(DECEMBER 1533 AND JANUARY 1534.)
BY degrees, however, Calvin came out of his retirement. Shut up in his library, he began to sigh for country air, like Luther in the Wartburg. He went out sometimes, alone or with his friend, and rambled over the hills and quiet meadows watered by the Charente. The neighborhood of Angouleme did not present the grandeur he was one day to find on the shores of the Leman; but to him everything in creation was beautiful, because he saw the Creator everywhere. He could even be profoundly touched by the beauties of nature: ‘In the presence of the works of God,’ he said, ‘we are overcome with astonishment, and our tongues and senses fail us.’ Not far from the city was a vineyard belonging to the canon, to which Du Tillet one day conducted his friend. The delighted Calvin returned there frequently; the remembrance of these visits still lingers to those parts, and the vineyard still goes by the name of La Calvine. About this time their circle was increased: John Du Tillet, afterwards bishop of Meaux, arrived at Angouleme. He too became attached with his whole heart to Calvin: the latter, wishing to make himself useful to the two brothers, offered to teach them Greek, and while teaching them to read the New Testament, he led them to seek Christ. John listened greedily to the young doctor’s words; hence he was long suspected by the Romanists, and having published in 1549 a very old manuscript, ascribed to Charlemagne, Against Images — the Libri Carolini are known to be opposed to them — he occasioned loud murmurs: ‘A man who has been Calvin’s pupil,’ said the famous Cardinal du Perron, ‘cannot well have any other opinion.’ These lessons, begun at Angouleme, were continued at Claix, where Du Tillet used to spend a part of the year. People asked in the village who that short, thin, pale young man was, who looked so serious and meek, and whom they often met with the Du Tillets. The best informed said that he gave them lessons in Greek. This study was a thing so extraordinary in the Angoumois, that the country people, ignorant of the professor’s name, called him the Greek of Claix, or the little Greek. Some of the better people of the neighborhood of Claix occasionally met the friends: they entered into conversation, and, says a contemporary, ‘all who loved learning esteemed the young scholar;’ his knowledge of the classics, his taste so fine and accurate, attracted them to him. Certain friends of the Du Tillets, ecclesiastics of good family, men of letters and of feeling, soon shared this admiration of his virtues and his talents: they were Anthony de Chaillou, Prior of Bouteville, the Abbot of Balsac (near Jarnac), the famous De la Place, the Sieur de Torsac, Charles Girault, and others. Calvin’s appearance, his simple dress and modest look interested these good men at first sight; and that clear and penetrating glance which he preserved until the last, soon revealed to them the keen intelligence and uprightness of the young Greek. They conceived the most hearty affection for him. They loved to hear him speak of the Savior and of heaven, and yielded to his evangelical teaching without a thought of being faithless to that of the Church. This was the case with many Catholics at that time. They did not find in Calvin the things that make fine talkers in the world — ‘nonsense, merry jests, bantering, jokes, and all sorts of foolery, which pass away in smoke,’ but the charms and profitableness of his conversation captivated all who heard him. De la Place in particular received a deep impression: ‘I shall never forget,’ he wrote years after, ‘how your conversation made me better, when we were together at Angouleme. Oh! what shall I give you in this mortal life for the immortal life that I then received?’ The frequent visits paid to the Greek by persons of consideration were soon remarked by the clergy; on the other hand, Bouteville desired to substitute more regular conferences for these simple conversations. He lived at the castle of Gerac, situated in a less frequented district. ‘Come to my house,’ he said to his friends, ‘and let each of us state freely his convictions and objections.’ Calvin hesitated about going: ‘he was fond of solitude, and spoke little in company;’ but the thought of bringing his friends to the Gospel decided him.
One day, therefore, the modest doctor appeared in the midst of the Prior of Bouteville’s guests; one idea had absorbed him on the road to Gerac. He thought that ‘truth is not a common thing; that it rises far above the capacity of the human understanding, and that we ought to purchase it at any price.’ At last when he joined his friends, after mutual greetings had been exchanged, he spoke to them of the subject that filled his heart. He opened the Bible, placed his hand on it, and said, ‘Let us find the truth!’ … ‘The whole conference,’ says Florimond Remond, a staunch Catholic, ‘had no other object but the investigation of truth, a phrase which he had generally in his mouth.’ Calvin, however, did not set himself up as an oracle: addressing the conscience, he showed that Christ answered all the wants of the soul; the conversation soon became animated, his friends bringing forward objections. He never was at a loss; ‘having a marvelous facility,’ they said, ‘in penetrating suddenly the greatest difficulties and clearing them up.’ The visitors of Gerac departed joyfully to their homes.
