Excerpts from Books on Viret
History of the Christian Church
By Philip Schaff
THE SWISS REFORMATION
1519 – 1605
1519 – 1605
PIERRE VIRET AND THE REFORMATION IN LAUSANNE
Farel was aided in his evangelistic efforts chiefly by Viret and Froment, who agreed with his views, but differed from his violent method.
Peter Viret, the Reformer of Lausanne, was the only native Swiss among the pioneers of Protestantism in Western Switzerland; all others were fugitive Frenchmen. He was born, 1511, at Orbe, in the Pays de Vaud, and educated for the priesthood at Paris. He acquired a considerable amount of classical and theological learning, as is evident from his writings. He passed, like Luther and Farel, through a severe mental and moral struggle for truth and peace of conscience. He renounced Romanism before he was ordained, and returned to Switzerland. He was induced by Farel in 1531 to preach at Orbe. He met with considerable success, but also with great difficulty and opposition from priests and people. He converted his parents and about two hundred persons in Orbe, to whom he administered the Holy Communion in 1532. He shared the labors and trials of Farel and Froment in Geneva. An attempt was made to poison them; he alone ate the poisoned dish, but recovered, yet with a permanent injury to his health.
His chief work was done at Lausanne, where he labored as pastor, teacher, and author for twenty-two years. By order of the government of Bern a public disputation was held Oct. 1 to 10, 1536. Viret, Farel, Calvin, Fabri, Marcourt, and Caroli were called to defend the Reformed doctrines. Several priests and monks were present, as Drogy, Mimard, Michod, Loys, Berilly, and a French physician, Claude Blancherose. A deputy of Bern presided. The discussion was conducted in French. Farel prepared ten Theses in which he asserts the supremacy of the Bible, justification by faith alone, the high-priesthood and mediatorship of Christ, spiritual worship without ceremonies and images, the sacredness of marriage, Christian freedom in the observance or non-observance of things indifferent, such as fasts and feasts. Farel and Viret were the main speakers. The result was the introduction of the Reformation, November 1 of the same year. Viret and Pierre Caroli were appointed preachers. Viret taught at the same time in the academy founded by Bern in 1540.
Caroli stayed only a short time. He was a native of France and a doctor of the Sorbonne, who had become nominally a Protestant, but envied Viret for his popularity, took offence at his sermons, and wantonly charged him, Farel and Calvin, with Arianism. He was deposed as a slanderer, and at length returned to the Roman Church.
In 1549 Beza was appointed second professor of theology at the academy, and greatly strengthened Viret’s hands. Five young Frenchmen who were trained by them for the ministry, and had returned to their native land to preach the gospel, were seized at Lyons and burned, May 16, 1553, notwithstanding the intercession of the Reformed Cantons with King Henry II.
Viret attempted to introduce a strict discipline with the ban, but found as much opposition as Calvin at Geneva and Farel at Neuchatel. Bern disapproved the ban and also the preaching of the rigorous doctrine of predestination. Beza was discouraged, and accepted a call to Geneva (September, 1558). Viret was deposed (Jan. 20, 1559). The professors of the academy and a number of preachers resigned. Viret went to Geneva and was appointed preacher of the City (March 2, 1559). His sermons were more popular and impressive than those of Calvin’s, and better attended.
With the permission of Geneva, he labored for a while as an evangelist, with great success, at Nismes, Montpellier, and Lyons. He presided as Moderator over the fourth national Synod of Huguenots, August, 1568. There, in 1571, he died, the last of the triumvirate of the founders of the Reformed Church in French Switzerland. He was twice married, first to a lady of Orbe (1538); a second time, to a lady of Geneva (1546). He was small, sickly, and emaciated, but fervent in spirit, and untiring in labor.
Viret was an able and fruitful author, and shows an uncommon familiarity with classical and theological literature. He wrote, mostly in the form of dialogues, expositions of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, a summary of Christian doctrine, polemical books against the Council of Trent, against the mass and other doctrines of Romanism, and tracts on Providence, the Sacraments, and practical religion. The most important is The Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Gospel and the Law and in the true Philosophy and Theology both Natural and Supernatural (Geneva, 1564. 3 vols. Fol). His writings are exceedingly rare.
