The Magisterial Reformation: Part 7

  1. Farel and The Reformation is western Switzerland: Bern, Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva.
  2. The imposition of a religion on a reluctant people.

Having looked at the Reformation in Germany under Luther, we are now going to return to follow the progress of the Reformation in Switzerland. We had previously looked at the birth of the Reformation in the city of Zürich under Zwingli, and how Basle also became Reformed. Now we are going to see how it spread to other major cities and regions in the west of Switzerland, which will include the city of Geneva, where the reformer John Calvin was to lead the church.

It would be good to remind ourselves that at this time the Swiss regions, or Cantons, had formed themselves into a confederation which had its own independence within the Holy Roman Empire. This was a crucial factor, in that it gave the Swiss regions the freedom to choose which religion to follow without the threat of military action from the Pope or the Emperor.


The next significant city to adopt the Reformation was Bern, which is the capital city of Switzerland today, and which was a major centre of influence at the time of the Reformation.

As in Zürich, in the early 1520s, the Reformation had its followers in Bern who applied pressure for change. However, it would take a number of years for the city council to turn Bern completely to the Reformed faith.

In Chapter 5, we considered the role that iconoclasm – and the violence that attended it – played in securing the Reformation in Basle. Although Basle went over to the Reformed faith after Bern, I indicated that what happened there represented a pattern that was followed in all the cities of Switzerland that made this switch to the Reformed religion.

In the history of the Reformation, we are not following the growth and spread of a movement that gained influence through the evangelistic preaching of the Gospel that saw of multiple thousands of people turning to the Lord in life-changing repentance, as, for example, was the case through the labours of George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers. There are no historical accounts or records that I have come across that give witness to any such evangelistic activities among the Protestant Reformers. The reformers did not engage in what we would call evangelism, since essentially they viewed their cities and communities as a part of Christendom. It was far more a matter of the zealous dedication of a group of well-educated humanist reformers, who by stirring up the latent anti-Catholic feelings of many in their communities, managed to persuade the civic authorities to adopt and impose the Reformed religion on all the citizens in those communities. So, their endeavours were geared to get a change of religion – from Catholic to Reformed – by a decision of the civil government. (See Bruce Gordon, The Swiss Reformation, p. 348.)

So, their method of turning a city and its surrounding territory to the Reformed faith was to target the city councils, that is, the power brokers. This was achieved by gaining positions in churches, and then through their preaching they would stir up anti-Catholic feeling in the community by inveighing against Catholic superstitious practices and teachings. Capitalising on the ensuing groundswell of public opinion against Catholicism, the reformers would then request a ‘public disputation’ overseen by the city council. In the debate, they would seek – in most cases effectively – to reveal that any number of Catholic teachings were not biblical. Once enough members on the council were persuaded, their vote imposed the new faith on every citizen, whether they lived in the city or the countryside.

In Bern, there were three ministers who were propagating Reformed teaching, and in addition to them, there was also a gifted layman, Nicholas Manuel, who created anti-Catholic satirical dramas. In his outdoor plays he mercilessly mocked the papacy and the immoral and self-indulgent life-styles of the Catholic clergy. His plays were very popular and drew large crowds. So, by this very public exposure of Catholic abuses, a foundation of anti-Catholic feeling was being laid among the citizens of Bern, as well as from the teaching of the reformers.

As a consequence of the growing voice in favour of the Reformation, the city council of Bern made some changes to religious practices as a concession to the reformers. In 1525, Bern abolished indulgences, seized some land from the Catholic Church and removed certain clerical privileges. Moreover, no one was any longer forced to go on pilgrimages, confess, or believe in purgatory.

However, it was not all plain sailing for the reformers. They had to deal with backlashes, not only against their teachings, but against themselves as well, with one of the three reformers, called Haller, wanting to quit at one stage because of the pressure he was under.

Moreover, due to the peasants’ war in Germany, which caused some alarm throughout Europe, the Reformed movement stalled for a while and even suffered a reversal in Bern, with the council reversing earlier decisions it had made in favour of the Protestant Reformers. Now, we can see from this that the so-called success of the Reformation in Bern would not depend on multitudes being converted through Gospel preaching, but by winning the religious seesaw debates that were going on in the city councils of Bern – and this happened in 1528.

The Reformed group steadily gained strength again, and by 1527 it had a majority in the two governing councils of the city, and, as was the custom, this led to a demand for a ‘Public Disputation’ to decide which form of religion Bern should follow. So a Disputation was held in January 1528 (between 6th and 26th). 250 theologians gathered, with Zurich sending about one hundred ministers and laymen. The reformers were far better prepared than the Catholics, and had some notable figures, such as Zwingli himself, as well as others (Oecolampadius, Bucer, Capito and William Farel). Thus, by a majority vote in its favour, the civic authorities ruled that the Reformation Faith would be adopted – not to say, imposed – on all churches in Bern.

