The Magisterial Reformation: Part 8

  1. The imposition of an ‘external and disciplined religion’.
  2. The arrival and ejection of Calvin and Farel from Geneva.

If the reader has not read Chapter 7, I would recommend doing so, as it gives important background to how the Reformation was ‘introduced’ into the region of French-speaking Switzerland.

In the previous Chapter, we saw how the Protestant city of Bern used political leverage to pressurise and intimidate the French-speaking Catholic cities of western Switzerland (the Pays de Vaud) to ‘convert’ to the Reformed faith. The historian D’Aubigne says the following regarding the city of Bern before the introduction of the Reformation there:

“Of all the Swiss cantons, Bern appeared the least disposed to the Reformation. A military state may be zealous for religion, but it will be for an external and a disciplined religion: it requires an ecclesiastical organization that it can see, and touch, and manage at its will. It fears the innovations and the free movements of the Word of God: it loves the form and not the life.” (D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV, Ch. 2. Italics mine.)

This statement is double-edged, though D’Aubigne seemingly was not aware of it! Here, D’Aubigne is speaking of the nature of a State Church and its domineering control over religious affairs, and that such control can only result in an ‘an external and a disciplined religion’. He is speaking of Catholic Bern. However, history shows that nothing changed in this respect in Bern. Reformed Bern was as controlling and dictatorial as over its citizens as Catholic Bern had been – and we saw exactly this in the last chapter! The religion of the State Church had changed but it was the same beast as before.

So, the expression ‘an external and a disciplined religion’ is an apt summing up of the nature of the Protestant Reformation. They were certainly ‘zealous for religion’, just as the Catholics had been; and history shows that the reformers carried on the same religious intolerance and dictatorial rule as the Catholic Church had done, imposing their dogma on all the citizens of its cities, and allowing no dissent. The result in such Reformed cities could only be ‘an external and disciplined religion’. Geneva had ‘voted in’ the Reformed religion under some duress from Bern just before Calvin’s arrival, but the historian Philip Schaff, commenting on the spiritual condition of its people at that time, maintained that they had ‘no conception of evangelical religion’. Essentially, Calvin could not, and did not change this state of things. After many years, he eventually did manage to impose his form of external and disciplined religion on the people. This occurred chiefly for two main reasons. One was that his political opponents on the city council were eventually vanquished, and secondly, there was an influx of Protestant believers from other parts of Europe, particularly from France, that were sympathetic to the Reformed faith, who could then also eventually be voted onto the councils.

There is a Calvinist preacher today who is not appreciated by all Calvinists. His name is Paul Washer. Talking about the nature of salvation, he said this: “If you miss the regeneration part, you go into legalism.” In essence, this comment would also be an accurate summary on the nature of the Protestant Reformation. From all the historical accounts we have looked at, this aspect stands out. The Reformation was not an occurrence where through the preaching of the Gospel people were converted to Jesus Christ, witnessed to by transformed lives and communities, as seen in the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example.

The peoples of Europe had been Christianised since the time of Constantine. They were baptised into a cultural Christianity; essentially, they were not  people who had been converted by the Gospel. The Anabaptists recognised this, but the Protestant reformers were very much part of this tradition, illusion and self-deception. They moved and worked within this mindset and context, and simply persuaded and/or cajoled people to exchange one form of cultural Christianity for another. Christendom remained Christendom, whether Catholic or Reformed. There was no spiritual renewal, revival or public preaching among the reformers that led to multitudes or any significant number of people turning to Christ. The result of this was, as Paul Washer had said, ‘without regeneration, you go into legalism’ – though he, of course, was not commenting on the Reformation! And this aspect of ‘religion without regeneration’ is what we shall see more clearly as we consider the Reformation in Geneva under Calvin.

Catholic clerics threatened with ‘conversion’ or banishment.

We saw how in the years 1535 and 1536, the city of Geneva took its final steps in declaring itself for the Reformed faith, imposing it on its clergy and citizens. Similar edicts were given by the Bernese authorities in other regions of French-speaking Switzerland at the end of 1536 – the Catholic clergy had either to convert and thus continue to receive their income, or they must leave the region. Inevitably, many who stayed on such a basis did not turn out to be the best proponents for the Reformation! One thorn in Calvin’s side for quite a few years in Geneva was the ministers he had to work with.

