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Title: History of the Reformation - Calvin Addresses the King and Departs for Italy 1535
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

19 00005-0018 Calvin Addresses the King and Departs for Italy 1535
(August 1535.)

THE object of the Christian Institutes was to make known to Christendom, and particularly to the protestants of Germany, the doctrines professed in France by the men whom the king was putting to death. But was that all he had to do? Calvin thought he saw something more pressing still. His representations, instead of passing through Germany, might be addressed direct to the king. In his anguish and solitary meditations, he had often asked himself why he should not do it directly and publicly?... It was no doubt a great enterprise for a persecuted and almost unknown young man to address that powerful monarch, who was mercilessly throwing his best subjects into the flames. Calvin did not at first entertain so bold a project.

Later, he said to the king: ‘I thought of nothing less than writing things to be laid before your Majesty.’ But the lamentable spectacle presented by France was night and day before his eyes. And knowing that the same fate was hanging over the heads of all who desired no other mediator but Christ, was it right for him to be silent?

In truth, the glare of the burning piles was reappearing in France. A pious husbandman of Bresse, ‘much exercised in the word of God,’ by name John Cornon, was arrested in his native village in the month of May and taken to Macon. When brought before his judges, he spoke with such faith and courage, that they were astonished and confounded. Accordingly at the end of June, he was bound to a hurdle, dragged to the place of execution, and there burnt alive. Shortly after this, one Dennis Brion, a man zealous for the gospel, was put to death during ‘the great days’ of Angers, in order to terrify the crowds who flocked thither from all parts for these festivals. The flames which burnt these pious confessors might perhaps shortly burn other men of God, whom Calvin desired to save at any cost. He therefore determined to write to the king, dedicating his book to him... A bold step! ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘you are yourself a witness by what false calumnies our doctrine is everywhere defamed. Have you not been told that it tends to nothing else but to ruin all kingdoms and governments, to disturb the peace, to abolish all law, to confiscate lordships and possessions, and, in a word, to throw everything into confusion? And nevertheless you hear only the least part of these outrages. Horrible stories are circulated against us, for which, if they were true, we should richly deserve to be hanged a thousand times over.’

What Calvin undertook to do was not merely to show that the evangelical doctrine of the Reformation has the right to exist side by side with the Roman Catholic doctrine. This philosophical and christian stand-point was not that of the sixteenth century. If the evangelical doctrine has a right to exist, it is (said Calvin, boldly) because it is the truth. He desired to gain over both king and people to those convictions, which in his opinion were alone capable of enlightening and of saving them. ‘Our defense,’ he said, ‘does not consist in disavowing our doctrine, but in maintaining it to be true. Truth deprives her adversaries of the right to open their mouths against her. And for this reason, Sire, I pray you to obtain full information of a cause which hitherto has been treated with impetuous fury rather than with judicial gravity... Do not think that I am striving here in my own private defense, in order to return to my native country. Verily, I bear it such human affection as is right, but things are now so arranged, that I am not greatly distressed at being kept out of it...

No, Sire, I undertake the common cause of all believers, and even that of Christ himself, a cause now so rent and trodden down in your kingdom, that it seems desperate... No doubt, Christ’s truth is not lost and scattered; but it is hidden away and buried, as if deserving of all ignominy.

The poor Church is driven out by banishment, consumed by cruel deaths, and so terrified by threats and terrors, that she dares not utter a word. And yet the enemies of truth are not satisfied. They insist with their accustomed fury on beating down the wall which they have already shaken, and in completing the ruin they have begun.’

Here Calvin asks if no one is taking up the defense of these persecuted christians... He looks.., alas! the evangelicals are silent, the queen of Navarre scarcely raises her timid voice, and diplomatists are persuading the Germans that the evangelicals of France are fanatics and madmen... every one trembles... ‘Nobody,’ he exclaims, ‘nobody comes forward to oppose this fury. If even any should wish to appear to favor the truth, they confine themselves to saying that we should in some way pardon the ignorance... the impudence of these simple folks. Thus they treat God’s most sure truth as impudence and ignorance. Those whom our Lord has so esteemed as to impart to them the secrets of his heavenly wisdom, they call simple folks who permit themselves to be easily deceived, so ashamed are they of the Gospel.’