So the new Reformed order of service was imposed on all pastors, and the Bernese Council ordered the abolition of the mass, and declared that Catholic bishops no longer had authority in Bern. Following these decisions, anti-Catholic feeling led to violent mob-led iconoclasm. Paintings and statues representing the Catholic faith were thrown out and destroyed. The Catholic clerics and their flocks could not practice or give expression to their religion any longer in Bern. We must also realise that political considerations play a part in the council’s decision as well as religious ones. A vote for the Reformation was, for many, simply a vote against Catholic rule.

As it had been from the days of the Emperor Constantine, so it is here – the secular power oversees a so-called disputation between Christian factions. However, in Switzerland it was not an emperor, or a prince, or Catholic clerics that held the power, but the city councils, the magistrates – and it is they who needed persuading – because it is they who would decide which form of religion would be imposed on all its citizens. And it was by this process of persuading the city and town councils that the Reformation took hold in Switzerland. Other writers on the Swiss Reformation have called this process a ‘top-down’ Reformation. It is an apt and accurate description of what happened. It was the imposition of one religious dogma on all the citizens from the ‘top’ – from the government of the respective region.

The reformers had the same mindset and outlook as the Roman Catholics had had for over a thousand years, that is, they allowed no toleration of any other form of Christianity in their regions, but imposed their own dogma and persecuted, mostly mercilessly, all religious non-conformists.

Bern then applied these decisions to the regions under its jurisdiction, with the council turning its attention to enforcing the Reformation in the rural parishes, many of which were located close to Catholic territory and which were reluctant to adopt the changes. Bern allowed the men of each parish to vote for the creed that they wished to prevail in their village or local church. However, once the vote went in favour of the Reformed camp, the churches would immediately be purged of Catholic symbols and the Mass banned completely in that area. Again, it was a change by vote, not through conversions among the citizens. But changing people’s religion by a vote in the council was not going to carry everyone with it, to say the least!

In the autumn of 1528, war broke out between Bern and some of the villages in the Bernese Highlands (Oberland), where people were protesting against the enforced changes. Nearly one thousand peasants from the highlands massed together to march on the capital Bern. However, by military force and the use of firearms Reformed Bern put down the rebellion of the Catholic villagers, thus imposing the Protestant religion on the rural and alpine villages under its jurisdiction. And ultimately, it would do this right across the French-speaking regions of western Switzerland.

Protestant historians describe such ‘victories’ as ‘the success of the Gospel’ in a region, and hail it as ‘light’ shining, where ‘darkness’ had previously reigned. This is a myth, a delusion. You cannot convert people with firearms and swords.

At this stage, it would be good to remind ourselves of one of the main factors that helped bring in the Reformation, and that was the state of the Catholic Church and its clerics. They imposed financial burdens on people, abused their power, exploited people’s ignorance, lived in luxury while people suffered, and many of the clerics lived totally immoral and self-indulgent lives whereby they also manifestly neglected to care for their flocks.

So, the Catholic Church was an easy target for the mockery of satirical dramas in the streets of Bern, and the anti-Catholic campaign of the reformers found a ready audience among its listeners. Quite a number of people found it convenient just to be freed from Catholic superstitions and abuses, and were thus ready to receive the Reformation message – but we must not confuse this adoption of the Reformed religion with personal conversion brought about by the Gospel. If I may state it again, in all the biographies and histories of the Reformation that I have read, it is nowhere recorded that through the teaching of the reformers communities were changed by a conviction of personal sin and the consequent personal repentance of the citizens leading to radically changed lives. The only records of this type of repentance and conversion are to be found among the Anabaptists.

As we have seen, the mandate requiring Bern to adopt the Reformation led to the violent destruction of images and statues in the Catholic churches. This is hardly a sign of people being freshly and genuinely converted and rejoicing in Christ their Saviour! It is more akin to religious fanaticism of the unchanged Christianised community. This is the kind of thing one sees in populist political or revolutionary movements, not in revivals.

We have already seen how Bern’s adoption of the Reformation provided significant impetus to its introduction to Basle. However, the events in Bern had a decisive effect on the spread of the Reformation, not to say the imposition of the Reformation, on the French-speaking regions of Switzerland to the south-west of Bern. This area encompasses the region known as the Vaud (Pays de Vaud) and the cities of Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva. Geneva is, of course, the city where John Calvin served as chief pastor, and it is enlightening to see in what context Geneva adopted the Reformed faith.

