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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 6 — Geneva on the brink of civil war

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First Communion in Geneva – Plot to Massacre all the Converts – Canon Wernli – The Roman Catholics take Arms – The City on the Brink of Civil War – The Battle Averted – Another Storm – Canon Wernli Arms and Rings the Tocsin – He is Slain – Bern Interposes – The Council Permits by Edict the Free Preaching of the Gospel in Geneva – The Pope Commands the Bishop to Return to the City – He Blunders and Retires – Froment Returns – Farel and Viret Arrive in Geneva – Dejection of the Roman Catholics.

THE workman had retired, but the work went on. The Protestants, now grown to a goodly number, and full of zeal and hope, met in each other's houses – the catacombs of the young Church, as an old author styles these meetings. They read the Scriptures in Lefevre's translation; they elected Guerin, one of the more intelligent and esteemed among them, to "the charge of the Word," in the room of Froment; and they still further strengthened their bond of union by partaking together of the Lord's Supper. It occasioned them some anxiety where they should find a spot sufficiently secluded for the celebration of the ordinence. The place ultimately made choice of was a little walled garden near the city gates. [1]

The time of year was the middle of March. The preparations were simple indeed – a few benches, a table spread with a white cloth, on which were displayed the bread and wine, that were to become to these disciples the memorials of Christ's death, and the token and seal of their interest in its blessings. Guerin took his seat at the head of the table, and began the service. At that moment the sun, rising over the Alps, a his first rays upon the little company, an outward emblem of the real though spiritual presence of that Savior of whom it was foretold –

"His coming like the morn shall be,
Like morning songs his voice." [2]

This seemed to them an auspicious token. [3] The growing numbers and zeal of the disciples again drew upon them the anger of the priests, and Guerin had to withdraw and follow Froment into exile at Yvonand. [4] Geneva, like a ship laboring in a tempestuous sea, was casting out one Protestant laborer after another, but it could not cast out the Gospel.

Bern next appeared upon the stage, and demanded that its ally Geneva should grant liberty to the preaching of the Gospel in it. [5] The friends of the duke and of Rome – the Mamelukes, as they were called – saw that matters had come to a crisis. They must extirpate Lutheranism from Geneva, otherwise they should never be at rest; but Lutheranism they could hope to extirpate not otherwise than by extirpating all the Lutherans. The council hesitated and procrastinated, for the majority of its members were still Roman Catholic; but the canons, priests, and chief partisans of Romanism neither hesitated nor procrastinated. They met in the Vicar-General's council-hall (Thursday, 27th May, 1533); they came armed to the teeth, and the issue of their deliberations, which were conducted by torch-light, was to kill all the Protestants in Geneva without one exception. [6] The conspirators, raising their hands, bound themselves by a solemn oath. [7] They now dispersed for a brief repose, for the plot was to be executed on the day following.

The morrow came, and the conspirators assembled in the cathedral, to the number of 700. [8] The first to enter was Canon Wernli. He came clad in armor. He was as devoted a Romanist as he was a redoubtable warrior. He was a Samson for strength, and could wield his battle-axe as he might fling about his breviary. In waging war with the hydra of heresy which had broken into the Roman Catholic fold of Geneva he would strike once, and would not strike a second time. This zealous priest and valiant soldier was the real captain of the band, which was ostensibly led by Syndic Baud, in his "great hat and plume of feathers."

Having marshalled in front of the high altar of St. Peter's, this troop, which included 300 armed priests, put itself in motion. With banners displayed, crosses uplifted, axes and swords brandished, while the great bell of the cathedral sent forth its startling and ominous peals, it marched down the street of the Perron to the Molard, and drew up in battle array. Various armed detachments continued to arrive from other quarters, and their junction ultimately swelled the Roman Catholic host to about 2,500. They felt sure of victory. Here they stood, their cannons and arquebuses loaded, awaiting the word for action: and chafing at those little hindrances which ever and anon occurred to keep them back from battle, as chafes the war-horse against the bit that curbs his fiery impatience to plunge into the fight. [9]

This army, drawn up in order of battle in the Molard, received a singular reinforcement. The wives and mothers of the Romanists appeared on the scene of action, their aprons filled with stones, by their side their little children of from twelve to fourteen, whom they had brought to take part in this holy war and into whose hands they had put such weapons as they were able to wield. So great was the zeal of these Amazons against heresy! Meanwhile, what were the Protestants doing or thinking? At the first alarm they assembled in the house of Baudichon de la Maisonneuve, one of the most courageous of their leaders. His mansion was situated on the left bank of the Rhone, some 400 paces from the Molard. The converts felt how terrible was the crisis, but their hearts were fixed, trusting on him who holds the tempests and whirlwinds in his hands. He

had but to speak, and that storm would dispel as suddenly as it had gathered. The plan of the Romanists was to march to Baudichon's house, set fire to it, and massacre the heretics one by one as they escaped from the flames. The proposal of burning them came to the ears of the Protestants; their numbers had now considerably increased; all were well armed and of good courage; they resolved to march out and stand for their lives. Descending into the street, they drew up five deep in presence of the enemy.

