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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 22 — Basle and the "Institutes"

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Glory of the Sufferers — Francis I. again turns to the German Protestants — They Shrink back — His Doublings — New Persecuting Edicts — Departure of the Queen of Navarre from Paris — New Day to Bearn — Calvin — Strasburg — Calvin arrives there — Bucer, Capito, etc. — Calvin Dislikes their Narrowness — Goes on to Basle — Basle — Its Situation and Environs — Soothing Effect on Calvin's Mind — His Interview with Erasmus — Erasmus "Lays the Egg" — Terrified at what Comes of it — Draws back — Calvin's Enthusiasm — Erasmus' Prophecy — Catherine Klein — First Sketch of the Institutes—What led Calvin to undertake the Work — Its Sublimity, but Onerousness.

WE described in our last chapter the explosion that followed the publication of the manifesto against the mass. In one and the same night it was placarded over great part of France, and when the morning broke, and men came forth and read it, there were consternation and anger throughout the kingdom. It proclaimed only the truth, but it was truth before its time in France. It was a bolt flung at the mass and its believers, which might silence and crush them, but if it failed to do this it would rouse them into fury, and provoke a terrible retaliation. It did the latter. The throne and the whole kingdom had been polluted; the Holy Sacrament blasphemed; the land was in danger of being smitten with terrible woes, and so a public atonement was decreed for the public offense which had been offered. Not otherwise, it pleased the king, his prelates, and his nobles to think, could France escape the wrath of the Most High.

The terrible rites of the day of expiation we have already chronicled. Was the God that France worshipped some inexorable and remorseless deity, seeing she propitiated him with human sacrifices? The tapers carried that day by the penitents who swept in long procession through the streets of the capital, blended their lights with the lurid glare of the fires in which the Lutherans were burned; and the loud chant of priest and chorister rose amid no cries and sobs from the victims. These noble men, who were now dragged to the burning pile, uttered no cry; they shed no tear; that were a weakness that would, have stained the glory of their sacrifice. They stood with majestic mien at the stake, and looked with calmness on the tortures their enemies had prepared for them, nor did they blanch when the flames blazed up around them. The sacrifice of old, when led to the altar, was crowned with garlands. So it was with these martyrs. They came to the altar to offer up their lives crowned with the garlands of joy and praise. Their faith, their courage, their reliance on God when suffering in His cause, their vivid anticipations of future glory, were the white robes in which they dressed themselves when they ascended the altar to die. France, let us hope, will not always be ignorant of her true heroes. These have shed around her a renown purer and brighter, a hundred times, than all the glory she has earned on the battle-field from the days of Francis I. to those of the last Napoleon.

Hardly had Francis I. concluded his penitential procession when he again turned to the Protestant princes of Germany, and attempted to resume negotiations with them. They not unnaturally asked of him an explanation of his recent proceedings. Why so anxious to court the favor of the Protestants of Germany when he was burning the Protestants of France?

Were there two true faiths in the world, the creed of Rome on the west of the Rhine, and the religion of Wittenberg on the east of that river? But the king was ready with his excuse, and his excuse was that of almost all persecutors of every age. The king had not been burning Lutherans, but executing traitors. If those he had put to death had imbibed Reformed sentiments, it was not for their religion, but for their sedition that they had been punished. Such was the excuse which Francis gave to the German princes in his letter of the 15th of February. "To stop this plague of disloyalty from spreading, he punished its originators severely, as his ancestors had also done in like cases." [1] He even attempted to induce Melanchthon to take up his abode in Paris, where he would have received him with honor, and burned him a few months afterwards. But these untruths and doublings availed Francis little. Luther had no faith in princes, least of all had he faith in Francis I. Melanchthon, anxious as he was to promote conciliation, yet refused to enter a city on the streets of which the ashes of the fires in which the disciples of Christ had been burned were not yet cold. And the Protestant princes, though desirous of strengthening their political defences, nevertheless shrank back from a hand which they saw was red with the blood of their brethren. The situation in France began to be materially altered. The king's disposition had undergone a change for the worse; a gloomy determination to crush heresy had taken possession of him, and was clouding his better qualities.

The men of letters who had shed a lustre upon his court and realm were beginning to withdraw. They were terrified by the stakes which they saw around them, not knowing but that their turn might come next. The monks were again looking up, which augured no good for the interests of learning.

