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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 29 — Calvin's last illness and death

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Calvin's Painful Maladies—Redoubles his Labors—Last Appearance in the Pulpit—Europe Watches his Death-bed—The Plague breaks out—Its Frightful Ravages—Calvin's Last Participation in the Lord's Supper— Goes for the Last Time to the Senate—He Receives the Senators— Receives the Pastors—Farel Visits him—Sits down at Table for the Last Time with his Brethren—His Last Week—One continued Prayer—His Death—His Burial—His Grave.

TO the Reformer the close was now near. His body, never robust, had become latterly the seat of numerous maladies, that made life a prolonged torture. The quartan-ague of 1559 he had never recovered from. He was afflicted with pains in his head, and pains in his limbs. Food was often nauseous to him. He suffered front asthma, and spitting of blood. He had to sustain the attacks of the gout, and the yet more excruciating agony of the stone. Amid the ruins of his body, his spirit was fresh, and clear, and vigorous as ever; but as the traveler quickens his steps when the evening begins to fall, and the shadows to lengthen, Calvin redoubled his efforts, if so, before breathing his last, he might make that legacy of wisdom and truth he was to leave to the Church still more complete and perfect. His friends in many lands wrote imploring him to take a little rest. Calvin saw rest—ever-lasting rest coming with the deepening shadows, and continued to work on. Beza tells us that during his last malady he translated from Latin into French his Harmony on Moses, revised the translation of Genesis, wrote upon the Book of Joshua, and finally revised and corrected the greater part of his annotations on the New Testament. He was all the while receiving and answering letters from the Churches. He had but a little before given the last touches to his immortal work, the Institutes. The last time he appeared in the pulpit was on the 6th of February, 1564. [1]

On that occasion he was seized with so violent a fit of coughing that it brought the blood into his mouth, and stopped his utterance. As he descended the stairs, amid the breathless stillness of his flock, all understood but too well that his last words in the pulpit of St. Peter's had been spoken. There followed weeks of intense suffering. To the martyr when mounting the scaffold the Reformer had said, "Be strong, and play the man:" during four months of suffering, not less severe than that of the scaffold, was Calvin to display the heroism which he had preached to others. The more violent attacks of his malady were indicated only by the greater pallor of his face, the quivering of his lips, the tremulous motion of his clasped hands, and the half-suppressed ejaculation, "O Lord! how long?" It was during these months of suffering that he prosecuted the labors of which Beza, who was daily by his bedside, tells us in the passage referred to above. A little cold water was often his only nourishment for days, and having refreshed himself therewith, he would again resume work.

On this death-bed were riveted the eyes of all Christendom. Rome waited the issue of his sickness with intense excitement, in the hope that it would rid her of her great foe. The Churches of the Reformation asked with sorrowful and most affectionate anxiety if their father was to be taken from their head. Meanwhile, as though to impress the minds of men, and make a great mourning around this mighty bier, the plague broke in, and inflicted unprecedented ravages on almost all the countries of Europe. It traversed Germany, France, and Switzerland, "and men fell before it," says Ruchat, "as fall the leaves in autumn when the tempest sweeps through the forest." This pestilence was equally fatal on the mountain-top and in the low valley. In the Tockenburg and other parts of Switzerland it entered hamlets and villages, where it left behind it not one living man. In Basle it struck down seven thousand persons, among whom were thirteen councillors, eight ministers, and five professors; among the latter was the learned Cellarius. At Bern, from one to two thousand died. It visited Zurich, and numbered among its victhns Theodore Bibliander, the successor of Zwingli. Bullinger was attacked, but recovered, though he had to mourn the loss of his wife and two daughters. At Herisau, in the canton of Appenzell, there were upwards of three thousand deaths. The Protestant congregations, in some cases, assembled in the open air, and when they celebrated the Lord's Supper, the communicants in order to avoid infection, brought each his own cup, and made use of it at the tablc. It was in the midst of the universal gloom created by these terrible events that men waited from day to day for tidings from the sick-bed at Geneva.