In March 1542, six years after Geneva had declared itself for the Reformed faith, and when Calvin had already served in Geneva for several years (but with a break of three years), Calvin complained that he had only one colleague, named Viret, who was of great benefit to him. Concerning the other ministers, Calvin wrote the following to a fellow reformer in Basle:

“Our other colleagues are rather a hindrance than a help to us; they are rude and self-conceited, have no zeal and less learning. But what is worst of all, I cannot trust them, even although I very much wish I could; for by many evidences they show their estrangement from us, and give scarcely any indication of a sincere and trustworthy disposition.” (Letter to Myconius, March 14, 1542).

This was the quality of ministers and preachers that Calvin had to work with to reform Geneva. But it should have come as no surprise, given the background of how the Reformation had been imposed on the citizens of Geneva, as well as on the rest of western Switzerland.

Legislating Morality versus the preaching of the Gospel.

The modern historian Bernard Cottret, in his biography of Calvin, states that on March 10, 1536, (that is, just before Calvin’s arrival) the city authorities of Geneva agreed with Farel that what was decreed in Geneva should be extended to all its parishes. The council decreed: “It was decided and resolved that the subjects should be exhorted and that everywhere proclamations should be made similar to those in the city concerning obedience and abstinence from fornication and blasphemy.” (N1)

What is noteworthy here is that the decree highlights personal behaviour (abstinence from fornication and blasphemy) rather than the message of the Gospel. The biographer Cottret continues by making this point: “The proclamation of the word and the struggle against dissolute morals – these two objectives would be constants in the time of Calvin.” (Cottret, Bernard, Calvin, A Biography, p. 116. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000)

And this was absolutely true for Calvin in Geneva. Calvin would preach in Geneva, but his preaching would address the worldly and immoral conduct of the citizens. Controlling bad and immoral behaviour; suppressing it, banning it, legislating against it and punishing it became a never-ending fight for Calvin – ‘If you miss the regeneration part, you go into legalism.’

But this should come as no surprise at all to us. Calvin was not engaged in ‘building up the saints in their most holy faith’, but in trying to ‘sanctify’ a worldly and ungodly crowd of people. It cannot be done; and it seems Calvin could not really tell the difference between the two; between worldly nominal Christians and a gathering of converted, committed believers – but this has been the story of the whole Protestant Reformation. The reformers took the former as real Christians, and persecuted the latter for claiming to be converted (i.e., the Anabaptists)! The reformers attempted to ‘reform’ people outwardly by legislation, but they utterly failed to ‘transform’ people inwardly by the preaching and power of the Gospel. And as we shall shortly see, this endeavour to impose religion on people and legislate morality got Calvin thrown out of Geneva within two years.

This aspect of a ‘moralising campaign’ as a feature of the Reformation in the Vaud (French-speaking Western Switzerland) is clearly brought to light in a dissertation by James Blakely, whose dissertation was mentioned earlier. Blakeley, among other writers, notes that dancing was a favourite pastime among the people – at festive religious occasions, weddings or at any event that gave opportunity for dancing and singing. However, as this was often associated with other less pleasant behaviour, it was cracked down on by the authorities.

Blakeley writes, “Beginning with the mandate of December 1536, the Bernese banned dancing, although for a time they permitted three ‘honest’ dances at weddings. Men and women were punished continually for dancing in connection with holy days and festivities…Small groups and families were punished by the authorities for dancing alone…Singing went along with dancing. The Bernese tried to put an end to lewd and bawdy songs.” (Blakeley, p. 289)

Confronting the ‘crime’ of dancing would turn into a major incident in Geneva when Calvin sought to punish some leading citizens for indulging therein!

Blakely goes on to state that “the Bernese authorities punished the Vaudois far more often for playing cards, dancing, drinking, and sexual debauchery than they did for religious violations. The morals legislation that comprises the December 24 mandate was important for the Bernese and their vision of reform.  Good subjects and members of the body of Christ were to act in an upright, pious, and self-restrained manner. Dancing, loud singing, and drinking in the local tavern displeased God and endangered the whole community. Both improper moral and religious behavior provoked the wrath of God.” [Ibid, p. 287. Refers to: Archives Cantonales Vaudoises, Ba 21/1, fol. 1.]