Who then shall take the cause of truth in hand?... ‘It is your business, Sire,’ said Calvin to the king, ‘not to avert either your ears or your heart from so just a defense. A great matter is at stake. We have to learn how God’s glory shall be maintained on earth, how his truth shall retain its honor, and how Christ’s kingdom shall remain in its integrity... A matter truly worthy of your ears, worthy of your government and of your royal throne!... The idea which makes a true king, is that the king knows himself to be a true minister of God in the management of his kingdom. A reign which has not God’s glory for its aim, is not a reign but a mere brigandage.’

Calvin had hardly spoken thus when he seemed to see Francis refusing to turn aside from his brilliant fates to lend his ears to the meanest of his subjects. The king listens to Montmorency, to Tournon... he hastens to meet the Duchess d’Etampes; he even welcomes artists and men of letters; but these miserable religionists... never! ‘Sire,’ said Calvin, ‘do not turn away in disdain of our meanness. Verily, we confess that we are poor despicable folks, — miserable sinners before God, reviled and rejected before men... Nay, if you like it we are the scum of the earth or anything more worthless still, that can be named. Yes, we have nothing left in which we can glory before God, except his only mercy and nothing before men, except our weakness!’

But the apologist immediately lifts up his head with holy pride: ‘Nevertheless,’ he says, ‘our doctrine must remain exalted, invincible, and far above all the power and glory of the world. For it is not ours, but that of the living God and his Christ, whom God has made King to rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers unto the ends of the earth,... and whose magnificence the prophets have fore-told, saying that he shall overthrow kingdoms strong as iron and brass, and shining like silver and gold.’

Here the advocate of his brethren hears an objection from their enemies.

He sees them clustering round Francis, and incessantly repeating to him that these folks, even while putting forward the Word of God, are only its perverse corruptors... ‘Sire,’ he continues, ‘you can judge for yourself, by reading our confession (the Institutes ) to what an extent the reproach is nothing but wicked calumny and brazen impudence. What is more conformable with the christian faith, than to acknowledge ourselves stripped of all virtue to be clothed with God? empty of all good to be filled with Him? the slaves of sin to be freed by Him? blind, to have our sight restored by Him? lame, that He may make us walk? weak, to be supported by Him? in a word, to put off from us all manner of glory, that He alone may be glorified?... Ah! we do not read of men being blamed for drinking too deeply at the fountain of living waters; on the contrary, the prophet bitterly reproves those who have hewed out broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ Calvin even attempted — and a hopeless attempt it was — to touch the king’s heart: ‘Consider, Sire, all parts of our cause. We are persecuted, some of us are kept in prison, others are scourged, others forced to do penance, others banished, others escape by flight... We are in tribulation, insulted, treated cruelly, looked upon as outlaws, and accursed... And for what?... Because we place our hope in the living God, and believe that life everlasting is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent.’ Calvin knew very well, however, that the victory would not be easy. He had seen the priests closely, in the capital, in cities of second rank, and in the country. He fancied he could hear the cries raised by the cures in their parishes, and the monks in their convents. Wishing, therefore, to enlighten the king, he did so in a rather coarse manner, after the fashion of the times. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘do our enemies fight so stoutly and so sternly for the mass, purgatory, pilgrimages, and such rubbish?’... Because the belly is their God, and the kitchen their religion. Because, although some treat themselves delicately and others starve upon crusts, they all eat out of the same pot which, without these branches to warm them (the mass, purgatory, etc.) would not only grow cold, but freeze entirely.’

Calvin was not ignorant however that the really dangerous enemies of the Reformation were not those priests and friars whom Erasmus and so many others had often flagellated to the great delight of the king. He imagined he saw haughty nobles, fanatical priests and doctors entering the king’s closet, and pouring their perfidious accusations into his ear. ‘I hear them,’ he says, ‘they call our doctrine new... Verily, I have no doubt it is new, so far as they are concerned, seeing that even Christ and his gospel are quite new to them. But he who knows that this preaching of St. Paul’s is old, namely, that Christ died for our sins and was raised again for our justification, finds nothing new among us. True, it has long been hidden and unknown, but the crime must be laid to the wickedness of man; and now that by God’s goodness it is restored to us, it ought at least to be received into its ancient authority.’

