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Title: History of the Reformation - Calvin and His Disciples Begin the Evangelisation of France.
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

10 00005-0009 Calvin and His Disciples Begin the Evangelisation of France 

(Spring 1534.)

IT was necessary to begin the conversion of France on a larger scale, Might not that country, whose agitations have often disturbed Europe, and which never trembles but all around it is shaken — become, if it received the Gospel, a center of light and a powerful means of strengthening the nations in justice and peace? That would no doubt have happened, had it become protestant. Calvin, by laboring thirty years for Geneva and France, labored for the whole Christian world, He made the first experiment at Poitiers, and (if we may use the word) began that glorious evangelizing campaign, which he was to direct until the close of his life.

Not content with evangelizing the city, the young and zealous doctor visited the castles, abbeys, and villages of the neighborhood. In the castle of Couhe, a few leagues south of Poitiers, there lived a patriarchal family of great influence in Upper Poitou: it was that of Guichard de St. George, baron of Couhe, and Anne de Mortemer his wife. At their death they left four sons, who had early learned to keep God’s commandments. Ponthus, abbot of a Benedictine convent, was the best known of the four brothers: ‘He is a liberal and munificent man,’ people said, ‘a patron of learning and learned mail, whom he welcomes heartily.’ A rumor of the meetings held at Poitiers reached Poitiers; being intimate with some of Calvin’s disciples and occasionally receiving them at his table, he begged them to bring the young doctor, and from that clay Calvin became one of his guests, according to a tradition preserved in the province. Although the conversations he had with the abbot did not convert him, they made him take pleasure in the Gospel, and he soon asked himself why this astonishing young man should not preach in the Benedictine church? To address a learned and religious community pleased the young doctor’s mind. The abbot announced to his monks that a Picard, brought up in the university of Paris and the holder of a benefice at Noyon, would preach in the abbey-church. Accordingly Calvin went into the pulpit and declared that whosoever had a firm and lively faith in the grace of Christ was saved. Some of his hearers were startled at a doctrine which made the Romish priesthood of no use. ‘What a perverse doctrine!’ they said; ‘why does the abbot allow this Picard to preach it in his church?’ On the other hand the Abbot St. George was delighted with the young man’s sermons, but hesitated to take the decisive step. The Benedictine abbeys were independent, powerful, and rich; the monks generally belonged to noble families, and surpassed the other religious orders in intelligence, morality, and extensive familiarity with classical and christian learning. Ponthus felt a difficulty in leaving the quiet life he led in his abbey, or in sacrificing his rich benefice, and exposing himself to the vengeance of the laws… He entertained the idea of reconciling the Church with the world, according to the system patronized by Margaret of Navarre. He would remain an abbot, but he would be a christian abbot like Roussel, and although wearing his friar’s dress in the pulpit, he would preach the Gospel from it. Ponthus made the experiment, and his sermons caused a great deal of talk. The astonished hearers exclaimed: ‘Why the abbot of Valence (it was the name of his monastery) is preaching the rudiments of heresy.’ Guichard, St. George’s third brother, abbot in commendam of Bonneveau, erelong shared the convictions of Ponthus, and professed them like him, but without giving up his benefice. The murmuring grew louder throughout the district. ‘Look,’ said the catholics, ‘the men who are caught in’ Calvin’s web still cling to their cloisters and do not forsake the altars. The abbots stick to their flesh-pot (marmite ), and dress themselves in catholic robes although they are secret Lutherans.

They discharge their functions without showing what they are.’ Ponthus felt ill at ease, his honest soul did not long permit him to halt on both sides. He sacrificed a brilliant position, dismissed his monks, set some to study and others to learn trades; and then, feeling convinced as Luther did, that a forced celibacy is a disorder invented by men, and that marriage is the order of God, He took a wife. The abbot of Valence (says an historian) was the first abbot in France who lifted the mask and showed himself an open Lutheran. His brothers followed the example he had set them. The Sieur de l’Orilloniere, son of the eldest (the baron of Couhe) was the first of the family to give his blood for the protestant cause. Thus did the four brothers, full of zeal for the Reformation, prepare for themselves and for their children a life of suffering, combat, and exile, but also of faith, hope, and peace. When Calvin saw this movement of life going on around him, he thought of France. Would she remain behind Germany and Switzerland?… No.

