Early Life and Labors of William Farel
This section comprises chapters 1 through 5. They are listed below. To go directly to any particular chapter click on the link to that chapter. Otherwise you can scroll down as you read chapter by chapter.
- Chapter 1 – The Holy Cross
- Chapter 2 – Not Battles but Books
- Chapter 3 – A Strange Voice in Paris
- Chapter 4 – A Circle of Friends
- Chapter 5 – Meaux the Cradle of French Reform, A Busy Bishop
The Holy Cross 1489–1500
Among the Alps of Dauphiny is a mountain called the Bayard, near which the traveler passes on the road from Grenoble to Gap. At the foot of the Bayard, about a stone’s throw from the highway, may be seen the old village of the Farels, called by the people of the district, Fareau. It is a mere group of houses, half hidden by the trees, and it shows only the relics of what it was three centuries ago. On a broad terrace, above a hamlet, a cottage now stands on the spot where once stood an elegant mansion. In those days of war and marauding, it was, doubtless, fortified. In that ancient chateau dwelt a family‘, which had some claims to nobility, and yet their name is rescued from silence by the child who was born at Fareau in 1489, and named William de Farel. Rank, fortune and a heroic spirit might have made him more celebrated than his three brothers, Daniel, Walter and Claudius, even had he not become a reformer. Of them and of his one sister we have an occasional glimpse in these pages. We know not but that he was the youngest son. If so the last became the first.
The Farels may have had some knowledge of the Waldenses and their doctrines, but they had reason enough to know that it was a perilous thing to renounce the traditions of the Romish church, and accept the simple truths of the gospel. Certain Waldensian teachers had dared to cross over from Piedmont into Dauphiny, and tell men the glad tidings of a Savior, as their Lord had done among the hills of Judea. Their doctrines were taking root upon the western slopes of the Cottian Alps. Some of the people believed and longed for the Bible. Many, who had been, all their lives, deceived by the priests, became bold in faith, and stood up bravely against the superstitions of the Romish Church. The new converts to the truth were likely to speak more openly than their teachers, for good news must be told to everybody who will hear. The goatherd could tell his neighbors how he had talked with the missionary at the hedge, the traveler how he had walked with him on the highway, the chamois hunter how he had met on the mountain path a man who told him of the true cross and of the good shepherd, and the young man, returning home from the town, could tell how he had heard a man, on the corner of the street, declare “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Too good news to be kept, it began to find its way to many an ear, into many a heart, and many a home, and it may have reached the village, and the very door of the Farels.
But the Romish priests and bishops took the alarm. They claimed the field, and if good seed was sown therein, they were the fowls of the air ready to gather it up. They were the thorns growing up to choke it. They saw that if the kind and harmless Waldenses gained ground, the priests must lose the people. If Jesus Christ should win the hearts of men by his free gospel, the pope world be forsaken, and popery renounced. They talked, they threatened, they laid their plans, and persecution arose.
“These Waldenses and their followers must be destroyed,” said the priests.
“Will the pope send an army to crush them?” asked the bishops, and Innocent VIII, one of the most guilty of mortals, was pleased with the question.
“To arms!” responded the pontiff, “To arms! and trample these heretics under foot as venomous serpents.”
The trumpet rang, the drum was beaten, and an army of more than eighteen thousand men entered the valleys of Dauphiny, and drove these poor disciples of Christ into the mountains, where they took refuge in caverns and in clefts of the rocks, as birds take shelter from the gathering storm. The misnamed Innocent died, and the vicious Borgia continued the cruel work. This bad pope seemed to be more fearful of these unarmed Christians than of the legions of the French King, Charles VIII, who was threatening to sweep Italy with war, and the persecution of a few quiet disciples seemed to please him more than the “gift of the New World lately made to him by Columbus. Not a valley, nor a wood, nor a rock, was left unexplored by the persecutors. The door of the Farels was not open to these hunted Christians, yet, while they were hiding from their merciless foes, a child of that house was lying in his cradle, or in boyish rashness clambering up the rocks of the Bayard, who would one day set the Swiss Alps aflame with that fire which the Savior kindled on earth. He should be greater than any of the nameless ones who had cast the good seed in the valleys of his native land, and been driven away before it grew to the full harvest, and should gain for himself the title of “the Valais Luther.”
The soldiers, who were ready to bind the Lord’s hidden ones in their retreats, or burn them in the villages, had no cause to persecute the Farels, nor had the priests any reason to suspect them of the least departure from the Romish faith and customs. The father and the mother believed everything taught by their church, and brought up their children in its rites and devotions. William, whose nature it was to do nothing by halves, threw his whole soul into the follies of popery. He could cross himself, go to the confessional, respond at the mass, adore the wafer, count his beads, pray to the Virgin Mary, eat no meat on Friday, and tell the Saints’ days in a manner that must have delighted the parish priest. It was said of him as he grew up, that “he was more popish than the pope himself.
William was a bold boy, fond of daring exploits. Like the young David, at home among the wild hills of Bethlehem, he scarcely knew fear, and would not allow defeat where success was possible. He had the moral courage always to tell the truth. What he feared was a lie. If anyone could swim the Buzon when it was high with the torrent from the melting snows, or venture to the pass of the Glaize when the storm threw fearful risk in the path, he was likely to boast of such a daring feat. Men said that nature made him for a brave knight, or a cavalier, but the truth is, God made him for a bold, fearless, unflinching reformer. His temper needed to be curbed, his rashness to be subdued, and his lively imagination to be tamed. His parents had often to check his impetuous nature. If, however, he was bent upon having his own will, it was probably enough to tell him that if he had his own way, he should be kept at home the next saint’s day, or he should not be taken to see “the holy cross,” one of the seven wonders of Dauphiny.
“I can see crosses any day;” we fancy the lad saying, “there is one at almost every corner where two roads come together. Are they not all holy? I always bow to them and say the ‘Ave Maria.’”
“None is so holy as the one at Sainte Croix,” his parents would answer. “The cross in that place is made of the very wood on which Christ was crucified.”
“What is it there for?”
“It was put there by some of the saints or angels, so that good people can make pilgrimages to it, and get an indulgence for a month or two.”
“Then I am going to the holy cross when I am old enough. Why don’t you take me now?”
“You are not good enough yet, my son.”
“But if it will make me better, I ought to see it.”
The wish to visit the holy cross grew stronger in the mind of the child, and his father’s talk about it took the form of a promise. It was before him as an expected visit to Jerusalem was before the mind of a young Hebrew. When William was about eight years old, his parents resolved to take him on the pilgrimage. They went about nine miles to the town of Gap, and then twelve miles southward to Tallard, and then walked up the hill that rises above the roaring stream of the Durance, on which stood the cross.
When they reached the foot of the highly venerated cross, they fell down before it in adoration. They gazed intently on the sacred wood, believing that it once bore the sacred body of the dying Savior. They looked at the copper on it, which the priest said was taken from the basin in which Christ washed the feet of his disciples. The wondering pilgrims then turned their eager eyes to a little crucifix fastened to the larger cross.
“Why is the little cross there?” they asked by their silent gaze.
“When the devils send us hail and thunder,” said the priest, “this crucifix moves about so violently, that it seems to get loose from the cross, as if desirous of running at the devil, and it continues throwing out sparks of fire against the storm; if it were not for this, nothing would be left on earth.”
The credulous pilgrims, with their hair almost standing on end, were deeply moved by the account of these prodigies. No doubt, the father had often argued that the cross was only the sign of the crucified Lord, and that he did not worship the sign, but the Savior whom it represented. Even if the pilgrims intended to adore the Christ, they were not assisted in their devotions by the lying priest. They were not in a mood for even the better sort of Romish devotion.
“No one,” continued the priest, “sees or knows aught of these things except myself and this man.”
“What man?” thought the pilgrims, for they had been so engaged with the cross, and so startled by the prodigious stories, that they had not seen him. On turning their heads, they saw one of the strangest of mortals. William never forgot his appearance, for in old age he said that, “it was frightful to look at him. White scales covered his eyes, whether they were there in reality, or Satan only made them appear so.” Those who did not credit these marvels called him “the priest’s wizard.” The sight of him was enough to provoke, in the minds of the visitors, a doubt of what the priest had declared.
“Is it not all true?” the priest asked of the wizard, as if no one would dare to doubt the man with the scaly eyes.
“True, all true,” said the wizard, “and there’s no blessing to those who do not believe it.”
A new folly was introduced. If the bewildered pilgrims had not heard enough, they were now to see enough to cause them to suspect the morals of the priest. That they were not filled with disgust, only proves how they were steeped to the eyes in Romish superstitions. William remembered the scene to his last days, and in his book on “The true use of the cross,” he thus wrote of it, so that men might know how deep the Romish priests were sunk in folly and crime. “There came up a young woman, intent on other devotion than that of the cross, carrying her infant wrapped in a cloth. Then the priest went up, took hold of the woman and child, and led them into the chapel. I may safely assert that never did dancer take a woman and lead her out more gallantly than these two did. But such was our blindness, that neither their looks nor their gestures, appeared otherwise than good and holy.”
Immoral priests and blinded people! Such were the two elements in almost the entire Romish church of those days. There were some exceptions, but they were found among those who shook off the fetters of popery, and were laboring to reform the church. William Farel was to see some of the worst delusions and vices of Romanism, in order to prepare him for exposing them to the people whom he would point to the true cross of Jesus Christ. The family returned home, and this is the last we hear of their pilgrimages to Sainte Croix.
Crosses similar to the one thus visited are often seen in Romish countries. On a mountainside in Switzerland a tourist once stopped in the road, before a cross set up in a little “oratory,” or place for prayer, which looked somewhat like the small shelter for a watchman on the railroad. It was built of stone, with the front open, and appeared quite ancient. An image of the so-called Virgin Mary was very conspicuous. A small crucifix was fastened to the larger cross, and although the rain was falling, it did not spin around nor throw out sparks of fire, as the priest declared of “the holy cross.” Upon a board was an inscription, which is thus translated:
“Forty days’ indulgence will be given to anyone who will recite before this oratory one Pater Noster, one Ave Maria, and an act of contrition.”
There was Romanism.
While standing there the attention of the traveler was arrested by the music of a little rill of the purest water, gliding down the mountain and directly crossing the path. There it was, free, full, clear as crystal, and right in the way of the pilgrim; a type of the waters of the river of life flowing unceasingly from the throne of God. There was a symbol of Protestantism, which ever sets forth the free grace of God in salvation.
Not Battles But Books 1500–1512
Young Farel was sincere, although superstitious. He believed in Romish miracles, and wished to see whatever pretended to be one. But he was not willing that ignorance should be the mother of his devotion. He thirsted for knowledge. And if the Bible had not been a forbidden book, he must have found the truth at an early age. He knew of no such book as the word of God. He asked permission to study.
“Study what?” we imagine his father saying.
“Whatever is taught in the best schools. I want to be something in the world.”
“Be a soldier then. Put on the armor that hangs in the hall, take the rosary for your heart, and the sword in your hand, and enter the service of Gaston de Foix, or fight for the pope; he needs brave warriors now. Let the sword-hilt be your cross, and you may become a valorous knight before you are gray.
“I would rather be a scholar. Let me read of Caesar before I try to be like Caesar. Let knowledge be my armor and the pen be my sword. I want not battles, but books.”
“Folly, my son! War leads to greatness. Whose name is now on every breeze that comes across the Alps? That of our neighbor, the Chevalier Bayard, the brave knight without fear and without reproach. All Dauphiny is talking of him, since his victory in the battle of the Taro. Like him be fearless and stainless, and you will come to the honors of knighthood.”
