IN 1511 William Viret, a burgess of Orbe, ‘cloth-dresser and tailor,’ had a son born to him whom he named Peter. The boy had grown up in the midst of the wool-combers, and had watched his father’s workmen as they pressed, or glossed, or fulled the cloths as they came from the hands of the weavers. But he took no delight in this, for he was not born tradesman. It was the inner man that was to be developed in him: he felt within himself a necessity for seeking God, which impelled him towards heaven. He sought the society of the best informed burgesses, and even had some relations with the nobles; but the first object of his wishes was God. If he took a walk alone, or with one of his brothers Anthony and John, along the picturesque banks of the Orbe, through the charming country bathed by its waters, and even to the foot of the Jura, he looked around him with delight, but afterwards lifted his eyes to heaven. ‘I was naturally given to religion,’ he said, ‘of which however I was then ignorant... I was preparing myself for heaven, seeing that it was the way of salvation.’ He resolved to devote himself to the service of the altar, which his father did not oppose, townspeople and peasantry alike regarding it as an honor to count a priest among their children. Peter, who had a good understanding and memory, soon learnt all that was taught in the school at Orbe, and turned his eyes towards the University of Paris, that great light which twelve years before had attracted Farel’s footsteps. His father, whose trade had placed him in easy circumstances, consented to send him to Paris, whither the boy proceeded in 1523, being then a little over twelve years of age. The same year and about the same time John Calvin of Noyon, who was two years older than Viret, arrived in the same city and entered the college of La Marche. Did these two boys, who were one day to be so closely united, meet then, and did their friendship begin with their childhood? We have not been able to satisfy ourselves on the point.
Viret distinguished himself at college by his love of study; ‘he made good progress in learning;’ and also by his devotion to the practices of the Roman Church. ‘I can not deny,’ he said, ‘that I went pretty deep into that Babylon.’ In one of the last visits he made to Paris, Farel seems to have remarked Viret, whose charming modesty easily won the heart, and to have helped in freeing the young Swiss from the darkness in which he still lay. The Gospel penetrated the soul of the youthful scholar of Orbe almost at the same time as it enlightened the large understanding of the scholar of Noyon. The mildness of his character softened the struggles which had been so fierce in Farel and Calvin. And yet he too had to tread the path of anguish to arrive at peace. Perceiving a frightful abyss and an eternal night beneath his feet, he threw himself into the arms of the Deliverer who was calling him: ‘While still at college,’ he Said, ‘God took me out of the labyrinth of error before I had sunk deeper into that Babylon of Anti-christ.’ The time having arrived when he should receive the tonsure, he felt that he must make up his mind: the struggle was not a long one; he refused, and was immediately set down as belonging to the Lutheran religion.’ Foreseeing what awaited him, he hastily quitted Paris and France, and ‘returned to his father’s house.’ In after years he exclaimed: ‘I thank God that the mark and sign of the beast were not set upon my forehead.’ Viret found Orbe greatly changed; the contest then going on between the gospel and popery intimidated him at first. His was one of those reflective souls which, absorbed by the struggles within, naturally shrink from those without. Like other reformers, he had a difficulty in quitting the body of catholicity, but a severe conscience obliged him to seek truth at any sacrifice. Sometimes the Church of Rome, with all its errors and abuses, alone struck his imagination, and he would exclaim with emotion: ‘It is the stronghold of superstition, the fortress of Satan.’ Then all of a sudden, and before he had time to defend himself, the old system of catholicism resumed its power over him, and he found himself in anguish and darkness.
He struggled and prayed; the truth, for a moment hidden, reappeared before his eyes, and he said: ‘Rome asserts that antiquity is truth; but what is there older in the world than lies, rebellion, murder, extortion, impurity, idolatry, and all kinds of wickedness and abomination?... To follow the doctrine of Cain and of Sodom is verily to follow an old doctrine... But virtue, truth, holiness, innocence, and thou, O God, which art the Father of them all, art older still!’ The priests of Orbe, who were strongly attached to the Romish doctrine, seeing the cloth-dresser’s son often solitary and full of care, began to grow uneasy about him: they accosted him and spoke of the old doctors, of the testimony of the saints, of Augustin, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Jerome.