Calvin longed to appear yet once again in that church where he had so often preached the Gospel. "On the 2nd of April," says Beza, "it being Easter-day, he was carried to church in a chair. He remained during the whole sermon, and received the Sacrament from my hand. He even joined, though with a trembling voice, the congregation in the last hymn, 'Lord, let thy servant depart in peace.'" He was carried out, Beza adds, his face lighted up with a Christian joy.

Six days before (27th March) he had caused himself to be borne to the door of the Council-chamber. Ascending the stairs, supported by two attendants, he entered the hall, and proposed to the Senate a new rector for the school; then, taking off his skullcap, he thanked their Excelleneies for the kindness which he had experienced at their hands, especially the friendship they had shown him during his last illness: "For I feel," he said, "that this is the last time that I shall stand here." The tones of that voice, now scarcely audible, must have recalled, to those who listened to it for the last time, the many occasions on which

it had been lifted up in this same place, sometimes to approve, sometimes to condemn, but always to attest that he who spoke was the fearless champion of what he believed to be truth, and the unbending and incorruptible patriot. His adieu moved the Council to tears. [2]

A month after, he sent another message to the Council, intimating his desire to meet its members yet once more before he shouhd die. Having regard to his great weakness, the Council resolved to visit him at his own house. Accordingly, on the 30th April, the twenty-five Lords of Geneva, in all the pomp of a public ceremony, proceeded to his humble dwelling in the Rue des Chanoines. Raising himself on his bed, he exhorted them, amongst other things, to maintain ever inviolate the independence of a city which God had destined to high ends. But he reminded them that it was the Gospel which alone made Geneva worth preserving, and that therefore it behooved them to guard its purity if they would preserve for their city the protection of a stronger arm than their own. Commending them and Geneva to God, and begging them one and all, says Beza, to pardon his his faults, he held out his hand to them, which they grasped for the last time, and retired as from the death-bed of a father. [3]

On the morrow he received the pastors. Most affectionate and touching was his address. He exhorted them to diligence in their office as preachers, to show fidelity to the flock, to cultivate affection for one another, and, above all, maintain the Reformation and discipline which he had established in the Church. He reminded them of the conflict he had had to wage in this matter, and the afflictions that had befallen him, and how at length God had been pleased to crown his labors with success. His many maladies and sicknesses, he said, had at times made him morose and hard to please, and even irascible. For these failings he asked pardon, first of God, and then of his brethren; and, "finally," Beza adds, "he gave his hand to each, one after the other, which was with such anguish and bitterness of heart in every one, that I cannot even recall it to mind without extreme sadness."

The Council he had bidden farewell, his brethren he had bidden farewell, but there was one friend, the oldest of all save Cordier, who had not yet stood at his death-bed and received his last adieus. On the 2nd May, Calvin received a letter from Farel, in which the writer intimated that he was just setting out to visit hint. Farel was now nearly eighty. Could he not wait the little while till he had put off "this tabernacle," and then, with less difficulty to either, the two friends would meet? So it would seem did Calvin think, and hence the letter he immediately dictated:—"Farewell, my best and most faithful brother, since it is God's will that you should survive me; live in the constant recollection of our union, which, in so far as it was useful to the Church of God, will still bear for us abiding fruit in heaven. I wish you not to fatigue yourself on my account. My breath is weak, and I continually expect it to leave me. It is enough for me that I live and die in Christ, who is gain to his people both in life and death. Once more farewell to thee, and to all the brethren thy colleagues."