Philip Schaff was born in Chur, Switzerland and was educated at the gymnasium of Stuttgart, and at the universities of Tubingen, Halle and Berlin. At the University of Berlin he came under the influence of the famous theologian August Neander, who impressed upon him the importance of historical insight to Christian understanding. In 1842 he was Privatdozent in the University of Berlin, and in 1843 he was called to become professor of church history and Biblical literature in the German Reformed Theological Seminary of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. In consequence of the ravages of the American Civil War the theological seminary at Mercersburg was closed for awhile an so in 1863 Dr. Schaff became secretary of the Sabbath Committee in New York City. He became a professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City in 1870 holding first the chair of theological encyclopedia and Christian symbolism till 1873, of Hebrew and the cognate languages till 1874, of sacred literature till 1887, and finally the church history, till his death in 1893. Schaff greatly influenced the German Reformed Church, through his teaching at Mercersburg, through his championship of English in German Reformed Churches and schools in American, through his hymnal (1859) through his labors as chairman of the committee which prepared a new liturgy, and by his edition (1863) of the Heidelberg Catechism. His famous works were The Creeds of Christendom (3 vols.) and his History of the Christian Church (8 vols. in English 1853).
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History of the Reformation in Europe
In the Time of Calvin, Vol. III
In the Time of Calvin, Vol. III
by J.H. Merle D’Aubigne, D.D.
Chapter III, A New Reformer and an Image-Breaker (1531)
France, Switzerland, Geneva
In 1511 William Viret, a burgess of Orbe, ‘cloth-dresser and tailor,’ had a son born to him whom he named Peter. The boy had grown up in the midst of the woolcombers, and had watched his father’s workmen as they pressed, or glossed, or fulled the cloths as they came from the hands of the weavers. But he took no delight in this, for he was not born a tradesman. It was the inner man that was to be developed in him: he felt within himself a necessity for seeking God, which impelled him towards heaven. He sought the society of the best informed burgesses, and even had some relations with the nobles; but the first object of his wishes was God. If he took a walk alone, or with one of his brothers Anthony and John, along the picturesque banks of the Orbe, through the charming country bathed by its waters, and even to the foot of the Jura, he looked around him with delight, but afterwards lifted his eyes to heaven. ‘I was naturally given to religion,’ he said, ‘of which however I was then ignorant…I was preparing myself for heaven, seeing that it was the way of salvation.’ He resolved to devote himself to the service of the altar, which his father did not oppose, towns-people and peasantry alike regarding it as an honor to count a priest among their children. Peter, who had a good understanding and memory, soon learnt all that was taught in the school at Orbe, and turned his eyes towards the University of Paris, that great light which twelve years before had attracted Farel’s footsteps. His father, whose trade had placed him in easy circumstances, consented to send him to Paris, whither the boy proceeded in 1523, being then a little over twelve years of age. The same year and about the same time John Calvin of Noyon, who was two years older than Viret, arrived in the same city and entered the college of La Marche. Did these two boys, who were one day to be so closely united, meet then, and did their friendship begin with their childhood? We have not been able to satisfy ourselves on the point.
Viret distinguished himself at college by his love of study; ‘he made good progress in learning;’ and also by his devotion to the practices of the Roman Church. ‘I can not deny,’ he said, ‘that I went pretty deep into that Babylon.’ In one of the last visits he made to Paris, Farel seems to have remarked Viret, whose charming modesty easily won the heart, and to have helped in freeing the young Swiss from the darkness in which he still lay. The Gospel penetrated the soul of the youthful scholar of Orbe almost at the same time as it enlightened the large understanding of the scholar of Noyon. The mildness of his character softened the struggles which had been so fierce in Farel and Calvin. And yet he too had to tread the path of anguish to arrive at peace. Perceiving a frightful abyss and an eternal night beneath his feet, he threw himself into the arms of the Deliverer who was calling him: ‘While still at college,’ he said, ‘God took me out of the labyrinth of error before I had sunk deeper into that Babylon of Anti-christ.’ The time having arrived when he should receive the tonsure, he felt that he must make up his mind: the struggle was not a long one; he refused, and was immediately ‘set down as belonging to the Lutheran religion.’ Foreseeing what awaited him, he hastily quitted Paris and France, and ‘returned to his father’s house.’ In after years he exclaimed: ‘I thank God that the mark and sign of the beast were not set upon my forehead.’