There was deep stillness. It would be broken the next moment by the shock of murderous battle. The cannons and arquebuses were loaded; the halberds grasped; the swords unsheathed; and stones and other missiles were ready to be poured in to complete the work of death. But it pleased the Great Disposer to stay the tempest when it seemed on the very point of bursting.

There chanced at that time to be seven Friburg merchants sojourning in Geneva. [10] Touched by the lamentable spectacle of the citizens in arms to shed one another's blood, they came forward at the critical moment to mediate. "Blessed are the peace-makers." Going first to the Roman Catholics and then to the Reformed, they represented to the former how foolish it was to shed their blood "to satisfy the appetite of their priests," [11] and pointed out to the latter how tremendous were the odds that stood arrayed against them. With much ado they succeeded in calming the passions of both parties. The priests, however, of whom 160 were in arms, refused to lend an ear to these pacific counsels. But finding that if they persisted they should have to fight it out by themselves, they at last came to terms. [12] The insane fury of the inhabitants having now given place to the natural affections, tears of joy welcomed fathers and husbands as at night they stepped across the thresholds of their homes. Terms of pacification were afterwards drawn up which left the balance inclining somewhat in favor of liberty of conscience. [13]

But soon again another storm darkened over that city within which two mighty principles were contending. The magistrates might issue edicts, the leaders of the two parties might sign pacifications, but settled peace there could be none for Geneva till the Gospel should have established its sway in the hearts of a majority of its citizens. On the 4th May, just five weeks after the affair we have narrated, another tumult broke out. Its instigator was the same bellicose ecclesiastic who figured so prominently on the 28th March – Canon Wernli. "This good champion of the faith," as Sister Jeanne, who kept a journal of these occurrences, calls him, had that morning celebrated, with unusual pomp, the Feast of "The Holy Winding-sheet," in St. Peter's. "Taking off his sacerdotal robes, he put on his breast-plate and cuishes, belted his sword to his side, seized his heavy halberd," [14] and issued forth to do battle for the Church. Followed by a party of priests to whose haalds the arquebus came quite as readily as the breviary, Wernli strode down the Perton to his old battle-field, the Molard By this time night had fallen; alarming rumors were propagated through the city, and to add to the terror of the inhabitants, the tocsin began to ring out its thundering peals. Many on both sides, Roman Catholics and Reformers, mostly armed, rushed into the street. There Canon Wernli, unable to distinguish friend from foe in the darkness, was shouting out to his assailants to come on; but as no one answered the challenge, he fell to dealing blows right and left among the crowd. Some one slipped behind him, and espying an opening in his iron coat, thrust his poignard into his body. The shouts ceased, the tumult gradually subsided, the night passed, and when the morning broke Canon Wernli was found lying in his armor, on the doorsteps of one of the houses, stark dead. [15]

If the death of this Papal champion lessened the dangers of the Reformed within the city, it multiplied their enemies without. Wernli belonged to a powerful family of the Popish Canton of Friburg, and ambassadors from that State now appeared at Geneva demanding the punishment of all concerned in the canon's death – that is, of all the Reformed. The Reformation seemed about to be sacrificed on the tomb of Wernli. Protestant Bern instantly stepped forward in its defense. Bern proved itself the more powerful. Its ambassadors induced the syndics and council, as the only escape from the chaos that encompassed them, to proclaim liberty to all to abide by the mass, or to follow Protestantism, as their conscience might dictate. [16] This decree, which advanced the landmarks of liberty theoretically, but hardly as yet practically, brought matters to a head in Geneva.

For some time many eyes had been watching from abroad the struggle going on in this little town on the shores of the Leman. The extraordinary bravery and energy of its citizens had invested it with a charm that rivetted upon it the eye of both friend and foe, and inspired them with the presentiment that it had a great part to play in the new times that were opening. It caused many all hour of anxious thought to Clement VII. in the Vatican. Charles V. could not but wonder that, while so many great kingdoms owned his sway, this little city resisted his will. He had written to these haughty burghers peremptorily commanding them to forsake the evil paths of heresy. They had gone their own way notwithstanding.

