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HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION - VOL. 5
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This is the tenth volume of the History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, and the fifth of the Second Series. The first series described the history of that great epoch from its commencement down to the Confession of Augsburg (1530). The second will include the years intervening between that period and the triumph of the Reformation in various parts of Europe. It is not always easy to fix the latter limit, which varies according to locality.
Nevertheless, a rule laid down by the author in his first volume sensibly limits the work he has undertaken. ‘The history of one of the greatest revolutions that has ever been accomplished in human affairs, and not the history of a mere party, is the object of the present undertaking. The history of the Reformation is distinct from that of Protestantism.’ One or two volumes coming, God willing, after this one will bring it to a conclusion. The author divided the history into two series for the convenience of the public but he does not separate them. Together they form a single work.
Streams at first flow apart; they afterwards unite with each other in succession and form a single river. There comes a moment when the waters undergo the law of concentration: the same phenomenon is manifested in a history like ours. After following up successively the facts of the Reformation in Germany, German Switzerland, France, England, Western Switzerland and elsewhere, we shall concentrate our narrative a little, and present the progress of the great transformation in a single picture.
New countries and new men will come before us. In our next volume we shall travel through Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and other parts of Europe, retracing the great features of their religious history. We shall even return to Luther and Melanchthon, whose society is at once so healthy and so pleasant; and also see Calvin at his work in Geneva.
One circumstance, besides that already indicated, warns the author to restrict his labor, and might suddenly interrupt it. Time is growing short for him, and he cannot complete his work without the aid of Him who is the master of our days.
This volume begins with England. A faithful history of the Reformation is now perhaps more necessary to that country than to any other. The general opinion on the Continent, excepting that of the blind partisans of popery, is that the cause of Reform is won, and that there is no need to defend it. Strange to say this is not entirely true with regard to England — a country so dear to the friends of truth and liberty. Nay, even among Anglican ministers, a party has been formed enthusiastic in behalf of rites, sacerdotal vestments, and superstitious Roman doctrines, and violent in their attacks upon the Reformation. The excesses in which some of its members have indulged are unprecedented. One of them has instituted a comparison between the Reformers and the leaders during the Reign of Terror — Danton, Marat, and Robespierre, for instance — and declares the superiority of the latter. ‘The Reformation,’ says this Anglican priest in another place, ‘was not a Pentecost; I regard it as a Deluge, an act of divine vengeance.’ In the presence of such opinions and of others which, though less marked, are not less fatal, the history of the Reformation may furnish some wholesome lessons.
The history of England is succeeded in this volume by a narrative of the events which led to the triumph of the Reformation in Geneva. That history ought to interest the Protestants of every country, the little city having afterwards played so considerable a part in the propagation of evangelical truth and in the struggles of Protestantism with Popery.
For the purpose of his narrative, the author has continued to consult the most authentic sources: original documents, letters written by the persons of whom this history speaks or by their contemporaries, and the chronicles, annals, and books published at that epoch. He has made use of such collections of documents as have been printed; frequently he has had recourse to MSS, of the period which have not yet been published.
We live in a literary age when criticism sways the scepter. Criticism is good and necessary: it purifies history and clears the paths to the palace of truth. But if dogmatic epochs have their excesses, critical epochs have theirs also. It was said a long while ago that ‘those who run too hastily after truth shoot beyond it.’ The men who desire to renovate history are like those who desire to renovate cities. The latter begin by pulling down a few ugly houses which disfigure the neighborhood and impede the traffic; but at last they lay their hands on solid and useful edifices, buildings whose destruction is regretted by every one. Wise men will, in critical ages, take moderation and equity for their rule. These have often been wanting in recent days. There is a criticism called by the Germans hypercriticism, which not only denies what is false, but even what is true.
The Holy Scriptures have been the special object of its attack. It has denied the authenticity of the writings of St. John, St. Paul, Isaiah and other sacred writers, and the truth of many of the facts which they record.
If the sacred books have not been spared by this criticism, writings purely human, the facts of history, have not escaped unassailed. There have been numerous instances of this in Germany and elsewhere.
Several facts which belong to the history of the Reformation of France and French Switzerland have been recently called in question both in reviews and pamphlets. The author has felt it his duty to prove the historical reality of his statements, not only in the Preface to the French edition of this volume, but in the February Number of the Revue Chretienne (1869) published in Paris by M. Meyrueis. He has not thought it necessary to give these details in the English edition, because the statements which called them forth are unknown in England. It will be sufficient to indicate the principal points which have been denied with too much precipitancy, and the correctness of which the author has proved by the soundest demonstration.
