Chapter 24

William Farel: Fiery Evangelist of the Reformation


We who are of the Calvin Reformation rightly honor John Calvin as the great Reformer of Geneva and the spiritual father of Calvinistic churches throughout the world. But it is not an exaggeration to say that Calvin's work would not have been possible without the intrepid labors of another Reformer, William Farel, who hacked away the undergrowth of Roman Catholic superstition and plowed the soil of Switzerland so that the seeds of Calvin could be sown and bear their fruit.

Schaff writes of him:

Farel's work was destructive rather than constructive. He could pull down, but not build up. He was a conqueror, but not an organizer of his conquests; a man of action, not a man of letters; an intrepid preacher, not a theologian. He felt his defects, and handed his work over to the mighty genius of his young friend Calvin. In the spirit of genuine humility and self-denial, he was willing to decrease that Calvin might increase. This is the finest trait in his character.

The character which God gave him, forceful and belligerent, admirably suited him for the work of the Reformation and the unique place in the Reformation which he occupied. The work was important, for without it other Reformers could not have accomplished what they did.

Early Life

William Farel was born near Gap in Dauphiny, in the mountainous regions of the Alps, in the southeastern part of France. This part of France had at one time been under the influence of the Waldensians, but they had been all but destroyed in France through the horrors of the inquisition. He was the oldest of seven children, born from a family which belonged to the nobility, but which had fallen on bad times and was very poor. He was baptized with the name Guillaume, the approximate French equivalent of William. He was born five years after Luther and Zwingli and twenty years before John Calvin. He belongs, therefore, to the first generation of reformers.

Paris, the center of Roman Catholic studies, beckoned him and, in his studies there, he concentrated on philosophy, theology, and the ancient languages, including Hebrew. He had, at this time, very little religious conviction, although he was zealous for Rome and was, in his own words, "more popish than popery."

But God used these very studies to bring him to faith in the truths of Scripture as set forth by the Reformation. Even in Paris Luther's thoughts were being circulated and discussed, and Farel was brought under the influence of Jacques Lefèvre d' Étaples. Lefèvre was one of those shadowy figures in the Reformation who himself was convinced of the great truth of justification by faith, but who never could summon the courage to break with Rome and join the Protestant cause. It was Lefèvre who said to the young Farel: "My son, God will renew the world, and you will witness it."

From that point on Farel immersed himself in the Scriptures and was soon (1521) sent to Meaux in France, where he received authority to preach.

It was in his preaching that his character began to become apparent.

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."


To understand this part of his labors we must try to put Farel in the setting of his times.

Although the views of Luther especially, (as also those of the Swiss theologians) were being circulated, read, and studied in many places, the common people had not as yet heard them. Darkness still covered the land where Farel worked. The Reformation was just beginning in France, Southern Germany, and Switzerland. The people were hypnotized as yet by the priests, bishops, and monks who promoted with zeal the superstitions of Rome. The darkness of corrupt Roman Catholic domination held the people in slavery.

Influenced by Lefèvre, Farel had come to love the truths of the Reformation and had devoted his life to promote them through his fiery preaching.

William Farel was never officially ordained to the ministry, although he had been licensed to preach when he first came to Meaux. He believed that his call came from God, as that call had come to the prophets in the old dispensation. Nor did he ever stay long in one place, but traveled about in Switzerland, Eastern France, and Southern Germany, bringing his powerful word. No one has been able to compute the miles he traveled. But in all kinds of weather, through the dangers of robbers, brigands, and Romish clerics who hated him, he rode his horse or traveled on foot to areas where the true gospel had not yet been heard.

He aroused the hatred of Romish prelates wherever he went, but drew huge crowds by the fire of his oratory.

To trace his frequent travels would involve us in lengthy lessons in geography. But everywhere he went, his preaching did not permit that town or village or city to remain the same. We can only tell of some of his work and recall with amazement the troubles from which, by God's providential hand, he escaped.

Already in Meaux, France, where Farel began his preaching, he was soon in trouble for his zealous proclamation of Biblical doctrine. It was a time in France when persecution of Protestants was beginning and those who had given him permission to preach were nonplussed by his sudden proclamation of Biblical truth. He was soon forced to flee for his life, narrowly escaping those who hated him.

In Basel, Switzerland he was instrumental in the conversion of the great Pelican, who later was professor of Greek and Hebrew in the University of Zurich and became a brilliant Reformation scholar. It was in this city that he visited the great Swiss Reformers: Oecolampadius, Myconius, Haller, and Zwingli.