Here the enemies persist: they claim the old doctors of the Church as being in their favor. This was the strongest argument in the eyes of Francis, who affected a certain respect for ancient christian literature. Calvin was familiar with the writings of the doctors: he had studied them night and day at Angouleme, Paris, and Basle. ‘The Fathers have been mistaken, just like other men,’ he said, ‘but these good and obedient sons (the Romish friars) adore the errors of the Fathers, and put out of sight what they have said aright, as if they had no other care but to pick out the rubbish from among the gold... And then they attack us with loud clamors as despisers of the Ancients. Far from despising them, we could prove from their testimony the greater part of what we are now saying. But those holy persons often differ from each other and sometimes contradict themselves.

They ought not to tyrannise over us. It is Christ alone whom we must obey wholly and without exception. Why do not our adversaries take the Apostles from their Fathers, since it is their landmarks and theirs only that we are forbidden to remove? And if they desire the landmarks of the Fathers to be observed, why do they, whenever it suits their pleasure, overleap them so audaciously?’

Further than this, Calvin makes use of these doctors; he does not fear them, on the contrary, he appeals to them. He calls them all up to make them defile before the king and bear testimony against the doctrines of Rome. ‘It was a Father, Epiphanius, who said that it was a horrible abomination to see an image of Christ or of any saint in a christian temple. ‘It was a Father, Pope Gelasius, who said that the substance of the bread and wine dwells in the sacrament of the Holy Supper, as the human nature dwells in our Lord Jesus Christ, united to his divine essence. ‘It was a Father, Augustine, who called it a rash theory to assert any doctrine without the clear testimony of Scripture. ‘It was a Father, Paphnutius, who maintained that the ministers of the Church ought not to be forbidden to marry, and that chastity consisted in having a lawful wife. ‘It was a Father, Augustine, who contended that the Church ought not to be preferred to Christ, because whilst ecclesiastical judges, being men, may be mistaken, Christ always judges righteously...

Ah! if I wished to reckon up all the points in which the Roman doctors reject the yoke of the Fathers, whose obedient children they call themselves, months and years would pass away in reading the long roll... And then they reprove us for going beyond the ancient boundaries!’

Calvin did not forget that he was speaking to a prince. Struck with the condition of the world at this important moment, when old superstition and new doubts, old disorders and new immoralities, ambitions, war, and desolations, were all conflicting together, he called loudly for a remedy; and being convinced that the Reformation alone could save society, he exclaimed: ‘Oceans of evil are deluging the land. New plagues are ravaging the world. Everything is falling into ruins. We must despair of human affairs, or put them to rights, even if it be by violent remedies. And yet men reject the remedy... Ah! God’s everlasting truth alone ought to be listened to in God’s kingdom. Against it neither proscription, nor lapse of years, nor ancient customs, nor any compact whatever, avails anything.’ ‘But the Church,’ say his adversaries. ‘If we are not the Church, where was it before you?’ ‘Alas!’ answered Calvin, ‘how often has not the Church suffered eclipse, been deformed and oppressed by wars, seditions, and heresies... Does not St. Hilary reprimand those who, blinded by an unreasoning respect, did not observe what sores were sometimes hidden under a fair outside. You seek the Church of God in the beauty of its buildings. But know you not that there it is that Antichrist will set up his throne? Mountains, woods, and lakes, prisons, wildernesses, and caves — these are to me safer and more trustworthy; for there prophesied the prophets, who had withdrawn to them. God, seeing that men were unwilling to obey the truth, permitted them to be buried in deep darkness, and the form of a true Church to be lost, while still preserving those who belonged to it, hidden and scattered here and there. If you are willing, Sire, to give up a part of your leisure, and to read my writings... you will see clearly that what our adversaries call a Church is a cruel gehenna, a slaughter-house of souls, a torch, a ruin.’

