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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 8 — History of Protestantism in Switzerland From A.D. 1516 to Its Establishment at Zurich, 1525

Chapter 3 — Corruption of the Swiss church

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The Government of the Pope-How the Shepherd Fed his Sheep – Texts from Aquinas and Aristotle – Preachers and their Sermons – Council of Meudon and the Vicar – Canons of Neufchatel – Passion-plays – Excommunication employed against Debters – Invasion of the Magistrates' Jurisdiction – Lausanne – Beauty of its Site – Frightful Disorder of its Clergy – Geneva and other Swiss Towns – A Corrupt Church the greatest Scourge of the World – Cry for Reform – The Age turns away from the True Reform – A Cry that waxes Louder, and a Corruption that waxes Stronger.

OVER the Churches of Switzerland, as over those of the rest of Europe, the Pope had established a tyranny. He built this usurpation on such make-believes as the "holy chair," the "Vicar of Jesus Christ," and the "infallibility" thence deduced. He regulated all things according to his pleasure. He forbade the people to read the Scriptures. He every day made new ordinances, to the destruction of the laws of God; and all priests, bishops not excepted, he bound to obey him by an oath of peculiar stringency. The devices were infinite–annats, reservations, tithes (double and treble), amulets, dispensations, pardons, rosaries, relics–by which provision was made whereby the humblest sheep, in the remotest corner of the vast fold of the Pope, might send yearly to Rome a money acknowledgment of the allegiance he owed to that great shepherd, whose seat was on the banks of the Tiber, but whose iron crook reached to the extremities of Christendom.

But was that shepherd equally alive to what he owed the flock? Was the instruction which he took care to provide them with wholesome and abundant? Is it to the pastures of the Word that he conducted them? The priests of those days had no Bible; how then could they communicate to others what they had not learned themselves? If they entered a pulpit, it was to rehearse a fable, to narrate a legend, or to repeat a stale jest; and they deemed their oratory amply repaid, if their audience gaped at the one and laughed at the other. If a text was announced, it was selected, not from Scripture, but from Scotus, or Thomas Aquinas, or the Moral Philosophy of Aristotle. [1] Could grapes grow on such a tree, or sweet waters issue from such a fountain?

But, in truth, few priests were so adventurous as to mount a pulpit, or attempt addressing a congregation. The most part were dumb. They left the duty of story-telling, or preaching, to the monks, and in particular to the Mendicants. "I must record," says the historian Ruchat, "a fact to the honor of the Council of Moudon. Not a little displeased at seeing that the cure of the town was a dumb pastor, who left his parishioners without instruction, the Council, in November, 1535, ordered him to explain, at least to the common people, the Ten Commandments of the Law of God, every Sabbath, after the celebration of the office of the mass." [2] Whether the cure's theological acquirements enabled him to fulfill the Council's injunction we do not know. He might have pleaded, as a set-off to his own indolence, a yet more scandalous neglect of duty to be witnessed not far off. At Neufchatel, so pleasantly situated at the foot of the Jura Alps, with its lake reflecting on its tranquil bosom the image of the vine-clad heights that environ it, was a college of canons. These ecclesiastics lived in grand style, for the foundation was rich, the air pleasant, and the wine good. But, says Ruchat, "it looked as if they were paid to keep silence, for, though they were many, there was not one of them all that could preach." [3]

In those enlightened days, the ballad-singers and play-wrights supplemented the deficiencies of the preachers. The Church held it dangerous to put into the hands of the people the vernacular Gospel, lest they should read in their own tongue of the wondrous birth at Bethlehem, and the not less wondrous death on Calvary, with all that lay between. But the Passion, and other Biblical events, were turned into comedies and dramas, and acted in public–with how much edification to the spectators, one may guess! In the year 1531, the Council of Moudon gave ten florins of Savoy to a company of tragedians, who played the "Passion" on Palm Sunday, and the "Resurrection" on Easter Monday. [4] "If Luther had not come," said a German abbe, calling to mind this and similar occurrences–

"If Luther had not come, the Pope by this time would have persuaded men to feed themselves on dust."

A raging greed, like a burning thirst, tormented the clergy, from their head downwards. Each several order became the scourge of the one beneath it. The inferior clergy, pillaged by the superior, as the superior by their Sovereign Priest at Rome, fleeced in their turn those under them. "Having bought," says the historian of the Swiss Reformation, "the Church in gross, they sold it in detail." [5] Money, money was the mystic potency that set agoing and kept working the machine of Romanism. There were churches to be dedicated, cemeteries to be consecrated, bells to be baptised: all this must be paid for. There were infants to be christened, marriages to be blessed, and the dead to be buried: nothing of all this could be done without money. There were masses to be said for the repose of the soul; there were victims to be rescued from the raging flames of purgatory: it was vain to think of doing this without money. There was, moreover, the privilege of sepulture in the floor of the church–above all, near the altar, where the dead man mouldered in ground preeminently holy, and the prayers offered for him were specially efficacious: that was worth a great sum, and a heavy price was charged for it. There were those who

wished to eat flesh in Lent, or in forbidden times, and there were those who felt it burdensome to fast at any season: well, the Church had arranged to meet the wishes of both, only, as was reasonable, such accommodation must be paid for. All needed pardon: well, here it is–a plenary pardon; the pardon of all one's sins up to the hour of one's death–but first the price has to be paid down. Well, the price has been paid; the soul has taken its departure, fortified with a plenary absolution; but this has to be rendered yet more plenary by the payment of a supplemental sum–though why, we cannot well say, for now we touch the borders of a subject which is shrouded in mystery, and which no Romish theologian has attempted to make plain. In short, as said the poet Mantuan, [6] the Church of Rome is an "enormous market, stocked with all sorts of wares, and regulated by the same laws which govern all the other markets of the world. The man who comes to it with money may have everything; but, alas! for him who comes without money, he can have nothing."

