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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 1 — Geneva: the city and its history

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Protestantism finds a New Centre — The Lake Leman — Geneva — Its Site — Its Diminutive Size — Sncers — History of Geneva — Four Names, Julius Caesar, Honorius, Charlemagne, the Reformation, indicate the Four Stages of its History — The Bishop its First Ruler — Intrigues of the Dukes of Savoy — Pope Martin V. takes from the Genevese the right of Electing their Bishop — Exercises it himself — Appoints a Prince of Savoy to be Bishop of Geneva — Its Independence on the point of being Extinguished — New Life — War between the Prince-Bishop and the Citizens — Bonivard — His Picture of the Popes — Berthelier — His Devotion to his Country — Levrier — His Love of Justice — The War Then and Now — Wonderful Preservation of Geneva's Independence — A Higher Liberty Approaching.

PROTESTANTISM has now received its completed logical and doctrinal development, and a new and more central position must be found for it. Before returning to the open stage of the great Empires of France and Germany, and resuming our narrative of the renovating powers which the Reformation had called forth, with the great social and political revolutions which came in its train, we must devote our attention to a city that is about to become the second metropolis of Protestantism.

In leaving the wide arena of empire where Protestantism is jostled by dukes, prelates, and emperors, and moves amid a blaze of State pageantries, and in shutting ourselves up in a little town whose name history, as yet, had hardly deigned to mention, and whose diminutive size is all but annihilated by the mighty mountainous masses amid which it is placed, we make a great transition. But if the stage is narrow, and if Protestantism is stripped of all that drapery and pomp which make it so imposing on the wider arena, we shall here have a closer view of the principle itself, and be the better able to mark its sublimity and power, in the mighty impulses which from this center it is to send abroad, in order to plant piety and nourish liberty in other countries.

In the valley which the Jura on the one side, and the white Alps on the other, enclose within their gigantic arms, lies the mirror-like Leman. At the point where the Rhone gushes from the lake a bulging rock bristles up, and, framing in the form of a crescent a little space along the shore of the Leman, forms a pedestal for the city of Geneva. The little town looks down upon the placid waters of the lake spread out at its feet, and beholds its own image mirrored clearly, but not grandly, for architectural magnificence is not one of the characteristic features of the city, especially in the times of which we write. A few miles away, on the other side, another rock shoots up, dark, precipitous, and attaining the dignity of a mountain — lofty it would seem in any other country, but here it has to compete with the gigantic piles of the Alps — and, bending crest-like, leans over Geneva, which it appears to guard. A few acres suffice to give standing-room to the city. Its population in the days of Calvin numbered only some 12,000, and even now does not much exceed 40,000. Its cantonal territory is the smallest in all Switzerland, that of Zug excepted. Its diminutive size provoked the sneer of the philosopher of Ferney, who could survey it all standing at his door. "When I dress my peruke," said Voltaire, "I powder the whole republic." The Emperor Paul sarcastically called the struggles of its citizens "a tempest in a teapot." In days prior to the utterance of these sarcasms and taunts — that is, in the latter part of the sixteenth century — this little town excited other emotions than those of contempt, and was the butt of other assaults than those of sarcasm. It brought pallor into the face of monarchs. It plucked the scepter from the grasp of mighty empires, and showed the world that it knew how to extend and perpetuate its sway by making itself the metropolis of that moral and spiritual movement which, whatever might be the fate of the city itself, even should its site become the bare rock it once was, would continue to spread abroad to all countries, and travel down to all the ages of the future.

Turning from its site to its history, Geneva dates from before the Christian era, and is scarcely, if at all, less ancient than that other city, that takes the proud name of "Eternal," and with which it has been Geneva's lot, in these last ages, to do battle. Buried amid the dense shadows of paganism, and afterwards amid the not less dense shadows of Popery, Geneva remained for ages unknown, and gave no augury to the world of the important part it was destined to play, at a most eventful epoch, in the history of nations.

