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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 108. Calvin’s Struggle with the Patriots and Libertines.


Contre la secte phantastique et furieuse des Libertins qui se nomment Spirituelz. Geneva, 1545; 2d ed. 1547. Reprinted in Opera, vol. VII. 145–252. Latin version by Nic. des Gallars, 1546. Farel also wrote a French book against the Libertines, Geneva, 1550.

The works of J. A. Galiffe and J. B. G. Galiffe on the Genevese families and the criminal processes of Perrin, Ameaux, Berthelier, etc., quoted above, p. 224. Hostile to Calvin. Audin, chs. XXXV., XXXVI., and XLIII. Likewise hostile.

F. Trechsel: Libertiner, in the first ed. of Herzog’s Encykl., VIII. 375–380 (omitted in the second ed.), and his Antitrinitarier, I. 177 sqq.—Henry II. 402 sqq.—Hundeshagen in the "Studien und Kritiken," 1845, pp. 866 sqq.—Dyer, 177, 198, 368, 390 sqq.—Stähelin, I. 382 sqq.; 457 sqq. On the side of Calvin.

Charles Schmidt: Les Libertins spirituels, Bâle, 1876 (pp. xiv. and 251). From a manuscript autograph of one J. F., an adept of the sect, written between 1547 and 1550. An extract in La France Protest. III. 590 sq.


It required a ten years’ conflict till Calvin succeeded in carrying out his system of discipline. The opposition began to manifest itself in 1545, during the raging of the pestilence; it culminated at the trial of Servetus in 1553, and it finally broke down in 1555.

Calvin compares himself in this controversy with David fighting against the Philistines. "If I should describe," he says in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557),726726    Opera, vol. XXXI. 27 "the course of my struggles by which the Lord has exercised me from this period, it would make a long story, but a brief reference may suffice. It affords me no slight consolation that David preceded me in these conflicts. For as the Philistines and other foreign foes vexed this holy king by continual wars, and as the wickedness and treachery of the faithless of his own house grieved him still more, so was I on all sides assailed, and had scarcely a moment’s rest from outward or inward struggles. But when Satan had made so many efforts to destroy our Church, it came at length to this, that I, unwarlike and timid as I am,727727    "Qui imbellis sum et meticulosus"; in the French ed., "tout foible et craintif que je suis." He more than once refers to his natural timidity; but he risked his life on several occasions. found myself compelled to oppose my own body to the murderous assault, and so to ward it off. Five years long had we to struggle without ceasing for the upholding of discipline; for these evil-doers were endowed with too great a degree of power to be easily overcome; and a portion of the people, perverted by their means, wished only for an unbridled freedom. To such worthless men, despisers of the holy law, the ruin of the Church was a matter of utter indifference, could they but obtain the liberty to do whatever they desired. Many were induced by necessity and hunger, some by ambition or by a shameful desire of gain, to attempt a general overthrow, and to risk their own ruin as well as ours, rather than be subject to the laws. Scarcely a single thing, I believe, was left unattempted by them during this long period which we might not suppose to have been prepared in the workshop of Satan. Their wretched designs could only be attended with a shameful disappointment. A melancholy drama was thus presented to me; for much as they deserved all possible punishment, I should have been rejoiced to see them passing their lives in peace and respectability: which might have been the case, had they not wholly rejected every kind of prudent admonition."

At one time he almost despaired of success. He wrote to Farel, Dec. 14, 1547: "Affairs are in such a state of confusion that I despair of being able longer to retain the Church, at least by my own endeavors. May the Lord hear your incessant prayers in our behalf." And to Viret he wrote, on Dec. 17, 1547: "Wickedness has now reached such a pitch here that I hardly hope that the Church can be upheld much longer, at least by means of my ministry. Believe me, my power is broken, unless God stretch forth his hand."728728    Bonnet, II. 133 sq. and 135; Opera, XII. 632 sqq. The date of the letter to Viret is Dec. 17, not 14, as given by Bonnet.

