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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 26 — Geneva and its influence in Europe

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Peace of Geneva—Geneva and Calvin become One—Testimony of Knox and others to the Church of Geneva—The Sundays of Geneva—The Libertines and Bern—Bolsec and Castalio—Calvin's Care of the Church of France—Preachers sent to it—Labors in Organising Churches— Calvin Counsels the French Protestants to Eschew Arms—Martyrs, not Soldiers, wanted—Forged Letters— Constitution and Organization of the French Protestant Church—Amazing Growth of Protestantism in France.

CALVIN had made good his foothold at last. He had fought for this little town as conqueror never fought for mightiest empire, and now it was his own. Geneva had been rescued from the base uses to which the Libertines had destined it, and was now consecrated to the noblest of all ends. It was to be, not the head-quarters of a philosophy that would have demoralised Christendom, but the temple of a faith that was to regenerate and exalt it. It was to be, not the beacon to lure to the whirlpool of revolution, but the light that would guide the nations to the haven of stability and glory.

The Reformer had now peace. But his condition can be justly styled peace only when compared with the tempests of the nine previous years. Of these he had feelingly and compendiously said, "that while everywhere the Church was agitated, at Geneva it was tossed as was the Ark on the billows." It was a true description; but the calm had come at last. The Ark had found its Ararat, and now within that city, for the possession of which two interests had so stoutly contended, the fierce winds had gone down, and the waves had subsided into rest.

Calvin now proceeded to make Geneva fit for the grand purposes for which he had destined her. And Geneva willingly surrendered herself to be fashioned as the Reformer wished; her life she permitted to be absorbed in his life, feeling that, with him was inseparably bound up her order, her grandeur, nay, her very existence, so far as concerned every good and useful object. Her law, her Council, her citizens, all tacitly consented to be parts of the great Reformer—the ministries through which he operated on Christendom. We have the testimony of a noble eye-witness to the state of Geneva at this period. "In my heart," says Knox, in a letter to his friend Mr. Locke, "I could have wished, yea, and cannot cease to wish, that it might please God to guide and conduct you to this place, where I neither fear nor eshame to say is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place beside. [1] Farel bore similar testimony to the flourishing condition of Geneva after its many perils. "I was lately at Geneva," he says, "and so delighted was I that I could scarce tear myself away. I would rather be last in Geneva than first in any other place. Were I not prevented by the Lord, and by my love for my congregation, nothing would hinder me from ending my days there." Drelincourt expressed the same admiration a hundred years after. [2]

If there was peace in the days of Calvin within Geneva, there were ambushes all around. The first trouble was created by the banished Libertines. Bern took the part of these exiles in the quarrel, declaring that they had been guilty of no crime, and demanding of the Council and citizens of Geneva that they should give satisfaction to those they had expelled, and receive them back. It may be conjectured that there was in all this a little jealousy on the part of the powerful Bern of the rising glory of Geneva. The little republic replied to this haughty demand by expelling the families of the Libertines, and forbidding the return of the banished under pain of death. It was now feared that the Libertines, supported by Bern, meditated re-entering Geneva by force of arms. The territory of Bern bordered with that of Geneva, and the Libertines stationed themselves on that part of it which lay nearest the city, and offered daily menaces and petty annoyances. They resorted to the bridge of the Arve, and mocked and jeered at the Genevese who had occasion to pass that way. [3] The citizens, irritated beyond measure, were often on the point of rushing out and punishing these insolences, but the Council restrained them. [4] The matter continued in an uneasy and dangerous condition for some time, but a sudden turn in the politics of Europe, which menaced both cities with a common danger, brought in the issue deliverance to Geneva.

