The Bold Legacy of John Calvin’s Co-Pastor

Yorke Hinds | June 29, 2016

Four hundred and fifty two years ago, on May 2, 1564, John Calvin, on the brink of death, wrote his last letter. It began: “Farewell, my best and most worthy brother. Since God has determined that you should survive me in this world, live mindful of our union, which has been so useful to the Church of God, and the fruits of which await us in heaven.”

Little did Calvin know but on receiving the letter, his friend, William Farel, now 75 year old, would walk 73 miles from Neuchâtel to Geneva to visit him for the last time. A few days after the visit from Farel, John Calvin left this world and entered into the presence of the Lord.

Farel and Calvin met 28 years earlier in Geneva under the providential hand of God.

In July, 1536, Calvin was forced to spend a night in Geneva while on his way to Strasbourg. Farel, knowing about Calvin through the popularity of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, heard of the Reformer’s presence and promptly made his way to where Calvin was staying.

Farel arrived at the inn and found a young Calvin, at 27 years old, who did not appear to be in good health. After confirming Calvin’s desire to leave in the morning for Strasbourg, Farel begged him to stay in Geneva and help him with his work in reforming the city.

Calvin refused “I cannot stay. I need quiet. I must study where I am not disturbed.” Farel fixed his eyes on the young man, placed his hand on his head and spoke with a voice of thunder “May God curse you and your studies if you do not join me here in the work He has called you to!”

Calvin visibly shaken, sat speechless till finally answering “I will remain in Geneva, – I give myself up to the Lord’s good pleasure.” So began the lifelong friendship of William Farel and John Calvin and their reforming work in Geneva.

William Farel first visited Geneva in 1532 with his mind set on winning the city for Christ. When Farel rode his white horse into Geneva he did so with great caution as the city was under the rulership of the Duke of Savoy and the tyrannical Prince Bishop. The people longed for liberty but they had no love for the gospel that would truly set them free.

In his first sermon in Geneva Farel preached on the Holy Scriptures as the only source of divine knowledge and the only authority on earth to which the conscience of man was subject to. The people welcomed the hearing for the true Word and left that night reasoning “We have only the Lord Jesus Christ for our master and no other.”

Farel preached a second sermon on the same day exalting the one and only Savior who provides full forgives through faith alone. And so a small light was lit in the city of Geneva.

Once the magistrates of the city heard of Farel preaching they summoned him to the town hall where he was accused of mischief and stirring up a rebellion. After hearing Farel’s defense, that he only preached the truth of the word of God, they requested he leave the city peacefully.

Later Farel was summoned to appear before the episcopal tribunal to answer charges against him. As Farel arrived at the tribunal he was confronted by clergy who had hidden arms under their sacerdotal robes. One of the servants of the vicar drew his weapon, fixed it on Farel and pulled the trigger. The gun did not fire at which Farel responded “I am not to be shaken by a pop gun.”

This was not the first time Farel had faced death and been delivered by the sovereign hand of God. On the 15th August 1530, during a special Roman festival, Farel, with his good friend Anthony Boyve, passed through Valangin and entered the small town of Boudevilliers. Farel had set his mind on winning this small town for Christ.

The two missionaries entered the church during the singing of mass and Farel went to the pulpit to preach. As the priest was about to perform the mass Boyve rushed to the altar and snatched the wafer declaring “This is not the God you should worship. He is above, in Heaven, in the majesty of the Father, and not as you believe, in the hands of priests.” Farel took advantage of the situation and preached Christ, high King of Heaven and the people listened with interest.

While Farel preached the priest left, rang the tower bell and gathered a mob who were then led back to the church to attack the preacher and his friend. How Farel and Boyve escaped from the mob is not known.

Later that evening, as they travelled home, the mob caught up with them, showering them with stones. A large number of priests, men and women beat them with clubs and dragged them, half dead, closer to the castle of Williamette de Vergy, the countess of Valangin. As they approached the castle the countess looking down on the mob shouted “Drown them! Throw them in the Seyon.”

The priests dragged them to the river, about to throw them in, when at that moment friends from Neuchâtel arrived and suggested that the two men be put on trial.

Farel and Boyve, so close to death, survived by the sovereign hand of almighty God. It took several months for the bruises to heal and Farel kept busy by writing. To one young man Farel wrote “Look for labour, not for leisure; expect no rest till the day’s work is ended…. much reproach is to be endured; you must expect to meet with ingratitude in return for kindness, and evil for good.”

William Farel, the Elijah of the Alps, knew what it meant to suffer for Christ. Later in the same year, 1530, Farel set his sights on retrieving the town of Orbe from the bonds of Satan.

Farel entered the town, went to the church and directly to the pulpit. Before he could speak the crowd started to hiss and howl, “You dog! You devil! You heretic!” This did not stop Farel who continued to preach the gospel of grace.

A prominent woman in the town Lady Elizabeth Arnex called the women to gather in her home and devised a plan to kill the preacher. The women lay in wait for Farel and attacked him, dragging him to the ground. A friend walking by suspected something sinister and rescued Farel from his attackers. Although Farel’s time in Orbe was short, he had opened the door to the preaching of the gospel. Just six weeks after Farel’s arrival, a local man, Pierre Viret, at the young age of 20, preached his first sermon. Viret would continue to serve with Farel and Calvin and become know as a prominent Swiss theologian.

Over time the town of Orbe was won for Christ, not only through the preaching of Farel and Viret but by the testimony of Lady Elizabeth, who, having once harbored murder in her heart, received full pardon from Christ through faith.

After William Farel visited John Calvin for the last time in Geneva he returned home and continued to serve the Lord for another seven years.

On the September 13, 1565, William Farel breathed his last. The missionary of the Reformation finished his race well and by all accounts was received by the Lord with the words “Well done good and faithful servant”.

May we live as Farel lived, his face set as flint on the Lord Jesus Christ. May we see those who are held captive by Satan as opportunities to be won for Christ, even till death.

Outside the church in Neuchâtel stands a statue of William Farel. With his Bible held high, Farel stands as a testimony to the gospel of Christ. Under his feet are the broken pieces of idols and relics which God, through the preaching of His servant, brought to ruin.


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