“Such are not the honors I wish.”
“Not an honor for one to say with the Chevalier Bayard, ‘My soul is God’s and my life is my country’s!’ Not an honor to guard a bridge against a legion of foes! and when he rebukes profane swearing, and is told it is only a little fault, hear him say, ‘Sir, that cannot be a trifling fault which is a great sin of the age.’ And when a family, in whose house he lodges, offers him a large sum of money for protecting it from the pillage of soldiers, he refuses it, because he defends it for goodness’ sake, and not for gold. Be noble then, and brave as Bayard. This is your best road to glory.”
Thus the father opposed the taste for study which his son manifested, but the young man persisted in having a chance to indulge it. Nobler conflicts and victories were before him than those of the famous Chevalier, and God had his good hand upon him. He was to be clad with “the whole armor of God,” and wield “the sword of the Spirit.” Long and earnestly did he plead with his father, who felt it to be a great blow to all his hopes of seeing the young noble enter upon a military career, but at last the old gentleman gave way, and began to inquire for a competent teacher.
The learned school-master was not then abroad in the land. If priests were the instructors, the education of the mind was likely to be at the expense of the morals. Young Farel would have gained little from the schools of Dauphiny, had there not been in him the strong spirit of self-help. In the text-books the wheat and the tares grew together, and the teachers could scarcely point out the difference between them, nor show the students what to gather into the garner, and what to burn in the fire. But he applied himself to his books as zealously as ever Bayardpushed on into the battle. The difficulties only fired him with ardor to overcome them, and having acquired the most of what his native province could afford, he turned his eyes to the brighter lights of the capital city.
The University of Paris had long been renowned in the Christian world. It was described as “the mother of all learning, the true lamp of the church, which never knew eclipse, that clear and polished mirror of the faith, dimmed by no cloud, and spotted by no touch.” Thus it appeared to the devout Romanist, and thus to the young aspiring Dauphinese. To the Protestant eye of Milman, before whose clear vision marched the centuries of Latin Christianity, it rose stately in its superiority, and powerful in its independence. He says, “If Bologna might boast her civil lawyers, Salerno her physicians, Paris might vie with these great schools in their peculiar studies, and in herself concentrated the fame of all, especially of the highest—theology. The University of Paris had its inviolable privileges, its own endowments, government, laws, magistrates, jurisdiction; it was s state within a state, a city within a city, a church within a church. It refused to admit within its walls the sergeants of the Mayor of Paris and the apparitors of the Bishop of Paris; it opened its gates sullenly and reluctantly to the king’s officers.”
If it excelled in theology, how low must have been the standard of theological attainments! The principal department of theology was called the Sorbonne. The “true lamp of the church” must have been too dim for an eclipse to be possible, when its doctors “looked upon the study of Greek and Hebrew as the most deadly heresy.” They had declared to the parliament that “Religion is ruined if you permit the study of Greek and Hebrew.” They must have agreed with the monks, who asserted that “all heresies arose from those two languages, and particularly from the Greek.” And why this hatred to these two languages? Because in them the Bible was written. If they were studied, the Bible would be read, and the errors of their church exposed. One of them was bold to say, “The New Testament is a book full of serpents and thorns. Greek is a new and recently invented language, and we must be upon our guard against it. As for Hebrew, my dear brethren, it is certain that all who learn it immediately become Jews!”
But, in spite of the Sorbonne, there was in Paris a revival of learning, and the man who led the advance was a proof of the saying, “The last shall be first.” Who had supposed that the young William Budœus, “giving the rein to his passions, fond of the chase, and living only for his hawks, his horses, and his hounds,” would ever cherish in himself, and awaken in others, a thirst for a purer literature? Yet, there was a rein upon him, held in the unseen hand of God. “On a sudden, at the age of twenty-three, he stopped short, sold his hunting-train; and applied himself to study with the zeal he had formerly displayed in scouring the fields and forests with his dogs.” It was his honor to be the chief cause of the revival under Francis the First. So devoted was he to his studies, that he seemed to have little memory for anything else. Even on the very day of his marriage he forgot what was expected of him. The hour for the wedding came, but he did not appear. A messenger was sent to tell him that the affair could not proceed unless he was sent, and he was found absorbed in writing his Commentaries. But he consented to drop his pen and be married to one who could sympathize with him in his pursuits, and aid his memory. His wife was of great assistance to him in his studies, and used to find out and mark the various passages suitable to his purpose. In a rare book, in the British museum, is another anecdote about his literary devotion. One day the servants came running to him, in a great fright, crying out, “Sir, sir, the house is on fire!”
“Why do you not tell your mistress of it?” replied Budœus, coolly. “You know I never trouble myself about the house.” This man, no doubt, did much to call attention to Erasmus, who, toiling up from obscure orphanage, had given all his time to learning; spent his money, when he could get any, upon Greek authors; entered a convent, but soon left it in disgust; came to Paris and studied at the University, and was soon to bring out his edition of the Greek Testament. Budœus may have aided the influence of John Reuchlin, who had passed through the same university, and was preparing to do for the Old Testament what Erasmus was doing for the New. The art of printing came just in time for the publication of the Bible, a proof that God was managing the forces of truth for a great reformation. Whatever the Sorbonne might think, religion was not to be ruined by the study of the sacred languages. It was to be revived and raised from the dead by the voice of Christ, borne to the hearts of men by the word of God.
William Farel, leaving home for the capital city, was going upon a wide, wild sea of opinions; but he was to be guided to the true landing place, not by the university, as a public lighthouse, with its brightening lamp of literature, but by the private torch of a man, walking, in meditative mood, along the shore. This man was seeking for the pearl of great price, and, because of the deep moral darkness, he held his trembling light so carefully, that it could not fail to catch the watchful eye of the young student from the mountains of Dauphiny.
Among the learned men of the university was one of very small stature, mean appearance, humble origin, and poor advantages in early life. His name was James Lefèvre, and he was born about 1445 at Etaples, a village of Picardy, the country of Calvin. His early education would have been rude and scanty, had he not depended upon his genius rather than upon his masters. He struggled up into knowledge, like one clambering a mountain to see the sun gilding the peaks of an Alpine range, and hence his nobleness of soul drew admiration from his friends, who cherished hopes of his greatness. He traveled abroad, even into Asia and Africa, became a doctor of divinity, and in 1493 a professor of the University of Paris, where Erasmus put him in the first rank of scholars. His intellect, learning, and eloquence had a wonderful attraction for all who heard him.
He soon saw work enough to be done, and earnestly assumed the task. He must reform the evil practices of the Romish church, for he loved the church of his birth too well to see it in error. He must attack “the barbarian then prevailing in the University,” and join in reviving the study of languages arid learned antiquity. The classics must not crowd out the Bible. Philosophy must give way to religion. Therefore he began at the only point where a reformation can properly begin. He went to the heart of the Bible, so that it might go to the heart of man.
No man was more captivating in his artless, earnest, and familiar ways of teaching. Serious in the pulpit, he was genial with his students. “He loves me exceedingly,” wrote one of them to his friend Zwingli. “Full of candor and kindness, he often sings, prays, disputes, and laughs at the follies of the world with me.” Thus he drew a great number of disciples, from almost every country, to sit at his feet. They saw that he passed quite as much time in the churches as in his study, and were likely to imitate his devotion. Because the church was in error, he did not abandon it, for if the ship was in a storm and the officers drunk, there was all the better reason for every sailor to be at the post of duty and of danger. He regarded himself as a child in the church, rather than a doctor over it, and because willing to search, he was certain to find the truth which would save.
Lefèvre was a reformer before the reformation. He protested against error before there was any system of Protestantism. Five years must yet pass before Luther would nail his theses to the door of the old church in Wittenberg. Luther had but just found the chained Bible in the convent of Erfurth, and had not heard the good Staupitz say, “If thou wouldst be really converted, follow not these mortifications and penances. Love him who first loved you. God is not against thee, but thou art averse to God. Remember that Christ came hither for the pardon of sins. Cast thyself into the arms of the Redeemer. Trust in him, in the righteousness of his life, in the expiatory sacrifice of his death.” Could Lefèvre have heard such words, he would have found much sooner the treasure which he sought on the shores of truth.
In the year 1510, Luther was on his way to Rome, to witness its abominations, and William Farel was on the way to Paris to study in the University, and to find in Lefèvre a friend among strangers, a guide to the truth, and a father in Christ, for by the private light of this man, the young provincial was to make sure his landing upon the Eternal Rock of salvation.
On the walls of most Romish Churches are hung pictures of different scenes in the sufferings and death of our Lord. The worshippers begin at the first, and pass around to the last, kneeling before each one, and repeating the words of their penance or prayers. These kneeling-places are called stations on the way of the cross. To make the circuit is a pilgrimage.
William Farel had not come to Paris to stroll through the streets, nor to lock himself up in his room and pore night and day over his books. He was a close student, but he did not neglect his religious devotions. He took time for a regular attendance at church, and made it a matter of conscience to visit the stations along the way of the cross. What a privilege to the young villager to kneel before better pictures than he had seen at home, and confess to a more accomplished priest.
One day, when on his pious pilgrimage, he saw an aged man going the rounds, all absorbed in his devotions. He prostrated himself at the stations and lingered, repeating his prayers. He seemed the model of fervor and contrition, as the tears fell, the lips quivered, and the voice rose full and clear in the responses of the public service. There was much in his manner to charm the young stranger, and he could not forget the earnestness of the good old man, saying of him years afterward, “Never had I seen a chanter of the mass sing it with greater reverence.” This little, unpretending, aged man, of the tearful eye and kind face was the eloquent popular and beloved Lefèvre. To become acquainted with him was now the student’s most ardent wish, and without it he could not be happy.
How they met, we know not, but Farel “could not restrain joy when he found himself kindly received by this celebrated man.” It seemed as if he had gained his object in coming to capital. “From that time his greatest pleasure was to converse with the doctor of Etaples, to listen to him, to hear his admirable lessons, and to kneel with him devoutly before the same shrines. Often might the aged Lefèvre and his young disciple be seen adorning an image of the Virgin with flowers; and alone, far from all Paris, far from its scholars and its doctors, they murmured in concert the fervent prayers they offered to Mary.” The teacher, warring against certain errors, still held to some of the most absurd; and the student, who refused to take the sword, still clung to the rosary.
Farel was sincere. He thought that he was right. He was not hoping for a rich benefice, nor preparing to fleece some flock over which he might be placed, nor dreaming of the vicious life then led by so many of the priests. A soul like his was above loving popery for money, or for power, or for indulgence in sin. In his view the pope sat on a throne of God, and ruled in the place of Christ. To obey and worship him as Christ was a part of salvation. If anyone said aught that was ill of the “holy pontiff,” he would “gnash his teeth like a furious wolf,” was ready to call dawn the lightnings of heaven “to overwhelm the guilty wretch with utter ruin and confusion.”
“What do you believe?” we presume to be asked of him by some student who has caught up certain sarcastic remarks of Erasmus about the follies of Romanism. “Do you really believe that a wafer is converted into the very body of Christ?”
“I believe,” said Farel, “in the cross, in pilgrimages, images, vows, and relics. What the priest holds in his hands, puts into the box, and then shuts it up, eats, and, gives others to eat, is my only true God, and to me there is no other, either in heaven or upon earth.”
