SEVILLE and Valladolid were the two principal scats of the awakening.
These towns were at this time, properly speaking, the two capitals of Spain. In both of them evangelical Christians used to meet together secretly to worship God in spirit and in truth, and to confirm each other in the faith and in obedience to the commandments of the Lord. There were monasteries nearly all the members of which had received the doctrine of the gospel. It had, moreover, adherents scattered about in all parts of the Peninsula. Rodrigo de Valerio, the lay reformer of Spain, continued his labors in Seville. He held conversations daily with the priests and the monks. ‘Pray how comes it to pass,’ he said to them, ‘that not only the clergy but the whole Christian community is found to be in so lamentable a condition that there seems to be hardly any hope of a remedy for it? It is you that are the cause of this state of things. The corruption of your order has corrupted everything. Lose no time in applying an efficient remedy to so vast an evil. Be yourselves transformed that you may be able to transform others.’ Valerio supported these eloquent appeals by the declarations of Holy Scripture. The priests were astonished and indignant. ‘Whence comes the audacity,’ they said, ‘with which you assail those who are the very lights and pillars of the Church? How dare a mere layman, an unlettered man, who has been occupied solely in secular affairs and in ruining himself, speak with such insolence?... Who commissioned you, and where is the seal of your calling?’ ‘Assuredly,’ replied Valerio, candidly, ‘I did not acquire this wisdom from your corrupt morals; it comes from the Spirit of God, which flows, like rivers of living water, from those who believe in Jesus Christ. As for my boldness, it is given by him who sends me. He is the truth itself which I proclaim. The Spirit of God is not bound to any order, least of all to that of a corrupt clergy. Those men were laymen, plain fishermen, who convicted of blindness the whole learned synagogue, and called the world to the knowledge of salvation.’
Thus spoke Rodrigo; and he was distressed to see all these priests ‘unable to endure the shining light of the Gospel.’ One great consolation was given to him. The preacher of Seville cathedral at this time was John Gil, or Egidius, a doctor, born at Olvera, in Aragon, and educated at the university of Alcala. He possessed the qualities of an orator; for he was a man of fine character and of keen sensibility. But these essential qualities, instead of being developed at the university, had lain dormant. The intellectual faculty alone had been cultivated. There was a fire in the man’s nature, but it had been quenched by Scholasticism. Egidius had plunged into the study of the theology of the schools, the only science then in vogue in Spain. In this he had distinguished himself, had won the highest academical honors, and had become professor of theology at Siguenza. He was not content with letting the Word of God alone; he openly avowed contempt for the study of it, ridiculed such members of the university as diligently read the sacred books, and with a shrug of the shoulders used to call them ‘those good Biblists.’ Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, and other doctors of the same class, were the men for him. His flatterers went so far as to allege that he surpassed them. As the reputation of Egidius was spreading far and wide, when the office of chief canon or preacher of the cathedral of Seville became vacant, the chapter unanimously elected him, and even dispensed with the trial usual in such cases. Egidius, absorbed in his Scholastic books, had never preached in public nor studied the Holy Scriptures. He nevertheless fancied that nothing could be easier to him than preaching, which in his view was an inferior office. He expected even that he should dazzle his hearers by the blaze of Scholasticism, and attract them by its charms. He therefore ascended the pulpit of the cathedral of the capital of Andalusia. A numerous congregation had assembled, and expecting something wonderful were very attentive. The illustrious doctor preached, but after the Scholastic fashion. Having put forward some proposition, he explained its various meanings. The terms which he made use of were those of the schools, and his hearers could hardly understand them. What frivolous distinctions! What profitless questions! The preacher thought it all very fine his audience felt it to be very tiresome.
They gave him, however, a second and a third hearing; but it was always the same—dry and wearisome. The famous theologian was thus the least popular of the preachers, and Egidius saw his congregation lessening day by day. His sermons fell into the greatest contempt, among the people.
