Vol 8, Chapter X. Calvin’s First Sojourn and Labors in Geneva. 1536-1538

From 1536, and especially from 1541, we have, besides the works and letters of Calvin and his correspondents and other contemporaries, important sources of authentic information in the following documents: — 

1. Registres du Conseil de Genève, from 1536-1564. Tomes 29-58.

2. Registres des actes de baptême et de marriage, preserved in the archives of the city of Geneva.

3. Registres des actes du Consistoie de Genève, of which Calvin was a permanent member.

4. Registres de la Vénérable Compagnie, or the Ministerium of Geneva.

5. The Archives of Bern, Zürich, and Basel, of that period, especially those of Bern, which stood in close connection with Geneva and exercised a sort of protectorate over Church and State.

From these sources the Strassburg editors of Calvin’s Works have carefully compiled the Annales Calviniani, in vol. XXI. (or vol. XII. of Thesaurus Epistolicus Calvinianus), 185-818 (published 1879). The same volume contains also the biographies of Calvin by Beza (French and Latin) and Colladon (French), the epitaphia, and a Notice Littéraire, 1-178.

J. H. Albert Rilliet: Le prémier séjour de Calvin a Genève. In his and Dufour’s ed. of Calvin’s French Catechism. Geneva, 1878. — Henry, vol. I. chs. VIII. and IX. — Dyer, ch.III. — Staehelin, I. 122 sqq. Kampschulte, I. 278-320. — Merle D’Aubigné, bk. XI. chs. I.-XIV.


81. Calvin’s Arrival and Settlement at Geneva

Calvin arrived at Geneva in the later part of July, 1536, two months after the Reformation had been publicly introduced (May 21).

He intended to stop only a night, as he says, but Providence had decreed otherwise. It was the decisive hour of his life which turned the quiet scholar into an active reformer.

His presence was made known to Farel through the imprudent zeal of Du Tillet, who had come from Basel via Neuchâtel, and remained in Geneva for more than a year. Farel instinctively felt that the providential man had come who was to complete and to save the Reformation of Geneva. He at once called on Calvin and held him fast, as by divine command. Calvin protested, pleading his youth, his inexperience, his need of further study, his natural timidity and bashfulness, which unfitted him for public action. But all in vain. Farel, “who burned of a marvellous zeal to advance the Gospel,” threatened him with the curse of Almighty God if he preferred his studies to the work of the Lord, and his own interest to the cause of Christ. Calvin was terrified and shaken by these words of the fearless evangelist, and felt “as if God from on high had stretched out his hand.” He submitted, and accepted the call to the ministry, as teacher and pastor of the evangelical Church of Geneva.

It was an act of obedience, a sacrifice of his desires to a sense of duty, of his will to the will of God.

Farel gave the Reformation to Geneva, and gave Calvin to Geneva — two gifts by which he crowned his own work and immortalized his name, as one of the greatest benefactors of that city and of Reformed Christendom.

Calvin was foreordained for Geneva, and Geneva for Calvin. Both have made, “their calling and election sure.”

He found in the city on Lake Leman “a tottering republic, a wavering faith, a nascent Church.” He left it a Gibraltar of Protestantism, a school of nations and churches.

The city had then only about twelve thousand inhabitants, but by her situation on the borders of France and Switzerland, her recent deliverance from political and ecclesiastical despotism, and her raw experiments in republican self-government, she offered rare advantages for the solution of the great social and religious problems which agitated Europe.

Calvin’s first labors in that city were an apparent failure. The Genevese were not ready yet and expelled him, but after a few years they recalled him. They might have expelled him again and forever; for he was poor, feeble, and unprotected. But they gradually yielded to the moulding force of his genius and character. Those who call him “the pope of Geneva” involuntarily pay him the highest compliment. His success was achieved by moral and spiritual means, and stands almost alone in history.


82. First Labors and Trials

Calvin began his labors, Sept. 5, 1536, by a course of expository lectures on the Epistles of Paul and other books of the New Testament, which he delivered in the Church of St. Peter in the afternoon. They were heard with increasing attention. He had a rare gift of teaching, and the people were hungry for religious instruction.

After a short time he assumed also the office of pastor which he had at first declined.

The Council was asked by Farel to provide a suitable support for their new minister, but they were slow to do it, not dreaming that he would become the most distinguished citizen, and calling him simply “that Frenchman.” He received little or no salary till Feb. 13, 1537, when the Council voted him six gold crowns.