Still he was not satisfied. His spirit hungered, his soul found no rest. Everything was going from bad to worse. The study of the profane authors brought him not one crumb of the bread from heaven; in the rites of the church there was not one drop of the water of life to quench his thirst. Lefèvre scarcely dared tell him the little truth that he was leaning upon, for he was not quite sure of it himself, and no lame man likes to give away his staff. The student went restless and wretched to several doctors of the age, but they only sent him away more wretched than before. He told them that he wanted to be a real Christian; and they gave him Aristotle as a guide! He read books, bowed to images, adored relies, invoked the saints, kept the fasts and festivals, carried his reverence for Mary to a superstitious extreme, and yet all proved worse than in vain. It was sending him to the brambles, under a delusion that from them he would gather grapes.
In his severe mental sufferings he learned one piece of good news. It was that the “holy father, the pope,” was willing to allow the Old and New Testaments to be called the Holy Bible. Thanks to his holiness for this concession! If he had gone farther and said, with one of the English martyrs, “No writings are holy but the Bible,” it would have settled an important question in the anxious minds of hundreds, who like young Farel, knew not which to believe, Christ or the pope. That question was: which shall we follow—the word of God or the word of the church? Farel thought that, since the pope acknowledged the great good book to be the Holy Bible, he might read it for himself. Surely the pope and the apostles meat agree in their teachings! But as he read the sacred page, he was amazed at seeing how they disagreed, and how different everything in Romanism was from the pure Christianity of the New Testament. Where was the mass taught in the Bible? Where prayer to the saints? Where the adoration of relics? Where the worship of the Virgin Mary? Where confession to priests? Where the paying of money for a pardon? Where purgatory? Where salvation by an endless round of mere works? Certainly not in the Bible. It taught repentance instead of penances, faith in the Crucified rather than the adoration of the cross, prayer to Jesus and not to the saints, and love to God rather than the fear of the pope. In its light he could see that anyone might pray to God in the name of Christ; everyone might come to Jesus and find rest; and no one need to buy his pardon of a priest, nor an indulgence of the “holy father.” He could see that penitents would be safer at Jesus’ feet, and pilgrims better off at home. The thought must have risen in his mind that if priests could convert a wafer into the Deity, they could make anything a God, and if the elevation of the host be a crucifix, then Jesus must be always suffering for our sins.
The young Bible reader went far enough to see that the word of God did not agree with the word of the Church. He scarcely dared go further. He had severe pangs of mind, and struggled to know which to accept. His first effort was the very reverse of what young Luther was now doing, when making the Church give way to the teachings of the chained Bible. The monk of Erfurth thought, in his best hours, that Christ must stand, and the pope must fall, God must be believed, though the Church went to ruin. The Dauphinese student scarcely ventured to think, but first attempted to make the Bible give way to the teachings of popery. If he read any passages of Scripture that opposed the Romish practices, he hung his head, cast his eyes upon his breast, as if trying to get a kind look from his conscience. He blushed, as if ashamed to deny his Lord, and yet dared not believe the word of God. Fearing to keep face to face with the gospel writers, he turned his eyes from the holy book, saying, in deep mental anguish, “Alas! I do not well understand these things. I must give a different meaning to the Scriptures from that which they seem to have. I must keep to the interpretation of the Church, and, indeed, of the pope.”
Thus he must warp and wrest the sacred words, in order to make them agree with his prejudices, and it was hard and painful work. One day a doctor of the Church happened to come in, and he found him reading the Bible. Instead of “a word in season to him that was weary,” a sharp rebuke fell from the tongue of the learned. “No man,” said he, “ought to read the Holy Scriptures before he has learnt philosophy and taken his degree in arts.” It was filling the student’s head with lead. It was giving a stone to him who asked for the bread of life. Farel believed him, although no such literary preparation was required of the disciples when, as fishermen, they entered the school of Christ, nor of any of the common people, who heard him gladly. His rule was one which holds good in all ages, and among all people,-“Search the Scriptures.” The Bible reader was in the depths of mental darkness, and, long after, he gave thanks for the great and wonderful work of God in raising him from such an abyss. He looked back, and said, “I was the most wretched of men, shutting my eyes, lest I should see.”
It seems that he began to be afraid of the Bible, lest it should destroy his faith in the Church, and his love for its rites. As he left it unopened, his Romish fervor returned. He threw his whole soul into his mistaken devotions. He gained, among the people, a reputation for zeal. The keener-sighted Romanists cultivated him, as the shrewd priests in Zurich had sought to enlist young Zwingli in their interests, lest he should think too much, see too many gross evils, and have his mind turned toward a reform. They had learned from the boldness of Huss, Savonarola, Jerome of Prague, and the various “reformers before the Reformation,” that such men must be managed in time, if they were prevented from making a noise in the world, and striking such blows at the papacy that its wounds could never be healed. It was wiser to use gentle arts, and persuade them into active service when young, than to allow them to mature their powers by reading and thinking, and then burn them in old age for “heresy.”
“You grow thin by study—your mind is oppressed,” they would say, “you need exercise; you should do something that will engage your heart in good works, and thus relieve your burdened intellect.”
“My pilgrimages give my heart exercise,” we hear Farel replying. “I try to do all the good works that will save the soul.”
“True, they may save the soul; but you must not wear out your body. The Church wants a long life from you. Visit the poor. Give them charities. Urge them to the stations, the confessional, and the mass.”
“Ah! I am not worthy thus to imitate Christ.”
“But we have work for you to do. There are poor students here, who need help, and there are rich men to aid them. We can trust you. Let us put the money in your hands, that you may dispense it among the needy.”
Farel assented, and many devout rich persons in Paris entrusted him with various sums, to be given to the poorer students. The work was faithfully performed by one who had the nicest scruples of conscience in all matters of honesty and charity.
“Cheer up your mind by reading the lives of the saints,” we hear the eagle-eyed watchers saying to the still sad student.
“Were not the apostles the best of saints?” he replies. “Their teachings give me trouble.”
“They are too exalted for you. You are not prepared to understand them. Take first those nearer to our own age.”
“The fathers of the Church, then—but they would not agree with the Church of our day.”
“Leave them until you have your degree of arts. Read not of those who wrote their doctrines, but of those who were poor, who made long pilgrimages, who fasted in deserts, who mortified themselves in caves, who had visions, who wrought miracles, and who left for us the merit of their good works and penances.”
“Show me the books. Their works may give me more light than the words of those who taught what we must not now believe.”
The books were furnished, and Farel read them until his imagination was inflamed by the legends of the saints. In his heart he admired the invented stories of their zeal, their coarse fare and rough berry garments, their bare-foot pilgrimages, their self-tortures, the visits paid them by angels and by the Virgin Mary, and their entire freedom from mortal sin. The most disgusting tales of their voluntary filthiness were beautiful romances of a willing humiliation. He mistook their low and idle lives for that of a high and almost heavenly existence, and began to think of living like them.
In the deep shades of a forest near Paris, was a monastery of Carthusian monks, useless on earth, but making the world serve them better than was suspected abroad, in its reverence for their supposed piety. Farel was attracted toward them. Perhaps he had heard of their brethren. in the old convent of Chartreux (Cartusium), not far from his native place. There was something romantic in its history. Bruno of Cologne had become disgusted with the evils in the church in that old city, rather than with the world, and he sought to get out of both as nearly as possible. He coveted solitude. In the wild valley of the Chartreux, not far from Grenoble, he settled himself, about the year 1084, with twelve companions. They built a monastery for their worship, but did not live in it lest they should be too much together. They built separate cells by the side of it, and each one spent his time by himself in silence, study and labor enough to keep him alive. Their order increased in numbers and influence, and several branches were established in Europe, like the one in the woods near Paris. Their rules were most severe, if we may judge from those laid down for the monastery of Camaldula, built on one of the bleakest of the Apennines. Two words expressed them—solitude and silence. All else was but an exception to the rules. They met at worship, they ate silently together on certain festivals, and they met at times to inflict each other by speechless discipline. One daily meal of bread, or vegetables, and water, was often given up, so that they might enjoy the merit of a severer fast. Money they might not touch, and no comforts were allowed in their cells. Their silence was broken only when they prayed or chanted, and when they indulged in a little talk at eventide. The recluse among them took an awful vow of perpetual silence and seclusion. His voice might be heard in lonely prayer, and three days in the year he could attend the mass of Easter week, but he must speak to no human being, save the priest, whom he called by the sound of his bell to hear his confession. Such monks might easily lose their senses, and thus imagine that they were rid of their sins.
These severe rules had a charm for young Farel, now carried away by reading the lives of the saints. He went to the forest, and was admitted to the group of gloomy cells. He looked on the inmates with reverence, and shared, for a little time, in their austerities. The benefit he received is strongly set forth in his own words, penned at a later day. “I was wholly employed, day and night, in serving the devil, after the fashion of that man of sin, the pope. I had my Pantheon in my heart, and such a troop of mediators, saviors, and gods, that I might well have passed for a papal register.”
The darkness in his soul could not well grow deeper. He was sunk quite as low in Romanism as Luther when, but lately, he was on his knees creeping up Pilate’s staircase in order to gain the pope’s indulgence. But Luther seemed to hear a sound in his ears, as if an angel spoke to him, as he there remembered the words, “The just shall live by faith.” He started up, ashamed of his folly, and fled with all haste from the scene. It was the power of a well-read and remembered Bible. But Farel was alarmed by no such memory of a great truth which opposed Romanism. How or when he left the Carthusians we know not, but his stay was not long. Perhaps he was attracted to Lefèvre, at whose voice the morning-star was soon to arise, and chase the heavy gloom from heart.
A Strange Voice in Paris
“My dear William,” said Lefèvre one day when returning from the mass, as he grasped the hand of his young friend, “God will renew the world, and you will see it.”
“Often have you said this to me, but I do not yet fully understand your words.”
“Ah, one cannot tell what light is until it fills his eye, nor what life is until he feels it in his soul. God will soon give us both—new light by his holy truth, new life by his Holy Spirit. The word of God will take the place of the word of the church. We must give up the ‘Lives of the Saints,’ and read the words of the apostles.”
“But are you not going on to publish those lives? I have been delighted with the two monthly numbers now issued.”
“No, no; I began with zeal the laborious task of collecting and arranging them in the order of their names in the calendar. But I am weary of them. They disgust me. They are foolish legends at best, and many of them are the false tales of monks, who could write a life to order without any knowledge of the facts.”
“You astound me, father Lefèvre.”
“I wish to, if there be no other way to keep you from having anything more to do with these legends. They are puerile superstitions, and are no better than brimstone fit to kindle the fire of idolatry. They cause us to idolize the saints, and to treat our Lord with neglect. They are too paltry fables to keep us from the sublime word of God.”
“How came you to know this so suddenly?”
“By one of those beams of light, which come from heaven through the Holy Scriptures all at once, I was struck with the impiety of addressing prayers to the saints. Go, dear William, to the Bible.”
Lefèvre had taken a long and sure step. The Reformation began in France at the moment when he laid aside the wondrous tales of the monks, and put his hand on the word of God, fully resolved to interpret all other things by it. Not the Breviary, but the Bible should henceforth be his authority. He studied the epistles of Paul, and light beamed on his mind; life was breathed into his heart. By the press, and from the pulpit, he began to teach men, and “open unto them the Scriptures.” That favorite idea, “God will renew the world,” so often expressed to Farel, appears in his Commentary on Paul’s epistles. “God, in his great mercy, will soon revive the expiring spark in the hearts of men, so that faith and love, and a purer worship will return.”
