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Pierre Viret and the Ecclesiastical Conflict with Bern
in the Mid-16th Century

Author: Charles Schnetzler1

At the end of 1549 Viret and Valier2 sent grievances to the Council of Lausanne over the flagging morals of the population and the hidden professed Catholicism by the upper class of the city. The Council was agitated by these grievances and prepared to take measures to set things to rights, but Bern indicated its disapprobation of the noise which had spread over the affair. In 1552 Viret and the Classe of Lausanne—without result—called again for a true ecclesiastical discipline: an examination of doctrine, an inquiry into morals, and the excommunication of the unworthy.

. . .

At the beginning of 1558 four pastors of the Classe of Thonon preached on predestination. Their Excellencies took offence and made a public example of them: Michel Mulot and N. Chanorrier were dismissed. This event sparked things off anew. Viret and Beza sent a vigorous protest to Bern, and Beza from that moment on threatened to permanently resign his professorship at the [Lausanne] Academy. Shortly thereafter the Lausanne ministers appeared before the Council of Sixty to demand a decision on the propositions of discipline which had been previously made to the Small Council. The ministers declared themselves preprared to postpone the celebration of the Supper at Passover. The Council responded that they had not the slightest intention of altering the Bernese ordinances regarding the affairs of the Church. In a letter to Calvin written March 19, Viret wrote: “We were able to obtain something from the Small Council, but the Council of Sixty counts men little sympathetic to a holier discipline. Many excellent men approve our proposition, but when it comes to a vote, the majority carries away the good part.”3

Calvin on his part encouraged Viret to persist in his attitude. “The combat in which you must engage yourself is a difficult, though necessary, battle.”

The feast of Passover fell that year on April 10, Viret and Valier persisting in their threats of withholding the Lord’s Supper. The letters followed each other to the Bernese authorities. Viret himself returned to Bern and there received a warm welcome. The Bernese representatives journeyed to Lausanne to examine the causes of appeal and promised to see that the consistories exercised a severer supervision over the morals of the city. Touched by this spirit of reconciliation, Viret celebrated the Supper at Passover as usual.

On May 27, Their Excellencies promulgated an important edict by which a consistory was instituted in every parish; the consistory wardens were required to be particularly watchful of all that passed around them, and report to the bailiffs all who were suspected of offense. Bern, astonishingly, went so far as to request the Lausanne ministers to submit a project relative to a modification of the ecclesiastical organization “by setting forth their views on the subject of excommunication,” not without having submitted to a painstaking examination of the ordinances of Bern. The plan of ecclesiastical formation was already prepared in broad outlines; it aimed at a reinforcement of the rights exercised by the ecclesiastical authorities.

In the summary of this project as given by Ruchat, . . . [t]he right of excommunication is affirmed with all Calvinist rigor: “Excommunication belongs neither to the ministers, the magistrates, nor the people, but to the assembly of elders.”

The communication of this project to the councils of Bern provoked a unanimous disapproval. Twelve ministers of the Classe of Lausanne were summoned to Bern, among them Viret, Valier, and A[rnaud] Banc. Their appearance before the Bernese lords was set for the 15th of August; the accused—if they would not submit to Their Excellencies—were threatened with banishment. The verbal response of Their Excellencies was restrained, but nevertheless adamant. The ministers were formally invited to no longer “annoy or trouble Their Excellencies by any new reform.”

The concessions promised by Bern were revoked.

We now enter into the bitter phase of the conflict. Bern’s highly intransigent attitude resulted in Theodore Beza’s resignation of his professorship at Lausanne. This step was expected, nevertheless Viret judged the moment ill-timed, and was greatly discouraged by the departure of his friend. When the letters of the Reformers are attentively studied—for example, that of Berthold Haller, of Bern, addressed to Bullinger, September 10: “We desire above all uniformity in the organization of the churches under our authority,”—one can better understand Their Excellencies’ point of view. It was thus also a matter of principle for the Bernese. In another letter to Viret, in which he reproaches the angry and quick-tempered spirit with which the affairs of Lausanne were treated, he adds, “You are not unaware of how odious this word excommunication is to us.” “If we appear slow and heavy, we return this question to God Himself, who knows well whether your contesting spirit or our gentleness is the most useful to the Church.”4 Calvin, however, encouraged Viret to persevere in his resistance. The Classe of Lausanne would not remove any of his complaints. On November 29, Viret wrote personally to the narrow-minded Council of Bern to declare that he would announce the suspension of the Supper Christmas Day if Bern persisted in their refusal.

After an exchange of negotiations lasting the entire month of November, Viret was able to write to Calvin on December 3, “It is certain that the conditions laid down by the Bernese are such that we cannot accept them with a good conscience. Therefore I am preparing for certain exile, which is, however, nothing new for me.”5

December 4 the letters from Bern informed the ministers that the Classe was charged to heed the last instructions of the civil authority. At the same time they invited the ministers to present themselves personally in as brief a delay as possible to Bern. December 15 the Classe apprised the ministers of the reprimands contained in the message received from Bern. This act was rather conciliatory and promised a more serious intervention of the consistories to maintain discipline. It was this very day that Viret wrote the letter found in the cantonal archives by M. Millioud and of which we give the text below. It shows sufficiently by its moderation that the Reformer still possessed some hope that the differences would be amicably resolved. . . .

Letter of Pierre Viret

Grace and peace by Jesus Christ our Savior,

Most reverend and magnificent lords, on Thursday, December 8, my companions and I received your letters of the 4 of the said month, the contents of which we could not fulfill, th nor even respond to, until the present, . . .