Finally, the young doctor, knowing that the cardinals were continually repeating to Francis I., ‘See what contentions, troubles, and disturbances the preaching of this doctrine has brought with it,’ gave an answer to that vulgar accusation which is rather striking and original: ‘The Word of God,’ he says, ‘never comes forward without Satan’s rousing himself and fighting. A few years ago, when everything was buried in darkness, this Lord of the world played with men as he list, and like a Sardanapalus, took his pastime in peace. What could he do but sport and jest, seeing that he was then in tranquil possession of his kingdom? But since the light shining from on high has chased away the darkness, the prince of this world has suddenly thrown off his lethargy and taken up arms.’ First, he resorted to force in order to oppress truth; then, to stratagem to obscure and extinguish it. Oh! what perversity to accuse the Word of God of the seditions stirred up against it by fools and madmen! ‘Ah! Sire, it is not us who stir up troubles, it is those who resist the goodness of God. Is it likely that we, whose mouths have never uttered a seditious word; whose lives, while we lived under your scepter, were always simple and peaceful, should plot the overthrowing of kingdoms?... Now, even that we are expelled, we cease not to pray to God for the prosperity of your reign. ‘If there be any who, under color of the gospel, stir up tumults; if there be any who wish to conceal their carnal license by asserting the liberty and grace of God: there are laws and punishments ordained to purge these offenses. But let not God’s gospel be blasphemed by the evil-doings of the wicked.’

Calvin thus brings his letter to a conclusion; ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘I have set before you the iniquity of our calumniators. I have desired to soften your heart, to the end that you would give our cause a heating. I hope we shall be able to regain your favor, if you should be pleased to read without anger this confession which is our defense before your Majesty. But if malevolent persons stop your ears; if the accused have not an opportunity of defending themselves; if impetuous furies, unrestrained by your order, still exercise their cruelty by imprisonments and by scourging, by tortures, mutilation, and the stake... verily, as sheep given up to slaughter, we shall be reduced to the last extremity. Yet even then we shall possess our souls in patience, and shall wait for the strong hand of the Lord. Doubtless, it will be stretched forth in due season. It will appear armed to deliver the poor from their afflictions, and to punish the despisers who are now making merry so boldly. ‘May the Lord, the King of kings, establish your throne in righteousness and your seat in equity.’

Such was the noble and touching defense which a young man of twenty-six addressed to the king of France. He heard from afar the mournful cries of the victims; and his soul being stirred with compassion and indignation, he appeared as a suppliant before the voluptuous prince who was putting them to death.

After finishing an address of such rare eloquence, Calvin wrote the date — Basle, 1st August, 1535, and then hastened to get the manuscript printed. There was a house at Basle, on the heights of St. Pierre, known by the sign of the Black Bear, where there was a printing office belonging to Thomas Plater, the Valaisan. Calvin often went there. Plater, who had come to Basle with Myconius, as we have seen, was at first a student, then a professor, and finally ‘the large sums gained by the printers,’ had given him the desire to become a printer also. When Calvin was looking for a publisher for his Institutes, the learned Grynaeus recommended Plater to him. The latter had the honor of printing that work, and from that time Calvin kept up an occasional intercourse with this singular man. When some years later, Felix Plater, the son of Thomas, who was going to study medicine at Montpelier, passed through Geneva, Calvin, to whom he brought a letter from his father, called him my Felix, and received him with much cordiality. ‘I heard him preach on Sunday morning,’ said the young man in his memoirs; ‘and there was a great crowd of people.’ It was, as we have said, in August 1535, that Calvin handed Thomas Plater his epistle to Francis I. to be printed. He had written it in French, and the French edition bears the date of the 1st of August; but he immediately translated it into Latin and printed this version on the 23d of the same month, which is the date of the Latin edition. It is probable that the epistle to Francis I. was printed in both languages, and that the French text was sent to the king, and the Latin to the German doctors, in September 1535.

