The Violent Iconoclasm of the Reformation.


The violent iconoclasm of the Reformation, and the imposition of the Reformed religion on communities.

A feature of the Protestant Reformation in Europe was the violent iconoclasm that often attended it. This relates to the vandalism and destruction of Catholic images, statues and other paraphernalia connected to Catholic worship, often perpetrated by angry mobs who had just ‘converted’ to the Reformed teaching, or been ‘stirred’ by the anti-Catholic preaching of a reformer. This phenomenon also accompanied the imposition of Reformed Religion on a large section of a population, particularly in the French-speaking regions of Switzerland. When we read how Swiss cities actually became Reformed, it becomes evident that it was not through the conversion to Christ of a large part of the population, but through the vote of the civic authorities, the new religion was imposed on the whole population. Just as the Catholic religion had not tolerated any religious diversion from its own doctrine, so too the Reformed cities would oversee a religious dictatorship, and persecute and banish dissenters from its lands. The story of the Reformation, in most part, is the story of the substitution of one form of outward religion (of nominal or cultural Christianity) and dictatorial rule for another – from Catholic to Reformed. As we can read below, it was far more a matter of changing people’s religious allegiance than changing people’s hearts and lives through a new birth affected by the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Erasmus had had some sympathy for the Protestant movement under Luther. In fact, Erasmus was initially being attacked from both sides – by Luther, for not being ‘true to his convictions’ and joining the Lutheran cause, and by the Catholics, who were accusing him of being a secret Lutheran! However, the doctrines that Luther then shortly afterwards openly espoused and the manner in which Lutheranism was propagated turned Erasmus against the movement. He was appalled at the violent iconoclasm that was a feature of the Reformation.

In 1524 Erasmus wrote to Philip Melanchthon:

“I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike. The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit – these words are always on their lips; look at their lives, and they speak quite another language. (Letter of 6 September 1524. Collected Works of Erasmus, 10. p. 380. University of Toronto Press. 1992. Italics mine.)

In this passage, Erasmus makes reference to two things; namely, the violent measures that the reformation were adopting or the violence it was resulting in, on the one hand, and the disparity between the preaching and the lives of the propagators of the reformation and their followers, on the other. Erasmus elaborates on these two points when writing to Melanchthon:

“They have always in their mouths ‘The Gospel, the Word of God, faith, Christ, and the Spirit; if you look to their manners, these speak a very different thing…I have known certain very excellent men who through this affair have deteriorated in character…Here (Basle), especially, I see many to be such, that even if I approved all that Luther writes, I should be unwilling to give my name to this faction…How can I persuade myself that those men are led by the Spirit of Christ, whose manners are so much at variance with the teaching of Christ ? Formerly the Gospel made those that were fierce become gentle; those that were rapacious, benignant; those that were turbulent, peaceful; those that were abusive, affable: but these men are rendered furious; they snatch by fraud what belongs to others – they everywhere excite tumults, and speak evil even of those who deserve well of them. I behold new hypocrites, new tyrants, but not a particle of the true spirit of the Gospel.” (Epist., lib. xix. ep. 113, ed. Lond. 1642, col. 950-952. / Quoted in The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), London, Burns & Oates, 1881. p.10.)

In this passage, Erasmus touches on the tendency of the Reformation movement to make men ‘furious’ and to ‘excite tumults’. He is here undoubtedly speaking of the iconoclasm that was a feature of the Reformation in Europe. This refers to the vandalism and violent destruction – often spontaneous – of churches and the symbols of Catholic worship and idolatry, such as statues, images, relics, etc. Usually this would happen after the sermon of a Protestant Reformer, in which he would inveigh against Catholic superstitious traditions and castigate Catholic clerics, thus whipping up anti-Catholic feelings, if not hatred. This would not infrequently result in a large crowd or mob violently descending on a church and violently destroying any symbols of Catholic tradition, sometimes leaving the place in ruins. We shall be looking at this aspect of things shortly. It was because of the violent nature of the Reformation movement that Erasmus left Basle in 1529.