The first fact relates to Le Fevre of Etaples. The author stated in his History that that theologian, the writer of a remarkable translation of the Holy Scriptures into French, had taught the great doctrine of the Reformation — justification by faith through grace — as early as 1512, that is to say, four or five years before Luther. This having-been disputed, the author proved it by the existence of Le Fevre’s Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul published in 1512, in which that doctrine is distinctly taught, and which is preserved in the Bibliotheque Imperiale at Paris. He added other proofs derived from the writings of Farel and Beza, as also from the learned critic Richard Simon, Bayle, etc.
The second fact concerns William Farel. The author said in his History that this Reformer, the most zealous evangelist, of that period, had imbibed the evangelical doctrines at Paris from the lessons Of his master, Le Fevre of Etaples, and that he was converted between 1512 and before the beginning of the Reformation properly so called. That point having been denied, the author proved it by the positive declarations of Le Fevre and Farel. The latter says pointedly: ‘This took place in the time of Louis the Twelfth.’ Now Louis XII. died in 1515.
The third fact relates to Thomas ab Hofen, the friend of Zwingle, and deputy from Berne to Geneva in 1527. The author wrote in his History that this layman was, properly speaking, the first who labored to spread the Gospel in Geneva. As that statement had been impugned, the author proved it by the German and Latin letters of Zwingle and of Ab Hofen himself.
The fourth fact concerns Robert Olivetan, Calvin’s cousin, and author of the first translation of the Bible into French. It has been doubted whether he was tutor in the family of a Genevese councillor in 1532, and whether he ‘evangelized’ at that time in Geneva. The author proved his statement by the positive testimony of the reformer Froment, in his Actes et Gestes de Geneve , and by extracts from the official records of the Genevese Council. He has demonstrated that Olivetan preceded in Geneva as a preacher of the Gospel, not only Calvin but Farel and Froment.
Lastly, the fifth fact relates to Calvin. A Genevese writer denied a few years back that Calvin, when returning from Italy, passed through Aosta, where there exists, however, a monument erected to commemorate his flight. The author hopes he has proved that the universal opinion, which makes the Reformer pass through that city, is well founded, and that the contrary opinion has no weight.
This last point is discussed in the Preface to the French edition of this volume-the four others are examined at length in an article entitled Critique d’une Critique, published in the Revue Chretienne of Paris.
There are individuals who, when they meet with facts in a history that have not been previously discussed in an archaeological dissertation, or with circumstances that had hitherto been unknown, immediately imagine that such facts have no foundation. This is a curious aberration. If an historian writes — not according to second-hand authorities, but after original materials — it is quite natural that he should come upon things that have not been noticed before. This has happened to the author of the History of the Reformation. True history, no doubt, possesses coloring and life; but it describes such events only as are founded on the firm basis of truth.
There are writers at this day who carry their archaeological predilections further still and would like to substitute chronicles for history, giving us a body without a soul. But authors of distinguished merit have protested against such an error.
A great critic, M. Sainte Beuve, says: ‘There is one kind of history founded on documentary evidence, state papers, diplomatic transactions, and the correspondence of ambassadors; and there is another kind with quite a different aspect moral history, written by the actors and the eyewitnesses.’
An eminent man (Le Comte d’Haussonville) who by his last work, L’Eglise Romaine et le premier Empire, has taken an honorable position among historians, indorses this judgment. ‘M. Sainte Beuve is right,’ he says; ‘the latter kind of history is the best, by which I mean the most instructive, the most profitable, the only one which serves to unseal the eyes, open the understanding, combat deplorable credulity, and avoid disagreeable mystifications. What concerns us, is to know men, “by lifting the curtain which hides them,” according to the happy expression of Saint- Simon.’
Another celebrated writer has said: ‘Real history appears only when the historian begins to distinguish, across the gulf of time, the living and acting man — the man endued with passions, the creature of habit with voice and physiognomy, with gestures and dress, distinct and complete, like the one from whom we have just parted in the street. Language, Legislation, Catechisms, are abstract things; the complete thing is the man acting, the visible corporeal man, who walks, fights, toils, hates, and loves. ‘Why is not history studied more closely? In it men would find human life, domestic life with its varied and dramatic scenes; the human heart with its fiercest as well as its tenderest passions, and moreover a sovereign charm — the charm of reality.’
Lastly, we read in the studies of M. Daunou, one of the most accredited masters of historical composition, that ‘history which is naturally picturesque and dramatic has become in modern times dull and cold, and no longer presents those living images of men and things which ancient, genius loved to trace.’
