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§ 107. The Exercise of Discipline in Geneva.
Calvin succeeded after a fierce struggle in infusing the Church of Geneva with his views on discipline. The Consistory and the Council rivalled with each other, under his inspiration, in puritanic zeal for the correction of immorality; but their zeal sometimes transgressed the dictates of wisdom and moderation. The union of Church and State rests on the false assumption that all citizens are members of the Church and subject to discipline.
Dancing, gambling, drunkenness, the frequentation of taverns, profanity, luxury, excesses at public entertainments, extravagance and immodesty in dress, licentious or irreligious songs were forbidden, and punished by censure or fine or imprisonment. Even the number of dishes at meals was regulated. Drunkards were fined three sols for each offence. Habitual gamblers were exposed in the pillory with cords around their neck. Reading of bad books and immoral novels was also prohibited, and the popular "Amadis de Gaul "was ordered to be destroyed (1559). A morality play on "the Acts of the Apostles," after it had been performed several times, and been attended even by the Council, was forbidden. Parents were warned against naming their children after Roman Catholic saints who nourished certain superstitions; instead of them the names of Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Zechariah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah became common. (This preference for Old Testament names was carried even further by the Puritans of England and New England.) The death penalty against heresy, idolatry, and blasphemy, and the barbarous custom of the torture were retained. Adultery, after a second offence, was likewise punished by death.
These were prohibitive and protective laws intended to prevent and punish irreligion and immorality.
But the Council introduced also coercive laws, which are contrary to the nature of religion, and apt to breed hypocrisy or infidelity. Attendance on public worship was commanded on penalty of three sols.717717 "Les ministres ont priéque ton advise de fere venyr les gens aut sermon et specialement les dimanches et le iour des prieres affin de prier Dieu qui nous assiste, voyeant le trouble quest en leglise de Dieu et la machination dressécontre les fidelles. arrêté qui impose une amende de 3 solz à ceux qui ne viendraient pas." (Reg. du Conseil.) In Annal., 394 sub Jan. 17, 1547. When a refugee from Lyons once gratefully exclaimed, "How glorious is the liberty we enjoy here," a woman bitterly replied: "Free indeed we formerly were to attend mass, but now we are compelled to hear a sermon." Watchmen were appointed to see that people went to church. The members of the Consistory visited every house once a year to examine into the faith and morals of the family. Every unseemly word and act on the street was reported, and the offenders were cited before the Consistory to be either censured and warned, or to be handed over to the Council for severer punishment. No respect was paid to person, rank, or sex. The strictest impartiality was maintained, and members of the oldest and most distinguished families, ladies as well as gentlemen, were treated with the same severity as poor and obscure people.
Let us give a summary of the most striking cases of discipline. Several women, among them the wife of Ami Perrin, the captain-general, were imprisoned for dancing (which was usually connected with excesses). Bonivard, the hero of political liberty, and a friend of Calvin, was cited before the Consistory because he had played at dice with Clement Marot, the poet, for a quart of wine.718718 Roget, Peuple de Genève, II. 29, quoted by Merle d’Aubigné, VII. 124. A man was banished from the city for three months because, on hearing an ass bray, he said jestingly: "He prays a beautiful psalm."719719 "Il chante un beau psaume." A young man was punished because he gave his bride a book on housekeeping with the remark: "This is the best Psalter." A lady of Ferrara was expelled from the city for expressing sympathy with the Libertines, and abusing Calvin and the Consistory. Three men who had laughed during the sermon were imprisoned for three days. Another had to do public penance for neglecting to commune on Whitsunday. Three children were punished because they remained outside of the church during the sermon to eat cakes. A man who swore by the "body and blood of Christ" was fined and condemned to stand for an hour in the pillory on the public square. A child was whipped for calling his mother a thief and a she-devil (diabless). A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment.
