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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 9 — Calvin the evangelist, and Berquin the martyr

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Calvin Abandons the Study of the Law – Goes to Bourges – Bourges under Margaret of Navarre – Its Evangelisation already Commenced – The Citizens entreat Calvin to become their Minister – He begins to act as an Evangelist in Bourges – The Work extends to the Villages and Castles around – The Plottings of the Monks – His Father's Death calls Calvin away – A Martyr, Louis de Berquin – His Youth – His Conversion – His Zeal and Eloquence in Spreading the Gospel – Imprisoned by the Sorbonnists – Set at Liberty by the King – Imprisoned a Second and a Third Time – Set at Liberty – Erasmus' Counsel – Berquin Taxes the Sorbonnists with Heresy – An Image of the Virgin Mutilated – Berquin consigned to the Conciergerie – His Condemnation and Frightful Sentence – Efforts of Budaeus – Berquin on his Way to the Stake – His Attire – His Noble Behaviour – His Death.

EMERGING from the furnace "purified seven times," Calvin abandons the study of the law, casts behind him the great honors to which it invited him, turns again to the Church – not her whose head is on the Seven Hills – and puts his hand to the Gospel plough, never to take it away till death should withdraw it. Quitting Orleans he goes to Bourges.

With Bourges two illustrious conquerors of former days had associated their names: Caesar had laid it in ashes; Charlemagne had raised it up from its ruins; now a greater hero than either enters it, to begin a career of conquests which these warriors might well have envied, destined as they were to eclipse in true glory and far outlast any they had ever achieved. It was here that Calvin made his first essay as an evangelist.

Bourges was situated in the province of Berry, and as Margaret, whom we have specially mentioned in former chapters, as the disciple and correspondent of Briconnet and Lefevre, had now become Queen of Navarre and Duchess of Berry, Bourges was under her immediate jurisdiction. Prepared to protect in others the Gospel which she herself loved, Bourges presented an opening for Protestantism which no other city in all France at that time did. Under Margaret it became a center of the evangelisation. For some time previous no little religious fermentation had been going on among its population. [1] The new doctrines had found their way thither; they were talked of in its social gatherings; they had begun even to be heard in its pulpits; certain priests, who had come to a knowledge of the truth, were preaching it with tolerable clearness to congregations composed of lawyers, students, and citizens. It was at this crisis that Calvin arrived at Bourges.

His fame had preceded him. The Protestants gathered round him and entreated him to become their teacher. Calvin was averse to assume the office of the ministry. Not that he shrunk from either the labors or the perils of the work, but because he cherished a deep sense of the greatness of the function, and of his own unworthiness to fill it. "I have hardly learned the Gospel myself," he would say, "and, lo! I am called to teach it to others."

Not for some time did Calvin comply with these solicitations. His timidity, his sense of responsibility, above all his love of study, held him back. He sought a hiding-place where, safe from intrusion, he might continue the pursuit of that wisdom which it delighted him with each studious day to gather and hive up, but his friends surprised him in his concealment, and renewed their entreaties. At last he consented. "Wonderful it is," he said, "that one of so lowly an origin should be exalted to so great a dignity." [2]

But how unostentatious the opening of his career! The harvests of the earth spring not in deeper silence than does this great evangelical harvest, which, beginning in the ministry of Calvin, is destined to cover a world. Gliding along the street might be seen a youth of slender figure and sallow features. He enters a door; he gathers round him the family and, opening the Bible, he explains to them its message. His words distil as the dew and as the tender rain on the grass. By-and-by the city becomes too narrow a sphere of labor, and the young evangelist extends his efforts to the hamlets and towns around Bourges. [3] One tells another of the sweetness of this water, and every day the numbers increase of those who wish to drink of it. The castle of the baron is opened as well as the cottage of the peasant, and a cordial welcome is accorded the missionary in both. His doctrine is clear and beautiful, and as refreshing to the soul as light to the eye after long darkness. And then the preacher is so modest withal, so sweet in his address, so earnest in his work, and altogether so unlike any other preacher the people had ever known! "Upon my word," said the Lord of Lignieres to his wife, "Master John Calvin seems to me to preach better than the monks, and he goes heartily to work too." [4]

The monks looked with but small favor on these doings. The doors open to the young evangelist were shut against themselves. If they plotted to stop the work by casting the workman into prison, in a town under Margaret's jurisdiction this was not so easy. The design failed, if it was ever entertained, and the evangelist went on sowing the seed from which in days to come a plentiful harvest was to spring. The Churches whose foundations are now being laid by the instrumentality of Calvin will yield in future years not only confessors of the truth, but martyrs for the stake.

