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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 25 — Final victory and glory of Geneva

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The Libertines Renew the Attack—Social Disorders—The Spiritual Supremacy of the Consistory the Key of Calvin's Position—Cannot be Abandoned—Council finally Concedes it—Flank Attack—The Libertines Complain of the Sermons—of the Publications of Calvin—of the Refugees—Fifty Refugees Enrolled as Citizens—Perrin Excites a Tumult—Projected Massacre of the Refugees—Miscarriage of the Attempt—Executions—Perrin Flees—Victory—Glory of Geneva.

WHILE Calvin was counselling monarchs, drafting plans of Reform for statesmen, organising Churches, corresponding with theologians in all countries, and laboring to harmonize their views of Divine truth—in short, acting as the moral legislator of Christendom—he was the object of unceasing and bitter attack on the part of a faction of the Genevese. They detested his presence in their town, openly insulted him on their streets, and ceaselessly intrigued to drive him from Geneva, the city which he had made famous throughout Europe, and which, the moment that he quitted it, would sink into its orighlal obscurity.

We have seen the victory which Calvin, at the peril of his life, won over the Libertines in the Cathedral of St. Peter's, on Sunday, the 3rd of September, 1553. The storm lulled for a little while, but in a few months it was renewed. Those who were guilty of scandals, and of course were visited with the censures of the Church, repaired to the Council, and complained of the rigor of the Consistory. The ministers were summoned to justify their proceedings—a hard task before magistrates, some of whom were hostile, and almost all of whom were lukewarm in the cause of the spiritual discipline. Might not Calvin, it may be said, have obviated these complaints by separating the Church from the State, in the way of distinguishing between citizens and Church-members, and holding only the latter amenable to the ecclesiastical discipline? This practically was what the Reformer was aiming at doing. By excluding the profane from the Lord's Supper, he was separating the Church from the world; but he was hampered by two circumstances—first, by the theocratic government existing in Geneva, and which he found there in its rudimental state when he entered it; and secondly, by the Libertines, who resented their exclusion from Church privileges as an affront and wrong.

The Libertine faction, scotched but not killed, became bold in proportion as they saw the Council was timid. "See," said they, "how we are governed by French edicts and by Calvin." One of its opponents said of the Consistory that "it was more savage than Satan himself, [1] but he hoped soon to tame it. Beza tells us that the revolutionary party made obscene songs on the Word of God. Sometimes mock processions passed along the street, singing profane parodies of the hymns of the Church. [2] "The Libertines," says Roset, "commenced the year 1555 with new manifestations of their old wickedness. Having supped together, to the number of ten, on the night of the 9th January, they took each a candle, and paraded the streets, singing, at the full stretch of their voices, the psalms, interlaced with jeers." [3] One day as Calvin was returning from preaching in the suburb of St. Gervais, he was hustled on the bridge of the Rhone by a knot of miscreants who had gathered there. He very quietly rebuked their insolence by the remark that "the bridge was wide enough for them all." We find him about this time writing to Bullinger that "his position was become almost unbearable." We hear him pouring out his deep sighs, and expressing, like Melancthon, his wish to die. This was much from the strong man. The days had come, foreseen by him, and foretold in his own expressive language to Farel, when he should have to "offer his bleeding heart as a sacrifice to God." But, though his heart bled, his spirit, ever undaunted, maintained the conflict with a patience and fortitude not to be overcome.

The Reformer returned to Geneva from his banishment on the express promise of the Council that the Consistory should be supreme in all ecclesiastical causes. Without this provision Calvin would never again have entered the gates of that city. Not that he wished power for himself. "I would rather die a hundred times," said he, "than appropriate that authority which is the common property of the Church." [4] But unless the sentences of the spiritual court were final, how could order and moral rule be upheld? and without the supremacy of moral law, of what use would his presence in Geneva be to Protestantism? But this essential point was all the more the object of attack by the Libertines.

Amy Perrin, the personal foe of the Reformer, once more led in this second battle. [5] "It is to us," said Perrin and his troop, "an astonishing thing that a sovereignty should exist within a sovereignty. Good sense seems to us to require that the sovereign authority should be entire, and that all questions and parties should be under the rule of the Seigneury. Not otherwise can we preserve that liberty which we have so dearly bought. You are reviving the tyranny of the Pope and the prelates," continued Perrin, "under this new name of spiritual jurisdiction." [6] "No," replied the pastors, who had assembled in the council-chamber, and were speaking through the mouth of Calvin, "No; we only claim obedience to the rule of the Bible, the law of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. He has given to us the power to bind and loose—in other words, to preach the Word and to administer the Sacraments. The magistrates have no more right to forbid us the exercise of this power, than we have to invade the government and civil jurisdiction. To us holy things have been committed, and we shall take care that the Table of the Lord is not dishonored by the presence at it of the profane." [7]

