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§ 60. William Farel (1489–1565).


Letters of Farel and to Farel in Herminjard, beginning with vol. I. 193, and in the Strassburg edition of Calvin’s correspondence, Opera, X.–XX.

Biographies by Beza (Icones, 1580, with a picture); Melchior Adam (Decades duae, 57–61); *Kirchhofer (1833, 2 vols.); Verheiden (Imagines et Elogia, 1725, p. 86 sq., with picture); Chenevière (1835); Junod (1865). Merle D’Aubigné gives a very minute but broken account of Farel’s earlier labors, especially in Geneva (vols. III., IV., V., books 5, 6, and 9) . See also Ruchat, F. Godet, and other works mentioned in § 58, and art. "Farel" in La France Protestante, tome VI. 886–416 (1888).


Two years after the political emancipation of Geneva from the yoke of Savoy, Bern embraced the Protestant Reformation (1528), and at once exerted her political and moral influence for the introduction of the new religion into the neighboring French territory over which she had acquired control. She found three evangelists ready for this work,—one a native of Vaud, and two fugitive Frenchmen. The city of Freiburg, the Duke of Savoy, Charles V., and the pope endeavored to prevent the progress of heresy, but in vain.

The pioneer of Protestantism in Western Switzerland is William Farel. He was a travelling evangelist, always in motion, incessant in labors, a man full of faith and fire, as bold and fearless as Luther and far more radical, but without his genius. He is called the Elijah of the French Reformation, and "the scourge of the priests." Once an ardent papist, he became as ardent a Protestant, and looked hereafter only at the dark side, the prevailing corruptions and abuses of Romanism. He hated the pope as the veritable Antichrist, the mass as idolatry, pictures and relics as heathen idols which must be destroyed like the idols of the Canaanites. Without a regular ordination, he felt himself divinely called, like a prophet of old, to break down idolatry and to clear the way for the spiritual worship of God according to his own revealed word. He was a born fighter; he came, not to bring peace, but the sword. He had to deal with priests who carried firearms and clubs under their frocks, and he fought them with the sword of the word and the spirit. Once he was fired at, but the gun burst, and, turning round, he said, "I am not afraid of your shots." He never used violence himself, except in language. He had an indomitable will and power of endurance. Persecution and violence only stimulated him to greater exertions. His outward appearance was not prepossessing: he was small and feeble, with a pale but sunburnt face, narrow forehead, red and ill-combed beard, fiery eyes, and an expressive mouth.

Farel had some of the best qualities of an orator: a sonorous and stentorian voice, appropriate gesture, fluency of speech, and intense earnestness, which always commands attention and often produces conviction. His contemporaries speak of the thunders of his eloquence and of his transporting prayers. "Tua illa fulgura," writes Calvin. "Nemo tonuit fortius," says Beza. His sermons were extemporized, and have not come down to us. Their power lay in the oral delivery. We may compare him to Whitefield, who was likewise a travelling evangelist, endowed with the magnetism of living oratory. In Beza’s opinion, Calvin was the most learned, Farel the most forcible, Viret the most gentle preacher of that age.339339    Beza, in his Icones, thus describes Farel’s best qualities: "Hic enim ille est qui nullis diffictultatibus fractus, nullis minis, convitiis, verberibus denique inflictis territus, Mombelgardenses, Neocomenses, Lausanenses, Aquileienses, Genevenses denique Christo lucrifecit. Fuit enim in hoc homine praeter pietatem, doctrinam, vitae innocentiam, eximiamque modestiam, singularis quaedam animi praesentia, ingenium acre, sermo vehementiae plenus, ut tonare potius quam loqui videretur: ardorque denique tantus in precando, ut audientes quasi in coelum usque subveheret." And he compares Calvin, Farel, and Viret in these verses (in 1568):—
   "Gallica mirata est Calvinum ecclesia nuper,

   Quo nemo docuit doctius.

   Est quoque te nuper mirata, Farelle, tonantem,

   Quo nemo tonuit fortius.

   Et miratur adhuc funden tem mella Viretum,

   Quo nemo fatur dulcius.

   Scilicet aut tribus his servabere testibus olim,

   Aut interibis Gallia."

