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HOME > Classical Novels > History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin > CHAPTER XIV.
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(March to June 1536.)
An entire people is not converted to God in a body. The pagan religions were identical with the nation; but the Christian Church is distinct from it. Even the Apostolic Church soon extended beyond the narrow limits of the tribe of Judah; it was founded at Jerusalem irrespective of temple, sanhedrim, and Jews, and subsequently was established among all nations unconnected with the state. A prince cannot decree a religion by a cabinet minute; a people cannot elect it by a majority of votes. There is, however, something grand in seeing an assembled nation declare without constraint that they will take the Gospel as the rule of their faith and the source of their life. This is what Geneva was about to do.
The communities which extended from the foot of the Jura to the Alps of the Voirons and the Mole, had recognized the councils of Geneva as their legitimate lords, reserving their own customs and franchises. But, in the opinion of the Reformers, this territory would only be an embarrassment, unless a new life were communicated to its inhabitants and spread over the whole nation. Commerce, manufactures, liberty, and letters do much for the prosperity of a people, but cannot be their life. If the Word of God, if the light of the
world, does not enlighten them, they fall sooner or later. These opinions were sufficiently common in Geneva for an unknown poet to say to the united parishes in this unpolished strain:
Vaut-il pas mieux dire à Dieu nos secrets,
Qu'à un grand tas d'idiots indiscrets?
Vaut-il pas mieux au pauvre et au débile
Donner habit, pain, vin, chandelle et huile,
Qu'aux marmots d'or, d'argent, pierre, et bois,
Rendre l'honneur défendu tant de fois?[739]
'Messieurs,' said Farel to the council on the 13th of March, 'the Word of God ought to be preached in the parishes subject to this city.' Ten days later he made a fresh application to that assembly on the same matter, when he was supported by politicians as well as by men of piety. To leave the seeds of popery in Geneva and in her rural dependencies was (they thought) exposing the state to great danger. In order to thread the shoals and brave the storms which threatened the frail bark, there must be a cordial understanding between all the crew. Several persons exclaimed with rather an excess of energy: 'If some go to sermon and others to mass, the republic will go to the devil.'
The work was begun at once. The reformers preached in Geneva; other ministers preached in the country; heralds of the council went from village to village making proclamations by sound of trumpet: 'Let there be no more disobedience!' they said; 'no more gambling! No more blasphemy!' Still the council did not wish to exercise any constraint with regard to religion. The inhabitants of Viuz and other villages in the mandement of Thiez in Faucigny having prayed that they might be allowed their own way as to church matters, their request was granted. But the bishop, who was less tolerant, excommunicated the poor people,
because, although catholics, they recognized heretical magistrates. The syndics undismayed and very positive as to their episcopal capacity, wrote to the vicars that they would relieve their parishes from the excommunication and completely absolve them—which greatly comforted the worthy peasants. When Easter drew near, however, they began to feel great distress. 'Alas!' they said to the syndics, 'as we have been excommunicated, we cannot take the sacrament at Easter.' 'We hold you to be entirely absolved,' answered the reformed magistrates demurely. Upon which the simple people received the sacrament with great tranquillity of mind.[740]
These are strange actions. It has been maintained that the church, in proportion as political society becomes Christian, ought gradually to be lost in the state. It has been asserted that, at the epoch of the Reformation, Christianity had completed its ecclesiastical period, and had entered into the political period. Lastly, some men have added that to organize the church was a useless labor, a sheer loss of time, an absolute impossibility, and that presbyteries and synods were but silly child's play.[741] Was the fact that we have recorded—episcopal absolution emanating from the council—the first step in this absorption of the church by the state; and is it true that the Reformation leads to it? Quite the contrary. By reviving in the Christian conscience the idea of the kingdom of God; by awakening to life and action the members of the evangelical congregation, protestantism awoke the church throughout Christendom. Geneva, owing to the impulse given it by Calvin, became the place where it was constituted in the most independent
and most scriptural manner. The church must not be lost in the state, and the state must not be lost in the church, whatever socialists or priests may say. How can the state survive the church? The state is temporary, the church immortal.