Not content with the executions of the terrible 21st of January, the king continued to issue edicts against the sect of "Lutherans still swarming in the realm;" he wrote to the provincial parliaments, exhorting them to furnish money and prisons for the extirpation [2] of heresy; lastly, he indited an ordinance declaring printing abolished all

over France, under pain of the gallows. [3] That so barbarous a decree should have come from a prince who gloried in being the leader of the literary movements of his age, would not have been credible had it not been narrated by historians of name. It is one among a hundred proofs that literary culture is no security against the spirit of persecution.

Of those who now withdrew from Paris was Margaret of Valois, the king's sister. We have seen the hopes that she long and ardently cherished that her brother would be won to the Reformation; but now that Francis I. had cast the die, and sealed his choice by the awful deeds of blood we have narrated, Margaret, abandoning all hope, quitted Paris, where even the palace could hardly protect her from the stake, and retired to her own kingdom of Bearn. Her departure, and that of the exiles who had preceded her, if it was the beginning of that social and industrial decadence which ever since has gone on, amid many deceitful appearances, in France, was the dawn of a new day to Bearn. Her court became the asylum of the persecuted. Many refugee families transported their industry and their fortune to her provinces, and the prosperity which had taken a long adieu of France, began to enrich her little kingdom. Soon a new face appeared upon the state of the Bearnais. The laws were reformed, schools were opened, many branches of industry were imported and very successfully cultivated, and, in short, the foundations were now laid of that remarkable prosperity which made the little kingdom in the Pyrenees resemble an oasis amid the desert which France and Spain were now beginning to become. When Margaret went to her grave, in 1549, she left a greater to succeed her in the government of the little territory which had so rapidly risen from rudeness to wealth and civilisation. Her daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, is one of the most illustrious women in history.

We return to Calvin, in the track of whose footsteps it is that the great movement, set for the rising of one kingdom and the fall of another, is to be sought. He now begins to be by very much the chief figure of his age. Francis I. with his court, Charles V. with his armies, are powers more imposing but less real than Calvin. They pass across the stage with a great noise, but half-a-century afterwards, when we come to examine the traces they have left behind them, it is with difficulty that we can discover them; other kings and other armies are busy effacing them, and imprinting their own in their room. It is Calvin's work that endures and goes forward with the ages. We have seen him, a little before the bursting of the storm, leave Paris, nevermore to enter its gates.

Setting out in the direction of Germany, and travelling on horseback, he arrived in due course at Strasburg. Its name, "the City of the Highways," sufficiently indicates its position, and the part it was expected to play in the then system of Europe. Strongly fortified, it stood like a mailed warrior at the point where the great roads of Northern Europe intersected one another. It was the capital of Alsace, which was an independent territory, thrown in as it were, in the interests of peace, between Eastern and Western Europe, and therefore its fortifications were on purpose of prodigious strength. As kings were rushing at one another, now pushing eastward from France into Germany, and now rushing across the Rhine from Germany into France, eager to give battle and redden the earth with blood, this man in armor — the City of the Highways, namely — who stood right in their path compelled them to halt, until their anger should somewhat subside, and peace might be maintained.

A yet more friendly office did Strasburg discharge to the persecuted children of the Reformation. Being a free city, it offered asylum to the exiles from surrounding countries. Its magistrates were liberal; its citizens intelligent; its college was already famous; the strong walls and firm gates that would have resisted the tempests of war had yielded to the Gospel, and the Reformation had found entrance into Strasburg at an early period. Bucer, Capito, and Hedio, whom we have already met with, were living here at the time of Calvin's visit, and the pleasure of seeing them, and conversing with them, had no small share in inducing the Reformer to turn his steps in the direction of this city.

In one respect he was not disappointed. He much relished the piety and the learning of these men, and they in turn were much impressed with the seriousness and greatness of character of their young visitor. But in another respect he was disappointed in them. Their views of Divine truth lacked depth and comprehensiveness, and their scheme of Reformation was, in the same proportion, narrow and defective. The path which they loved, a middle way between Wittenberg and Rome, was a path which Calvin did not, or would not, understand. To him there were only two faiths, a true and a false, and to him there could be but two paths, and the attempt to make a third between the two was, in his judgment, to keep open the road back to Rome. All the greater minds of the Reformation were with Calvin on this point. Those only who stood in the second class among the Reformers gave way to the dream of reconciling Rome and the Gospel: a circumstance which we must attribute not to the greater charity of the latter, but to their incapacity to comprehend either the system of Rome or the system of the Gospel in all the amplitude that belongs to each.

