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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 17 — Calvin's battles with the Libertines

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Pierre Ameaux — His Wife — The Spiritual Libertines — A Public Confession — Jacques Gruet — An Execution — Practical Reforms — Amy Perrin — his Ambition — Francois Favre — Madame Perrin Imprisoned — Rage of the Favre Family — The Law Triumphs — The Disorders Renewed — Calvin's Appearance before the Council — His Magnanimity — Peace Restored — Calvin meanwhile Labours indefatigably — Growing Renown of Geneva — The Favres again "Lift up the Horn " — Perrin made First Syndic — Personal Outrages on Calvin — Comparison between Luther and Calvin in their Sufferings — Sublimity of Calvin — His Wife, Idelette de Bure, Dies.

THE battle lasted nine years, and during all that time Calvin "guided Geneva as a vessel on fire, which burns the captain's feet, and yet obeys him." [1] It began in the following way: — Pierre Ameaux was a maker of playing-cards by trade, and a member of the Council of Two Hundred. In 1546, his wife was cited before the Consistory "for several monstrous propositions." She had given herself up to the grossest immorality on principle. "It is in this sense," she said — and in this she spoke the common sentiments of the spiritual Libertines — "we ought to take the communion of saints, spoken of in the Apostles' Creed; for this communion can never be perfect till all things are common among the faithful — goods, houses, and body." From the Consistory, Madame Ameaux passed to the Council, which sent her to prison. Her husband, from whom she had learned these doctrines, saw himself condemned in his wife's condemnation. Besides, he had a grudge at Calvin, who had injured his trade by forbidding card-playing. One night, when merry at supper, he said to his friends that "his religion was the true religion, whereas Calvin's religion was deceit and tyranny, and that the magistrates who supported him were traitors." [2] On the words being reported to the Council, Ameaux was compelled to apologise. Calvin deemed this a too lenient sentence for an offense that struck at the fundamental settlement of the State. He demanded that the Council should inflict a more adequate punishment, or put himself and the other ministers on their trial. The Council, who were resolved to uphold the moral discipline, cancelled their first sentence, and pronounced a second and harder one. They adjudged Pierre Ameaux to walk through the streets bareheaded, carrying a lighted candle, and to make confession of his fault on his knees. The anger of the Libertines was great. A few days after, knowing that Calvin was in the pulpit, they rushed into the church and made a disturbance. The Council, feeling that with the Gospel must fall the republic, set up a gibbet in the Place St. Gervais. The hint was understood and respected.

In the following year (1547) events of greater consequence occurred. One day a paper was found affixed to the pulpit of St. Peter's, full of abuse of the ministers, and threatening them with death. [3] Suspicion fell on Jacques Gruet, who had been seen loitering about the cathedral. From a canon in the Roman Church, Gruet had passed to the ranks of the Libertines, to whose principles his notorious profligacy did honor. The Council arrested him. A domiciliary visit brought to light another trait of his character, which until then was unknown, save to his more intimate friends. His shorn head had not prevented him becoming an infidel, and an infidel of a very malignant type. Certain writings, his own composition, breathing an envenomed hatred of Christ, were discovered in his house. A clue, moreover, was there found to a correspondence tending to deliver up Geneva to the duke. The billet affixed to the pulpit was forgotten in the graver discoveries to which it led. Gruet confessed his guilt, and was condemned and beheaded. [4]

The Council maintained its ground in presence of the Libertines. So far from receding in the way of relaxing the moral code, it advanced in the path of practical reformation. It closed the taverns; it placed under surveillance certain places in the city where jovial parties were wont to assemble; it forbade the baptising of infants by the names of Popish saints, a practice which was understood to be a manifesto against the Protestant rule; and it prohibited the performance of the Acts of the Apostles, a comedy designed, its patrons alleged, for the edifying of the people, but which, in the opinion of the Council, profaned the Word of God, and wasted the public money, "which it were better to expend on the necessities of the poor Protestant refugees with which Geneva was now beginning to be filled." These decided measures only inflamed the rage of the Libertines. [5]

This party now found a leader in an unexpected quarter. We have already mentioned the name of Amy Perrin. Six years before, he had gone all the way to Strasburg to prevail on Calvin to resume his place at Geneva. But he was not to remain always by the side of the Reformer. Perrin was irascible in temper, frivolous in manners, a lover of fetes and magnificent dresses, and as ambitious of power as he was devoid of the talents for exercising it. He aped, in Geneva, the part of Caesar at Rome; but Calvin saw that his vein fitted him for the comic rather than the heroic, and styled him at times "Caesar the Comedian." He had been raised, by the voice of the people, to the chief military command in the republic, he was thus not without the means of aiding his party, and of damaging his opponents.