France will awake ... .she is already waking; erelong she will receive the Gospel in its holy purity, and will increase in morality, in light, and in liberty: such were his hopes. But for their realization, men were needed who, being regenerate themselves, should be fellow-workers with God in this new creation. Calvin asked himself whether some of the converts of Poitiers were not called to this work? Alas! what a small company for so large a kingdom f How great the weakness of the Gospel compared with the magnificence of Rome! ‘God acts thus,’ he said, ‘in order to strip us of all pride. And therefore he chooses the weak ones of this world to confound the strong. If the iron grows red in the fire,’ he added, ‘it is that it may be forged.’ He wished to forge it and to make serviceable instruments out of it. One day being at the usual meeting, he said: ‘Is there any one here willing to go and give light to those whom the pope has blinded?’ Jean Vernou, Philip Veron, and Albert Babinot stood forward. Calvin had not forgotten the Angoumois where he possessed beloved friends; thither and into the adjacent provinces he will first send his missionaries and commence the evangelization of France: ‘You, Babinot, will go into Guyenne and Languedoc,’ he said; ‘Philip Veron, you will go into Saintonge and Angoumois; and you, Jean Vernou, will stay at Poitiers and the neighborhood.’ Calvin and the other brethren did not think that these missionaries required regular theological studies; had they not received the necessary gifts from God, ‘neither more nor less than if He had given them with His own hand?’ But they had need to be recommended to the almighty grace of God. They therefore prayed together, and Calvin Called upon the Lord to accept the services of these pious men. He told them to go and proclaim the Gospel, not in the name of any man, but in the name of the Lord, and because God commanded it.

A collection provided for the expenses of this mission, and the evangelists departed.

Babinot having reached the batiks of the Garonne and entered Toulouse, resolved to address in the first place the young noblemen who were studying there. A learned man (he had lectured at Poitiers on the Institutes of Justinian), he was firm, upright, zealous in the faith, and at the same time very gentle, so that he was called the Good-fellow (Bonhomme.)
Many students were brought to the light by him. He next began to visit several little flocks in the neighborhood, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them after the manner which the man of God (as he called Calvin) had taught him. ‘He went through the country, praying secretly here and there in humble conventicles.’ A regent or schoolmaster of Agen, named Sarrasin, having permitted him to speak in his school, was himself conferred to the Gospel, and immediately began to teach the Word of God, but not so as to attract observation.