But it was also in Basel that he ran afoul of the humanist Erasmus who still had sufficient influence to run Farel out of the city. It seems that Farel, in rather typical fashion, called Erasmus "a Balaam," something the learned Erasmus could not forgive. Erasmus wrote the council: "You have in your neighborhood the new evangelist Farel, than whom I never saw a man more false, more virulent, more seditious."

After a short sojourn in Strassburg, where he made the acquaintance of Martin Bucer, Farel was found in 1525 back in France in Montéliard, where he preached in his usual violent manner. On a procession day he pulled the image of St. Anthony out of a priest's hand and threw it from a bridge into a river. He barely escaped being pulled in pieces by a mob.

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.

While we can, if we choose, criticize Farel for his vehemence and tactlessness (as his contemporaries often did), one wonders sometimes whether the times in which we live do not require preachers of equal courage. His trust was in His God, and he was intent on doing the Lord's work with no regard for himself.

His greatest labors, however, were the work he performed as a co-worker of Calvin.

Contact With The Waldensians

Before we begin to describe his work in what was to become the center of Calvinism, it is not inappropriate to mention that Farel, more than any other Reformer, was instrumental in leading many of the Waldensians, those God-fearing and horribly persecuted pre-reformers, into the fold of Calvinism.

We noted earlier that Farel was born in a region which had once been the stronghold of Waldensian thought. His contact with the Waldensians must have left its mark on him, for he maintained contact with them throughout his ministry.

In fact, in 1531 Farel was sent with A. Saunier to the Waldensian Synod which was being held in Chanforans. There he explained to these people the Reformation truths, and there he persuaded many of the great work of God which was being done on behalf of the pure gospel. This influence with the Waldensians he was never to lose. And, if Farel is remembered for nothing more than for his work among these people, it would be enough to engrave forever his name in the memories of all those who love the Reformation.

Work With Calvin

But we must turn to Geneva.

Geneva, at this time, was under the rule of Berne, a neighboring canton in Switzerland. It was a thoroughly Roman Catholic city where every vice was openly practiced and where the foul rituals of Rome were a staple in the spiritual diet of the citizens.

His first stay in Geneva was not a long one. He came in 1532, when about 43 years old. The city was full of religious strife and tottered at the brink of chaos. Within that city, however, were a few who had been touched by the truths of the Reformation, and Farel limited his preaching to private worship in the homes of these few faithful. But his preaching was too successful to be kept secret, and soon he was forced by circumstances to begin public proclamation of the gospel.

This practice could not last long in this citadel of Romish thought. He was soon summoned before a furious episcopal council which saw his preaching as a threat to Rome's authority. Farel produced his credentials from Berne; and, although they made some impression, he was treated with insolence. One of the clerics present shouted to him: "Come thou, filthy devil. Art thou baptized? Who invited you hither? Who gave you authority to preach?"

Farel's response was: "I have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and am not a devil. I go about preaching Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification. Whoever believes in him will be saved; unbelievers will be lost. I am sent by God as a messenger of Christ, and am bound to preach him to all who will hear me. I am ready to dispute with you, and to give an account of my faith and ministry. Elijah said to King Ahab, 'It is thou, and not I, who disturbest Israel.' So I say, it is you and yours, who trouble the world by your traditions, your human inventions, and your dissolute lives."

When another shouted, "He has blasphemed; we need no further evidence; he deserves to die," Farel responded, "Speak the words of God, and not of Caiaphas."

In response to this, the council could no longer contain its rage. It taunted him, spit on him, chased him with clubs; and, as he was leaving, one member shot at him. Even that could not frighten the dauntless Reformer. He turned to the one who attempted his murder with the words: "Your shots do not frighten me." But it was only with difficulty that he escaped, and his first labors in Geneva came to an end.

He sent Froment and Olivetan, two fellow Reformers, to continue the work which he had begun; and he himself returned in 1533. Still under the protection of Berne, he labored with courage and zeal in times of great peril and danger.

Gradually the city was turned from its superstitions and many were brought by God to the faith. Gradually the Roman Catholics began to leave, and on August 27, 1535, the Great Council of Two Hundred in Geneva passed a formal decision that Geneva was to become Protestant.

