History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 96. The First Years after the Return.

Calvin entered at once upon his labors, and continued them without interruption for twenty-three years—till his death, May 27, 1564.

The first years were full of care and trial, as he had anticipated. His duties were more numerous and responsible than during his first sojourn. Then he was supported by the older Farel; now he stood at the head of the Church at Geneva, though yet a young man of thirty-two. He had to reorganize the Church, to introduce a constitution and order of worship, to preach, to teach, to settle controversies, to conciliate contending parties, to provide for the instruction of youth, to give advice even in purely secular affairs. No wonder that he often felt discouraged and exhausted, but trust in God, and a sense of duty kept him up.

Viret was of great service to him, but he was called back to Lausanne in July, 1542. His other colleagues—Jacques Bernard, Henri de la Mare, and Aimé Champereau—were men of inferior ability, and not reliable. In 1542 four new pastors were appointed,—Pierre Blanchet, Matthias de Greneston, Louis Trappereau, and Philippe Ozias (or Ozeas). In 1544 Geneva had twelve pastors, six of them for the county Churches. Calvin gradually trained a corps of enthusiastic evangelists. Farel and Viret visited Geneva on important occasions. For his last years, he had a most able and learned colleague in his friend Theodore Beza.

He pursued a wise and conciliatory course, which is all the more creditable to him when we consider the stern severity of his character and system. He showed a truly Christian forbearance to his former enemies, and patience with the weakness of his colleagues.631631    "Diese milde, versöhnliche Haltug nach seiner Rückkehr bildet eines derschönsten Blätter in der Geschichte Calvin’s." So says Kampschulte (I. 390), but he unjustly diminishes the praise by adding: "Noch höher würde die Nachwelt sein Verdienst anschlagen, wenn er sich selbst desselben weniger bewusst gewesen wäre." How could he be unconscious of his intention? And he spoke of it not boastingly, but modestly, like Paul.

"I will endeavor," he wrote to Bucer, in a long letter, Oct. 15, 1541, "to cultivate a good understanding and harmony with my neighbors, and also brotherly kindness (if they will allow me), with as much fidelity and diligence as I possibly can. So far as it depends on me, I shall give no ground of offence to any one … If in any way I do not answer your expectation, you know that I am in your power, and subject to your authority. Admonish me, chastise me, exercise towards me all the authority of a father over his son. Pardon my haste … I am entangled in so many employments that I am almost beside myself."632632    Herminjard, VII. 293; Opera, XI. 299; Bonnet-Constable, I. 269.

To Myconius of Basel he wrote, March 14, 1542:

"I value the public peace and concord so highly, that I lay restraint upon myself; and this praise even the adversaries are compelled to award to me.633633    "Tanti enim mihi est publica pax et concordia, ut manum mihi injiciam: atque hanc laudem mihi adversarii ipsi tribuere coquntur." This feeling prevails to such an extent, that, from day to day, those who were once open enemies have become friends; others I conciliate by courtesy, and I feel that I have been in some measure successful, although not everywhere and on all occasions.

"On my arrival it was in my power to have disconcerted our enemies most triumphantly, entering with full sail among the whole of that tribe who had done the mischief. I have abstained; if I had liked, I could daily, not merely with impunity, but with the approval of very many, have used sharp reproof. I forbear; even with the most scrupulous care do I avoid everything of the kind, lest even by some slight word I should appear to persecute any individual, much less all of them at once. May the Lord confirm me in this disposition of mind."634634    Herminjard, VII. 439; Bonnet-Constable, I. 291.

