AFTER the great victory of the gospel over the Libertines, on September 3rd, 1553, Calvin settled down to much peaceful yet diligent work; but he was never long without molestation from those enemies of all law and propriety. Frequently they interrupted him in preaching; often they insulted him in the streets; and always their influence was in opposition to him. It became necessary for two of them, Bolsec and Castalio, to be banished from Geneva.
The Reformer’s warm heart next engaged a band of men to take the gospel to surrounding districts. Of this he writes in a letter to Henry Bullinger, in May, 1561: “It is incredible with what ardor our friends devote themselves to the spread of the gospel. As greedily as men before the pope solicit him for benefices, do they ask for employment in the churches beneath the Cross. They besiege my door to obtain a portion of the field to cultivate. Never had monarch courtiers more eager than mine.
They dispute about the stations as if the kingdom of Jesus Christ was peaceably established in France. Sometimes I seek to restrain them. I show to them the atrocious edict which orders the destruction of every house in which Divine service shall have been celebrated. I remind them that in more than twenty towns the faithful have been massacred by the populace.”
Those must have been happy days for the preachers, and fruitful days for the gospel. The presence of holy fire within them to stimulate them to service, and the prospect of papal fire to burn them for their service, would put life into their preaching.
It seemed as if Calvin could not prescribe enough work for himself. The responsibilities he undertook, as well as the labors, were immense.
The idea of a college had long been in his mind; and now that there was peace, he proceeded to make the thought a reality. Money was collected, and the new Institution was opened on June 5th, 1559. The inaugural services were held in St. Peter’s. After prayer by Calvin, and an address in Latin by Beza, the laws of the college, and the confession to be subscribed by the students, were read. Five masterships or “chairs” were instituted: one of Hebrew, one of Greek, one of philosophy, and two of theology.
The description of this memorial, as given by Bungener, will be full of interest. “After their venerable cathedral, no building is more dear to the Genevese. If you go upstairs to the class-rooms, you are in the rooms of the library, full of memorials yet more living and special. There you will be shown the books of Calvin’s library, the mute witnesses of his vigils, his sufferings, and his death. There you will turn over the leaves of his manuscripts, deciphering, not without difficulty, a few lines of his feverish writing, rapid as his thoughts. And, if your imagination will but lend itself to the breathing appeals of solitude and silence, there he himself is. You will behold him gliding among those ancient walls, pale, but with a sparkling eye; feeble and sickly, but strong in that inner energy the source of which was in his faith. “There also will appear to you, around him, all those of whom he was to be the father: divines, jurists, philosophers, scholars, statesmen, and men of war; all filled with that mighty life which he was to bequeath to the Reformation, after having received it from her. And if you ask the secret of his power, one of the stones of the college will tell it you in a few Hebrew words, which the Reformer had engraved upon it. Come into the court. Enter beneath that old portico which supports the great staircase, and you will read: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ And it is neither on the wall nor on one of the pillars that these words are engraved. Mark well; it is on the keystone. What an emblem! and what a lesson!”
It is not surprising that the studious life of the Reformer, his multiplied labors, and the many fierce storms that had beat upon him, had worn down his strength prematurely. Indeed, the surprise rather is that he had not succumbed years before to toil so arduous as his. He had never been really robust, and in his later years he suffered from quartan ague. At length asthma appeared, attended by spitting of blood, and other disorders. Yet he labored on, and in fact seems to have labored the more as his strength declined. The prudence of this is not our present concern: incessant toil and self-negation were characteristic of the man throughout life.
At this time his charities were great, his hospitality to refugees was extensive, and his personal wants were few. “Satisfied with my humble condition, I have ever delighted in a life of poverty, and am a burden to no one. I remain contented with the office which the Lord has given me.” In his last illness he even refused his quarter’s salary, saying that he had not earned it.
He preached his last sermon on February 6th, 1564. On that occasion he was seized with so violent a fit of coughing that it brought the blood into his mouth, and stopped his utterance. All his hearers realized too clearly that his last words in public had been spoken.
For four months he suffered extreme prostration, yet continued to labor with his pen. He translated his Harmony on the Pentateuch from Latin into French, revised the translation of Genesis, wrote on the Book of Joshua, and revised his Commentaries on the New Testament. Often during this time a little cold water was his only refreshment.
On March 27th, he was carried to the door of the council-chamber.