The mass was abolished and forbidden. The people took the images and relics from the churches. The citizens pledged to live according to the gospel and established a school which became the forerunner of Calvin's famous Academy. A hospital was built, financed by the revenues from older hospitals. The palace of the bishop, with fine irony, became a prison. Ministers, elders, and deacons were appointed. Daily sermons were preached. The sacraments were administered according to the Scriptures. All shops were closed on the Lord's Day.

Nevertheless, the city was far from a Reformed city. Troubles continued, and the work of reformation was far from over.

It was into this situation that Calvin came on an evening. He had no intention of staying in the city, but sought a night's lodging in his travels. When Farel heard that Calvin was in the city, he immediately sought out this man whom he had never met, to implore him to stay in Geneva and help with the work. But Calvin was of no mind to do this. Calvin, as he tells us himself, was shy and retiring and yearned for a life of quiet and peaceful study in some sanctuary far from the rumble of the storms created by the Reformation. He steadfastly and strenuously resisted every overture of Farel until, in exasperation, Farel bellowed: "I declare, in the name of God, that if you do not assist us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for following your own interest rather than this call."

Calvin was overwhelmed by this threat of God's judgment and, in resignation to God's will, agreed to work with Farel in the difficult task of the Reformation in Geneva.

Thrown into the hurly-burly of the life of the city, Farel and Calvin worked day and night to bring about a thorough reformation, until the city, weary of the stringent discipline imposed on them, rose against them and expelled them. Calvin retired to Strassburg, where he spent some of the happiest moments of his life, only to return a few years later when he was summoned by a Council alarmed at the chaotic conditions in the city. Farel went on with his work, especially in Neuchâtel, a city where also disorder and confusion reigned.

Farel's association with Calvin was close from the time of their labors in Geneva. In fact, during Calvin's stay in Strassburg, Farel was the one who urged Calvin to marry. In a letter to Farel, sent May 19, 1539, Calvin wrote: "I am none of those insane lovers who, when once smitten with the fine figure of a woman, embrace also her faults. This only is the beauty that allures me, if she be chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health. Therefore, if you think well of it, set out immediately, lest some one else gets the start of you. But if you think otherwise, we will let it pass."

Although Farel did not return to Geneva when Calvin was called back, the two remained close friends and the correspondence between them continued. Calvin spent the rest of his days in Geneva; Farel continued his evangelistic labors, traveling even in his old age.

When Calvin was near death, Farel, though nearly 75 years old, traveled to see his old friend and co-reformer for the last time. Calvin, aware of Farel's age and the difficulties of travel, begged Farel not to come. But Farel could not be kept away. Part of Calvin's letter reads: "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."

Ten days after Calvin died, Farel wrote to a friend: "Oh, why was not I taken away in his place, while he might have been spared for many years of health to the service of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ! Thanks be to Him who gave me the exceeding grace to meet this man and to hold him against his will in Geneva, where he has labored and accomplished more than tongue can tell. In the name of God, I then pressed him and pressed him again to take upon himself a burden which appeared to him harder than death, so that he at times asked me for God's sake to have pity on him and to allow him to serve God in a manner which suited his nature. But when he recognized the will of God, he sacrificed his own will and accomplished more than was expected from him, and surpassed not only others, but even himself. Oh, what a glorious course has he happily finished!"

Farel did marry, but at the age of 69, much to Calvin's disgust. But Calvin did have the grace to write the preachers of the city in which Farel was working to "bear with patience the folly of the old bachelor."

Still traveling and preaching very shortly before his death, he returned to Neuchâtel to die. There, worn with his many labors, weary with the sufferings which came with the reproach of Christ, he died quietly in his sleep on September 13, 1565.

Wild and fiery as he was, he served an important place in God's work of bringing reformation to the church. Though his methods could surely be scrutinized and criticized, no one ever questioned his integrity, his courage, and his faithfulness to his God. His was the work of the plowman who was called to hack down the trees, clear away the underbrush, and do the hard work of plowing; others would come, more gentle than he, and sow the seed.

Neither Calvin nor Farel could do that which had to be done for reformation to come; God used both -- first Farel to break down; then Calvin to build up. So it always is in the church of Christ: each member has his place and calling; and all together are called to labor in the cause of Christ.

Especially in his association with Calvin, a deeper and profoundly spiritual aspect of his character came to the fore. With a sincere humility he was content to stand in the shadow of Calvin, to retire to the background when events required it, and to decrease in order that Calvin might increase. This was his most endearing quality, and it is a virtue registered in the books of heaven.