A few days afterwards the Reformer saw the old man, covered all over with dust, having walked from Neuchatel on foot, enter his sick-chamber. [4] History has not recorded the words that passed between the two. "He had a long interview with him," says Ruchat, "and on the morrow took his departure for Neuchatel." It was a long way for one of eighty years, and yet surely it was meet that the man who had met Calvin at the gate of Geneva, when he first entered it nearly thirty years before, should stand beside him when about to depart. This time Farel may not stop him. [5]

Yet a few days more was the Reformer to pass on earth. The 19th of May, or the Friday before Whit-Sunday, brought round the Censures, as they were called. The pastors, on that day, met, and admonished each other fraternally, and afterwards partook together of a modest meal. Calvin requested that the dinner should be prepared at his house; and when the hour came he had himself carried into the room where the repast was to be eaten. Seated amongst his colleagues, he said, "'I am come to see you, my brethren, for the last time; for, save this once, I shall never sit again at table.' Then he offered prayer, but not without difficulty, and ate a little, "endeavoring," says Beza. "to enliven us." "But," he continues, "before the end of the meal, he requested to be carried back to his chamber, which was close by, saying these words with as cheerful a face as he could—"A partition between us will not prevent me, though absent in body, being present with you in spirit.'" He had spoken truly. From the bed to which he had been carried he was to rise no more.

There remained yet eight days to the Reformer on earth. These were almost one uninterrupted prayer. The fervency of his supplications was indicated not so much by his voice, now scarcely audible, as by his eye, which, says Beza, "retained its brightness to the last," and testified to the faith and hope with which he was animated. He had not yet left earth, and yet he had left it: for of earthly bread he ate not; with men he had ceased to converse; he halted here, at the portal of the invisible world, to calm, to elevate, and to strengthen his spirit, by

converse with the Eternal, before passing its awful but blessed threshold. It was now Saturday, the 27th of May. He seemed to suffer less, and to speak with greater ease. But at eight o'clock of the evening the sure signs of death became apparent. As he was repeating the words of the apostle, "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to be... —without being able to finish, he breathed his last. [6] Beza, who had been summoned to his bedside, was just in time to see him expire. "And thus," says he, "on this day, with the setting sun, the brightest light in the Church of God on earth was taken back to heaven." The event was briefly chronicled in the Consistorial Register thus—"Went to God, Saturday, the 27th."

Early on the day following, which was Sunday, the remains of the Reformer were wrapped in a shroud and enclosed in a wooden coffin preparatory to interment. At two o'clock the funeral took place. It differed in no respect from that of an ordinary citizen, save in the much greater concourse of mourners. The body was followed to the grave in Plain-palais—about 500 paces outside the city—by the members of the Senate, the body of the clergy, the professors in the college, and by the citizens, and many distinguished strangers; "not," says Beza, "without many tears." Over the grave to which they had consigned so much—the Pastor, the Patriot, and the Reformer—they raised no monument. Not a line did they write on marble or brass to tell the ages to come who reposed in this grave, and what he had been to Christendom. They arranged in reverent silence the dust above him, and departed. In this they but fulfilled Calvin's own wishes. He had enjoined that he should be buried "after the customary fashion;" "and that customary fashion," says Bungener, "which was observed down almost to the present day, was that no monument should be raised upon any grave, however illustrious the deceased might be." [7] "He was buried," says Ruchat, "with all simplicity, in the common cemetery, as he himself had desired: so simply that no one at this day knows where his grave is." "For more than two centuries," says Bungener, "that grave has been dug over and over again, like the rest, by the sexton's spade; and for less than twenty years a black stone has marked the spot where Calvin perhaps reposed, for it is only a tradition. [8]

But it is well, perhaps, that neither tomb nor monument was raised to Calvin. Forgetting his dust we stand face to face with the living, thinking, deathless spirit, and rise to a truer and sublimer ideal of the man. Death has not caused Calvin to retire; he is still with us: he speaks to us in his works, he lives in the Churches which he organized, and he prosecutes from century to century his vast plans in the continued progress of that moral and spiritual empire which his genius and faith founded, or, to speak more truly, restored. While that empire lives, Calvin will live.

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