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ONE evening in the month of July, 1536, a carriage from France arrived at Geneva. A man, still young, alighted from it. He was short, thin, and pale; his beard was black and pointed, his organization weak, and his frame somewhat worn by study; but in his high forehead, lively and severe eyes, regular and expressive features, there were indications of a profound spirit, an elevated soul, and an indomitable character. His intention was to ‘pass through Geneva hastily, without stopping more than one night in the city,’ He was accompanied by a man and woman of about the same age. The three travelers belonged to the same family — two brothers and a sister.
The foremost of them, long accustomed to keep himself in the background, desired to pass through Geneva unobserved. He inquired for an inn where he could spend the night: his voice was mild, and his manner attractive.
Scarcely a carriage arrived from France without being surrounded by some of the Genevans, or at least by French refugees; for it might bring new fugitives, obliged to seek a country in which they were free to profess the doctrine of Christ. A young Frenchman, at that time the friend and disciple of the traveler, who had gone to the place where the carriage from France put up, in order to see if it brought anybody whom he knew, recognized the man with the intelligent face, and conducted him to an hotel. The traveler was John Calvin, and his friend was Louis Du Tillet, ex-canon of Angouleme, Calvin’s traveling companion during his Italian journey. From Strasburg, whither he had gone to meet Calvin, he had returned to Geneva, no doubt because he thought that the war between Francis I. and Charles V. would compel his friend to make a bend and pass through Bresse and the Valley of the Leman. This was actually what happened.
Calvin, who had come to Geneva without a plan and even against his will, having sat down with Du Tillet in his room at the hotel, their conversation naturally turned on the city in which they were, and of which the reformer know but little. He learnt, either from his friend or from others subsequently, what he probably knew something about already; namely, that, popery had been driven out of it shortly before; that the zeal, struggles, trials, and evangelical labors of William Farel were incessant; but that affairs were not yet ‘put in order in the city;’ that there were dangerous divisions, and that Farel was contending almost alone for the triumph of the Gospel. Calvin had long respected Farel as the most zealous of evangelists; but it does not appear that they had ever met. Du Tillet could not keep to himself the news of his friend’s arrival, and after leaving Calvin, he called on Master William. ‘After discovering me, he made my coming known to others,’ says Calvin. Farel, who had read the Christian , Institutes , had recognized in the author of that work the most eminent genius, the most scriptural theologian, and the most eloquent writer of the age. The thought that this extraordinary man was in Geneva, and that he could see and hear him, moved and delighted Farel. He went with all haste to the inn and entered into conversation with the youthful theologian. Everything confirmed him in his former opinion. He had long been looking for a servant of God to help him, yet had never thought of Calvin. But now a flash of light shone into his soul, an inward voice said to him: This is the man of God you are seeking. ‘At the very moment when I was thinking least about it,’ he said, ‘the grace of God led me to him.’ From that moment there was no hesitation or delay. ‘Farel, who glowed with a marvelous zeal for promoting the Gospel,’ says Calvin, ‘made every effort to retain me.’ Would he succeed? Seldom has there been a man who, like Calvin, was placed in the influential position he was to occupy all his life, not only without his concurrence but even against his will. ‘Stay with me,’ said Farel, ‘and help me. There is work to be done in this city.’ Calvin replied with astonishment: ‘Excuse me, I cannot stop here more than one night.’ — ‘Why do you seek elsewhere for what is now offered you?’ replied Farel; ‘why refuse to edify the Church of Geneva by your faith, zeal, and knowledge?’ The appeal was fruitless: to undertake so great a task seemed to Calvin impossible. ‘But Farel, inspired by the spirit of a hero,’ says Theodore Beza, ‘would not be discouraged.’ He pointed out to the stranger that as the Reformation had been miraculously established in Geneva, it ought not to be abandoned in a cowardly manner; that if he did not take the part offered to him in this task, the work might probably perish, and he would be the cause of the ruin of the Church. Calvin could not make up his mind; he did not want to bind himself to a particular church; he told his new friend that he preferred traveling in search of knowledge, and making himself useful in the places where he chanced to halt. ‘Look first at the place in which you are now,’ answered Farel; ‘popery has been driven out and traditions abolished, and now the doctrine of the Scriptures must be taught here.’ ‘I cannot teach ,’ exclaimed Calvin; ‘on the contrary, I have need to learn . There are special labors for which I wish to reserve myself. This city cannot afford me the leisure that I require.’