Strange doctrines were then first heard publicly in Paris—strange because they had been lost for centuries, and yet inasmuch as they were boldly declared in the very bosom of the Sorbonne. The roof of the university had reason to cry out in astonishment, as it reechoed the words of Lefèvre. “It is God alone,” he declared, “who, by his grace, through faith, justifies unto everlasting life. There is a righteousness of works, there is a righteousness of grace; the one cometh from man, the other from God; one is earthly and passeth away, the other is heavenly and eternal; one is the shadow and the sign, the other the light and the truth; one makes sin known to us, that we may escape death, the other reveals grace, that we may obtain life.
“What, then?” asked his hearers, as they, listened to this teaching, so opposed to that of four centuries. “Has any one man ever been justified without works?”
“One! they are innumerable,” replied the zealous preacher, whose young disciples were aroused and eager for the truth. “How many people of disorderly lives, who have ardently prayed for the grace of baptism, possessing faith in Christ alone, and who, if they died the moment after, have entered into the life of the blessed, and that without works!”
“If, therefore, we are not justified by works,” said his listeners, “it is vain that we perform them.”
“Certainly not! They are not in vain. If I hold a mirror to the sun, its image is reflected; the more I polish and clear it, the brighter is the reflection; but, if we allow it to become tarnished, the splendor of the sun is dimmed. It is the same with justification in those who lead an impure life.”
Thus taught the Paris doctor, not altogether free from error, but so near the greatest truth which man can know, that the light was brilliant. And, while all wondered, many believed. From this time, there were two parties in the university, two people in the city, and there began to be two great divisions in Christendom—those who put works above faith, and those who put faith before works; one people exalting the Church of Rome as the infallible teacher and the sole dispenser of eternal life on earth, the other trusting to the word of God as the only unerring guide and adoring Christ as the only Savior of men.
Farel listened, as for life, to this teaching of justification by faith, and he saw, at once, in which great division to take his place. The doctrine that Jesus was the only Saviour, and one such Savior was enough, had a weighty charm for his heart, and a glorious power over his soul. “Every objection fell, every struggle ceased. No sooner had Lefèvre put forward this doctrine, than Farel embraced it with all the ardor of his nature. He had undergone labor and conflicts enough to be aware that he could not save himself.” He forgot his admired saints; he lost all sympathy with the monks of the forest; he gave up all human merit; he believed in Jesus. To himself he seemed strange; it was the old Saul of Tarsus trying to make out who was the new Paul; the old Simon astonished at the new Peter. In later years he wrote, “Lefèvre extricated me from the false opinion of human merits, and taught me that everything came from grace, which I believed as soon as it was spoken.” Thus, with trembling step, he took his place in the ranks of the men of faith.
The men of works were not slow to fall into line, and prepare for the contest. There were professors in the colleges and doctors of the Sorbonne ready to display their generalship; there were students ready to volunteer in defending human merit. Many, whose works were bad and disgraceful, urged, all the more zealously, their dependence in good works. They knew little of the great question, for they had passed through no struggles of soul for life, and, instead of caring for the Bible, they had been “engaged in learning their parts in comedies, in masquerading, and in mountebank farces,” so much so that parliament had summoned their teachers and forbidden “those indulgent masters to permit such dramas to be represented in their houses.” In these plays the great were ridiculed, the princes caricatured, and the king attacked. The government felt obliged to interfere.
But the hand of parliament could only provoke the disorderly students. The voice of the preacher gave them a new and powerful diversion. From comedies their thoughts were turned to debates about faith and works. “Great was the uproar on the benches of the University,” and every student must take sides with Lefèvre or with the Sorbonne. With the latter gathered not only the young men of careless minds and evil deeds, but also many whose lives were the least at fault. The more upright class took credit to themselves for their moralities, and not willing to let the doctrine of faith condemn their “good works,” they urged that James, their apostle, was opposed to Paul, the apostle of. Lefèvre. The gospel doctor was quicker than Luther to see how these two apostles perfectly agreed together, one looking at faith as the starting point, and the other at works as the evidence of salvation.
“Doth not St. James in his first chapter declare that every good and perfect gift cometh down from above?” asked Lefèvre with the gentle persuasion of a Paul, eager to carry his hearers with him by arguments. “Now who will deny that justification is the good and perfect gift? … If we see a man moving, the respiration that we perceive is to us a sign of life. Thus works are necessary, but only as signs of a living faith, which is followed by justification. Do eye-salves or lotions give light to the eye? No! it is the influence of the sun. Well these lotions and these eye-salves are our works. The ray that the sun darts from above is justification itself.”
Faith is the link that binds us to Christ, and yet it is more than a link, it is a life. Lefèvre did not dwell on this living link alone; he went farther and exhibited Jesus in whom he believed. Like Luther he could almost paint the true cross in his eloquence, and still he felt that no tongue could do justice to the vicarious death of Christ. It was unspeakable. “Ineffable exchange,” he declared, “the innocent One is condemned, and the criminal acquitted; the Blessing is cursed, and he who was cursed is blessed; the Life dies, and the dead live; the Glory is covered with shame, and he who was deep in shame is covered with glory.”
Then rising still higher toward that sovereign love which sent such a divine Redeemer to sinful men, and dwelling on the privilege of being loved before they loved God, and being chosen afore they chose Jesus, he exhorted his hearers to live as if their lives were hid with Christ. “Oh if men could but understand this privilege, how chastely, purely and holily would they live, and they would look upon all the glory of this world as disgrace in comparison with that inner glory which is hidden from the eyes of the flesh.”
Was this too lofty a strain of eloquence for some of his hearers on whose corrupt minds a gross darkness lay? He would give them a word in season, for the arrow of truth must prepare them for the balm of Gilead. He must not prophesy smooth things. Even the clergy of his day must be rebuked their revels, and the sins of the times he touched with unsparing fidelity. With an indignation against sin, tempered by love for the sinner, he exclaimed, “How scandalous it is to see a bishop asking persons to drink with him, gambling, rattling the dice, spending his time with hawks and dogs, and in hunting, hallooing after rooks and deer, and frequenting the worst of houses and haunts! … Oh men deserving a severer punishment than Sardanapalus himself!”
Did not Farel remember the “holy cross,” and wish the priest of Sainte Croix could hear such reproofs? The tales there told to him when a child now appeared as the baldest lies. He saw too the evidence of a general deception in the use of “holy relics.” The “holy cross” near Tallard was said to be made of the very wood of the one on which Christ was crucified. In Paris he had been adoring another cross of which the same story was told. Yet the wood was of a different kind! For others still there were the same lying pretensions, and he now wondered how he had ever been so stupid as to believe that the real cross of Calvary had been preserved. He repented, with deep sorrow, of his blindness, credulity and superstitious reverence.
“When the corruptions of the Romish church,” wrote Farel in after years, “are unveiled to the soul that has been drawn aside by them, its sense of their enormity is so overwhelming, that only the clear exhibition of the welcome doctrine of salvation by Christ can prevent a man from utter despair or losing his senses.”
But it was only daylight with the young Dauphinese; not yet was it clear sunshine. Some clouds must be broken and scattered before his noon would come. He had closed the Bible, and he must open it again and from the very fountains drink the crystal waters of eternal life. He must hear, not only the voice of Lefèvre, but the voice of Jehovah.
Thus Lefèvre preached; thus Farel believed. But, at length, the admiration of the saints returned upon him like a Satanic spell. To pray to them seemed easier than to pray to Christ. They had no merit to give him; they must not be trusted in for salvation; Jesus only was the Savior on whom his faith must be fixed. He saw all that, but yet, might not the saints help bear his prayers to God? Christ alone must be trusted, but was Christ alone to be invoked? He was troubled, and he carried his question to Lefèvre.
“My dear son,” said the spiritual father, “we cannot be sure that the saints hear any words we speak. We know they cannot hear different persons, in different places, at the same time. We are sure that Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Ghost, do hear us, and to this holy Trinity only we are at liberty to pray. We must hold to what is certain and abandon everything that doubtful.”
“But the saints have such a feeling for us.”
“Jesus has infinitely more. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He knows us altogether. No saint can have such a tender sympathy for us as Christ. He alone hath trodden the wine-press. He only is the Head of the Church. Let us not call ourselves after St. Paul or St. Peter, but, in test, let us be Christians. Let the servant pray only to the her. Our prayers must reach the willing ear of God, or they are useless. Then let them go up directly to him.”
The soul of Farel was now shaken by conflict. Two views opened before him. In one he saw the vast array of saints, with the Church on earth; in the other, Jesus Christ, alone, with his teacher. Now, he inclined to the saints, now, to the Savior. It was his last error, and he must decide his last battle. He was almost carried over to those revered men and at whose feet thousands fell adoring. Had he also fallen there, he must have exalted Mary above her divine Son and Lord. But God struck the blow for him; the spell was broken, the enchantment gone. The saints were in a cloud, and Christ appeared in his glory, as deserving of all adoration. Never could he render him reverence enough. And why waste adoration upon the holiest saint in paradise? It was robbing the Lord of his right to all the tribute of the heart. Referring to this last conflict, when he forever renounced the word of the Church, he wrote, “Then popery was utterly overthrown. I began to detest it as devilish, and the holy word of God had the chief place in my heart.”
“It was necessary,” he again wrote, “that popery should fall, little by little, from my heart, for it did not tumble down at the first shock. … O Lord, would that my soul had served thee with a living faith, as thy obedient servants have done! Would that it had prayed to thee and honored thee, as much as I have given my heart to the mass, and to serve that enchanted wafer, giving it all honor! I have known thee too late; too late have I loved thee!”
From the stormy sea., Farel had now reached the port, guided by the light of his aged friend; and no man who ever exchanged a wrecked and sinking ship for the solid, healthy land, could have been more delighted with the new appearance of all things around him. Days of languor and disgust at sea give the traveler a keen wish for the fruits of the land; and thus, Farel, long soul-sick, but now having a firm footing on the shore of heavenly truth, craved and enjoyed the bread of life in the gospel. The desire for holy truth gives to it an enduring newness, for love never permits its object to seem old. “Now,” said he, “everything appears to me under a new aspect. The Bible has a new face, Scripture is cleared up, prophecy is opened, the apostles shed a strong light on my soul. A voice, till now unknown—the voice of Christ, my Shepherd, my Master, my Teacher—speaks to me with power. So great a change has come over me, that, instead of keeping the murderous heart of a ravening wolf, I have come back quietly, like a meek and harmless lamb, with my heart entirely withdrawn from the pope, and wholly given to Jesus Christ.”
Drawn from the abyss of popery, he must now go deeply into the Bible, enriching himself with its treasures. With absorbing interest he began the study of Greek and Hebrew, without neglecting his other studies, on which he set a just value. In order to hide the word of God in his heart, he read it daily, and God gave him increasing light and life. Now he gave the Scriptures just the meaning which was apparent in them; what conflicted with them he cast away; what agreed with them he held fast. No longer did he “keep to the interpretation of the Church, and, indeed, of the pope.” No more did he think that his “degree in arts” must precede those degrees which the apostle—not the pope—Peter laid down: “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” “Giving all diligence, add to your faith, virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity.”
On the walls of many an old church in Europe, one sees a dial, whose only use consists in casting a shadow that will mark time of day. Any sort of light will give the hand a shadow. It may be that of a lamp or of the moon. But only one light give the right shadow. It must be sunshine, falling direct from the unclouded face of that glorious orb which rules the day. Thus it is with the Bible. We may read it in the light of its beautiful poetry and touching eloquence; in the light of science and theology; in the light of antiquity and history; in the light of commentaries and sermons; and, while the darkness is driven from the intellect, the soul may derive no spiritual benefit. No mark is there, telling its advance in the circle of Christian graces. Only one light can throw a saving impression of the Bible on the soul, and that is the light of the Holy Spirit. When he shines upon the gospel-page, he carries its power into the heart, and, instead of mere shadows, there are burning beams. The hand of God touches the soul, and, beneath every finger, a new grace is started, or an old one revived. These graces are the degrees of the Christian’s dial. From the time Farel had first read the Bible, trying in vain to make it agree with the teachings of the Church, the mark on his soul had gone backward ten degrees. But, now, under the shining of the Spirit, he understands the word; he feels its transforming power; he believes, he rejoices, he grows. He loves the truth, and that love is a mark of his being face to face with the Comforter, and with the Sun of Righteousness, which had risen upon his heart with healing in its wings.