But the magistrates heroically discharged their episcopal functions to little purpose; there was great difficulty in maintaining order. The villages of Vandœuvre and Celigny wished to hear mass and a protestant sermon every Sunday, while the priests universally demanded the preservation of the Romish ceremonies. The council felt the necessity of explaining the posture of affairs, and called together all the ecclesiastics and proctors of the parishes.[742] On the 3d of April, 1536, the Romanist party was drawn up on one side of the council-room, and on the other were Farel, with some other ministers, and several zealous protestants.[743] Claude Savoye, the premier syndic, spoke against the union of sermons and the mass, which some parishes desired, and declared that such a medley was by no means agreeable to the magistracy. He then said to the priests: 'Instead of preventing the people from living according to the Gospel, why do you not embrace it yourselves, and give up your mass?' Dom Claude de Puthex, canon of Satigny, stepped forward and said: 'If our neighbors of Gex change their mode of life, we will do the same.' This religion of neighborhood was a surprise to the reformers; and those simple folks reminded them of sheep who pass where others have gone before, and leap over the hedge as soon as the foremost of them have shown the way. 'Turn about, gentlemen,' said Farel, 'instead of continuing your course;' and he added several 'beautiful remonstrances.' 'Give us a month to study the Gospel,' answered the canons.
After the priests had withdrawn, the council asked the opinion of Farel and Bonivard. The latter declared that 'consciences must be enlightened and not forced.' Farel also was of opinion that the papists ought not to be troubled in their devotions, in order that they might not be exasperated against the Word; but that they ought to be brought to the Gospel 'with extreme gentleness.' He therefore proposed that 'the priests during the required month should give themselves up exclusively to the inquiry after truth.' When the ecclesiastics were called in, the syndic informed them that their request had been granted unanimously; and at the end of the month, they all declared that they could not prove by the Gospel either the mass, auricular confession, or other papal ordinances. The brother of Guy Furbity, who was in the assembly, declared that Farel's exhortation to the priests was 'sound according to Holy Scripture and to God.'[744] It is true that this person had a reason for wishing to please the Genevans.
There remained, however, one thing to be done. They had liberated the protestant Bonivard, they determined also to set free the Roman-catholic Furbity, whose release was demanded by his brother William. Guy left his prison on the 6th of April. He had been condemned (it will be remembered) to prove his doctrines, or to retract his insulting language; whereupon he had asked for books, and the council sent him a Bible. 'A Bible!' he exclaimed, 'they must be laughing at me. How can I prove my doctrines with the help of a Bible? I should not succeed in a twelve-month.' He wanted the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, and so forth, and they gave him a Bible! 'Magnificent lords,' he said on the 6th of April, 'I beg your pardon; I said things that displeased you; I was wrong. I did not know how
matters were. Henceforward I will endeavor to lead a better life, and to preach the truth better than I have hitherto done.' The council ordered him to be set at liberty forthwith.[745]
Farel was more active than ever. He was busy in the city and in the villages with Roman-catholics and reformed: he was intent on everything that could elevate the moral and religious condition of the community. The anarchy and corruption that prevailed in Geneva upon Calvin's arrival have been exaggerated. The energetic language of the sixteenth century, interpreted by the delicate critics of our times, has perhaps contributed to this mistake. Before the Reformation there was beyond all doubt great corruption among the clergy, and particularly among the monks. That dissoluteness had also infected individuals and even families among the citizens; but one feature had distinguished this people, and especially the councils, during the struggles for political emancipation, namely, the close union of liberty with legality, that is to say, with order. The Genevese were always found ready for the greatest sacrifices—for the sacrifice of their goods, their ease, their homes, and their lives sooner than lose their independence: now these are not the manners of an epicurean people. Admiration of the Reformation period ought not to make us unjust towards the period of political emancipation. It is true that the reformers, and Calvin especially, had a hard task with this energetic and restless people, and that the struggles often proceeded from a want of faith and morality, which these austere men had remarked in certain citizens. But the struggles were aggravated by the intervention of the state, to which the ministers were not averse, and by the temporal punishments inflicted on those who infringed religious discipline. Perhaps no one in the sixteenth century perceived
more clearly than Calvin the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal; and yet neither he nor Farel understood it, and above all did not realize it, to its full extent. 'If there should be men so insolent and given up to all perversity,' said Farel to the syndics, 'as only to laugh at being excommunicated, it will be your business to see whether you will allow such contempt to remain unpunished.'[746] The haughty republicans who had sacrificed everything to break down the despotism of the bishop and the duke, were irritated when they saw another yoke imposed upon them in religious matters. They had the true sentiment that their consciences ought to be free, and if attempts had been made to convince them and not to constrain them, the end proposed would have been more easily attained. For many an age Rome had forgotten that the weapons of the evangelical warfare are not carnal. Unhappily magistrates and reformers sometimes forgot it also. It was an error, and the error led to the commission of many faults.