Insofar as this was true, it is clear that the Bernese authorities were seeking to impose an outward morality on its citizens, in the name of God and the Gospel; but they had no idea what the Gospel really was and how it ought to be preached. Lives that had not been changed by the Gospel were now subjected to legislation that sought to curb self-indulgent and licentious behaviour.

The state church system – that ‘cultural’ or ‘nominal’ Christianity developed under Constantine in the 4th century, and which I call ‘Christendom’ in these studies, was alive and well. The secular and religious authorities of the Reformation, acting as one, sought to control and suppress the indulgent behaviour and immoral conduct of these Christianised communities, mistakenly thinking that what they were doing was applying the Gospel to the community.

We will continue to look at this aspect of superimposing an outward morality on people, but first, it is time to introduce Calvin to the scene.

  1. The Arrival and Ejection of Calvin from Geneva

Calvin was born in France in 1509. He received a humanist education and studied law. Like the other reformers we have looked at, he was very much influenced by the Catholic humanists and greatly admired Lefevre, who was called ‘The Pioneer of the Reformation in France’, although Lefevre stayed within the Catholic Church and wanted to reform it from within.

Calvin was forced to flee France because of the anti-Protestant measures in France, and in 1534 went to visit the ageing Lefevre. He then lived in various places outside of France under different names for the next couple of years, spending some of his time in Basle as well.

In 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his theological work on Christianity. This brought him great acclaim within the reformed movement, but opposition from the Catholic side. He was 26 years of age at the time.

In the summer of the same year, 1536, Calvin made plans to permanently leave France and go to Strasbourg. However, conflict had broken out between Francis I and Charles V, hindering his way, so Calvin decided to make a one-night detour to Geneva. However, hearing that John Calvin was in Geneva, William Farel, who was residing there, lost no time in visiting him and threatened to bring down the curse of God on Calvin’s life and ministry if he did not stay to help with the work of Reformation in Geneva. Calvin, who at first was reluctant because he believed his ministry lay in a different direction, eventually succumbed, not so much to the pleadings of Farel, but to his threats. Calvin writes later of this encounter: “…Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken…”. (Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 1-35, Vol. 1, Preface.) Thus was the 26-year-old Calvin persuaded, if not browbeaten into throwing his lot in with Farel, who was about 20 years his senior, for the furtherance of the Reformation in Geneva.

Calvin began modestly in Geneva by doing some Bible teaching but was eventually elected as a pastor, though he was never to be ordained as a pastor.

Anabaptist refugees were already in Geneva at this time and within a few months of arriving in Geneva (Nov. 1536), they confronted the reformers’ teaching. Calvin later wrote about this, saying,

“The Anabaptists began to attack us from one side; from the other side, it was the malicious apostate [Pierre Caroli].” (Calvini Opera 31:26)

Later, in March 1537, two Anabaptists (Herman de Gerbihan and Andry Benoit) sought a public disputation with Farel (Calvin being away at this time), and the city council allowed this to go ahead. However, after the disputation the council decreed that the two Anabaptists should cease from spreading their views, and as they would not submit to this instruction, they were banned from Geneva under penalty of death. (Calvini Opera, 21:209f., 2010)

Nevertheless, towards the end of March, the council allowed another disputation to take place with two other Anabaptists – Johannes Bomeromenus and Jehan Tordeur. These two wanted to show from Scripture that one should not baptise infants. Although the council found against them and compelled them to leave Geneva, Calvin was nevertheless angered by the goodwill shown to them by the council. In 1555 he wrote:

“Eighteen years ago, when the Anabaptist came here to infect everyone with their teachings, they were cordially welcomed to the courthouse. To be sure, we were ordered to refute their teachings in public; but at the same time [the council] was flattering them. Instead of decisively resisting the Anabaptists, they offered them a banquet.” (Calvini Opera, 27:237f.)