In the midst of these labors Calvin received a letter from Noyon, his native town, saying

that his father was dead. [5] These tidings stopped his work, but it is possible that they saved him from prison. He had planted, but another must water; and so turning his face towards his birth-place, he quits Bourges not again to return to it. But the work he had accomplished in it did not perish. A venerable doctor, Michel Simon, came forward on Calvin's departure, and kept alive the light in Bourges which the evangelist had kindled.

On his journey to Noyon, Calvin had to pass through Paris. It so happened that the capital at that time (1529) was in a state of great excitement, another stake having just been planted in it, whereat one of the noblest of the early martyrs of France was yielding up his life. Providence so ordered it that the pile of the martyr and the visit of the Reformer came together. God had chosen him as the champion by whom the character of his martyrs was to be vindicated and their blood avenged on the Papacy, and therefore it was necessary that he should come very near, if not actually stand beside their stake, and be the eye-witness of the agonies, or rather the triumph, of their dying moments. Before tracing farther the career of Calvin let us turn aside to the Place de Greve, and see there "the most learned of the nobles of France" dying as a felon.

Louis de Berquin was descended of a noble family of Artois. [6] Unlike the knights of those days, who knew only to mount their horse, to handle their sword, to follow the hounds, or to figure in a tournament, Berquin delighted in reading and was devoted to study. Frank, courteous, and full of alms-deeds, he was beloved by all. His morals were as pure as his manners were polished: he had now reached the age of forty without calumny finding occasion to breathe upon him. He often went to court., and was specially welcomed by a prince who delighted to see around him men of intellectual accomplishments and tastes. Touching the religion of Rome, Berquin was blameless, having kept himself pure from his youth up. "He was," says Crespin, "a great follower of the Papistical constitutions, and a great hearer of masses and sermons." All the Church's rites he strictly observed, all the Church's saints he duly honored, and he crowned all his other virtues by holding Lutheranism in special abhorrence. [7]

But it pleased God to open his eyes. His manly and straightforward character made the maneuvers and intrigues of the Sorbonne specially detestable to him. Besides, it chanced to him to have a dispute with one of its doctors on a scholastic subtlety, and he opened his Bible to find in it proofs to fortify his position. Judge of his amazement when he perceived there, not the doctrines of Rome, but the doctrines of Luther. His conversion was thorough. His learning, his eloquence, and his influence were from that hour all at the service of the Gospel. He labored to spread the truth among his tenantry in the country, and among his acquaintances in the city and at the court. He panted to communicate his convictions to all France. Many looked to him as the destined Reformer of his native land; and certainly his position and gifts made him the most considerable person at that time on the side of the Reform in France. "Berquin would have been a second Luther," said Beza, "had he found in Francis I. a second Elector." [8]

The Sorbonne had not been unobservant; their alarm was great, and their anger was in proportion to their alarm. "He is worse than Luther," they exclaimed. Armed with the authority of Parliament the Sorbonne seized and imprisoned Berquin (1523). There was nothing but a stake for the man whose courage they could not daunt, and whose eloquence they could not silence, and all whose wit and learning were employed in laughing at their ignorance and exposing their superstition. But the king, who loved him, set him at liberty.

A second time the monks of the Sorbonne seized Berquin. A second time the king came to his rescue, advising him to be more prudent in future; but such strong convictions as those of Berquin could not be suppressed. A third time Berquin was seized, and the Sorbonnists thought that this time they had made sure of their prey. The king was a prisoner at Madrid: Duprat and Louisa of Savoy were all-powerful at Paris. But no: an order from Francis I., dated 1st April, 1526, arrived, enjoining them to suspend proceedings till his return; and so Berquin was again at liberty.

