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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 23 — Calvin's correspondence with martyrs, reformers, and monarchs

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Calvin at the Center- Stages of his Life—His Work Advancing— Missionaries—The "Dispersed in the Isles"—The Martyrs—How Calvin Comforted them—The Collar of the Order of Martyrs—The Five Martyrs of Lyons—Their Behavior at the Stake—Calvin Surveying the Field and the Fallen around him—Counsels Princes—Edward VI.— Calvin's Letter to Somerset on the Reformation of England—Letter to Edward VI.—Archbishop Cranmer—Union—Calvin's Longings for it.

INTENSE interest still attached to the great movement and its headquarters, the little town of Geneva, around which the clouds of war and danger were gathering heavier every day, though an unseen Hand withheld them from bursting.

There sat the man whom the death of Luther had left the one great chief of the movement. With undaunted brow and steadfast eye, he surveys the vast field around him, on which so many dangers gather and so many conflicts are being waged. Assailed by all passions and by every party, by the democracy below and by the kings above, the Reformer, nevertheless, pursued his Herculean task, and saw his work year by year taking deeper root and extending wider on all sides. Luther's energies declined as his years advanced, and he had the mortification, before he went to his grave, of seeing the Reformation in Germany beginning to lose the purity to which it owed the splendor of its early morning, and the power that made it in its noon the ruler of the Teutonic nations. But Calvin's latter years were his most triumphant, for neither did his powers decay nor his work stand still; on the contrary, the one continued to strengthen, and the other to advance, till his last hour on earth. His first years had been spent in elaborating the scheme of Christian doctrine: his next were passed in constructing a spiritual machinery, through which the influence of his doctrine might go forth in order to the purifying and elevating of society; hence his efforts to hold Geneva, and to quell the infidel democracy, whose instincts taught it that its greatest enemy was Calvin's Gospel, and that it must crush it or be crushed by it. Having made good Geneva as a basis of Protestant operations, Calvin's third period was passed in planting his system abroad, and guiding, by his writings and letters, the Reformation in France, England, Switzerland, Poland, and other countries. There was no land where Calvin was not present.

Geneva, while the Reformer lived in it, was continually opening its gates to give asylum to the persecuted of other countries. The same gates were continually opening to let those go forth who were returning to the field of labor, or it might be of martyrdom. We can give here only a few instances. One day, in the summer of 1553, a missionary was commissioned to carry a letter from Calvin, "To the faithful dispersed in some isles of France." His name was Philibert Hamelin, and he was on his way to the coast of Saintonge, where a young flock were much in want of some one to organise and instruct them. Hamelin, a native of Tours, was the first preacher of the Reformed doctrine in Saintes. He was seized in that town, but escaping death by almost a miracle, he came to Geneva, where he followed the calling of a printer. But the ardor of his zeal would not suffer him to remain in his asylum. He set out to revisit his brethren, "dispersed among the isles," with this letter, in which Calvin, addressing these young converts, said: "We are nowise of opinion that you should be in a hurry to partake of the Holy Supper until you have some order established among you. . . Nay, it would not be lawful for a man to administer the Sacraments to you, unless he recognised you as the flock of Jesus Christ, and found among you the form of a Church." The devoted missionary, in an apostolate of four years, organised their Churches. He never returned to the great captain who had sent him forth, to tell what success had attended his labors. Taken anew, he was burned alive at Bordeaux, the 18th April, 1557. [1]

Whilst there was one stake in the Place Champel, surrounding countries were lit up with a multitude of blazing stakes. But there was not one of these piles at which Calvin was not present, nor was there one of these sufferers who was not refreshed by his words amid the flames. In the July of 1553 two confessors were expecting death in the prisons of Lyons. Calvin received the tidings during the trial of Servetus, and when he was in the thick of his contest with the Libertines. He hastened to their dungeon, as it were, and by words from his own courageous yet tender heart comforted theirs. "That God," he told them, "who had called them to the honor of maintaining His truth, would lead them to martyrdom as by the hand." He bade them think of the "heavenly immortality" to which the "cross and shame and death" conducted, and of Him who waited, the moment these were ended, to wipe away all tears. One of these sufferers, who had been reached by the words of Calvin, thus thanked him:—"I could not tell you, sir and brother," wrote Louis Marsac, "the great comfort I received from the letters which you sent to my brother, Denis Peloquin, who found means of passing them to one of our brethren who was in an underground cell above me, and read them to me, because I could not read them, inasmuch as I can see nothing in my dungeon. I pray you, therefore, to persevere in aiding us always with like consolation, which invites us to weep and pray." When the little company of martyrs, of which Louis Marsac was one, were led forth to be burned, all appeared with halters round their necks except Louis. His enemies had spared him this indignity on the ground

