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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 14 — Calvin returns to Geneva

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The Movement must resume its March — Calvin at Strasburg — The Libertines at Geneva — Calvin's Four Persecutors Perish — Tide Turns at Geneva — Deputations to entreat Calvin's Return — The Idea of going back Terrible to him — Bucer's Adjuration — Starts on his Return Journey — Enters Geneva — Reception — Lessons Learned in Exile — Returns Fitter for his Work — Idelette de Bure — His Salary, etc.

HAD the Diet at Ratisbon succeeded in finding, what both parties in the convention so sincerely labored to discover, a basis of agreement, Calvin would not have returned to Geneva. There would have been no need to seek a new center for a Reformation which had run. its course, and was about to disappear from the stage; It was saved, however, from the entombment which agreement would have given it. The movement is again to resume its march. Its second and grandest act is about to open, and accordingly Calvin is on his way back to Geneva.

While living honored in Strasburg, each day occupied in fruitful labors, interrupted only by attendances at imperial Diets, the public feeling respecting the Reformer had been undergoing a great change on the banks of the Leman. The faction of the Libertines, reinforced by Anabaptists and Papists, grew every day more ungovernable; Licentiousness and tumult ran riot now that Calvin was gone. [1] The year 1539 passed in the most outrageous saturnalia. [2] The Council, helpless in the face of these disorders, began to repent of what they had done. The four syndics who had been mainly active in the banishment of Calvin were now out of the way. One had perished on the scaffold, charged with the crime of surrendering Genevese territory; another, accused of sedition, had attempted to escape by his window, but, falling headlong, broke his neck.

His fellow-citizens, on learning his tragic end, called to mind that he had said tauntingly to Calvin, "Surely the city-gate was wide enough to let him go out." [3] The two remaining syndics, implicated in the same charges, had betaken themselves to flight. All this happened in the same year and the same month.

It was now 1540. The city registers show the daily rise in the tide of popular feeling for Calvin's recall. September 21st: the Council charged Amy Perrin, one of its members, "to find means, if he could, to bring back Master Calvin." October 13th: it was resolved to write a letter "to Monsieur Calvin that he would assist us." October 19th: the Council of Two Hundred resolved, "in order that the honor and glory of God may be promoted," to seek all possible means to have "Master Caulvin as preacher." October 20th: it was ordered in the General Council, or Assembly of the People, "to send to Strasburg to fetch Master Jean Calvinus, who is very learned, to be minister in this city." [4] The enthusiasm of the citizens is thus described by an eye-witness, Jacques Bernard: "They all cried out, ' Calvin, Calvin! we wish Calvin, the good and learned man, and true minister of Jesus Christ!'" [5]

Three several deputations did Geneva send to entreat the return of the man whom, two years before, it had chased from its gates with contumely and threats. The same two cantons, Bern and Zurich, whose approaches in the way of mediation it then repulsed, were now asked to use their good offices with the magistrates of Strasburg, in order to overcome their unwillingness to forego Calvin's services. In addition to the Senate's advances, numerous private citizens wrote to the Reformer in urgent terms soliciting his return. These letters found Calvin already on his way to the Diet at Worms, whither the deputy of Geneva followed him. [6] The repentant city opens its gates. Shall he go back?

It was a critical moment, not in Calvin's history only, but in that of Christendom; though neither Calvin nor any other man could then estimate the momentous issues that hung upon his decision. The question of going back threw him into great perplexity. The two years he had already passed in Geneva, with the contradictions, perils, and insults with which they were filled up, rose vividly before him. If he returns, shall he not have to endure it all over again? Going back was like lying down on a bed of torture. The thought, he tells us, filled him with horror. "Who will not pardon me," he writes, "if I do not again willingly throw myself into a whirlpool which I have found so dangerous?" [7] He appeared to himself of all men the most unfit for a career so stormy as that which awaited him at Geneva. In a sense he judged correctly. He was naturally shy. His organisation was exquisitely strung. Sensitive and tender, he recoiled from the low arts and the coarse abuse of rough and unprincipled opponents. It was sympathy and love that he sought for. But it is exactly on a constitution like this that it is possible to graft the finest and loftiest courage. Qualities like these, when found in combination with high conscientiousness and lofty aims, as they were in Calvin's case, become changed under discipline, and in fitting circumstances develop into their opposites. The shrinking delicacy or timidity which quails before a laugh or a sneer disappears, and a chivalrous boldness comes in its room, which finds only delight in facing danger and confronting opposition. The sense of pain is absorbed in the conscious grandeur of the aim, and the sensitive man stands up in a courage which the whole world can neither bend nor break.

Calvin disburdened his mind to his brethren, telling them with what apprehensions this call to his former field of labor had filled him, yet that he would obey, should they deem it his duty to go. They knew his worth, and were reluctant indeed to part with

him; but when they thought on Geneva, situated on the borders of Italy and France, and offering so many facilities for carrying the light into these countries, they at once said, "This is your post .of service." Not yet, however, could Calvin conquer his aversion. The city on the banks of the Leman was to him a "chamber of torture;" he shuddered to enter it. Bucer stood forward, and with an adjuration similar to that which Farel had formerly employed to constrain him to abide in Geneva, he constrained Calvin to return to it. Bucer bade him beware of the punishment of Jonas for refusing to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites. [8] This was enough; the die was cast: mobs might rage, faction might plot, a hundred deaths might await him in Geneva, he would go nevertheless, since duty called him.

