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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 4 — Tumults – Successes – Toleration

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Second Vote on Religion at Neuchatel – Vallangin – Disgraceful Trick – Popular Tempest – Triumph of Reform – Farel turns his eye toward Geneva – Evangelises at Orbe – Makes a Beginning – First Communion at Orbe – Peter Viret – His Character – Goes to Grandson – A Battle in the Church – The Affair carried to the Conference at Bern – Protestant Bern and Catholic Friburg agree on a Policy of Toleration – Great Success of Farel – He turns toward Geneva.

WAS the storm that swept over Neuchatel on the 23rd of October, and which cleansed its cathedral-church of the emblems of superstition, a passing gust, or one of those great waves which indicate the rising of the tide in the spiritual atmosphere? Was it an outburst of mob-violence, provoked by the greed and tyranny of the priests, or was it the strong and emphatically expressed resolution of men who knew and loved the truth? If the former, the idols would again be set up; if the latter, they had fallen to rise no more. This was tested on the 4th of November following. On that eventful day the citizens of Neuchatel, climbing the hill on which stood the governor's castle, hard by the cathedral that still bore traces of the recent tempest, in altars overturned, niches empty, and images disfigured, presented themselves before the governor and deputies from Bern. They had assembled to vote on the question whether Romanism or Protestantism should be the religion of Neuchatel. A majority of eighteen votes gave the victory to the Reformation. From that day (November 4, 1530) conscience was free in Neuchatel; no one was compelled to abandon Popery, but the cathedral was henceforward appropriated to the Protestant worship, and the Reformation was legally established. [1]

Vallangin, the town of next importance in this part of the Jura, followed soon thereafter the example Neuchatel. The issue here was precipitated by a shameful expedient to which the Papists had recourse, and which was of a sort that history refuses to chronicle. It was a fair-day; Antoine Marcourt, the Pastor of Neuchatel, was preaching in the market-place. A large and attentive congregation was listening to him, when a revolting spectacle was exhibited which was contrived to affront the preacher, insult the audience, and drive the Gospel from the place amid jeers and laughter.

The trick recoiled upon its authors. It was Popery that had to flee. A sudden gust of indignation shook the crowd. The multitudes rushed toward the cathedral. Who shall now save the saints? The priests have unchained winds which it is beyond their power to control. Altar, image, and monumental statue, all went down before the tempest. The relics were scattered about. Even the rich oriels, which flecked, with their glorious tints, stone floor and massive column, were not spared. The edifice, all aglow but a few moments before with the curious and beautiful picturings of chisel and pencil, was now a wreck. The popular vengeance was not yet appeased. The furious multitude was next seen directing its course towards the residences of the canons. The terrified clerics had already fled to the woods, but if their persons escaped, their houses were sacked.

By-and-by the storm spent itself, and calmer feelings returned to the breasts of the citizens. They ascended the hill on which stood the castle of the Countess of Arberg, who governed Vallangin, under the suzerainty of Bern. The authorities trembled when they saw them approach, and were greatly relieved when they learned that they had come with no more hostile intent than to demand the punishment of the perpetrators of the outrage. The countess gave orders for the punishment of the guilty, though she was suspected of connivance in the affair. As to all beyond, the matter was referred to Bern, and their Excellencies decided that the townspeople should pay for the works of art which they had destroyed, and that the countess in return should grant the free profession of the Reformed faith. The sum in which the citizens were amerced we do not know, but it must have been large indeed if it did not leave them immense gainers by the exchange. [2]

By a sort of intuition it was Geneva that Farel all along had in his eye. The victories which he won, and won with such rapidity and brilliancy, at the foot of the Jura, and on the shores of its lakes, were but affairs of outposts. They were merely stepping-stones upon his road, towards the conquest of that heroic little city, which occupied a site where three great empires touched one another, and where he longed to plant the Protestant standard. The idea was ever borne in upon his mind that Geneva had a great part before it, that it was destined to become the capital of Swiss Protestantism, and, in part, of French and Savoyard Protestantism also; for its higher destiny he did not dare to forecast. Therefore he rejoiced in every victory he gained, seeing himself so much the nearer what he felt must be his crowning conquest. But like a wise general he would not advance too fast; he would leave behind him no post of the enemy untaken; he intended that Geneva should be conquered once for all; he would enter its gates only after he had subdued the country around, and hang out the banner of the Gospel upon its ramparts when Geneva had become mistress of a renovated region. And it pleased the Captain whom he served to give him his desire.

