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Title: History of the Reformation - Calvin at Nerac with Roussel and Lefevre.
Author: John Calvin
Language: English
7 00005-0006 Calvin at Nerac with Roussel and Lefevre
(Winter of 1533-34.)

WHILE Francis I. was endeavoring to stifle the Reformation in the north of France, it was spreading in the south, and many souls were converted in the districts bordering the Pyrenees. Evangelical Christians of other countries, some of whom were ministers, had taken refuge there, and ‘towns and villages were perverted suddenly by hearing a single sermon,’ says a Roman Catholic historian. On certain days, the simple peasants and even a few townspeople, arriving by different paths, would meet in a retired spot, in the bed of some dried-up torrent or in a cavern of the mountain. They had often to wait a long time for the preacher; the priests and their creatures forced him to make a wide circuit; sometimes he did not come at all. ‘Then,’ says a Catholic, ‘women might be seen trampling on the modesty of their sex, taking a Bible, reading it, and even assuming the boldness to interpret it, while waiting for the minister.’

At this epoch the Queen of Navarre arrived in the south. The noise caused in 1533 by the rector’s sermon and Calvin’s disappearance, had induced her to quit St. Germain for the states of her husband. Her brother, the king, was then at a distance from Paris; her nieces with their governesses, Mesdames de Brissac and De Montreal, and the somewhat gloomy and oppressive etiquette which prevailed at the court of Queen Eleanor of Portugal, was not much to the taste of the lively and intelligent Margaret of Navarre. She therefore started for Nerac. Two litters with six mules, three baggage mules, and three or four carriages for the queen’s women entered the city, and took the road that leads to the vast Gothic castle of the D’Albrets. It was a very scanty retinue for the sister of Francis I.

Margaret alighted from her litter, and was hardly settled in her apartments before she felt quite happy, for she had escaped at last from the pomps and struggles of the court of France. She laid aside her showy dresses and her grand manners; she hid the majesty of her house beneath a candor and friendliness that enchanted all who came near her. Dressed like a plain gentlewoman, she quitted the castle, crossed the Baise which flows through the city, and rambled along the beautiful walks of the neighborhood, having for companions only the seneschaless of Poitou or one of her young ladies of honor. But she had come for something more than this. Having fled far from the palaces and cities where the persecuting spirit of Rome and of the parliament was raging, she occupied herself more particularly in giving a fresh impulse to the evangelical movement in the southern provinces. Her activity was inexhaustible. She sent out colporteurs who made their way into houses, and while selling jewelry to the young women, presented them also with New Testaments, printed in fine characters, ruled in red and bound in vellum with gilt edges. ‘The mere sight of these books,’ says an historian, ‘excited a desire to read them.’

Around the queen everybody was in motion, laboring and murmuring like a hive of bees. ‘Margaret,’ says the king’s historiographer, ‘was the precious flower that adorned this parterre, and whose perfume attracted the best spirits of Europe to Beam, as thyme attracts honey-bees.’ The queen might often be seen surrounded by a troop of sufferers, to whom she showed the tenderest respect. These were the refugees: Lefevre of Etaples, Gerard Roussel, converted priests and monks, and a number of laymen, obliged to leave France, which they had been able to do, thanks to the queen who had assisted their flight. ‘The good princess,’ said a Catholic, ‘has really nothing more at heart than to get those out of the way whom the king wishes to deliver up to the severities of justice.’ If I attempted to give the names of all those whom she has saved from punishment I should never finish.’ The Christians exiled for the Gospel did not make her forget the wretched of her own country. One day, when Roussel was describing to her the unfortunate situation of a poor family, Margaret said nothing; but returning to her chamber, she threw a Bearnese hood over her shoulders, and, followed by a single domestic, went out by a private door, hastened to the sufferers, and comforted them with the tenderest affection. She took pleasure in founding schools. Roussel, her chaplain, would visit the humble room in which the children of the people were learning to read and write, and going up to them, would say: ‘My dear children… the death of Christ is a real atonement. There is no sin so small as not to need it, or so great that it cannot be blotted out by it. Praying to God,’ he would add: ‘is not muttering with the lips: prayer is an ardent and serious converse with the Lord.’ There was one feature, however, in this awakening in the south which, in Calvin’s eyes, rendered it imperfect and transitory, unless some remedy were applied to it. There was in it a certain halting between truth and error. The pious but weak Roussel manifested a lamentable spirit of compromise in his teaching. Wearied with the struggles he had gone through, he sheltered himself under the cloak of the Catholic Church. He did not pray to the Virgin, he administered the Holy Sacrament in two kinds; but he celebrated a kind of mass — a mournful and yet touching instance of that mixed Christianity which aimed at preserving evangelical life under catholic forms.

Calvin at Angouleme was not far from Nerac, and his eyes were often turned to that city. He longed to see Lefevre before the old man was taken from the world, and was uneasy about Roussel, whom he feared to see yielding to the seductions of greatness. One of the christian thoughts that had laid the strongest hold on his mind, was the conviction that the wisdom from on high ought to reject every compromise suggested by ambition or hypocrisy. Ought he not to try and bring back Roussel into the right path from which he appeared to be wandering? Calvin left Du Tillet’s house probably about the end of February, and called upon Roussel as soon as he arrived at Nerac.