He explained his plan. He wanted to go to Strasburg, to Bucer, and Capito, and then putting himself in communication with the other doctors of Germany, to increase his knowledge by continued study. ‘Study! leisure! knowledge!’ said Farel. ‘What! must we never practice ? I am sinking under my task; pray help me.’ The young doctor had still other reasons. His constitution was weak. ‘The frail state of my health needs rest,’ he said. ‘Rest!’ exclaimed Farel, ‘death alone permits the soldiers of Christ to rest from their labors.’ Calvin certainly did not mean to do nothing. He would labor, but each man labors according to the gift he has received: he would defend the Reformation not by his deeds but by words. The reformer had not yet expressed his whole thought: it was not only the work they asked him to undertake that frightened him, it was also the locality in which he would have to carry it out. He did not feel himself strong enough to bear the combat he would have to engage in. He shrank from appearing before the assemblies of Geneva. The violence, the tumults, the indomitable temper of the Genevese were much talked of, and they intimidated and alarmed him. To this Farel replied, ‘that the severer the disease, the stronger the measures to be employed to cure it.’ The Genevese storm, it is true; they burst out like a squall of wind in a gale; but was that a reason for leaving him, Farel, alone to meet these furious tempests? ‘I entreat you,’ said the intrepid evangelist, ‘to take your share.
These matters are harder than death.’ The burden was too heavy for his shoulders; he wanted the help of a younger man. But the young man of Noyon was surprised that he should be thought of. ‘I am timid and naturally pusillanimous,’ he said. ‘How can I withstand such roaring waves?’ At this Farel could not restrain a feeling of anger and almost of contempt. ‘Ought the servants of Jesus Christ to be so delicate,’ he exclaimed, ‘as to be frightened at warfare?’ This blow touched the young reformer to the heart. He frightened! — he prefer his own ease to the service of the Savior! His conscience was troubled and his feelings were violently agitated. But his great humility still held him back: he had a deep sentiment of his incapacity for the kind of work they wanted him to undertake. ‘I beg of you, in God’s name,’ he exclaimed, ‘to have pity on me! Leave me to serve Him in another way than what you desire.’
Farel, seeing that neither prayers nor exhortations could avail with Calvin, reminded him of a frightful example of disobedience similar to his own. ‘Jonah, also,’ he said, ‘wanted to flee from the presence of the Lord, but the Lord cast him into the sea .’ The struggle in the young doctor’s heart became more keen. He was violently shaken, like an oak assailed by the tempest ; he bent before the blast, and rose up again, but a last gust, more impetuous than all the others, was shortly about to uproot him. The emotion of the elder of the two speakers had gradually increased, in proportion as the young man’s had also increased. Farel’s heart was hot within him. At that supreme moment, feeling as if inspired by the Spirit of God, he raised his hand towards heaven and exclaimed: ‘You are thinking only of your tranquillity, you care for nothing but your studies. Be it so.
In the name of Almighty God, I declare that if you do not answer to His summons, He will not bless your plans.’ Then, perceiving that the critical moment had come, he added an ‘alarming adjuration’ to his declaration: he even ventured on an imprecation. Fixing his eyes of fire on the young man, and placing his hands on the head of his victim, he exclaimed in his voice of thunder: ‘May God curse your repose! may God curse your studies, if in such a great necessity as ours you withdraw and refuse to give us help and support!’