The history of this French-speaking region is somewhat complex, so I will try to keep to the basics that are relevant to this study. The first thing to say is that this region was generally strongly and deeply Catholic, particularly in the more rural and mountainous regions. However, it was also an area that had sought independence from the neighbouring Catholic Duchy of Savoy. This was a crucial factor in this region going over to the Reformed religion. There was mounting tension and conflict over a number of years between the Duchy of Savoy and the French-speaking region of western Switzerland, the Pays de Vaud.

As a result of this, and to guard against domination by the Duchy of Savoy, in 1519 Geneva and Lausanne signed treaties of mutual assistance with Bern, along with the city of Fribourg. The treaties and this link to Bern preceded the tensions that arose later regarding the Reformation, and did not have a religious aspect to them. The treaties stipulated that Bern and Fribourg would protect Lausanne and Geneva from outside attack. In 1526 Bern, Fribourg and Geneva renewed their alliance, which was entirely political in nature and made to secure Geneva’s independence. The neighbouring Duke of Savoy – against whom these treaties were targeted – did not take kindly to this alliance and created an economic blockade of Geneva. Eventually, this brought Bern – which by then had become ‘Reformed’ – into the conflict, and Bern’s army marched across the Vaud region and ‘liberated’ Geneva in 1530, in which year another treaty of alliance was signed, called the Treaty of Saint Julien.

What is of importance here to emphasise is that this French-speaking region was deeply Catholic – in the 1520s it actually passed measures to outlaw Reformed and Lutheran teachings in its regions. However, it was also jealous of its own independence from the Duchy of Savoy and from the associated Catholic bishops. But the French-speaking regions were now reliant on Protestant Bern for their independence, and Bern over-rode its attempts to ban Protestant teaching in its cities and regions.  So what was happening is that religion got enmeshed with the geo-politics of the situation. Bern’s guarantee of security, in effect, started to become conditional on the French-speaking territories allowing Reformed preaching within its areas, including Geneva and Lausanne. Eventually, Bern went further by applying huge pressure on the Vaud to ensure that the Reformed doctrine would be accepted as the religion in these territories. (See in particular, Blakeley, James Joseph, Popular Responses to the “Reformation from Without” in the Pays de Vaud, University of Arizona.

Moreover, as we have previously seen, the other factor that allowed the Reformation inroads into this region was the conduct and lifestyle of the Catholic clerics. This disaffection for the worldly ways of the Catholic clerics could be, and was exploited by the reformers to bring people over to Protestant teaching. And as I have just noted, the security that Bern provided to these French-speaking regions gave Bern decisive authority over them. This would be a crucial element in the ‘success’ of the Reformation in these areas. In fact, as Bern fully turned to the Reformed faith, Geneva broke of its alliance with Catholic Fribourg (which was part of the alliance with Bern) in order to maintain support from Bern and its army.


So, how did the Reformation spread in the Pays de Vaud, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland?

The person we now have to introduce is a person called Guillaume or William Farel. He is well known as the Reformer who introduced Calvin to Geneva, but he was also an extremely significant figure in spreading the Reformation in these regions. Farel had been engaged by the Bernese authorities to spread the Reformed faith in the French-speaking territories of the Vaud under their control. Like so many other Reformers, he was a student of the famous Jacques le Fèvre d’Étaples, the Catholic Renaissance humanist.

How was Farel able to teach the Reformed faith in these deeply Catholic regions of western Switzerland? The one factor that stopped him being thrown out of the French-speaking Vaud region very early on was the fact that Bern had over-ruling authority in these regions as defender of their independence. Bern had issued mandates in favour of the Reformation to dampen unrest in Bern itself between the Protestants and Catholics, but they were also applied within the French-speaking regions, and they enabled reformed preachers like Farel to preach legally in Catholic pulpits, despite the violent protests against him.

Farel was a fiery, confrontational and charismatic figure, who was advised and warned by his own co-reformers to moderate both his language and behaviour. In the town of Montbeliard, Farel came across a procession on the day of the feast of Saint Anthony. Angered by this superstition, he boldly advanced and rebuked the people for their idolatry. Then he suddenly seized the image of their Saint from the arms of the priest, and tossed it over the bridge into the river. While the procession stood stunned and horrified at such ‘sacrilege’, he made his quick escape before they could grab him and throw him into the river! (Willian Maxwell Blackburn, William Farel And The  Story Of The Swiss Reform, p. 104). This incident highlights how the focus of the reformers’ preaching and actions were anti-Catholic rather than evangelical.

Farel had quite a turbulent time in these French-speaking regions. He went to towns and villages where he would preach, either in the open air or in churches, but always pouring out invective against the Catholic mass, idolatry and the priests. He would even interrupt Catholic Church services, climb the pulpit, take over the service and start preaching against Catholic abuses, idolatry and superstitions.