Since the said Classe has been assembled here at Lausanne, we have heard the charge regarding our affair which it pleased you to give, by your letters dated from the 4th of this month, and likewise the advice and counsel to which our brothers are resolved, as you will hear ere long by their own response to your excellencies. I can therefore do nothing at present save entreat my lords upon three points.

The first is that you would be pleased to excuse me, for I cannot present myself before your excellencies, seeing that I am indisposed in body, and cannot at present travel more than a league—be it by horse or on foot—without placing myself in great danger of my life, and of becoming exceedingly crippled and paralyzed in my members. Therefore if you summon me to journey to your country under pain of death, it would be impossible for me to do so, without placing myself in great harm and grave danger of my health, which I have not spared to the present, in serving both God and your excellencies, of which you yourselves are true and faithful witnesses.

The other point is that it please you to remember [under] what conditions we agreed to continue in the charge we have in your churches, . . . For if we had thought to see in the church so little change as we have since seen, and that you seek to pressure our consciences more than they can bear before God, we would rather have already accepted the sentence pronounced against us than remain any longer in the perplexity in which we have already been for so long a time, which is a greater torment of spirit and conscience than banishment or any other affliction which might befall our body and goods.
. . .
With this we commend you to the grace of God, praying that He will have pity upon His poor church, and will give you such good counsel that you do nothing save to His glory and to your honor and good, and to the salvation of all your subjects, and that it please Him to keep you now and always in good health and prosperity.

Lausanne, December 15,

Your poor and humble servant,
Pierre Viret

These letters pertain to a short phase of respite in the heart of the conflict. They were followed by the most conciliatory assurances of the increase of discipline and a formal request to refrain from suspending the Supper at Christmas. Authorization was given to summon the ignorant before the consistories, without, however, depriving them of the Supper.

Thus Viret, persuaded that the Bernese were dragging out the affair in order to more easily refuse the principal object of his requests (the visits to the homes to instruct the unlearned, and excommunication), decided the 23rd of December to ask of the Council a postponement of the Lord’s Supper until the following week. The majority of this body decided in favor of this measure. The decision produced a lively indignation at Bern. December 27 a deputation arrived in Lausanne th and forbid the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on New Year’s; it was to be postponed until Passover.

On the 20th of January a new deputation arrived from Bern to announce to the Classe the dismissal of Pierre Viret, Jacques Valier, and Arnaud Banc; the deputation requested immediate replacements. Because the members of the Classe opposed this manner of handling affairs, they were imprisoned for two days in the castle. Augustin Marlorat, of Vevey, and Antoine le Chevalier were first appointed to replace Viret and Valier, but they refused. The Bernese then called Richard Dubois, a minister of Payerne, and Jean de Bosc, a minister of Thonon, who accepted.

The situation of the Church of the Pays de Vaud altered still more. The Councils of Bern restricted the liberties which they had left to them. The Classes were no longer authorized to assemble. Their members were obliged to clearly declare for or against the reform ordinances of Bern in the presence of the Bernese magistrates who had summoned them to appear. Many ecclesiastics refused to submit and resigned. March 9, 1559, a general synod took place at Morges. Only eighteen ecclesiastics were present. Bern was represented by Haller, Musculus, and Aretius (Benedikt Marti). This synod endeavored to remedy the precarious state of the Church. The Bernese dictated their wishes to the ecclesiastics of the country, which caused the resignation of twelve ministers of the Classe of Payerne, who followed Viret in his exile. The Church congregation itself was greatly troubled by the crisis: the faithful in great numbers, and even strangers, traveled to Geneva to partake of the Lord’s Supper in order to avoid receiving it at the hands of the new ministers.

The Bernese government struck the criminals with heavy fines. Those clergy who remained faithful to the Bernese institutions were remarkably reduced in number, troubled, and discouraged. New resignations were prepared, but Bern nimbly took control of the situation by allowing the Classe of Lausanne to assemble anew. The loss suffered, however, could never be repaired. The men of talent and conscience quit the country and impoverished the Church and the Academy by their departure. To replace the professors who had resigned, the Bernese were forced to resort to Germans such as Adrien Blanner and Jean Knechtenhofer.

The Genevan Academy was enriched by Lausanne’s loss. The influence of the Church of the Pays de Vaud was sorely afflicted by the forced departure of approximately forty of its servants. . . . This battle sustained by Viret and the Calvinists, to maintain the honor of the Church in the midst of the lax morals of the time, has its greatness indeed. The sacrifices accomplished have perhaps resulted in the current disposition of the Vaudoise mentality: never separate true piety from the observance of a life conformed to evangelical morals.

September 1907
Charles Schnetzler

Author Bio:

Charles Schnetzler was born in Vevey in 1867, father of Jean Schnetzler, president of the criminal Court of the region of Lausanne. Schnetzler exercised his ministry in Mulhouse, Cheseaux-Romanel, Cormont-Courtelary of Bern, then in different parishes of the free Vaudoise Church, between others in Oron. He retired in 1926 and lived in Lausanne till his death in 1951. He devoted himself to numerous studies and historical researches particularly on the writing of Pierre Viret, Charles Monnard and on intellectual movement at the beginning of the 19th century in the Country of Vaud. He chaired the committee of the monument Pierre Viret inaugurated in 1921 in Lausanne and he is the author of an important work on Charles Monnard.


[1] Translated by R. A. Sheats
[2] Jacques Valier, a former monk, joined Viret as a pastor at Lausanne in January of 1546 [translator’s note].
[3] Calv. Op., XVII, n. 2836
[4] Calv. Op., XVII, letters 2957 and 2976
[5] Calv. Op., XVII, 2990

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