At these words, the young doctor, whom Farel had for some time kept on the rack, trembled. He shook in every limb; he felt that Farel’s words did not proceed from himself: God was there, the holiness of the presence of Jehovah laid strong hold of his mind; he saw Him who is invisible . It appeared to him, he said, ‘that the hand of God was stretched down from heaven, that it lay hold of him, and fixed him irrevocably to the place he was so impatient to leave.’ He could not free himself from that terrible grasp. Like Lot’s wife when she looked back on her tranquil home, he was rooted to his seat, powerless to move. At last he raised his head and peace returned to his soul; he had yielded, he had sacrificed the studies he loved so well, he had laid his Isaac on the altar, he consented to lose his life to save it . His conscience, now convinced, made him surmount every obstacle in order that he might obey. That heart, so faithful and sincere, gave itself, and gave itself for ever. Seeing that what was required of him was God’s pleasure, says Farel, he did violence to himself, adding: ‘And he did more, and that more promptly, than any one else could have done.’
The call of Calvin in Geneva is perhaps, after that of St. Paul, the most remarkable to be found in the history of the Church. It was not miraculous, like that of the Apostle on the road to Damascus; and yet in the chamber of that inn, there was the flash of light and the roar as of thunder; the voice which the Lord made to sound in Calvin’s heart, terrified him, broke down his obstinacy, and prostrated him as if a thunderbolt from heaven had struck him. His heart had been pierced; he had bowed his head with humility, and almost prostrate on the earth he had felt that he could no longer fight against God and kick against the pricks. At the same time confidence in God filled his soul. He knew that He who made him feel those ‘stings’ had a sovereign remedy calculated to heal all his wounds. Has not God said, ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord, and He shall bring it to pass?’ The young man desired no longer to run restive like a fiery courser, but, ‘like a docile steed, permit himself to be guided peaceably by the hand of his Master.’ From that hour the propagation and defense of truth became the sole passion of his life, and to them he consecrated all the powers of his heart.
He had still, after this solemn hour, to undergo, as he says, ‘great anxiety, sorrow, tears, and distress.’ But his resolution was taken. He belonged to himself no longer, but to God. ‘In everything and in every place he would guide himself entirely by his obedience.’ He never forgot the fearful adjuration which Farel had employed. He had not set himself (he thought) in the place he occupied, but had been put there by the arm of the Almighty. Hence, whenever he met with obstacles, he called to mind ‘the hand stretched down from heaven,’ and knowing its sovereign power, he took courage.
The reformer did not, however, stop at Geneva immediately. On leaving France, he had undertaken to accompany one of his relations, named Artois, to Basle. For some days the brethren of Geneva refused to let him go. At last, seeing that Calvin was decided, they confined themselves to extorting from him an engagement to return; after which he started for Basle with his relation. On the road he encountered fresh importunities; the Churches, whom the author of the Christian Institutes saluted on his journey, desired to detain him. Whether these entreaties, on which Calvin had not reckoned before setting out, proceeded from Lausanne, Neuchatel, Berne, or rather from some other and younger Churches, it is hard to say. At last he arrived at Basle, and having finished his business returned to Geneva, probably in the latter half of the month of August.
When Calvin recovered from his indisposition, he at once set about the work for which he had been detained. As he would have a crowd of hearers — men and women, old and young, Genevese and strangers — the cathedral of St. Pierre was assigned him. It was in that vast building, where the mass had been so often sung, that Calvin was about to inaugurate the reign of Holy Scripture. The gates of St. Pierre’s opened; the frail and humble, but powerful preacher entered the Gothic portal; a numerous crowd made their way with him into the nave, whose majestic grandeur seemed to harmonize so well with the new teaching that was about to be heard in it; and soon his voice resounded under those time-honored arches.
