Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance. Dr. Michael Haykin is with us again, tracking out the French Reformation. Today we focus on William Farel.
Michael, who was William Farel?
William Farel, or Guillaume Farel, as he is probably known better in French, was a contemporary of Luther, born in the early 1480s; he would die after Calvin. Calvin died in 1564; Farel would outlive him by number of years; so, he lived a very long life for the 16th century. Swiss. French. Calvin is French-speaking, but from France, although his ministry will be centered in Switzerland. Farel is significant because he was one of the first French reformers to begin to preach the Gospel throughout the valleys and towns in Switzerland. He plays a critical role in launching a French systematic theology; he writes a systematic theology before Calvin. It’s no longer used, at all; it has been reprinted in a French edition, which I have, but probably after the 16th century it was rarely printed. But he lays out the pattern, the groundwork for Calvin’s systematic theology, which is one of the classics of the Reformation period.
He is also significant in that he is the reformer who is critical in convincing Calvin that God is calling Calvin to the work of reformation in Geneva. Calvin had fled France, in 1536, he was on his way to Strasburg, which then was an independent city-state; but the road to Strasbourg from Paris, where he was leaving, was shut off by war. So he took a detour and the detour would last years, because he went through Geneva. He intended to spend one night there, and try to find another access route to Strasburg, but while he’s staying in Geneva – a very small town at the time, 8000 people, maybe 10,000. It had very few inns, so people coming and going in a small town like this were noticed and remarked upon and so word was gotten to Farel that Calvin was there, and Farel went to talk to him.
Farel had come to Geneva about four years earlier, in 1532, preached for a day in the town square and then been booted out by the city authorities. He returned two years later with Pierre Viret, who had also become a close coworker and friend of Calvin’s; and they again were booted out. This time, though, they were able to stay overnight, but to the physical upset of both men; because the authorities in the city wanted to make sure they didn’t come back a third time so they put poison mushrooms in their food. Viret nearly died, and it didn’t have the effect the authorities wanted, but it nearly killed them. Farel just woke up the next morning with an upset stomach (both men laughing.) He was kind of an iron man. And they booted him out again. The third time they came back, about a year later, in 1535, the city authorities had thought better of the possibility of embracing the Reformation – not because of its truth, but because of its financial benefits. And if they kicked out the representative of the Roman papacy, namely a man named Jacobo Sadoleto, who was an Italian, then they no longer had to pay taxes and monies to the Roman papacy, and they could save that money. As a result, it was Sadoleto who got the boot, and Farel was installed as a pastor. The problem was, he was an evangelist, not a pastor. Hence his approach to Calvin when Calvin came through the town in 1536. There is good evidence they had met before in Basel; definitely Farel knew Calvin through his work, the first edition of the Institutes, which had appeared in Basel in 1536.
Isn’t there a pretty good story that goes along with how he convinced Calvin to stay?
Yes. He arrives at the inn and they spent most of the evening discussing the possibility of Calvin helping him; but Calvin was insistent that Farel had gotten the wrong man. He was an introvert, he liked to be in the shade, not the limelight, and so he emphasized, also, that his gifting from God was writing, not speaking. Farel thought otherwise and, as the evening wore on, he was deeply frustrated by Calvin’s refusal to even entertain the possibility of staying with him. And Farel was a huge, tall man, in that day, well over 6 feet tall, which would be a giant of a man in the day in which 5 feet was normal height. Calvin, on the other hand, was quite tiny, and quite thin, at least in his early years. So, there was quite a physical contrast. Well, at a certain point Farel got completely fed up with the conversation and leapt to his feet and cursed Calvin – Calvin tells us this in his preface to the Psalms – “May God damn you and all your studies, unless you stay here with me.” And Calvin says, “I was terrified; I was rooted to the spot.” So, Calvin ends up staying in Geneva for three years with Farel.
We are thankful that this is not the normal way God calls men (both men laughing.)
But it did work!
But, yeah, it worked in Calvin’s case.
Aside from his being the one to bring Calvin into Geneva, why does Farel need to be remembered?
As I said, Farel is a pioneer of French systematic theology. He writes a reformed systematic theology; he writes a systematic theology prior to Calvin. Some elements of which, for instance his chapter on prayer, Calvin will pick up to some degree, at least the ideas. He’s also a very close friend of Calvin. In one of his commentaries, I think it’s the one on Titus, Calvin dedicates it to Farel and Viret, and says, “We three have shown to the world what unanimity of spirit and soul is, and heart. We’ve had one heart, one soul and shown that men can work together without friction.” It was a fabulous friendship that he had with Calvin and Viret. We have probably upwards of a thousand letters that passed back and forth between these three friends. It reminds us of a very important element of Calvin’s life that God accomplished the Reformation in Geneva, not single-handedly, as it were, through Calvin. It wasn’t Calvin by himself; but it was in concert with other men like Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret.
We’re talking to Dr. Michael Haykin, Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of many books related to church history that you can check out here on our page. We hope you’ll join us next time as Dr. Haykin talks to us about John Calvin the theologian.
Editor’s Note: You’ll want to check out these church history related titles from Dr. Haykin.
Books by Michael Haykin
The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities
To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy
The Revived Puritan: The Spirituality of George Whitefield (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement
The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers
Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition
The Reformers and Puritans as Spiritual Mentors: Hope Is Kindled (Christian Mentor)
Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact (Biography)
Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church
Eight Women of Faith
Soldiers of Christ
Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival (Emmaus)
Defence of the Truth: Contending for the Faith Yesterday and Today
Ardent Love for Jesus: English Baptists and the Experience of Revival in the Long Eighteenth Century
Kiffin Knollys & Keach: Rediscovering English Baptist Heritage
A Cloud of Witnesses: Calvinistic Baptists in the 18th Century
Bitesize Biographies: George Whitefield
Devoted to the Service of the Temple: Piety, Persecution, and Ministry in the Writings of Hercules Collins (Profiles in Reformed Spirituality)
Travel with Jonathan Edwards
Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory: The Piety of Samuel and Sarah Pearce (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
A Consuming Fire: The Piety of Alexander Whyte
Baptists and War: Essays on Baptists and Military Conflict, 1640s-1990s
A Heart for Missions: Memoir of Samuel Pearce
A Sweet Flame: Piety in the Letters of Jonathan Edwards (Profiles in Reformed Spirituality)
Waiting on the Spirit of Promise: The Life and Theology of Suffering of Abraham Cheare (Monographs in Baptist History)
Christ Is All: The Piety of Horatius Bonar (Profiles in Reformed Spirituality)
The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell (Classics of Reformed Spirituality)
An Orthodox Catechism
The Empire of the Holy Spirit
“The First Counsellor of our Denomination”: Studies in the Life and Ministry of Abraham Booth
Church History 101: The Highlights of Twenty Centuries
Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ
The British Particular Baptists, Vol. 1: 1638 – 1910
The British Particular Baptists Vol. II: 1638-1910
Buy the books
John Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