Those who had imprudently called him to the post began to consider how they could get rid of him; and the preacher himself, anxious about his reputation and the usefulness of his ministry, began to look out for a less brilliant position, in which people might make more account of him. f44 Rodrigo had gone with the multitude, and was one of those who were dissatisfied with these Scholastic discourses. But he was gifted with the discerning of spirits, and beneath the Scholastic doctor he had been able to recognize the orator and his indisputable abilities. He was grieved to see the gifts of God thus thrown away, and he resolved to speak frankly to Egidius. ‘Divine Providence,’ says the chronicler, ‘impelled him to this course.’ Having made request, therefore, for an interview with the canon, Valerio, received by him with some feeling of surprise, but still with kindliness, began at once to speak to him about the function of the Christian orator. f45 This function, in his view, was not to set forth certain theses and anti-theses, but to address the consciences of men, to present Christ to them as the author of eternal salvation, and to press them to throw them selves into the arms of this Savior, that through him they might become new creatures. ‘You are in need of other studies,’ he said to the schoolman, ‘other books, and other guides than those which you have chosen.’ Egidius was at first astounded; his pride rebelled. ‘What audacity!’ he thought; ‘this man sprung from the common people, ignorant and of feeble understanding, dares to criticize me, and confidently to teach me, a man with whom he is hardly acquainted!’ Nevertheless, the natural kindliness of Egidius, and the reflection that Rodrigo was speaking of the art of preaching, in which he had miserably failed, repressed this first emotion. He kept his self-possession and listened attentively to the layman. Rodrigo frankly pointed out to him the defects of his manner of preaching, and exhorted him to search the Scriptures. ‘You will never succeed,’ he said, ‘in becoming really powerful as a teacher unless you study the Bible day and night.’ He told him that in order to preach salvation he must first have found it himself, and that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth must speak. A few hours sufficed for the enlightenment of Egidius; and from this time he became a new man. f48 How many years had he lost, both as student and as professor! ‘I perceive,’ said he, ‘that all the studies and all the labors of my past life have been vain. I now enter upon the new path of a wisdom of which I did not know the A B C.’ The weariness and dejection of Egidius were now over, and he felt great peace and joy. He saw God opening to him the treasury of his love. ‘The heavens were beginning to be serene and the earth peaceful.’ Egidius was naturally very open-hearted, frank, and sincere. The gospel, the great revelation of God’s love, had for him an unspeakable charm. He received it joyfully, and his heart resounded with a new song. He studied the Holy Scriptures, prayed, meditated, and read good authors; and thus made progress in the knowledge of true theology.
Rodrigo de Valerio was made glad by the wonderful change which God had wrought through his ministry; and the victory which he had won raised still higher his burning zeal. He began to proclaim the gospel not only in private meetings, but in public, in the streets and squares of the town, near the Giralda, the convent of Buena Vitta, the Alcazar, and on the banks of the Guadalquivir. He was denounced to the holy office, and when he appeared before the tribunal of the Inquisition he spoke earnestly about the real church of Christ, set forth its distinguishing marks, and especially insisted on the justification of man by faith. This took place a little while after the conversion of Egidius, whose new faith was not yet known, and who still enjoyed in society the reputation of a scholar and a good Catholic. Glad of an opportunity of repaying his great debt, he came before the tribunal and defended his friend. He thus exerted an influence over the judges, and they took into consideration the lowliness of Valerio’s family and the rank which he held in society. Moreover, they said, Valerio is tainted with insanity, and it can hardly be necessary to hand over a madman to the secular power. His goods were confiscated, he was exhorted to return to the right path, and was then set at liberty.
The astonishing change which had been effected in Egidius was soon remarked at Seville. Now fully persuaded of the need of repentance and faith, and possessing salvation by personal experience, his preaching was henceforth as simple, affectionate, and fervent as it had before been cold, ignorant, and pedantic. Abstract propositions and fruitless disputations now gave place to powerful appeals to conscience and to entreaties full of charity. General attention was aroused. Once more a multitude thronged the noble cathedral, erected on the very spot on which the Arabs had formerly built a magnificent mosque, in which neither altar nor image was to be seen, but which was brilliant with marbles and lamps.
