IT will be convenient at this stage to give an outline of the condition of France at this period.
Francis, the king, was no real friend to Protestantism. He had not the love of the truth in his heart. We therefore find him at one time persecuting the Protestants, and at another favoring them. But in either case his motive would be one of state policy. He was anxious to check any designs of the papacy that would thwart his designs or cripple his power. This made him hold out one hand to the Reformers of Germany, and the other to Henry VIII. of England.
Margaret de Valois, queen of Navarre; was his sister, and had known and favored Calvin at Bourges. She had read the Bible, and its truths had been explained to her by the aged Le Fevre.
She was occupying the palace and court during the absence of Francis in Picardy after the festivities of Lent; and resolved to have the “new” doctrine preached in the churches of Paris. A movement in favor of the gospel was thus begun in the highest quarter; while Calvin was quietly working among the people. Margaret summoned Gerard Roussel to her presence, and commanded him to preach the glad tidings of salvation from the pulpits of the city. Roussel hesitated; and the Sorbonne doctors raged and opposed. But Margaret persisted in her design. She had a chapel prepared in the Louvre, and had it publicly announced that the gospel would be preached daily therein.
Thus sheltered by the protection of the king and queen of Navarre, and by the royal roof, Roussel preached daily; and thousands listened to the tidings of salvation by grace. It looked as if the gospel had achieved a mighty triumph.
Margaret, encouraged by the success of her plan, wrote to ask the consent of Francis to the opening of the churches in the city. He named two of them in his reply. These churches were filled with hearers, and numbers received the gospel with great joy.
As might have been foreseen, all this called for intense and bitter opposition. Priests and monks and doctors united to inflame the people against the queen and her preachers. For a time, this opposition only fanned the gospel flame, and spread its conquests. But only for a time, as we shall presently see; for other flames were already being kindled.
As Roussel enjoyed the protection of the court, another victim must be found by the doctors. A Dominican friar, Laurent de la Croix, had been wrought upon by the gospel in Paris. He proceeded to Geneva, to be there instructed in the truth by Farel. But, yearning for the salvation of his countrymen, he crossed the frontier, taking the name of Alexander, and went to Lyons. Here he preached with such manifest power that many were called by grace out of darkness into marvelous light. At length he was arrested, and sent to Paris. After enduring much cruel torture, he was sentenced to be burned alive. Though unable to walk to the place of execution, as one leg was crushed, he preached Christ to the people as he was conveyed to his death. The onlookers said, “He is going to be burned; yet no one is so happy as he. Surely there is nothing worthy of death in this man. If he is not saved, who then can be?”
This was the day of France’s visitation. The Gospel came to France, and asked for admission. France said No. The result was its withdrawal. The Divine law is that a willful rejection of the Gospel, with light and privilege, shall be followed by judicial blindness. France has from that day to this reaped the sad harvest according to her own refusal. As with individuals, whatsoever nations sow, so they also must reap.
Calvin was an interested, but a silent, spectator of these stirring events.
Four years of reading, study, prayer, retirement, were needful for the coming conflicts. Invited to meet Margaret at the Louvre, he might have obtained preferment at her hands, when a storm broke suddenly upon Paris and upon Calvin.
The rector or head of the College of the Sorbonne, Nicholas Cop, had come under the influence of the truth; and although yet in much twilight, was advancing to the day. On the “octave of Martinmas,” November 1st, 1533, Cop, as the rector, according to custom, was to give the annual oration.
Calvin perceived herein a favorable opportunity of bringing the truth before the doctors and students of the college. He waited on Cop, and laid this before him; but the doctor felt unequal to the occasion, or was afraid to venture. It was agreed that Calvin should write, and that Cop should read, such an address as should answer the intention. Calvin “framed for him,” says Beza, “an oration very different from what was customary.”
Yes, very different, indeed. A brilliant assembly of students, doctors, and citizens met on the day. Cop rose, and delivered an oration which exalted the grace of God. The merit of human works was roughly handled, and justification by faith prominently taught. The grace of God, in short, was preached as the one fountain of life, pardon, and salvation.
The effect was unmistakable. Many a countenance beamed with delight.
Astonishment, joy, wrath, might be plainly read on the faces of the listeners. Nothing like it had ever before been heard on the festival of La Toussaint.