He met at first with no opposition, but hearty co-operation among the people. About a fortnight after his arrival he presented a formula of the ecclesiastical order to the Small Council. Objection was made to the monthly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, instead of the custom of celebrating it only four times a year. Calvin, who strongly favored even a more frequent celebration, yielded his better judgment "in consideration of the weakness of the times," and for the sake of harmony. With this modification, the Small Council adopted the constitution Oct. 27; the Large Council confirmed it Nov. 9; and the general assembly of the citizens ratified it, by a very large majority, in St. Peter’s Church, the 20th of November, 1541. The small minority, however, included some of the leading citizens who were opposed to ecclesiastical discipline. The Articles, after the insertion of some trifling amendments and additions, were definitely adopted by the three Councils, Jan. 2, 1542.635635    Registers, Oct. 25 and 27, Nov. 9 and 20, 1541; and Jan. 2, 1542. Opera, X. 15; XI. 379; XXI. 287, 289, 290. The Régisters du Conseil of Jan. 2, 1542 (vol. XXXV. f. 449), record as follows: "Ordonnances sus léglise: lesquelles hont estépassépar petit grand et général conseyl touteffoys hont estes corrigés, et avant quil soyent mys àlimprymerie Resoluz que en ung conseyl extraordinaire lesdictes ordonnances soyent vehues [vues] affin que telle quest passe par le général ne soyt changé." Annal., XXI. 289 sq.

This was a great victory; for the ecclesiastical ordinances, which we shall consider afterwards, laid a solid foundation for a strong and well-regulated evangelical church.

Calvin preached at St. Peter’s, Viret at St. Gervais. The first services were of a penitential character, and their solemnity was enhanced by the fearful ravages of the pestilence in the neighboring cities. An extraordinary celebration of the holy communion on the first Sunday in November, and a weekly day of humiliation and prayer were appointed to invoke the mercy of God upon Geneva and the whole Church.

The second year after his return was very trying. The pestilence, which in 1541 had been raging in Strassburg and all along the Rhine, crept into Switzerland, diminishing the population of Basel and Zürich, and reached Geneva in the autumn, 1542. To the pestilence was added the scourge of famine, as is often the case. The evil was aggravated by the great influx of strangers who were attracted by Calvin’s fame and sought refuge from persecution under his shelter. The pest-house outside of the city was crowded. Calvin and Pierre Blanchet offered their services to the sick, while the rest of the ministers shrank back.636636    They said that they would rather go "au diable" than to the pest-house. The Council refused to let Calvin go, because the Church could not spare him.637637    That Calvin offered himself is asserted not only by Beza (XXXI. 134), but also by Roset and Savion. See Bonnet, I. 334, note. Castellio, who was not a minister, though he wished to become one, also offered his services, but changed his mind when the lot fell on him. Blanchet risked his life, and fell a victim to his philanthrophy in eight or nine months. Calvin, in a letter dated October, 1542, gives the following account to Viret, who, in July, had left for Lausanne:638638    Bonnet-Constable, I. 334.

"The pestilence also begins to rage here with greater violence, and few who are at all affected by it escape its ravages. One of our colleagues was to be set apart for attendance upon the sick. Because Peter [Blanchet] offered himself all readily acquiesced. If anything happens to him, I fear that I must take the risk upon myself, for, as you observe, because we are debtors to one another, we must not be wanting to those who, more than any others, stand in need of our ministry. And yet it is not my opinion, that while we wish to provide for one portion we are at liberty to neglect the body of the Church itself. But so long as we are in this ministry, I do not see that any pretext will avail us, if, through fear of infection, we are found wanting in the discharge of our duty when there is most need of our assistance."

Farel, on a like occasion, visited the sick daily, rich and poor, friend and foe, without distinction.639639    Kirchhofer, Leben Farels, II. 33. We must judge Calvin by his spirit and motive. He had undoubtedly the spirit of a martyr, but felt it his duty to obey the magistrates, and to spare his life till the hour of necessity. We may refer to the example of Cyprian, who fled during the Decian persecution, but died heroically as a martyr in the Valerian persecution.