From the study of Church history he derived great benefit, for, by its facts, he uprooted many an error that had grown deep in his mind. He found that, in the early centuries, the Christians prayed to God, and not to the saints. They confessed their sins to Christ, and not to a priest. They knew nothing of the mass, the consecrated wafer changed into the very body of the Lord, the stations of the way of the cross, the gazing on pictures, the worship of images, the adoration of relics, the pope and his cardinals, the sign of the cross, the rosary, the holy water, the holy unction, the prayers for the dead, the merit which saints leave for sinners, and the doctrine of purgatory. They were as ignorant of all these essentials of popery, as the devotees of the pope were of the simple spiritual life of the early Christians. The ancient Church was a field, sown thick with the good seed of the kingdom, but an enemy had sown tares therein. That enemy was Romanism. Both had long grown together, until the tares had choked the wheat, or overlaid it; and now the harvest was come, and the tares must be cast away, and the wheat gathered into the store-house of the soul, so empty that men were perishing for want of that bread which came down from heaven. Thus, Farel discarded great bundles of error.
Still, Farel needed a church, where he might publicly worship God. Where could he go? Lefèvre could not make one for himself and his disciple. Not yet was there any organized Protestantism. The only hope, then, was to see Romanism reformed. Farel saw .no other way but to attend the Romish churches, and there worship God in spirit, as Jesus did in the temple, where, in spite of his cleansing, there were all the errors of the Pharisees. But, what did he find there? Loud voices, long chantings, prayers in a dead language, smoke and formalities. There was the priest seen at the confessional; but, might Christ be there, unseen, and ready to forgive sins? There was the corrupt liturgy; but, might not a pure, unwritten litany go up from his heart, acceptably, to the Hearer of prayer? There was the outward form of godliness, without the power; but, might not he have the inward power, without the form? God was everywhere, and he, even there, would worship him in spirit and in truth. Jesus had said, “Lo, I am with you alway;” and, under cathedral roofs that threw back the smoke of papal censers to the cold stone floors, he would adore the Crucified, without the pretended help of a cross, or “the elevation of the host.” Nor needed he the dove on the painted window to assure him that the Spirit, who came down at Pentecost, could enter the church, and fill his soul with something better than a “dim religions light,” kindle the heavenly flame in his heart, and give him the tongue of fire.
The stations had lost their charm. The images had no attraction. The altars drew not his knees to the ground. The confessional brought no sigh from his heart, nor gave him a quivering lip. Standing one day in a crowd that was gazing on pictures, or bowing to crosses, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and said, “Thou, alone, art God! Thou, alone, art wise! Thou, alone, art good! Nothing must be taken away from thy holy law, and nothing added. For thou, alone, art the Lord, and thou, alone, wilt and must command.”
To him now, priests, and pope, and teachers, were mere men. Lefèvre was only a man, loved and venerated still, but not standing as a mediator between him and Christ. The saints had been but men, many of them the best of the earth, yet fallen from the lofty height to which his imagination had raised them. The old Pantheon in his heart had crumbled to the dust. Christ was the one mediator, and God’s word the supreme law.
These grand results were attained by slower steps than our pages have moved onward, but freedom came to the soul of Farel about the date 1520, when he was full thirty years of age. Luther was then making a powerful impression in France, notwithstanding the decisions of the Sorbonne. Let Luther have the credit of being the great workman of the sixteenth century, and the chief reformer. But we take nothing from him when we give their due to the Paris doctor and his disciple. Farel was not guided by Luther or Zwingli; he and they were struggling for light and for life about the same time. Lefèvre was before them all, and hence Beza hails him as the man “who boldly began the revival of the pure religion of Jesus Christ, and as, in ancient times, the school of Isocrates sent forth the best orators, so from the lecture-room of the doctor of Staples issued many of the best men of the age and of the church.”
Although there was still in this bold teacher a tinge of the Sorbonne, yet “he is the first catholic in the reform movement, and the last of reformers in the (Roman) Catholic movement.” D’Aubigné says farther, “The Reformation was not, therefore, in France a foreign importation. It was born on French soil; it germinated in Paris; it put forth its first shoots in the University itself, that second authority in Romish Christendom. God planted the seeds of this work in the simple hearts of a Picard and a Dauphinese, before they had begun to bud in any other country on earth. If we look only at dates we must acknowledge that neither to Switzerland nor to Germany [Zwingli in the one and Luther in the other] belong the honor of having begun this work, although hitherto these countries alone have contended for it. This honor belongs to France.”
The wonder is that in these three countries the light should break forth so nearly at the same time, when the watchmen saw not eye to eye, nor heard each other’s voice, nor laid any plans in concert. It proves that each one acted under an unseen power, who had planned the movement on an extended scale. With no communication one with the other, all struck their blows about the same time, “as in a battle all the divisions of an army begin to move about the same moment, although one has not told the other to march,” for the chief commander has given the same order to each one of them. This is a proof that God chose the time, the places, and the men, and the great movement of the sixteenth century was the work of God.
When about thirty years of age, Farel could no longer have a good conscience and remain in the Romish church. He forsook her communion, with a feeling of abhorrence toward himself and of the errors in which he had so long been enthralled. Not far from this time he was recommended by Lefèvre and elected to a professorship in the celebrated college founded by Cardinal Lemoine, one of the four principal colleges of the theological faculty in Paris, equal in rank to the Sorbonne. He soon became the regent, an honor which had always been given to men of learning and eminence. He filled the office with great credit to all concerned, during the short time that a persecution was preparing, and his name was held in delightful remembrance by his colleagues and students.
A Circle of Friends 1512–1520
When one maple puts forth its leaves in the early spring, we may know that the sap is in all the trees of its kind, and they will soon be in full leaf. The new life in Lefèvre and Farel was soon to be manifested by other souls of their class, whom we now introduce as opponents of many evils in popery, if all of them were not yet friends of the reformation. We may know more of Farel by the company he keeps and the stirring times in which he began his career.
James Allmain, in 1512, took a position of astonishing boldness, for one of the youngest doctors of the University. Thomas de Vio, who afterwards contended with Luther on two great moral battlefields, Augsburg and Leipsic, had published the doctrine that the pope was the absolute monarch of the church. If Julius II was his favorite specimen of a pope, there was need of strong argument to make thinking Frenchmen believe that dogma. This man was supposed to have taken the name “Julius” with an eye to the military fame of the first of the Caesars, and was soon involved in a war with France. This pretended “vicar of Christ,” assumed to imitate the Blessed One by holding down his head when the multitudes applauded him, and once a year washing the feet of twelve beggars. But he was as unlike our Lord as darkness is unlike the day. He was high-tempered, profane, drunken and dissolute; cruel in war, weak in peace, and ambitious to extend the temporal power of the popedom. Yet, he sought to command respect by the long beard on a face of sixty, and by wearing a tiara of massive gold, covered with costly gems. Under such a fallible pope the dogma of papal infallibility was firmly established. Thus at the very time when Anti-Christ put forth most strongly his three claims of spiritual dominion, temporal power, and infallibility, Christ was coming again to the world.
The troops of the French king, in whose service was the Chevalier Bayard at the time, gained a victory over this papal Caesar. Louis XII, “the father of his people,” was well prepared to doubt the dogma of Cardinal de Vio’s book when it was put in his hands. He laid it before the university. To refute it seemed a bold undertaking. Allmain, a man of profound genius and unwearied application, made the daring attempt. He read his essay before the faculty of theology, showed the falsity of the cardinal’s assertions, and received the greatest applause. Such courage is contagious, and a fire was kindled in the hearts of many of the students. Before long, the brothers Arnaud and Gerard Roussel, two fellow countrymen of Lefèvre, with several others, gathered to the newly-raised standard.
A greater than these was admitted into this growing circle of generous minds—Count William of Montbrun, the son of Cardinal Briconnét. After the death of his wife, he had entered the Church, given his heart to study, taken orders, and was now the Bishop of Meaux. Twice he was sent on an embassy to Rome, and, on his return to Paris, he was astonished at what had taken place. He was expected to have much to say about the gay entertainments and festivals of “the holy city,” but his thirst for the truth led him to more solemn and important matters. He renewed his former acquaintance with Lefèvre. He passed many precious hours with him, with Farel, the two Roussels, and their friends. Illustrious as a prelate, he was, nevertheless, humble-minded, and was willing to be taught by the humblest Christian, and especially by the Lord himself.
“I am in darkness,” said he, “awaiting the Divine goodness, to which I am a stranger, because of my demerits.”
“Get into your heart more of that good Bible, which I have already recommended to you,” said Lefèvre. “It will give you light. It will lead you back to the pure Christianity of the early Church.”
“I have read it. But my mind is dazzled by the brilliancy of the gospel. Free grace, free pardon, the free gift of eternal life and heaven offered freely to all who will simply believe in Christ—these amaze me. The eyes of all men are not able to receive the whole light of this great sun.”
“We need a great sun to chase away the night that rests on the world. It is the glory of Christianity that it causes our eyelids to droop before its infinite mercy.”
The gentle bishop read still more eagerly, and the simple and weighty truth of salvation by faith charmed his soul. He found Christ; he found God, in Christ, reconciling sinners to their Father. “Such is the sweetness of this divine food,” said he, “that it makes the mind insatiable; the more we taste it, the more we long for it.” Again, representing himself as a house, too narrow for Jesus to dwell in, he says, “But the dwelling enlarges according to our desire to entertain the good Guest. Faith is the quartermaster who alone can find room for him, or, more truly, who makes us dwell in him.”
And, now, from the court of the king, comes a still greater personage, the Princess Margaret, the Esther of the palace. Let us notice her steps, as she walks softly in the dawn of that morning when God was renewing the world. The same “still small voice,” which had been calling Lefèvre and his band out of the night into the day, has prompted her to seek the light. We must go back a little, in order to understand her position.
Louis XII had left some bright lines in his record. He had opposed the temporal power of the pope with a conquering army. He had resisted the papal pretensions to absolute rule in the Church, and probably was glad that Allmain had exposed their fallacy. He was no friend to the infallibility of such popes as Borgia and Julius the profane. All this must have been known among the princes. It is even said that he had a coin struck with the inscription Perdam Babylonis nomen—”I will destroy Babylon.” He knew that the Babylon of his day was Romanism. In the year 1501 he had made a journey through Dauphiny. It was at the time when the Waldenses were exciting a needless alarm among the priests, and Farel was a child of twelve. Some of the nobles begged the king to rid their provinces of these teachers. He was curious to learn what evil they had done, and sent his confessor, Parvi, to visit the accused. The report brought back was so favorable that Louis said, “They are better Christians than we are.” He commanded the goods taken from them to be restored, and the papers, which gave them authority to prosecute these “better Christians,” to be cast into the Rhone.