Supported by two attendants, he went up the stairs, entered the hall, and proposed a new rector for the school. He thanked the members of the council for all the kindness he had received from them, especially for the friendship they had shown him during this his illness. “I feel that this is the last time that I shall stand here.” His farewell moved the council to tears.
On April 2nd, Beza tells us, “it being Easter day, he was carried to church in a chair. He remained during the whole sermon, and received the Sacrament at my hand. He even joined, though with a trembling voice, the congregation in the last hymn: ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.’ He was carried out with his face lighted with the joy of Christ.”
On April 25th, Calvin made his will. He had only 225 crowns to dispose of; and having done this, and named other small matters, he adds: “I thank God that He has not only had mercy on His poor creature, having delivered me from the abyss of idolatry, but that He has brought me into the clear light of His gospel, and made me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was altogether unworthy; yea, that His mercy and goodness have borne so tenderly with my numerous sins and offenses, for which I deserve to be cast from Him and destroyed.”
On the 30th April, the Council of Geneva resolved to visit the pastor at his house in the Rue des Chanoines. Raising himself on his bed, he exhorted them ever to maintain inviolate the independence of a city that had been so favored of God. But he reminded them that it was the gospel alone that could fulfill the high destiny of Geneva. “Commending them and Geneva to God,” says Beza, “and begging them one and all to pardon him his faults, he held out his hand to them, which they grasped for the last time, and retired as from the death-bed of a father.”
On the next day, May 1st, he received the pastors. He exhorted them, in the most affectionate and touching words, to use all holy diligence in their work, to be faithful to their flocks, to be kind one to another, and to maintain the Reformation. For all his failings he asked pardon of God and of them; and finally, adds Beza, “he gave his hand to each, one after the other, which was with such anguish and bitterness of heart in every one, that I cannot even recall it to mind without extreme sadness.”
On the next day, May 2nd, he received a letter from the aged Farel, now nearly eighty, stating that the writer was just setting out to visit his beloved brother. Calvin penned him this admirable reply: “Farewell, my best and most faithful brother! Since it is the will of God that you should survive me, live in the constant recollection of our union, which, in so far as it was useful to the church of God, will still bear for us abiding fruit in heaven. I wish you not to fatigue yourself on my account. My breath is weak, and I continually expect it to leave me. It is enough for me that I live and die in Christ, who is gain to His people both in life and death. Once more, farewell to thee, and to all the brethren thy colleagues.”
A few days afterwards Farel, covered with dust, having walked all the way from Neuchatel, entered the chamber of the dying pastor. He had a long interview with him, the particulars of which are not left on record; and on the morrow took his departure.
On the Friday before Whitsunday, May 19th, the pastors were to meet; and Calvin requested that they should do so at his house. When a homely dinner had been prepared, Calvin was carried into the room, and said: “I am come, my brethren, to see you for the last time; for I shall never again sit at table.” Then he offered prayer, and tried to eat a little. “But,” adds Beza, “before the end of the meal, he requested to be carried back to his chamber, which was close by, saying these words with as cheerful a face as he could command: ‘A partition between us will not prevent me, though absent in body, being present with you in spirit.’” During the next few days his flickering life was one continued prayer. On Saturday, May 27th, he seemed to suffer less. At eight o’clock on that evening, death very gently approached him. As he was repeating the words of Paul: “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to be. . . . . . ,” those sufferings ceased and glory was revealed. What he could not finish by his failing breath was suddenly realized by his glorified spirit.
The Reformer was buried on the following day, the Lord’s day, at two o’clock. The funeral was conducted “in the usual fashion,” according to his own wishes; “not,” says Beza, “without many tears.” He was buried in a plain coffin, in an ordinary grave, in the Plain-Palais Cemetery outside the town. The historian Ruchat says that “he was buried with all simplicity, in the common cemetery, as he himself had desired; so simply that no one at this day knows where his grave is.”
Thus no monument was erected to mark the site; for his monument is nobler and more enduring than any that could have been placed there. The supposed site is now marked by a plain stone, about a foot square, bearing the initials “J. C.”
He had lived fifty-four years, ten months, and seventeen days. He died in Beza’s arms; and knowing that he deserved his entire confidence, he charged him in his last hours with the duty of editing his correspondence for the use of the church. Beza became Calvin’s worthy successor, and was as free from ambition as Calvin himself.