Did Francis ever receive the letter? Did he listen to this admirable apology? It is certain that his heart was not softened. It is even possible, that the pleasures and policy of the monarch made him contemptuously throw aside this appeal from one of the poorest of his subjects. However, nothing prevents us from believing that the king did read it, for the style alone was worthy of a monarch’s notice Calvin’s friends, and even Calvin himself, hoped much from it. ‘If the king would but read that excellent letter,’ said one of them, ‘a mortal wound (or we are greatly mistaken) would be inflicted on that harlot of Babylon.’ But was an ambitious, false-speaking, and libertine king competent to understand the noble thoughts of the reformer?

Calvin having published his appeal to Francis I., and perhaps ended the correction of the proofs of the Institutes, thought of leaving Basle. These publications would make a sensation; it would be known that Catherine Klein’s lodger was their author, and Calvin would find himself courted and sought after... ‘It is not my object to display myself and to acquire fame,’ he said. The fear of becoming famous induced him, therefore, to get out of the way. He had, however, other reasons, for quitting Basle: he felt himself drawn towards Italy. Shortly after, on the 23d August 1535, ‘Calvin, having discharged his debt to his country,’ says Theodore Beza, set off with Du Tillet, shrinking from eulogiums, thanks, and approbation, just as another man would shrink from threats and violence.

The two friend’s rode side by side, but their itinerary has not been preserved. There are, as every one knows, many passes over the Alps, but that which Calvin chose is as unknown to us as that of Hannibal — though certainly not to be compared with it. It has been supposed that the travelers took the road along the shores of the lake of Geneva. If they passed through Switzerland, and purposed crossing the St. Bernard (as a manuscript of the 17th century states), or the Simplon or even Mount Cenis, Calvin must have stood for the first time on the margin of those beautiful waters. Be that as it may, he was going to pass the Alps. ‘He had a wish,’ as Theodore Beza tells us, ‘to know the Duchess of Ferrara, a princess of exemplary virtue.’ But other motives impelled the young reformer. He desired to see Italy: Italia salutanda, as his friend tells us.

This desire of ‘saluting’ Italy, so common to the inhabitants of the rest of Europe from the time when the Roman republic subjected the nations, and which exists still in our days, Calvin felt like any other man.
But what did he go in search of?... Whilst he was climbing the Alps and contemplating for the first time their immense glaciers and eternal snows, what thoughts filled his mind? There was some talk then of a council; had that event, which seemed near at hand, anything to do with his journey?

As Vergeria had gone from Italy to Germany, in order to support the dominion of the pope, did Calvin wish to go from Switzerland to Italy, in order to assail it? Or attracted by the almost evangelical reputation of Contarini, Sadolet, and other prelates, did he long to converse with them?

Did he feel the necessity of seeing closely that papacy, with which he was to deal all his life, and did he propose to study, like Luther, its scandals and abuses? Did he wish to carry back the gospel to that very country to which Paul had taken it? Or was he only attracted by classical recollections, by the learning and civilization of that illustrious peninsula?

There was a little of all these inducements, probably, in Calvin’s wish. He desired to visit the land of heroes, martyrs, and scholars, of Renee of Ferrara, and... of the popes. Italia salutanda. But his chief thought, we can not doubt, was to teach the principles of the Reformation, to proclaim to Italy that Christ had come to destroy sin, and had opened a way to the heavenly Father for all who seek him. A catholic historian says that the young reformer ‘had conceived the design of withdrawing from their obedience to the pope the people nearest to his throne.’ There is some exaggeration in this statement, but the substance is true.

Calvin crosses the torrents, ascends the sloping valleys of the Alps, climbs yonder high mountains which rise like impassable walls, and moves courageously towards those Italian lands, where the men of the Reformation are soon to be drowned in their blood, where persecution certainly attends him, and perhaps... death. It matters not: onward he goes.

We might say, after an historian, that like Mithridates, he desires to conquer Rome in Rome.

Let us leave him for a moment and turn towards those countries whither he will come again, once more crossing the Alps, on his escape from the prisons of Italy. After wandering over the adjacent regions, let us direct our steps towards that city which is struggling so manfully with bishops and princes, where courageous forerunners are about to prepare the way for him, and which is to become, through the torch that will be lighted there some day by the hand of Calvin, the most powerful focus of the European Reformation.