Nor was this all. About the year 1510 Louis invited the French clergy to meet him in council at Tours. He seemed to anticipate a reform, and, had it taken place during his reign, the whole of France might have become Protestant. The council declared that he had the right to wage war upon the pope, and that all popes were under the authority of the general councils. From Tours came very much to talk about in the university—the city and the court—and a deep impression must have been made on the mind of young Farel, who had lately come to Paris. But what would the courtiers, the royal heir, and a certain young princess, think of all this conduct of the king?
If a wicked woman deserves to go unmentioned, then Louisa of Savoy should be treated with that silence which condemns. The less written of her profane character the purer our page. The shame is that she had great influence in the kingdom. The honor is that one of her two children, growing up in the court of Louis, was so unlike her as to merit a place in church history. No thanks to her for this, but to the truth of God. Her son was a prince of tall stature, striking features, and so strong a will that the king often said, “That great boy will spoil all.” This was Francis, the cousin of Louis. “His beauty and address, his courage and love of pleasure, made him the first knight of his time. He aspired, however, at being something more; he desired to be a great and even a good king, provided everything would bend to his sovereign pleasure. Valor, a taste for letters, and a love of gallantry, are three terms that express the character of Francis and the spirit of the age.” Learned men gathered around him, and the strange thing is, as shall see, that he did not join with the reformers, for a tender and gentle being at his side held over him a guardian power.
This gentle being was his sister, two years older than himself, and so queenly in her personal excellence that all her titles seem to add nothing to her greatness. To be Margaret of Valois, then duchess of Alençon, then queen of Navarre, was little honor compared to that of being a fervent Christian, the protector of the Protestants, the patron of young Calvin, and the devoted friend of Lefèvre, who passed the seven last years of his life in the refuge of her home, and there died at the age of nearly a hundred years.
But she is young now, and she does not dream of these honors. Her cousin Louis spares no pains in her education; her mother’s example is warning enough against the temptations that beset a princess; her brother tenderly loves her, or rather sends back a tithe of the flood that pours upon him from her own heart, and all wonder that such a bad woman as Louisa could have so good a daughter as Margaret. What is it to be the most beautiful, intelligent, witty, amiable and influential princess of her time? What is it to be gifted with poetry, accomplished in literature, and exalted in station? What is it to be esteemed by scholars, visited by ambassadors, and consulted by her king? A happiness that thousands would covet and think worthy the risk of their souls. But she is intent upon something far better. To prevent evil and to do good is her ruling passion. And when the gospel comes it is hailed as good news from heaven, as bread to the hungry soul, and as her defense against the evils of a corrupt court. Certain ladies tell her of the new doctors; they lend her the new little books; they tell her of the ancient church and the word of God; she listens, reads and believes. She walks out to breathe the fresh air of the revival morning, and catches some glimpses of the Light of the world. She talks with Lefèvre, Farel and Roussel; she is struck with their pure morals; their piety and their earnestness, and she is entered on the list of friends to the new movement. The bishop of Meaux becomes her guide in the path of faith.
Francis was crowned in 1515, and there was some hope that he would go beyond Louis, his father-in-law, and extend his shield to those brave men who were using spiritual weapons against popery. He invited learned reformers into his kingdom, and heard them talk with delight. He founded professorships of Greek and Hebrew, to the great joy of Beza. He listened to his affectionate sister and was almost persuaded to be a Christian. But the court thought it would never do for the king to lend his hand in turning the world upside down. These reformers must be treated with contempt, and even persecution might teach them silence. Margaret’s new opinions were whispered to the courtiers; their surprise was great, their talk was loud, their ridicule was keen. “What! the sister of the king take part with these new people! It must not be!” It seemed for the moment that her doom had come. She was denounced to Francis I. He, as her brother, pretended to think the charge was untrue. Then her noble character silently rebuked her reprovers. They could not resist the charm of her good deeds. Everyone loved her, says Brantome; “She was very kind, mild, gracious, charitable, affable, a great almsgiver, despising nobody, and winning all hearts by her excellent qualities.”
No preacher could have done what Margaret was doing among the better minds at the French court. Her life pleaded the cause of the gospel with that eloquence which consists in actions more convincing than words. The new doctrine was gaining the nobles of France. If the king had followed his persuading sister, the nation might have opened its gates to Christ, and Margaret’s conversion saved it from those storms which afterwards drenched that beautiful land with the blood of the Huguenots.
Not that Margaret was a saint, far from it. In her writings were blots, in her character blemishes, and in her devotion appear tinges of Romanism. But, even a clouded star was a wonder in that court of darkness. If she wavered between her brother and her Savior, it was because she turned to the one in order to give him light, and to the other to receive life. We shall soon see how true were Beza’s words, when he said that God raised her up to overthrow, as far as possible, the cruel designs of Louisa, Anthony Duprat, the chancellor of France, and their associates, when they excited the king against the so-called heretics.
When wounded by the arrows of sin, and by the thorns of the court, she fled to her lonely retreat, and laid bare her sorrows to the eye of her crucified Lord. Her poetry then became prayer.
O Thou, my Priest, my Advocate, my King, On whom depends my life—my everything, O Lord, who first didst drain the bitter cup of woe, And knowest its poison (if man e’er did know), These thorns, how sharp, these wounds of sin, how deep! Friend, Savior, King, oh! plead my cause, I pray, Speak, help and save me, lest I fall away.
The tramp of the forest explorer calls the hungry lion from his lair, and so the march of these French reformers brought out the most cruel foes to track them along every new path of truth. They needed not to be ferreted out by spies, for these friends were not hiding away, as if ashamed of their doctrines. All was open and broadly proclaimed. They were well-known by the lamps which they held forth in the night of error. By their light we may see who were their bitterest foes.
Louisa, the mother of Margaret and the king, loved her iniquities so well, that she naturally hated the word of God, and all who set it above the traditions of the Romish Church. She was the more to be feared on account of her great influence over her son. But she had a favorite even worse than herself, whom she had put forward as chancellor of the kingdom, and he was now the cruel power behind the throne. This was Anthony Duprat, represented as “the most vicious of all bipeds.” He had enriched himself at the expense of justice, and then taken “holy orders,” so as to get his hands upon the richest livings, and increase his wealth at the expense of religion. Two such depraved characters might well seek to wash away their own lust and avarice in the blood of the “heretics.” Devoted to the pope, and pleading for his absolute power over the Church, they sharpened the sword and kindled the fire, and hoped to make short work of the reformers. This was the enmity of the state.
Still more fearful was the enmity of the Church. The dignified Sorbonne joined hands with the profligate court. It furnished bigots of every grade, but our eyes fix on the leader of the gang. The same Picardy that sent forth Lefèvre to begin a reformation, also let slip Noel Beda to begin a persecution. He was “reputed to be the greatest brawler, and most factious spirit of his day.” Always restless, he was a torment to all around him. He seemed born to fight, and, when he had no foes, he struck at his friends. He loudly declaimed against learning, and tried to make every new idea appear frightful. Many smiled while he blustered, but there were enough to listen, and, by making himself a terror to all who differed from him, he gained a wide sway among the colleges. He “created heretics before any existed,” and had called for the burning of Merlin, the vicar-general of Paris. “But when the new doctors appeared, he bounded like a wild beast that suddenly perceives an easy prey within its reach.” The cautious Erasmus wrote, “In one Beda there are three thousand monks.” But where was the proper victim?
The suspecting eye fell upon Lefèvre, for Beda had grown nervous over the renown of his fellow countryman. To increase his own chance for making a noise, he would gladly have put the aged doctor to silence. He either could not see, or could not lay hold of the strong points in the new doctrines, and he scented out the grievous heresy of “the three Magdalenes.” For Lefèvre had asserted that Mary, the sister of Lazarus, Mary Magdalen, and the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, were three different persons. This set Beda and his host in motion. The whole Church was aroused, and, as a specimen of her infallible judgment, she declared that these were but one person, an opinion which no priest would be likely now to affirm. Lefèvre was condemned by the Sorbonne, and prosecuted by the parliament as a heretic. But Francis, glad to strike a blow at the Sorbonne and to humble the monks, rescued him from their violent hands, and saved him from the scaffold. Perhaps the thanks are due to Margaret. Beda was enraged at seeing his victim snatched from his grasp, and he resolved, to take more caution with the next one, whom he was about to select from the nobility.
At the court was a gentleman of Artois, about thirty years old, named Louis de Berquin. He was frank and open-hearted, pure in his life, tender toward the poor, warmly attached to his friends, and wished to have no enemies. He had fairly won the title of “the most learned of the nobles.” He had a horror of everything called heresy by the church, and devoutly observed the fasts, festivals, confessions and masses. It created surprise to see so much devotion at court.
There seemed to be nothing to incline such a man toward the new doctrines. But Beda disgusted his generous spirit. Not wishing to injure anyone, he could not bear to see others injured. As he did nothing by halves, he spoke freely, wheresoever he went, about the cruelty of this rough tool of the Sorbonne, and he attacked “in their very nests, those odious hornets who were then the terror of the world.” Nor did he stop there, as if it were enough to oppose the persecutors. He sought to learn what the persecuted had to say for themselves. He wished to know that Bible, which was “so dear to the men against whom Beda and his creatures were raging, and he scarcely began to read the book, before it won his heart.”
Berquin lost no time in seeking admission to the circle of reformers, in which was the delightful company of Margaret, Lefèvre, Farel, Briçonnét, and the Roussels. Anyone who loved the word of God was now a brother, and all sat at the feet of the Master. Nor was the young noble yet satisfied. He wished France to know the truth. He showed all the zeal of Beda in the other direction. He began to use the pen in order to resist Beda’s sword.
In 1520 the noise about Luther had reached France. His writings came soon after with the east wind. His victory over Eck gave joy and courage to the company of reformers. Many of the Sorbonne doctors found striking truths in the books of the monk of Wittenberg. They were watched by their colleagues, and if one of them uttered a reasonable sentiment, the loud cry arose, “He is worse than Luther.” The more boisterous priests seemed to gain the day, and became the willing recruits of Beda and his satellites. The more silent doctors read and thought for themselves.
Berquin translated several of Luther’s writings. This was too much; he was now one with the German monk who had dared to set himself against the pope. Death was too good for Luther; it was good enough for his translator, and Beda resolved to bring him to the scaffold. There was this argument—the University had condemned the German writings to be publicly burned. An appeal was sent to Francis, who was then pleasuring through the land. Margaret whispered in his ear. His eyes were opened. He saw that the “heretics” were simply men of learning. The grave deputies were sent back, crestfallen and in great wrath, with this reply from the king: “I will not have these people molested. To persecute those who teach us would prevent able scholars from coming into our country.”
Among those who were thus shielded were many of Luther’s disciples. They had crossed the Rhine in advance of his writings, and found a welcome among all the Bible readers, whose new doctrines were often called “the sentiments of men of genius.” “In a short time,” says a Jesuit author, “the university was filled with foreigners, who, because they knew a little Hebrew and Greek, acquired a reputation, insinuated themselves into the houses of persons of quality, and claimed an insolent liberty of interpreting the Bible.”
And that the king should allow them to stay! This was an awful calamity to the church. But if Beda and his troop could not erect scaffolds or pile up the fagots, there was another sort of persecution which might be employed. They could annoy the reformers, vex them, slander them, cry out against them, and make the people believe that the church was in danger. They might hiss and hound them out of society, or provoke them to say and do things in self-defense, on which they could found such charges as would bring down the wrath of the king. Beda was bold to declare that he would wage war upon them to the bitter end; if the king consented, well, but if not, his majesty must make the best of it. The aged Lefèvre felt tormented by these ignorant zealots, and began to look for some retreat where he might be free from the strife of tongues. Where should he find it? Where be out of the reach of the man in whom there were three thousand monks?
