chosen home of pomps and revels, of buffooneries and villanies, of dark intrigues and blood-red crimes. [8] "Enjoy we the Papacy," said Leo, when elected, to his nephew Julian de Medici, "since God has given it to us."

But the master-actor on this strange stage was Religion, or the "Fable" as the Pontiff termed it. All day long the bells tolled; even at night their chimes ceased not to be heard, telling the visitor that even then prayer and praise were ascending from the oratories and shrines of Rome. Churches and cathedrals rose at every few paces: images and crucifixes lined the streets: tapers and holy signs sanctified the dwellings: every hour processions of shorn priest, hooded monk, and veiled nun swept along, with banners, and chants, and incense. Every new day brought a new ceremony or festival, which surpassed in its magnificence and pomp that of the day before. What an enigma was presented to the Bishop of Meaux! What a strange city was Rome – how full of religion, but how empty of virtue! Its ceremonies how gorgeous, but its worship how cold; its priests how numerous, and how splendidly arrayed! It wanted only that their virtues should be as shining as their garments, to make the city of the Pope the most resplendent in the universe. Such doubtless were the reflections of Briconnet during his stay at the court of Leo.

The time came that the Bishop of Meaux must leave Rome and return to France. On his way back to his own country he had a great many more things to meditate upon than when on his journey southward to the Eternal City. As he climbs the lower ridges of the Apennines, and casts a look behind on the fast-vanishing cluster of towers and domes, which mark the site of Rome on the bosom of the Campagna, we can imagine him saying to himself, "May not the Pope have spoken infallibly for once, and may not that which I have seen enthroned amid so much of this world's pride and power and wickedness be, after all, only a 'fable'?" In short, Briconnet, like Luther, came back from Rome much less a son of the Church than he had been before going thither. [9]

New scenes awaited him on his return, and what he had seen in Rome helped to prepare him for what he was now to witness in France. On getting back to his diocese the Bishop of Meaux was astonished at the change which had passed in Paris during his absence. There was a new light in the sky of France: a new influence was stirring in the minds of men. The good bishop thirsted to taste the new knowledge which he saw was transforming the lives and gladdening the hearts of all who received it. He had known Lefevre before going to Rome, and what so natural as that he should turn to his old friend to tell him whence had come that influence, so silent yet so mighty, which was changing the world? Lefevre put the Bible into his hands: it was all in that book. The bishop opened the mysterious volume, and there he saw what he had missed at Rome – a Church which had neither Pontifical chair nor purple robes, but which possessed the higher splendor of truth and holiness. The bishop felt that this was the true Spouse of Christ.

The Bible had revealed to Briconnet, Christ as the Author of a free salvation, the Bestower of an eternal life, without the intervention of the "Church," and this knowledge was to him as "living water," as "heavenly food." "Such is its sweetness," said he, "that it makes the mind insatiable, the more we taste of it the more we long for it. What vessel is able to receive the exceeding fullness of this inexhaustible sweetness?" [10]

Briconnet's letters are still preserved in MS.; they are written in the mazy metaphorical style which disfigured all the productions of an age just passing from the flighty and figurative rhetoric of the schoolmen to the chaster models of the ancients, but they leave us in no doubt as to his sentiments. He repudiates works as the foundation of the sinner's justification, and puts in their room Christ's finished work apprehended by faith, and, laying little stress on external ceremonies and rites, makes religion to consist in love to God and personal holiness. The bishop received the new doctrine without experiencing that severe mental conflict which Farel had passed through. He found the gate not strait, and entered in – somewhat too easily perhaps – and took his place in the little circle of disciples which the Gospel had already gathered round it in France – Lefevre, Farel, Roussel, and Vatable, all four professors in the University of Paris – although, alas! he was not destined to remain in that holy society to the close.

Of the five men whom Protestantism had called to follow it in this kingdom, the Bishop of Meaux, as regarded the practical work of Reformation, was the most powerful. The whole of France he saw needed Reformation; where should he begin? Unquestionably in his own diocese. His rectors and cures walked in the old paths. They squandered their revenues in the dissolute gaieties of Paris, while they appointed ignorant deputies to do duty for them at Meaux. In other days Briconnet had looked on this as a matter of course: now it appeared to him a scandalous and criminal abuse. In October, 1520, he published a mandate, proclaiming all to be "traitors and deserters who, by abandoning their flocks, show plainly that what they love is their fleece and their wool." He interdicted, moreover, the Franciscans from the pulpits of his diocese. At the season of the grand fetes these men made their rounds, amply provided with new jests, which put their hearers in good humor, and helped the

friars to fill their stomachs and their wallets. Briconnet forbade the pulpits to be longer desecrated by such buffooneries. He visited in person, like a faithful bishop, all his parishes; summoned the clergy and parishioners before him: inquired into the teaching of the one and the morals of the other: removed ignorant cures, that is, every nine out of ten of the clergy, and replaced them with men able to teach, when such could be found, which was then no easy matter. To remedy the great evil of the time, which was ignorance, he instituted a theological seminary at Meaux, where, under his own eye, there might be trained "able ministers of the New Testament;" and meanwhile he did what he could to supply the lack of laborers, by ascending the pulpit and preaching himself, "a thing which had long since gone quite out of fashion." [11]