Calvin grew weary of hearing, day after day, plans propounded which, at the best, could have but patched and soldered a hopelessly rotten system, but would have accomplished

no Reformation, and so, after a sojourn of a few months, he took his departure from Strasburg, and began his search for the "quiet nook" [4] where he might give himself to the study of what he felt must, under the Spirit, be his great instructor the Bible. The impression was growing upon him, and his experience at Strasburg had deepened that impression, that it was not from others that he was to learn the Divine plan; he must himself search it out in the Holy Oracles; he must go aside with God, like Moses on the mount, and there he would be shown the fashion of that temple which he was to build in Christendom.

Following the course of the Rhine, Calvin went on to Basle. Basle is the gate of Switzerland as one comes from Germany, and being a frontier town, situated upon one of the then great highways of Europe, it enjoyed a large measure of prosperity. The Huguenot traveler, Misson, who visited it somewhat more than a century after the time of which we speak, says of it: "The largest, fairest, richest city now reckoned to be in Switzerland." [5] Its situation is pleasant, and may even in some respects be styled romantic. Its chief feature is the Rhine, even here within sight, if one may so speak, of the mountains where it was born: a broad, majestic river, sweeping past the town with rapid flow, [6] or rather dividing it into two unequal parts, the Little Basle lying on the side towards Germany, and joined to the Great Basle by a long wooden bridge, now changed into one of stone. Crowning the western bank of the Rhine, in the form of a half-moon, are the buildings of the city, conspicuous among which are the fine towers of the Minster. Looking from the esplanade of the Cathedral one's eye lights on the waters of the river, on the fresh and beautiful valleys through which it rolls; on the gentle hills of the Black Forest beyond, sprinkled with dark pines, and agreeably relieved by the sunny glades on which their shadows fall; while a short walk to the south of the town brings the tops of the Jura upon the horizon, telling the traveler that he has reached the threshold of a region of mountainous grandeur. "They have a custom which is become a law," says the traveler to whom we have referred above, speaking of Basle, "and which is singular and very commendable; 'tis that whoever passes through Basle, and declares himself to be poor, they give him victuals — I think, for two or three days; and some other relief, if he speaks Latin." [7]

Much as the scene presents itself to the tourist of to-day, would it appear to Calvin more than three centuries ago. There was the stream rolling its "milk-white" floods to the sea, nor was he ignorant of the fact that it had borne on its current the ashes of Huss and Jerome, to bury them grandly in the ocean. There was the long wooden bridge that spans the Rhine, with the crescent-like line of buildings drawn along the brow of the opposite bank. There were the Minster towers, beneath whose shadow Oecolampadius, already dismissed from labor, was resting in the sleep of the tomb. [8] There were the emerald valleys, enclosing the town with a carpet of the softest green; there were the sunny glades, and the tall dark pines on the eastern hills; and in the south were the azure tops of the Jura peering over the landscape. A scene like this, so finely blending quietude and sublimity, must have had a soothing influence on a mind like Calvin's; it must have appeared to him the very retreat he had so long sought for, and fain would he be to turn aside for awhile here and rest. Much troubled was the world around; the passions of men were raising frightful tempests in it; armies and battles and stakes made it by no means a pleasant dwelling-place; but these quiet valleys and those distant peaks spoke of peace, and so the exile, weary of foot, and yet more weary of heart — for his brethren were being led as sheep to the slaughter — very unobtrusively but very thankfully entered within those gates to which Providence had led him, and where he was to compose a work which still keeps its place at the head of the Reformation literature — the Institutes.