These testimonies had much weight in Viret’s mind. His head was bewildered, his feet slipped, and he was on the point of falling back into the gulf, when snatching again at the word of God, he clung to it, saying: ‘No, I will not believe because of Tertullian or Cyprian, or Origen, or Chrysostom, or Peter Lombard, or Thomas Aquinas, not even because of Erasmus or Luther... If I did so, I should be the disciple of men... I will believe only Jesus Christ my Shepherd.’ At length the divine Word delivered Viret from the theocratic dominion of Rome, and he then began to look around him... Alas! what did he see?
Chains everywhere, prisoners held fast ‘in the citadel of idolatry.’ He felt the tenderest affection for the captives. ‘Since the Lord has brought me out ,’ he said, ‘I can not forget those who are within. ’ Two of these prisoners were never out of his thoughts: they were his father and mother.
At one time absorbed by the cares of business, at all other mechanically attending divine service, they did not seek after the one thing needful. The pious son began to pray earnestly for his parents, to show them increased respect, to read them a few passages of Holy Scripture, and to speak gently to them of the Savior. They felt attracted by his conduct, and the faith he professed took hold of their hearts. The grateful Viret was able to say: ‘I have much occasion to give thanks to God in that it hath pleased him to make use of me to bring my father and mother to the knowledge of the Son of God... Ah! if he had made my ministry of no other use, I should have had good cause to bless him.’ As soon as Viret met Farel again at Orbe, he immediately became one of the evangelist’s hearers, and ere long took his father along with him. The most intimate union sprung up between these men of God. One completed the other. If Farel was ardent, intrepid, and almost rash, Viret ‘had a wondrously meek temper.’ There was in him a grace that won the heart, and a christian sensibility that was really touching; and yet, like Farel and Calvin, he was firm in doctrine and morals. Farel, always eager to send workmen into the harvest, persuaded his friend to preach not only in the country but in Orbe itself. The young and timid Viret recoiled from the task Farel proposed to him; but the reformer pressed him, as others had pressed Luther and Calvin; he believed that Viret, who belonged to the city, and was loved by everybody, would receive a favorable welcome.
The thought of the divine grace, the strength of which he knew, decided Viret. ‘Let it not be my mouth which persuades,’ he said, ‘but the mouth of Jesus Christ; for it is Jesus Christ who pierces the heart with the fiery arrow of his Spirit.’ On the 6th May 1531 an unusual crowd, not only of townpeople but of persons from the neighborhood, filled the church of Orbe; the son of one of the most respected of the burgesses, a child of the place, was to enter the pulpit. He was accused of being rather heretical, but he was so inoffensive, that nobody would believe it; and besides, many of the young folks of Orbe, who had sported with him on the banks of the river, wished to see their old playfellow in the pulpit. The congregation, who were waiting impatiently, saw the young man appear at last: he was of small stature and pale complexion, his face thin and long, his eyes lively, and the whole expression meek and winning; he was only twenty years old, but appeared to be younger still. He preached: his sermon was accompanied by so much unction and learning, his language was so persuasive, his eloquence so searching and penetrating, that even the most worldly men were attracted by his discourse and hung, as it were, upon his lips. The proverb ‘No man is a prophet in his own country’ was not exemplified in Viret’s case. The 6th of May was a great day for him. All his life through he preserved the recollection of his first sermons. Thirty years later he said to the nobles and burgesses of Orbe: ‘Your church was the first in which God was pleased to make use of my ministry, when it was still in its youth, and I was very young.’ From that day Viret took his place in that noble army of heralds of the Word which the Lord was raising among the nations. His part in it was modest but well marked. The college of reformers, as well as the college of the apostles, contained the most different characters. As the sap is everywhere the same in nature, the Spirit of God is everywhere the same in the Church; but everywhere alike each of them produces different flowers and different fruits. The ardent Farel was the St. Peter of the Swiss Reform, the mighty Calvin, the St. Paul, and the gentle Viret the St. John.
