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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 28 — The soclal and family life of Geneva

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The Daily Sermon—Its Attractiveness—Daily Life of the Citizen—His Dress—His Table—Development of Wealth—The Refugees—The Benefits they conferred on their Adopted Country—English Names on the Genevan Registers—The Sabbath in Geneva.

NOW that Calvin has realised his program, let us look at the social and family life of the Genevese. The "Christian Idea," as Gaberel calls it, had created their State, and religion was the all-pervading and dominant element in it. Calvin, the people, the State—all three were one, the fusion was complete, and the policy of the Senate, and the action of the citizens, were but the results of that great principle which had called into existence this marvellous community. The "Sermon" held a first place among their institutions. Day by day it reinvigorated that spirit which was the "breath" of Geneva. But, besides the need the Genevans felt of the instructions and consolations of religion, there were other influences that acted in drawing them to the temples. Preaching was then a novelty. Like break of day in an Eastern clime, the Gospel, in mid-day effulgence, had all at once burst on these men after the darkness of the Middle Ages. Scarce had the first faint silvery streaks shown themselves, when lo! the full flood of the sun's light was poured upon them. The same generation which had listened to the monks, had now the privilege of listening to the Reformers. From tales, legends, and miracles, which were associated in their minds with the yoke of foreign masters, they passed to the pure and elevating doctrines of the Word of God, which, apart from their own beauty and majesty, were, they knew, the source whence had come their political and civil independence. We at this day can but faintly realize the charm that must then have hung round the pulpit, and which assembled, day after day, the Genevese in crowds, to the preaching of the Gospel.

At Geneva, the magistrate as well as the artisan invariably began the day with an act of worship. At six in the morning the churches were opened, and crowds might be seen in every quarter of the city on their way to spend an hour in listening to the "Exposition." After this the youth assembled in school or college, and the father and the elder sons repaired to the workshops. The mid-day repast, which was taken in common with the domestics, again re-united the family. After dinner the head of the household paid a short visit to his club [1] to hear the news. And what were the events on which the Genevan kept his eyes intently fixed, and for which he waited from day to day with no ordinary anxiety to receive tidings? The great drama in progress around him completely occupied his thoughts. How goes the battle, he would ask, between Protestantism and Rome in France, in Italy, in Spain? Has any fresh edict of persecution issued these days past from the Vatican? Has any one been called to yield up his life on the scaffold, and what were his last words? What number of refugees have arrived in our city since yesterday, and through what perils and sufferings have they managed to reach our gates? Such were the topics that furnished matter of daily talk to the Genevese. The narrow limits of their little State were far from forming their horizon. Their thoughts and sympathies were as extensive as Christendom. There was not a prisoner, not a martyr for the Gospel in any of its countries for whom they did not feel and pray; he was their brother. Not a reverse befell the cause of the Reform in any part of the field which they did not mourn, nor a success in which they did not rejoice. They were watching a battle which would bring triumph or overthrow, not to Geneva only, but to the Gospel; hence the gravity and greatness of their characters. "The Genevan of that day," says Gaberel, "took the same interest in the news of the kingdom of God, which he takes today in the discussion of material affairs." [2]

The family life of the Genevans at that period was characterised by severe simplicity. Their dress was wholly without ornament. The magistrates wore cloth; the ordinary burgess contented himself with serge. This difference in their attire was not held as marking any distinction of class among the citizens, for the members of the Councils were chosen entirely with reference to their merit, and in nowise from any consideration of birth or wealth. Nor did this avoidance of superfluities lead to any falling off in the industrial activity or the inventive skill of the citizens. On the contrary, the arts and industries flourished, and both the citizens of Geneva, and the refugees who found asylum within it, became famous for their manufacture of objects of utility and luxury, which they exported to other countries.