It comes first into view in connection with the great Julius, who stumbled upon it as he was pursuing his career of northern conquest, and wrote its name in his Commentaries, where it figures as "the last fortress of the Allobroges." [1] But the conqueror passed, and with him passed the light which had touched for a moment this sub-Alpine stronghold. It fell back again into the darkness. Under Honorius, in the fourth century, it became a city. It rose into some eminence, and even was possessed of a little liberty, in the days of Charlemagne. But a better day-spring awaited Geneva. The rising sun of the Reformation struck full upon it, and this small town became one of the lights of the world.

But we must glance back, and see what a long preparation the little city had to undergo for its great destiny. The dissolution of the Empire of Charlemagne set Geneva free to consider after what

fashion it should govern itself. At this crisis its bishop stepped forward and claimed, in addition to its spiritual oversight, the right to exercise its temporal government. The citizens conceded the claim only within certain limits. Still preserving their liberties, they took the bishop into partnership with them in the civic jurisdiction. The election of the bishop was in the hands of the people, and, before permitting him to mount the episcopal chair, they made him take an oath to preserve their franchises. [2] In the middle of the thirteenth century the independence of Geneva began to be menaced by the Counts of Savoy. That ambitious house, which was labouring to exalt itself by absorbing its neighbors' territory into its own, had cast covetous eyes upon Geneva. It would round off their dominions; besides, they were sharp-sighted enough to see that there were certain principles at work in this little Alpine town which made them uneasy. But neither intrigues nor arms — and the Princes of Savoy employed both — could prevail to this end. The citizens of Geneva knew how it fared with them under the staff of their bishop, but they did not know how it might go with them under the sword of the warrior, and so they stubbornly declined the protection of their powerful neighbor.

In the fifteenth century, the Counts of Savoy, now become dukes, still persevering in their attempts to bring the brave little city under their yoke, besought the aid of a power which history attests has done more than all the dukes and warriors of Christendom to extinguish liberty. Duke Amadeus VIII., who had added Piedmont to his hereditary dominions, as if to exemplify the adage that "ambition grows by what it feeds on," petitioned Pope Martin V. to vest in him the secular lordship of Geneva.

The citizens scented what was in the wind, and knowing that "Rome ought not to lay its paw upon kingdoms," resolved to brave the Pope himself if need were. Laying their hands upon the Gospels, they exclaimed, "No alienation of the city or of its territory — this we swear." Amadeus withdrew before the firm attitude of the Genevese.

Not so the Pope; he continued to prosecute the intrigue, deeming the little town but a nest of eaglets among crags, which it were wise betimes to pull down. But, more crafty than the duke, he tried another tack. Depriving the citizens of the right of electing their bishop, Martin V. took the nomination into his own hands, and thus opened the way for quietly transferring the municipal rule of Geneva to the House of Savoy. All he had now to do was to appoint a Prince of Savoy as its bishop. By-and-by this was done; and the struggle with the Savoy power was no longer outside the walls only, it was mainly within. The era that now opened to Geneva was a stormy and bloody one. Intrigues and rumors of intrigues kept the citizens in perpetual disquiet. The city saw itself stripped of its privileges and immunities one by one. Its annual fair was transferred to Lyons, and the crowd of merchants and traders which had flocked to it from beyond the Alps, from the towns of France, and from across the Rhine, ceased to be seen. Tales of priestly scandals — for the union of the two offices in their prince-bishop only helped to develop the worst qualities of both — passed from mouth to mouth and polluted the very air. If Geneva was growing weaker, Savoy was growing stronger. The absorption of one petty principality after another was daily enlarging the dominions of the duke, which, sweeping past and around Geneva, enclosed it as in a net, with a hostile land bristling with castles and swarming with foes. It was said that there were more Savoyards than Genevese who heard the bells of St. Pierre. Such was the position in which the opening of the sixteenth century found Geneva. This small but ancient municipality was seemingly on the point of being absorbed in the dominions of the House of Savoy. Its history appeared to be closed. The vulture of the Alps, which had hovered above it for centuries, had but to swoop down upon it and transfix it with his talons.