The pastors fortified their position by appealing to the separation between things sacred and things civil, that

existed under the Old Testament. To the family of Aaron had all things appertaining to worship been assigned; to the house of David had the civil government been committed. It appertained not to the most powerful of the Jewish monarchs to perform the humblest service at the altar; and those kings who, forgetting this distinction, presumed to bring their authority into the temple, were smitten with judgment. "So far," said Calvin in conclusion, "is the power of the pastors from being a menace to the liberty of the republic, that it is its best protection. Liberty without the Gospel is but a miserable slavery." [8]

These reasonings were not without their effect on the magistrates. By a majority of suffrages, the Council resolved that its former edict should remain in force—in other words, that the arrangement made with Calvin when he returned to Geneva—namely, that the final decision in all Church offenses be with the Consistory—should be maintained. [9] Geneva was still secured to the Reformer. The basis on which he rested his great work, both in Geneva itself and throughout Christendom, the Libertines had not yet been able to overturn.

They did not, however, accept of their defeat and desist from the war. Baffled in this front attack, they next assailed the Reformer on the flank. "We have too many ministers," said they, raising their voices to a loud pitch. "We have too many ministers and too many sermons." There were then only four pastors in Geneva; but the Libertines thought that they were four too many, and although they did not demand their entire suppression as yet, they modestly proposed that they should be reduced to two. As regarded the Churches, they would not lock their doors outright, but they would at once abolish the sermon, in which their vices were branded with a pointedness and lashed with a severity since transferred from the pulpit to the press and the platform. They were willing that a harmless kind of worship should go on. They would permit the people to be taught the "Creed," the "Lord's Prayer," and the "Ten Commandments." This amount of instruction, they thought, might be safely tolerated. As to those floods of exposition poured forth upon them weekday and Sunday, they saw no need for such: it was dangerous; and the Council ought to raise legal dykes within which to confine this torrent of pious eloquence. [10]

The Libertines next turned their attention to the correction of another great abuse, as they deemed it. The liberty of the press found no favor in the eyes of these champions of freedom. What is the use, they asked, of so many Commentaries and printed books? We must fetter the pen of this Calvin, for the State of Geneva is not able to bear the many books he is sending forth. We must stop this plethora of writing and publishing. [11]

Such was their estimate of that mighty genius, in the light of which kings and statesmen were glad to walk! We may imagine what would have been the fame of Geneva, and what the state of letters and civilization in Europe in the next century, if the Libertines instead of Calvin had triumphed in this controversy.

There arose yet another cause of complaint and quarrel. The refugees who sought asylum in Geneva were at this time increasing from week to week. Weeded out by the hand of persecution, they were the men of the purest morals, of the richest culture, and the noblest souls which the surrounding countries could boast. Not a few were men of the highest rank, and of very large possessions, although in almost every case they arrived penniless. [12]

The little State began to inscribe their names on the registers of its citizens. The proudest kingdom would have done itself an honor by enrolling such men among its subjects. Not so did Perrin and his faction account it.

"They are beggars who have come here to eat the bread of the Genevese."—so did they speak of those who had forsaken all for the Gospel—"they are Calvin's allies, who flock hither to support him in tyrannizing over the children of the soil; they are usurping the rights of the ancient burgesses and destroying the liberties of the town; they are the enemies of the republic, and what so likely as that they will purchase their way back into their own country by betraying Geneva to the King of France?" These and similar accusations—the ready invention of coarse and malignant natures—were secretly whispered among the populace, and at last openly preferred before the Council, against the distinguished men of almost every nationality now assembled in Geneva.

Early in the year 1555 the matter came to a head, and we note it more particularly because it brought on the final struggle which overturned the faction of the Libertines, and left the victory wholly with Calvin. At one sitting the Council admitted as many as fifty foreigners, all men of known worth, to the rights of citizenship. Perrin and his followers raised a louder cry than ever. "The scum of Europe," "the supporters of Calvin's despotism," are possessing themselves of our heritage. These were the epithets by which they chose to designate the new burgesses. These men had not, indeed, been born on the soil of the republic, but Geneva had no better citizens than they; certainly none more willing to obey her law, or more ready to shed their blood for her liberty if occasion should require. The Gospel, which they had embraced, made the territory of Geneva more their native land than the country they had left. But the Libertines understood nothing of all this. They went to the Council and complained, but the Council would not listen to them. They carried their appeal to the populace, and at this bar that appeal was more successful. [13]