Calvin, coming after Luther and Farel, was called to complete the work of both. The mighty Luther, to whom will always belong the first place in the work of the Reformation, had uttered the words of faith with power; Calvin was to systematize them, and show the imposing unity of the evangelical doctrine. The impetuous Farel, the most active missionary of the epoch, had detached men from Romish errors, and had united many to Christ, but without combining them; Calvin was to reunite these scattered members and constitute the assembly. Possessed of an organizing genius, he accomplished the task which God had assigned him: he undertook to form a church placed under the direction of the Word of God and the discipline of the Holy Ghost. In his opinion, this ought to be — not, as at Rome, the hierarchical institution of a legal religion; nor, as with the mystics, a vague ideal; nor, as with the rationalists, an intellectual and moral society without religious life. It is said of the Word, which was God, and which was made flesh: In Him was life . Life must, therefore, be the essential characteristic of the people that it was to form. Spiritual powers must — so Calvin thought — act in the midst of the flock of Jesus Christ.
And this was not a mere theory: Calvin must see it put into action. Not content with the reformation of the faith, he will combat that decline of morality which has for so long filled courts, cities, and monasteries with disorder. He will call for the conversion of the heart and holiness of life; he will interdict luxury, drunkenness, blasphemy, impurity, masquerades, and gambling, which the Roman Church had tolerated.
He conceded to man, to the magistrate, too great a share in the correction of morals and doctrine: in the sixteenth century the intervention of the State in the discipline of the Church disturbed the only truly salutary action of the Word of God. Calvin cleansed with pure water the gold and silver of the tabernacle, but left on it one spot — the employment of the civil arm. We must not, however, accuse him more than justice permits. He had to suffer from this action of the temporal power much more than he employed it. Since 1532 the Genevese government had set itself in the place of the bishop. We have seen its orders to preach the Gospel without any admixture of human doctrines. A little later it organized the grand disputation, demanded by Bernard, and presided over it as judge. Did it not even go so far as to remove from the people of Thiez the excommunication pronounced by the bishop? Elsewhere we have described how in the Swiss cantons, and especially at Zurich and Berne, the magistrates did the same. The intervention of temporal authority proceeded from the temporal power. The Council of Geneva had no intention of permitting a strange minister, a young man of Noyon, to deprive them of prerogatives to which they clung strongly. They claimed the right to regulate almost everything by their decrees — from the highest things, the profession of faith, the regulation of worship, and the government of the church, down to women’s dress. Calvin often protested against those pretensions, and on this point his whole life was one long struggle. Far from blaming the reformer for certain regulations he was obliged to permit, we should praise him for the firmness with which he maintained, more than any other teacher of the sixteenth century, the great principles of the distinction between what is temporal and what is spiritual. But he contributed still more forcibly by his direct teaching to scatter the seeds of a true and wise liberty among the new generations. Doubtless the sources of modern civilization are manifold. Many men of different vocations and genius have labored at this great work; but it is just to acknowledge the place that Calvin occupies among them. The purity and force of his morality were the most powerful means of liberating men and nations from the abuses which had been everywhere introduced, and from the despotic vexations under which they groaned. A nation weak in its morals is easily enslaved. But he did more. How great the truths, how important the principles that Calvin has proclaimed! He fearlessly attacked the papacy, by which all liberty is oppressed , and which during so many centuries had kept the human mind in bondage; and broke the chains which everywhere fettered the thoughts of man. He boldly asserted ‘that there is a very manifest distinction between the spiritual and the political or civil governments.’ He did more than this: the aim of his whole life was to restore the supremacy of conscience. He endeavored to re-establish the kingdom of God in man, and succeeded in doing so not only with men of genius, but with a great number of obscure persons.
These were the men who, resolving to obey God above all things, were able to resist the instruments of the pope, the Valois, Philip II., Alva, and their imitators. While maintaining their liberty as regards faith, those noble disciples of the Gospel men such as Knox, Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde, and a multitude of other Christian heroes — learnt to maintain it in earthly matters. Such was the principal gate by which the different liberties have entered the world.
