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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 5 — Fabel enters Geneva

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Basin of the Rhone – Leman Lake – Grandeur of its Environs – The Region in Former Times a Stronghold of Popery – Geneva – The Duke of Savoy Entreats the Emperor to put him in Possession of it – The Hour Passes – Farel Enters Geneva – Preaches – The Perfect Liberty – The Great Pardon – Beginning of a New Geneva – Terror of the Priests – Farel and Saunier Summoned before the Council – Protected by Letters from Bern – A Tumult – Farel narrowly Escapes Death – Is Sent away from Geneva – Froment Comes in his Room – Begins as Schoolmaster – His New Year's Day Sermon – Popular Agitation – Retires from Geneva

THERE is no grander valley in Switzerland than the basin of the Rhone, whose collected floods, confined within smiling shores, form the Leman. As one looks toward sunrise, he sees on his right the majestic line of the white Alps; and on his left, the picturesque and verdant Jura. The vast space which these magnificent chains enclose is variously filled in. Its grandest feature is the lake. It is blue as the sky, and motionless as a mirror. Nestling on its shores, or dotting its remoter banks, is many a beautiful villa, many a picturesque town, almost drowned in the affluent foliage of gardens and rich vines, which clothe the country that slopes upward in an easy swell toward the mountains. In the remoter distance the eye ranges over a vast stretch of pasture-lands and corn-fields, and forests of chestnuts and pine-trees. Above the dark woods soar the great peaks, as finely robed as the plains, though after a different manner – not with flowers and verdure, but with glaciers and snows.

But this fertile and lovely land, at the time we write of, was one of the strongholds of the Papacy. Cathedrals, abbacies, rich convents, and famous shrines, which attracted yearly troops of pilgrims, were thickly planted throughout the valley of the Leman. These were so many fortresses by which Rome kept the country in subjection. In each of these fortresses was placed a numerous garrison. Priests and monks swarmed like the locusts. The land was fat, yet one wonders how it sustained so numerous and ravenous a host. In Geneva alone there were nine hundred priests. In the other towns and villages around the lake, and at the foot of the Jura, they were not less numerous in proportion. Cowls and shorn crowns, frocks and veils, were seen everywhere. This generation of tonsured men and veiled women formed the "Church;" and the dues they exacted of the lay population, and the processions, chants, exorcisms, and blows which they gave them in return, were styled "religion." The man who would go down into this region of sevenfold blackness, and attack these sons of the Roman Anak, who here tyrannised so mercilessly over their wretched victims, had indeed need of a stout heart and a strong faith.

He had need to be clad in the armor of God in going forth to such a battle. This man was William Farel. The spiritual campaigns of the sixteenth century produced few such champions. "His sermons," says D'Aubigne, "were actions quite as much as a battle is." We have already chronicled what he did in these "wars of the Lord" in the Pays de Vaud; we are now to be engaged in the narrative of his work in Geneva.

We have brought down the eventful story of this little city to the time when it formed an alliance with Bern and Friburg. This brought it a little help in the battle which it had maintained hitherto single-handed against tremendous odds. The duke had left it, and placed the Alps between himself and it, but he had not lost sight of it. Despairing of being able to reduce it by his own power, he sent a messenger to Charles V. at Augsburg, entreating him to send his soldiers and put him in possession of Geneva. Most willingly would the emperor have put these haughty citizens under the feet of the duke, but his own hands were at that moment too full to attempt any new enterprise. The Lutheran princes of Germany, as stubborn in their own way as the Genevans were in theirs, were occasioning Charles a world of anxiety, and he could give the duke nothing but promises. The emperor's plan, as communicated to the duke's envoy, was first to "crush the German Protestants, and then bring his mailed hand down on the Huguenots of Geneva." [1] Geneva meanwhile had respite. The Treaty of Nuremberg shortly afterwards set Charles V. free on the side of Germany, and left him at liberty to convert the promises he had made the duke into deeds. But the hour to strike had now passed; a mightier power than the emperor had entered Geneva.