The adversaries of Calvin were, with a few exceptions, the same who had driven him away in 1538. They never cordially consented to his recall. They yielded for a time to the pressure of public opinion and political necessity; but when he carried out the scheme of discipline much more rigorously than they had expected, they showed their old hostility, and took advantage of every censurable act of the Consistory or Council. They hated him worse than the pope.729729    To them must be traced the saying: "They would rather be with Beza in hell than with Calvin in heaven." But Beza was in full accord with Calvin in discipline as well as doctrine. The saying is reported by Papyrius Masso: "Genevenses inter jocos dicebant, malle se apud inferos cum Beza quam apud superos esse cum Calvino." Audin, p. 487. They abhorred the very word "discipline." They resorted to personal indignities and every device of intimidation; they nicknamed him "Cain," and gave his name to the dogs of the street; they insulted him on his way to the lecture-room; they fired one night fifty shots before his bed-chamber; they threatened him in the pulpit; they approached the communion table to wrest the sacred elements from his hands, but he refused to profane the sacrament and overawed them. On another occasion he walked into the midst of an excited crowd and offered his breast to their daggers. As late as October 15, 1554, he wrote to an old friend: "Dogs bark at me on all sides. Everywhere I am saluted with the name of ’heretic,’ and all the calumnies that can possibly be invented are heaped upon me; in a word, the enemies among my own flock attack me with greater bitterness than my declared enemies among the papists."730730    Opera, XV. 271.

And yet in the midst of these troubles be continued to discharge all his duties, and found time to write some of his most important works.

It seems incredible that a man of feeble constitution and physical timidity should have been able to triumph over such determined and ferocious opposition. The explanation is in the justice of his cause, and the moral purity and "majesty of his character, which so strongly impressed the Genevese.

We must distinguish two parties among Calvin’s enemies—the Patriots, who opposed him on political grounds, and the Libertines, who hated his religion. It would be unjust to charge all the Patriots with the irreligious sentiments of the Libertines. But they made common cause for the overthrow of Calvin and his detested system of discipline. They had many followers among the discontented and dissolute rabble which abounds in every large city, and is always ready for a revolution, having nothing to lose and everything to gain.

1. The Patriots or Children of Geneva (Enfants de Genève), as they called themselves, belonged to some of the oldest and most influential families of Geneva,—Favre (or Fabri), Perrin, Vandel, Berthelier, Ameaux.731731    The Galiffes fairly represent the animosity of these old families to Calvin, but far surpass their ancestors in literary and moral culture and respectability, which they owe to the effects of his reformation. They or their fathers had taken an active part in the achievement of political independence, and even in the introduction of the Reformation, as a means of protecting that independence. But they did not care for the positive doctrines of the Reformation. They wanted liberty without law. They resisted every encroachment on their personal freedom and love of amusements. They hated the evangelical discipline more than the yoke of Savoy.

They also disliked Calvin as a foreigner, who was not even naturalized before 1559. In the pride and prejudice of nativism, they denounced the refugees, who had sacrificed home and fortune to religion, as a set of adventurers, soldiers of fortune, bankrupts, and spies of the Reformer. "These dogs of Frenchmen," they said, "are the cause that we are slaves, and must bow before Calvin and confess our sins. Let the preachers and their gang go to the —." They deprived the refugees of the right to carry arms, and opposed their admission to the rights of citizenship, as there was danger that they might outnumber and outvote the native citizens. Calvin secured, in 1559, through a majority of the Council, at one time, the admission of three hundred of these refugees, mostly Frenchmen.

The Patriots disliked also the protectorate of Bern, although Bern never favored the strict theology and discipline of Calvin.

2. The Libertines732732    The synagogue of the Libertines in Jerusalem opposed Stephen, the forerunner of Paul, Acts 6:9. or Spirituels, as they called themselves, were far worse than the Patriots. They formed the opposite extreme to the severe discipline of Calvin. He declares that they were the most pernicious of all the sects that appeared since the time of the ancient Gnostics and Manichaeans, and that they answer the prophetic description in the Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude. He traces their immediate origin to Coppin of Yssel and Quintin of Hennegau, in the Netherlands, and to an ex-priest, Pocquet or Pocques, who spent some time in Geneva, and wanted to get a certificate from Calvin; but Calvin saw through the man and refused it. They revived the antinomian doctrines of the mediaeval sect of the "Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit," a branch of the Beghards, who had their headquarters at Cologne and the Lower Rhine, and emancipated themselves not only from the Church, but also from the laws of morality.733733    Gieseler connects both sects, vol. III. Part I. 385; Comp. II. Part III. 266. Strype notices the existence of a similar sect in England at a later period, Annals, vol. II. Part II. 287 sqq. (quoted by Dyer, p. 177)