Meaux The Cradle of French Reform A Busy Bishop 1520–1524
“Come to me, good father Lefèvre, and find rest from your troubles,” we seem to read in a letter from Briçonnét, the Bishop of Meaux, who is now at home with his flock, in the beautiful country of the river Maine. “Our city will afford you an asylum.”
“Shall such a man as I flee?” we think Lefèvre responds, in the spirit of Nehemiah.
“Come over and help us,” urges the bishop, and the call to work proves stronger than the invitation to rest. Lefèvre goes and finds a busy bishop who needs help and counsel. Let us see what has been going on at Meaux.
After Briçonnét had opened his heart to the “good Guest,” he returned to the diocese, and, with the zeal of a Christian, began the work of a faithful bishop. He visited every parish. He inquired into the doctrines and lives of the preachers, as one who had an account to render unto the great Master. He summoned witnesses who had a sad story on their lips.
“At collection time,” they said, “the Franciscans of Meaux begin their rounds. A single preacher will visit four or five parishes in a day, always delivering the same sermon, not to feed the souls of his hearers, but to fill his mouth, his purse, and his convent. When their wallets are replenished, their end is gained, there are no more sermons, and the people see the priests no more in the churches until the next pay-day comes.”
“These shepherds make it their only business to shear the sheep,” declares the bishop, who pities the shorn flocks, and is indignant against the monks. “But where are these hirelings?”
“They get their money, and then go to Paris to spend it,” reply the parishioners.
“Alas! are they not traitors who thus desert the service of Jesus Christ?”
The bishop resolved upon a sifting process. He called all his clergy together in 1519, and took account of them. Many, who cared for little else than the charms of Paris, urged that they had employed curates to tend their flocks while they enjoyed the city. What then of these curates? Were they as bad as the priests who held the livings? One hundred and twenty-seven of them were examined, and only fourteen of them were approved by the bishop! The rest were weak, ignorant, worldly, and selfish.
The next year the bishop published a mandate, in which he declared “traitors and deserters all those pastors who, by abandoning their flocks, show plainly that what they love is the fleece,” selected others, who were found to be qualified, and set them over the sheep, ransomed by the most holy blood of Jesus Christ. He now was convinced that, if he would have able ministers in his diocese, he must train them himself. He therefore resolved to establish a theological school at Meaux, under the direction of pious and learned doctors. He must find good teachers, and, without meaning it, Beda was providing them.
Lefèvre had left Farel and the Bible-band at the capital, hunted everywhere by the secret detective police of the Sorbonne. Farel did not preach, for he was not yet ordained, but he talked with students and citizens, argued with professors and priests, and boldly proclaimed the cause of the reformation at the university and in the city. Some, however, fired by his example, openly preached the gospel. Martial Mazurier, president of St. Michael’s college, and eloquent in the pulpit, threw aside all reserve, and painted the disorders of the times in the darkest but the truest colors. It was almost impossible to resist the wisdom with which this earnest Stephen spake. Beda and his recruits were raised to the highest pitch of anger, and declared, “If we tolerate these innovators, they will invade the whole body, and all will be over with our teaching, our traditions, our places, and the respect felt towards us by France and the whole of Christendom.”
All had, indeed, been over, long ago, with the respect which the Sorbonnists claimed. They had forfeited it by their bigotry and intolerance. They stood accused, before all true Christendom, of the great crime of persecuting the men who would have saved France from darkness and blood. On them was fixed the lasting dishonor of having refused the true light, because their deeds and doctrines were evil. They were blinding their own eyes, and were fighting against God. To them, these excellent men, of whom Paris was not worthy, might have said, as Paul and Barnabas declared to certain persecutors, “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you, but, seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” Never was there a more solemn hour to that capital city, in which was concentrated all France. Never were the destinies of that nation more delicately hinged on an event, small in the eyes of men, but great in the sight of God. That event was the persecution of those who held forth the word of life! Paris then decided her history for centuries; she sent Christianity into exile; she set up Romanism in her heart, and there it has remained, causing, in one age, a St. Bartholomew’s day of blood, and, in another, an infidel revolution of horror.
The bishop of Meaux learned how fierce was the enmity against Farel, the Roussels, Mazurier, and their co-laborers, and how all their zealous efforts were thwarted. He entreated them to come and join Lefèvre. They saw only a hopeless conflict before them if they remained, and thought it important to be united together in one solid and sacred phalanx for the triumph of the truth. They accepted the bishop’s invitation, and went to Meaux. They went into the neglected parishes to feed the flocks that had been fleeced by the priests and curates. They laid no tag upon the rich; they gave generously to the poor. The bishop was like that ancient “son of consolation,” who laid his money at the apostle’s feet. “His fortune equaled is zeal; never did man devote his wealth to nobler uses, and ever did such noble devotedness promise, at first, to bear such glorious fruits.” The new teachers gathered a goodly company around them, and Meaux has the honor of being the first city in France in which grew up a protestant congregation. In this “cradle of the French reform” a Protestant church was established in 1546. Beza wrote of it, “the little flock of Meaux not only served as an example to all the churches of France, but has also begotten to the Lord several other churches, and that too of the greatest. What is more, it may boast of having offered martyrs to God as its first fruits, since the restoration of the gospel.”
The voice of Lefèvre was heard crying aloud, “Kings, princes, people! all orations should think and aspire after Christ alone. Every priest should resemble that archangel whom John saw in the apocalypse, flying through the air, holding the everlasting gospel in his hand, and carrying it to every people, nation, tongue, and king. Come near ye pontiffs, come ye kings, come ye generous hearts. … Nations, awake to the light of the gospel, and inhale the heavenly life. The word of God is all sufficient.”
This all-sufficient word must be in all houses, in all hands, under all eyes, and become the book of the people. Lefèvre wished to see it read by every class and in every language. During the neat three years (1522–1525) he published the entire New Testament in French, and a version of the Psalms. In private and in families the Bible was read; conversations about its truths became more frequent and public, and the Holy Word proved itself to be from God by the light which it cast into the corrupt heart and the dark home.
Erasmus, by publishing the Greek Testament, reached chiefly the learned, and this was a result too great for time to estimate. Lefèvre, by publishing the French version, not only drew educated minds to the Bible, but he sent it into the abodes of the poor, the lowly, the illiterate and the toiling. The city of Meaux was largely inhabited by artisans and dealers in wool. The fullers and weavers, says an old chronicler, “took no other recreation, as they worked with their hands, than to talk with each other of the word of God, and to comfort themselves with the same. Sundays and holidays, especially, were devoted to the reading of Scripture, and inquiring into the good pleasure of the Lord.” The bishop was delighted to see the good work thus going on, for piety was taking the place of superstition in his diocese. An old Romish annalist lays a heavy charge upon Lefèvre for using his great learning to “so cajole and circumvent Messire Guillaume Briçonnét with his plausible talk, that he caused him to turn aside grievously, so that it has been impossible, up to this day (1560), to free the city and diocese of Meaux from that pestilent doctrine, where it has so marvelously increased. The misleading of that good bishop was a great injury, as until then, he had been so devoted to God and to the Virgin Mary.”
Not only into the factories, but into the fields, went the glad tidings, and thence still farther out into the world. Near to the city were rich crops, and at the harvest time, a crowd of laborers came from the surrounding regions. They reaped until they needed rest, and then while resting they talked with the town-people about other seed-times, other soils, and other harvests. When their work was ended, they went home with the gospel in their hearts. They told the wonderful news, and in one instance, the peasants of Landouzy carried back with them the gospel, and persevered until an evangelical church was formed in their district, and it still stands, we believe, as one of the oldest protestant churches in France. Thus “in this diocese an image of the renovated church was seen to shine forth.”
Nor was the king forgotten. The light must reach him. The court must be gained to Christianity, if possible. The bishop sent to Margaret (now the Duchess of Alençon) “the epistles of St. Paul translated and splendidly illuminated, most humbly treating her to present them to the king, which cannot but be the most pleasing from your hands.” Thus, probably, the word of God was placed under the eyes of Francis I and his mother Louisa. If they opened it, they closed it without receiving any lesson for their hearts. Perhaps too much was hoped from the conversion of the king, should he avow himself the patron of Christianity.
“The gospel is already gaining the hearts of the great, and of the people,” said Lefèvre one day, in the fervor of his heart, when certain of the Romanists were talking with him and Farel. “In a short time, spreading all over France, it will everywhere throw down the inventions of men.”
On a sudden, a Franciscan monk, named Roma, started up to resist the animated doctor, whose eyes sparkled, and his worn-out voice grew musical with the promise of refreshing times. “Then, I and all the other religioners will preach a crusade,” cried Roma. “We will raise the people; and, if the king permits the preaching of your gospel, we will expel him from his kingdom by his own subjects.”
It might have been ill for the monk, but well for the truth, had the knightly king heard this last threat. He might have taught Roma a lesson on loyalty. No reformer was proposing to drive the monarch from his throne, if he did not favor the gospel. If such a threat was a crime, where were Beda and Duprat? If they were on the hunt for an offense, there was one, far greater than any committed by the reformers. The Franciscans applauded the words of Roma. They began to feel alarm; their craft was in danger; their livings were reduced; they could not shear the sheep, and their convents were in need of supplies. They went about, mourning and clamoring, as if their fall was a sign that the world was coming to an end. They tried to rouse the people against the new teachers. Then, with bolder face, they went to the bishop, and impudently declared to him, “Crush this heresy, or else the pestilence, which is already destroying the city of Meaux, will spread over the kingdom.”
The bishop, at first, stood like an oak against the storm. He had a contempt for the selfish monks, who sought to lord it over him. He went into the pulpit and defended the aged Lefèvre, and called the monks Pharisees and hypocrites. It had been well for his name had he been slain at the very onset of this gathering battle, and buried as the first Protestant who fell in France. But his courage failed. He trembled, wavered, and became a frail reed in the wind. He was only a bishop, and the monks could crush him. He took alarm when he saw them posting off to the capital, to lay their complaints before the higher powers. They entered Paris; they were closeted with Beda and his gang; they were a joy to Duprat, and they easily gained the ear of parliament. They charged the bishop with the immense mischief done at Meaux. His palace was a fountain of heresy, and it must be sealed. The Sorbonne and the parliament agreed in waging a war upon the reformers.
Poor Briçonnét! holding out a flag of truce at the very hour when a victory was at hand. He would not surrender everything, but he would yield enough to satisfy Rome. He would keep the gospel, but give up Luther’s writings. He would allow Mary to be invoked along with Christ. The compromise was made. In 1523 he issued three mandates; the first enjoined prayers for the dead and the invocation of the saints; the second one forbade any one to buy, borrow, read, or carry about with him, any of Luther’s works, and ordered them to be torn in pieces, scattered to the winds, or burnt; the third asserted the doctrine of purgatory. But this was not enough. If he would save himself, he must sacrifice those who had trusted him, and whom he had sheltered. It was hinted that the gospel teachers must not be allowed to leave Meaux, for they would only carry their doctrines into other places. An end must be made of them. This was too horrible a work for the bishop, and it was thought best to entrust it to surer hands. He was asked to forbid their preaching in the parishes, and he did it. He also began to visit the churches, in company with Andrew Verjus, the first president of the parliament of Paris, so that this zealous dignitary might see and hear for himself. It was hard, but the bishop labored to “weed out the heresies that were there shooting up.” Verjus and his brother deputies returned to the capital, fully satisfied. Briçonnét had fallen. They said he had returned to the faith, and risen to his proper place in the Church.