But, in the tensions and conflicts that developed between them, this may just have been another indication of the council’s desire to show the reformers who was in charge. Despite the council’s vote against these further two Anabaptists and their banishment from Geneva, Anabaptists apparently (clandestinely) survived in Geneva until the time of the reformers’ ejection from the city in 1538 (See quote at end of this Chapter). However, after this initial period, Calvin would spend significant time writing against the Anabaptists, whom he considered to be the greatest of heretics and their teachings to be from the devil. (See N2 for above details regarding the Anabaptists.)

The confession of faith.

We have already noted that the roots of the Reformation in Geneva were shallow. Political expediency played as great a role, if not greater, than religious conviction in turning Geneva to the Reformation. So, how did Farel and Calvin go about remedying the situation of bringing on board a very large number of reluctant people to the reformed faith? Basically, they literally tried to force everyone to sign up to the reformed faith by taking a compulsory oath, and by legislating against worldly and immoral behaviour.

Philip Schaff says much the same things as Blakeley above when writing about the condition of Reformed Geneva at the time of Calvin’s arrival. He writes:

“The Genovese were a light-hearted, joyous people, fond of public amusements, dancing, singing, masquerades, and revelries. Reckless gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice abounded. Prostitution was sanctioned by the authority of the State…The people were ignorant. The priests had taken no pains to instruct them and had set them a bad example. To remedy these evils, a Confession of Faith and Discipline, and a…Catechism were prepared” by Farel and Calvin. (Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation. § 83.)

So when it is stated that Genevans had accepted by public declaration to follow the precepts of the Gospel just a few months previously, we must take this with a huge pinch of salt!

Confronted with this situation, Farel and Calvin did not go into the marketplace or even stand in the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in order to deliver the people from the power of darkness and of Satan, so that their lives might be changed by the saving grace of God. Such scenes and such preaching we do read about in histories of revivals, such as happened during the lives of George Whitefield and John Wesley. But there are no records at all that I have come across that bear witness to anything like this happening in the Reformation of the 16th century. As I have said, the reformers’ view was that, generally, they were not dealing with Christianised ‘heathen’, but with worldly Christians, whose lives needed reforming and delivering from Catholic false teachings.

So, in 1536 what Farel and Calvin did was to draw up a Confession of Faith and rules of discipline, which they officially presented to the council in November. This was within four months of Calvin having arrived in Geneva. Its formal title was: Confession of Faith, which all citizens and inhabitants of Geneva and subjects in its territories must swear to keep and to hold. The idea was that the members of the council should subscribe to it first, followed by the citizens. Those who refused to take the oath were to be excommunicated and banished.

Since the little republic of Geneva had now ‘adopted’ the Reformed religion, it seems that Calvin viewed the city as God’s domain, God’s city, God’s kingdom, equating it to Israel of old. The council, as it were, represented the King of Israel, who was responsible for ensuring the purity of religious worship, and punishing and eliminating all idolaters. Calvin and Farel were as the priests and prophets of old, inveighing against the sins of the people, teaching the righteous commands of the Lord, and informing and directing the King how to perform his duties. No one who openly and grossly sinned against the Lord’s commands would be tolerated with in the walls of the city of Geneva. Such sinners were to be ‘cut off’, just as God had commanded in the Old Testament. These reformers showed no understanding of spiritual conversion, of the Gospel, or of the Church.

How can you force people to make an oath to hold to a confession of faith? It is a bizarre concept. Why seek to banish sinners who are in desperate need of having the Gospel preached to them? But Calvin and Farel wanted people either to conform, or to be thrown out of this ‘kingdom’ that were trying to set up

William Blackburn in his life of Farel writes:

“It was not easy to break up the old customs of the people, and many of Farel’s new measures [ed. though Calvin was certainly involved] were not to their taste. They were lively and fond of excitement, and had been used to an almost unbounded license. In clear weather they loved music and dancing in the open air. On rainy days they had their cups and cards at the wine shops. Among all, their holidays, Sunday was quite as gay as any, when masquerades and other mummeries were their delight. But, as all this was connected with the baser forms of profligacy, Farel [ed. and Calvin] attempted to suppress these amusementsGambling, swearing, slandering, dancing, the singing of idle songs in the streets, Sabbath-breaking, and absence from church without good reasons were forbidden. The people must be at home by nine o’clock in the evening.” (WM. M. Blackburn, William Farel, And The Story Of The Swiss Reform, 1865; p. 151,152. Italics mine.)