The Christians were now summoned to hear the good news by bells in the summit of the Mohammedan tower, the Giralda, whence the muezzins had once called the people to prayer. This was the sole remnant of the mosque, and it gave its name to the church. Jesus Christ now took the place of the false prophet and the vain forms of the papacy; and many believed in the grace of the Son of God. In the discourses of Egidius there was a charm which was felt alike by the educated and the ignorant. He was the most animated and the most popular preacher who had ever appeared at Seville; and his history shows, better perhaps than that of any other preacher, that the first quality of an orator is a heart burning with love and with fervent emotion. Pectus facit oratorem. This man had received from God the excellent gift of penetrating the souls of those who heard him with a divine fire which animated all their deeds of piety and fitted them to endure lovingly the cross with which they were threatened. Christ was with him in his ministry, says one of those who were converted by him; and this divine master himself engraved, by the virtue of his Spirit, the words of his servant on the hearts of his hearers. Valerio was the layman of the Reformation; Egidius became its minister.
He was not long alone. During his residence at Alcala, three students were observed to be united in close friendship with each other. These were John Egidius, Constantine Ponce de la Fuente, and Vargas. Now these two old fellow-students arrived at Seville. The Castilian, Constantine Ponce de la Fuente, was born at St. Clement, in the diocese of Cuenca. The inhabitants of these districts concealed under an aspect of coldness a free and boisterous gaiety. Ponce de la Fuente was certainly one of these people.
He had a caustic humor, was a lover of pleasure, and ardent in all that he did. His youth had been somewhat dissipated, and for this he was afterwards reproached by his enemies. But he possessed also good sense and a moral disposition, which soon led him to embrace a more regular life, even before he was acquainted with the gospel. He never lost, however, his cheerfulness and his wit. He was animated by a strong desire to gain solid knowledge, and at the same time he felt great aversion to the pedantry and barbarism of the schools. In some respects he was like Erasmus. He was a son of the Renaissance, and, like his master , enjoyed ridiculing the ignorance of the monks, the fooleries of the preachers, and the hypocrisy of the pharisees. Although he had not the genius of the great man of letters, in some points he surpassed him. There was more depth in his faith and more decision in his character. Contradictory qualities met in his nature. He would hurl in all directions his satirical darts, and yet he was full of benevolence and generosity, and was always ready to give assistance to anyone. It was, moreover, said of him that no one ever loved or hated him moderately. His acquaintance with the human heart, his knowledge of the egotism and the indifference which are found even in the best men, made him very scrupulous in the selection of his friends. But he deeply loved the few to whom he was attached; and with his great acquirements he combined a free and cordial manner.
Ponce de la Fuente was apparently detained at Seville by the report of the conversion of Egidius and of the great sensation which his discourses were producing in that town. Like Vargas, he hungered and thirsted for a truth which should satisfy all his wants, and which was as yet unknown to him.
That which these two were still in search of, they learnt that the third had found. They hastened to his presence. They found Egidius convinced that the knowledge of Christ surpasses everything besides, so that in order to obtain it there is nothing which ought not to be given up. He had found it the chief good. He had gained it by faith, and he was prepared for the sake of keeping it to lose all that he possessed. The communion of the three friends became more and more intimate, their friendship sweeter and sweeter. In their intercourse with each other they found so much solace and so much profit to their souls that when they were parted they sighed for the moment when they should meet again. Their souls were one.
Egidius made known evangelical truth to his old fellow-students; and on their part Vargas, and still more de la Fuente, ‘the extent of whose knowledge was marvellous,’ gave him a wholesome impulse, under the influence of which he made rapid progress both in sound literature and true theology. The brotherly affection which united them filled their hearts with joy; and this joy, says a reformer, was perfumed with the sweet odor of the service of God.