Calvin did not confine himself to theories: he pronounced frankly against the despotism of kings and the despotism of the people. He declared that ‘if princes usurp any portion of God ’s authority , we must not obey them;’ and that if the people indulge in acts of mad violence, we should rather perish than submit to them. ‘God has not armed you,’ he said, ‘that you may resist those who are set over you by Him as governors. You cannot expect He will protect you, if you undertake what He disavows.’ Nevertheless Calvin taught men to love such eternal blessings, and said that it was better to die than to be deprived of them. ‘God ’s honor ,’ he declared, ‘is more precious than your life .’ And from that hour we see those in the Netherlands and elsewhere, who had learnt at Geneva to maintain freedom of conscience, acquiring such a love for liberty that they claimed it also for the State, sought it for themselves, and endeavored to give it to others. Religious liberty has been, and is still, the mother of every kind of liberty; but in our days we witness a strange sight. Many of those who owe their emancipation in great part to Calvin, have lost all recollection of it, and some of them insult the noble champion who made them free.
Still, the establishment of temporal liberty was not the reformer’s object: it flows only from his principles, as water from a spring. To proclaim the salvation of God, to establish the right of God — these are the things to which he devoted his life, and that work he pursued with unalterable firmness. He knows the resistance that men will oppose to him: but that shall not check his march. He will batter down ramparts, bridge over chasms, and unflinchingly trample under foot the barriers which he knows are opposed to the glory of God and the welfare of man. Calvin has a correct, penetrating, and sure eye, and his glance takes in a wide horizon.
He resists not only the chief enemy, popery, but generously opposes those who seem to be on his side and pretend to support him: there is no acceptance of persons with him. He discerns manifold and grave errors hidden under the cloak of reform — errors which would destroy from its foundation the edifice to whose building, those who teach them, pretend to give their help. Whilst many allow themselves to be surprised, he discovers the small cloud rising from the sea; he sees the skies are about to be darkened and filled with storms, thunder, and rain. At the sight of these tempests he neither bends nor hides his head: on the contrary, he raises it boldly. ‘We are called,’ he says, ‘to difficult battles; but far from being astonished and growing timid, we take courage, and commit our own body to the deadly struggle.’
That man had occasioned astonishment at first by his youthful air and the weakness of his constitution; but he had no sooner spoken than he rose in the eyes of all who heard him. He grew taller and taller, he towered above their heads. Every man presaged in him one of those mighty intelligences which carry nations with them, gain battles, found empires, discover worlds, reform religion, and transform society.
Calvin teaches in Geneva, he writes to those far beyond its walls. And ere long we see something new forming in the world. A great work had been commenced by the heroic Luther, who had a successor worthy of him to complete it. Calvin gives to the Reformation what the pope affirms it does not possess. There is a noise and a shaking, and the dry bones meet together. The breath comes from the four winds, the dead live and stand upon their feet, an exceeding great army. The Church of Christ has reappeared upon earth. From the bosom of that little city goes forth the word of life. France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Scotland, and other countries hear it. A century later, that same word, borne by pious refugees or faithful missionaries, shall become the glory and strength of the New World. Later still, it shall visit the most distant isles and continents; it shall fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord, and shall gather together more and more the dispersed families of the world round the cross of Christ in a holy and living unity.
On the 5th of September, 1536, the Council of Geneva ordered these words to be written in their public registers: ‘Master William Farel explains that the lecture which that Frenchman had begun at St. Pierre’s was necessary; wherefore he prayed that they would consider about retaining him and providing for his support. Upon which it was resolved to provide for his maintenance.’
On the 15th of February, 1537, they gave six crowns of the sun, and afterwards a cloth coat, to ‘that Frenchman’ recently arrived, and whose name it would seem they did not know. Such are the modest notices of the young man in the public records of the city which received him. In a few years that name was sounded all over the world; and in our time a celebrated historian — impartial in the question, as he does not belong to the churches of the Reformation — has said: ‘In order that French protestantism [we might say “protestantism” in general] should have a character and doctrine, it needed a city to serve as a center, and a chief to become its organizer. That city was Geneva , and that chief was Calvin .”