The battle of St. Quentin, in Normandy, was fought about this time. In this fight the arms of Charles of Spain were victorious over those of Henry II. of France. Philibert Emmanuel, Prince of Piedmont, who commanded the Spanish army, was the heir of the titles and rights of his father Charles, Duke of Savoy; but he inherited the titles only; the estates had gone from his house, and were now partly in the hands of the King of France, and partly in possession of Bern, and other Swiss cantons. The French king being now humbled, the Prince of Piedmont deemed this a favorable moment for reclaiming his hereditary dominions. He issued an edict to that effect, and immediately thereafter dispatched a body of eight thousand lanzknechts, or lancers, to establish his authority over his former subjects. The alarm was great throughout Switzerland, and more especially in Geneva and Bern. The Bernese had now other things to think of than the quarrel into which the banished Libertines had led them. This last matter gradually went to sleep; and thus Geneva, by this shifting in the great European winds, was delivered without the necessity of striking a single blow.

[5]

The affairs of Bolsec and Castalio belong to biography rather than to history. Both of these men opposed Calvin on the doctrine of predestination. Both of them interrupted him publicly when preaching in St. Peter's. The Council had them seized, on the ground of the maintenance of the public peace, rather than on the ground of difference of doctrine. The result was that both were banished from Geneva, never to return. This punishment, which has been laid at the door of the Reformer, has been denounced as harsh. But we ought to keep in mind that Bolsec and Castalio were not Genevese, banished from their native land; they were foreigners who had resided in Geneva, the one a few years, the other only a few months. [6] "As to those who are indignant that Bolsec should even have been banished," says Bungener, "we know not what to say to them, unless that they are completely ignorant how the question stood in regard to the Reformation and to Geneva—especially to Geneva. To wish that she had opened her gates to all the variations and daring flights of religious thought, is to wish that that great lever, the Reformation, had without a fulcrum lifted the world." [7]

Stationed just outside the French territory, the Reformer was able, from this citadel in which God had placed him, to keep constant watch over the Protestant Church of France. During the nine years he had yet to live, that Church was the object of his daily care. He had found her in her cradle, and he nursed her into strength. It was for his counsel she waited when any emergency arose, and it was to his voice and pen that she looked for defense when danger threatened. She revered him as her father. The first necessity of Christendom, in the opinion of Calvin, was the Gospel. Accordingly, it was one of his chief labors to prepare, in the school of Geneva, qualified preachers who should go forth, and sow everywhere the seed of the kingdom. Many of these missionaries selected France as their field of labor. Thither were they followed by the instructions and prayers of the great chief from whose feet they had gone forth; and the consciousness that his eye was upon them, helped to make them zealous in labor and courageous in death, which so many of them were called to endure in the discharge of their ministry. We have two proofs that great numbers offered themselves to this most inviting but very hazardous field. The first is the letter which the King of France, Charles IX., in January, 1561, sent to Geneva, complaining of the preachers who had come from thence, and calling upon the Council to recall them. The second is the letter of Calvin to Bullinger, in the May following, which reveals incidentally what a powerful propaganda Geneva had become, and shows us the soldiers of the Cross daily setting out from her gates to spread the triumphs of the Gospel. "It is incredible," writes Calvin, "with what ardor our friends devote themselves to the spread of the Gospel. As greedily as men before the Pope solicit him for benefices, do they ask for employment in the Churches beneath the Cross. They besiege my door to obtain a portion of the field to cultivate. Never had monarch courtiers more eager than mine. They dispute about the stations as of the kingdom of Jesus Christ was peaceably established in France.

Sometimes I seek to restrain them. I show to them the atrocious edict which orders the destruction of every house in which Divine service shall have been celebrated. I remind them that in more than twenty towns the faithful have been massacred by the populace. [8] In those happy days— happy although stakes were blazing—it seemed as if the ancient saying was reversed, and that no longer were the laborers few. No wonder that Calvin for once breaks into enthusiasm, and gives vent to his joy. But we do the Reformer only justice when we say that he rejoiced not because he was leader, but because his soldiers were devoted. They were men worthy of their captain.

