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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 6 — Calvin: His birth and education

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Greater Champions about to Appear – Calvin – His Birth and Lineage – His Appearance and Disposition – His Education – Appointed to a Chaplaincy – The Black Death – Sent to La Marche at Paris – Mathurin Cordier – Friendship between the Young Pupil and his Teacher – Calvin Charmed by the Great Latin Writers – Luther's and Calvin's Services to their respective Tongues – Leaves the School of La Marche.

THE young vine just planted in France was bending before the tempest, and seemed on the point of being uprooted. The enemies of the Gospel, who, pending the absence of the king, still a prisoner at Madrid, had assumed the direction of affairs, did as it pleased them. Beda and Duprat, whom fear had made cruel, were planing stake after stake, and soon there would remain not one confessor to tell that the Gospel had ever entered the kingdom of France. The Reformation, which as yet had hardly commenced its career, was already as good as burned out. But those who so reasoned overlooked the power of Him who can raise up living witnesses from the ashes of dead ones. The men whom Beda had burned filled a comparatively narrow sphere, and were possessed of but humble powers; mightier champions were about to step upon the stage, whom God would so fortify by his Spirit, and so protect by his providence, that all the power of France should not prevail against them, and from the midst of the scaffolds and blazing stakes with which its enemies had encompassed it, Protestantism would come forth to fill Christendom with disciples and the world with light.

The great leader of the Reformation in Germany stepped at once upon the scene. No note sounded his advent and no herald ushered him upon the stage. From the seclusion of his monastery at Erfurt came Luther startling the world by the suddenness of his appearing, and the authority with which he spoke. But the coming of the great Reformer of France was gradual. If Luther rose on men like a star that blazes suddenly forth in the dark sky, Calvin's coming was like that of day, sweetly and softly opening on the mountain-tops, streaking the horizon with its silver, and steadily waxing in brightness till at last the whole heavens are filled with the splendor of its light.

Calvin, whose birth and education we are now briefly to trace, was born in humble condition, like most of those who have accomplished great things for God in the world. He first saw the light on the 10th of July, 1509, at Noyon in Picardy. [1] His family was of Norman extraction. [2] His grandfather was still living in the small town of Pont l'Eveque, and was a cooper by trade. His father, Gerard, was apostolic notary and secretary to the bishop, through whom he hoped one day to find for his son John preferment in the Church, to which, influenced doubtless by the evident bent of his genius, he had destined him. Yes, higher than his father's highest dream was the Noyon boy to rise in the Church, but in a more catholic Church than the Roman.

Let us sketch the young Calvin. We have before us a boy of about ten years. He is of delicate mould, small stature, with pale features, and a bright burning eye, indicating a soul deeply penetrative as well as richly emotional. There hangs about him an air of timidity and shyness [3] , – a not infrequent accompaniment of a mind of great sensibility and power lodged in a fragile bodily organisation. He is thoughtful beyond his years; devout, too, up to the standard of the Roman Church, and beyond it; he is punctual as stroke of clock in his religious observances. [4] Nor is it a mere mechanical devotion which he practices. The soul that looks forth at those eyes can go mechanically about nothing. As regards his morals he has been a Nazarite from his youth up: no stain of outward vice has touched him. This made the young Calvin a mystery in a sort to his companions. By the beauty of his life, if not by words, he became their unconscious reprover. [5] From his paternal home the young Calvin passed to the stately mansion of the Mommors, the lords of the neighborhood. The hour that saw Calvin cross this noble threshold was a not uneventful one to him. He was not much at home in the stately halls that now opened to receive him, and often, he tells us, he was fain to hide in some shady corner from the observation of the brilliant company that filled them. But the discipline he here underwent was a needful preparation for his life's work. Educated with the young Mommors, but at his father's cost, [6] he received a more thorough classical grounding, and acquired a polish of manners to which he must ever have remained a stranger had he grown up under his father's humble roof. He who was to be the counsellor of princes, a master in the schools, and a legislator in the Church, must needs have an education neither superficial nor narrow.

The young Calvin mastered with wonderful ease what it cost his class-fellows much labor and time to acquire. His knowledge seemed to come by intuition. While yet a child he loved to pray in the open air, thus giving proof of expansiveness of soul. The age could not think of God but as dwelling in "temples made with hands." Calvin sublimely realized him as One whose presence fills the temple of the universe. In this he resembles the young Anselm, who, lifting his eyes to the grand mountains that guard his native valley of Aosta, believed that if he could climb to their summit he would be nearer him who has placed his throne in the sky. At this time the chaplaincy of a

small church in the neighborhood, termed La Gesine, fell vacant, and Gerard Chauvin, finding the expense of his son's education too much for him, solicited and obtained (1521) from the bishop the appointment for his son John. [7] Calvin was then only twelve years of age; but it was the manner of the times for even younger persons to hold ecclesiastical offices of still higher grade – to have a bishop's crozier, or a cardinal's hat, before they were well able to understand what these dignities meant. [8] The young Chaplain of Gesine had his head solemnly shorn by the bishop on the eve of Corpus Christi, [9] and although not yet admitted into priest's orders, he became by this symbolic act a member of the clergy, and a servant of that Church of which he was to become in after-life, without exception, the most powerful opponent, and the foe whom of all others she dreaded the most.

Two years more did the young Chaplain of La Gesine continue to reside in his native town of Noyon, holding his title, but discharging no duties, for what functions could a child of twelve years perform? Now came the Black Death to Noyon. The pestilence, a dreadful one, caused great terror in the place, many of the inhabitants had already been carried off by it, and the canons petitioned the chapter for leave to live elsewhere during its ravages. Gerard Chauvin, trembling for the safety of his son, the hope of his life, also petitioned the chapter to give the young chaplain "liberty to go wherever he pleased, without loss of his allowance." The records of the chapter show, according to the Vicar-General Desmay, and the Canon Levasseur, that this permission was granted in August, 1523. [10] The young Mommors were about to proceed to Paris to prosecute their studies, and Gerard Chauvin was but too glad of the opportunity of sending his son along with his fellow-students and comrades, to study in the capital. At the age of fourteen the future Reformer quitted his father's house. "Flying from one pestilence," say his Romish historians, "he caught another."