The aim was now taken at the faithful Lefèvre. His writings were searched by Beda and his detective police. They pointed out intolerable heresies to the Sorbonne. “Does he dare to recommend all the faithful to read the Scriptures? Does he not tell therein that whoever loves not Christ’s word is not a Christian? and that the word of God is sufficient to lead to eternal life?” The Church must never endure this, for it puts all her interests in danger. Romanism cannot stand if the Bible be the book of the people.
The secret whisperings in the Sorbonne, the plots of their detectives, and the noise of the monks, were of little avail unless the king would give the order to crush the heresies and force men into the faith of the church. And what did Francis say to all this uproar? He appointed a commission to investigate the matter; Lefèvre appeared before it, justified himself, and came off from this attack with victory on his banners of truth. Yet flight was wisdom, and he soon after left Meaux for a time. It seems however that he returned and was secretly harbored by the bishop.
Farel could not hope for protection, since his host had turned against the invited guests. He left the city where there were still many firm adherents to the gospel, and where martyrs were soon to seal their testimony with blood. It seems that he went at first to Paris, and with unsparing words attacked the errors of Rome, until he put his life in jeopardy. Thence he probably went to Dauphiny, anxious to bear the good news to his native land. It has been supposed, however, that he spent several months at Metz, where the gospel standard was being lifted high, and to it were gathering some of the most worthy chieftains of the French reformation. Let us see them flocking to this ancient city, the old Divodurum of Tacitus, built where the Seille adds its waters to the blue Moselle.
Before the bishop fell, and his chief guests departed, the Lord raised up a lowly disciple to be a pastor to the little flock at Meaux. John Leclerc heard his fellow wool-carders talk of the gospel, and hid the good word in his heart, for it must not be mentioned at home to his father, who was blindly led by the monks. His mother and his brother Peter joined with him on the side of the new preachers. He read the Bible and the “little books”; he grew strong under the teachings of Lefèvre and Farel, and became a ready expounder of the Scriptures. When the teachers were exiled, the Christians looked to him as their shepherd.
This wool-carder went from house to house comforting the disciples. His zeal outran his prudence, and he sought to give popery such a blow as only a Luther had strength to inflict. He wrote a proclamation against the pope, declaring that the Lord was about to destroy Anti-Christ by the breath of his mouth. He took the “placards” and boldly posted them on the gates of the cathedral. Hundreds gathered on the spot to read the strange words. Soon all were in confusion; the disciples were amazed; the priests were angry; the monks were outrageous, and they demanded that, at least, one example should be made to terrify the people. Who would be a better one than this wool-carrier? The king would not call him “one of his learned men,” and treat him with favor. Leclerc was cast into prison.
He was hurried through a trial, under the eyes of the fallen bishop. He was condemned to be whipped through the streets of the city on three days, and to wind up the cruelty, his forehead was to be branded with the mark of a heretic. No time was to be lost. The poor carrier was led through the city, with his hands bound and his shoulders bare, while the blows fell and the blood flowed. An immense crowd followed in the gory tracks of the victim; some yelled with rage against the heretic; others gave clear signs of their tender compassion. One woman lent him her eyes and her voice; the sufferer took courage; she was his mother.
At last, on the third day, when the scourgings and marches were over, the fortieth stripe not being spared, the procession halted at the usual place of execution. The hangman prepared the fire, heated the iron, and branded the brow on which the name of Jesus was written. A loud shriek was heard, but it came not from the tormented disciple. It was that of the mother, who shouted, with a voice that made the persecutors tremble, “Glory to Jesus Christ, and to his witnesses!” Such boldness, at such a moment, was a crime worthy of severe punishment, but she had appalled both priests and soldiers. An unseen hand controlled their fury. She turned away, the crowd respectfully parted, the monks and town sergeants gazed unmoved, and she slowly walked to her humble dwelling. None dared to arrest her. Leclerc was then set at liberty, and passed some months at Rosay, about twenty miles from Meaux. He was recovering for a greater work in a new field.
The foes of truth were elated with their victory; the friends of the Crucified hid under the shadow of the Almighty. An old chronicler says, “The Cordeliers, having recaptured the pulpits, propagated their lies and trumpery as usual.” But the poor workmen would not go to hear them. They “began to meet in secret, after the manner of the sons of the prophets in the time of Ahab, and of the Christians of the primitive church; and as opportunity offered, they assembled at one time in a house, at another in some cave, sometimes also in a vineyard, or in a wood. There he, who was most versed in the Holy Scriptures, exhorted the rest; and this done, they all prayed together with great courage, supporting each other with the hope that the gospel would be revived in France, and that the tyranny of Anti-Christ would come to an end.”
On other plains the light was breaking. At Metz there dwelt a man, described as “a marvelously learned clerk, of small stature, who had spent much time in travel, who spoke every language, and had studied every “science.” This was Master Agrippa, now chief magistrate of the city. He had read Luther’s works, and loaned them to his friends. Many of the clergy, nobility, and citizens were gained over to the cause of truth. In 1522 someone had pasted, on the corner of the bishop’s palace, a placard, whose large letters extolled what Luther had done. The pubic attention was excited. Master Agrippa had enough to do in answering questions and preserving the peace.
Leclerc went to Metz in 1523, and there, like Paul at Corinth, he worked at his trade and persuaded the people. He talked with the laborers, and the “Lutheran business” was on every lip. The flames, partly smothered, now broke out afresh. Every opposition was useless; the people would inquire, discuss, and believe. Many of the more learned among them took the side of the Reformation, and the gospel began to be preached. Another helper came to the work of the Lord.
John Chatelain, an Augustine monk, had been brought to the truth at Antwerp. He came to Metz, says the chronicle, “a man declining in years, and of agreeable manners, a great preacher, and very eloquent, a wondrous comforter to the poorer sort, by which means he gained the good will of most of the people (not of all), especially of the majority of the priests and great rabbins, against whom the said friar, John, preached daily, setting forth their vices and their sins, saying that they abused the poor people, by which animosity was stirred up.” And yet the truth from his eloquent tongue did not fall with such power as it did from “the lips of a poor artizan, who laid aide the comb, with which he carded his wool, to explain a French version of the gospel.”
There dwelt in the city a devout woman of the middle class, named Toussaint, who often talked with her son, Peter, in a serious strain, while he was at play. She, like all the townspeople, expected something wonderful to occur in those times. One day the child was riding on a stick in his mother’s room, while she was conversing with her friends on the things of God. She said to them, in an earnest tone, “Anti-Christ will soon come, with great power, and destroy those who have been converted at the preaching of Elias.” These words, often repeated, were fixed in the child’s memory for life.
Peter was no longer a child when the new preachers were declaring the gospel in Metz. His genius led his relatives to hope that he would one day fill an eminent place in the Church. An uncle was the dean, and Cardinal John of Lofraine a warm friend. Peter, although but a youth, obtained a prebend, when the gospel came to his ear. He listened, and wondered if the preaching of Chatelain and Leclerc was that of Elias. Antichrist was arming against it in every quarter. He believed in the coming of the Lord, and prepared to enter his service. He saw the chevalier Esch, his uncle’s intimate friend, casting his lot with the reformers, who gave him a hearty welcome. Peter called him “the knight, our worthy master,” adding, with noble candor, “if, however, we are permitted to have a master upon earth.”
Cheering was the progress of the gospel in the city, when it Ilea suddenly arrested by the imprudent zeal of Leclerc. The affair of the placards at Meaux, had not cured him of rashness. He saw with grief the idolatries of the people. One of their great festivals was approaching. It was the habit of the people, on a certain day, to make a pilgrimage to a chapel, about three miles distant, where were images of the Virgin, and of the most celebrated saints of the country. They worshipped these images, in order to obtain the pardon of their sins.
The eve of the festival came; Leclerc’s pious soul was agitated. He seemed to hear a voice, saying, “Thou shaft not bow down to their gods, but thou shaft utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.” As the night came, he left the city, and went to the chapel. There he sat a while, silent, before the statues. He wavered in his purpose, but he thought how, in a few hours, the whole city would be bowing down before blocks of wood and stone. He rose up, took down the images, brake them in pieces, and scattered the fragments before the altar. Then he returned to the city, just at daybreak, and, almost unnoticed, entered the gates.
All Metz has on the move; the bells were ringing; the brotherhoods were assembling; the procession was forming with an array of greater and lesser clergy in the lead. The multitudes recited prayers and sang praises to the saints whom they were going to adore. Crosses and banners were displayed, drums were beaten and sweeter music filled the air. After about an hour’s march they reached the end of the pilgrimage. The priests advanced, with their smoking censers, to render the early homage. But what a sight! the images they had come to worship were shattered and the fragments covered the ground. The monks recoiled with horror. They announced to the crowd what a sacrilege had been committed. Suddenly the chanting ceased, the instruments were silent, the banners were lowered, and an intense excitement prevailed. Their leaders inflamed the minds of the people, insisting that search be made for the criminal and his death demanded. One cry burst from every lip, “Death, death to the sacrilegious wretch.” In haste and disorder they returned to the city.
All fixed upon Leclerc. Many times he had said that the images were idols. A few remembered that they had seen him at daybreak, coming from the direction of the chapel. He was seized. He confessed; he claimed that the deed was not a crime, and exhorted the people to worship God alone. To adore what a mere man could so easily destroy was absurd. But no argument could cool the rage of the crowd. In their fury they wished to drag him to instant death. When led before the judges, he declared boldly that Christ alone should be adored. He was soon convicted, sentenced to be burnt alive, and taken to the place of execution.
Here everything horrible in fire and heated irons was prepared for him. Wild yells rose from the monks and people, but he was firm, calm, unmoved. They began to torture him in ways too cruel for description. His body was being torn to pieces, but his mind was at rest. With a loud voice he recited the 115th Psalm, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. … They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.” The voice and the sight of such fortitude daunted the enemies and gave strength to the faithful. The people, so angry before, were now touched with compassion. But the priests saw him burnt by a slow fire, and thus turned the festival into an awful funeral. Leclerc was the first martyr among the French reformers.
Not yet were the priests satisfied. They had tried to persuade Chatelain to renounce the gospel, but were obliged to say, “He is deaf as an adder, and will not hear the truth.” He was arrested, carried away, and shut up in the castle of Nommeny. The officers of the bishop degraded him; they stripped him of priestly garments; they scraped his fingers with a piece of glass, saying, “By this scraping we deprive thee of the power to sacrifice, consecrate, and bless, which thou receivest by the anointing of hands.” Then throwing over him a layman’s dress, they surrendered him to the secular power, and another martyr perished in the flames. But the fires of truth were not thus to be quenched with blood. Even the historians of the Gallican church, approving of this severity, admit that “Lutheranism spread not the less through the whole district of Metz.”
The dean was in trouble lest his nephew, Toussaint, should perish in the storm of persecution. He had not taken an active part against the first two French martyrs, but he dare not throw his shield over his brother’s son. Peter’s mother felt a still greater alarm. Not a moment must be lost. The liberty and life of everyone who had lent an ear to the glad tidings of free pardon were endangered. The taste of blood inflamed the rage for more, and other scaffolds and other fires would soon threaten the faithful. The only safety seemed to be in flight. Peter Toussaint, the knight Esch, and many others fled in haste and sought refuge in Basle.
Thus the north of France rejected the gospel, and the gospel gave way for a time. But the great “Captain of our Salvation” was only changing his forces to new fields. He, who retreated from Nazareth, appeared again in Capernaum, Samaria, and Jerusalem. The Reformation only changed its ground; we shall see it again in the southeast of France and in Switzerland. For, as in the days of the apostles, “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.”