IN February, 1536, Calvin went to Italy, with the purpose of visiting the court of Ferrara. Here the duchess Renee gave encouragement and protection to persecuted Protestant exiles. We have few details of this visit. Calvin afterwards said that he entered Italy only to leave it again. In spite of an assumed name (Charles d’Espeville) the officers of the Inquisition appear to have recognized him, and he fled from their tender mercies. Beza, however, seems to imply that he left Ferrara of his own will, being required at Noyon on the death of his brother Charles. In any case, he went to Noyon and settled the family affairs, leaving it this time for ever. Where shall he now go?
No doubt remembering Basle, with his brother Antoine and his sister Maria, he left his native place to go to Basle. The way through Lorraine was closed by the war. The travelers arrived at Geneva in July, 1536.
Calvin took his lodging in the house of Peter Viret, one of the ministers of that city, intending to stay there only a single night.
But his Master had designed that Geneva should be the scene of his future work.
It is necessary here to make a brief digression in our narrative, in order to take a survey of the events immediately preceding Calvin’s arrival there.
William Farel had for some years been preaching the gospel there. Many had been his conflicts, labors, and persecutions.
Geneva had been the scene of many contests. Situated as it was, it formed a convenient center for the refugees who were driven chiefly from France for the gospel’s sake. In 1524 the Genevese threw off the authority of the duke of Savoy; and many were impatient to rid themselves of the yoke which bound them to Rome.
In 1532 Farel and Saunier entered Geneva, and worked with Robert Olivetan, the cousin of John Calvin. A council was called, and Farel was condemned to be banished. A tumultuous mob basely ill-treated him, threatening him with death. One man attempted to shoot him, and pulled the trigger, but it missed fire. Farel turned to him, and said, “I am not to be shaken by a popgun; your toy does not alarm me.”
Farel and his companions were ordered to leave the town within six hours, or be burned. But he was not the man to be easily turned aside. He was soon back in Geneva, and with Froment preaching and teaching.
Many disturbances occurred when it was found that Farel and Froment, like Peter and John, had returned; the relation of which would swell our narrative unduly. In 1535 an attempt was made to poison the three preachers, Farel, Viret and Froment; but although the poison was in the soup, Farel changed his dish, Froment was called away, and Viret alone took some, the effects of which remained with him through life.
The Reformers next entered the churches and broke down the images.
These gods of wood and stone were unable to help themselves. On this, the Council took the matter in hand, and decreed that the “mass” should be abolished. The priests then sent to inform the duke of Savoy of the state of matters; and the result was a holy war.
Deliverance came to Geneva on February 2nd, 1536. The gospel was victorious, and the city was free.
On May 21st, the Council called together the citizens, and put it to them whether they would decide for popery or for the gospel. After a deep silence, in a loud and solemn voice came the answer: “We all, with one accord, desire, by God’s help, to live in the faith of the holy gospel, and according to God’s Word, as it is preached to us.” Then the people, with uplifted hands, responded: “We swear to do so. We will do so, by God’s help.”
The Council then ordered an inscription to be placed over one of the city gates, and afterwards over the entrance to the town hall, that all might see how God had delivered them. The following is a translation:— “The tyranny of the Roman Antichrist having been overthrown, And its superstitions abolished in the year 1535; The most holy religion of Christ Having been restored in its truth and purity, And the church set in good order By a signal favor of God; The enemy having been repelled and put to flight; And the city by a striking miracle restored to liberty; The senate and the people of Geneva Have erected and set up this monument In this place As a perpetual memorial To attest to future ages Their gratitude to God.”
By this the Reformation of Geneva was established; but the victory was not yet complete. These worthy laborers needed a helper; one, moreover, who would seek to advance the cause by his voice and pen without clamor. This helper was even now on his way to them.
One evening in July, 1536, Calvin arrived, as we have seen, at Geneva. He thought of reposing there for a night, and departing on the morrow. His presence was discovered by either Caroli or Du Tillet, and at once made known to Farel.
Farel was thankfully surprised at the good news. He had read the Institutes, and now the author was within reach. In establishing the Reformation in Geneva, Farel had been unable to hold in check the fiery zeal of some, the lawlessness of others, the errors of yet others. He therefore perceived at once what an acquisition to himself and to the cause of truth would this young man be.
The story of their meeting has been variously narrated. I will write it from not fewer than six sources.
Farel waited upon the traveler, and pointed out to him what had been taking place in Geneva. He then showed him what a field was here opened before him for Gospel labor; and invited the student and author to join him.
Calvin shrank from the prominence and the responsibility, and frankly said so. He loved retirement, and wished rather to write than to preach. He was merely passing through the city; he needed rest; and other arguments. “But why seek elsewhere for what is now offered you here? Why refuse to edify the church of God by your faith, knowledge, and zeal?” “I cannot teach; I have need to learn. There are special labors for which I wish to reserve myself. This city cannot afford me the leisure I require.” “Study, leisure, knowledge!” replied Farel, “Must we never practice?”
Calvin further objected the fiery zeal of some in Geneva, and his own timidity and need of rest. “Rest! death alone releases the servants of Christ from their labors.
Ought they to be so delicate as to be afraid of warfare? Jonah wanted to flee from the presence of the Lord, but the Lord cast him into the sea!”
Then Farel could restrain himself no longer. Rising from his seat, and placing his hand on Calvin’s head, and fixing his eyes on him, he said, “Then God will curse your repose, and your studies, if in so dire a necessity as ours, you withdraw, and refuse to give your help and support.” “Then I will remain at Geneva. I will give myself up to the Lord’s good pleasure.”
From that precious mine of autobiography, the Preface to the Psalms, I extract a sentence in Calvin’s own words confirming this narration: “I had resolved to continue in the same privacy and obscurity, until at length William Farel detained me at Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid His mighty hand upon me to arrest me. As the most direct road to Strasburg, to which I then intended to retire, was shut up by the wars, I had resolved to pass quickly by Geneva, without staying longer than a single night in that city Then an individual who now basely apostatized and returned to the papists [Caroli is meant] discovered me and made me known to others. Upon this Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent.”
From that time he cast himself heart and soul into the work of the gospel.
He had already by his pen done the work of a lifetime; he was now to enter upon a second lifetime of labor, a brief outline of which now awaits our attention.