He would spend longer or shorter times in an area, depending on his reception! He was often met with violent reactions from among the Catholics, who would rush upon him, beat and club him. He suffered quite a few bad injuries during these years, and at times his life was in danger. The local Catholic authorities would complain to Bern about Farel’s activities. But each time the citizens of these regions were reminded that the area was under Bern’s supervision and mandates, and that Farel was not to be hindered in his preaching. In other words, to a very great extent, Farel had been foisted on Catholic communities by the authority of Bern. In some cases, the locals refused to attend the Protestant preaching or went to Mass in nearby Catholic villages. Those who opposed the Bernese mandates, could find themselves before the court. When Farel met with resistance, Bern would send officials to ensure that he was listened to in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, when they could, parts of the Catholic community would cause him to abandon his preaching in churches by shouting and yelling him down, by ringing the bells or by beating drums – all of which they did! It was confusion and chaos.

One of the towns Farel visited was Morat. He managed to get a following there in the wake of his preaching, but initially the official public vote favoured Catholicism. This was regarded as a ‘defeat’. Nevertheless, he made repeated visits there, and in the end, the vote went his way and Morat converted to the Reformed faith. At every step, we see that the reformers’ aim and primary interest was to change the official religion of an area – this was regarded as a ‘success’ and represented ‘bringing the Gospel’ to the area. The setting up of groups of churches who met in homes, and which consisted of converts who had recently turned to Christ for salvation, was something that did not happen, nor did it belong to their world view, nor their religious understanding, which was deeply entrenched in the notion of Christendom.

During this time (1529) Farel made a foray into Lausanne, inveighing against Catholicism, but he was driven out by the clerics. However, he soon afterwards returned, bearing a letter from the Bernese authorities:

“He was at first driven away by the bishop and the clergy, but soon reappeared provided with a letter from the lords of Berne. ‘We send him to you,’ said their excellencies to the authorities of the city, ‘to defend his own cause and ours. Allow him to preach the Word of God, and beware that you touch not a hair of his head.’” (D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV, Ch. 6)

Thus were the Lausanne authorities forced to allow Farel the freedom to preach and to stir up people against the Catholic faith.


In Neuchatel, Farel used a different strategy to provoke direct confrontation and to stir things up. He and his associates posted placards in the streets that read, “All those who say mass are robbers, murderers, and seducers of the people.” Again, this does not represent evangelism, nor is it evangelical in its approach. This is just religious sectarianism that engenders animosity and hostility, and it had its desired effect:

“The canons summoned their people, called together the clerks, and marching at the head of a large troop, armed with swords and clubs, descended into the town, tore down the sacrilegious placards.” (Ibid.)

Farel was hauled before the authorities there, but again, no measures were taken against him, since behind him lay the forces of Bern. On a subsequent visit to Neuchatel, he was preaching outside when the crowd shouted out that he should be allowed to preach in church. D’Aubigne relates:

“‘Why, should not the Word of God be proclaimed in a church?’ The company of people then bore him along and ushered him into the Hospital Chapel, and placed him in the pulpit. However, seeing the symbols of Catholic superstition all over the Chapel proved too much for Farel, and he ‘laid his hands on these objects of idolatry, removed them, and broke them in pieces.’” (Ibid. Italics mine.)

In my reading of the Acts of the Apostles, I do not come across such violent actions by those sent by the Lord Jesus to preach the Gospel.

Exasperated, the Catholic authorities requested that Bern send deputies to oversee and resolve matters. However, as was to be expected, the Bernese delegation supported the Reformed faction in Neuchatel, who then demanded that the Catholic mass be abolished, but the Catholics would neither give in nor discuss the matter. There was an uneasy stalemate at this time. However, Farel was again preaching at the hospital chapel and declared to the people listening:

“‘What then, will you not pay as much honor to the Gospel as the other party does to the mass?…And if this superstitious act is celebrated in the high church, shall not the Gospel be proclaimed there also?’ At these words all his hearers arose. ‘To the church!’ cried they; ‘to the church!’” (Ibid, Ch. 7)

The people needed little encouragement. With these words, they bore Farel along and forced their way into the Cathedral itself. The Catholic contingent tried physically to prevent Farel from entering the pulpit, but they are overwhelmed by the Reformed faction, who placed Farel in the pulpit unharmed.

D’Aubigne writes: “Immediately all is calm within the church and without; even the adversaries are silent, and Farel delivers ‘one of the most effective sermons he had hitherto preached.’ Their eyes are opened; their emotion increases; their hearts are melted; the most obstinate appear converted; and from every part of the old church these cries resound: ‘We will follow the evangelical religion, both we and our children, and in it will we live and die.’” (Ibid.)

