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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 11 — Sumptuary Laws — Calvin and Farel banished

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Geneva Stands or Falls with its Morality — Code of Morals — Dances, etc. — The Sumptuary Laws Earlier than Calvin's Time — Rise of the Libertine Party — Outcries — Demand for the Abolition of the New Code — The Libertines obtain a Majority in the Council — Bern Interferes adversely — Question of Unleavened BreadsConfusion and Disorders in Geneva — Calvin and Farel Refuse to Dispense the Communion at Easter — Tumult in the Churches — Farel and Calvin Banished by the Council.

CALVIN'S theological code was followed by one of morals. There were few cities in Christendom that had greater need of such a rule than the Geneva of that day. For centuries it had known almost nothing of moral discipline. The clergy were notoriously profligate, the government was tyrannical, and the people, in consequence, were demoralised. Geneva had but one redeeming trait, the love of liberty. The institutions of learning were neglected, and the manners of the Genevans were as rude as their passions were violent. They revelled, they danced, they played at cards, they fought in the streets, they sung indecent songs, uttered fearful blasphemies; indulged, in short, in all sorts of excesses. It was clear that Protestantism must cleanse the city or leave it. Geneva was nothing unless it was moral; it could not stand a day. This was the task to which Calvin now turned his attention.

This introduces the subject of the sumptuary laws, which were sketched at this time, though not finished till an after-period. The rules now framed forbade games of chance, oaths and blasphemies, dances, [1] lascivious songs, farces, and masquerades. The hours of taverners were shortened; every one was to be at home by nine at night, and hotel-keepers were to see that these rules were observed by their guests. To these were added certain regulations with a view of restraining excess in dress and profusion at meals. All were enjoined to attend sermon and the other religious exercises. [2]

Even before the time of Calvin, under the Roman Church, most of these practices, and especially dances, had been forbidden under severe penalties. Forty years after his death, under Henry IV. of France, similar edicts were promulgated. [3] The British Government at this day adopts the principle of the Genevan regulations, when it forbids gambling, indecent pictures and plays, and similar immoralities; and if such laws are justifiable now, how much more so in Calvin's time, when there were scarcely any amusements that were innocent!

The second battle with the citizens proved a harder one than the first with the priests, and the reformation of manners a more difficult task than the reformation of beliefs. The citizens remembered the halcyon days they had enjoyed under their bishop, and contrasted them with the moral restraints imposed upon them by the Consistory. The reproofs which Calvin thundered against their vices from the pulpit were intolerable to many, perhaps to most. The population was a mixed one. Many were still Papists at heart; some were Anabaptists, and others were deeply tainted with that infidel and materialistic philosophy which had been growing quietly up under the shade of the Roman Church. The successful conflict the Genevans had waged for their political independence helped, too, to make them less willing to bow to the Protestant yoke. Was it not enough that they had shed their blood to have the Gospel preached to them? It was mortifying to find that very Protestantism which they had struggled to establish turning round upon them, and weighing them in its scales, and finding them wanting.

Loud and indignant cries were raised against Calvin for neglecting his office. Appointed to be an expositor of Scripture, who made him, asked his calumniators, a censor of morals and a reprover of the citizens?

Religion, in the age gone by, had been too completely dissociated from morality to make the absurdity of this accusation palpable. The Libertines, as the oppositionists began now to be called, demanded the abolition of the new code; they complained especially of the "excommunication." "What!" said they, "have we put down the Popish confessional only to set up a Protestant one?" and mounting party badges, they wore green flowers in mockery of the other citizens, calling them "brothers in Christ." [4] The Government began to be intimidated by these clamours. The majority of the citizens being still on the side of the ministers, the Council ventured on issuing an edict, commanding the Libertines to leave the city.

But it had not the courage to enforce its own order; and the Libertines, seeing its weakness, grew every day more insolent. At length the elections in February, 1538, gave a majority in their favor in the Council; three out of the four Syndics were on the side of the Libertines. [5] This turn of affairs placed the pastors in a position of extreme difficulty. They stood in front of a hostile Council, pushed on from behind by a hostile population. Calvin remained firm. His resolution was taken unalterably to save his principle, come what might to himself. He was determined at all hazards not to give holy things to unholy men; for he saw that with that principle must stand or fall the Reformation in Geneva.

While these intestine convulsions shook the city within, invasion threatened it without. The strifes of the citizens were the signal to their old enemies to renew their attempts to recover Geneva. The inhabitants fortified the walls, cast the superfluous bells into cannon, and placed them upon the ramparts. [6] Alas! this would avail but little, seeing they were all the while pulling down that which was their true defense. With their morality was bound up their Protestantism, and should it depart, not all their stone walls would prevent their becoming once more the prey of Rome.