By legislating morality the two reformers sought to force people into conformity to a mode of outward religious conduct. This is not the Gospel – it is Christendom. This is not the Church of Jesus Christ – it is a stricter form of Christianisation being imposed on people. If anything was geared to make people misunderstand what the Gospel is, it is the measures that Farel and Calvin undertook. Where there is no regeneration, there must be legalism.

The council passed these laws in November 1536, but not to the delight of its citizens.

Out of this Confession also came the Catechism, or Instruction of the Christian Religion of the Church in Geneva (1537). This was used to teach the citizens the essentials of the faith, and it was to be read at St. Peter’s every Sunday, until the people understood it. It was a re-education programme – it was not an evangelistic movement to bring people to the salvation that is in Christ.

The Genevan authorities approved (in principle) the confession of faith. In the following month, February, civic elections were held in Geneva, and some supporters of the reformers were elected to important positions. This was a help to their endeavours. Nevertheless, there was definite opposition to Calvin’s and Farel’s demand that all citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the new faith as laid out in the Confession.

Who has the right to excommunicate – priest of politician?

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, from the time of Constantine, when ‘Christianity’ became the religion of the State, there would be an inevitable tension and conflict between Church and State. The Church looked to the State for support and protection, as well as defending religious orthodoxy; but, of course, the State would want a say in Church matters and not just be a ‘passive’ member in this alliance; in other words, just doing what the Church told it to do. The State had its own ideas about what was best for the peace and security of its domains. So, here in Geneva, more than a thousand years later, we see this tension and conflict playing out in microcosm.

The Small Council, which was the most important council in Geneva, was willing to accept the minister’s demands, except that excommunication was not to be used against those who refused to take the oath. There was also the factor that many Genevan citizens resented being ordered to take an oath by French clergy, namely, Calvin and Farel. They had only just been liberated from the Duke of Savoy, and they did not take kindly to again being told what to do by foreign clerics. In particular, the well-to-do merchants opposed the obligatory oath, as well as many of the leading families. Moreover, the authorities in Bern also disapproved of this move, as excommunication, in their view, was the prerogative of the civic authorities, not of the church, and they had no wish for Calvin to change this system. This would become a long, hot, contentious issue between Calvin and the council – and even with Bern.

With regard to people taking the oath, things did not go very smoothly. The council kept stalling the process, and tensions developed between the two reformers and the city council. In October, the reformers sought to compel a profession of faith from those who were showing resistance to the oath, and in November an order was made that those who refused the oath should be banished from the city.

However, this process then hit the buffers as it touched on the sensitive issue of excommunication. Calvin was overseeing the adoption of the Confession of Faith, and he expected, and even insisted, that as the minister, he should have full control over the excommunication of those who refused to sign. The council authorities balked at what they saw as a usurping of the council’s privilege and power in the matter of excommunication. To give Calvin the exclusive right to excommunicate important and respectable Genevan citizens was going a step too far – particularly as he was a foreigner, a Frenchman. The council saw Calvin’s demands as high-handed and as intruding on their civil powers. There was no way that the council could enforce such a scenario on its citizens.

At this time, there was a revealing statement made by Calvin when disputing obligatory oath-taking with the council. A councillor reported that accusations had been made that people were perjuring themselves for swearing an oath to a mere written confession – in other words, that people were being forced to take the oath without their hearts or faith being in it! The reformers replied that it should be viewed differently, namely, as a solemn renewing of the covenant, as had been done in Nehemiah and Jeremiah. However, the council countered by saying that the Bernese authorities also considered it to be a case of perjury.

It is amazing that these councillors had more common sense and moral integrity in judging this matter than Calvin did. They pointed out the obvious truth that you cannot make people Christian, that you cannot force them to adopt religion by oath-taking! This clearly reveals again how Calvin viewed the Genevans as essentially Christian people that had lapsed somewhat and just needed to ‘renew’ their covenant with God. He did not regard them as ‘lost sinners’ but as ‘wayward’ Christians.