Leaving Meaux now, to come back to it soon, we return to Paris. The influence of Briconnet's conversion was felt among the high personages of the court, and the literary circles of the capital, as well as amidst the artizans and peasants of the diocese of Meaux. The door of the palace stood open to the bishop, and the friendship he enjoyed with Francis I. opened to Briconnet vast opportunities of spreading Reformed views among the philosophers and scholars whom that monarch loved to assemble round him. One high-born, and wearing a mitre, was sure to be listened to where a humbler Reformer might in vain solicit audience. The court of France was then adorned by a galaxy of learned men – Budaeus, Du Bellay, Cop, the court physician, and others of equal eminence – to all of whom the bishop made known a higher knowledge than that of the Renaissance. [12] But the most illustrious convert in the palace was the sister of the king, Margaret of Valois. And now two personages whom we have not met as yet, but who are destined to act a great part in the drama on which we are entering, make their appearance.

The one is Francis I., who ascended the throne just as the new day was breaking over Europe; the other is his sister, whom we have named above, Margaret of Angouleme. The brother and sister, in many of their qualities, resembled each other. Both were handsome in person, polished in manners, lively in disposition, and of a magnanimous and generous character. Both possessed a fine intellect, and both were fond of letters, which they had cultivated with ardor: Francis, who was sometimes styled the Mirror of Knighthood, embodied in his person the three characteristics of his age – valor, gallantry, and letters; the latter passion had, owing to the Renaissance, become a somewhat fashionable one. "Francis I.," says Guizot, "had received from God all the gifts that can adorn a man: he was handsome, and tall, and strong; his amour, preserved in the Louvre, is that of a man six feet high; his eyes were brilliant and soft, his smile was gracious, his manners were winning." [13]

Francis aspired to be a great king, but the moral instability which tarnished his many great qualities forbade the realization of his idea. It was his fate, after starting with promise in every race, to fall behind before reaching the goal. The young monarch of Spain bore away from him the palm in arms. Despite his great abilities, and the talents he summoned to his aid, he was never able to achieve for France in politics any but a second place. He chased from his dominions the greatest theological intellect of his age, and the literary glory with which he thought to invest his name and throne passed over to England. He was passionately fond of his sister, whom he always called his "darling;" and Margaret was not less devoted in affection for her brother. For some time the lives, as the tastes, of the two flowed on together; but a day was to come when they would be parted. Amid the frivolities of the court, in which she mingled without defiling herself with its vices, the light of the Gospel shone upon Margaret, and she turned to her Savior. Francis, after wavering some time between the Gospel and Rome, between the pleasures of the world and the joys that are eternal, made at last his choice, but, alas! on the opposite side to that of his lovely and accomplished sister. Casting in his lot with Rome, and staking crown, and kingdom, and salvation upon the issue, he gave battle to the Reformation.

We turn again to Margaret, whose grace and beauty made her the ornament of the court, as her brilliant qualities of intellect won the admiration and homage of all who came in contact with her. [14] This accomplished princess, nevertheless, began to be unhappy. She felt a heaviness of the heart which the gaieties around her could not dispel. She was in this state, ill at ease, yet not knowing well what it was that troubled her, when Briconnet met her (1521). [15] He saw at once to the bottom of her heart and her griefs. He put into her hand what Lefevre had put into his own – the Bible; and after the eager study of the Word of God, Margaret forgot her fears and her sins in love to her Savior. She recognized in him the Friend she had long sought, but sought in vain, in the gay circles in which she moved, and she felt a strength and courage she had not known till now. Peace became an inmate of her bosom. She was no longer alone in the world. There was now a Friend by her side on whose sympathy she could cast herself in those dark hours when her brother Francis should frown, and the court should make her the object of its polished ridicule.

In the conversion of Margaret a merciful Providence

provided against the evil days that were to come. Furious storms were at no great distance, and although Margaret was not strong enough to prevent the bursting of these tempests, she could and did temper their bitterness. She was near the throne. The sweetness of her spirit was at times a restraint upon the headlong passions of her brother. With quiet tact she would defeat the plot of the monk, and undo the chain of the martyr, and not a few lives, which other wise would have perished on the scaffold, were through her interposition saved to the Reformation.


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Wednesday, December 12th, 2018
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