On the 16th May, Perrin returned to the Council with a larger

number of followers, chiefly fishermen and boatmen, armed with huge double-handled swords. [14] This motley host was dismissed with the same answer as before. The malcontents paraded the streets all day, calling on the citizens to bestir themselves, and save the town, which was on the eve of being sacked by the foreigners. The better class of citizens paid no attention to this cry of "The wolf!" and remained quiet in their homes; but the ranks of the rioters were swelled by numbers of the lower orders, whose patriotism had been stimulated by the free rations of wine and food which were served out to them. [15]

On Friday, the 18th May, the heads of the party met in a tavern with a certain number, says Bonivard, of "brawling companions." The more moderate, who may be presumed to have been also the more sober, were for convoking the Council-General; but the more violent [16] would hear of nothing but the massacre of all the refugees of religion, and their supporters. The Sunday following, when the citizens would be all at church, [17] was fixed on for the execution of this horrible plot.

The eagerness of the Libertines to consummate their crime caused the plot to miscarry. The very next night after their meeting, the fumes of the wine, we may charitably believe, not having as yet exhaled, the mob-patriots rushed into the street with arms in their hands to begin their dreadful work. "The French, the French," they shouted, "are taking the town! Slay all, slay all!" But not one of the refugees was to be seen. "The Lord," says Calvin, "had poured a deep sleep upon them." But the other citizens rushed armed into the street. There was a great uproar, shouts, cries, and clashing of arms; but fortunately the affray passed without bloodshed. "God," says Ruchat, "who watches over the affairs of men, and who wished to preserve Geneva, did not permit Perrin to accomplish his design." [18]

The Council assembled in a few days, and then measures were taken to bring the seditious to punishment, and prevent the peace of the city being broken by similar outrages in time to come. Four heads fell beneath the axe. Perrin's also would have fallen, had he not timeously cared for its safety by flight. With him fled all those who felt that they were too deeply compromised to presume on pardon. The rest were banished, and found refuge on the territory of Bern. The issue of this affair determined the future fortunes of Geneva.

From being a nest of Libertines, who would have speedily wasted their own and their city's strength by their immoral principles and their disorderly lives, and who would have plunged Geneva into its former vassalage, riveting more hopelessly than ever its old yoke upon its neck, this small but ancient town was, by this turn of affairs, rescued to become the capital of Protestantism—the metropolis of a moral empire.

Here, not in state, like a Roman cardinal, but in the lowliness of a simple pastor, dwelt, not the monarch of that empire—for monarch it has not on earth—but the presiding mind, the directing genius of Protestantism. From this center were propagated those energies and influences which, mightier than armies, were rending the shackles from the human soul, and calling nations from their tomb. Within its walls the elite of Europe was assembling; and as another and yet another illustrious stranger presented himself at its gates, and crossed its threshold, the brilliant intellectual glory of Geneva gathered an additional brightness, and its moral potency waxed stronger day by day. To it all eyes were turned, some in admiration and love, others in hatred and fear. Within it were born those great thoughts which, sent forth in letters, in pamphlets, in great tomes, were as light to roll back the darkness—bolts to discomfit the enemy, and pour confusion upon the champions of error. Protestant troops are continually passing out at its gates, girded only with the sword of the Spirit, to assail the strongholds of darkness, and add new provinces to the kingdom of the Gospel. As realm after realm is won, there goes forth from this same city a rescript for its organization and government; and that rescript meets an obedience more prompt and hearty than was ever accorded to the edicts sent forth from the proud mistress of the ancient world for the molding of those provinces which her arms had subjugated.

What an astonishing phenomenon must the sudden rise of this little town have appeared to the men of those times! How portentous to the friends of the Old religion! It had not been built up by human hands; it was not defended by human weapons; yet here it stood, a great lighthouse in the center of Christendom, a mother of Churches, a nurse of martyrs, a school of evangelists, an impregnable asylum of the persecuted, a font of civilization, an abode of letters and arts; a great moral tribunal, where the actions of all men were weighed, and in whose inexorably just and righteous awards men heard the voice of a higher tribunal, and were enabled to read by anticipation the final judgment of posterity, and even that of the great Supreme.

This was what Calvin's victory had brought him. He might well deem that it had not been too dearly bought. Truly it was worth all the anxieties and insults he had borne, all the toil and agony he had endured, all the supplications and tears he had poured out to achieve it. Nine years had he been in gaining it, nine years were to be given him to turn it to account.


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