In that year he wrote ‘An epistle against those who falsely boast they are Evangelicals’ (Epistola contra quosdam qui se falso iactant evangelicos) and wrote to Vulturius Neocomus’. Here he states:

Look around on this ‘Evangelical’ generation, and observe whether amongst them less indulgence is given to luxury, lust, or avarice, than amongst those whom you so detest. Show me any one person who by that Gospel has been reclaimed from drunkenness to sobriety, from fury and passion to meekness, from avarice to liberality, from reviling to well-speaking, from wantonness to modesty. I will show you a great many who have become worse through following it. …The solemn prayers of the Church are abolished, but now there are very many who never pray at all. …I have never entered their conventicles [assemblies], but I have sometimes seen them returning from their sermons, the countenances of all of them displaying rage, and wonderful ferocity, as though they were animated by the evil spirit…Whoever beheld in their meetings any one of them shedding tears, smiting his breast, or grieving for his sins?Confession to the priest is abolished, but very few now confess to God. …They have fled from Judaism that they may become Epicureans.” [The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), London, Burns & Oates, 1881, pp. 13–14. See also Erasmus, Preserved Smith, 1923, Harper & Brothers, pp. 391–92.]

Even if Erasmus is biased in his views, there does seem to be some solid evidence for such comments. Moreover, Erasmus wasn’t the only one who pointed out the discrepancy between the teaching of the reformers and the moral state of the Reformed churches. This was a constant theme in the complaints of the Anabaptists against the Reformed Churches. The Anabaptists claimed that the teaching of the reformers did nothing to change the immoral lives of their churchgoers. The Anabaptists considered the vast mass of churchgoers to be just ‘nominal’ Christians, and they complained that the Reformation simply gave these nominal Christians an excuse to be carefree in their sins, since they were now ‘justified by faith alone’. (See, Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 222, 223).

Iconoclasm in Basle.

I would recommend the reader follow the whole story below of how the Reformation came to Basle, since it encapsulates in graphic detail the main points of these studies. It shows that the Reformation was a movement of outward religious reform, not of spiritual renewal or awakening.

The Reformation had been progressing by slow degrees in Basle in the 1520s. Zwingli’s friend, John Oecolampadius, was leading the cause of the Reformation in Basle, where he was having significant influence. However, the town council avoided taking sides in the growing conflict between the reformers and the Catholic Church. Philip Schaff writes:

The civil government of Basle occupied for a while middle ground, but the disputation of Baden, at which Oecolampadius was the champion of the Reformed doctrines, brought on the crisis. He now took stronger ground against Rome and attacked what he regarded as the idolatry of the mass. The triumph of the Reformation in Berne in 1528 gave the final impetus.” (History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation, § 32. The Reformation in Basel. Oecolampadius. Italics mine.)

The changes in Bern were giving impetus to the Reformation movement in Basle. What is mentioned in the above quote is something that we will see wherever the Reformation spread in Switzerland, and it is a point I keep repeating. A central feature of the preaching of the reformers was its focus on the false teachings, idolatry and abuses of the Catholic Church – it was bitterly anti-Catholic rather than being positively a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those that needed salvation. It inevitably stirred up hostility towards the Catholic Church instead of leading people to genuine repentance. This hostility was such that the Reformed camp would in no way tolerate having the Catholic mass performed in their midst, and they would take measures that would ensure that the city council listened to them.

In the short passage above, Schaff puts his finger on another important feature of the Reformation. As just stated, the reformers did not engage in evangelism. Where and when opportunity afforded, they taught and preached their doctrines in churches until there was a groundswell of anti-Catholic feeling among a sufficient number of the citizens. They would then call for a public disputation, at which they would seek to change the minds of the council members to reject Catholicism and impose the Reformed teaching and practice on the whole region. This feature was consistent throughout Switzerland, as we shall see. It could be, and has been characterised as a ‘top-down’ Reformation.