of his being nobly born. But so far from reckoning this as a favor, he even deemed the denial of it a dishonor, and asked why he was refused the collar of that "excellent order" of martyrs. [2]

Of all the martyrdoms of the period, the most touching perhaps is that of "the five martyrs of Lyons." Natives of France, and desirous of taking part in the Reformation of their own country, they repaired to Lausanne to study theology and qualify themselves for the ministry. Having completed their course, they received licence to preach, and set out to begin their labors in France. They rested a few days in Geneva, and then passed on to their destined field, their spirits invigorated, we can well believe, by their brief stay in the capital of Protestantism, and especially by their converse with its great chief. Light they were destined to impart to their native France, but not in the way they had fondly hoped. On their journey to Lyons they met at the Bourg de Colonges, nigh to L'Ecluse, a stranger who offered himself as their fellow-traveler. They harbored no suspicion, and maintained no disguise in the company of their new acquaintance. Soon after their arrival at Lyons, they were arrested and thrown into prison. Their companion had betrayed them. Their fate having awakened great interest, powerful influence was used in their behalf [3] at the court of France. The Bernese Government interceded for "their scholars" with the king. Some among the Romanists even, touched by their pure lives and their lovely characters, interested themselves for their safety. Meanwhile their trial proceeded at Lyons. The brutality of the judges was as conspicuous as the constancy of the prisoners. From the sentence of the Lyonnese court, which adjudged them to death, they appealed to the Parliament of Paris.

On the 1st of March, 1553, the decree arrived from the capital confirming the sentence of the court below. So, then, it was by their burning pile, and not by the eloquence of their living voice, that they were to aid in dispelling the darkness that brooded over their native land. There was mourning in Lausanne and Geneva, and in other places on the shores of the Leman, when it was known that those who had so lately gone forth from them, and for whom they had augured a career of the highest usefulness, were so soon to meet a tragic death.

"We have been, for some days past, in deeper anxiety and sadness than ever," writes Calvin to them, when he had learned the final decision of their persecutors. Turning away from the throne of Henry II., "We shall," says he, "do our duty herein by praying to Him that He may glorify Himself more and more in your constancy, and that He may by the consolation of His Spirit sweeten and endear all that is bitter to the flesh, and so absorb your spirits in Himself, that in contemplating that heavenly crown you may be ready without regret to leave all that belongs to this world. If He has promised to strengthen with patience those who suffer chastisement for their sins, how much less will He be found wanting to those who maintain his quarrel! He who dwells in you is stronger than the world." [4]

How calm these words, when we think who spoke them, and that they were spoken to men about to expire in the fire! They breathe not the enthusiasm of feeling, but the enthusiasm of faith. These five young men were to die for the Gospel, but this was an every-day service in those days. Every disciple was supposed to be ready to lay down his life, and to do so with the calm magnanimity of the soldier who does his duty and nothing more. Calvin himself was prepared at any hour to walk to the stake with the same absence of ostentation, the same obliviousness of doing a grand act, as if he had been stepping into his pulpit. Was there, then, no enthusiasm in those days? Yes, enthusiasm indeed there was; but it was an enthusiasm that sustained itself, from day to day and from hour to hour, at so lofty a pitch that it could rise no higher. It could have no spasm, no burst. Hence, neither was boast in the mouth of the men who did the act, nor applause in the mouths of those who witnessed it. The spectacle is all the more sublime.