The Libertines described by Calvin were antinomian pantheists. They confounded the boundaries of truth and error, of right and wrong. Under the pretext of the freedom of the spirit, they advocated the unbridled license of the flesh. Their spiritualism ended in carnal materialism. They taught that there is but one spirit, the Spirit of God, who lives in all creatures, which are nothing without him. "What I or you do," said Quintin, "is done by God, and what God does, we do; for he is in us." Sin is a mere negation or privation, yea, an idle illusion which disappears as soon as it is known and disregarded. Salvation consists in the deliverance from the phantom of sin. There is no Satan, and no angels, good or bad. They denied the truth of the gospel history. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ have only a symbolical meaning to show us that sin does not exist for us.

The Libertines taught the community of goods and of women, and elevated spiritual marriage above legal marriage, which is merely carnal and not binding. The wife of Ameaux justified her wild licentiousness by the doctrine of the communion of saints, and by the first commandment of God given to man: "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:28).

The Libertines rejected the Scriptures as a dead letter, or they resorted to wild allegorical interpretations to suit their fancies. They gave to each of the Apostles a ridiculous nickname.734734    They called St. Matthew, the publican, usurier (a usurer); St. Paul, potcassé (a broken vessel); St. Peter, on account of his denial of Christ, renonceur de Dieu; St. John, jouvenceau et follet (a childish youth), etc. Some carried their system to downright atheism and blasphemous anti-Christianity.

They used a peculiar jargon, like the Gypsies, and distorted common words into a mysterious meaning. They were experts in the art of simulation and justified pious fraud by the parables of Christ. They accommodated themselves to Catholics or Protestants according to circumstances, and concealed their real opinions from the uninitiated.

The sect made progress among the higher classes of France, where they converted about four thousand persons. Quintin and Pocquet insinuated themselves into the favor of Queen Marguerite of Navarre, who protected and supported them at her little court at Nérac, yet without adopting their opinions and practices.735735    Bonnet, in a note on Calvin’s letter to the queen (I. 429), says of her: "In the later years of her life [she died in 1549] her piety gradually degenerated into a kind of contemplative mysticism, whose chief characteristic was indif-ference towards outward forms, uniting the external ordinances of the Roman Church with the inward cherishing of a purer faith." See above, p. 323. She took offence at Calvin’s severe attack upon them. He justified his course in a reply of April 28, 1545, which is a fine specimen of courtesy, frankness, and manly dignity. Calvin assured the queen, whose protection he had himself enjoyed while a fugitive from persecution, that he intended no reflection on her honor, or disrespect to her royal majesty, and that he wrote simply in obedience to his duty as a minister. "Even a dog barks if he sees any one assault his master. How could I be silent if God’s truth is assailed?736736    "Un chien abaye, sil voyt quon assaille son maistre; ie serois bien lasche, si en voyant la verite de dieu ainsi assallye, ie faisois du muet sans sonner mot." ... As for your saying that you would not like to have such a servant as myself, I confess that I am not qualified to render you any great service, nor have you need of it … . Nevertheless, the disposition is not wanting, and your disdain shall not prevent my being at heart your humble servant. For the rest, those who know me are well aware that I have never studied to enter into the courts of princes, for I was never tempted to court worldly honors.737737    "Au reste, ceulx qui me cognoissent, savent bien que nay iamais aspire davoir entree aux courtz des princes, dautant que ie nestois pas tentéde parvenir aux estatz" (honorum studio titillatus). For I have good reason to be contented with the service of that good Master, who has accepted me and retained me in the honorable office which I hold, however contemptible in the eyes of the world. I should, indeed, be ungrateful beyond measure if I did not prefer this condition to all the riches and honors of the world."738738    The French original in Henry, II. Beilage, 14, p. 112 sqq.; also in Bonnet and in Opera, XII. 64-68. The Latin editions date the letter April 20 instead of 28.

Beza says: "It was owing to Calvin that this horrid sect, in which all the most monstrous heresies of ancient times were renewed, was kept within the confines of Holland and the adjacent provinces."

During the trial of Servetus the political and religious Libertines combined in an organized effort for the overthrow of Calvin at Geneva, but were finally defeated by a failure of an attempted rebellion in May, 1555.



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