Farel, Viret, Romain, Hollard, and the other evangelicals waited for the effects of the preaching at Orbe. They saw clearly ‘some slight touches and pricks, but few persons had been wounded and pierced to the quick,’ and so overwhelmed with the feeling of everlasting death, that they thought of looking for help solely to the grace of Jesus Christ. All of a sudden, and a month only after Farel’s arrival, the report of an unexpected conversion filled Orbe with astonishment, and became the subject of general conversation. It was said — and he who repeated it could hardly believe it — that Madame Elizabeth, the wife of the lord of Amex, the very same who had planned the women’s conspiracy and so severely beaten Farel, was entirely changed; that even her husband, who had become bail for Juliani, and had set him at liberty, had changed likewise.
The bigots of both sexes could not deny the fact. ‘Really,’ they said, ‘she has become one of the worst Lutherans in the city.’ Not long after, they made a great noise because at All Saints or some feast of Our Lady, Elizabeth had a large wash or other manual labors at her house. They shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders, and smiled. The evangelicals did not imitate them: they thought, to borrow the language of one of their leaders, that though these iron-hearted people smiled, it was a forced smile, for they felt as if inwardly choking... .They knew that God’s word is a hammer, and that there is nothing so hard, so massive, or so hidden in the heart of man that its power can not reach... Had not Paul been a persecutor like Elizabeth and Hugonin?
Worse still, at least in the opinion of the catholics, happened ere long. One of the ecclesiastics of the place was George Grivay, surnamed Calley, an excellent musician who had been appointed precentor. He had been trained by a fervent catholic mother, and had received a good education in the church. In order to receive further instruction his parents had sent him to Lausanne, where he had been made chorister and had particularly improved in the knowledge of music. On his return to Orbe the nobles and priests had given him a flattering reception; and he deserved it, for he enchanted the people by his singing or electrified them by his discourses.
But on the 10th May 1531, the same month in which Viret delivered his first sermon, Grivat had gone up into the pulpit and astonished his hearers by preaching the evangelical doctrine in the clearest manner. This was too much; his father and his brothers were in despair; nobles and friends who had received him so well exclaimed in great irritation: Have we not given him good wages; has not the Church fed and taught him? and now he wants to imitate the cuckoo that eats the mother who reared it.’ As these successive conversions gave the evangelicals more courage, they took an important step. Feeling the necessity of being strengthened in the faith by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, they asked for it, and Farel, who was then at Morat, immediately returned to Orbe. On Whitsunday (28th May) at six in the morning — an hour selected to insure tranquillity for the act they were about to perform — he announced to a numerous assembly collected in the church the remission of all sins by the breaking of Christ’s body on the cross; and as soon as the sermon was ended, eight disciples came forward to break bread. They were Hugonin of Arnex and his wife, C. Hollard and his aged mother, Cordey and his wife, William Viret, Peter’s father, and George Grivat, afterwards pastor at Avenches; many of the evangelicals did not think themselves sufficiently advanced in the faith to take part in this act, and doubtless Peter Viret was absent.
Two of the eight disciples modestly spread a white cloth over a bench, on which they placed the bread and wine. Farel sank on his knees and prayed, all following his prayer in their hearts. When the minister rose up he asked: ‘Do you each forgive one another?’... and the believers answered Yes. Next Farel broke off a morsel of bread for each, saying he gave it them in memory of Christ’s passion, and after that he handed them the cup.’
The minister and these true disciples possessed by faith the real presence of Jesus in their hearts. They had hardly finished when the exasperated priests entered the church hastily and sang the mass as loud as they could.
The next day, Whitmonday, there was a fresh scandal: the evangelicals were at work. ‘Ha!’ said many indignantly; ‘they keep no holiday, except the Sunday!’ If the evangelization had continued in a peaceful course of christian edification, the city would in all probability have been entirely gained over; but the Reformation had its ‘enfans terribles.’ Calvin said in vain: ‘Those who are wise according to God are modest, peaceable, and gentle. They do not conceal vices; they endeavor rather to correct them, but provided it be in peace, that is to say, with so much moderation that unity remains unbroken. Peaceable and loving representations ought not to be laid aside, and those who desire to be physicians must not be executioners.’ A fine stone crucifix in St. Germain’s cemetery had been thrown down, and another, which stood at a cross road near the city, had been destroyed: but this had been done at night and it was not known by whom. Ere long the ardent reformers grew bolder, and especially Christopher Hollard, a true iconoclast of the Reform, who thought more of pulling down than building up. One day, as Farel was preaching before the deputies of Berne and Friburg, Hollard flew at an image of the Virgin and dashed it to pieces.