On the 16th of May the five young students were led to the fire. They died with a heroism worthy of their age. "Being come to the place of execution," says Crespin, "they ascended with a joyful heart the pile of wood, the two youngest first. The last who ascended was Martial Alba, the eldest of the five, who had a long time been on both his knees praying to the Lord. He asked Lieutenant Tignac to grant him a gift. The lieutenant said to him, 'What willest thou?' He said to him, 'That I may kiss my brethren before I die.' The lieutenant granted it to him. Then the said Martial kissed the four who were already bound, saying to each of them, 'Adieu, adieu, my brother.' The fire was kindled. The voices of the five confessors were heard still exhorting one another: 'Courage, my brethren, courage!' And these," continues Crespin, "were the last words heard from the said five valiant champions and martyrs of the Lord." [5]

What, one cannot refrain from asking, were the thoughts of Calvin, as he was told that another and another had fallen in the conflict? The feelings of a Caesar or of a Napoleon, as he surveys the red field of his ambition, we can imagine. Every corpse stretched out upon it, every drop of blood that moistens its soil, is a silent accusation, and cries aloud against him. Far other were the feelings of

Calvin as he cast his eye over the field around him, where so many, and these the noblest and purest of their age, languished in dungeons, or quivered on the rack, or were expiring amid flames. These were not soldiers who had been dragged into battle, and who had died to place a crown upon the brow of another. They were men who had been fighting the battles of their Savior, and who in dying had won for themselves the crown of life. Nor did the Reformer for one moment despair of a cause that was suffering these repeated tremendous losses.

Losses, did we say? Where and to whom was there loss? Not to the martyr, who received an eternal life in place of the mortal one which he had laid down; nor to the cause, which waxed stronger with each new martyr, and received another and another pledge of final victory with every stake that was planted and every drop of blood that was spilt. That such was the effect of these martyrdoms, we quote the testimony of one who was no friend to Protestantism. "The fires were lighted everywhere," says Florimond de Raemond, "and as, on the one hand, the just severity of the law restrained the people within their duty, on the other, the obstinate resolution of those who were dragged to the gibbet astonished many. For they saw weak and delicate women seeking for torment in order to prove their faith, and on their way to death exclaiming, 'Only Christ, the Savior,' and singing some psalm; young maidens walking more gaily to execution than to the bridal-chamber; men rejoicing to behold the terrible preparations and instruments of death, and, half-burned and roasted, remaining like rocks against the waves of pain. These sad and constant sights excited some perturbation, not only in the souls of the simple but of the great, who were not able to persuade themselves that truth was not on the side of such as maintained it with so much resolution at the cost of their life." [6]

The same Calvin who was by the side of the martyr on the scaffold was also with the statesman in his cabinet, and at times at the foot of the throne giving counsel to princes. Henry VIII. had died in 1547, and with him expired that peculiar scheme of Reform by which he aimed at abolishing the jurisdiction of the Pope, yet preserving the religion of Popery. His son, Edward VI., mounted the throne in his tenth year. The Duke of Somerset, now Lord Protector, had educated the young prince in the principles of the Protestant faith. The fine talents and noble character of the youthful monarch excited the highest hopes in Calvin, and he strove to win him more and more for the Gospel. Nor were the hopes which the Reformer cherished disappointed. It was during the reign of this pious prince, and the regency of Edward Seymour, Lord Protector, that the Reformation was established in England. Hence the correspondence of Calvin with Somerset, to whom he dedicated, June, 1548, his Commentary on the First Epistle to Timothy. And hence, too, his remarkable letter to the same statesman in October of the same year, in which he states fully his sentiments touching what was necessary to complete the Reformation in England.

This matter will come before us in its proper place. Meanwhile we note that the Reformer, in his letter to Lord Protector Somerset, insists on three things as necessary to the moral transformation of England: first, the preaching of the pure Word of God; second, the rooting out of abuses; and, third, the correction of vices and scandalous offenses. As regarded the first, the preaching of the Gospel, Calvin laid stress upon the manner as well as the doctrine—upon the life as well as the purity of the pulpit. "The people," says he, "are to be so taught as to be touched to the quick, and feel that the Word of God is a 'two-edged sword.' I speak this, Monseigneur," continues the Reformer, "because it appears to me that there is very little preaching of a lively kind in the kingdom, but that the greater part deliver it by way of reading from a written discourse. . . This preaching ought not to be lifeless but lively. Now you know, my Lord," Calvin goes on to say, "how St. Paul speaks of the liveliness which ought to be in the mouth of good ministers of God, who ought not to make a parade of rhetoric in order to show themselves off, but the Spirit of God must resound in their voice." In short, Calvin desiderated two things—"a good trumpet" and "a certain sound"—if the Lord Protector would reap fruit of his labors, and the Reformation be permanent in England. [7]