Nevertheless discipline was not the essential characteristic of Farel, Calvin, and their friends: they were in a special degree men of faith and of a living faith. In their eyes faith was the one thing needful—the good thing above all others. They desired that man should be holy and do good works; but for that, he must believe in the love which God had shown him in Christ. Faith, according to the reformers, is the presiding principle of morality. If a man has faith, he is a child of God; if he has not, he is under the dominion of sin. Moreover Farel did not want a purely negative reform, which should consist in merely rejecting the pope; he wanted it to be positive, and to that end it was necessary that the people should believe in Jesus Christ. Lastly, Farel saw disunion and disputes in Geneva. In order that the community,
the new Church, should be strong, it ought not to be composed (he thought) of scattered members, opposed perhaps to one another; it must form a single body, and glorify God with one voice and one heart. He desired, therefore, that a public profession of faith in the Gospel should be made at Geneva.
As sovereignty in matters of state belongs to the assembly of all the citizens, it was supposed with still further reason, that to the same body, convened according to the ancient customs, belonged the right of proclaiming the evangelical doctrine. On Friday, the 19th of May, Farel, accompanied by Antoine Saunier, his old travelling companion in the valleys, and by the pastor Henri de la Mare, appeared before the council. 'Most honored lords,' he said, 'it is of great importance for all the people to live in strict union. To get rid of the quarrels, jeers, reproaches, and dissensions, which the fretful disposition of our nation may occasion every day, we must employ mildness; and, further still, we must manifest our concord. Seeing that there is one only truth of God, all the people should declare their intention to adhere to it with one and the same heart.' The council approved of the proposition, and resolved to call together the council-general for a confession of faith, on Sunday, the 21st of May. At Augsburg it was the priests and doctors who had confessed the doctrine; at Geneva, it was to be the whole nation.[747] The difference between the two reforms is natural. Democracy ruled in Geneva, and it had become all the dearer to the citizens from their conviction that if the liberties of nations had been taken away, the crime lay at the door of the papacy. Calvin has repeated this more than once. It has been said that the communes, the liberties of the Middle Ages, issued from the furrow and the shop.[748] From the shop came specially the liberty of Geneva. The Burgundians who settled there were traders, and
willingly exchanged their arms for merchandise. Some of the heroes of Geneva, whose devotedness reminds us of ancient times, sprang from the counter or the factory.
Still an appeal to the people was a bold measure, for there yet existed among the citizens, and even in the council, many decided adversaries of reform, and some of them were among the most eminent men. Might not such an appeal stir up an opposition which would overthrow all that had been done? The position of the Roman-catholics was most serious. They were required to conform to the Gospel. Could they do so? Their consciences forbade them. Were they to refuse, they would disturb the unanimity and harmony so necessary to............
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