Berquin's courage and zeal grew in proportion as the plots of his enemies multiplied. Erasmus, who was trying to swim between two streams, foreseeing how the unequal contest must end, warned Berquin in these characteristic words: "Ask to be sent as ambassador to some foreign country; go and travel in Germany. You know Beda and such as he – he is a thousand-headed monster darting venom on every side. Your enemies are named legion. Were your cause better than that of Jesus Christ, they will not let you go till they have miserably destroyed you. Do not trust too much to the king's protection. At all events, do not compromise me with the faculty of theology." [9]

Berquin did not listen to the counsel of the timid scholar. He resolved to stand no longer on the defensive, but to attack. He extracted from the writings of Beda and his colleagues twelve propositions, which he presented to the king, and which he charged with being opposed to the Bible and, by consequence, heretical. [10]

The Sorbonnists were confounded. That they, the pillars of the Church, and the lights of France, should be taxed with heresy by a Lutheran was past endurance. The king, however, not sorry to have an opportunity of humbling these

turbulent doctors, requested them to disprove Berquin's allegations from Scripture. This might have been a hard task; the affair was taking an ugly turn for the Sorbonne. Just at that time an image of the Virgin, at the corner of one of the streets, was mutilated. It was a fortunate incident for the priests. "These are the fruits of the doctrines of Berquin," it was exclaimed; "all is about to be overthrown – religion, the laws, the throne itself – by this Lutheran conspiracy." War to the knife was demanded against the iconoclasts: the people and the monarch were frightened; and the issue was that Berquin was apprehended (March, 1529) and consigned to the Conciergerie. [11]

A somewhat remarkable occurrence furnished Berquin's enemies with unexpected advantage against him in the prosecution. No sooner was he within the walls of his prison than the thought of his books and papers flashed across his mind. He saw the use his persecutors would make of them, and he sat down and wrote instantly a note to a friend begging him to destroy them. He gave the note to a domestic, who hid it under his clothes and departed. [12]

The man, who was not a little superstitious, trembled at the thought of the message which he carried, but all went well till he came to the Pont du Change, where, his superstition getting the better of his courage, he swooned and fell before the image of "Our Lady." The passers-by gathered round him, and, unbuttoning his doublet that he might breathe the more freely, found the letter underneath. It was opened and read. "He is a heretic," said they: "Our Lady has done it. It is a miracle." The note was given to one of the bystanders, at whose house the monk then preaching the Lent sermons was that day to dine, who, perceiving its importance, carried it to Berquin's judges. [13] His books were straightway seized and examined by the twelve commissioners appointed to try him. On the 16th April, 1529, the trial was finished, and at noon Berquin was brought into court, and had his sentence read to him. He was condemned to make a public abjuration in the following manner: – He was to walk bare-headed, with a lighted taper in his hand, to the Place de Greve, and there he was to see his books burned; from the Place de Greve he was to pass to the front of the Church of Notre Dame, and there he was to do penance "to God and his glorious mother, the Virgin." After that his tongue, "that instrument of unrighteousness," was to be pierced; and, lastly, he was to be taken back to prison, and shut up for life within four walls of stone, and to have neither books to read, nor pen and ink to write. [14] Berquin, stunned by the atrocity of the sentence, at first remained silent, but recovering in a few minutes his composure, said, "I appeal to the king." This was his way of saying, I refuse to abjure.

Among his twelve judges was the celebrated Hellenist, Budaeus, the intimate friend of Berquin, and a secret favourer of the new doctrines. Budaeus hastened after him to the prison, his object being to persuade him to make a recantation, and thereby save his life. In no other way he knew could Berquin escape, for already a second sentence stood drafted by his judges, consigning him to the stake should he refuse to do public penance. Budaeus threw himself at Berquin's feet, and implored him with tears not to throw away his life, but to reserve himself for the better times that were awaiting the Reformation in France. This was the side on which to attack such a man. But the prisoner was inflexible. Again and again Budaeus returned to the Conciergerie, and each time he renewed his importunities with greater earnestness. He painted the grand opportunities the future would bring, and did not hesitate to say that Berquin would incur no small guilt should he sacrifice himself. [15]

The strong man began to bow. "The power of the Holy Ghost was extinguished in him for a moment," says one. He gave his consent to appear in the court of the Palace of Justice, and ask pardon of God and the king. Budaeus, overjoyed, hastened back to tell the Sorbonne that Berquin was ready to withdraw his appeal and make his recantation. How fared it the while with Berquin in the prison? His peace had forsaken him that same hour. He looked up to God, but the act which aforetime had ever brought joy and strength into his heart filled him with terror. This darkness was his true prison, and not the stone walls that enclosed him. Could the Sorbonne deliver him from that prison, and was this the sort of life that he was reserving for the Reformation? Verily he would do great things with a soul lettered by fear and bound down by a sense of guilt! No, he could not live thus. He could die – die a hundred times, but to appear before the Sorbonne and to say of the Gospel, "I renounce it," and of the Savior, "I know him not," that he could not do. [16] And so when Budseus returned, there was an air in the face of the prisoner which told its own tale before Berquin had had time to speak. He had weighed the two – recantation and the stake; and he had chosen the better part – though Budaeus hardly deemed it so – the stake.