In 1545 Geneva was again visited by a pestilence, which some Swiss soldiers brought from France. The horrors were aggravated by a diabolical conspiracy of wicked persons, including some women, connected with the pest-house, for spreading the plague by artificial means, to gain spoils from the dead. The conspirators used the infected linen of those who had died of the disease, and smeared the locks of the houses with poison. A woman confessed, under torture, that she had killed eighteen men by her infernal arts. The ravages were fearful; Geneva was decimated; two thousand died out of a population of less than twenty thousand. Seven men and twenty-one women were burned alive for this offence. The physician of the lazaretto and two assistants were quartered.

Calvin formed a modest estimate of his labors during the first years, as may be seen from his letters. He wrote to Myconius, the first minister of Basel, March 14, 1542:640640    Herminjard, VII. 437 sq.; Opera, XI. 376 sq.; Bonnet-Constable, I. 289 sq.

"The present state of our affairs I can give you in a few words. For the first month after resuming the ministry, I had so much to attend to, and so many annoyances, that I was almost worn out; such a work of labor and difficulty has it been to upbuild once more a fallen edifice (collapsum edificium instaurare). Although certainly Viret had already begun successfully to restore, yet, nevertheless, because he had deferred the complete form of order and discipline until my arrival, it had, as it were, to be commenced anew. When, having overcome this labor, I believed that there would be breathing-time allowed me, lo! new cares presented themselves, and those of a kind not much lighter than the former. This, however, somewhat consoles and refreshes me, that we do not labor altogether in vain, without some fruit appearing; which, although it is not so plentiful as we could wish, yet neither is it so scanty but that there does appear some change for the better. There is a brighter prospect for the future if Viret can be left here with me; on which account I am all the more desirous to express to you my most thankful acknowledgment, because you share with me in my anxiety that the Bernese may not call him away; and I earnestly pray, for the sake of Christ, that you would do your utmost to bring that about; for whenever the thought of his going away presents itself, I faint and lose courage entirely … Our other colleagues are rather a hindrance than a help to us; they are rude and self-conceited, have no zeal and less learning. But what is worst of all, I cannot trust them, even although I very much wish that I could; for by many evidences they show their estrangement from us, and give scarcely any indication of a sincere and trustworthy disposition. I bear with them, however, or rather I humor them, with the utmost lenity; a course from which I shall not be induced to depart, even by their bad conduct. But if, in the long run, the sore need a severer remedy, I shall do my utmost, and shall see to it by every method I can think of, to avoid disturbing the peace of the Church with our quarrels; for I dread the factions which must always necessarily arise from the dissensions of ministers. On my first arrival I might have driven them away had I wished to do so, and that is also even now in my power. I shall never, however, repent the degree of moderation which I have observed, since no one can justly complain that I have been too severe. These things I mention to you in a cursory way, that you may the more clearly perceive how wretched I shall be if Viret is taken away from me."

A month later (April 17, 1542), he wrote to Myconius:641641    Herminjard, VII. 453; Opera, XI. 384; Bonnet-Constable, I. 297.

"In what concerns the private condition of this Church, I somehow, along with Viret, sustain the burden of it. If he is taken away from me, my situation will be more deplorable than I can describe to you, and even should he remain, there is some hazard that very much may not be obtained in the midst of so much secret animosity [between Geneva and Bern]. But that I may not torment myself beforehand, the Lord will see to it, and provide some one on whom I am compelled to cast this care."

In February, 1543, he wrote to Melanchthon:

"As to our own affairs, there is much that I might write, but the sole cause which imposes silence upon me is, that I could find no end. I labor here and do my utmost, but succeed indifferently. Nevertheless, all are astonished that my progress is so great in the midst of so many impediments, the greater part of which arise from the ministers themselves. This, however, is a great alleviation of my troubles, that not only this Church, but also the whole neighborhood, derive some benefit from my presence. Besides that, somewhat overflows from hence upon France, and even spreads as far as Italy."642642    Bonnet-Constable, I. 351; Opera, XI. 516. The last sentence, "as far as Italy," is confirmed by a most grateful letter of evangelical believers in Venice, Vicenza, and Treviso, "to the saints of the Church of God in Geneva," dated Venice, 8 Id. December, 1542. See Opera, XI. 472-474.

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