Suspicion as to the authorship of the oration fell on Calvin. Neither the Parliament nor the Sorbonne could allow it to pass uncensured. Cop was summoned to appear, and was arrested; but, managing to escape, he fled to Basle. Officers were then sent to the College of Fortret, where Calvin was sitting quietly, to arrest him. Warned of their approach, and urged to fly, he escaped, according to some accounts, by being let down, like Paul, from a window. In any case, he escaped; and, as Desmay narrates, he ran to St. Victor, and exchanged clothes with a vine-dresser. His papers were seized and searched, and several of his friends named therein had also to flee.
Turning southward, the Reformer went towards Orleans, thence to Tours; and proceeding further, after wandering for some weeks, reached Angouleme, the birthplace of Margaret of Navarre. Here he bent his steps to the mansion of Louis Du Tillet, a canon of the town, of a noble and wealthy family. This canon had traveled much, and the mansion possessed a library of nearly four thousand volumes, for that day an immensely rich collection.
No one was better fitted or inclined than our fugitive for the repose of this hospitable mansion, or for the enjoyment of this library. He did not fail to drink deeply from its streams. He repaid Du Tillet for his kind reception by teaching him Greek, which certainly meant teaching him the gospel.
According to the Roman Catholic historian, Raemond, it was in this library that Calvin, “in order to entrap Christendom, first wove the web of his Christian Institutes, which we may call the Koran, or rather the Talmud, of heresy.” It is very true, Raemond; and we heartily thank you for this and other honest confessions of yours.
The beloved apostle was banished by the heathen emperor to the Isle of Patmos for his testimony to the truth; and there received from his Lord the letters to the seven churches and the Revelation of God’s purposes to the end of time. Luther, during his detention in the Wartburg, translated the New Testament into German. Rutherford wrote his heavenly letters from Aberdeen. Bunyan wrote his “immortal” works in Bedford jail. And there can be no question that John Calvin spent six months to good purpose among the four thousand volumes in the library of his friend and protector.
The historian Henry says, “it must have been now that he prepared the first sketch of the Institutions.” To which Bayle adds: “Some say that he composed the greater part of his Institutions at Claix, in the house of Louis Du Tillet.” Claix is a village near Angouleme, of which Du Tillet was curate.
Traces of the Reformer’s stay here long existed. A vineyard known as “Calvin’s Vineyard” was so named as late as 1714.
The Institutes will require our attention in a separate chapter.
While at Angouleme, Calvin visited Le Fevre, the veteran preacher, at Nerac. It was Le Fevre who had said to Farel, “My dear Guillaume, God will renew the face of the world, and you will see it.” The meeting of the aged and the young reformers was most touching. Calvin admired the ripeness of the aged saint: Le Fevre was charmed by the promise of the young man. Beza tells us that the veteran took his young brother by the hand, and said “Young man, you will one day be a powerful instrument in the Lord hand. God will make use of you to restore the kingdom of heaven in France.”
After this much needed and much enjoyed rest of six months at Angouleme, the Reformer retraced his steps northward, and went to Poictiers. Here he gathered round him a congregation of willing and thirsty hearers, including the chief magistrate. At first they met for worship in a garden; but afterwards, for greater secrecy and safety, in a cave in the rocks near the river, then known as the “Cave of Benedict,” but from that day to this as “Calvin’s Grotto.” Here he preached, and here the company worshipped. Here also he administered the Lord’s Supper, as is believed for the first time in France, in its Scriptural order, in two kinds, that is, both bread and wine. This requires the explanation that at the Council of Constance, in 1414, it was decreed that no priest, under pain of excommunication, should communicate to the people under both kinds.
The priests were to drink the wine; and the people might partake of the bread.
After a sojourn of two months at Poictiers, Calvin went boldly to Paris by way of Orleans. It was his plan, his intention, his desire, that Paris should be the scene and center of his labors; God’s plan and intention was leading him in another direction. Calvin did not then perceive that Paris had invited and incurred judicial darkness by rejecting the light. It is no cause for wonder to us now that he so desired Paris. Some of us have survived our dearest hopes and sweetest anticipations; and have lived to pluck the fairest flowers from the graves of our stricken joys. The hand that thrice led Calvin out of Paris was guiding him surely to his life-work.