D’Aubigne states that Farel delivered one of his ‘most effective sermons’ on this occasion, and that even the most hardened were ‘converted’, or better said, appeared converted. But what was the result of such a ‘melting of hearts’; what change of heart did it actually create in them? D’Aubigne continues with the narrative:

“Suddenly a whirlwind, as it were, sweeps over this multitude, and stirs it up like a vast sea. Farel’s hearers desire to imitate the pious King Josiah.” (Ibid.)

We see the same features throughout this study; the same religious worldview. It is Christendom from beginning to end. These stirred-up people, these enraged people, now set about like a violent mob to destroy the images and statues inside the church, believing they are acting as God’s people did in the Old Covenant by physically destroying the idols of Catholic superstitions. However, this does not represent ‘holy zeal’, but religious sectarianism.

The narration continues with the people declaring: “‘If we take away these idols from before our eyes, will it not be aiding us,’ said they, ‘in taking them from our own hearts? Once these idols are broken, how many souls among our fellow-citizens, now disturbed and hesitating, will be decided by this striking manifestation of the truth! We must save them as it were by fire.’” (Ibid.)

The people believe that doing away with the outward symbols of superstition will remove the superstition itself from their hearts.  

“This latter motive decided them, and then began a scene that filled the Romanists with horror, and which must, according to them, bring down the terrible judgment of God on the city…the people of Neufchatel were in commotion. The governor, whose castle adjoined the church, was compelled to remain an idle spectator of the excesses that he could not prevent; he was content to leave us a description of them. ‘These daring fellows,’ says he, ‘seize mattocks, hatchets, and hammers, and thus march against the images of the saints.’ They advance – they strike the statues and the altars — they dash them to pieces. The figures carved in the fourteenth century by the ‘imagers’ of Count Louis are not spared; The townspeople collect all these fragments of an idolatrous worship; they carry them out of the church, and throw them from the top of the rock… They tear out the eyes in the pictures of the saints, and cut off their noses. The crucifix itself is thrown down….’” (Ibid.)

But things do not end there: “The reformed went still further: they seized the patens in which lay the corpus Domini, and flung them from the top of the rock into the torrent; after which, being desirous of showing that the consecrated wafers are mere bread, and not God himself, they distributed them one to another and ate them…At this sight the canons and chaplains could no longer remain quiet. A cry of horror was heard; they ran up with their adherents, and opposed force to force. At length began the struggle that had been so much dreaded.” (Ibid.)

The two opposing camps then came to blows, and leading council members called on the Reformed camp to appear before the governor, but this was rejected out of hand, and things only settled down after the people had seen their destructive desire fulfilled on the images in the church. After this, the Catholics pressed for an official vote of its citizens on the issue of the Catholic mass, but this was resisted by the Reformed camp, who wanted the presence of Bernese officials to oversee such a vote. As this stalemate risked to erupt in more violence, the Catholic authorities called for the presence of Bernese officials.

But of course, as the Reformed camp anticipated, the presence of these officials worked in their favour. The Bernese warned the governor of Neuchatel with the following words:

“‘Their Excellencies of Berne,’ said they to the governor, ‘are much astonished that you should oppose the true and pure Word of God. Desist immediately, or else your state and lordship may suffer for it.’”  (Ibid, Ch. 8)

The Catholic authorities were then, against their wishes, compelled to hold a vote. They had wanted the vote to be held without duress and without this haste. They felt that if there had been time to address the community without this outside presence, they could have swayed the people in their favour. As it was, the result was a vote in favour of the Reformed religion, with a majority of 18 votes.

This is how the Reformation spread and won its ‘victories’ in the West of Switzerland. This is supposed to represent the triumph of the Gospel in these lands. It was nothing of the sort. Given the nature of this ‘conversion’ to the Protestant faith, it is no wonder that stiff resistance continued to be given by the Catholic faithful in these regions, particularly in the more rural and mountainous areas.

The historian Bruce Gordon sums things up with the following words, “Farel’s activities enjoyed the protection of Bern and its considerable military force. The Bernese encouraged his campaign of violence by turning a blind eye to destructive and illegal acts…Farel and his fellow ministers engaged in covert acts of iconoclasm in which Catholic churches were attacked, often in the dead of night, and images desecrated…In the French-speaking lands it was a pitched battle between a small but fanatical number of reformers and a resolutely Catholic population largely resistant to their charms.” (Gordan, Bruce, Calvin, Yale University Press, 2009. p. 66).

This is the kind of hatred-inducing religious sectarianism and factionalism that has lasted down today in certain places, where Protestant is pitched against Catholic. This is part of the fruit of the Reformation. But to continue with our story.