If their dress was marked by plainness, not less were their tables by frugality. The rich and poor alike were obliged to obey the sumptuary laws. "The heads of fanlilies," says Gaberel, "seeing the ease, the health, the good order, the morality that now reigned in their dwellings, blessed those rigorous laws, which only gourmands found tyrannical, who remembered with regret the full tables of other days." [3] We dare say some of these men would have wished rather that their dinners had been ampler, though their liberty had been less. They are not the first who have thought the blessing of freedom too dearly purchased if bought with the sacrifice of dainties.

When periods of distress came round, occasioned by war or famine, the citizens were especially sensible of the benefit of this simple and frugal manner of life. They felt less the privations they had then to bear, and were able to support with dignity the misfortunes of the State. Moreover, as the result of this economy, the wealth of the citizens was rapidly

developed, and the State reached a prosperity it had never known in former days. Each citizen laid by religiously a certain portion of his earnings, and the years of greatest calamity were precisely those that were signalized by the greatest beneficence. Instead of receiving support from other States, Geneva sent its charities to the countries around, becoming a storehouse of earthly as of heavenly bread to the nations. These citizens, who wore plain blouses, and sat down to a meal correspondingly plain, entertained during many years, with liberal Christian hospitality, the refugees of religion—nobles, scholars, statesmen, and men of birth. The Genevan citizen, independent in means, and adding thereto that mental independence which the Gospel gives, could not but be a being of conscious dignity, and of character inherently grand, whom no call of devotion or heroism would find unprepared.

Geneva profited immensely in another way by the movement, of which it had become the headquarters. The men who crowded to it, and to whom it so hospitably opened its gates, conferred on it greater advantages than any they received from it. They were of every rank, profession, and trade, and they brought to the city of their adoption, not refinement of birth and elegance of letters only, but also new arts and improved industries. There immediately ensued a great quickening of the energies of labor and skill in Geneva, and these brought in their turn that wealth and conscious dignity which labor and skill never fail to impart. It is a new nation that we behold forming on the soil of the republic, with germs and elements in its bosom, higher and more various than infant State had ever before enjoyed. The fathers of the great Roman people were but a band of outlaws and adventurers! How different the men we now see assembling on the shores of the Leman to lay the foundations of the Rome of Protestantism, from those who had gathered at the foot of the Capitoline to lay the first stone in the Eternal City! From the strand of Naples to the distant shores of Scotland, we behold Protestantism weeding out of the surrounding countries, and assembling at this great focus, all who were skilful in art, as well as illustrious in virtue, and they communicated to Geneva a refinement of manners and an artistic skill which it continues to retain after the lapse of three centuries.

The most important question raised by the arrival of these exiles was not, Where shall bread be found for them? The hospitality of the Genevese solved this difficulty, for scarce was there citizen who had not one or more of these strangers living under his roof, and sitting at his table. The question which the Genevese had most at heart was, how shall we utilize this great access of intellectual, moral, and industrial power? How shall we draw forth the varied capabilities of these men in the way of strengthening, enriching, and glorifying the State? Let us begin, said they, by enrolling them as citizens. "But," said the Libertines, when the proposal was first mooted, "is it fair that newcomers should lay down the law to the children of the land? These men were not born on the soil of the republic."

True, it was answered, but then the republic is not an affair of acres, it is an affair of faith. The true Geneva is Protestantism, and these men were born into the State in the same hour in which they became Protestants. This broad view of the question prevailed. Nevertheless, the honor was sparingly distributed. Up till 1555, only eighty had received the freedom of the city; in the early part of that year, other sixty were added [4] —a small number truly when we think how numerous the Protestant exiles were. The greatest of all the sons of Geneva, he who was more than a citizen, who was the founder of the State, was not legally enrolled till five years before his death. The name of John Knox was earlier inscribed on the Registers than that of John Calvin. Hardly was there a country in Europe which did not help to swell this truly catholic roll. The list contributed by Italy alone was a long and brilliant one. Lucca sent, among other distinguished names, the Calendrini, the Burlamachi, the Turretini, and the Micheli. [5] Of these families many took root in Geneva, and by the services which they rendered the State, and the splendor their genius shed upon it in after-days, they repaid a hundred-fold as citizens the welcome they had received as refugees. Others returned to their native land when persecution had abated. "When the English returned," says Misson, "they left in the Register, which is still preserved, a list of their names and qualities— Stanley, Spencer, Musgrave, Pelham, are among the first in it, as they ought to be. The title of citizen, which several had obtained, was continued to them by an order and compliment of the Seigniory, so that several earls and peers of England may as well boast of being citizens of Geneva as Paul did of being a citizen of Rome."