Veron, who was as remarkable for his activity as Babinot for his gentleness, carried also into every place the news of the truth: he spent more than twenty years in this occupation. He walked on foot through Poitou, Anjou, Angoumois, Saintonge, and even Guyenne. ‘I desire,’ He said, ‘to gather up the stray sheep of the Lord.’ Wherever he went, he invited souls to come to the good shepherd, who giveth his life for the sheep ; and those who could distinguish the voice of the shepherd from that of the wolf, and see the difference between the call of God and the inventions of men, answered and entered into the fold. And hence he was called the Gatherer (ramasseur ). ‘Of a truth,’ said Cayer the priest, ‘this Gatherer marches out and does not leave a corner of our province, where he does not go sounding his way, to try and make some prize.’ On arriving in any town or village, he inquired for the best disposed persons, entered their houses, and sought to instruct them in the truth, he had taken with him some of Calvin’s manuscripts, and when he desired to strengthen his hearers’ souls, he would take them out of his pocket-book, and show them, saying that they were the writings of a great man; and then, after reading a few extracts, he would return them carefully to their place. ‘The gatherer ,’ said fervent Roman-catholics ‘shows these papers as a great curiosity, as if they were Sibylline verses.’ These evangelists especially addressed the young Calvin would not have religious instruction neglected, or subordinated to secular instruction: it should have its separate place. He believed that all culture, but especially religious teaching, ought to begin with early youth; that the soul then possesses a power of receiving and appropriating what is set before it, that it never will have again; and that if the seeds of a religious life are not sown and do not germinate in the heart of the child, the man will perish wholly, he had said to the three evangelists: ‘Let your first attention be always to the professors and schoolmasters.’ The zealous catholics observed this method. ‘See!’ they said, ‘as youth is easily led astray, they hide the minister under the cloak of the magister (master).’ Calvin’s friends thus instilled their doctrines into the schools of Guyenne. Sarrasin converted another schoolmaster named Vendocin, who became so firm a Christian, that he preferred to be burnt over a slow fire to abjuring Calvinism. The men who devoutly adhered to the formulas of Rome were grieved when they saw the young so readily receiving the evangelical doctrine. At Bordeaux and Toulouse, at Angouleme and Aden, in the cloisters, in the law-courts, and even in the market-places, the loudest complaints were made. ‘These Mercuries (the name they gave to Calvin’s missionaries) are doing much mischief in the schools,’ they said. ‘As soon as the captains of the young (i.e. the masters) are conquered, the little soldiers march under their colors. The young heads of young folks are more easily disturbed by the heretic aconite than the old. They rush into danger, without examining it; and they are lost before they are aware of it. They embrace these new doctrines with such courage that many, who have only clown on their chins, expose themselves to voluntary death, and thus lose both soul and body.’ While Babinot and Veron were traversing the south, John Vernou held firm at Poitiers, and aroused the students. The Reformation is fond of learning: it looks upon science as the friend of religion. Faith, it says, does not require of Christians to know only what is learnt by faith, or not to know scientifically what they ought to learn. It desires that we should know, and know well. But on the other hand, it believes that true science can not require of the adept to despise the truths that faith reveals. It is essential to the progress of humanity that there should always be a good understanding between faith and science. And accordingly the Reformation calls upon them to be united. Unhappily, disagreement is possible and even easy. The philosopher and the christian fall with great facility into a lamentable onesidedness, which makes the former despise religion, and the latter science. In order that faith and science should seek each other and unite, the moral element should prevail in those who are engaged with both. If it is weakened, religion easily produces fanatics, and science unbelievers: a moral torpor, the sleep of conscience is in every age the great and only explanation of these two lamentable errors. As soon as the conscience is awakened, as soon as that holy light is kindled in man, there is no longer any fanaticism or incredulity. Such were Calvin’s thoughts.

His disciple Vernou endeavored like himself to unite faith with science in the university of Poitiers, and scattered among the youth who frequented it (as history tells us) the seeds of Christian doctrine.

Calvin’s three missionaries, Babinot, Veron, and Vernou, were soon famous throughout the west of France, and the Wrath of the clergy of all ranks, and even of laymen of note, knew no bounds. The college professors hunted in their Homers for terms of abuse to heap on these heralds of God’s word. ‘These three worthy apostles,’ they said, ‘are the agents of the decrees of the arch-heretic Calvin and the firebrands of France… Look at them… these are the men that want to reform the world… Wretched Thersites, miserable Irus, Ithacan beggars… who set themselves up as the equals of Ajax and Achilles… They were born yesterday, like gourds, and yet they trace their genealogy, as if they were descended from the apostles!’ Ulysses, as we know, killed the beggar Irus with a blow of his fist. These disdainful and bitter critics remembered this, and hoped that the kings of France would give a death-blow to the Reform.

They dealt the blow, but protestantism was not slain.

When Calvin was subsequently settled at Geneva, Babinot, Veron, and Vernou paid him a visit. They were delighted to find the Christian professor surrounded with respect, and were never tired of listening to him from whose lips they had heard at Poitiers the first words of life. They did not, however, stay with him. Babinot and Veron returned to the west of France to continue to propagate the Gospel there, which they did until their death. As for Vernou, he was seized while crossing the mountains of Savoy, and was burnt alive at Chambery, confessing Jesus Christ his Savior. Let us return to Poitiers.

The prior of Trois-Moutiers, with whom Calvin was staying, was one of those who, though fond of learning and the Gospel, did not wish to break with the Church. The conversations at the Basses-Treilles, the ‘manducations’ in the caves of St. Benedict, the evangelization of the city and country… all made him uneasy, he was alarmed at the thought that the officers might knock at his door some day, and that the heretic would be taken in his house. He therefore advised Calvin to continue his journey.