Another day he threw down the great altar of the church of Our Lady.
This was not enough.
According to Hollard, whose mind was upright, and even pious, but ardent, extreme, and rather deficient in judgment, the Reformation, that is to say, the destruction of images and altars, did not go on fast enough, and he therefore resolved to carry it out on a grand scale. He took twelve companions with him; and these agents of the judgments of God (as they thought themselves), going from street to street and from church to church, ‘pulled down all the altars’ in the seven churches of the city; twenty-six heaps of rubbish bore witness to their triumph. They could say, no doubt, that all worship paid to an image is a relic of paganism; but their fault was to suppose that catholics ought to adore God, not according to their catholic conscience, but according to that of the reformed protestants. The people looked at each other with alarm, but said nothing. ‘I was greatly astonished,’ says De Pierrefleur, ‘at the patience of the populace.’ ‘Sir banneret,’ observed some catholics, ‘if we did not feel great loyalty towards our lords of Berne, the body of Christopher Hollard would not have touched earth;’ that is to say, they would have hanged him. These combatants were pretty well matched for gentleness. The catholics set up tables in place of the altars, upon which they celebrated mass ‘rather meanly.’ The intolerance of Christopher Hollard and of one of his friends, named Tavel, threatened to substitute a new tyranny for the ancient tyranny of popery. Alas! the protestant clergy have sometimes been known to oppose the disciples and doctrines of the gospel, just as the Romish clergy would have done. Intolerance is a vice of human nature which even piety does not always cure. The priests saying mass at their little tables offended Hollard and Tavel. Agasse was no longer governor; he had been removed by the influence of Berne, and Anthony Secretan, one of the reformed, put in his place. The two fiery Lutherans laid a complaint before him against all priests as being murderers (of souls): and according to the custom of the age, surrendered themselves prisoners. The governor ordered the Roman ecclesiastics to be arrested, which was no easy matter, for there were some sturdy fellows among them. Three sergeants having attempted to seize Messire Pierre Bovey in the street, the stout priest ‘dragged them into the passage of a house,’ and there beat them so that they were glad to escape out of his hands. Having thus defended himself like a lion, he remained free; but it was not so with Blaise Foret, the cure, who ‘went like a sheep straight to prison.’ The officers put him along with the rest, who were ‘well treated at bed and board, with permission to go all over the castle.’ Some bold priests (for they were not all shut up) chanted mass at five o’clock in the morning, notwithstanding the prohibition. The catholics attended ‘armed with pikes, halberds, and clubs; and rang the bells as if the city were on fire.’ Before long the intolerant protestants received a severe and well merited lesson.
The grand banneret Pierrefleur, who was a man of the world, well read, of a cultivated mind, charming simplicity, and profound intelligence, combined great decision of character with Vaudois good temper. Being a catholic from conviction, and knowing that the majority of the inhabitants were for the Roman faith, and disgusted at seeing the priests in prison and the faithful compelled to hear mass almost in secret, he summoned a general council of the people. ‘Will you,’ he asked them, ‘will you have the mass, and live and die in the holy faith, like your forefathers? If you do wish it, let every one hold up his finger, and if perchance there should be any one of a contrary opinion, let him leave the assembly.’ Every one raised his finger in token of an oath, whereupon the Friburgers sent a herald to Orbe. The priests were taken out of prison, and those who had helped to pull down the altars were put in their place. There were fifteen in all, and among them was Elizabeth’s husband, the noble Hugonin of Amex. They were not so well treated at ‘bed and board’ as the priests had been, but were put on bread and water; after three days, however, they were allowed to return home. During this time the priests and fervent catholics were restoring the altars everywhere. It required more than twenty years for the Reform in Orbe to recover from the blow inflicted on it by the intolerance of Hollard and his friends. It was not till 1554 that an assembly of the people decided by a majority of eighteen votes in favor of the establishment of evangelical worship. The priests, nuns, and friars then left the city for ever, amid the tears of their supporters.