Calvin accompanied Farel in October to the disputation at Lausanne, which decided the Reformation in the Canton de Vaud, but took little part in it, speaking only twice. Farel was the senior pastor, twenty years older, and took the lead. But with rare humility and simplicity he yielded very soon to the superior genius of his young friend. He was contented to have conquered the territory for the renewed Gospel, and left it to him to cultivate the same and to bring order out of the political and ecclesiastical chaos. He was willing to decrease, that Calvin might increase. Calvin, on his part, treated him always with affectionate regard and gratitude. There was not a shadow of envy or jealousy between them.

The third Reformed preacher was Courault, formerly an Augustinian monk, who, like Calvin, had fled from France to Basel, in 1534, and was called to Geneva to replace Viret. Though very old and nearly blind, he showed as much zeal and energy as his younger colleagues. Saunier, the rector of the school, was an active sympathizer, and soon afterwards Cordier, Calvin’s beloved teacher, assumed the government of the school and effectively aided the ministers in their arduous work. Viret came occasionally from the neighboring Lausanne. Calvin’s brother, and his relative Olivetan, who joined them at Geneva, increased his influence.

The infant Church of Geneva had the usual trouble with the Anabaptists. Two of their preachers came from Holland and gained some influence. But after an unfruitful disputation they were banished by the large Council from the territory of the city as early as March, 1537.

A more serious trouble was created by Peter Caroli, a doctor of the Sorbonne, an unprincipled, vain, and quarrelsome theological adventurer and turncoat, who changed his religion several times, led a disorderly life, and was ultimately reconciled to the pope and released from his concubine, as he called his wife. He had fled from Paris to Geneva in 1535, became pastor at Neuchâtel, where he married, and then at Lausanne. He raised the charge of Arianism against Farel and Calvin at a synod in Lausanne, May, 1537, because they avoided in the Confession the metaphysical terms Trinity and Person, (though Calvin did use them in his Institutio and his Catechism,) and because they refused, at Caroli’s dictation, to sign the Athanasian Creed with its damnatory clauses, which are unjust and uncharitable. Calvin was incensed at his arrogant and boisterous conduct and charged him with atheism. “Caroli,” he said, “quarrels with us about the nature of God and the distinction of the persons; but I carry the matter further and ask him, whether he believes in the Deity at all? For I protest before God and man that he has no more faith in the Divine Word than a dog or a pig that tramples under foot holy things” (Mat_7:6). This is the first manifestation of his angry temper and of that contemptuous tone which characterizes his polemical writings. He handed in with his colleagues a confession on the Trinity. The synod after due consideration was satisfied with their orthodoxy, and declared Caroli convicted of calumny and unworthy of the ministry. He died in a hospital at Rome.


83. The Reformers Introduce Order and Discipline

Confession de la Foy laquelle tous les bourgeois et habitans de Genève et subjectz du pays doyvent jurer de garder et tenir; extraicte de l’instruction dont on use en l’église de la dicte ville, 1537. Confessio Fidei in quam jurare cives omnes Genevenses et qui sub civitatis ejus ditione agunt, jussi sunt. The French in Opera, vol. IX. 693-700 (and by Rilliet-Dufour, see below); the Latin in vol. V. 355-362. See also vol. XXII. 5 sqq. (publ. 1880).

Le Catéchisme de l’Eglise de Genève, c’est à dire le Formulaire d’instruire les enfans la Chretienté fait en manière de dialogue ou le ministre interrogue et l’enfant respond. The first edition of 1537 is not divided into questions and answers, and bears the title Instruction et Confession de Foy dont on use en l’Eglise de Genève. A copy of it was discovered by H. Bordier in Paris and published by Th. Dufour, together with the first ed. of the Confession de la Foy, at Geneva, 1878 (see below). A copy of a Latin ed. of 1545 had been previously found in the Ducal library at Gotha.

Catechismus sive Christianae religionis institutio, communibus renatae nuper in evangelio Genevensis ecclesiae suffragiis recepta et vulgari quidem prius idiomate, nunc vero Latine etiam in lucem edita, Joanne Calvino auctore. The first draft, or Catechismus prior, was printed at Basel, 1538 (with a Latin translation of the Confession of 1537). Reprinted in Opera in both languages, vol. V. 313-364. The second or larger Catechism appeared in French, 1541, in Latin, 1545, etc.; both reprinted in parallel columns, Opera, vol. VI. 1-160.

(Niemeyer in his Coll. Conf. gives the Latin text of the larger Cat. together with the prayers and liturgical forms; comp. his Proleg. XXXVII.-XLI. Boeckel in his Bekenntniss-Shriften der evang. Reform. Kirche gives a German version of the larger Cat., 127-172. An English translation was prepared by the Marian exiles, Geneva, 1556, and reprinted in Dunlop’s Confessions, II. 139-272).