The most decided and the most moderate of the theologians of the sixteenth century were now face to face. Calvin, naturally timid and hesitating ‘would never have had the boldness so much as to open his mouth (to use his own words); but faith in Christ begot such a strong assurance in his heart, that he could not remain silent.’ He, therefore, gave his opinion with decision: ‘There is no good left in Catholicism,’ he said. ‘We must reestablish the Church in its ancient purity.’ — ‘What is that you say?’ answered the astonished Roussel; ‘God’s house ought to be purified, no doubt, but not destroyed.’ — ‘Impossible,’ said the young reformer; ‘the edifice is so bad that it cannot be repaired. We must pull it down entirely, and build another in its place.’ — Roussel exclaimed with alarm: ‘We must cleanse the Church, but not by setting it on fire. If we take upon ourselves to pull it down, we shall be crushed under the ruins.’ Calvin retired in sorrow. Type of protestant decision in the sixteenth century, he always protested freely and boldly against everything that was contrary to the Gospel. He displayed this unshakable firmness not only in opposition to catholic tendencies, but also against rationalistic ideas. It would not be difficult to find in Zwingle, in Melanchthon, and even in Luther, some sprinkling of neology, of which the slightest traces cannot be found in Calvin.

Nerac, as we have said, sheltered another teacher — an old man whom age might have made weaker than Roussel, but who under his white hair and decrepit appearance concealed a living force, to be suddenly revived by contact with the great faith of the young scholar. Calvin asked for Lefevre’s house: everybody knew him: ‘He is a little bit of a man, old as Herod, but lively as gunpowder,’ they told him. As we have seen, Lefevre had professed the great doctrine of justification by faith, even before Luther; but after so many years, the aged doctor still indulged in the vain hope of seeing Catholicism reform itself. ‘There ought to be only one Church,’ he would frequently repeat, and this idea prevented his separation from Rome. Nevertheless, his spiritualist views permitted him to preserve the unity of charity with all who loved Christ.

When Calvin was admitted into his presence, he discerned the great man under his puny stature, and was caught by the charm which he exercised over all who came near him. What mildness, what depth, what knowledge, modesty, candor, loftiness, piety, moral grandeur, and holiness, had been said of him! It seemed as if all these virtues illuminated the old man with heavenly brightness just as the night of the grave was about to cover him with its darkness. On his side, the young man pleased Lefevre, who began to tell him how the opposition of the Sorbonne had compelled him to take refuge in the south, ‘in order,’ as he said, ‘to escape the bloody hands of those doctors.’ Calvin endeavored to remove the old man’s illusions. He showed him that we must receive everything from the Word and from the grace of God. He spoke with clearness, with decision, and with energy. Lefevre was moved — he reflected a little and weeping exclaimed: ‘Alas! I know the truth, but I keep myself apart from those who profess it.’ Recovering, however, from his trouble, he wiped his eyes, and seeing his young fellowcountryman ‘rejecting all the fetters of this world and preparing to fight under the banner of Jesus,’ he examined him more attentively, and asked himself if he had not before him that future reformer whom he had once foretold: ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘you will be one day a powerful instrument in the Lord’s hand. … The world will obstinately resist Jesus Christ, and everything will seem to conspire against the Son of God; but stand firm on that rock, and many will be broken against it. God will make use of you to restore the kingdom of heaven in France.’ In Luther, being of the same age as Calvin in 1534, heard a similar prophecy from the mouth of a venerable doctor.

Yet, if we may believe a catholic historian, the old man did not stop there.

His eyes, resting with kindness on the young man, expressed a certain fear.

He fancied he saw a young horse which, however admirable its spirit, might dash beyond all restraint. ‘Be on your guard,’ he added, ‘against the extreme ardor of your mind. Take Melanchthon as your pattern, and let your strength be always tempered with charity.’ The old man pressed the young man’s hand, and they parted never to see each other again.

Did Calvin see the Queen of Navarre also? It does not appear that Margaret was living at Nerac at that time; but he had some relations with her. It has been said that she felt an interest in his exile; and it is possible that she had some share in the resolution he soon formed of quitting the south. She may have assured him that he had nothing to fear in Paris, if he committed no imprudence. But we have found nothing certain on these points.

For the present, Calvin returned to Du Tillet’s. The visits made to Roussel and Lefevre had taught him a lesson, He comprehended that it was not only souls blindly submissive to Rome that incurred imminent danger; he conceived the liveliest alarm for those minds which floated between the pope and the Word of God either through weakness or want of light. He saw that as the limit between the two churches was not yet clearly traced, some of those who belonged to Rome were lingering beneath the fresh and verdant shades of the Gospel, while others who ought to belong to the Reformation still wandered beneath the gothic arches of Romish cathedrals and prostrated themselves at the foot of Romish altars. This state of things — possibly approved of by many — Calvin thought dangerous, and his principles going farther, he undertook ‘ to rebuke freely (as he says) those who yoked with unbelievers, keeping them company in outward idolatry.’