This battle between Calvin and the Councils of Geneva regarding who had the power to do what in ecclesiastical and even civil matters was to dog Calvin and cause him a lot of grief and pain for the next 20 years. At times it became unedifying political infighting. The council began asserting its authority over Farel’s and Calvin’s demands. In January 1538, the council declared that no one should be refused access to the Lord’s Supper. In effect, this meant that Calvin was deprived of the right and authority to excommunicate anyone, since banishment from the Lord’s Supper was an integral part of excommunication. Calvin lamented this in a letter to his co-reformer, Bullinger, in Zurich, saying that he feared that the holy practice of excommunication would fall into oblivion. At this time, things got immeasurably more serious for Farel and Calvin, but we need to backtrack a little because this matter was enmeshed with others.

The other problematic issue had to do with the Bernese liturgical rites.

As well as presenting the Confession of Faith, a couple of months later, in January 1537, Farel and Calvin had also put before the council their Articles on the Organisation of Church and its Worship in Geneva. Among other things, Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated at least every Sunday, but in view of the people’s background he deemed that it should be celebrated monthly. However, he insisted that the Lord’s Supper must be protected from pollution by the attendance of ungodly participants. Calvin urged that overseers should be appointed in the various districts of the city to report any serious faults to the ministers, so that the offender may be urged to repentance and amendment of life. A kind of religious ‘big brother is watching you’ – the big brothers being Calvin and Farel. Now, if the person remained obstinate, then the final step of excommunication was to be applied. However, the wording of this last point was ambiguous in the document as to who had the power to excommunicate. The councils in Geneva, with their understanding of the Articles, passed them, but with one exception, and that was the celebration of the Eucharist. It would be celebrated once a quarter, according to the practice in Bern, and not once a month as Calvin had wanted. The significant point here is that the councils overrode Calvin in this matter. It was a continual battle between the council and the two reformers.

As mentioned above, it was the Bernese liturgical rites that were to be Calvin’s undoing. These rights included the use of unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper, cups made of stone, and the celebration of Christmas, New Year, the Annunciation and Ascension. Farel and Calvin were not in favour of these measures because of their close association with Catholicism. However, having ‘liberated’ Geneva, Bern felt that it should have a say in these matters and expected Geneva to follow its lead. The councils of Geneva now strengthened their position against Calvin by siding with Bern on these matters, which included the use of unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin balked at this intrusion into church affairs by the civil authorities and refused to comply.

Blackburn, in his life of Farel, writes of the groundswell of support for Bern in Geneva against the new reformers:

“The Genevan senate followed in the same decision, and the Bernese began to have more and noisier friends than ever before in the city. This party now made use of the awful name of My Lords of Bern, in order to threaten and insult the ministers [Farel and Calvin] whom Bern had such trouble in keeping in Geneva. Troops of them went about parading the streets by night, insulting the ministers at their homes, and threatening to throw them into the Rhone. Bern had preserved the stone fonts, the unleavened bread, and the four festivals, and they would hold fast to them, for they were not able to see the principle which Farel thought was involved in them. He regarded them as relics of Popery, and feared these relics would lead back the people into the old reality…Councils and synods failed to restore peace. A plot was suspected against the preachers.” (Blackburn, Ibid, p.296)

It was a turbulent, unpleasant time for the reformers. And for all the trumpeting about ‘Reformation’, Bern still clung on to vestiges of Catholicism. Calvin was more advanced in his reformed ideas than Bern, and he did not like the Bernese authorities, or any civic authority, having control over church matters. He was not willing to submit to Bern’s instructions in this matter. Calvin believed he had rightly understood the word of God in the scriptures and that therefore, in a way, his teachings represented God, so when he was opposed, he considered that God’s truth was being opposed, and he became quite indignant at such opposition. This tended to be a feature of how he dealt with ‘heretics’ – to oppose his teachings, was to oppose the word of God and God Himself.