Calvin had a hand in nearly all the French and Helvetic confessions of his age. See Opera, IX. 693-772.

*Albert Rilliet and Théophile Dufour: Le Catéchisme français de Calvin publié en 1537, réimprimé pour la première fois d’après un exemplaire nouvellement retrouvé, et suivi de la plus ancienne Confession de Foi de l’Église de Genève (avec un notice sur le premier séjour de Calvin à Genève, par Albert Rilliet, et une notice bibliographique sur le Catéchisme et la Confession de Foi de Calvin, par Théophile Dufour), Genève (H. Georg.), and Paris (Fischbacher), 1878, 16°. pp. cclxxxviii. and 146; reprinted in Opera, XXII.

Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, I. 467 sqq. Staehelin, I. 124 sqq. Kampschulte, I. 284 sqq. Merle D’Aubigné, VI. 328-357.

Geneva needed first of all a strong moral government on the doctrinal basis of the evangelical Reformation. The Genevese were a light-hearted, joyous people, fond of public amusements, dancing, singing, masquerades, and revelries. Reckless gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice abounded. Prostitution was sanctioned by the authority of the State and superintended by a woman called the Reine du bordel. The people were ignorant. The priests had taken no pains to instruct them and had set them a bad example. To remedy these evils, a Confession of Faith and Discipline, and a popular Catechism were prepared, the first by Farel as the senior pastor, with the aid of Calvin; the second by Calvin. Both were accepted and approved by the Council in November, 1536.

The Confession of Faith consists of twenty-one articles in which the chief doctrines of the evangelical faith are briefly and clearly stated for the comprehension of the people. It begins with the Word of God, as the rule of faith and practice, and ends with the duty to the civil magistracy. The doctrine of predestination and reprobation is omitted, but it is clearly taught that man is saved by the free grace of God without any merit (Art. 10). The necessity of discipline by admonition and excommunication for the conversion of the sinner is asserted (Art. 19). This subject gave much trouble in Geneva and other Swiss churches. The Confession prepared the way for fuller Reformed Confessions, as the Gallican, the Belgic, and the Second Helvetic. It was printed and distributed in April, 1537, and read every Sunday from the pulpits, to prepare the citizens for its adoption.

Calvin’s Catechism, which preceded the Confession, is an extract from his Institutes, but passed through several transformations. On his return from Strassburg he re-wrote it on a larger scale, and arranged it in questions and answers, or in the form of a dialogue between the teacher and the pupil. It was used for a long time in Reformed Churches and schools, and served a good purpose in promoting an intelligent piety and virtue by systematic biblical instruction. It includes an exposition of the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer. It is much fuller than Luther’s, but less adapted for children. Beza says that it was translated into German, English, Scotch, Belgic, Spanish, into Hebrew by E. Tremellius, and “most elegantly” into Greek by H. Stephanus. It furnished the basis and material for a number of similar works, especially the Anglican (Nowell’s), the Palatinate (Heidelberg), and the Westminster Catechisms, which gradually superseded it.

Calvin has been called “the father of popular education and the inventor of free schools.” But he must share this honor with Luther and Zwingli.

Besides the Confession and Catechism, the Reformed pastors (i.e. Farel, Calvin, and Courault) presented to the Council a memorial concerning the future organization and discipline of the Church of Geneva, recommending frequent and solemn celebration of the Lord’s Supper, at least once a month, alternately in the three principal churches, singing of Psalms, regular instruction of the youth, abolition of the papal marriage laws, the maintenance of public order, and the exclusion of unworthy communicants. They regarded the apostolic custom of excommunication as necessary for the protection of the purity of the Church, but as it had been fearfully abused by the papal bishops, they requested the Council to elect a number of reliable, godly, and irreproachable citizens for the moral supervision of the different districts, and the exercise of discipline, in connection with the ministers, by private and public admonition, and, in case of stubborn disobedience, by excommunication from the privileges of church membership.

On Jan. 16, 1537, the Great Council of Two Hundred issued a series of orders forbidding immoral habits, foolish songs, gambling, the desecration of the Lord’s Day, baptism by midwives, and directing that the remaining idolatrous images should be burned; but nothing was said about excommunication. This subject became a bone of contention between the pastors and citizens and the cause of the expulsion of the Reformers. The election of syndics, Feb. 5, was favorable to them.