History had freed herself from the restraint which the Middle Ages had imposed on her, to prevent her from speaking naturally and with life, as men speak; and perhaps the lessons of the illustrious academician and peer of France, whom we have just quoted, may have contributed to this change. But for some time observers have been asking whether there is not reason to fear a return of the Middle Ages; whether men are not again attempting to fasten a gag on history. One might at times be led to say that archaeologists are of opinion that history might be suppressed as a matter of luxury, a useless ornament, and be replaced by documents, diplomas, and extracts from registers strung together.
Is it just that an historian should have the antiquaries crying out against him from every side, because, while keeping faithfully to documents, he draws something from them that has life or light? Is it just that when a character feels, moves, and speaks, rejoices or grieves, the Areopagus should declare him to be a fictitious being who could never have existed, and a pure product of the imagination? You believe that our ancestors were people like ourselves, with hearts that beat with passion and grief.— By no means; they were icy shades like those wandering on the banks of the Styx. Hitherto men had said: This being feels and moves, therefore he lives; but according to the new school, life is a fable. Nothing is authentic but what is wearisome. A man and a history are not looked upon as real living beings, unless they are colorless, stark, and cold.
Of this we have had many instances. One time we incurred this reproach:
Your imagination, we were told, invents features which give animation to the subject, but about which you could know nothing. The following passage was quoted: ‘When Fryth the reformer,’ wrote the critic, ‘was taken as a prisoner on foot to the episcopal court at Croydon, you say that “he had a calm and cheerful look, and the rest of the journey was accomplished in pious and agreeable conversation.” How could you know that?’ the objector went on. ‘Were you of the party to see the appearance of his face?’ We immediately took down the eighth volume of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, the appendix to which contains an account of Fryth’s journey written by an eye-witness. We opened the book and found these words: ‘And so with a cheerful and merry countenance, he went with them, spending the time in pleasant and godly communication.’ What we were charged with having invented, was an almost literal transcript of a document more than three hundred years old.
If archaeology were to be substituted for history, we do not think the public would be overpleased with the authors of the transformation. The investigations of palaeographers are not the edifice, but the materials prepared for its construction. History is above archaeology, as the house is above its foundations. The building raised by the architect is the end. In it men find a pleasant dwelling-place, sheltered from the inclemency of the seasons. But it is a good thing to excavate, to dig out fragments of rock from the bosom of the earth; it is advantageous, when you build, to have stones, and good stones too. The historian who sets little store by archaeology betrays a superficial mind; the archaeologist who sets little store by history betrays a mind whose cultivation is still incomplete. But we need not fear this movement; it has no chance of success. Real history will never perish.
We insert this protest in the present, volume, not because of anything that may concern us personally; but as this history has been favorably received, we feel bound to prove that we have always followed the most respectable authorities, and although liable to error, we have conscientiously endeavored to give a truthful narrative — true in its facts and in the spirit by which it is animated.
When will debates and contests cease? Happily there is something in the world which the attacks of men can neither batter down nor even shake, and which is sufficient to give peace to the soul. The holy words which the prophets of God have written will exist for ever, because the Light of Life is in them, and because from age to age many hearts, longing for the highest blessings, have found, and still find, in them everlasting life. They delight us, not only on account of their divine origin, but because they fully satisfy all the wants of our existence. We say to this heavenly and living truth, which the divine words reveal to us: I was naked and thou didst clothe me. I was thirsty, and thou didst give me to drink. I was hungry, and thou gavest me meat. How is it that so many men, perishing with thirst, do not come to these waters? Writers of great power in pagan antiquity, such as Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, attacked Christianity in the early ages, employing the same idle objections as are still used in our days. They knew not that it contained an imperishable strength. For eighteen hundred years it has withstood all attacks, and since our glorious Reformation it has received a new impulse. The nations who cover the most distant seas with their ships have scattered everywhere the seed of God. Their footsteps have reached to the ends of the world, and the crouching nations rise up at their approach. Perhaps unbelief was never more common in Europe among the lower strata of society; but at the same time believers were never so numerous throughout the world. It is a great multitude which no man can number.
And even were infidelity and atheism to increase more and more, that should not lead us to forsake Thee, thou Savior of the world! If earthly wisdom gives its votaries a light which scorches and wastes the soul, Thou givest a light which uplifts, vivifies, and delights. In the midst of struggles Thou implantest peace in our hearts. In the depths of sorrows Thou givest a powerful and living consolation. At the approach of that death which is the terror of men, Thou fillest our souls with the firm and lively hope of reaching, by the path of Thy cross, life with Thee in the glorious and invisible world. To whom should we go, O Christ? Thou hast the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have known, that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. GENEVA: March, 1869.