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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 7 — Heroism of Geneva

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Conspiracy against Geneva – Detection – Protestants gain Possession of one of the Churches – The Gospel in Geneva – Glories Near but Unseen – An Army of Pilgrims – A Hunting Party – The Game not Caught – Roman Catholic Exodus – The Duke and the Emperor Combine against Geneva – Perils of the City – Heroic Resolution of the Citizens – The Suburbs Demolished – The Citizens Wait the Assault.

GENEVA had much to dare and to endure during the year and a half that was yet to elapse before its struggles should be crowned with victory. Three powerful parties – the prince-bishop, the Duke of Savoy, and their Excellencies of Friburg – jointly conspired against the liberties of the brave little town. [1] The bishop secretly appointed a lieutenant-general to govern in his name, investing him with all the powers of the State; the duke sent blank warrants to be filled in with the names of those whom it might be necessary to apprehend and execute, and the Lords of Friburg were to cooperate with the Mamelukes within the city. All had been excellently planned; but the blow which the bishop meditated against the State of Geneva fell upon himself and his accomplices. The plot was discovered; the agents who were to have executed it suffered the doom of traitors; the bishop, caught plotting, became nearly as odious to the Roman Catholics as he already was to the Protestants; and the popular reaction which ensued filled the curule chairs, at next election, with the friends of the Reform.

The Reformers, now numerous, and taunted sometimes with worshipping in holes and corners, resolved no longer to submit to the stigma of being obliged to celebrate their worship in private houses. They said to the magistrates, "Give us one of the churches of the city." The Council, wishing to hold the balance even between them and the Roman Catholics, excused themselves by saying that this was a matter that lay outside their jurisdiction; but, added they, "you are strong, and if you are pleased to take one of the churches of your own accord, we cannot prevent you."

The converts did not delay to act upon the hint. The brave Baudichon de la Maisonneuve marching at their head, they proceeded to the Convent of the Rive and appropriated for their use the "Grand Auditory," or cloister, [2] which might contain from four to five thousand persons. They rang the bells; the report ran that Farel was to preach; and crowds from every part of the city came streaming to the Rive. The monks could only stare. Rising up in his ordinary dress, Farel preached to the overflowing congregation. That was a day much to be remembered in Geneva. It needs neither many nor learned words to proclaim the Gospel. It is a message from the throne of heaven to the guilty children of earth, to this effect, that God, having sent his Son to suffer in their room, offers them a free pardon.

The Genevans were amazed to find that the Gospel was so simple a matter, and could be so soon told. They had been taught from their cradle that it needed gorgeous cathedrals, blazing tapers, splendidly apparelled priests, chants, and incense to set it forth, and that wanting mystic rites it refused to impart its efficacy to the worshipper; now they found that one attired in a plain dress, and in a single plain sentence, could declare it all. But that little sentence they found was a ray that revealed to them a whole world of glory. The chant of the priest had entered the ear only, Farel's words sunk into the heart: the taper had but flashed its light on the eye, the Gospel shed its glory on the soul. A moral phenomenon was now accomplished before this people, analogous to the natural one which often takes place in this same region. So long as the mists and clouds veil the Alps, these mountains, even to the men living at their feet, are as if they did not exist.

But let the clouds lift, or let the breeze make an opening in the mist, and lo! a world of Alpine grandeurs is suddenly revealed to the eye of the spectator. A moment ago there hung before him a curtain of dull vapor; now there is seen a glorious array of mountains, with their gorges, rocks, and pine forests, their snows and flashing pinnacles. As near, yet as unseen, were the evangelical glories of the spiritual world to the Genevans. These glories were completely hidden by the black cloud of ignorance and superstition that hung between them and the Bible. But the moment that cloud began to be parted by the preaching of the Gospel and the breath of the Spirit, a new world was disclosed, a world of truth. It stood out, distinct, palpable, complete, in an affluence of spiritual glory, and a fullness of moral power, which made the Genevans wonder what blinding influence it was that had hidden from their eye what was all the time so near, and yet so entirely unseen.

The Gospel had entered Geneva. The city was taken. How much the Reformation had gained, and how much Rome had lost, in the conquest of that little town, future years were to enable men fully to understand. But the Protestants of Geneva had many efforts and sacrifices yet to undergo if they would retain the victory which had in reality been won.

Geneva was far too important a post for the Romanists to let it slip without another great effort. This was resolved upon. In the middle of May the priests of the surrounding districts organised a great procession of pilgrims, who knew how to handle other things than their rosaries. The pious troop appeared at the gates of Geneva, duly furnished with banners, crosses, and relics; but the citizens, recollecting the story of the Trojan horse, and fearing

that if the pilgrims entered their devotions might take a militant turn, and the war-cry be raised for the psalm, refused to admit the devout host. They could pray outside the walls. So this danger passed away.

The next army that marched to assail the little town, where the light of the Gospel was burning more brightly every day, came not in the guise of pilgrims, but of soldiers. The bishop had formed a new plot. The Romanist Lords of Vaud and Savoy, at the instigation of the bishop and the duke, had arranged a hunting party for the last day of July, 1534, the real game which the armed sportsmen meant to run down being the Genevan Lutheran. The Papists within the city were to act in concert with those without. Some 300 armed foreigners had been secretly introduced into the town; the keeper of the artillery had been bribed; the midnight signals agreed upon; and the bishop, dividing the prey before he had caught it, had confiscated in favor of his followers the goods of the Genevan heretics. In short, everything had been done to insure success.