There was a short halt in the march of this spiritual conqueror. At St. Blaise, on the northern shore of the Lake of Neuchatel, Farel was set upon by a mob, instigated by the priests, and almost beaten to death. Covered with bruises, spitting. blood, and so disfigured as scarcely to be recognized by his friends, he was put into a small boat, carried across the lake, and nursed

at Morat. He had barely recovered his strength when he rose from bed, and set out for Orbe to evangelise. Orbe was an ancient town at the foot of the Jura, on the picturesque banks of a stream of the same name. It lay nearer Geneva than Neuchatel. Watered by rivulets from the mountains, the gardens that surrounded it were of more than ordinary beauty and luxuriance, but spiritually Orbe was a wilderness, a "land where no water was." The Reformer would have given it "living water;" but, unhappily, Orbe, with its numerous priests, its rich convents, and its famous sisters of St. Claire, some of whom were of royal lineage, did not thirst for such water. Its good Catholics strove to render Farel's journey of no avail. With this view they had recourse to expedients, some of which were tragic, others simply hdicrous. One of them is worth chronicling for its originality. It was agreed to outmanceuvre the evangelist by staying away – a masterly policy in the case of a preacher so attractive – but in one instance the policy was departed from. One day, when Farel entered the pulpit, a most extraordinary scene presented itself. He beheld three adults only present, while the church was nearly filled with children – "brats." The latter lay perfectly flat as if sound asleep. But the moment Farel began to preach they jumped up, as puppets do when the string is pulled, and began to sing and dance, to laugh and scream. Farel's voice was completely drowned by the noise. This scene continued for some time; at length the little ragamuffins made their exit in an uproar of screaming and howling. Farel was now left in quiet, but with no one to listen to him. "And this," says a Popish chronicler, "was the first sermon preached in the town of Orbe." [3]

Nevertheless the Reformer persevered. Soon a small but select number of converts gathered round him, some of them of good position in society. On Pentecost, the 28th of May, Farel celebrated the Lord's Supper, for the first time in Orbe, to a little congregation of seven. Having preached in the morning, the bread and wine were placed on the table, and the communicants received them kneeling. Farel demanded of them whether they forgave one another, and receiving an affirmative reply, he distributed the elements to them. In the afternoon the Papists entered the church, and commenced the chanting of mass." [4]

Farel was beginning to think that Orbe was already won, when unhappily these bright prospects were suddenly dashed by the indiscreet zeal of one of the evangelists. Thinking to reform Orbe by a coup de main, this person, with the help of twelve companions, pulled down one day all the images in its seven churches. [5] The destruction of the idols but prolonged the reign of idolatry. A reaction set in, and it was not till twenty years thereafter that Orbe placed itself in the rank of Reformed cities.

But if Orbe remained Roman it had the honor of giving to the Reformation one of its loveliest spirits and most persuasive preachers. Peter Viret was born in this town in 1511. His father was a wool-dresser. Sweet, studious, and of elevated soul, the son gave himself to the service of the altar. he was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he remained about three years.