That is, The Reformation did not emerge from evangelistic preaching that turned many to Christ. Particularly in Switzerland, it focussed on calling for and using official public disputations to persuade the civil government to reject Catholicism and instead make the region under their control ‘Reformed’, which actually meant imposing the Reformation on the city and surrounding villages. The reformers worked within the confines of ‘Christendom’ to perpetuate ‘Christendom’. If you can convince the religious civil government that Catholicism is contrary to Scripture, then they will accept your Reformed religion and impose it on the citizens of its territory, just like it had imposed Catholicism. Essentially, this is the story of the Reformation and how it spread. The Reformation was a tremendously significant event in Europe because it changed the religious and political landscape of the continent, not because it brought spiritual awakening to the many who were in sin and darkness. We will see these things unfold as we follow the story in Basle.

D’Aubigne relates about the groundswell of support for the Reformation in Basle:

“The return of Oecolampadius [from Bern] had still more important consequences for Basle than it had for himself. The discussion at Berne caused a great sensation there. “Berne, the powerful Berne, is reforming!” was passed from mouth to mouth. “How, then!” said the people one to another, “the fierce Bear has come out of his den…he is groping about for the rays of the sun…and Basle, the city of learning – Basle, the adopted city of Erasmus and of Oecolampadius, remains in darkness!”

A stir had been created.

“On Good Friday (10th April 1528), without the knowledge of the council and Oecolampadius, five workmen of the Spinner’s Company entered the church of St. Martin, which was that of the reformer, and where the mass was already abolished, and carried away all the idols.’ On Easter Monday, after the evening sermon, thirty-four citizens removed all the images from the church of the Augustines…The council met hastily on Tuesday morning, and sent the five men to prison; but, on the intercession of the burghers, they were released, and the images suppressed in five other churches. These half measures sufficed for a time…On a sudden the flame burst out anew with greater violence. Sermons were preached at St. Martin’s and St. Leonard’s against the abominations of the cathedral; and at the cathedral the reformers were called “heretics, knaves, and profligatesThe fatal hour approaches,’ says Oecolampadius, ‘terrible for the enemies of God!’” (D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV. P. 314, 315.)

This is not spiritual revival! People were being worked up into an anti-Catholic frenzy, with the reformer Oecolampadius railing against the ‘abominations’ of the Catholic Church. He did not incite violence, but as we can see, this anti-Catholic rhetoric simply bore fruit that expressed itself in (violent) vandalism. The other thing to notice is that people were not responding individually and personally to a Gospel message that resulted in them turning to Christ and having their lives changed through conversion – they were reacting corporately, as a mass of people who wanted to enforce their brand of ‘new-found’ religion on the whole city. However, the city council continued to seek a compromise where no compromise is now possible.

D’Aubigne continues by relating how the Catholic contingent felt they were being outmaneuvered: “Filled with terror on learning that mediators were expected from Zurich and Berne, they ran into the city, crying that an Austrian army was coming to their aid, and collected stones in their houses. The reformed did the same. The disturbance increased hourly, and in the night of the 25th December the Papists met under arms: priests with arquebuse in hand were numbered among their ranks. Scarcely had the reformed learned this, when some of them running hastily from house to house, knocked at the doors and awoke their friends, who, starting out of bed, seized their muskets and repaired to the Gardeners’ Hall, to rendezvous of their party. They soon amounted to three thousand.” (Ibid, p. 316. Italics mine.)

