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  • HISTORY OF JOHN CALVIN -
    “PLACARDS” AND MARTYR-FIRES.


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    PERSECUTION was not dead in Paris, though somewhat held in check by the influence of Margaret. She had obtained from Francis the concession that the lovers of truth should be “left more tranquil”; but Jean Morin had not forgotten John Calvin, and was burning for revenge.

    Calvin left Poictiers at the end of April, 1534. He was therefore approaching the age of twenty-five, when, according to the canons, he must enter the priesthood. He was still nominally in the church of Rome, though his heart was freed from her servitude. The time approached for his decision. On the left hand was the path of expediency; on the right hand the path to wealth and position. Straight before him was the path of loyalty to Christ. He chose this.

    In pursuance of his choice, he went at once to Noyon, where, on May 4th, 1534, he resigned his chaplaincy of La Gesine, and his curacy of Pont l’Eveque. In addition to this public act, he sold his paternal inheritance, and thus severed on the same day his connection with his native town and his native church. We need not stay here to remark how completely these free acts furnish a reply to those historians who impute shameful motives to his first departure.

    Having thus severed the last link that bound him to Rome, he returned to Paris, where he made a brief stay, to leave it for the last time.

    It was on his return to Paris that Calvin first met a man whom he was to meet on a later day at Geneva,—Michael Servetus. As a few pages will be specially required later for a review of this man’s case, so far as it relates to Calvin, I need only say here in passing that Servetus was a Spaniard, born in the same year as our Reformer. He had just issued a book on the Trinity, and challenged Calvin to a discussion of its teaching. This challenge was accepted. The day, the time, the place for the discussion were agreed upon; but, for some reason that has never seen the light, Servetus failed to appear.

    Calvin now returned to his former lodging in the house of Antoine de la Forge, in the Rue St. Denis. Here he resumed his quiet labor by going from house to house, and preached in the home of his worthy host. A few of his friends must be introduced here, as we shall find them shortly led forth to suffer at the stake.

    Near La Forge’s dwelling was a shoemaker’s shop, where a poor deformed dwarf sat day by day, named Bartholomew Millon. As the result of a fall, this poor creature became bent and paralyzed, while his mental powers retained their former rigor. It was his delight to ridicule and insult the Protestants who passed his shop. One of these, touched with pity, stopped and said, “Poor man, do you not see that God has bent your body in order to straighten your soul?” With this kind word, he handed the cripple a New Testament, asking him to read it. The result was his conversion. His humble shop from that time became a center from which went forth the truth of God. He taught young people to read, and charmed many by singing Marot’s Psalms.

    Another friend of truth was John du Bourg, a draper, a man of some position. He was visited by Peter Valeton, who thus came under gospel influence. Other members of this Protestant band were Le Compte and a bricklayer named Henry Poille.

    Yet Calvin found no opening, as he had hoped, for continuous gospel labor; and it is likely that he felt the approach of the tempest that was so soon to burst. He therefore resolved to go to Germany; and, probably in July, 1534, accompanied by Du Tillet, he left Paris. The two travelers reached Strasburg in safety.

    They had not been long out of Paris when the threatened storm broke. His departure was timely; for had he remained in Paris for a few weeks longer, he would have been numbered among the victims of the storm.

    It was in October that an outbreak of indiscreet zeal on the part of some friends of the Reformation inflicted a severe blow upon the cause of truth, and called forth severe repressive measures.

    A servant of the king’s apothecary, Peter Feret, was sent to Neufchatel, in Switzerland, to confer with the Swiss Reformed pastors. They were asked whether it was not time for them to arise and make some bold open stand for God and truth.

    The result of this conference was a decision to prepare a placard, to be brought into France and posted in the most public places. This placard was most intemperately worded. The authorship has been ascribed to Farel; but Bungener says that “the author has never been known.” I have referred to the original, as given by Gerdesius and Paul Henry; and none of us would approve the use of such terms as “apostates, false pastors, wolves, blasphemers, execrables,” etc. The wrath of man is misguided in such a channel as this. An army of men posted copies of this fiery document in the most public places of Paris during the night of October 18th. It should be said that the authors of this placard, however just and true its contents, wrote only what the Swiss believed; but they forgot that the scathing words of the manifesto would be more calculated to inflame the papists of France than to convince them of their errors. One of the papers was posted at the Louvre; another on the door of the king’s chamber.

    As might have been foreseen, Francis was highly incensed at this audacity.

    Two things now became urgent: to punish those who had been guilty of the outrage; and to purge the city of the pestilence. We must very briefly narrate how these were effected.

    The king gave orders for the arrest of the prominent Protestants; and Jean Morin was glad to obey. Du Bourg, the merchant, Bartholomew Millon, the cripple, Valeton, Poille, and some others were arrested; and after a hasty trial were on the 10th November sentenced to death, the sentence to be carried into effect within three days. The circumstances of the burning of these faithful witnesses, their speeches at the stake, their triumphant joy in the flames, and the effect produced on the populace, would make an interesting chapter; but it would occupy too much of our space.

    Roussel and the other preachers employed by Margaret were apprehended and imprisoned, but their lives were spared at her request, and they escaped from the city.

    Having thus punished the more prominent of those who were supposed to have favored the “placards,” it was resolved to offer some public reparation for the insult to the church. On January 21st, 1535, an imposing procession was formed, in which every available priest was included; and the “host,” with much splendor and ceremony, followed by the king, was carried to Notre Dame in the presence of thousands of spectators. After “mass” had been performed, the king made an oration, in which he pledged himself to root out the Protestant heresy to the utmost of his power. Immediately the fires began again to blaze in the public places of Paris; and numbers of witnesses of the truth were first brutally tortured and then burned.

    France little thought, on that fatal January 21st, 1535, that another and yet another 21st of January would witness scenes yet more dreadful. On January 21st, 1793, another king—Louis XVI.—formed part of a procession to the block and to death. And, within the memory of some of us, on January 21st, 1871, Paris, after a siege of four months, capitulated to the victorious German army.

    As we have seen, Calvin escaped this fiery tempest. He set out with Du Tillet on the road to Germany, hoping to find there a place of rest. The travelers halted at Strasburg, but could not there discover either an opening for the gospel or any friendly welcome. After a sojourn there of a few months, they passed on to Basle, the gateway into Switzerland.

    It was at this juncture, early during his stay at Basle, that Calvin had an interview with the great scholar Erasmus. He had rendered a great service to the cause of the Reformation by the publication of the New Testament.

    But he was less a Reformer than a scholar. His idea was more that of a reformation in the church than of the church. He was more fitted for the flower-border than for plowing and spade-work. To use a modern expression, he was a “trimmer,” trying to find a middle course and thus escape the cross. He was not the man to do and dare for Christ, to suffer and die for the truth. Calvin therefore found in Erasmus little that was after his own heart, and no union was formed between them.

    Halfway men are hinderers rather than helpers. Whole-hearted service is what the Lord looks for and rewards with His approving smile. The Lord’s message to Polycarp in Revelation 2:10: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,” does not mean faithful until death, but, as it really was in his case, UNTO death.

    In Basle Calvin hoped to find the seclusion he so longed for. He took up his abode in the house of Catherine Klein, a good woman who harbored many a servant of Christ in exile, and who perceived and valued the nobility of the exile she now had the honor to shelter. In this quiet retreat Calvin pursued his studies; and here he produced the first edition of his great and undying work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which next invites our attention.

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