After these conferences, Calvin returned quietly to his retreat, and prayed for those to whom he had spoken and for others besides. ‘If sometimes we are cold in prayer,’ he said, ‘let us at once remember how many of our brethren are sinking under heavy burdens and grievous troubles; how many are oppressed by great anguish in their hearts and in all extremity of evils… We must have hearts of iron or steel, if such sluggishness in prayer cannot then be expelled from our bosoms.’ Calvin felt the necessity of giving a solid foundation to the faith of his friends. ‘A tree that is not deeply rooted,’ he said, ‘is easily torn up by the first blast of the storm.’ he then committed to paper, as we have said, the first ideas of his Christian Institutes. One day, as he was starting for Gerac, he took his notes with him, and read what he had just written to the circle assembled in the castle. He did this several times afterwards; but the notes served merely as a text on which he commented with much eloquence. ‘No one can equal him,’ they said, ‘in loftiness of language, conciseness of arrangement, and majesty of style.’ He was not content with stating this doctrine or that: his fine understanding grasped the organic unity of the Christian truths, and he was able to present them as a divine whole. It was no doubt the cry of his conscience which had led him to seek salvation in the Holy Scriptures; but he had not been able to study, compare, and fathom them without his understanding becoming, enlightened, developed, and sanctified. The moral faculty is that which is first aroused in the Christian, but it immediately provokes the exercise of the intellectual faculties. The citizens of the kingdom of God are not those who know, but those who believe; not the learned, but the regenerated. A church in which the intellectual faculty is above the moral faculty, does not bear the stamp of the Protestant and Christian principle; but every church in which the divine faculty of the understanding is neglected, and where learning is viewed with distrust, will easily fall into deplorable error.
Calvin’s explanations, so deep and yet so clear, were not without their use. Du Tillet, Chaillou, De la Place, Torsac, and others mutually expressed their admiration and joy after the young doctor had retired; then, at their homes and apart from the world, they meditated on the consoling truths they had heard. Many of the most notable men of the district were won over to evangelical convictions, The Prior of Bouteville, in particular, showed from that time so much faith and zeal — he was, after Calvin’s departure, so much the father and guide of those who had received the seed of truth, that he was called throughout the province: ‘The Lutherans’ Pope. Calvin’s sphere widened gradually: he wrote to those to whom he could not speak; and ere long his friends asked why they should keep for themselves alone the bread of life on which they fed?… One of them giving utterance to this thought to the young doctor, added: ‘But you can only reach the people in the churches.’ It was scarcely possible that Calvin, a fugitive from Paris, could visit the churches of the Angoumois as an evangelical missionary. ‘Compose some short Christian exhortations for us,’ said his friends to him, ‘and we will give them to well-disposed parish priests to read to their congregations.’ He did so, and humble clerks read these evangelical appeals from their pulpits, as well as they could.
Thus Calvin preached through the mouths of priests to poor villagers, as he had addressed the imposing Sorbonne by the mouth of the rector.
This encouraged certain church dignitaries, especially the prior, who were at once his disciples and his patrons. If Calvin could not preach in French, why should he not teach in Latin? They surrounded the young doctor, re. presenting to him that Latin, the language of the Roman Church, could not occasion ally scandal, and asked him to deliver some Latin orations before the clergy. Calvin, firmly convinced that the reform ought to begin with the teachings of the priest, preached several Latin sermons in St. Peter’s Church. In this way he inaugurated his career as a reformer. All this could not be done without giving rise to murmurs. The faithful followers of Rome complained of him, of the prior, of all his friends, and this opposition might become dangerous. ‘Fatal instrument,’ says a Romanist with reference to Calvin’s stay in the Angoumois, ‘which was destined to reduce France to greater extremities than the Saracens, the Germans, the English, and the house of Austria had done. He was not, however, the only one who was assisting in this excellent work.