At Paris, Calvin entered the school or college of La Marche. There was at that time in this college a very remarkable man, Mathurin Cordier, who was renowned for his exquisite taste, his pure Latinity, and his extensive erudition. [11] These accomplishments might have opened to Cordier a path to brilliant advancement, but he was one of those who prefer pursuing their own tastes, and retaining their independence, to occupying a position where they should to some extent have to sacrifice both. He devoted his whole life to the teaching of youth, and his fame has come down to our own days in connection with one of his books still used in some schools under the title of Cordier's Colloquies.

One day Mathurin Cordier saw a scholar, about fourteen years of age, fresh from the country, enter his school. His figure was slender, his features were sallow, but his eye lent such intelligence and beauty to his face that the teacher could not help remarking him. Cordier soon saw that he had a pupil of no ordinary genius before him, and after the first few days the scholar of fourteen and the man of fifty became inseparable. At the hour of school dismissals it was not the play-ground, but his loving, genial instructor, who grew young again in the society of his pupil, that Calvin sought. Such was the great teacher whom God had provided for the yet greater scholar.

Mathurin Cordier was not the mere linguist. His mind was fraught with the wisdom of the ancients. The highest wisdom, it is true, he could not impart, for both master and pupil were still immersed in the darkness of superstition, but the master of La Marche initiated his pupil into the spirit of the Renaissance, which like a balmy spring was chasing away the winter of the Middle Ages, and freshening the world with the rich verdure and attractive blossoms of ancient civilization. The severe yet copious diction of Cicero, the lofty thoughts and deep wisdom of this and of other great masters of Roman literature, the young Calvin soon learned to appreciate and to admire. He saw that if he aspired to wield influence over his fellowmen, he must first of all perfect himself in the use of that mighty instrument by which access is gained to the heart and its deep fountains of feeling, and its powerful springs of action touched and set in motion – language, namely, and especially written language. From this hour the young student began to graft upon his native tongue of France those graces of style, those felt cities of expression, that flexibility, terseness, and fire, which should fit it for expressing with equal ease the most delicate shade of sentiment or the most powerful burst of feeling.

It is remarkable surely that the two great Reformers of Europe should have been each the creator of the language of his native country. Calvin was the father of the French tongue, as Luther was the father of the German. There had been a language in these countries, doubtless, since the days of their first savage inhabitants, a "French" and a "German" before there was a Calvin and a Luther, just as there was a steam-engine before James Watt. But it is not more true that Watt was the inventor of the steam-engine, by making it a really useful instrument, than it is true that Luther and Calvin were the creators of their respective tongues as now spoken and written.

Calvin found French, as Luther had found German, a coarse, meager speech – of narrow compass, of small adaptability, and the vehicle of only low ideas. He breathed into it a new life. A vastly wider compass, and an infinitely finer flexibility, did he give it. And, moreover, he elevated and sanctified it

by pouring into it the treasures of the Gospel, thereby enriching it with a multitude of new terms, and subliming it with the energies of a celestial fire. This transformation in the tongue of France the Reformer achieved by the new thinking and feeling he taught his countrymen; for a language is simply the outcome of the life of the people by whom it is spoken.

"Under a lean and attenuated body," says one of his enemies, "he displayed already a lively and vigorous spirit, prompt at repartee, bold to attack; a great faster, either on account of his health, and to stop the fumes of the headache which assaulted him continually, or to have his mind more free for writing, studying, and improving his memory. He spoke but little, but his words were always full of gravity, and never missed their aim: he was never seen in company, but always in retirement." [12] How unlike the poetic halo that surrounds the youth of Luther! "But," asks Bungener, "is there but one style of poetry, and is there no poetry in the steady pursuit of the good and true all through the age of pleasure, illusion, and disorder?" [13]

That Calvin was the father of French Protestantism is, of course, admitted by all; but we less often hear it acknowledged that he was the father of French literature. Yet this service, surely a great one, ought not to be passed over in silence. It is hard to say how much the illustrious statesmen and philosophers, the brilliant historians and poets, who came after him, owed to him. They found in the language, which he had so largely helped to make fit for their use, a suitable vehicle for the talent and genius by which they made themselves and their country famous. Their wit, their sublimity, and their wisdom would have been smothered in the opaque, undramatic, poverty-stricken, and inharmonious phraseology to which they would have been forced to consign them. Than language there is no more powerful instrumentality for civilising men, and there is no more powerful instrumentality for fashioning language than the Gospel.

"Luther," says Bossuet, "triumphed orally, but the pen of Calvin is the more correct. Both excelled in speaking the language of their country." "To Calvin," says Etienne Pasquier, "our tongue is greatly indebted." "No one of those who preceded him excelled him in writing well," says Raemond, "and few since have approached him in beauty and felicity of language."

Calvin fulfilled his course under Cordier, and in 1526 he passed to the College of Montaigu, one of the two seminaries in Paris – the Sorbonne being the other for the training of priests. His affection for his old master of La Marche, and his sense of benefit received from him, the future Reformer carried with him to the new college – nay, to the grave. In after-years he dedicated to him his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. In doing so he takes occasion to attribute to the lessons of Cordier all the progress he had made in the higher branches of study, and if posterity, he says, derives any fruit from his works, he would have it known that it is indebted for it, in part at least, to Cordier.

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