On his way from Strasburg to Basle, Calvin had an interview with a very remarkable man. The person whom he now met had rendered to the Gospel no small service in the first days of the Reformation, and he might have rendered it ten times more had his courage been equal to his genius, and his piety as profound as his scholarship. We refer to Erasmus, the great scholar of the sixteenth century. He was at this time living at Freiburg, in Brisgau — the progress, or as Erasmus deemed it, the excesses of the Reformed faith having frightened him into leaving Basle, where he had passed so many years, keeping court like a prince, and receiving all the statesmen and scholars who chanced to visit that city. Erasmus' great service to the Reformation was his publication of the New Testament in the year 1516. [9] The fountain sealed all through the Dark Ages was anew opened, and the impulse even to the cause of pure Christianity thereby was greater than we at this day can well imagine. This was the service of Erasmus. "He laid the egg," it has been said, "of the Reformation."

The great scholar, in his early and better days, had seen with unfeigned joy the light of letters breaking over Europe. He hated the monks with his whole soul, and lashed their ignorance and vice with the unsparing rigor of his satire; but now he

was almost seventy, he had hardly more than another year to live, [10] and the timidity of age was creeping over him. He had never been remarkable for courage; he always took care not to come within wind of a stake, but now he was more careful than ever not to put himself in the way of harm. He had hailed the Reformation less for the spiritual blessings which it brought in its train than for the literary elegances and social ameliorations which it shed around it.

Besides, the Pope had been approaching him on his weak side. Paul III. fully understood the importance of enlisting the pen of Erasmus on behalf of Rome. The battle was waxing hotter every day, and the pen was playing a part in the conflict which was not second to even that of the sword. A cardinal's hat was the brilliant prize which the Pope dangled before the scholar. Erasmus had the good sense not to accept, but the flattery implied in the offer had so far gained its end that it had left Erasmus not very zealous in the Reformed cause, if indeed he had ever been so. Could the conflict have been confined to the schools, with nothing more precious than ink shed in it, and nothing more weighty than a little literary reputation lost by it, the scholar of Rotterdam would have continued to play the champion on the Protestant side. But when he saw monarchs girding on the sword, nations beginning to be convulsed — things he had not reckoned on when he gave the first touch to the movement by the publication of his New Testament — and especially when he saw confessors treading the bitter path of martyrdom, it needed on the part of Erasmus a deeper sense of the value of the Gospel and a higher faith in God than, we fear, he possessed, to stand courageously on the side of the Reformation.

How unlike the two men who now stood face to face! Both were on the side of progress, but each sought it on a different line, and each had pictured to himself a different future. Erasmus was the embodiment of the Renaissance, the other was the herald of a more glorious day. In the first the light of the Renaissance, which promised so much, had already begun to wane — sprung of the earth, it was returning to the earth; but where Erasmus stopped, there Calvin found his starting-point. While the shadows of the departing day darkened the face of the sage of Rotterdam, Calvin's shone with the brightness of the morning. After a few interrogatories, to which Erasmus replied hesitatingly, Calvin freely gave vent to the convictions that filled his soul. [11] Nothing, he believed, but a radical reform could save Christendom. He would have no bolstering up of an edifice rotten to its foundations. He would sweep it away to its last stone, and he would go to the quarry whence were dug the materials wherewith the Christian Church was fashioned in the first age, and he would anew draw forth the stones necessary for its reconstruction.

Erasmus shrank back as if he saw the toppling ruin about to fall upon him and crush him. "I see a great tempest about to arise in the Church — against the Church," [12] exclaimed the scholar, in whose ear Calvin's voice sounded as the first hoarse notes of the coming storm. How much.

Erasmus misjudged! The Renaissance — calm, classic, and conservative as it seemed — was in truth the tempest. The pagan principles it scattered in the soft of Christendom, helped largely to unchain those furious winds that broke out two centuries after. The interview now suddenly closed.

Pursuing his journey, with his inseparable companion, the young Canon Du Tillet, the two travelers at length reached Basle. Crossing the long bridge, and climbing the opposite acclivity, they entered the city. It was the seat of a university founded, as we have already said, in 1459, by Pope Pius II., who gave it all the privileges of that of Bologna. It had scholars, divines, and some famous printers. But Calvin did not present himself at their door. The purpose for which he had come to Basle required that he should remain unknown, he wished to have perfect unbroken quietude for study. Accordingly he turned into a back street where, he knew, lived a pious woman in humble condition, Catherine Klein, who received the disciples of the Gospel when forced to seek asylum, and he took up his abode in her lowly dwelling.