Farel was experiencing some limited success, but things changed when Bern was given the opportunity to invade the French-speaking regions of the Pays de Vaud in western Switzerland. Despite the peace treaty that had been agreed, the Duke of Savoy was now troubling Geneva again. After the Duke refused to negotiate peacefully, Bern’s armies invaded the Pays de Vaud in January 1536 to secure this region from the Duke, and easily overcame the little resistance that his troops offered. The political allegiance of this region with its cities, towns and villages had now to switch to Bern, which meant that the French-speaking region of the Pays de Vaud came under the jurisdiction of Protestant Bern. To all intents and purposes, these regions of western Switzerland had become the possession of Bern. Although Bern promised that no locality would be forced to adopt the Reformed faith, the reluctance and resistance of the people to the new religion was such that eventually Bern twisted their arm to make them accept the Protestant faith in their towns and cities.


After its military conquest of the Vaud in 1536, the Bernese focussed their attention on winning over the city of Lausanne to the Reformation. Lausanne was an important administrative centre in the region and would be useful in imposing the Reformed religion on the surrounding areas if it could be won over.

Bruce Gordon writes: “The imposition of the reformed faith began in the summer of 1536…To provide a sense of legitimacy, the Bernese magistrates employed a tactic often used in the Swiss reformation: they summoned a disputation…It was to be held in Lausanne in October and 10 points of reformed teaching provided the basis of the debate. This was not an open exchange of views: the outcome was already determined as the Bernese authorities intended to persuade the reluctant Vaudois to accept the new faith…The foregone conclusion was declared: the mass was to be abolished in the Vaud and by 19th October a first Reformation edict required the removal of altars, images and liturgical instruments. (Ibid, p. 67).

Gordon is among several historians of the Swiss Reformation who make the same point, namely, that the Disputations were simply a strategy, a vehicle that was employed which would ensure the ‘acceptance’, or better said, the imposition of the Reformed religion in a given city or territory.

James Blakeley, in his dissertation on the Reformation in the west of Switzerland (the Vaud), makes the same point: “Cities commonly held disputations before enacting the Reformation. This device was a ritual of persuasion. We can also see in retrospect that it was a rite of self-justification for those who favored the Reformation. There was no doubt that the reformed side would win; but the process of arguing and debating in front of an audience of Catholics and Evangelicals gave the procedure the appearance of fairness. It was no different in Lausanne.” (N1)

It is generally recognised that the towns and villages of the Pays de Vaud were made to accept the Reformation under duress from Protestant Bern. However, despite the official imposition of the Reformed religion, in many places people still continued with Catholic services and traditions. In general, the French-speaking regions valued being independent of the Duke of Savoy, but they were not keen on having a new religion being imposed on them. Thus, resentment, resistance and tensions remained throughout the French-speaking regions.

To finish this section and to prepare us for our consideration of Calvin’s activity and rule in Geneva, we need to look at the background of how Reformed teaching gained its foothold in the city of Geneva.


In October 1532, Farel called in at Geneva, where a reform-minded associate named Olivetan was there to receive them.

Farel found a few sympathizers in Geneva (including Ami Perrin, who was an ardent supporter of the reformers at that time, but later became an active opponent of Calvin), but the presence of the reformers caused such a commotion among the population that Farel was ordered to leave by the city authorities. However, when he showed his credentials from Bern, the council had second thoughts about how they should treat him. In the event, Farel was hauled before the Catholic episcopal council in Geneva where he was verbally abused and insulted by the Catholic clerics. His reaction was interesting. In his reply to the Catholic clerics, he said, Elijah said to King Ahab, ‘It is thou, and not I, who disturbest Israel.’ So I say, it is you and yours, who trouble the world by your traditions, your human inventions and your dissolute lives.” (Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation. § 61)

In these words, we again detect that Farel does not view the Genevan citizens as those who need salvation through the preaching of the Gospel. For him, the Christianised community of Geneva are viewed as God’s people who were being deceived by the idolatrous Catholics. Farel saw himself more in the role of an Old Testament prophet inveighing against the sins of God’s people, not as a New Testament evangelist. As we have seen, it was a fundamental flaw in the thinking of virtually all the reformers; and it was a reflection on their own spiritual condition, which could not discern that a Christianised ‘heathen’ was still a ‘heathen’ who needed to be converted by the Gospel.

The Catholic clerics, however, created such a tumult against Farel that he was physically jostled, beaten and bruised, and ordered to leave Geneva within 3 hours. Farel hurriedly got to a boat and crossed the lake to escape their fury.

The next year, in 1533, the Bernese authorities sent an official letter to Geneva:

“We are surprised that in your city the faith in Jesus Christ, and those who seek it, are so greatly molested…You will not suffer the word of God to be freely proclaimed, and you banish those who preach it.” (N2)

Here the political and military muscle of Bern was being flexed to put religious pressure on Geneva. This put the Genevan civil authorities in a quandary as they are caught between the protests of the Catholic camp together with the threatenings of the Duke of Savoy on the one hand, and on the other, by pressure from Protestant Bern, who were the guardians of their independence. 