The three friends formed a plan, and combined their efforts to spread true piety around them. Egidius and de la Fuente divided between them the work of preaching. Their manner of speaking differed. While Egidius had much openness of heart, de la Fuente had much openness of intellect. In the discourses of Egidius there was more fire; more light in those of de la Fuente. The former took souls captive; the latter enlightened understandings, and obtained, says a historian, as much and even more applause than his master. This means doubtless that his influence was still more powerful. Vargas had undertaken another department, that of practical exegesis. At first he explained in the church the Gospel according to St. Matthew, as Zwingli had done at Zurich; and afterwards the Psalms. These three evangelists spoke with a sacred authority, and with admirable unity. ‘What harmony,’ people said, ‘prevails between Egidius, Constantine, and Vargas!’ But nobody suspected that the word spoken by these three powerful teachers was the evangelical doctrine then being preached by Luther, Farel, and the other reformers. There was no more reference to them in the discourses of the Spaniards than if they had not existed. All those souls which thirsted for the truth would have been alarmed at the names of these men, heretics in their eyes; but they were attracted by the words full of grace and truth which were those of John, Peter, and Paul, nay, rather of Jesus himself. The sheep entered into the fold in which were already those who were elsewhere called by Melanchthon and by Calvin, without in the least suspecting the fact. Their strong but invisible bond of union was Christ, whose grace operated silently but with the same efficacy on the banks of the Elbe, the Rhone, and the Guadalquivir.
The reputation of Ponce de la Fuente was ere long as widespread as that of Egidius. There was one mature in his character which doubled, nay, which multiplied a hundredfold the force and result of his preaching. He was free from vanity. This besetting sin of the orator, a vice which paralyses his influence, had no place in him. He was quite exempt from that exalted opinion of himself which is so natural to the human heart, and especially to the public speaker. He had recovered the first of all loves—the love of God; and this so filled his soul that it left no room for any other. He was indifferent to the praises of his hearers, and his only thought was how to win their hearts for God. His reputation procured him several calls. The chapter of Cuenca unanimously invited him to be preacher at the cathedral.
By accepting the invitation he would have gained an honorable position in his own province; but he chose rather to remain the curate of Egidius.
Some time afterwards a deputation arrived at Seville, commissioned to announce to de la Fuente that he was called to succeed the titular bishop of Utica as preacher at the metropolitan church of Toledo, an office of high honor and very much sought after. No one doubted that he would accept a place which was the object of ambition to so many men. De la Fuente, having no wish to leave Seville, where a great door was opened to him, declined the offer. The canons persisted in their application, pressed him and seemed bent on compelling him. In order to get rid of their importunity, Ponce availed himself of an objection which was certainly in character with the turn of his mind. In the church of Toledo a dispute was at this time going on between several members of the chapter and the cardinal-archbishop John de Martinez Siliceo, who had decreed that the candidates elected by the chapter should be bound to prove that they were descended from blameless ancestors. Now de la Fuente had no reason to fear this rule more than any other; but being driven to extremities, he replied to the deputies with an arch smile that ‘the bones of his ancestors had rested in peace for many years, and that he would not disturb their repose.’
It was inevitable that the labors of these evangelical men should arouse at Seville a lively opposition. The more the hearers of the three evangelists were rescued by their preaching from the darkness of ignorance, and the more they shook off the dust of the middle ages, so much the more they esteemed the noble men to whom they were indebted for the light, and the less respect they felt for the troop of hypocrites who had so long destroyed their souls by their teaching. Consequently the palace of the Inquisition resounded with complaints, and nothing but threats was to be heard in the castle of Triana, situated in a suburb of Seville, in which the tribunal of the holy office was established. The evangelists, however, had friends so numerous and so powerful that the inquisitors did not dare at present to attack them. They turned their attention to the other preachers, endeavored to awaken them, and implored them to defend the faith of Rome, now so terribly shaken. And, in fact, the priests attached to ancient superstitions ere long arose as out of a long sleep and warmed their torpid zeal. The fire of Rome, well-nigh extinct, was rekindled. There were two camps in Seville. Over the cathedral floated the banner of the gospel; in almost all the other churches was raised the flag of the papacy. A contemporary asserts that it was the flag of Epictetus, and he thinks that these priests were rather inferior to the Stoic philosopher. ‘Unstring your rosaries and your beads more frequently,’ said the priests; ‘get many masses said; abstain from meat; go on pilgrimage; have such and such dresses, such an aspect, and other poor things of the like kind.’ ‘A fine mask of piety,’ people used to say; ‘but if you examine these things more closely, what do you find?’ At the cathedral, on the contrary, the preachers urged their hearers to read the Holy Scriptures; they set forth the merits of a crucified Savior and called upon men to place all their trust in him. The evangelical preachers were fewer in number than the others, but around them were gathered the best part of the population. Gradually the books of the Roman service were laid aside and gave place to the gospel. Many hearts were attracted by the Word of God. The religion of form lost many of its adherents, and the religion of the spirit gained them.