The wife of Perrin was the daughter of Francois Favre, who was now closing a life that had been not unprofitable to the State, with an old age of shameless immorality. His flagrancies compelled the notice of the Council. His daughter, Madame Perrin,

gave a ball, by way of showing how little she regarded either Consistory or Senate. This was a transgression of the ecclesiastical ordinances. All concerned in the affair, including one of the syndics, were summoned before the Consistory. Only two, of whom Perrin was one, acknowledged their fault; the rest set the Ecclesiastical Court at open defiance, and, in accordance with the constitutional law and practice, were summoned before the Council, and ordered to prison.

Madame Perrin was among the incarcerated. Her rage knew no bounds; and what added to it was the circumstance of her father being imprisoned about the same time for "debauchery and adultery." The humiliation of the family of Favre was now complete, and their indignation was fierce in proportion. They loudly demanded the abolition of the ecclesiastical laws, and denounced Calvin as bringing back, under another name, the tyranny of the Roman Church. [6] The captain-general, Perrin, took the part of his wife and his father-in-law, and used all his influence both in the Council and in the city against Calvin.

The party increased in numbers and in audacity. They demanded that the Council should strip the Consistory of the power to excommunicate, and take it into its own hands. They hoped, no doubt, that in the hands of the Council excommunication would remain a dead letter, and thus the mainspring of the Calvinistic discipline would be broken.

Calvin saw how much was at stake, and resolved to continue the battle till he should fall at his post or be driven from it. With him it was no trial of strength between himself and the Favre family, which of the two had the greater influence in Geneva, and which should bow the head before the other. The question to be decided was whether the Reformation, in its re-invigorated spiritual phase, should be propagated over Europe or be trampled underfoot by Genevan Libertinism. If it was to spread to other countries, its purity and rigour must be maintained at all hazards in Geneva, its center. It was from this calm elevation that Calvin surveyed the struggle. Writing to Farel, he says: "I told them that so long as they were in Geneva, they should strive in vain to cast off obedience to the laws; for were there as many diadems in the house of the Favres as frenzied heads, that that would be no barrier-to the Lord being superior." [7]

As Calvin had foretold, so it happened: the law held its course. The Favres had to digest their humiliation as best they could; the law knew no distinction between them and the lowest citizen.

The battle, however, was not ended; nay, it grew still fiercer. Geneva became yet more divided and demoralised. On the 12th December, 1547, we find the pastors going to the H'tel de Ville "to show that a great deal of insolence, debauchery, dissoluteness, and hatred was prevalent, to the ruin of the State." On the 16th December the Council of Two Hundred met to discuss the measures to be taken. The contention was so hot, and the threats uttered against the pastors, and especially against Calvin, were so violent, that their friends ran to beg the ministers not to appear that day before the Council. Calvin proceeded to the H'tel de Ville alone. An excited crowd was gathered at the door of the Council-hall. "I cast myself," says Calvin, "into the thickest of the crowd. I was pulled to and fro by those who wished to save me from harm." But he adds, "The people shrank from harming me as they would from the murder of a father." [8] Passing through the crowd, Calvin entered the Council-chamber.

There fresh combats awaited him. On his entrance the cries grew louder, and swords were unsheathed. He advanced undismayed, stood in the midst of them, and looked round on the scowling faces and naked swords. All were silent. "I know," said Calvin, addressing the members of the Council, "that I am the primary cause of these divisions and disturbances." The silence grew yet more profound, and the Reformer proceeded: "If it is my life you desire, I am ready to die. If it is my banishment you wish, I shall exile myself. If you desire once more to save Geneva without the Gospel, you can try." This challenge brought the Council to their senses. It recalled the memory of the disorders that had made it necessary to implore the interposition of the very man they were now seeking to drive away, to save the republic when on the brink of ruin. The recollection cooled the most irritated spirits present. A republic, of course, could bestow the title of king upon no one; but all felt that the man before them, though he had no crown, was in reality a king. He wore his pastor's cloak right royally, and looked more august than monarch in his robes of state. His magnanimity and wisdom procured him a submission that could not have been more instant or more profound though he had carried scepter and sword. Peace was established between the two parties, and Calvin, in prospect of the Communion at the approaching Christmas, held out his hand to Perrin. [9] The members of Council, holding up their right hands, signified their desire that past feuds should be buried, and in token of reconciliation a banquet took place at the town-hall. [10]