Viret found Orbe greatly changed; the contest then going on between the gospel and popery intimidated him at first. His was one of those reflective souls which, absorbed by the struggles within, naturally shrink from those without. Like other reformers, he had a difficulty in quitting the body of catholicity, but a severe conscience obliged him to seek truth at any sacrifice. Sometimes the Church of Rome, with all its errors and abuses, alone struck his imagination, and he would exclaim with emotion: ‘It is the stronghold of superstition, the fortress of Satan.’ Then all of a sudden, and before he had time to defend himself, the old system of Catholicism resumed its power over him, and he found himself in anguish and darkness. He struggled and prayed; the truth, for a moment hidden, reappeared before his eyes, and he said: ‘Rome asserts that antiquity is truth; but what is there older in the world than lies, rebellion, murder, extortion, impurity, idolatry, and all kinds of wickedness and abomination?...To follow the doctrine of Cain and of Sodom is verily to follow an old doctrine….But virtue, truth, holiness, innocence, and thou, O God, which art the Father of them all, art older still!’
The priests of Orbe, who were strongly attached to the Romish doctrine, seeing the cloth-dresser’s son often solitary and full of care, began to grow uneasy about him: they accosted him and spoke of the old doctors, of the testimony of the saints, of Augustine, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Jerome. These testimonies had much weight in Viret’s mind. His head was bewildered, his feet slipped, and he was on the point of falling back into the gulf, when snatching again at the word of God, he clung to it, saying: ‘No, I will not believe because of Tertullian or Cyprian, or Origen, or Chrysostom, or Peter Lombard, or Thomas Aquinas, not even because of Erasmus or Luther….If I did so, I should be the disciple of men….I will believe only Jesus Christ my Shepherd.’
At length the divine Word delivered Viret from the theocratic dominion of Rome, and he then began to look around him….Alas! what did he see? Chains everywhere, prisoners held fast ‘in the citadel of idolatry.’ He felt the tenderest affection for the captives. ‘Since the Lord has brought me out,’ he said, ‘I can not forget those who are within.’ Two of these prisoners were never out of his thoughts: they were his father and mother. At one time absorbed by the cares of business, at another mechanically attending divine service, they did not seek after the one thing needful. The pious son began to pray earnestly for his parents, to show them increased respect, to read them a few passages of Holy Scripture, and to speak gently to them of the Saviour. They felt attracted by his conduct, and the faith he professed took hold of their hearts. The grateful Viret was able to say: ‘I have much occasion to give thanks to God in that it hath pleased him to make use of me to bring my father and mother to the knowledge of the Son of God….Ah! if he had made my ministry of no other use, I should have had good cause to bless him,’
As soon as Viret met Farel again at Orbe, he immediately became one of the evangelist’s hearers, and ere long took his father along with him. The most intimate union sprang up between these men of God. One completed the other. If Farel was ardent, intrepid, and almost rash, Viret ‘had a wondrously meek temper.’ There was in him a grace that won the heart, and a Christian sensibility that was really touching; and yet, like Farel and Calvin, he was firm in doctrine and morals. Farel, always eager to send workmen into the harvest, persuaded his friend to preach not only in the country but in Orbe itself. The young and timid Viret recoiled from the task Farel proposed to him; but the reformer pressed him, as others had pressed Luther and Calvin; he believed that Viret, who belonged to the city, and was loved by everybody, would receive a favorable welcome. The thought of the divine grace, the strength of which he knew, decided Viret. ‘Let it not be my mouth which persuades,’ he said, ‘but the mouth of Jesus Christ; for it is Jesus Christ who pierces the heart with the fiery arrow of his Spirit.’