Strong measures must be taken with this rebellious town. Its prince-bishop, Pierre de la Baume, was absent from Geneva, and had been so for some while. The free manners of the citizens did not suit him, and he took up his abode at Arbois, on

the other side of the Jura, in a quiet neighborhood, where the wine was good. The prince-bishop cared for his Church, of course, but he cared also for his dinner; but Geneva was on the point of being lost; and the Pope, at the risk of spoiling the bishop's digestion, ordered him, under pain of excommunication, to return thither, and try his hand at reducing to their obedience his mutinous subjects. Pierre de la Baume had but little heart for the task, but it was enjoined upon him under a threat which he trembled to incur, and so, provided with an armed escort, he returned (lst July, 1533) to Geneva.

He but helped to ruin the cause he had come to uphold, he would give Lutheranism, not an open execution, but a secret burial. Accordingly, inviting the chiefs of the Protestant movement to his palace, no sooner had they entered it than the bishop closed the doors, threw his guests into irons, and proceeded to dispose of them by consigning one to this dungeon, and another to that. In this summary proceeding of their bishop the council saw a flagrant violation of the franchises of Geneva. It was the attack on liberty, not religion – for three of the four syndics were still Roman Catholic – that awakened their indignation. The senators produced their ancient charter, which the bishop had sworn to observe, and claimed the constitutional right, in which it vested them, of trying all inculpated citizens. The bishop found himself caught in the trap he had so cunningly set for others. If he should open his dungeons, he would confess to having sustained a most humiliating defeat; if he should retain his prisoners in bonds, he would draw upon his head one of those popular tempests of which he was so greatly afraid. Choosing the former as the less formidable alternative, he gave up his prisoners to their lawful judges.

But even this did not restore the bishop's tranquillity. His guilty imagination was continually conjuring up tumults and assassinations; and, fleeing when no man pursued, he secretly quitted Geneva, just fourteen days after he had entered it. [17] He left the cause of Rome in a worse position than he had found it, and the Pope saw that he had better have left the craven bishop to enjoy his quiet and his wine at Arbois. When the shepherd of the flock had fled, what so likely to happen as that the "wolf" would return? The "wolf" did return. Froment, with a companion by his side, Alexander Canus, reappeared upon the scene which the bishop had been in such haste to quit. These evangelists preached in private houses, and when these no longer sufficed for the crowds that assembled, they proclaimed the "good news" in the streets. The bishop, who learned what was going on, fulminated a missive from his quiet asylum, in the hope of driving the destroyer out of the fold he had deserted. "Why," said the Genevans, "did he not remain and keep the door closed?" The priests complained to the council, laying the bishop's letter upon the table. Their remonstrance only served to show that the tide was rising. "Preach the Gospel," answered the council, "and say nothing that cannot be proved by Holy Scripture." These words, which are still to be read in the city registers, made Protestantism a religio licita (a tolerated faith) in Geneva. [18] The bishop, in his own way, threw oil upon the fire by a second and more energetic letter, forbidding the preaching in Geneva, secretly or publicly, of "the holy page," of "the holy Gospel." [19] Further, Furbity, a frothy and abusive preacher of the Dominican order, was brought to oppose the Reformed. The violence of his harangues evoked a popular tumult, and the waters of liberty retreating for a moment from the limits Which they had reached, Froment and Canus had to retire from Geneva.

But speedily the tide turned, this time to overpass a long way its furthest limits hitherto. On the 21st December, 1533, Farel entered the gates of Geneva, not again to leave it till the Reformation had been consummated in it. The Roman Catholics felt that a life-and-death struggle had commenced.

The citizens assembled to the sermons of Farel with helmets on their heads, and arquebuses and halberds in their hands. The priests, divining the true source of the movement, published from all the pulpits on the 1st of January, 1534, an order commanding all copies of the Bible, whether in French or in German, to be burned. [20] For three days and nights the city was under arms; the one party arming to defend, the other to expel the Bible. Froment arrived to the help of Farel. There came yet another – Viret, who joined them in a few weeks. Farel, Viret, Froment – the three most powerful preachers in the French tongue – are now in Geneva.

These three are an army. Their weapon is the Word of God. Clad in the panoply of light, and wielding the sword of the Spirit, these three warriors will do more to batter down the stronghold of Rome than all that the nine hundred priests in Geneva can do to uphold it. The knell of the Papacy has sounded in this city; low responsive wailings begin to be heard along the foot of the Alps and the crest of the Jura, mourning the approaching fall of an ancient system. The echoes travel to France, to England, and to Germany, and wherever they come the friends of the Gospel and of liberty look up, while the adherents of Rome hang their heads, weighed down by the presentiment of a terrible disaster about to befall their cause.

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