There was another factor which added to the woes of Farel and Calvin, and that was the suspicion that they were working for France to bring Geneva under France’s control, and some of Calvin’s supporters were in favour of such a move. France had begun to take an interest in Geneva, and Calvin and Farel were both Frenchmen! Suspicions began to be aroused. In February 1538; a French agent actually did pay a secret visit to the city, and eventually made overtures for a French alliance through two of the leading supporters of the reformers, which seemed to confirm people’s suspicions. Mobs protested outside their houses at night, firing off guns and threatening to throw them into the river. For those who already opposed Calvin’s stringent measures, this added fuel to the flames of opposition.

Things continued to work against the two reformers. In February 1538, there were new elections to important executive posts (the ‘Syndics’, or magistrates) within the council, and all these were taken by men hostile to Calvin. But in these complicated issues, it needs to be noted that to be anti-Calvin did not mean you were anti-Reformation – you were just anti-Calvin, and the things he stood for! However, Calvin now starts to preach against the council publicly, and ends up being censured by them for calling them ‘a council of the devil’ in one of his sermons. One of his co-reformers, the blind Frenchman, Courauld, called the Genevan state ‘a kingdom of frogs’ and the magistrates ‘drunkards’. He soon found himself in prison. The situation was getting venomous and embittered.

The battle lines were now being drawn. Good Friday was now approaching, at which the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated, using, of course, unleavened bread, by the stipulation of both the Genevan council and the authorities in Bern. Nevertheless, Calvin and Farel refused to follow this practice, which they felt was being imposed on them, and gave the authorities to understand that they would withhold the Lord’s Supper from the whole city on that day, rather than use unleavened bread according to the Bernese practice. The council responded by telling them that either they comply, or they would be forbidden from preaching in the city.

Again, Calvin and Farel brazenly ignored this injunction against them, and on the following Sunday (April 21) they both spoke publicly in different churches and refused to administer the Lord’s Supper to the people. They also made sure that no one else would be able to celebrate the Eucharist. One minister, Henri de la Mare, reported to the council that he had been prevented from preaching and celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the threat of excommunication from the two zealous reformers. At that time, this also resulted in mob riots and violence by supporters of Farel.

Things had now gone too far for the councils of Geneva. The city authorities declared that the Bernese rites were to be adopted. The councils issued orders of expulsion against Calvin and Farel (on April 22 and 23), and they were given three days to depart. Without delay, the two men left Geneva and headed first for Bern and then to Zurich, where they attempted to explain their actions to the authorities and the reformers there. However, in neither city did they escape a certain amount of censure from the authorities, who warned them against their overzealousness and lack of discretion and wisdom in how they had handled matters. Various attempts were made to affect a reconciliation at that time, but Geneva would have none of it, and refused to have Calvin and Farel back.

Calvin’s and Farel’s attempt to impose the Reformation ‘more fully’ in Geneva had failed miserably. They had to make an ignominious, hasty departure. Calvin and Farel were not being metaphorically ‘stoned’ for pleading with the people to turn to Christ and be converted, but for trying to impose legislation that outwardly controlled people’s everyday lives, and for seeking to overrule the council. The citizens of Geneva did not mind the Reformation, as long as it did not interfere too much with their lives and pleasures!

After these events, Calvin went to the German Protestant city of Strasbourg, where he pastored a church for French-speaking refugees, and also continued his writings. Farel went to serve in Neuchâtel and remained there till the end of his life. From there, he wrote to Calvin in September 1538 about the desolate circumstances in Geneva:

“They have created a whorehouse there. The Anabaptists hold their gatherings daily, and everywhere the Mass is heard. Everything is going topsy-turvy and things could not be any worse.” (Herminjard, Correspondance, 4: nr. 745.)

In Chapter 9, we will look at Calvin’s return to Geneva and his remaining years there.


(N1) Annales Calviniani, Calvini Opera 21, col. 197, Registres du Conseil de Geneve 29, fol. 43. Quoted in Cottret, Bernard, Calvin a Biogrpahy, p. 116.

(N2) Calvin, Farel, and the Anabaptists:  On the Origins of the Briève Instruction of 1544, Hans Rudolf Lavater; Trans. by John D. Roth; pp. 328,329