On the 6th May 1531 an unusual crowd, not only of townpeople but of persons from the neighborhood, filled the church of Orbe; the son of one of the most respected of the burgesses, a child of the place, was to enter the pulpit. He was accused of being rather heretical, but he was so inoffensive, that nobody would believe it; and besides, many of the young folks of Orbe, who had sported with him on the banks of the river, wished to see their old playfellow in the pulpit. The congregation, who were waiting impatiently, saw the young man appear at last: he was of small stature and pale complexion, his face thin and long, his eyes lively, and the whole expression meek and winning; he was only twenty years old, but appeared to be younger still. He preached: his sermon was accompanied by so much unction and learning, his language was so persuasive, his eloquence so searching and penetrating, that even the most worldly men were attracted by his discourse and hung, as it were, upon his lips, The proverb ‘No man is a prophet in his own country’ was not exemplified in Viret’s case. The 6th of May was a great day for him. All his life through he preserved the recollection of his first sermons. Thirty years later he said to the nobles and burgesses of Orbe: ‘Your church was the first in which God was pleased to make use of my ministry, when it was still in its youth, and I was very young.’
From that day Viret took his place in that noble army of heralds of the Word which the Lord was raising among the nations. His part in it was modest but well marked. The college of reformers, as well as the college of the apostles, contained the most different characters. As the sap is everywhere the same in nature, the Spirit of God is everywhere the same in the Church; but everywhere alike each of them produces different flowers and different fruits. The ardent Farel was the St. Peter of the Swiss Reform, the mighty Calvin the St. Paul, and the gentle Viret the St. John.
Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné was a Swiss Protestant minister and historian of the Reformation. He was born at Eaux Vives, a neighborhood of Geneva, to a distinguished Huguenot family. The ancestors of his father Robert Merle d’Aubigné (1755-1799), were French Protestant refugees. Jean-Henri was destined by his parents to a commercial life; but at college he decided to be ordained. He was profoundly influenced by Robert Haldane, the Scottish missionary and preacher who visited Genva and became a leading light in Le Reveil. It was Haldane who introduced d’Aubinge to the Gospel. When in 1817 he went abroad to further his education, Germany was about to celebrate the tercentenary of the Reformation; and thus early he conceived the ambition to write the history of that great epoch. In 1818 d’Aubinge took up the post of pastor of the French Protestant church at Hamburg where he served for five years. In 1823 he was called to become pastor of the Franco-German Brussels Protestant church and preacher to the court of William I of the Netherlands of the House of Orange-Nassau. On his return to Switzerland, d’Aubinge was invited to become professor of church history at a newly formed seminary and continued to labor in the cause of evangelical Protesantism. In 1835 d’Aubinge’s first volumes of his tomes The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was published in French. This five volume work was completed in 1853 and was followed by The History of the Reformation in Europe in the times of Calvin in eight volumes, which were published between 1863 and 1878, the last three volumes posthumously. D’Aubinge’s style was truly unique. “I want this history to be truly Christian,” he wrote, “and to give a proper impulse to the religious spirit.” His history was a blend of personal and divine elements. He made the lives of the Protestant Reformers live again in all their struggles, courage, and triumphs. His greatest attribute was he gave the reader an understanding of the hand of Providence in history. To d’Aubinge history was the business, plan, and work of the transcendent God moving upon His creation.
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AS OBSCURE NOW AS HIS TINY NATIVE VILLAGE, PIERRE VIRET ONCE CAPTURED THE HEARTS OF THE HUGUENOTS
by Robert D. Linder
Christian History Magazine, Issue 71. Pages 35-37
No tourist in Geneva can miss the impressive Reformation Monument with its four towering figures. John Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore Beza, and John Knox. Some visitors might even notice a series of reliefs on the statue’s base, which depict various scenes from the Genevan Reformation. Yet only a sharp-eyed observer is likely to spot in one of the reliefs a spare man with a long beard preaching to a crowd of intent listeners: Pierre Viret, now virtually forgotten among the major reformers
A CHANGED MAN
Viret was born in the obscure village of Orbe, near Lausanne, in 1511. One of three sons of a poor tailor, Viret was a precocious child who benefited from a new village school where several of the teachers were trained humanists and suspected Lutherans. He developed an interest in the classics and theology which, in 1528, led him to study for the priesthood. He entered the College de Montaigu at the University of Paris at about the time Calvin was leaving and Ignatius Loyola was enrolling.
Viret left Paris two years later a changed man. The new Protestant ideas that were flourishing at the great university led to Viret’s personal commitment to Christ.