Nevertheless, the Catholics continued to preach against the Reformed faith in Geneva. A Dominican scholar called, Guy Furbity, lead the attack with some vehemence against the reformers and their teachings, and on Jan. 1, 1534, the bishop forbade all preaching without his permission. So a deputation then came from Bern, which included Farel and two other reformers (Viret and Froment). Bern demanded  – no surprises here – that a disputation be held where the reformers were to be heard and where Furbity was called to defend his attacks on Farel and his preaching of the ‘Gospel’, otherwise Furbity would face imprisonment. Huge political pressure, not to say, blackmail, was exerted on Geneva by Protestant Bern. The latter were going to ensure the spread of the Reformed religion, no matter what.

Blackburn continues the story:

“‘You must arrest Furbity and bring him to trial for insulting us,’ said the Bernese, ‘and he must prove from Scripture what he has declared, or recant.” The Genevans hesitated. It would offend Freiburg.”

Freiburg was part of that original alliance to safeguard Geneva, but Freiburg was Catholic. While Geneva hesitated, Bern plied on the pressure:

“If you prefer Freiburg to us,’ replied Bern, ‘then choose her. But what about those large sums of money which you owe us for defending your city? What about the articles of alliance? Refuse our request, and we must have a settlement. We will remove the seal from the articles, and you will look no more to us for help.’ The Senate of Geneva could afford to give up the alliance with Papal Freiburg, rather than that with Protestant Bern. They therefore let the Bernese summon Furbity to a discussion with Farel.” (Ibid, p. 273).

It was a real dilemma for the Genevans, who were not keen to change the status quo, but for the sake of their political independence, they submitted to the greater power, which was Bern, and the alliance with Freiburg was broken off; a public disputation was arranged where Farel would debate with Furbity. The public disputation was held on Jan. 29, 1534, in the presence of the Great and Small Councils and the delegates of Bern. The disputation ended in a partial victory for Farel. Furbity was ordered to publicly apologise and recant, which he refused to do and was imprisoned for 2 years. (Ibid, p. 277 / Schaff, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation § 61.)

Here we can see that the so-called ‘progress’ or ‘success’ of the Reformation in Geneva was determined by the power politics of Bern. It had nothing to do with large numbers, or even any number of citizens being converted by the preaching of the Gospel and their personal lives being changed. It was all to do with persuading or forcing the civil authorities to impose the new religion on its citizens. Nevertheless, none of these events meant that the Reformation had taken hold in Geneva. Catholic resistance in the city continued. It was a slow, tense, uphill process. Schaff continues the story:

“Farel continued to preach in private houses. On March 1, when a monk, Francis Coutelier, attacked the Reformation, he ascended the pulpit to refute him. This was his first public sermon in Geneva. The Freiburgers protested against these proceedings, and withdrew from the coburghery (April 12). The bishop pronounced the ban over the city (April 30); the Duke of Savoy threatened war. But Bern stood by Geneva, and under her powerful protection, Farel, Viret, and Froment vigorously pushed the Reformation, though not without much violence. The priests, monks, and nuns gradually left the city, and the bishop transferred his see to Annecy, an asylum prepared by the Duke of Savoy.” (Schaff, Ibid. Italics mine.)

It was under the ‘powerful protection of Bern’ that the Reformation ‘made strides’ in Geneva; and under such protection the Reformed camp felt at liberty to intimidate the Catholic citizens of Geneva and to commit acts of Iconoclasm. As elsewhere in Switzerland and beyond, so here to the Reformed party barged their way into churches and smashed up and destroyed images and statues. In May 1535, the mass was provisionally suspended in Geneva. And as we had noted, Bern invaded this region with its military forces and took possession of it in January 1536, and it was only in the spring of that same year that the Reformed faith was officially adopted by edict in Geneva. Schaff writes,

“In Aug. 27, 1535, the Great Council of Two Hundred issued an edict of the Reformation, which was followed by another, May 21, 1536. The mass was abolished and forbidden, images and relics were removed from the churches. The citizens pledged themselves by an oath to live according to the precepts of the Gospel…All shops were to be closed on Sunday. A strict discipline, which extended even to the headdress of brides, began to be introduced.” (Ibid)

So again, by the vote of the city Council, the Reformed religion was imposed on an entire city. In the quote above there is also a tension or contradiction in the understanding of ‘Gospel’. Apparently, living by the ‘precepts’ of the Gospel includes legislation against certain types of headdress at weddings. Moreover, the citizens’ pledge to ‘live by the Gospel’ would be revealed as meaningless. This was all outward, dead religion. In Chapter 8, we will look at this aspect of ‘legislating morality’ in order to improve the conduct of citizens. 

