Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
Guillaume Farel is one of the great Reformers. He is one of the four Reformers represented on the International monument to the Reformation in Geneva. But some aspects of his personality are questionable…
The Reformer Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) is a figure who has been surrounded by Protestant historiography with a halo of respectability which hides the contours of a much more complex character than would appear. Born in Gap, Farel studied in Paris, where he taught grammar before becoming close to the group of “Biblians”. They preached salvation by grace and appeared to favour a reformation of the Church. Farel very quickly came to the view that the group’s plans for reform did not go far enough. Marked by his reading of the works of Luther, he embarked on the life of an itinerant preacher which led him to Montbéliard, Metz and finally Bâle in 1524. It was there that he viciously opposed Erasmus of Rotterdam who, despite his criticism of the Roman Church, was becoming more and more distrustful of the reforming movement. This confrontation between Erasmus and Farel revealed what made the man from Gap tick; his preaching was an uncompromising break with the religious practices of the Roman Church. Farel, indeed, lashed out at the mass, at the “corruption” of the clergy and at the “perverted” theology of the time. He set against them the purity of the gospel, the power of divine grace and the simplicity of worship based on sensitivity of heart.
Farel swiftly approached the Swiss reformers, like Zwingli, whose convictions he had espoused. He also became active in spreading the new ideas in French- speaking Switzerland, considering that it was from there that the kingdom of France could be won for the Reformation. Under his influence the town of Neuchâtel went over to the Reformation in 1530. He invited the printer Pierre de Vingle to work there. In Neuchâtel de Vingle printed a number of controversial treatises which circulated throughout the kingdom of France. It was de Vingle who printed in 1535 the famous Olivetan Bible, the first Protestant Bible in French.
It was also Farel who won Geneva to the Reformation! For he was the one who, during the summer of 1536, convinced the young theologian Calvin, passing through the city, to stay there. Thus the two men laid the foundations of the Genevan Reformation before pressure from the Canton of Berne, which was suspicious of their theology, drove them into exile. Calvin reached Strasbourg before returning to Geneva in 1541. Farel himself was Pastor at Neuchâtel to the end of his days – a ministry which nevertheless had its ups and downs. In 1559, against all expectations, he decided to get married. At the age of 70, he took as his wife a young girl who was no more than 16. This provoked a tremendous scandal and drew down on him the anger of Calvin. The two men were reconciled only in 1564, on Farel’s deathbed.
The historian, Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) described him as a “chasseur alpin*”. Certainly Farel had something of the Gaulish warrior about him. The accounts of his life and contemporary exchanges of letters report a number of incidents which show the character of the man: punches, insults, quarrels of every kind were in fact the daily lot of this thick-skinned preacher. However, reading some of the texts which he has left us allows us to uncover, behind the appearance of a spook with a battered face, a sensitive religious heart. Many of his texts insist on the importance of a filial relationship between the believer and God while highlighting what was in his eyes one of the characteristic traits of Christ: evangelical gentleness. Farel, in other words, was a tough guy with a tender heart.
*Note on “Chasseur Alpin”: The Chasseurs Alpins (“Alpine Hunters” in English) are the elite mountain infantry regiment of the French Army, founded in 1888. They specialise in operations in mountainous terrain and in urban warfare. Lucien Febvre’s description is apt both because of Farel’s origins in Gap (capital of the Hautes-Alpes) and his ministry in Neuchâtel (on the edge of the Jura), and because of his reputation as something of a theological street-fighter.