Returning to Orbe, he found the village divided into Protestant and Catholic factions. Then Farel, the traveling evangelist largely responsible for this division, challenged young Viret to become a minister of the Gospel and to preach the Reformation in his native village. Viret resisted, then yielded to what the older man seemed to be certain was the will of God for Viret’s life.
Viret possessed outstanding gifts as a gospel orator. He won Orbe over to the Reformation. He was then asked to preach in Payerne, where he was badly wounded when a band of Catholics attempted to kill him, and at Neuchatel before linking up again with Farel in Geneva in 1534.
Viret and Farel preached salvation and reform in Geneva for the next two years. The city was in an uproar: its citizens had decided to cast off the rule of the Catholic Duke of Savory, but they had not yet embraced Protestantism. Viret celebrated the first Genevan baptism according to evangelical forms, took part with Farel in the debate that convinced the Council of Geneva to renounce Catholicism, and, in 1536, silently witnessed Farel accost Calvin and inform him of God’s will for his life.
Catholic radicals tried again to silence Viret’s voice, this time by poisoning his spinach soup. Viret suffered from digestive problems for the rest of his life, but he would not be intimidated.
With the Protestant faith now firmly planted and Calvin ensconced alongside Farel, Viret left Geneva to help consolidate the Reformation in Lausanne, the chief city of his native Pays de Vaud. His ministry flourished in Lausanne as the city became overwhelmingly Reformed under his leadership. He also founded, supervised, and taught at an academy to train Protestant leaders and established social services to care for the city’s unfortunate.
Viret lived in constant tension with the authorities in Berne, however, who wanted to keep a tight political rein on Lausanne. Following a confrontation at Easter 1559, the Bernese exiled Viret.
Soon thereafter, Viret joined his old friend Calvin in Geneva, bringing with him many of the Lausanne ministers, all but one of the faculty of the Academy of Lausanne, and nearly 1,000 of his parishioners. Calvin’s city became the undisputed center of the Reformed world.
The Genevans loved Viret. They immediately elected him a minister of the Geneva Church and assigned him a salary of 800 florins plus 12 strikes of corn and two casks of wine a year. The council also provided him a commodious house, which Calvin noted was bigger and better furnished than his own.
Despite his important assignment and generous treatment, Viret grew restless. Geneva was now almost completely Protestant and firmly under Calvin’s theological control. News from France, where Protestants suffered harsh persecution and lacked pastoral guidance, turned his mind to a new challenge.
HARVEST FIELDS OF FRANCE
In 1561 Viret requested leave from the Geneva Council and Company of Pastors to visit the land of the Huguenots. The official reason was that his ailing health demanded warmer climes. However, once in southern France, he quickly recovered sufficient strength to engage in continuous rounds of impassioned preaching.
He traveled first to Lyon, and then on to Nimes, where he regularly preached to crowds numbering as many as 8,000- almost the entire population. Riots followed many of his sermons, despite Viret’s pleas for peace. The disorders eventually subsided, and within a few months Nimes was solidly Protestant.
In the meantime, invitations poured in from churches in Paris, Orleans, Avignon, Montauban, and Montpellier. The leaders of Nimes begged him to remain with them. Finally, after much prayer, Viret moved to Montpellier, where he saw the conversion of nearly the entire faculty of the city’s famous medical college. Only the outbreak of the first War of Religion interrupted his ministry. Though there was fighting in the Montpellier area, Viret’s personal intercession apparently kept bloodshed to a minimum.
He then returned to Lyon, the major city of southeastern France to begin a three-year ministry. Despite ill health, civil war, and a violent outbreak of the plague, Viret was able to establish his moral authority in the city. He preached daily to large crowds, counseled the soldiers of the Protestant army, and wrote at least 12 books while revisiting and reprinting several more, including his monumental Instruction chrestienne. He also ministered to victims of the plague and carried on a lively correspondence with other leaders of the Protestant Reformation.
Royal authority was re-established in Lyon in July, 1563, and with it Roman Catholic worship. In the months that followed, Viret participated in a pamphlet war with the returned Catholic leader and with various radicals and dissidents in the city. This multi-sided verbal warfare continued for nearly two years until local Catholic clergy obtained a royal order for Viret’s expulsion from the kingdom of France. The notice giving him eight days to leave the country was delivered on August 27, 1565.