At this stage the matter was still further embroiled by the interference of Bern. The

government of that powerful canton, ambitious of assuming the direction of affairs at Geneva, counselled the Genevese to restore certain ceremonies which had been retained in the Bernese Reformation, but cast off in the Genevan one; among others, holidays, and the use of unleavened bread in the Communion. [7] Calvin and Farel demurred to the course recommended.

The moment the sentiments of the pastors became known, a vehement zeal seized the Libexines to have the Lord's Supper dispensed with unleavened bread. The Government decided that it should be as the Libertines desired. With Calvin a much greater question was whether the Communion should be given to these persons at all. As Easter approached, the fury of the party increased. They ran through the streets at night voeiferating and yelling. They would stop before the pastors' houses, calling out, "To the Rhone! to the Rhone!" and would then fire off their arquebuses. They got up a masquerade in which they parodied that very ordinance which their scrupulous consciences would not permit them to receive save with unleavened bread. Frightful confusion prevailed in Geneva. This is attested by eye-witnesses, and by those who had the best opportunities of knowing the truth of what they have narrated. "Popery had indeed been forsworn," says Beza, "but many had not cast away with it those numerous and disgraceful disorders which had for a long time flourished in the city, given up as it was for so many years to canons and impure priests." [8] "Nothing was to be heard," says Reset, "but informations and quarrels between the former and present lords (the old and new members of Council), some being the ringleaders, and others following in their steps, the whole mingled with reproaches about the booty taken in the war, or the spoils carried off from the churches." [9] "I have lived here," says Calvin himself, describing those agitations, "engaged in strange contests. I have been saluted in mockery of an evening before my own door, with fifty or sixty shots of arquebuses. You may imagine how that must asteroid a poor scholar, timid as I am, and as I confess I always was." [10] It was amid these shameful scenes that the day arrived which was to show whether the Libertines backed by the Council, or Calvin supported by his own great principle, would give way.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, 1538, the great bell Clemence rung out its summons, and all the quarters of the city poured out their inhabitants to fill the churches. Farel ascended the pulpit of St. Gervais, Calvin occupied that of St. Peter's. In the audience before them they could see the Libertines in great force. All was calm on the surface, but a single word might let loose the winds and awake the tempest. Nevertheless they would do their duty. The pastors expounded the nature of the Lord's Supper; they described the dispositions required in those who would worthily partake of it; and appealing to the disorders which had reigned in the city in the past weeks, in proof that these were not the dispositions of the majority of those now assembled, they concluded by intimating that this day the Holy Supper would not be dispensed. Hereupon, outcries drowned the voice of the preachers. The uproar was specially great in St. Gervais; swords were unsheathed, and furious men rushed toward the pulpit. Farel waited with his arms crossed. He had long since learned to look on angry faces without trembling. Calvin in St. Peter's was equally resolute. Sooner should his blood dye the boards he stood upon, than he would be guilty of the profanation demanded of him. "We protest before you all," he said, "that we are not obstinate about the question of bread, leavened or unleavened; that is a matter of indifference, which is left to the discretion of the Church. If we decline to administer the Lord's Supper, it is because we are in a great difficulty, which prompts us to this course." Farel had borne the brunt of the tempest in the morning, it was to be Calvin's turn in the evening. On descending to the Church of Rive, the former Convent of St. Francis, near the shores of the lake, he found the place already filled with an assembly, many of whom had brought their swords with them. Whatever apprehensions the young Reformer may have felt, he presented to the assembly, which hung upon the edge of the storm, a calm and fearless front. He had not been more than eighteen months in their city, and yet he had inspired them with an awe greater than that which they felt even for Farel.

These two were men of the same spirit, as of the same office, and yet they were unlike, and the Genevans saw the difference. Farel was the man of oratory, Calvin was the man of power. In what attribute or faculty, or combination of faculties, his power lay, they would have had great difficulty in saying. Certainly it was not in his gestures, nor in his airs, nor in the pomp of his rhetoric, for no one could more sedulously eschew these things; but that he did possess power — calm, inflexible, resistless power — they all knew, for they all felt it. Farel's invectives and denunciations were terrible; his passion was grand, like the thunderstorms of their own Alps; but there was something in the noise that tempered his severity, and softened his accusations. Calvin never thundered and lightened. Had he done so it would have been a relief; the Genevans would have felt him to be more human and genial — a man of like passions with themselves; at least, of like passions with Farel, whom they regarded with a mixture of love and fear, and whom they could not help half-forgiving, even when he was rousing their anger by his reproaches. But in his terrible calmness, in his passionless reason, Calvin stood

apart from, and rose above, all around him — above Farel — even above the Council, whose authority was dwarfed before the moral majesty that seemed to clothe this man. He was among them like an incarnate conscience; his utterances were decrees, just and inflexible, like the laws of heaven themselves. Whence had he come, this mysterious and terrible man? Noyon was his birth-place, but what influences had moulded such a spirit? and what chance was it which had thrown him into their city to hold them in his spell, and rule them as neither bishop, nor duke, nor Pope had been able to rule them? They would try whether they could not break his yoke. For this end they had brought their swords with them.