The chief defect of Farel was his want of moderation and discretion. He was an iconoclast. His violence provoked unnecessary opposition, and often did more harm than good. Oecolampadius praised his zeal, but besought him to be also moderate and gentle. "Your mission," he wrote to him, "is to evangelize, not to curse. Prove yourself to be an evangelist, not a tyrannical legislator. Men want to be led, not driven." Zwingli, shortly before his death, exhorted him not to expose himself rashly, but to reserve himself for the further service of the Lord.

Farel’s work was destructive rather than constructive. He could pull down, but not build up. He was a conqueror, but not an organizer of his conquests; a man of action, not a man of letters; an intrepid preacher, not a theologian. He felt his defects, and handed his work over to the mighty genius of his younger friend Calvin. In the spirit of genuine humility and self-denial, he was willing to decrease that Calvin might increase. This is the finest trait in his character.340340    "L’homme du midi [Farel] était fait pour conquérir; l’homme du nord [Calvin] pour conserver et discipliner la conquête. Farel en eut le sentiment si distinct, qu’il s’effaça spontanément devant Calvin le jour oùil le contraignit par les ’tonnerres’ de sa parole de demeurer àGenève, qui avait besoin de son génie." Philippe Godet, Hist. litter. de la Suisse française, p. 51.

Guillaume Farel, the oldest of seven children of a poor but noble family, was born in the year 1489 (five years after Luther and Zwingli, twenty years before Calvin) at Gap, a small town in the alps of Dauphiné in the south-east of France, where the religious views of the Waldenses were once widely spread. He inherited the blind faith of his parents, and doubted nothing. He made with them, as he remembered in his old age, a pilgrimage to a wonder-working cross which was believed to be taken from the cross of our Lord. He shared in the superstitious veneration of pictures and relics, and bowed before the authority of monks and priests. He was, as he said, more popish than popery.

At the same time he had a great thirst for knowledge, and was sent to school at Paris. Here he studied the ancient languages (even Hebrew), philosophy, and theology. His principal teacher, Jacques Le Fèvre d’Étaples (Faber Stapulensis, 1455–1536), the pioneer of the Reformation in France and translator of the Scriptures, introduced him into the knowledge of Paul’s Epistles and the doctrine of justification by faith, and prophetically told him, already in 1512: "My son, God will renew the world, and you will witness it."341341    "Mon fils, Dieu renouvellera le monde et tu en seras le témoin." Herminjard, I. 5, note. Compare the passage there quoted from Le Fèvre’s work on St. Paul. Farel acquired the degree of Master of Arts (January, 1517), and was appointed teacher at the college of Cardinal Le Moine.

The influence of Le Fèvre and the study of the Bible brought him gradually to the conviction that salvation can be found only in Christ, that the word of God is the only rule of faith, and that the Roman traditions and rites are inventions of man. He was amazed that he could find in the New Testament no trace of the pope, of the hierarchy, of indulgences, of purgatory, of the mass, of seven sacraments, of sacerdotal celibacy, of the worship of Mary and the saints. Le Fèvre, being charged with heresy by the Sorbonne, retired in 1521 to his friend William Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, who was convinced of the necessity of a reformation within the Catholic Church, without separation from Rome.342342    Herminjard (I. 3) begins his Correspondance des Réf. with a letter of Le Fèvre to Briçonnet, Dec. 15, 1512, in which he dedicated to him his Commentary on the Epistles of Paul. There he translated the New Testament into French, which was published in 1523 without his name (almost simultaneously with Luther’s German New Testament.) Several of his pupils, Farel, Gérard, Roussel, Michel d’Arande, followed him to Meaux, and were authorized by Briçonnet to preach in his diocese. Margaret of Valois, sister of King Francis I. (then Duchess of Alençon, afterwards Queen of Navarre), patronized the reformers and also the freethinkers. But Farel was too radical for the mild bishop, and forbidden to preach, April 12, 1523. He went to Gap and made some converts, including four of his brothers; but the people found his doctrine "very strange," and drove him away. There was no safety for him anywhere in France, which then began seriously to persecute the Protestants.