Among these were several inmates of the convent of the Hieronymites, in San Isidro del Campo. But for the Inquisition, the Reformation would have transformed Spain and secured the prosperity and welfare of its people.
Ponce de la Fuente, above all, charmed his hearers not only by the beauty of the doctrine which he proclaimed, but also by the purity and elegance of his language, and by the overpowering bursts of his eloquence. Those who heard it exclaimed, ‘A miracle!’ Ponce was a great observer, and this both by nature and by choice. He took his stand as it were upon a height, and set himself to consider attentively all that presented itself to him— physical phenomena, moral affections, and human affairs. By means of his learning, his experience, and his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, he was able to contemplate as from an elevated position all things human and divine. He had also all accurate judgment, a quality of the first importance to a preacher. He had a sense of the just value of things; discretion not only guided him in all his actions, but also inspired all his words. This explains the-popularity which he ere long enjoyed. In his view the tact of the orator should teach him to avoid whatever would uselessly shock the hearer, and to seek after everything which could bring souls to salvation.
On the days when he preached, Seville cathedral presented the finest spectacle. His service was usually at eight o’clock in the morning; and the concourse of people was so great that as early as four o’clock, frequently even at three, hardly a place in the church was left vacant. It was openly asserted in Seville that Ponce de la Fuente surpassed the most illustrious orators of his own age and of the age which had preceded it. f63 In spite of the extraordinary popularity which he enjoyed, he had remained one of the simplest of men, free from the love of money, without ambition, satisfied with frugal diet, with a small library, and not caring for that wealth for the sake of which certain public pests, said one of his friends, ravaged the church of God. He had given proof of this by refusing the rich canonry of Toledo.
During many years Seville, more fortunate in this respect than any other town in Spain, heard the pure gospel of Christ proclaimed. Besides the service in the cathedral, there were meetings of a more private character in some of the houses. The abundant harvest which the fertile soil of Spain afterwards yielded was the fruit of these laborious sowings. De la Fuente, Egidius, and Vargas, men as remarkable for their doctrine as for their life, were the first great sowers of the good seed in the Peninsula. ‘They deserve,’ said one of their good friends, ‘to be held in perpetual remembrance.’ Who can tell what might have happened in Spain if the work of these three associated Christians could have been longer carried on? But on a sudden Egidius found himself deprived of his two companions in arms, and this in most diverse ways.
Charles the Fifth happened to be in Spain just at the time when Ponce de la Fuente was achieving the greatest success. The emperor came to Seville; and in consequence of the high praise of the preacher which reached him from all quarters he wished to hear him. Charles was delighted. He was fond of fine things, and the same doctrines which, when professed in Belgium, in some obscure conventicle by a cutler or a furrier, he punished as frightful heresies, did not offend him when they came from the lips of a great orator, and were proclaimed to an immense crowd in the most beautiful church in Spain. He almost believed that talent was orthodox. We have moreover remarked that one of the characteristics of de la Fuente was to preach the pure gospel, avoiding everything which might shock his hearers. The emperor sent for him to the palace. Charmed with his conversation, his intelligence, and his polished and agreeable manners, he named him one of his chaplains. To this appointment he soon added the office of almoner, and invited him to follow him beyond the Pyrenees. De la Fuente, being attached to Seville, would gladly have declined the call, as he had those from Cuenca and Toledo. But this time it was his sovereign who called him. The will of Charles the Fifth was law, and there was no way of escape. Moreover this call, in his judgment, came from God himself. He, therefore, prepared for his departure. Strange to say, the emperor charged him to accompany his son Philip into the Netherlands and to England. ‘I intend,’ he said, ‘to show the Flemings that Spain is not without her amiable scholars and eminent orators.’ De la Fuente, therefore, accompanied Philip. He afterwards rejoined Charles in Germany, discharged the duties of chaplain to him, and had the opportunity of making the acquaintance of some of the reformers.