The penetration of this good woman very soon discovered the many high qualities of the thin pale-faced stranger whom she had received under her roof. When Calvin had fulfilled his career, and his name and doctrine were spreading over the earth, she was wont to dilate with evident pleasure in his devotion to study, on the beauty of his life, and the charms of his genius. He seldom went out, [13] and when he did so it was to steal away across the Rhine, and wander among the pines on the eastern hill, whence he could gaze on the city and its environing valleys, and the majestic river whose "eternal" flow formed the link between the everlasting hills of its birth-place, and the great ocean where was its final goal — nay, between the successive generations which had flourished upon its banks:, from the first barbarian races which had drunk its waters, to the learned men who were filling the pulpits, occupying the university chairs, or working the printing-presses of the city below him.

Calvin had found at last his "obscure corner," and he jealously preserved his incognito. (Ecolampadius, the first Reformed Pastor of Basle, was now, as we have said, in his grave; but Oswald Myconius, the friend of Zwingli, had taken his place as President of the Church. In him Calvin knew he would find a

congenial spirit. There was another man living at Basle at that time, whose fame as a scholar had reached the Reformer — Symon Grynaeus. Grynaeus was the schoolfellow of Melanchthon, and when Erasmus quitted Basle he was invited to take his place at the university, which he filled with a renown second only to that of his great predecessor. He was as remarkable for his honesty and the sweetness of his disposition:as for his learning. Calvin sought and enjoyed the society of these men before leaving Basle, but meanwhile, inflexibly bent on the great ends for which he had come hither, he forbore making their acquaintance. Intercourse with the world and its business sharpens the observing powers, and breeds dexterity; but the soul that is to grow from day to day and from year to year, and at last embody its matured and concentrated strength in some great work, must dwell in solitude. It was here, in this seclusion and retreat, that Calvin sketched the first outline of a work which was to be not merely the basis of his own life-work, but the corner-stone of the Reformed Temple, and which from year to year he was to develop and perfect, according to the measure of the increase of his own knowledge and light, and leave to succeeding generations as the grandest, of his and of his age's achievements.

The Institutes first sprang into form in the following manner: While Calvin was pursuing his studies in his retirement at Basle, dreadful tidings reached the banks of the Rhine. The placard, the outbursts of royal wrath, the cruel torturings and bumlings that followed, were all carried by report to Basle. First came tidings of the individual martyrs; scarcely had the first messenger given in his tale, when another — escaped from prison or from the stake, and who could say, as of old, "I only am left to tell thee" — arrived with yet more dreadful tidings of the wholesale barbarities which had signalised the terrible 21st of January in Paris. The news plunged Calvin into profound sorrow. He could but too vividly realize the awful scenes, the tidings of which so wrung his heart with anguish. It was but yesterday that he had trodden the streets in which they were enacted. He knew the men who had endured these cruel deaths. They were his brethren. He had lived in their houses; he had sat at their tables. How often had he held sweet converse with them on the things of God! He knew them to be men of whom the world was not worthy; and yet they were accounted as the off-scouring of all things, and as sheep appointed to the slaughter were killed all day long. Could he be silent when his brethren were being condemned and drawn to death? And yet what could he do?

The arm of the king he could not stay. He could not go in person and plead their cause, for that would be to set up his own stake. He had a pen, and he would employ it in vindicating his brethren in the face of Christendom. But in what way should he best do this? He could vindicate these martyrs effectually not otherwise than by vindicating their cause. It was the Reformation that was being vilified, condemned, burned in the persons of these men; it was this, therefore, that he must vindicate. It was not merely a few stakes in Paris, but the martyrs of the Gospel in all lands that he would cover with his aegis.

The task that Calvin now set for himself was sublime, but onerous. He would make it plain to all that the, faith which was being branded as heresy, and for professing which men were being burned alive, was no cunningly devised system of man, but the Old Gospel; and that so far from being an enemy of kings, and a subverter of law and order, which it was accused of being, it was the very salt of society — a bulwark to the throne and a protection to law; and being drawn from the Bible, it opened to man the gates of a moral purification in this life, and of a perfect and endless felicity in the next. This was what Calvin accomplished in his Christianae Religionus Institutio.


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Thursday, June 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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