The king, who it was possible might interpose at the last moment and save Berquin, was not indeed in Paris at this moment, but he was no farther away than at Blois. The Sorbonne must despatch their victim before a pardon could arrive from Blots.

A week's delay was craved in the execution of the sentence. "Not

a day," said Beda. [17] But the prisoner has appealed to the royal prerogative. "Quick," responded his persecutors, "and let him be put to death." That same day, April 22nd, 1529, at noon, was Berquin led forth to die. The ominous news had already circulated through Paris, from every street came a stream of spectators, and a dense crowd gathered and surged round the prison, waiting to see Berquin led to execution. The clock struck the hour: the gates of the Conciergerie were flung open with a crash, and the melancholy procession was seen to issue forth.

The passage of that procession through the streets was watched with looks of pity on the part of some, of wonder and astonishment on the part of others. It amazed not a few to find that the chief actor in that dismal tragedy was one of the first nobles of France. But the most radiant face in all that great concourse of men was that of Berquin himself. He was going – we had almost said to the stake, but of the stake he thought not – he was going to the palace of the sky; and what though a wretched tumbril was bearing him on his way? a better chariot – whose brightness it would have blinded the beholder to look upon – stood waiting to carry him upward as soon as he had passed through the fire; and what mattered it if those who knew not what he was going to, hooted or pitied him as he passed along? how soon would the look of pity and the shout of derision be forgotten in the presence of the "Blessed!"

The cart in which Berquin was placed moved forward at a slow pace. The crowd was great, and the streets of the Paris of those days were narrow, but the rate of progress enabled the multitude all the better to observe the way in which the martyr bore himself. As he rode along, escorted by a band of 600 bowmen, the spectators said one to another, as they marked the serenity of his looks and the triumph of his air, "He is like one who sits in a temple and meditates on holy things." [18]

"And see," said they, "how bravely he is arrayed! He is liker one who is going to a bridal banquet than one who is going to be burned." And, indeed, it was so. Berquin had that morning dressed himself in his finest clothes. He wore no weeds; sign of mourning or token of woe would have belied him, as if he bewailed his hard lot, and grieved that his life should be given in the cause of the Gospel. He had attired himself in pleasant and even gay apparel. A citizen of Paris, who wrote a journal of these events, and who probably saw the martyr as he passed through the streets, tells us that "he wore a cloak of velvet, a doublet of satin and damask, and golden hose." [19] This was goodly raiment for the fire. "But am I not," said Berquin, "to be this day presented at court – not that of Francis, but that of the Monarch of the Universe?"

Arrived at the Place de Greve, he alighted from the vehicle and stood beside the stake. He now essayed to speak a few words to the vast assembly which he found gathered at the place of execution. But the monks who stood near, dreading the effect on the multitude of what he might say, gave the signal to their creatures, and instantly the shout of voices, and the clash of arms, drowned the accents of the martyr. "Thus," says Felice, "the Sorbonne of 1529 set the populace of 1793 the base example of stifling on the scaffold the sacred words of the dying." [20]

What though the roll of drums drowned the last words of Berquin? It was his DEATH that must speak. And it did speak: it spoke to all France; and this, the most eloquent and powerful of all testimonies, no clamours could stifle.

The fire had done its work, and where a few minutes before stood the noble form of Berquin there was now only a heap of ashes. In that heap lay entombed the Reformation in France – so did both friend and foe deem. The Sorbonnists were overjoyed: the Protestants were bowed down under a weight of sorrow. There was no sufficient reason for the exultation of the one or the dejection of the other. Berquin's stake was to be, in some good measure, to France what Ridley's was to England – a candle which, by God's grace, would not be put out, but would shine through all that realm. [21]


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Saturday, June 23rd, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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