The departure of Ponce de la Fuente left the Roman party at Seville more at ease. They resolved now to get rid first of Vargas. This theologian, who perhaps had neither the tact of de la Fuente nor the fervor of Egidius, was just on the point of being cited before the tribunals when he died. Egidius thus left alone felt keenly the loss of his friends. He was to have no more intimate communion, no more familiar conversations. The illustrious preacher encountered everywhere hostile looks, and had no longer a friendly ear into which he could pour his sorrow. His singular openheartedness exposed him more than others to hatred. Simple and candid, when called to speak from the chief pulpit of Seville, he attacked the enemies of the light more openly and more frequently than his colleagues had done. Consequently, his adversaries, full of anger against him, put into circulation the most unfavorable reports of his orthodoxy.
They surrounded him with secret agents, who were instructed to pick up his sayings and to spy out his proceedings; and they schemed among themselves what course they must take to get rid of a man whom they detested. Egidius was left alone; but even alone he was a power in Seville.
If his enemies could succeed in overthrowing him, the Inquisition would then reign without a rival. Unfortunately for these fanatical men, Egidius counted a large number of friends among all classes. After a careful examination of all the circumstances, they had not courage publicly to accuse him. There was need of the brilliant popularity of which he was subsequently the object to raise their irritation to such a pitch that they determined to proceed to extremities.
The inquisitors did not stop here. Rodrigo de Valerio, after having been set at liberty, on the ground, they said, that he was merely mad, had refrained, by the desire of his friends, from publicly preaching the gospel. Unwilling, however, to do absolutely nothing, he had gathered together a certain number of his friends and had in a familiar way interpreted to them the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, that ocean, as Chrysostom called it, which meets us everywhere at the beginning of the awakenings. Some of those who listened to him persevered in the faith; others, at a later time, rejected it. Among the latter in particular was Peter Diaz, who having forsaken the gospel entered the Society of Jesuits and died at Mexico. f69 But the brave Rodrigo could not long submit to this restriction. Ought he to shrink, he said to himself, from exposing his liberty, or even his life, when the gospel was at stake? Others had given their lives for a less object than this. He was in hope, moreover, of arousing by his own example other combatants who should finally win the victory. He, therefore, laid aside timid precautions and began again to point out publicly the errors and superstitions of Rome. He was once more denounced, and was arrested by the Inquisition, which was quite determined this time not to let slip the pretended madman, he was sentenced to imprisonment for life and to wear the san benito, a cloak of a yellow color, the usual garb of the victims of the Inquisition. Every Sunday and feast-day, Valerio was taken, as well as other penitents, by the familiars of the holy office to Saint Saviors Church, at Seville, to hear both the sermon and the high mass. He appeared as a penitent without repentance. He could not listen to the doctrine of the monks without in some way showing his opposition to it.
He would sometimes rise from his seat, and, while the whole assembly fixed their eyes on him, put questions to the preacher, refute his doctrines, and entreat his hearers to take care they did not receive them. Rodrigo could not hear a doctrine contrary to the gospel without his whole soul being stirred within him. The inquisitors, steadily persuaded of his madness, at first excused these interpretations, which to them seemed to be the clearest proof of his malady. But the discourses of this insane man were so reasonable that they produced an impression. The inquisitors at length confined him in a convent on the coast of San Lucar, where all society was forbidden him; and here he died at about the age of fifty. His san benito was exhibited in the metropolitan Church of Seville, with this inscription:—Rodrigo Valerio, a false apostle who gave out that he was sent of God. It was after the departure of de la Fuente from Seville that the final sentence was pronounced against Valerio.