The reformer had ended his task; he was now to turn his steps elsewhere; he bade his friends farewell. As he left them, he could say like his Master: What will I, if the fire be already kindled? Calvin established the date of the Reformation at Poitiers, when, writing at a later period to the Church which assembled in that city, he said: ‘Do not go astray from the doctrine which you have received in part from us, since it has pleased God to make use of our labor for your salvation.’ Although removed, he still continued to be the director of that Church. ‘I know full well that you are spied (guetes) by the enemy,’ he wrote to them; ‘but let not the fear of persecution hinder you from socking the pastures of life… There is a middle line between temerity and timidity… Remain tranquilly (coyement ) in your hiding-place; but beware, my brethren, that you do not shut the door against those who desire to come to the kingdom of God.’ One thought absorbed him at the time he left Poitiers. It was the month of April 1534; on the 10th of July he would be twenty-five years old. A regulation of the Church, confirmed by the council of Trent, fixed this as the age at which those who have received the tonsure were promoted to the priesthood. In early youth he had received the tonsure, that symbol of sacerdotal royalty, borrowed (St. Jerome tells us) from the pagan priests of His and Serapis; and his age now summoned him to enter holy orders. He did not want for friends who advised him to remain in the Church for its reformation; the chapel of Gesine at Noyon, and the cure of Pont l’Eveque awaited him, and runny other doors would open before him.

He was invited to come and put himself in due order. But Calvin shrank in alarm from the idea of enrolling himself among the pope’s soldiers. ‘If I make myself the pope’s vassal,’ he said, ‘how can I conscientiously fight against the papists?… The sovereign majesty of God would be offended!… I would sooner give up not only one benefice, but a hundred, even of the most brilliant. O cursed wealth of the Church! There is not a single penny of it that is not defiled with cheating, sacrilege, and robbery!’ There was no ecclesiastical dignity to which a mind so preeminently administrative might not aspire. But Calvin was convinced that to save the Church it was necessary to sacrifice Rome. Two paths lay before him: one broad and easy, the other narrow and difficult: his choice was not doubtful. ‘The Gospel,’ he said, ‘is more than all the riches, honor, and ease of this world… I am ready to give up everything that withdraws me from it.’

Calvin left Poitiers, accompanied by his faithful Du Tillet, who for two years scarcely ever quitted him. The young canon was one of those honest but weak natures who have absolute need of a support, and who not knowing how to find it in the word of God, seek it in strong men. He therefore attached himself to the young reformer, as the vine to the elm.

Alas! the day was to come, when terrified by persecution, and unable to make up his mind to break with the Church, he would cling to the papacy and take that for his support.

A surprising transformation had been effected in Poitiers, and Calvin left behind him many regrets and tears. ‘Oh I would to God that we had many Calvins!’ wrote Charles de Ste. Marthe, one of the professors of the university. ‘I am distressed that you have been taken from us; I envy the country where you are, and my only consolation is that our university is now filled with pious and learned men. Pray to God that, by the Spirit of Christ, we may worthily proclaim the Gospel, in the midst of our enemies and even in the midst of the flames.’ Calvin passed through Orleans, went on to Paris, and then proceeded to Noyon, where he arrived at the beginning of May. He immediately informed his relations and the bishop that he had come to resign his benefices. We may imagine the astonishment of his friends. What! let slip the opportunity of doing so much good in the Church! Renounce important offices to join an obscure sect! It seemed the act of a madman; but nothing could bend his unshakable resolution.

On Monday, May 4, 1534, in the presence of the grand vicar of Monsignor the bishop and count of Noyon, of his chancellor, and of the notary of the chapter, Calvin resigned the chapel of Gesine in favor of Master Anthony de la Marliere, and his cure in favor of another ecclesiastic of Noyon. It would even appear that he sold his patrimonial property at the same time. Having broken the last ties that bound him to the Roman Church, Calvin began to speak with greater freedom to those around him of the Gospel.

He had found in his father’s house two brothers and a sister, Anthony, Charles, and Mary: these were the first persons he invited to Christ, in affectionate and pious conversations. He then turned to some members of the episcopal clergy and other inhabitants of Noyon. He put his hand (to use his own expression) on those who were running elsewhere, ‘to stop them short.’ Anthony and Mary were the first to answer to him. Charles resisted longer; he received however at that time a seed in his heart which germinated afterwards.

A canon, named Henry de Collemont, some other clergymen, and a few of the citizens, appear to have lent an ear to the pious and eloquent words of their young fellow-citizen. However, he was anxious to return to the capital, and about the end of May he was in Paris, where fresh struggles awaited him.