Every one knows how simple was the discipline of the early Church, and how spiritual the ends to which it was directed. The pastors of those days wielded it only to guard the doctrine of the Church from the corruption of error, and her communion from the contamination of scandalous persons.

For far different ends was the Church's discipline employed in the fifteenth century in Switzerland, and other countries of Europe. One abuse of it, very common, was to employ it for compelling payment of debts. The creditor went to the bishop and took out an excommunication against his debtor. To the poor debtor this was a much more formidable affair than any civil process. The penalties reached the soul as well as the body, and extended beyond the grave. The magistrate had often to interfere, and forbid a practice which was not more an oppression of the citizen, than a manifest invasion of his own jurisdiction. We find the Council of Moudon, 7th July, 1532, forbidding a certain Antoine Jayet, chaplain and vicar of the church, to execute any such interdiction against any layman of the town and parish of Moudon, and promising to guarantee him against all consequences before his superiors. Nor was it long till the Council had to make good their guarantee; for the same month, the vicar having failed to execute one of these interdictions against a burgess of Moudon, the Council deputed two of their number to defend him before the chapter at Lausanne, which had summoned him before it to answer for his disobedience. [7] A frequent consequence was that corpses remained unburied. If the husband died under excommunication for debt, the wife could not consign his body to the grave, nor the son that of the father. The excommunication must first be revoked. [8]

This prostitution of ecclesiastical discipline was of very common occurrence, and inflicted a grievance that was widely felt, not only at the epoch of the Reformation, but all through the fifteenth century. It was one of the many devices by which the Roman Church worked her way underneath the temporal power, and filched from it its rightful jurisdiction.

Thrones, judgment-seats, in short, the whole machinery of civil government that Church left standing, but she contrived to place her own functionaries in these chairs of rule. She talked loftily of the kingly dignity, she styled princes the "anointed of heaven;" but she deprived their sceptres of all real power by the crosiers of her bishops. In the year 1480 we find the inhabitants of the Pays-de-Vaud complaining to Philibert, Duke of Savoy, their liege lord, that his subjects who had the misfortune to be in debt were made answerable, not in his courts, but to the officer of the Bishop of Lausanne, by whom they were visited with the penalty of excommunication. The duke did not take the matter so quietly as many others. He fulminated a decree, dated "Chambeer, August 31st," against this usurpation of his jurisdiction on the part of the bishop. [9]

It remains only that we touch on what was the saddest part of the corruption of those melancholy days, the libertinism of the clergy. Its frightful excess makes the full and open exposure of the scandal impossible. Oftener than once did the Swiss cantons complain that their spiritual guides led worse lives than the laymen, and that, while they went about their church performances with an indevotion and coldness that shocked the pious, they gave themselves up to profanity, drunkenness, gluttony, and uncleanness. [10]

We shall let the men who then lived, and who witnessed this corruption, and suffered from it, describe it. In the year 1477, some time after the election of Benedict of Montferrand to the Bishopric of Lausanne, the Bernese came to him on the 2nd of August, to complain of their clergy, whose irregularities they were no longer able to bear. "We see clearly," said they, "that the clergy of our land are extremely debauched, and given up to impurity, and that they practice their wickedness openly, without any feeling of shame. They keep their concubines, they resort at night to houses of debauchery; and they do all this with so much boldness, that it is plain they have neither honor nor conscience, and are not restrained by the fear either of God or man. This afflicts us extremely. Our ancestors have often made police regulations to arrest these disorders, particularly when they saw that the ecclesiastical tribunals gave themselves no care about the matter." A similar complaint was lodged, in the year 1500, against the monks of the Priory of Grandson, by the lords of Bern and Friburg [11] But to what avail? Despite these complaints and police regulations, the manners of the clergy remained unreformed:

the salt had lost its savor, and wherewith could it be salted? The law of corruption is to become yet more corrupt.

So would it assuredly have been in Switzerland–from its corruption, corruption only would have come in endless and ever grosser developments–had not Protestantism come to sow with beneficent hand, and quicken with heavenly breath, in the bosom of society, the seeds from which was to spring a new life. Men needed not laws to amend the old, but a power to create the new.

The examples we have given–and it is the violence of the malady that illustrates the power of the physician–are sufficiently deplorable; but sad as they are, they fade from view and pass from memory in presence of this one enormity, which an ancient document has handed down to us, and which we must glance at; for we shall only glance, not dwell, on the revolting spectacle. It will give us some idea of the frightful moral gulf in which Switzerland was sunk, and how inevitable would have been its ruin had not the arm of the Reformation plucked it from the abyss.