The historians who were eye-witnesses of the scene that followed are discreet in their accounts of it. It did not end so tragically as it threatened, and instead of facts that would not redound to the honor of their city, they treat us to felicitations that the affair had no worse a termination. What the words were that evoked the tempest we do not know. It was not necessary that they should be strong, seeing the more violent the more welcome would they be. While Calvin is preaching we see a dark frown pass suddenly over the faces of the assembly. Instantly there come shouts and outcries; a moment after, the clatter of weapons being hastily unsheathed salutes our ears; the next, we are dazzled by the gleam of naked swords. The tempest has burst with tropical suddenness and violence. The infuriated men, waving their weapons in the face of the preacher, press forward to the pulpit. One single stroke and Calvin's career would have been ended, and not his only — with him would have ended the career of Geneva as the new foothold of the Reformation. Farel had felt the burden too heavy for him; and had Calvin fallen, we know of no one who could have taken his place. What a triumph for Rome, who would have re-entered Geneva over the mangled corpse of the Reformer! But what a disaster to Europe, the young day of which would have been quenched in the blackness of a two-fold night — that of a rising atheism, and that of a returning superstition!

But the movement was not fated so to end. He who had scattered the power of emperors and armies when they stood in battle array against the Reformation, stilled the clamours of furious mobs when they rose to extinguish it. The same buckler that covered Luther in the Diet of Worms, was extended over the head of Calvin amid the glittering swords in the Church of Rive. In that assembly were some who were the friends of the Reformer; they hastily threw themselves between the pulpit and the furious men who were pressing forward to strike. This check gave time to the less hostile among Calvin's foes to recover their senses, and they now remonstrated with the more violent on the crime they were about to commit, and the scandal they would cause if they succeeded in their object. Their anger began to cool; first one and then another put back his sword into its sheath; and after some time calm was restored. Michael Roset, the chronicler and magistrate, who appears to have been present, says, with an evident sense of relief, "The affair passed off without bloodshed ;" and the words of the syndic Guatier, who reckoned its peaceable ending a sort of miracle, show how near it had been to having a very different termination, [11] The Reformer's friends did not think it prudent to leave him undefended, though the storm seemed to have spent itself. Forming an escort round him, they conducted him to his home.

On the morrow the Council of Two Hundred met, and pronounced sentence of banishment upon the two ministers. This sentence was ratified on the following day by the Council-General or assembly of the people. On the decision being intimated to Calvin, he replied with dignity, "Had I been the servant of man, I should have received but poor wages; but happy for me it is that I am the servant of him who never fails to give his servants that which he has promised them." The Council rested its sentence of banishment upon the question of "unleavened bread." Herein it acted disingenuously. The pastors had protested that the question of leavened or unleavened bread in the Eucharist was with them an open one.

The real ground of banishment is one on which the magistrates of Geneva, for obvious reasons, are silent — namely, the refusal of Farel and Calvin to celebrate the Lord's Supper, on account of the blasphemies and immoralities indulged in by many of those who demanded admission to the Communion-table. Before being condemned, Calvin asked to be heard in his defense before the Council-General, but his request was refused. [12]

It is important to mark, at this stage, that the principle on which the Reformer rested his whole scheme of Church government was — holy things are not to be given to the unholy. This principle he laboured to make inviolable, as being the germ, in the first place, of purity in the Church; and, in the second, of morality and liberty in the State. The principle was, as we have seen, on this its first attempt to assert itself, cast out and trodden under foot of an infidel democracy. That party, in the days of Calvin, was only in its first sprouting; it has since grown to greatness, and put forth its strength on a wider theater, and the world has seen it, particularly in France, pull down and tread into the dust kings and hierarchies. But Calvin's principle, being Divine, could not perish under the blows now dealt it. It was overborne for the moment, and driven out of Geneva in the persons of its

champions; but it lifted itself up again, and, rentering Geneva, was there, fifteen years afterwards, crowned with victory.


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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