Returning from the Waldensian synod in the valley of Angrogna, in October, 1532, Farel, who was accompanied by Saunter, could not resist his long-cherished desire of visiting Geneva. His arrival was made known to the friends of liberty in that city, [2] and the very next day the elite of the citizens waited on him at his inn, the Tour Perce, on the left bank of the Rhone. He preached twice, setting forth the glorious Gospel of the grace of God. The topic of his first address was Holy Scripture, the fountain-head of all Divine knowledge, in contradistinction to tradition of Fathers, or decree of Council, and the only authority on earth to which the conscience of man was subject. This opened the gates of a higher liberty than these men had yet understood, or aspired to. They had been shedding their blood for their franchises, but now the Reformer showed them a way by which their souls might escape from the dark dungeon in which tradition and human authority had succeeded in shutting them up. The next day Farel

proclaimed to them the great pardon of God – which consisted, according to his exposition, in the absolutely free forgiveness of sinners bestowed on the footing of an absolutely full and perfect expiation of human guilt; and this he placed in studious opposition to the pardon of the Pope, which had to be bought with money or with penances. This was a still wider opening of the gates of a new world to these men. "This," said Farel, "is the Gospel; and this, and nothing short of this, is liberty, inasmuch as it is the enfranchisement of the whole man, body, conscience, and soul." [3] The words of the Reformer did not fall on dull or indifferent hearts. The generous soil, already watered with the blood of the martyrs of liberty, now received into its bosom a yet more precious seed. The Old Geneva passed away, and in its place came a New Geneva, which the wiles of the Pope should not be able to circumvent, nor the arms of the emperor to subdue.

The priests learned, with a dismay bordering on despair, that the man who had passed like a devastating tempest over the Pays de Vand, his track marked by altars overturned, images demolished, and canons, monks, and nuns fleeing before him in terror, had come hither also. What was to be done? Effectual steps must be promptly taken, otherwise all would be lost. The gods of Geneva would perish as those of Neuchatel had done. [4]

Farel and Saunter were summoned before the town council. [5] The majority of the magistrates received them with angry looks, some of them with bitter words; but happily Farel carried letters from their Excellencies of Bern, with whom Geneva was in alliance, and whom the councillors feared to offend. The Reformers, thus protected, after some conference, left the council-chamber unharmed.

Their acquittal awakened still more the fears of the priests, and as their fear grew so did their anger. Armed clerics were parading the streets; there was a great flutter in the convents. "A shabby little preacher," said one of the sisters of St. Claire, with a toss of the head, "Master William Farel, has just arrived." [6] The townspeople were breaking out in tumults. What next was thought of? An episcopal council met, and under a pretext of debating the question it summoned the two preachers before them. Two magistrates accompanied them to see that they returned alive. Some of the episcopal council had come with arms under their sacerdotal robes. Such was their notion of a religious discussion. The Reformers were asked by what authority they preached? Farel replied by quoting the Divine injunction, "Preach the Gospel to every creature." The meek majesty of the answer only provoked a sneer. In a few minutes the council became excited; the members started to their feet; they flung themselves upon the two evangelists; they pulled them about; they spat upon them, exclaiming, "Come, Farel, you wicked devil, what makes you go up and down thus? Whence comest thou? What business brings you to our city to throw us into trouble?" When the noise had a little subsided, Farel made answer courageously, "I am not a devil; I am sent by God as an ambassador of Jesus Christ; I preach Christ crucified – dead for our sins – risen again for our justification; he that believeth upon him hath eternal life; he that believeth not is condemned." "He blasphemes; he is worthy of death," exclaimed some. "To the Rhone, to the Rhone!" shouted others; "it were better to drown him in the Rhone than permit this wicked Lutheran to trouble all the people." "Speak the words of Christ, not of Caiaphas," replied Farel. This was the signal for a yet more ferocious outbreak. "Kill the Lutheran hound," exclaimed they. Dom Bergeri, proctor to the chaplain, cried, "Strike, strike!" They closed round Farel and Saunier; they took hold of them; they struck at them. One of the Grand Vicar's servants, who carried an arquebus, levelled it at Farel; he pulled the trigger; the priming flashed. [7] The clatter of arms under the vestments of the priests foreboded a tragic issue to the affair; and doubtless it would speedily have terminated in this melancholy fashion, but for the vigorous interposition of the two magistrates. [8]

Rescued from the perils of the episcopal council-hall, worse dangers, if possible, threatened them outside. A miscellaneous crowd of clerics and laics, armed with clubs and swords, waited in the street to inflict upon the two heretics the vengeance which it was just possible they might escape at the hands of the vicar and canons. [9] When the mob saw them appear, they brandished their weapons, and raising a frightful noise of hissing and howling, made ready to rush upon them. It looked as if they were fated to die upon the spot. At the critical moment a band of halberdiers, headed by the syndics, came up, and closing their ranks round the two Reformers escorted them, through the scowling and hooting crowd, to their inn, the Tour Perce. A guard was stationed at the door all night. Next morning, at an early hour, appeared a few friends, who taking Farel and Saunter, and leading them to the shore of the lake, made them embark in a small boat, and, carrying them over the quiet waters, landed them in the Pays de Vand, at an unfrequented spot between Merges and Lausanne. Thence Farel and Saunter went on to Grandson. Such was the issue of Farel's first essay in a city on which his eye and heart had so long rested. It did not promise much; but he had accomplished more than he at the moment knew.