Both sides were ready to use (lethal) force – the Catholic camp and the Reformed camp. There was no difference between them. As I say elsewhere, a chameleon remains a chameleon whatever colour it adopts. Many hundreds had gone over to the Reformed cause, but they were no different to the Catholics they were confronting – both took up arms against the other. This is a manifestation of intolerant religious fanaticism which leads no one to Christ and is certainly not the fruit of His life in us! The council, however, still tried to steer a middle course.  D’Aubigne continues his narration:

“It was necessary to put an end to so violent a crisis. The senate, faithful to its ideas of half-measures, decreed that the priests should continue to celebrate the mass; but that all, priests and ministers, should preach the Word of God, and for this purpose should meet once a week to confer upon the Holy Scriptures. They then called the Lutherans together in the Franciscan church, and the Papists in that belonging to the Dominicans.” (Italics mine.)

But what was the reaction of the Reformed camp to this compromise?

“The senate first repaired to the former church, where they found two thousand five hundred citizens assembled. The secretary had hardly read the ordinance before a great agitation arose. ‘That shall not be,’ cried one of the people. ‘We will not put up with the mass, not even a single one!’ exclaimed another; and all repeated, ‘No mass, – no mass, – we will die sooner!’” (Italics mine.)

And the Catholic response to this: 

“‘We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the mass. We swear it, we swear it!’ repeated they with uplifted hands. ‘If they reject the mass – to arms! to arms!’ The senate withdrew more embarrassed than ever.” (Ibid, p. 317).

Christendom continued unchanged – whether led by a despotic Catholic authority or a despotic Reformed authority. Large crowds now demanded the dismissal of all Catholic members of the city council, but again the civil government procrastinated.

“At six o’clock in the evening, twelve hundred citizens were assembled in the corn-market. They began to fear that the delay required by the senate concealed some evil design. ‘We must have a reply this very night,’ they said. The senate was convoked in great haste. From that period affairs assumed a more threatening attitude in Basle. Strong guards were posted by the burghers in the halls of the different guilds; armed men patrolled the city, and bivouacked in the public places, to anticipate the machinations of their adversaries; the chains were stretched across the streets; torches were lighted, and resinous trees, whose flickering light scattered the darkness, were placed at intervals through the town; six pieces of artillery were planted before the town-hall; and the gates of the city, as well as the arsenal and the ramparts, were occupied. Basle was in a state of siege...This gave rise to new alarms. ‘Let us beware of their secret manoeuvres’, said the people. ‘Perhaps they are gone to fetch the Austrians, with whom they have so often threatened us!’ The affrighted citizens collected arms from every quarter, and at break of day they had two thousand men on foot…” (Ibid, p. 319, 320. Italics mine.)

Basle was almost in a state of civil war, with both sides arming themselves, and the government calling a state of emergency. In the absence of a final decision from the council, a group from the Reformed camp went into the Cathedral and started smashing Catholic images to pieces. But this was just the beginning. The Reformed camp started to take action.

“A rumor, however, having spread that a disturbance had taken place in this church, three hundred men came to the support of the forty. ‘Why,’ said they, ‘should we spare the idols that light up the flames of discord?’ The priests in alarm had closed the gates of the sanctuary, drawn the bolts, raised barricades, and prepared everything for maintaining a siege. But the townspeople, whose patience had been exhausted by the delays of the council, dashed against one of the doors of the church: it yielded to their blows, and they rushed into the cathedral. The hour of madness had arrived. These men were no longer recognizable, as they brandished their swords, rattled their pikes, and uttered formidable cries: were they Goths, or fervent worshippers of God, animated by the zeal which in times of yore inflamed the prophets and the kings of Israel? However that may have been, these proceedings were disorderly, since public authority alone can interfere in public reforms. Images, altars, pictures — all were thrown down and destroyed. The priests who had fled into the vestry, and there concealed themselves, trembled in every limb at the terrible noise made by the fall of their holy decorations…The people next piled up the fragments in the squares and set fire to them; and during the chilly night the armed burghers stood round and warmed themselves at the crackling flame. The senate collected in amazement, and desired to interpose their authority and appease the tumult; but they might as well have striven to command the winds. The enthusiastic citizens replied to their magistrates in these haughty words: “What you have not been able to effect in three years, we will complete in one hour.” In truth the anger of the people was no longer confined to the cathedral. They respected all kinds of private property; but they attacked the Churches of St. Peter, St. Ulric, St. Alban, and of the Dominicans; and in all these temples ‘the idols’ fell under the blows of these good citizens of Basle, who were inflamed by an extraordinary zeal.” (Ibid, p. 320, 321. Italics mine.)

