Who is a Real Reformer? Meet William Farel.

Surely there are few who take the name “Reformed” who do not know the name of John Calvin. This post isn’t about him. It’s about the one who was used by God to help turn John Calvin into the John Calvin we know and love.

Guillaume (William) Farel was born in the city of Gap in Dauphiny, in the  the Alps, in the southeastern part of France. The Inquisition eliminated the Waldensians in that region, and the vacuum allowed room for Reformation doctrine to grow. He was born five years after Luther and Zwingli, but greatly considered their work in the development of his faith. He went to Rome for his education and considered himself, “more Popish than Popery.” While in Rome, he discovered the teachings of Jacques Lefèvre d’ Étaples, who agreed with Sola Fide but never found the courage to leave the Romish church. This put Farel on the track to Protestantism, and further study of his contemporary scholars. From there he went to France, and soon after, became a Reformer. Consider this lengthy excerpt made available by the PRCA…

We are told by his contemporaries that he was rather short, always carrying about a gaunt look, and possessing a red and somewhat unkempt beard. He reminded those who saw him of the rough appearance of an Elijah. He was fiery and forceful, not given to the use of tact, impulsive in his actions and preaching, and one who roared against papal abuses. As zealous as he had once been for Romish practices, so zealous and fierce did he become as a promoter of Reformation causes. He was a man who prepared the way for others, for he could break down, but lacked the gifts to build up. He was no theologian, and he left no significant works which contributed to Reformation thought; he was rather the man who with mighty blows tore down the imposing structure of Roman Catholicism.

He was a man of unsurpassed energy who traveled incessantly until, old and worn, he died; always on the move, full of fire and courage, as fearless as Luther, but even more radical than the Wittenburg Reformer. His close friend and fellow Reformer, Oecolampadius wrote to him: “Your mission is to evangelize, not to curse. Prove yourself to be an evangelist, not a tyrannical legislator.” And Zwingli, shortly before his death, admonished him not to labor rashly, but to keep himself for God’s work.

Farel hated the pope with a passion and despised all papal ceremonies. His mission in life, as he conceived it, was to destroy every remnant of popery in images, ceremonies, and rituals, which were the standard diet of those held in Rome’s chains.

His strength was in his preaching. That is, it was not so much in his careful preparation of sermons, for he mostly preached without preparation, and none of his sermons have come down to us. His strength was in his powerful delivery. Schaff writes:

He turned every stump and stone into a pulpit, every house, street, and market-place into a church; provoked the wrath of monks, priests, and bigoted women; was abused, called ‘heretic’ and ‘devil,’ insulted, spit upon, and more than once threatened with death . . . . Wherever he went he stirred up all the forces of the people, and made them take sides for or against the new gospel.” 

But Schaff also writes: “No one could hear his thunder without trembling, or listen to his most fervent prayers without being almost carried up to heaven.”

As a prominent leader in the French Protestant Reformation movement, he was persecuted and had to free to Switzerland’s Geneva. Farel’s focus was on opposing Catholicism and promoting the Protestant Reformation in Basle, Bern, Lausanne and, of course, Geneva. It’s there that several priests tried to assassinate him. When one fired a musket, Farel turned around and said, “I am not afraid of your bullet.” Consider this excerpt from ReformationSA…

Farel’s practice was to go into the market places of Catholic towns and preach the Gospel. When attempts were made to arrest him, he challenged the local priests, or bishop, to a public debate. Inevitably, Farel won these debates. He then would appeal directly to the masses to vote on whether they were in favour of converting to the Protestant Faith, or whether they wanted to remain with Roman superstitions.

On such mission trips, Farel’s confrontational style and tactics provoked violent reactions. In one town, the bishop tried to have him drowned in the fountain! On occasion, Farel resorted to his fists to eject the papists and seize their pulpits. It is significant that in the Reformation Wall monument, in Geneva, Farel is the only one of the Reformers depicted with a Bible in his left hand (not his right) and his right hand is in a fist. Fare was ridiculed, beaten, shot at and abused, but he never gave up. Farel was a fighter.

In the summer of 1535, Farel seized the church of La Madeleine and the Cathedral of St. Peter (in Geneva). Farel [preached a sermon against idolatry] and in response, there was a wave of destroying superstitious religious images, statues and idols throughout Geneva. Altars were demolished, the mass was abolished, and images were removed from churches.

Back to the source…

Not only was Farel fearless, but he refused to be swayed by the approval of men. In Neuchâtel of Switzerland he publicly rebuked a noble woman who had left her husband. When she refused to return to him, Farel roared against her and her supporters from the pulpit and created such a riot that he was only saved by a vote of the council, which was moved by his vast energy.

He once interrupted a priest who was urging the people to worship Mary more zealously, and became the victim of a mob of women who were bent on tearing him to shreds.

In Metz he preached in a Dominican cemetery, booming out his message over the ringing of the convent bells, which were rung furiously in an attempt to drown his voice.

While celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Easter, he and those with him were attacked by an armed band. Many were killed or wounded. Farel himself, though wounded, found refuge in a castle and escaped the city by leaving in disguise.

At 72 years old, still preaching, he was thrown into prison, rescued by friends, and, like Paul, saved in a basket let down from the walls.

Into the darkness of popery Farel would burst, roaring like a bull, flinging about without regard for personal safety the great truths of Scripture which he had learned to love. He appeared on the scene as a meteor, smashing by his oratory and preaching all the carefully fashioned practices of the false church with which he had broken.

Under Farel’s preaching, idols, icons and relics were destroyed throughout the country side. He once destroyed icons of St. Mark and Mary, throwing one off a bridge after having snatched it from the hands of a priest and shattering the other. But, Farel was not a “crazy” man off by himself. His truest friend was John Calvin.

Calvin wrote to Farel on his deathbed, and Farel arranged to see is friend one last time…

“Farewell, my best and truest brother! And since it is God’s will that you remain behind me in the world, live mindful of our friendship, which as it was useful to the Church of God, so the fruit of it awaits us in heaven. Pray do not fatigue yourself on my account. It is with difficulty that I draw my breath, and I expect that every moment will be the last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is the reward of his followers both in life and in death. Again, farewell with the brethren.”

What would Calvin had been without Geneva? And what would Geneva had been without Calvin? How would history had been different? The reason Calvin remained in Geneva and began his Reformation was because of this courageous, icon-destroying preacher, William Farel. Desiring God (a source which is commendable, but that we urge you read with discernment), writes…

“[Farel] descended upon Calvin and pled that he stay in Geneva and partner with him in bringing the Reformation there into fullness. Calvin resisted. He saw himself more as an academic than a pastor. He longed to hide away in Strasbourg and write books that would help the Reformation across Europe.

When he saw he was making no headway with Calvin, Farel pronounced a curse, damning Calvin’s quiet studies in Strasbourg when the need was so acute in Geneva. Amazingly, Calvin conceded. Whether it was fear of God or the affect of Farel’s display of earnestness, we don’t know for sure. Maybe both.

Who was a real Reformer? William Farel. We need many more like him.

HT SD Reader

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