But the Reformer cherished no delusive hopes: he knew that between parties so diametrically divided in principle there could be no lasting truce. The storm had lulled, but all through the year 1548 it continued to mutter. In the midst of these tempests, his pen was not for a moment idle. His genius, with concentrated power, continued to produce and send forth those defences and expositions of the Protestant system which were so mightily useful in extending the Reformation and building it up in other lands, and which, year by year,

lifted higher into the world's view, and invested with a greater glory, that city from which they emanated, although a powerful faction was seeking to expel from it the man who was its strength and glory. Not a week which might not be Calvin's last in Geneva. And yet when men spoke of that valorous little State, growing day by day in renown, it was Calvin of whom they thought; and when the elite of other countries, the most enlightened and scholarly men in Europe, some of them of the highest rank, flocked to its gates, it was to see Calvin, to enjoy Calvin's society, and to share Calvin's instructions.

Again the storm darkened. The house of Favre, which had been compelled to "lower the head" in 1547, once more "lifted up the horn" in 1549. In the end of 1548, Perrin, Favre's son-in-law, was restored to his place in the Council, and to his office of "Captain-General," of both of which he had been deprived. Restored to office and honors, he so ingratiated himself with the citizens that early in 1549 he was elected to the Syndicate, and, contrary to custom, was made First Syndic. This gave fresh courage to his party. It was now that the tide of popular contumely and derision around the Reformer rose to the full. The hero of the Libertine populace — "the pillars of the Tavern," as Farel called them when addressing the Council during a visit which he made about this time to Geneva — was, of course, Captain Perrin, the First Syndic. To ingratiate themselves with Perrin was an easy matter indeed; they had only to do what already they were but too well disposed to do — indulge their spite against the Reformer. They hit upon a method of annoyance which, doubtless, they thought very clever, but which was only very coarse. They called their dogs by the name of Calvin. At times, to make the insult more stinging, they pronounced the word as Cain. [11] Those who could not indulge themselves in this ingenious and pleasant pastime, not being the owners of a mastiff, could nevertheless as they passed the Reformer hiss or put out the tongue. Such were the affronts to which Calvin at this time was daily subjected, and that too from men who owed to him the very liberty which they abused: men whose city he was making illustrious all over Europe, and the streets of which, the moment he should cease to tread them, would become the scene of internecine carnage. Verily, it was no easy matter for Calvin to endure all this, and preserve his consciousness of greatness. To pass from the sublime labors of his study to such revilings as awaited him out-of-doors was like passing into another sphere of being. This was a depth of persecution into which Luther had never been called to descend.

Opposition Luther had encountered, peril he had known, death he had confronted, but respect had ever waited upon his person, and his sufferings had ever in them an element of greatness that alleviated their pain. But Calvin, while equally with Luther an object of hatred to the great, was also the scoff of the base. But he bore all the fierce threats of men who occupied thrones or stood at the head of armies, and the ribald jest and hiss of the poor Libertine by his side — with equal equanimity. He remembered that a Greater had been "the song of the drunkard," and that he was but treading a path which Blessed feet had trodden before him. With a sublime grandeur of soul, which laudation could not enhance, and which the basest contumely could not degrade, he purged off these foul accretions, maintained the lofty mood of his mind, and went on in the performance of his mighty task.

It was not possible, one would think, that the sky could grow darker above Calvin; and yet darker it did become. He whom we see already so sorely stricken is to be yet more deeply wounded. All these years Idelette de Bure had been by his side. Tender of heart, magnanimous of soul, loving, confiding, constant, she soothed her husband in his trials, watched by his sick-bed, exercised hospitality to his friends and numerous visitors, or in her closet prayed, while Calvin was being assailed by the ribald insults and outrages of the street. The love and entire devotion of his wife was among his chief joys. But, alas! her frail and delicate health gave way under the pressure of a protracted illness, and .early in 1549, Idelette de Bure died. "Oh, glorious resurrection!" were her last words. "God of Abraham and of all our fathers, not one of the faithful who have hoped in thee, for so many ages, has been disappointed; I also will hope." [12] These short sentences were rather ejaculated than distinctly spoken. "Truly mine is no common source of grief," said her husband writing to Viret; "I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would have been not only the willing sharer of my indigence, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry." But we drop the curtain, as Calvin himself did, on his great sorrow.

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