At that moment a new life suddenly sprang up in the devoted city. To preserve the remnant of their franchises was not enough; the citizens resolved to recover what liberties had been lost. In order to this many battles had to be fought, and much blood spilt. Leo X., about the same time that he dispatched Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences, sent a scion of the House of Savoy to Geneva (1513) as bishop. By the first the Pope drew forth Luther from his convent, by the second he paved the way for Calvin. The newly-appointed bishop, known in history as the" Bastard of Savoy," brought to the episcopal throne of Geneva a body foul with disease, the fruit of his debaucheries, and a soul yet more foul with deceitful and bloody passions; but a fit tool for the purpose in hand. The matter had been nicely arranged between the Pope, the duke, and the Bastard. [3] "John of Savoy swore to hand over the temporal jurisdiction of the city to the duke, and the Pope swore he would force the city to submit to the duke, under pain of incurring the thunders of the Vatican." [4]

From that time there was ceaseless and bitter war between the citizens of Geneva on one side, and the duke and the bishop on the other. It is not our business to record the various fortune of that strife. Now it was the bishop who was besieged in his palace, and now it was the citizens who were butchered upon their own streets by the bishop's soldiers. To-day it was the Bastard who was compelled to seek safety in flight, and

to-morow it was some leader of the patriots who was apprehended, tortured, beheaded, and his ghastly remains hung up to the public gaze as a warning to others. But if blood was shed, it was blood that leads to victory. The patriots, who numbered only nine at first, multiplied from year to year, though from year to year the struggle grew only the bloodier. The Gospel had not yet entered the gates of Geneva. The struggle so far was for liberty only, a name then denoting that which was man's noblest birthright after the Gospel, and which found as its champions men of pure and lofty soul. Wittemberg and Geneva had not yet become fused; the two liberties had not yet united their arms.

Among the names that illustrate this struggle, so important from what was to come after, are the well-known ones of Bonivard, Berthelier, and Levrier — a distinguished trio, to whom modern liberty owes much, though the stage on which they figured was a narrow one.

Bonivard was a son of the Renaissance. A scholar and a man of wit, he drew his inspiration for liberty from a classic font. From his Priory of St. Victor this accomplished and liberal-minded man assailed Rome with the shafts of satire. If his erudition was less profound and his taste less exquisite than that of Erasmus, his courage was greater. The scholar of Rotterdam flagellated the man in serge, but spared the man in purple: the Prior of St. Victor dealt equal justice to monk and Pope. He lashed the ignorance and low vices of the former, but castigated yet more severely the pride, luxury, and ambition of the latter. He mistrusted the plan Rome had hit on of regenerating men in tribes and clans, and preferred to have it done individualy. He thought too that it would be well if his "Holiness" possessed a little holiness, though that was a marvel he did not expect soon to see. "I have lived," he said, "to see three Popes. First, Alexander VI. [Borgia] a sharp fellow, a ne'er-do-weel... a man without conscience, and without God. Next came Julius II., proud, choleric, studying his bottle more than his breviary, mad about his Popedom, and having no thought but how he could, subdue not only the earth, but heaven and hell. Last appeared Leo X., the present Pope, learned in Greek and Latin, but especially a good musician, a great glutton, a deep drinker; possessing beautiful pages, whom the Italians style ragazzi ...... above all, don't trust Leo X.'s word; he can dispense others, and surely can dispense himself." [5]

He brusquely allegorised the German Reformation thus: "Leo X. and his predecessors," said the prior, "have always taken the Germans for beasts; pecora campi, they were called, and rightly too, for these simple Saxons allowed themselves to be saddled and ridden like asses. The Popes threatened them with cudgelling (excommunications), enticed them with thistles (indulgences), and so made them trot to the mill to bring away the meal for them. But having one day loaded the ass too heavily, Leo made him gib, so that the flour was spilt, and the white bread lost. That ass is called Martin like all asses, and his surname is Luther, which signifies enlightener." [6]

The lettered and gentlemanly Prior of St. Victor had not a little of the cold, sneering, sceptical spirit that belonged to the Renaissance. He "put on his gloves" when he came in contact with the citizens of Geneva; they were somewhat too bluff and outspoken for him; nevertheless he continued steadfastly on their side, and, with not a few temptations to act a contrary part, proved himself a true friend of liberty. He was seized with the idea that were he Bishop and Prince of Geneva, he would have it in his power to liberate his native city. He even set off to Rome in the hope of realising a project which every one who knew who Bonivard was, and what Rome was, must have deemed chimerical. It was found at Rome that he had not the grace for a bishop, and he returned without the mitre. It was a wonder to many that he was permitted to return at all, and the prior must have been thankful for his escape.