A banker was executed for repeated adultery, but he died penitent and praised God for the triumph of justice. A person named Chapuis was imprisoned for four days because he persisted in calling his child Claude (a Roman Catholic saint) instead of Abraham, as the minister wished, and saying that he would sooner keep his son unbaptized for fifteen years.720720 Registers for April 27, 1546. Henry II. 429. Bolsec, Gentilis, and Castellio were expelled from the Republic for heretical opinions. Men and women were burnt for witchcraft. Gruet was beheaded for sedition and atheism. Servetus was burnt for heresy and blasphemy. The last is the most flagrant case which, more than all others combined, has exposed the name of Calvin to abuse and execration; but it should be remembered that he wished to substitute the milder punishment of the sword for the stake, and in this point at least he was in advance of the public opinion and usual practice of his age.721721 For a fuller statement see chap. XVI.
The official acts of the Council from 1541 to 1559 exhibit a dark chapter of censures, fines, imprisonments, and executions. During the ravages of the pestilence in 1545 more than twenty men and women were burnt alive for witchcraft, and a wicked conspiracy to spread the horrible disease.722722 Calvin himself states this fact in a letter to Myconius of Basel, March 27, 1545 (Opera, XII. 55; Bonnet, I. 428), where he says: "A conspiracy of men and women has lately been discovered, who, for the space of three years, had spread the plague through the city by what mischievous device I know not. After fifteen women have been burnt, some men have even been punished more severely, some have committed suicide in prison, and while twenty-five are still kept prisoners,—the conspirators do not cease, notwithstanding, to smear the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with their poisonous ointment. You see in the midst of what perils we are tossed about. The Lord hath hitherto preserved our dwelling, though it has more than once been attempted. It is well that we know ourselves to be under His care." From 1542 to 1546 fifty-eight judgments of death and seventy-six decrees of banishments were passed.723723 According to Galiffe, as quoted by Kampschulte, I. 425. During the years 1558 and 1559 the cases of various punishments for all sorts of offences amounted to four hundred and fourteen—a very large proportion for a population of 20,000.
The enemies of Calvin-Bolsec, Audin, Galiffe (father and son)—make the most of these facts, and, ignoring all the good he has done, condemn the great Reformer as a heartless and cruel tyrant.724724 Take the following rhetorical caricature of Calvin’s and Colladon’s politico-religious code of laws from Audin (Life of Calvin, ch. XXXVI. 354, Am. ed.):, There is but one word heard or read: Death. Death to every one guilty of high treason against God; death to every one guilty of high treason against the State; death to the son that strikes or curses his father; death to the adulterer; death to heretics … . During the space of twenty years, commencing from the date of Calvin’s recall, the history of Geneva is a bloody drama, in which pity, dread, terror, indignation, and tears, by turns, appear to seize upon the soul. At each step we encounter chains, thongs, a stake, pincers, melted pitch, fire, and sulphur. And throughout the whole there is blood. One imagines himself in Dante’s Hell, where sighs, groans, and lamentations continually resound."
It is impossible to deny that this kind of legislation savors more of the austerity of old heathen Rome and the Levitical code than of the gospel of Christ, and that the actual exercise of discipline was often petty, pedantic, and unnecessarily severe. Calvin was, as he himself confessed, not free from impatience, passion, and anger, which were increased by his physical infirmities; but he was influenced by an honest zeal for the purity of the Church, and not by personal malice. When he was threatened by Perrin and the Favre family with a second expulsion, he wrote to Perrin: "Such threats make no impression upon me. I did not return to Geneva to obtain leisure and profit, nor will it be to my sorrow if I should have to leave it again. It was the welfare and safety of the Church and State that induced me to return."725725 This letter to Perrin is undated, but is probably from April, 1546. See Opera, XII. 338 sq. and Bonnet, II. 42 sq. He must be judged by the standard of his own, and not of our, age. The most cruel of those laws—against witchcraft, heresy, and blasphemy—were inherited from the Catholic Middle Ages, and continued in force in all countries of Europe, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, down to the end of the seventeenth century. Tolerance is a modern virtue. We shall return to this subject again in the chapter on Servetus.
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