Anti-Catholic hostility had reached such a fever pitch in the Reformed camp that nothing could now stop it; not even the civil government! Even D’Aubigne, with his Protestant background, called it ‘an hour of madness, when men were no longer recognisable’ when referring to the mood and actions of the Reformed camp. They were a wild, angry mob, brandishing their weapons and destroying every last vestige of Catholic worship in the city. This was the fruit of Reformed teaching. Their preaching and teaching of ‘justification by faith alone’ was leading no one to Christ or to being converted.  D’Aubigne’s own religious sympathies are revealed when he dares, at one point, to liken this wilful religious destruction and violence to the destruction inflicted on the idols of Israel by the kings and prophets of the Old Testament! I suggest that this violent vandalism is no parallel to what happened in Israel of old, and it certainly has nothing to do with the Gospel or the church of the New Testament; it is not the mark of spiritual revival or the fruit of a people who have just been converted by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now the civil government had no choice. D’Aubigne writes:

“The senators now perceived the necessity of giving a legal character to this popular movement, and of thus changing a tumultuous revolution into a durable reformation. Democracy and the Gospel were thus established simultaneously in Basle. The senate, after an hour’s deliberation, granted that in future the burghers should participate in the election of the two councils; that from this day the mass and images should be abolished throughout all the canton, and that in every deliberation which concerned the glory of God or the good of the state the opinion of the guilds should be taken. The people, delighted at having obtained these conditions, which secured their political and religious liberty, returned joyful to their houses.” (Ibid, p. 322. Italics mine.)

By mid-February 1529, Basle had become Reformed, and the council removed all its Catholic members from the seat of power. It is extraordinary that D’Aubigne should sum up these events by saying that both ‘democracy and the Gospel’ had now been established by such actions! It represented nothing of the sort. Once the council had declared Basle for the Reformation, the effect of this reached to the furthest village of the canton. Citizens and farmers in outlying villages, who for centuries had been steeped in Catholicism, were now abruptly told that everyone in the canton would worship according to the dictates of the Reformation. It was neither democratic nor the Gospel. One form of religious dictatorship had supplanted another – that was the reality for anyone who wanted the freedom to worship God according to their own belief and conscience. It was a top-down revolution – the Christendom of Constantine simply continued. But now there were two Christendoms! One Catholic and one Protestant. The inevitable result of having two mutually exclusive Christendoms was, of course, centuries of the most terrible and cruel religious wars in Europe. 

Above is the historical account of a Protestant historian, and to finish this part of the story, I will leave you with the account that Erasmus wrote of these same events to his friend Bilibald Pirckheimer. As with the above, it gives a flavour of what the Reformation was about.

“While the rabble were in arms in the market-place, where they had their guns regularly arranged, everybody who had anything to lose at home, was in terror. For some time it looked as if there would be an armed encounter. The better part supported the cause of the Church [Catholic], but they were numerically weaker, for the others [the Reformed camp] had many strangers among them, besides a number of acknowledged ruffians whose only object was destruction. They began this tragedy close upon winter, when it was not easy either to take flight or to send for assistance. The Church party, finding that conventicles were held contrary to the order of the Council and the prescribed oath, took up arms, and soon the others followed their example, even bringing guns and other engines into the market. By the authority of the Council the Church party were made to lay down their arms, which the others also did reluctantly, but time enough; for on the order being issued for the destruction of the images, they assembled in the market, got their engines into order, built an immense pyre, and passed some nights there in the open air, amid the universal alarm of the citizens; however, they broke into no house, nor did they attack any person, though the chief magistrate, my next-door neighbour, a good speaker, and, as was proved on many occasions, an excellent public servant, was obliged to fly by night in a boat, and would have been killed had he not done so.