Berthelier was cast in another mold. He was the tribune of the people; he talked, laughed, and caroused with them; he sought especially to surround himself with the youth of Geneva; for this end he studied their tastes, and entered into all their amusements, but all the while he was on the watch for fitting occasions of firing them with his own spirit of hatred of tyranny, and devotion to the public welfare. He was sagacious, ready, indomitable, and careless of life. He knew what the struggle was coming to as regarded himself, but he did not bemoan the hard fate awaiting him, knowing that there was a mysterious and potent power in blood to advance the cause for which it was shed.

The third of a group, individually so unlike, yet at one in the cause of their country's ancient freedom, was Levrier. He was calm, severe, logical; his ideal was justice. He was a judge, and whatever was not according to law ought to be resisted and overthrown. The bishop's regime was one continuous perversion of right; it must be brought to an end: so pleaded Levrier. From time immemorial the men of Geneva had been free: what right had the Duke of Savoy and his creature, the bishop, to make slaves of them? Neither the duke nor the bishop was sovereign of Geneva; its true ruler was its charter of ancient franchises: so said the man of law. The duke feared the great citizen. Levrier was quiet, but firm; he indulged in no clamor, but he cherished no fear; he bowed before the majesty of law, and stood erect before the tyrant:

"Non vultus instantis tyranni,
Mente quatit solida."

Such were the men who were now fighting the battle of liberty at the foot of the Alps in the dawn of modern times. That battle has varied its form in the course of the centuries. In after-days the contest in Continental Europe has been to separate the spiritual from the temporal, relegate each to its own proper domain, and establish between the two such a poise as shall form a safeguard to freedom; and especially to pluck the sword of the State from the hands of the ecclesiastical power. But at Geneva, in the times we write of, the conflict had for its immediate object to prevent a separation between the two powers. Nevertheless, the battle is the same in both cases, the same in Geneva 300 years ago as in Europe in 1875. The Genevans had no love for the man who occupied their episcopal throne; it was no aim of theirs, in the last resort, to preserve a class of amphibious rulers, neither prince nor bishop, but the two mixed and confounded, to the immense detriment of both. The Prince-Bishop of Geneva was, on a small scale, what the Prince-Bishop of Rome was on a great. But the Genevans preferred having one tyrant to having two. This was the alternative before them. They knew that should they, at this hour, strip the bishop of the temporal government, the duke would seize upon it, and they preferred meanwhile keeping the mitre and the scepter united, in the hope that they would thus not only shut out the duke, but eventually expel the prince-bishop.

Marvellous it truly was that so little a city should escape so many snares, and defy so many armed assaults; for the duke again and again advanced with his army to take it — nay, upon one occasion, was admitted within its walls. There were foes enough around it, one would have thought, to have swept it from off its rock, trod buried it beneath the waves of its lake. And so would it have happened to Geneva but for the bravery of its sons, who were resolved that sooner than see it enslaved they would see it razed to the ground.

Had it been a great empire, its posts, dignities, and titles might have stimulated and sustained their patriotism; but what recompense in point of fame or riches could a little obscure town like Geneva offer for the blood which its citizen-heroes were ready every moment to pour out in defense of its freedom? A higher power than man had kindled this fire in the hearts of its citizens. The combatants were fighting, although they knew it not, for a higher liberty than Geneva had yet tasted. And that liberty was on the road to it. The snowy peaks around it were even now beginning to kindle with a new day. Voices were heard crying to the beleaguered and perplexed town, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bring good tidings; that publish peace!" It was the purpose of him who putteth down the mighty from their seats, and exalteth the lowly, to lift this city to equality with the ancient capitals of Christendom — nay, to place it above them all. For this end would he make empty the episcopal throne in St. Pierre, that the Gospel might enter and seat itself upon it. Then would Geneva raise its head in the presence of the ancient and historic cities of Europe — Rome, Paris, Milan, Venice — with a halo round it brighter than had ever encircled their brow. It would stand forth a temple of liberty, in the midst of Christendom, its gates open day and night, to welcome within its walls, as within an impregnable fortress, the persecuted of all lands.


Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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