He attained the peace of the Gospel, like most of the Reformers, by passing through the waters of anguish; but in his case "the floods" were not so deep as in that of Luther and Calvin. When he returned to his native city, he entered the pulpit at the entreaty of Farel, and preached to his townsmen. The sweetness of his voice, the beauty of his ideas, and the modesty of his manner held his hearers captive. It was seen that he who distributes to his servants as he pleases for the edification of his body, the Church, had given to Viret his special gift. He did not possess the glowing imagery and bmuling ardor of Luther, nor the fiery energy of Farel, nor the thrilling power of Zwingle, nor the calm, towering, and all-mastering genius of Calvin; but his preaching, nevertheless, had a charm which was not found in that of any of those great men. Clear, tender, persuasive aided by the stircry tones of his voice, and the moral glow which lighted up his features, its singular fascination and power were attested, in after-years, by the immense crowds which gathered round him in Switzerland and the south of France, whenever he stood up to preach. He was indeed a polished shaft in the hand of the Almighty. [6]

Farel had to fall back from before Orbe; but if he retreated it was to wage fi'esh combats and to win new victories. He next visited Grandson, at the western extremity of the Lake of Neuchatel. The priests, alarmed at his arrival, rose in arms, and drove him away. Bern now interposed its authority for his protection. Their Excellencies would compel no one to become a Protestant, but they were determined to permit the two faiths to be heard, and the citizens to make their choice between the sermon and the mass. Taking with him Viret, Farel returned to Grandson, where he was joined by a third, De Glutinis, an evangelist from the Bernese Jura. They preached Sunday and weekday. The heresy was breaking in like a torrent.

The priests strove to rear a bulwark against the devastating flood. They refuted, to the best of their ability, the Protestant sermons. They called to their aid popular preachers from the neighboring towns, and they organised processions and sacred chants to invigorate the zeal and piety of their adherents. The tide, notwithstanding, continued to set in a contrary direction to that in which they wished to force it to flow. Arming themselves, they came to church to refute what they

heard spoken there, not with arguments, but with blows. The sacristan threatened Farel with a pistol which he had concealed under his cloak; another attempted to assassinate Glutinis with a poignard. The ministers managed to mount the pulpits, but were pulled from them, thrown down on the floor, trampled upon, beaten, and when their friends rushed forward to defend them, the two parties fought over their prostrate bodies, and a regular battle was seen going forward in the church. [7]

But a great good resulted from these lamentable proceedings. The matter was brought before the Great Conference, which assembled, as we have previously related, at Bern in January, 1532. The Swiss were drifting toward a civil war. It was hopeless to think of conciliating the two parties that divided the nation, but was it necessary therefore that they should cut one another's throats? Might it not be possible rather to bear with one another's opinions? This was the device hit upon. It might appear to Rome, as it still appears to her, an execrable one, but to the Conference it appeared preferable to the crime and horror of internecine strife. Thus out of that necessity which is said to be the mother of invention, came the idea of toleration. We deem the mass idolatry, said Protestant Bern, but we shall prevent no one going to it. We deem the Protestant sermon heresy, rejoined Popish Friburg, but we shall give liberty to all who wish to attend it. Thus on the basis of liberty of worship was the public peace maintained. This dates in Switzerland from January, 1532. [8] Toleration was adopted as a policy before it had been accepted as a principle. It was practiced as a necessity of the State before it had been promulgated as a right of conscience. It was only when it came to be recognised and claimed in the latter character as a right founded on a Divine charter – namely, the Word of God – and held irrespective of the permission or the interdiction of man, that toleration established inviolably its existence and reign.

In this manner did Farel carry on the campaign. Every hour he encountered new perils; every day there awaited him fresh persecutions; but it more than consoled him to think that he was winning victory after victory. He remembered that similar foes had beset the path of the first preachers of the Gospel in the cities of Asia Minor at the beginning of the Christian dispensation, to those which obstructed his own in the towns and villages of this region. But in the face of that opposition, how marvellous had his success been – not his, but that of the invisible Power that was moving before him! Among the towns won to the Gospel – the beginning of his strength – he could count Neuchatel, and Vallangin, and Morat, and Grandson, and Aigle, and Bex, and partially Orbe. Every day the fields were growing ripe unto the harvest; able and zealous laborers were coming to his aid in the reaping of it. By-and-by he hoped to carry home the last sheaf, in the conversion of the little town which nestled at the southern extremity of the Leman Lake, to which his longing eyes were so often turned. What joy would be his, could he pluck it from the talons of Savoy and the grasp of Rome, and give it to the Gospel!


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Sunday, June 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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