Many others also fled through fear, who, however, were recalled by the Council if they wished to enjoy their rights as citizens, but all who favoured the old religion were removed from the Council, so as to put an end to all disunion there. So far the Council had kept the mob under control, and everything that was allowed to be removed from the churches was removed by smiths and workmen employed for the purpose; but they heaped such insults on the images of the saints, and the crucifix itself, that it is quite surprising there was no miracle, seeing how many there always used to be whenever the saints were even slightly offended. Not a statue was left either in the churches, or the vestibules, or the porches, or the monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated by means of a coating of lime; whatever would burn was thrown into the fire, and the rest pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for either love or money. Before long the mass was totally abolished, so that it was forbidden either to celebrate it in one’s own house or to attend it in the neighbouring villages... 

I was rather afraid too that they would try to stop me on my departure, and accordingly I had procured from King Ferdinand two certificates, one inviting me to his court, and the other securing my safe passage through his own and the Emperor’s entire dominions…I loaded two waggons with my books and papers, quite openly, and on this account Oecolampadius and the preachers are said to be incensed against me.” (Erasmus His Life and Character, Robert Blackley Drummond, Vol. II, 1873, London Smith, Elder, & Co. p. 314-316. Italics mine.)

Farel and Neuchatel

Farel was an extremely important figure in spreading the Reformation in western Switzerland, and it was he who induced Calvin to stay and work in Geneva. Farel was a fiery personality, and following the adoption of the Reformed religion in Bern, he was mandated by this city to work in the French-speaking regions of the Vaud (in the west of Switzerland). Bern had secured the independence of this region from a neighbouring Catholic power, and was thus able to impose its man on the region. Farel had the political support and protection of Bern when seeking to induce a largely reluctant population to switch to the Reformed religion. We pick up the story with his endeavours to ‘convert’ the city of Neuchatel.

In Neuchatel, Farel used a different strategy to provoke direct confrontation. He and his associates posted placards in the streets that read, “All those who say mass are robbers, murderers, and seducers of the people.” This had the 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, p. 333)

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.’”

In my reading of the Acts of the Apostles, I do not come across such actions by those sent by the Lord Jesus; they did not go around destroying the objects of Roman idolatry.

Anyway, 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 and declares 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!’”

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.’”

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.”

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 symbols of Catholic superstitions. However, this does not represent ‘holy zeal’, but religious fanaticism.

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.’”

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… ’”

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.”

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 the eruption of more violence, the Catholic authorities called for the presence of Bernese officials.

However, 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.’” (Above quotes from D’Aubigne, Vol. IV, pp. 333-346.)

The Catholic authorities were then, against their wishes, compelled to hold a vote; and the result was that Neuchatel went over to the Reformed religion in 1530 by 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).

Farel made preaching forays into a number of French-speaking communities, many of which quickly drove him out, often with violence. However, Bern ordered that these communities allow Farel to preach freely among them. In some of them Farel did manage to sway the vote in favour of the Reformation in a public disputation, but mostly with the Berneassistance of Bern’s officials, who came to oversee the process. Nevertheless, real success was very limited.

However, things would change 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 there was. The allegiance of this region with its cities, towns and villages had now to switch to Bern, and 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.

The Reformation as a movement was sectarian in nature, it was not spiritual. It did not change the spiritual state of the hearts of its new adherents in the communities it reached – it simply induced them to change their religious allegiance. The iconoclasm we read about above, repeated itself across Europe. This Reformed movement was propelled by and manufactured a sectarian spirit that had nothing to do with Christ and His Church; that had nothing to do with how Christ builds His Church.

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021        

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