Jeanne de Jussie, from the Convent of Saint Claire in Geneva, gives her account of the events of 1535 in her Short Chronicle, which offers us an insight into the nature of the Reformation in Geneva:

“On the feast of the Madeleine, 22 July, when they were ringing solemnly for mass in her church and the whole parish and other good Christians in the town were gathered there to hear the holy Mass in great piety, that miserable preacher Farel brought his whole congregation. They came in…to the church of the blessed Madeline to obstruct her feast, and when they got inside it, they closed the church and stood at the door and forced people to hear that sermon. This greatly distressed and troubled everyone, the women cried out loudly and the men made such a raucous that they (the reformed part) left the church despite their plans. All divine service was stopped. But after those dogs left, the Christian people came back to the church, and the priest said the mass even more solemnly than ever and in great piety. Those dogs did the same thing at vespers, and they took possession of that holy church and preached there every day afterwards, and then in the church of Saint-Gervais. They did the same in the Dominican monastery on the feast of their father St Dominic, and they obstructed divine services in all the churches.” (N3)

What happened in Geneva was the imposition of an outward religion (the Reformed one) on a largely Catholic city by an outside force, namely, the Bernese government. It was essentially the result of political expediency on the part of the Genevan councils to safeguard their geo-political independence. From all the historical accounts that we have, it is abundantly clear that the Genevans did not turn to the Reformed faith as a result of evangelistic preaching that led to citizens being genuinely and spiritually converted. It was not a matter of people finding salvation in Christ and having their lives changed inwardly – and outwardly. It was just a switch from one religion to another.

Philip Schaff sums up the state of things like this:

“The people were anxious to get rid of the rule of [the Duke of] Savoy and the bishop, but had no conception of evangelical religion, and would not submit to discipline. They mistook freedom for license. They were in danger of falling into the opposite extreme of disorder and confusion. This was the state of things when Calvin arrived at Geneva in the summer of 1536.” (Ibid. Italics mine.)

This is an interesting comment – as well as a fairly accurate one – from a historian with deep Protestant sympathies. I would agree with this. It is clear that the cities, regions and countries of Europe that adopted the Reformed faith could only do so because of the support of the civic or princely powers. It was those powers – aided and abetted by the reformers – that imposed the new religion on its people. It would be no wonder that the citizens of these cities and regions ‘had no conception of evangelical religion’. And this was so for the simple reason that the Gospel of salvation from personal sin was not preached by the reformers, whatever their written theology may have contained. The reformers preached a ‘gospel’ of freedom from Catholic superstitions, not a life-changing Gospel of freedom from sin.

It was on the heels of these events, which had freshly taken place, that Calvin appeared on the scene in Geneva. Unfortunately, Calvin did not recognise that the citizens of Geneva had no concept of the Gospel. There could only be trouble, as this man, Calvin, tried to impose – outwardly – a religion on a people whose hearts were antagonistic to it – that is, his own brand of religion.

The historian Bruce Gordon goes some way in confirming the above point. He writes: “The Bernese were left in the awkward position of governing a region that had adopted the Reformation in name alone. The Reformed party was a tiny faction facing a hostile population determined to maintain its Catholic faith…Their hopes, clearly, lay in the eventual restoration of the Catholic faith…If ever Calvin needed to be taught a lesson about the implications of a semi-Reformed church full of people who conformed to religious practices in which they did not believe, the Vaud provided it.” (Bruce Gordon, Calvin, p. 67. Yale University Press, 2011).

And it is in Chapter 8, where we will look at Calvin’s time in Geneva, that I want to continue to consider this aspect of the Reformation. It was far more, if not exclusively, an attempt to reform people’s indulgent and licentious behaviour than seeking their conversion through the Gospel. The reformers sought to legislate morality upon a community of sinners in order to make them more holy – something which is impossible. Through the laws of the civic authorities as well as through ecclesiastical measures, the reformers endeavoured to suppress, curtail and punish drunkenness, bawdy songs, dancing, blasphemy, sexual immorality. It is strange that it never occurred to them that those in their parish were as yet still unconverted! But since they failed to convert citizens by the preaching of the Gospel, the reformers could only impose an external and disciplined religion on them.


(N1) Blakeley, James Joseph, Popular Responses to the “Reformation from Without” in the Pays de Vaud, 2006, The University of Arizona. P. 157 / Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern, AII, Bd 256, fol. 165.

(N2) W. M. Blackburn, William Farel and the Story of the Swiss Reform, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board Of Publication, 1865. pp. 271, 272. 

(N3) Jeanne de Jussie, The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare’s Account of the Reformation in Geneva, ed. and trans. Carrie F. Klaus, p. 128. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.