The ministers were incessantly active in preaching, catechising, and visiting all classes of the people. Five sermons were preached every Sunday, two every week day, and were well attended. The schools were flourishing, and public morality was steadily rising. Saunier, in a school oration, praised the goodly city of Geneva which now added to her natural advantages of a magnificent site, a fertile country, a lovely lake, fine streets and squares, the crowning glory of the pure doctrine of the gospel. The magistrates showed a willingness to assist in the maintenance of discipline. A gambler was placed in the pillory with a chain around his neck. Three women were imprisoned for an improper head-dress. Even François Bonivard, the famous patriot and prisoner of Chillon, was frequently warned on account of his licentiousness. Every open manifestation of sympathy with popery by carrying a rosary, or cherishing a sacred relic, or observing a saint’s day, was liable to punishment. The fame of Geneva went abroad and began to attract students and refugees. Before the close of 1537 English Protestants came to Geneva to, see Calvin and Farel.”

On July 29, 1537, the Council of the Two Hundred ordered all the citizens, male and female, to assent to the Confession of Faith in the Church of St. Peter. It was done by a large number. On Nov. 12, the Council even passed a measure to banish all who would not take the oath.

The Confession was thus to be made the law of Church and State. This is the first instance of a formal pledge to a symbolical book by a whole people.

It was a glaring inconsistency that those who had just shaken off the yoke of popery as an intolerable burden, should subject their conscience and intellect to a human creed; in other words, substitute for the old Roman popery a modern Protestant popery. Of course, they sincerely believed that they had the infallible Word of God on their side; but they could not claim infallibility in its interpretation. The same inconsistency and intolerance was repeated a hundred years later on a much larger scale in the “Solemn League and Covenant” of the Scotch Presbyterians and English Puritans against popery and prelacy, and sanctioned in 1643 by the Westminster Assembly of Divines which vainly attempted to prescribe a creed, a Church polity, and a directory of worship for three nations. But in those days neither Protestants nor Catholics had any proper conception of religious toleration, much less of religious liberty, as an inalienable right of man. “The power of the magistrates ends where that of conscience begins.” God alone is the Lord of conscience.

The Calvinistic churches of modern times still require subscription to the Westminster standards, but only from the officers, and only in a qualified sense, as to substance of doctrine; while the members are admitted simply on profession of faith in Christ as their Lord and Saviour.


84. Expulsion of the Reformers. 1538

Calvin’s correspondence from 1537 to 1538, in Op. vol. X., Pt. II. 137 sqq. Herminjard, vols. IV. and V. — Annal. Calv., Op. XXI., fol. 215-235.

Henry, I. ch. IX. — Dyer, 78sqq. — Staehelin, I. 151 sqq. — Kampschulte, I. 296-319. Merle D’Aubigné, bk. XI. chs. XI.-XIV. (vol. VI. 469 sqq.).

C. A. Cornelius: Die Verbannung Calvins aus Genf. i. J. 1538. Muenchen, 1886.

The submission of the people of Geneva to such a severe system of discipline was only temporary. Many had never sworn to the Confession, notwithstanding the threat of punishment, and among them were the most influential citizens of the republic; others declared that they had been compelled to perjure themselves. The impossibility of enforcing the law brought the Council into contempt. Ami Porral, the leader of the clerical party in the Council, was charged with arbitrary conduct and disregard of the rights of the people. The Patriots and Libertines who had hailed the Reformation in the interest of political independence from the yoke of Savoy and of the bishop, had no idea of becoming slaves of Farel, and were jealous of the influence of foreigners. An intrigue to annex Geneva to the kingdom of France increased the suspicion. The Patriots organized themselves as a political party and labored to overthrow the clerical régime. They were aided in part by Bern, which was opposed to the tenet of excommunication and to the radicalism of the Reformers.

There was another cause of dissatisfaction even among the more moderate, which brought on the crisis. Farel in his iconoclastic zeal had, before the arrival of Calvin, abolished all holidays except Sunday, the baptismal fonts, and the unleavened bread in the communion, all of which were retained by the Reformed Church in Bern. A synod of Lausanne, under the influence of Bern, recommended the restoration of the old Bernese customs, as they were called. The Council enforced this decision. Calvin himself regarded such matters as in themselves indifferent, but would not forsake his colleagues.

Stormy scenes took place in the general assembly of citizens, Nov. 15, 1537. In the popular elections on Feb. 3, 1538, the anti-clerical party succeeded in the election of four syndics and a majority of the Council.

The new rulers proceeded with caution. They appointed new preachers for the country, which was much needed. They prohibited indecent songs and broils in the streets, and going out at night after nine. They took Bern for their model. They enforced the decision of the Council of Lausanne concerning the Church festivals and baptismal fonts.