Farel fled to Basel, and was hospitably received by Oecolampadius. At his suggestion he held a public disputation in Latin on thirteen theses, in which he asserted the perfection of the Scriptures, Christian liberty, the duty of pastors to preach the Gospel, the doctrine of justification by faith, and denounced images, fasting, celibacy, and Jewish ceremonies (Feb. 23, 1524).343343    Herminjard (I. 193-195) gives the theses from the Archives of Zürich. The first is the most characteristic: "Absolutissimam nobis praescripsit Christus vivendi regulam, cui nec addere licet, nec detrahere." OEcolampadius served as interpreter, since Farel’s French pronunciation of Latin made it difficult to understand him. The disputation was successful, and led to the conversion of the Franciscan monk Pellican, a distinguished Greek and Hebrew scholar, who afterwards became professor at Zürich. He also delivered public lectures and sermons. Oecolampadius wrote to Luther that Farel was a match for the Sorbonne.344344    "Nimirum instructus ad totam Sorbonicam affligendam, si non et perdendam." Letter of May 15, 1524, in Herminjard, I. 215. Erasmus, whom Farel imprudently charged with cowardice and called a Balaam, regarded him as a dangerous disturber of the peace,345345    He described him in a letter to the official of Besançon, 1524: "Nihil vidi unquam mendacius, virulentius aut seditiosius." Quite natural from his standpoint. The two characters had no points of contact. and the Council (probably at the advice of Erasmus) expelled him from the city.

Farel now spent about a year in Strassburg with Bucer and Capito. Before he went there he made a brief visit to Zürich, Schaffhausen, and Constance, and became acquainted with Zwingli, Myconius, and Grebel. He had a letter of commendation to Luther from Oecolampadius, but it is not likely that he went to Wittenberg, since there is no allusion to it either in his or in Luther’s letters. At the request of Ulrich, Duke of Würtemberg, he preached in Mömpelgard (Montbéliard), and roused a fierce opposition, which forced him soon to return to Strassburg. Here he found Le Fèvre and other friends from Meaux, whom the persecution had forced to flee.

In 1526 Farel was again in Switzerland, and settled for a while, at the advice of Haller, as school teacher under the name of Guillaume Ursinus (with reference to Bern, the city of bears), at Aigle (Ælen)346346    In August, 1526, Bucer addressed him, "Ursinus, Ælae episcopus." Herminjard, I. 461. in the Pays de Vaud on the borders of Valais, subject to Bern.

He attended the Synod in Bern, January, 1528, which decided the victory of the Reformation, and received a commission from that city to preach in all the districts under its control (March 8, 1528). He accordingly labored as a sort of missionary bishop at Murat (Murten), Lausanne, Neuchâtel, Valangin, Yverdun, Biel (Bienne), in the Münster valley, at Orbe, Avenche, St. Blaise, Grandson, and other places. He turned every stump and stone into a pulpit, every house, street, and market-place into a church; provoked the wrath of monks, priests, and bigoted women; was abused, called, "heretic" and, "devil," insulted, spit upon, and more than once threatened with death. An attempt to poison him failed. Wherever he went he stirred up all the forces of the people, and made them take sides for or against the new gospel.

His arrival in Neuchâtel (December, 1529) marks an epoch in its history. In spite of violent opposition, he succeeded in introducing the Reformation in the city and neighboring villages. He afterwards returned to Neuchâtel, where he finished his course.347347    For a graphic account of his labors in Neuchâtel, see Vuillemin’s Le Chroniqueur, pp. 86 sqq., and F. Godet, Histoire de la reformation et du refuge dans le pays de Neuchâtel (1859), pp. 69-190. Robert Olivetan, Calvin’s cousin, published the first edition of his French translation of the Bible at Neuchâtel in 1535. Farel had urged him to do this work. It is the basis of the numerous French translations made since that time.

In 1532 Farel with his friend Saunier visited the Waldenses in Piedmont at the request of Georg Morel and Peter Masson, two Waldensian preachers, who were returning from a visit to Strassburg and the Reformed Churches of Switzerland. He attended the Synod which met at Chanforans in the valley of Angrogne, Sept. 12, 1532, and resolved to adopt the doctrines of the Reformation. He advised them to establish schools. He afterwards collected money for them and sent them four teachers, one of whom was Robert Olivetan, who was at that time private tutor at Geneva. This is the beginning of the fraternal relations between the Waldenses and the Reformed Churches which continue to this day.



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