Viret fled to Bearn in Navarre, a semi-autonomous kingdom in what is now southwestern France. He was befriended there by Jeanne d’Albret, the staunchly Protestant Queen of Navarre and mother of the future Henry IV of France. She made Viret one of her chief advisers and superintendent of the academy she had established at Ortez.
Catholic forces captured Viret and 11 other Reformed ministers in a surprise attack during the third religious war (1568-1570.) The Catholic commander ordered the execution of 7 of the 12 but spared Viret largely because of the positive reputation he enjoyed even among his ecclesiastical enemies. A few weeks later, he was rescued by counter-attacking Protestant forces and returned to his intense and successful ministry.
SECRETS OF VIRET'S SUCCESS
How could Viret, a foreigner, become the most successful and sought-after Protestant preacher in sixteenth century France?
First, his good reputation had preceded him. Many people had heard stories of the physical and verbal attacks he had suffered as an evangelist, but they sensed no malice about him. To the contrary, tales of his gentle spirit and kindly nature were common. He was also known as an eloquent preacher and as the author of more than 50 popular books.
Second, Viret’s personality and pastoral heart endeared him to the Huguenots. Like his listeners, he knew sorrow: his first wife, two daughters, and a son died in the plagues that visited Lausanne, and he also lost two daughters and eventually, his second wife to the plague during his years in France.
His letters to his friend Calvin reveal how these losses almost broke his spirit. Following the death of his first wife in 1546, he wrote:
The Lord has taken the half of myself from me…. I am so affected by this blow that I feel like a stranger in my own house.
Viret’s well attested sense of humor helped make him effective in both communication and conciliation. His books are laced with puns and satire, his two favorite brands of humor.
For example, one of his dialogues considered the best way to exorcise demons. One of his characters piously declares that this could only be done by fasting and prayer. Another character quips, “What a splendid way to get rid of monks and priests, who after all are real devils. Don’t give them anything to eat and pray for them.
Viret’s sensitivity is also illustrated by his ideas concerning education. Addressing both educators and parents, he wrote: “Some children you will have to keep bridled, some you will have to coax, some will need no discipline, some will be motivated by liberality, some by rewards and promises, and others by honor. Treat each child according to his temperament and needs. Some will have to be treated like spirited horses, some like gentle asses, and some like stubborn mules.”
Third, Viret was effective and popular in France and elsewhere because of his personal piety and his biblically based ministry. Some would argue that Viret was the most biblical of all of the French Reformers. He was certainly less dogmatic than Calvin or Beza.
Though he participated in many public disputations, Viret did not seek controversy. He once wrote in a war-weary vein to his old friend Farel, “If I did not have the conviction that it was God who was pressing it on, I would never enter a controversy with a single person.”
Viret believed that though Christians were sometimes persecuted, they should never be persecutors. He stressed the ancient Christian teaching that “human life is sacred” and opposed the execution of alleged heretics. Viret’s spirit of conciliation seemed to lead Catholics and Protestants alike to regard him as one of the few to whom they could turn when they needed a fair minded arbiter.
Viret died in 1571 as he was preparing for a trip to the National Synod of Reformed churches at La Rochelle. The Protestants in France greatly lamented his death. Jeanne d’Albret wrote to the council of Geneva: “Among the great losses which I have sustained during and since the last war, I place in the forefront the loss of Monsieur Viret.”
(Robert D. Linder is professor of history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.
Christian History Magazine, Issue 71. Pages 35-37.)
Robert D. Linder is University Distinguished Professor of Kansas State University where he teaches courses in Western Civilization, religious history, the history of baseball and graduate seminars in the History of Christianity. Linder earned his MA and PhD at the University of Iowa under the tutelage of Robert M. Kingdon. Linder has published seventeen books on various aspects of European, American and Australian religious and political history and authored numerous articles. He is currently working on a history of Evangelical Protestant in Australia, a revision of his book Civil Religion and the Presidency and a biography of Pierre Viret, a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer. In addition, Linder has served two terms as mayor of his city of Manhattan and eight years on the city council.
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