On the northern shore of Lake Leman stands the city of Lausanne. Its site is one of the grandest in Switzerland. Crowned with its cathedral towers, the city looks down on the noble lake, which sweeps along in a mighty crescent of blue, from where Geneva on its mount of rock is dimly descried in the west, till it bathes the feet of the two mighty Alps, the Dent du Midi and the Dent de Morcele, which like twin pillars guard the entrance to the Rhone valley. Near it, on this side, the country is one continuous vineyard, from amid which hamlets and towns sweetly look out. Yonder, just dipping into the lake, is the donjon of Chillon, recalling the story of Bonnevard, to whose captivity within its wails the genius of Byron has given a wider than a merely Swiss fame. And beyond, on the other side of the lake, is Savoy, a rolling country, clothed with noble forests and rich pastures, and walled in on the far distance, on the southern horizon, by the white peaks of the Alps. But what a blot in this fair scene was Lausanne! We speak of the Lausanne of the sixteenth century. In the year 1533 the Lausannese preferred a list of twenty-three charges against their canons and priests, and another of seven articles against their bishop, Sebastien de Mont-Faulcon. Ruchat has given the document in full, article by article, but parts of it will not bear translation in these pages, so, giving those it concerns the benefit of this difficulty, we take the liberty of presenting it in an abridged form. [12]

The canons and priests, according to the statement of their parishioners, sometimes quarrelled when saying their offices, and fought in the church. The citizens who came to join in the cathedral service were, on occasion, treated by the canons to a fight, and stabbed with poignards. Certain ecclesiastics had slain two of the citizens in one day, but no reckoning had been held with them for the deed. The canons, especially, were notorious for their profligacy. Masked and disguised as soldiers, they sallied out into the streets at night, brandishing naked swords, to the terror, and at times the effusion of the blood, of those they encountered. They sometimes attacked the citizens in their own houses, and when threatened with ecclesiastical inflictions, denied the bishop's power and his right to pronounce excommunication upon them. Certain of them had been visited with excommunication, but they went on saying mass as before. In short, the clergy were just as bad as they could possibly be, and there was no crime of which many of them had not at one time or another been guilty.

The citizens further complained that, when the plague visited Lausanne, [13] many had been suffered to die without confession and the Sacrament. The priests could hardly plead in excuse an excess of work, seeing they found time to gamble in the taverns, where they seasoned their talk with oaths, or cursed some unlucky throw of the dice. They revealed confessions, were adroit at the framing of testaments, and made false entries in their own favor. They were the governors of the hospital, and their management had resulted in a great impoverishment of its revenues.

Unhappily, Lausanne was not an exceptional case. It exhibits the picture of what Geneva and Neufchatel and other towns of the Swiss Confederacy in those days were, although, we are glad to be able to say, not in so aggravated a degree. Geneva, to which, when touched by the Reformed light, there was to open a future so different, lay plunged at this moment in disorders, under its bishop, Pierre de la Baume, and stood next to Lausanne in the notoriety it had achieved by the degeneracy of its manners. But it is needless to particularize. All round that noble lake which, with its smiling banks and its magnificent mountain boundaries–here the Jura, there the White Alps–forms so grand a feature of Switzerland, were villages and towns, from which went out a cry not unlike that which ascended from the Cities of the Plain in early days.

This is but a partial lifting of the veil. Even conceding that these are extreme cases, still, what a terrible conclusion do they force upon us as regards the moral state of Christendom! And when we think that these polluting streams flowed from the sanctuary, and the instrumentality ordained by God for the purification of society had become the main means of corrupting it, we are taught that, in some respects, the world has more to fear from the admixture of Christianity with error than the Church has. It was the world that first brought this corruption into the Church; but see what a terrible retaliation the Church now takes upon the world!

One does not

wonder that there is heard on every side, at this era, an infinite number of voices, lay and cleric, calling for the Reformation of the Church. Yet the majority of those from whom these demands came were but groping in the dark. But God never leaves himself without a witness. A century before this, he had put before the world, in the ministry of Wicliffe, plain, clear, and demonstrated, the one only plan of a true Reformation. Putting his finger upon the page of the New Testament, Wicliffe said: Here it is; here is what you seek. You must forget the past thousand years; you must look at what is written on this page; you will find in this Book the Pattern of the Reformation of the Church; and not the Pattern only, but the Power by which that Reformation can alone be realised.

But the age would not look at it. Men said, Can any good thing come out of this Book? The Bible did well enough as the teacher of the Christians of the first century; but its maxims are no longer applicable, its models are antiquated. We of the fifteenth century require something more profound, and more suited to the times. They turned their eyes to Popes, to emperors, to councils. These, alas! were hills from which no help could come. And so for another century the call for Reformation went on, gathering strength with every passing year, as did also the corruption. The two went on by equal stages, the cry waxing ever the louder and the corruption growing ever the stronger, till at length it was seen that there was no help in man. Then He who is mighty came down to deliver.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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