In fact, Farel was too powerful, and his name was of too great prestige, to begin the work. The seeds of such a work must be deposited by a gentle hand, they must grow up in

a still air, and only when they have taken root may the winds be suffered to blow. Of this Farel seems to have become sensible, for we find him looking around for a humbler and feebler instrument to send to Geneva. He cast eyes on the young and not very courageous Froment, and dispatched him to a city where he himself had almost been torn in pieces. [10] While Froment was on his way another visitor unexpectedly appeared to the Genevans. A comet blazed forth in their sky. What did it portend? War, said some; the rising of a Divine light, said others. [11]

Froment's appearance was so mean that even the Huguenots, as the friends of liberty and progress in Geneva were styled, turned their backs upon him. What was he to do? Froment recalled Farel's example at Aigle, and resolved to turn schoolmaster. He hired a room at the Croix d'Or, near the Molard, and speedily his fame as a teacher of youth filled Geneva. The lessons Froment taught the children in the school, the children taught the parents when they went home. Gradually, and in a very short while, the class grew into a congregation of adults, the school-room into a church, and the teacher into an evangelist. Reading out a chapter he would explain it with simplicity and impressiveness. Thus did he scatter the seed upon hearts; souls were converted; and the once despised evangelist, who had been, like a greater missionary, "a root out of a dry ground" to the Genevans, now saw crowds pressing around him and drinking in his words. [12]

This was in the end of the year 1532. The work proceeded apace. Among the converts were certain rich and honorable women: we mention specially Paula, the wife of John Lever, and Claudine, her sister-in-law. Their conversion made a great sensation in Geneva. By their means their husbands and many of their acquaintances were drawn to hear the schoolmaster at the Croix d'Or, and embraced the Gospel. From the Pays de Vaud, arrived New Testaments, tracts, and controversial works; and these, distributed among the citizens, opened the eyes of many who had not courage to go openly to the schoolmaster's sermon. Tradesmen and people of all conditions enrolled themselves among the disciples. The social principle of Christianity began to operate; those who were of one faith drew together into one society, and meeting at stated times in one another's houses, they strove to instruct and strengthen each other. Such were the early days of the Genevan Church.

First came faith – faith in the free forgiveness of the Gospel – next came good works A reformation of manners followed in Geneva. The Reformed ceased to frequent those fashionable amusements in which they had formerly delighted. They banished finery from their dress, and luxury from their banquets. They made no more costly presents to the saints, and the; money thus saved they bestowed on the poor, and especially the Protestant exiles whom the rising storms of persecution in France compelled to flee to the gates of Geneva as to a harbour of refuge. There was hardly a Protestant of note who did not receive into his house one of these expatriated Christians, [13] and in this way Geneva learned that hospitality for which it is renowned to this day.

The congregation of Froment in a few weeks grew too large for the modest limits of the Croix d'Or. One day a greater concourse than usual assembling at his chapel door, and pressing in vain for admittance, the cry was raised, "To the Molard!" To the Molard the crowd marched, carrying with them the preacher. It was New Year's Day, 1533. The Molard was the market-square, and here, mounted on a fish-stall – the first public pulpit in Geneva – Froment preached to the multitude. It was his "New Year's gift," as it has been called. Having prayed, he began his sermon [14] by announcing that "free pardon"–the ray from the open heavens which leads the eye upward to the throne of a Savior – which all the Reformers, treading in the steps of the apostles, placed in the foreground of their teaching. From this he went on to present to his hearers the lineaments of the "false prophets" and "idolatrous priests" as painted in the Old and New Testaments, pointing out the exact verification of these features in the Romish hierarchy of their own day. Froment's delineations were so minute, so graphic and fearless, that his hearers saw the prophets of Baal, and the Pharisees of a corrupt Judaism, living over again in the priests of their own city. The preacher had become warm with his theme, and the audience were kindling in sympathy, when a sound of hurrying footsteps was heard behind them. On turning round a band of armed men was seen entering the square. The lieutenant of the city, the procurator-fiscal, the soldiers, and a number of armed priests, exasperated by this public manifestation of the converts, had come to arrest Froment, and disperse the assembly. Had the preacher been captured, it is not doubtful what his fate would have been, but the band returned without their prey. His friends carried him off to a place of hiding. [15]

The agitation of the citizens and the violence of the priests made the farther prosecution of Froment's ministry in Geneva hopeless. He withdrew quietly from the city, and returned to his former charge in the village of Yvonand, at the foot of the Jura. [16] The foundations of Protestant Geneva had been laid: greater builders were to rear the edifice.

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