The night came; the peasants of the surrounding country, having armed themselves, began to move on Geneva, some by land, others by water. The Bailiff of Chablais and the Baron de Rollo alone led 8,000 men. The Papists in the city had armed secretly, and were assembling in one another's houses. [3] The citizens, all save the accomplices of the bishop, were ignorant of the plot, and many of them had already gone to rest as usual. All was progressing as the invaders wished. But that Providence which had been ploughing this field for more than twenty years, was not to abandon it to the enemy at the very moment when the seed which had been sown in it was shooting up, and the harvest at hand. A friend of the Gospel, Jacques Maubuisson, [4] from Dauphine, solicited an interview with the premier syndic at an early hour of the evening. He was admitted, and startled the magistrate by telling him that the city was surrounded with armed men. Instantly the citizens were aroused and got under arms.

The host outside the walls were meanwhile straining their eyes to catch through the darkness the first gleam of the torches, which were to be waved on the tops of the houses of their friends as the signal to begin the assault. All suddenly a brilliant light shone forth from the summit of the steeple of St. Peter's. That was the place, the invaders knew, where the city-watch were usually stationed. It was plain the plot had been discovered. "We are betrayed! we are betrayed!" they exclaimed; "we shall never enter Geneva!" [5] Fiercer and yet fiercer, as it seemed to the eyes of the Savoyards, glared that beacon-light. Panic seized their ranks, and when the morning broke the citizens of Geneva beheld from their steeples and ramparts the armies of the invaders in full retreat. By the time the sun rose the last foe had disappeared. As a dream, short but terrible, so did the events of that night appear to the Genevans. [6]

The miscarriage of the plot was followed by an exodus of Romanists from the city. Many of the Mamelukes, as they were termed, fled, and thus the priests were left without flocks, the churches without worshippers, and the images without votaries. The Protestants were more than ever masters of the situation. In the final struggles of the Papacy in Geneva we behold what has since been repeated in our own day, on the wider arena of Europe, that every attempt to raise it up has only helped to cast it down.

Yet another effort – that is, as things were going with the Papacy, another plunge, the last and the deepest. The duke and the bishop were but the more enraged by their repeated discomfitures. They resolved that they would extinguish Lutheranism, or sweep the little town in which it had entrenched itself from off its rock, and make it, like old Tyre, a place for the spreading of nets by the shores of its lake. Considering the resources which the duke had at his command, neither he nor any one else could see how he should not be able to do his pleasure upon the audacious little city. Geneva had an enemy, it may be said, in every man outside her walls. The castles that hemmed her in on all sides were filled with armed men ready to march at the first summons. Before beginning the war which was to make the rebellious town put its haughty neck under his feet, Duke Charles III. sent his ultimatum to the citizens. They must send away their preachers – Farel, Viret, and Froment; they must take back their bishop, and return within the bosom of their holy mother the Church. On these terms the duke, good and kind man, would give them his forgiveness. [7] The Genevans made answer that sooner than do this they would bury themselves beneath the ruins of their city. Even their good ally, Bern, despairing of their success, or else gained by the flatteries of the duke, counselled the Genevans to submit. A Diet of the Swiss cantons met at Lucerne in January, 1535, to determine on the matter. They had no other advice to give Geneva than submission. [8] This was unspeakably disappointing, but worse was behind. The great Emperor Charles V. came forward and announced that he cast his sword into the scale of the duke.

The cause of Geneva, already desperate, was now hopeless apparently. Could this little town of only 12,000 inhabitants resist the Empire? Could the Genevans stand alone against the world? All help has failed them on earth; nevertheless, their resolution is as inflexible as ever. Geneva shall be a sanctuary of the Protestant faith and a citadel of liberty, or its

sons will "set fire to its four corners," and make it their own funeral pile.

It was now that a terrible resolution was taken by its heroic citizens. Outside the walls of Geneva were four large suburbs, with a population of 6,200 souls. [9] In fact, there were two cities, one within and another without the walls, and the latter, it was obvious, would afford cover to the advancing foe, and prevent the free play upon him of the cannon on the ramparts. On the 23rd of August, 1534, the Council of Two Hundred resolved to demolish these suburbs, and clear the ground all round the city. [10] This was to sacrifice one half of Geneva to save the other half. The stern decree was carried out, although not without many heavy sighs and bitter tears. Rich and poor pulled down their homes with their own hands; although many of the latter knew not where they were to lay their heads at night. Villa and hovel shared an equal fate; convents and temples of a venerable antiquity were razed to the ground. The monastery of St. Victor, of which Bonnivard was prior, and which was the oldest edifice in Geneva, having been founded in the beginning of the sixth century, fell by the same sentence, and mingled its ruins with those of fabrics that were but of yesterday. The pleasant gardens, the sparkling fountains, and the overshadowing trees which had graced so many of the dwellings were all swept away. By the middle of January, 1535, the work of demolition was finished; and now a silent and devastated zone begirt the city. [11]

It was not enough to pull down, the citizens had to build up. The stones of the overturned edifices were taken to repair and strengthen the fortifications. Amid the drifts of winter the men might be seen building on the walls, and the women carrying earth and stones. The bells of the demolished churches and convents were melted and cast into cannon.

Though the idols were pulled down, the Roman Catholics were protected in their worship. [12] The Genevans would not stain the glory of the prodigious sacrifices they were making for their own religious liberty by invading that of others. A little band of armed Protestants kept watch at the church door while the few canons who remained in the city sang their matins on Christmas morning. [13] All was now ready, and the heroic inhabitants, their eyes lifted up to heaven, awaited the hour when the foe should gather round them on all sides, and deliver his assault. Let him strike. Their resolution was immovable. Geneva must be the temple that would enshrine their religion and their liberties, or the mausoleum that would contain their ashes.

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