He now began to prepare for his journey. Loaded with many marks of honor by the magistrates of Strasburg, he bade adieu to:that city. A mounted herald, sent from Geneva, rode before him. He traveled slowly, halting at Neuchatel to compose some differences which had sprung up in the flock of Farel, and solace himself a little while in the society of the most loved of all his friends, before crossing the territory of the Vaud, and resuming his great task. On the 13th of September we behold him entering the gates of Geneva, his face still pale, but lighted up with his earnest look and eagle eye. He climbs, amid the reverend gaze of the citizens, the steep and narrow Rue des Chanoines, and takes up his abode in a house prepared for him beforehand at the head of that street, with its little garden behind, and a glorious vista of lake and mountains beyond — the broad blue Leman, with the verdant and woody Jura on this hand, and the great Alps, in all their snowy magnificence, on that. It has been often asked, was Calvin insensible to these glories? And it has been answered, he was, seeing he says not a word about them in his letters. No more does St. Paul in his, though his labors were accomplished amid scenes of classic fame, and physical beauty. The general, in the heat of action, has no time to note the scenery that may lie around the battle-field. What to Calvin was Geneva but a battle-field? it was the center of a great conflict, which enlarged year after year till it came to be coextensive with Christendom, and every movement in which Calvin had to superintend and direct. The grandeur of the natural objects that surrounded him, at times, doubtless fixed his eye and tranquillised his soul, but with the alternations of hope and fear, sorrow and triumph, filling his mind as the battle around him flowed or ebbed, he may well be excused if he refused to sink the Reformer in the painter.

In being sent into exile Calvin was, in fact, sent to school. Every day of his sojourn at Strasburg his powers were maturing, and his vision enlarging, and when at last he returns to Geneva he is seen to be fully armed for the great fight that awaits him there. The study of his character, previous to his expatriation, reveals these defects, which, if not corrected, might have seriously marred his success. He yearned too strongly for sympathy — we do not say praise — with his work and his aims. His own delight in what was true and lofty was so intense that he reckoned too readily on finding the same in others, and was in the same proportion discouraged when he failed to find it. He must learn to do the work for the work's sake, irrespective altogether of censure or sympathy, save the sympathy of One, the Master even. This first infirmity begat a second, a guilelessness bordering on simplicity. He thought that he had but to show himself actuated by upright and high aims in order to disarm opposition and conciliate friends and fellow-laborers. He did not make sufficient allowance for the shortsightedness, the selfishness, the craft, the cruelty that are in the heart of man. But the deep wound he received in "the house of his friends" helped to cure him of this weakness. He knew better than before what was in man. The sharpest injuries he saw were to come not from the Romanists, but from professed Protestants. He now stood armed on this side.

But the greatest defect in the character of the Reformer grew out of one of his more notable excellences. We refer to the intensity and tenacity with which he laid hold on his object. This was apt to lead to the too exclusive concentration of his powers on the task or the spot that engaged him for the time. It tended, in short, to isolation. Up to his first coming to Geneva he had lived only in French circles; the greater world of the Reformation he had not entered; and had he never made acquaintance with a wider sphere, there was a danger of his being only the man of Geneva, and giving to a little State what was meant for Christendom. He must go forth, he must tread German earth, he must breathe German air, he must survey from this post of observation the length and breadth of the great movement, at the center of which is his own permanent place, and for three successive years must his eye be kept fixed on that wide field, till what is merely national or denominational has dropped out of view, or at least assumed its proportional importance, and only what is oecumenical and eternal remains. Here at Strasburg he will associate not with scholars and burghers only, but with practical Reformers, with princes, and with the leading minds of many various nationalities; and thus we find that when a second time he presents himself at the gates of Geneva, he

is no longer the Frenchman simply, he is of no nation because of all nations. To the clear, sharp-cut, beautiful genius of France he now adds the robustness of the Teuton. He feels as deeply as ever the necessity of guarding the purity of the Communion-table, for it is the point from which he is to work outward for the regeneration of the Church in the first place, and the State in the second, and accordingly his aims are no longer bounded by the limits of Geneva; they stretch wide around, and the little city becomes the pedestal simply on which he places that spiritual apparatus by which he is to regenerate Christendom.

Calvin, the stern, the severe, insensible alike to Alpine grandeurs and to female loveliness, had married while at Strasburg. [9] Idelette de Bure, the woman who had given her hand to the Reformer, came from Liege, one of the earliest among the cities of the Netherlands which embraced the Gospel. She was a widow. Her modest yet courageous deportment as evinced in facing the perils to which the profession of the Gospel exposed her, her devoted affections and deep-seated piety as shown in ministering to the sick, and watching tenderly over the two children whom she had borne to her former husband, Jean Storder, had won the esteem of Calvin.

Many friends from a distance testified their sympathy and joy by attending his nuptials. But why is not his Idelette de Bure by his side when he re-enters Geneva? She is to follow, and to be the modest, loving, and noble-minded companion of the Reformer, during nine of the most laborious and stormy years of his life. Three horses, a carriage, and a sum of money are sent her by the Senate, to bring her to Geneva. A piece of cloth was presented to Calvin for a gown, [10] and the pulpit in St. Peter's was prepared for the preacher: it was fixed against a massive pillar, and placed low, that the speaker might be distinctly audible to all.

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Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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