When at last the intrigues of his rivals prevailed against him, and the good Duke of Somerset had to mount the scaffold, Calvin addressed the young king, whose heart was not less set on the Reformation of England than had been that of the Lord Protector. The Reformer dedicated to him two of his works, the Commentary on Isaiah, and the Commentary on the Catholic Epistles. Edward VI. was at this time only fourteen years of age, but his precocious intellect enabled him to appreciate and even to judge of the works the Reformer had laid at his feet.

The bearer of these two books, the pastor Nicolas des Gallars, was received with marked respect at the court of England. The books were accompanied by a letter to the king, in which Calvin spoke with the plainness and honesty of the Reformer, yet, mindful that he was addressing a king, he adopted the tone not of a master but of a father.

Holding up to him the example of Josiah, he exhorted the young monarch to "follow up the good work so happily begun;" he cautioned him against viewing it as achieved,

and that it was "not in a day that such an abyss of superstition as the Papacy is to be purged." "True it is, sire," said he, "that there are things indifferent which we may allowably tolerate, but then we must always insist that simplicity and order be observed in the use of ceremonies, so that the clear light of the Gospel be not obscured by them, as if we were still under the shadows of the law, and then that there may be nothing allowed that is not in agreement and conformity to the order established by the Son of God. For God does not allow his name to be trifled with, mixing up silly frivolities with his holy and sacred ordinances." "There is another point, sire, of which you ought to take a special charge, namely, that the poor flocks may not be destitute of pastors." In fine, he exhorted the king to have a care for the efficiency and purity of the schools and universities, for he had been informed that "there are many young people supported on the college bursaries, who, instead of giving good hope of service in the Church, do not conceal that they are opposed to the true religion." The Reformer entreated the king to take order therein, "to the effect that property which ought to be held sacred be not converted to profane uses, and far less to nourish venomous reptiles, who would desire nought better than to infect everything for the future. For in this way the Gospel would always be kept back by these schools, which ought to be the very pillar thereof." [8]

The pious king had for primate the erudite Cranmer. The archbishop had cowered under the capricious tyranny of Henry VIII., but now, moving no longer in the cold and withering shade of that monarch, Cranmer was himself again; and not only was he laboring zealously to complete the work of Reformation in England, he was also holding out the hand to all the Reformers and Reformed Churches on the Continent. He was at that time revolving a grand Protestant union. He desired that the friends of the Gospel in all lands should come together, and deduce from the Word of God a scheme of Christian doctrine which all might confess and hold, and which might be, to the generation then living and to the ages to come, a standard round which the Church might rally. [9] At Trent the Church of Rome was massing and marshalling her troops; the Primate of England thought that the Protestant Church ought also to close her ranks, and, presenting an unbroken front to the foe, be ready to repel his attack, or to advance her own triumphs into regions where her banners had not yet been displayed. Cranmer communicated his idea to the Reformer of Geneva.

Calvin, in his reply, intimated his approval of his "just and wise design," and said that for his own part, if he could further thereby the work of union, "he would not grudge to cross even ten seas;" and he went on to indicate the existence of certain principles that lay far down, even at the bottom of society, and which no eye save his own then saw, but which have since come to the surface, and yielded that noxious and bitter crop that he predicted they would if not obviated, "the distemper" even of "a stupid inquisitiveness alternating with that of fearless extravagance." The Reformer saw that the future of Christendom was menaced by "terrible disorders," not more by difference in religious sentiments than by that speculative philosophic spirit which contravenes the laws of true science not less than it contemns the authority of the Scriptures. In short, Calvin foresaw, even at that early period, should Protestantism fail, a pantheistic Europe.

Soon after this interchange of letters, the death of Edward VI. and the accession of Queen Mary changed the whole face of affairs. The disastrous events which now took the place of those bright triumphs that the good archbishop had judged to be so near, belong to a subsequent period of our history.

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Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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