The success of these Evangelists entailed new labors and responsibilities on the Reformer. The Churches which they planted had to be organised. These new communities came to Geneva for the principles of their constitution, and the model of their government. If Geneva bore the likeness of Calvin, France now began to bear the likeness of Geneva. Thus the cares of the Reformer were multiplied and his labors increased as he grew older, he lived two lives in one. The life passed in communion with God, and in the study of His Word, in his closet, fed and sustained that other life of intense and practical activity which he led before the world. From the contemplation of the laws of the kingdom of Christ as laid down in the Bible, he rose up to apply these, as he believed, in the arrangement of living Churches, and in the scheme of policy which he enjoined on the now powerful Protestant body of France.

His counsels on this head expressed a lofty wisdom, which was not appreciated at the time, but the three centuries that have since elapsed have set their seal upon it. All his authority and eloquence were put forth to make the Protestants eschew politics, shun the battle-field, and continue to fight their great war with spiritual weapons only. The Reformer foresaw for the Church of France a glorious future, if only she should persevere in this path. He had no faith in blood shed in battle: no, not in victorious battle; but he had unbounded faith in blood shed at the stake of martyrdom. Give him martyrs—not men in arms—and France was won. Not one letter of Calvin is extant in which he recommends a contrary course. His advice to the Protestants of France was to wait,

to have patience, to submit to wrong, to abstain from revenging themselves, and not to be sparing of their blood, for every drop spilt would, he assured them, bring them nearer the goal they wished to reach. Nor were these counsels given to a small and weak party, which by resisting might bring destruction upon itself: they were addressed to a body now approximating in numbers half the population of France. They were given to a body which had in its ranks men of wealth, nobles, and even princes of the blood: a body that could raise soldiers, lead armies, fight battles, and win victories. Well, but, says Calvin, the victories of the battlefield are barren; those of the martyr are always fruitfnl. One of the latter is worth a score of the former.

Two letters have been forged with intent to convict the Reformer of having prompted to the violent courses which some fiery spirits among tha French Protestants were now beginning to pursue. The pretended original manuscripts are in the archives of the family of D'Alisac, but their spuriousness has been abundantly proved. [9] They are neither in the handwriting of Calvin nor in that of any of his known secretaries; and they are, moreover, disfigured by gross literary errors, by coarse and violent epithets, and by glaring anachronisms. "In the first, M. du Poet is called general of the religion in Dauphine, and this letter is dated 1547, a period in which the Reformed religion had in Dauphine neither a soldier nor an organised Church, and in which M. du Poet was still a Romanist! In the second letter, dated 1561, the same person is called Governor of Montelimart, and High Chamberlain of Navarre, dignities with which he was not invested till long after the death of Calvin. [10]

Attempts have also been made to connect the Reformer with the raid of the notorious Baron des Ardrets. This man signalised his short career as a Protestant by invading the district of Lyons, slaughtering Romanists, sacking churches, making booty of the priestly vestments and the sacred vessels, and appropriating some of the cathedrals for the Protestant worship. Did Calvin account these acquisitions a gain to Protestantism? Better, he said, worship in the open air, in dens of the earth, anywhere, than in edifices so acquired. He wrote to Ardrets, sharply reproving him, and condemning the outrages by which he had disgraced the holy cause, for the sake of which he professed to have wrought them. A similar judgment did the Reformer pronounce on the conspiracy of Areboise, that ill-omened commencement of political Protestantism in France. "Better," he said, writing to the head of that conspiracy, La Renaudie, "Better we should all perish a hundred times than be the cause of exposing the Gospel to such a disgrace." [11]

But day and night he was intent on marshalling the spiritual host, and leading it to the combat. Evangelists, martyrs, Churches: these were the three arms—to use a military phrase—with which he carried on the war.