But the preachers were determined to die rather than to yield an inch. They continued to thunder against the popular vices, and censured the Council for want of energy in suppressing them. The result was that they were warned not to meddle in politics (March 12). Courauld, who surpassed even Farel in vehemence, was forbidden to preach, but ascended the pulpit again, April 7, denounced Geneva and its citizens in a rude and insulting manner, was imprisoned, and six days afterwards banished in spite of the energetic protests of Calvin and Farel. The old man retired to Thonon, on the lake of Geneva, was elected minister at Orbe, and died there Oct. 4 in the same year.

Calvin and Farel were emboldened by this harsh treatment of their colleague. They attacked the Council from the pulpit. Even Calvin went so far as to denounce it as the Devil’s Council. Libels were circulated against the preachers. They often heard the cry late in the evening, “To the Rhone with the traitors,” and in the night they were disturbed by violent knocks at the door of their dwelling.

They were ordered to celebrate the approaching Easter communion after the Bernese rite, but they refused to do so in the prevailing state of debauchery and insubordination. The Council could find no supplies. On Easter Sunday, April 21, Calvin, after all, ascended the pulpit of St. Peter’s; Farel, the pulpit of St. Gervais. They preached before large audiences, but declared that they could not administer the communion to the rebellious city, lest the sacrament be desecrated. And indeed, under existing circumstances, the celebration of the love-feast of the Saviour would have been a solemn mockery. Many hearers were armed, drew their swords, and drowned the voice of the preachers, who left the church and went home under the protection of their friends. Calvin preached also in the evening in the Church of St. Francis at Rive in the lower part of the city, and was threatened with violence.

The small Council met after the morning service in great commotion and summoned the general Council. On the next two days, April 22 and 23, the great Council of the Two Hundred assembled in the cloisters of St. Peter’s, deposed Farel and Calvin, without a trial, and ordered them to leave the city within three days.

They received the news with great composure. “Very well,” said Calvin, “it is better to serve God than man. If we had sought to please men, we should have been badly rewarded, but we serve a higher Master, who will not withhold from us his reward.” Calvin even rejoiced at the result more than seemed proper.

The people celebrated the downfall of the clerical régime with public rejoicings. The decrees of the synod of Lausanne were published by sound of trumpets. The baptismal fonts were re-erected, and the communion administered on the following Sunday with unleavened bread.

The deposed ministers went to Bern, but found little sympathy. They proceeded to Zürich, where a general synod was held, and were kindly received. They admitted that they had been too rigid, and consented to the restoration of the baptismal fonts, the unleavened bread (provided the bread was broken), and the four Church festivals observed in Bern; but they insisted on the introduction of discipline, the division of the Church into parishes, the more frequent administration of the communion, the singing of Psalms in public worship, and the exercise of discipline by joint committees of laymen and ministers.

Bullinger undertook to advocate this compromise before Bern and Geneva. But the Genevese confirmed in general assembly the sentence of banishment, May 26.

With gloomy prospects for the future, yet trusting in God, who orders all things well, the exiled ministers travelled on horseback in stormy weather to Basel. In crossing a torrent swollen by the rains they were nearly swept away. In Basel they were warmly received by sympathizing friends, especially by Grynaeus. Here they determined to wait for the call of Providence. Farel, after a few weeks, in July, received and accepted a call to Neuchâtel, his former seat of labor, on condition that he should have freedom to introduce his system of discipline. Calvin was induced, two months later, to leave Basel for Strassburg.

It was during this crisis that Calvin’s friend and travelling companion, Louis du Tillet, who seems to have been of a mild and peaceable disposition, lost faith in the success of the Reformation. He left Geneva in August, 1537, for Strassburg and Paris, and returned to the Roman Church. He had relations in high standing who influenced him. His brother, Jean du Tillet, was the famous registrar of the Parliament of Paris; another brother became bishop of Sainte-Brieux, afterwards of Meaux. He explained to Calvin his conscientious scruples and reasons for the change. Calvin regarded them as insufficient, and warned him earnestly, but kindly and courteously. The separation was very painful to both, but was relieved by mutual regard. Du Tillet even offered to aid Calvin in his distressed condition after his expulsion, but Calvin gratefully declined, writing from Strassburg, Oct. 20, 1538: “You have made me an offer for which I cannot sufficiently thank you; neither am I so rude and unmannerly as not to feel the unmerited kindness so deeply, that even in declining to accept it, I can never adequately express the obligation that I owe to you.” As to their difference of opinion, he appeals to the judgment of God to decide who are the true schismatics, and concludes the letter with the prayer: “May our Lord uphold and keep you in his holy protection, so directing you that you decline not from his way.”