One of the most striking characteristics of the Geneva of that day, and for a century after, especially to one coming from a Popish country, was its Sabbath. The day brought a complete cessation of labor to all classes: the field was unwatered by the sweat of the husbandman, the air was unvexed by the hammer of the artisan, and the lake was unploughed by the keel of the fisherman. The great bell of St. Peter's has sounded out its summons, the citizens have assembled in the churches, the city gates have been closed, and no one is allowed to enter or depart while the citizens are occupied in offering their worship.

Everywhere the stillness of the sacred day is sublime, but here that sublimity was enhanced by the grandeur of the region. The Sabbath

seemed to shed its own pure and peaceful splendor upon the sublimities of nature, and these sublimities, in their turn, seemed to impart an additional sanctity and majesty to the Sabbath. There was peace on the blue waveless Leman; there was peace on those plains that enclosed it in their vast sweep, and on whose bosom the chalet lay hid amid festooned vines and tall pine-trees. There was peace on the green rampart of the Jura, and peace on the distant Alps, which in the opposite quarter of the horizon lift their snowy piles into the sky, and stand silent and solemn as worshippers. A superb temple, indeed, seems the region, walled in by natural grandeurs, and pervaded throughout with a Sabbatic peace. In the midst of it is the little city of Geneva. No stirs or tumults are heard within it; its bells and its psalms only salute the ear. Beaming faces, the sign of happy hearts, tell what a clay of gladness it is—the most gladsome of all the seven. In every dwelling is heard "the melody of health." But we must go to St. Peter's, would we see in its highest manifestation the power of the Sabbath to raise the souls and mould the characters of a people. A crowd of magnanimous, earnest, intelligent faces look up around the pulpit. There are gathered the finest intellects and holiest spirits of all Christendom, for whatever was noble and pure in other countries had been chased thither. The worship of men like these could be no common affair, no mere show or pantomime, like that performed in bespangled vestments amid lighted tapers. The worshippers in St. Peter's were men whose souls had been attempered in the fire, and who, having forsaken all worldly goods for the sake of the Gospel, stood prepared every hour to sacrifice life itself. Their worship was the worship of the heart, and their prayer the prayer of faith that pierces the heavens.

And as the devotion of the hearers was entire, so the instructions of the pulpit were lofty. The preacher might not be always eloquent, but he was never tame. He forgot himself and remembered only his great theme. Did he discourse on some point of doctrine, his exposition was clear, his words weighty; did he plead the cause of the confessors of other lands, "led as sheep to the slaughter," it was with a truthfulness and pathos that made his hearers mingle their tears with his, and prepared them to open their doors to such of the persecuted as might escape the prisons and stakes which their enemies had prepared for them. Such were the scenes that might be witnessed every Sabbath in those days within the walls of St. Peter's, Geneva. If Geneva was the "inner Bureau" of the European Reformation, as Gaberel says, the pulpit was the inner spring of power in that "Bureau." While the pulpit of Geneva stood, Geneva would stand; if the pulpit should fall, Geneva too would fall. It was the buhvark of its liberties, the "horses and chariots" that guarded the independence of the State. It was at the fire, which burned continually on this altar, that the men of Geneva kindled the torch of liberty, and their love of liberty daily recruited that indomitable firmness which so perplexed and mortified Philip II. in the Escurial, and the Pope in the Vatican, and many others besides, who never warred against the little State save to be broken upon it.

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