Of the skill and pains which he devoted to the preparation of the latter weapon—the organization of Churches—we give but one example. For forty years the evangelization of France had been going on. There were now small congregations in several of its towns. In May, 1559, eleven ministers assembled in Paris, and constituted themselves into a National Synod. This affair will come before us more fully afterwards; we notice it here as necessary to the complete view of the work of Calvin. His plastic hand it was that communicated to the French Protestants that organization which we see assumed at first by a mere handful of pastors, but which was found to be equally adapted to that mighty Church of thousands of congregations which, ten years thereafter, was seen covering the soil of France.

First came a Confession of Faith. This was the basis on which the Church was to stand, the root which was to sustain her life and growth.

Next came a scheme of discipline. This was meant to develop and conserve that new life which ought to spring from the doctrines confessed. Morality—in other words, holiness—was in Calvin's opinion the one thing essential in Churches.

Lastly came a graduated machinery of courts, for applying that discipline or government, in order to the conservation and development of that morality which the Reformer judged to be the only result of any value. This machinery was as follows:—

There was first the single congregation, or Church of the locality, with its pastor and small staff of associated rulers. This was the foundation. Over the Church of a locality were placed the Churches of the district. Each congregation sent its pastor and an elder to form this court, which was termed the Colloquy. Over the Colloquy were the Churches of the province, termed the Conference; and over the Conference were the Churches of all France, or National Synod.

This constitution was essentially democratic. The whole body of the people—that is, the members of the Church—were the primary depositaries of this power; but its exercise was narrowed at each gradation upwards. It began with the local congregation, which, through their pastor and elders, decided on all matters appertaining to themselves. Thence it passed to the Colloquy, which adjudicated on general questions, and on cases of appeal. It proceeded upwards through the Provincial Conference to the National Synod, which was the most select body of all, being constituted of two pastors and two elders from each province. The National Synod passed sentence in the last resort, and from its decision there was of course no appeal.

If the basis of this government was broad,

being composed of the whole body of the people, it had for its apex the very elite of the clergy and laity. Liberty was secured, but so too were order, vigor, and justice. For the decision of the most important questions it reserved the highest talents and the maturest wisdom. It combined the advantages of a democracy with those of a monarchy. Its foundations were as wide and popular as the constitution of England, but counterpoised by the weight and influence of the National Synod, even as the government of England is by the dignity and power of the Crown.

Calvin did not carry his narrowing process the length of a single overseer or bishop. Not that he held it unlawful to place over the Church a chief pastor, or that he believed that the Bible condemned the office of bishop in itself. He recommended an episcopate to the Church of Poland: [12] he allowed the office of bishop in the Church of England; [13] and he has so expressed himself in his Institutes, as to leave the Church at liberty on this head. But he thought he could more clearly trace in the New Testament such a distribution of power as that which he had now made, and, at all events, this equality of office he deemed much safer at present for the Church of France, for which he foresaw a long period of struggles and martyrdoms. He would not expose that Church to seduction by opening to her ministers the path of official or personal aggrandisement. The fewer the dignities and grandeurs with which they were encompassed, the more easy would they find it to mount the scaffold; and it was martyrs, not mitred chiefs, that were destined, he believed, to lead the Church to victory.

The organization of the Church of France brought with it a new era to Protestantism in that kingdom. From this time forward its progress was amazingly rapid. Nobles and burgesses, cities, and whole provinces pressed forward to join its ranks. Congregations sprang up in hundreds, and adherents flocked to them in tens of thousands. The entire nation bade fair soon to terminate its divisions and strifes in a common profession of the Protestant faith. Such was the spectacle that cheered the last years of Calvin. What a profound thankfulness—we do not say pride, for pride he banished as sinful in connection with such a cause—must have filled the bosom of the Reformer, when he reflected that not only was the little city of Geneva, which he had won for the Gospel in order that through it he might win mightier realms, preserved from overthrow in the midst of hostile powers, but that it had become the center of a spiritual empire whose limits would far exceed, and whose duration would long out-last, the empire of Charles!


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