Fun Facts From Church History: They Wrote Long Letters in the 16th Century…

calvin_youngCalvin perhaps the longest (though Bullinger wrote the most). Here’s a sample from the 14th of March, 1542. In it, Calvin updates Myconius on the latest doings in Geneva. Enjoy! (Especially the fourth paragraph…)

GENEVA, 14th March 1542.

On my first arrival here I could not, as you have requested, write you with certainty as to the state of this Church, because I had not then myself sufficiently ascertained what was the condition of it. Since that time also I have not ventured to say anything for certain, while matters were not very settled, that I might not shortly have occasion to repent of having praised it too soon. And this was also the reason why I abstained from writing when the deputies of our republic set out for Basle. Now, however, since, notwithstanding my delay, your kindness has anticipated me, I feel that I can no longer put off my reply to your request.

The present state of our affairs I can give you in few words. For the first month after resuming the ministry, I had so much to attend to, and so many annoyances, that I was almost worn out: such a work of labour and difficulty has it been to upbuild once more the fallen edifice. Although certainly Viret had already begun successfully to restore, yet, nevertheless, because he had deferred the complete form of order and discipline until my arrival, it had, as it were, to be commenced anew. When, having overcome this labour, I believed that there would be breathing time allowed me, lo! new cares presented themselves, and those of a kind not much lighter than the former.

This, however, somewhat consoles and refreshes me, that we do not labour altogether in vain, without some fruit appearing; which although it is not so plentiful as we could wish, yet neither is it so scanty but that there does appear some change for the better. There appears a brighter prospect for the future if Viret can be left here with me; on which account I am all the more desirous to express to you my most thankful acknowledgment, because you share with me in my anxiety that the Bernese may not call him away; and I earnestly beseech, for the sake of Christ, that you would do your utmost to bring that about;1 for whenever the thought of his going away presents itself, I faint and lose courage entirely. I do hope that the brethren will aid you in this arrangement, (I mean the ministers of Berne,) for we entertain that love towards each other, that I can venture to engage they will do their utmost for me, as I would do for them. I am afraid, however, that the Senate will not very readily agree to the proposal. Whatever shall be the result, let us strain every nerve to bring it to bear. Do you also strive to the utmost with the brethren, as you have undertaken to do; for while there is no doubt that they would be willing of their own accord, it will be of advantage at the same time, nevertheless, to have your exhortation.

Our other colleagues are rather a hindrance than a help to us: they are rude and self conceited, have no zeal, and less learning. But what is worst of all, I cannot trust them, even although I very much wish that I could; for by many evidences they shew their estrangement from us, and give scarcely any indication of a sincere and trustworthy disposition. I bear with them, however, or rather I humour them, with the utmost lenity: a course from which I shall not be induced to depart, even by their bad conduct. But if, in the long-run, the sore need a severer remedy, I shall do my utmost and shall see to it by every method I can think of, to avoid disturbing the peace of the Church with our quarrels; for I dread the factions which must always necessarily arise from the dissensions of ministers. On my first arrival I might have driven them away had I wished to do so, and that is also even now in my power.

I shall never, however, repent the degree of moderation which I have observed; since no one can justly complain that I have been too severe. These things I mention to you in a cursory way, that you may the more clearly perceive how wretched I shall be if Viret is taken away from me. What you observe, from the example of your Church, of the great injury which is inflicted by the noisome plague of discord among the ministry, I can confirm, from my own experience, to the fullest extent, in the calamity which has befallen this Church. No persons could be on closer terms of intimacy than we were here with one another. But when Satan had stirred up that deplorable misunderstanding between these brethren and ourselves, you know yourself what followed thereupon. My determination was therefore made at once, that unless with the evidence of an entire reconciliation, I would never undertake this charge, because I despaired of any benefit from my ministry here, unless they held out a helping hand to me. Meanwhile, many in their assembly are not over friendly, others are openly hostile to me. But this I carefully provide against, that the spirit of contention may not arise among us. We have an intestine seed of discord in the city, as I have already mentioned; but we take special care, by our patient and mild deportment, that the Church may not suffer any inconvenience from that circumstance, and that nothing of that kind may reach the common people.

They all know very well, by experience, the pleasant and humane disposition of Viret: I am in no way more harsh, at least in this matter. Perhaps you will scarcely believe this; it is not the less true, however. Indeed, I value the public peace and cordial agreement among ourselves so highly, that I lay restraint upon myself: those who are opposed to us are themselves compelled to award this praise to me. This feeling prevails to such an extent, that from day to day those who were once open enemies have become friends; others I conciliate by courtesy, and I feel that I have been in some measure successful, although not everywhere and on all occasions.

On my arrival, it was in my power to have disconcerted our enemies most triumphantly, entering with full sail among the whole of that tribe who had done the mischief. I have abstained: if I had liked, I could daily, not merely with impunity, but with the approval of very many, have used sharp reproof. I forbear; even with the most scrupulous care do I avoid everything of the kind, lest even by some slight word I should appear to persecute any individual, much less all of them at once. May the Lord confirm me in this disposition of mind. It happens, however, sometimes, that it is necessary to withstand our colleagues; but we never do so unless they either compel us by their unseasonable importunity, or some weightier consideration demands our interference. I will relate an instance to you, which the complaint you make in your letter, owing to the similarity of the case in point, brought very forcibly to my recollection. When we were considering about the introduction of ecclesiastical censure,1 and the Senate had given us a commission to that effect, these worthy persons appeared in public to assent; doubtless because they were ashamed to offer direct opposition in a matter that was so plain and evident.

Afterwards, however, they were to be seen going about secretly, dealing separately with each of the senators, exhorting them not to lay at our feet the power which was in their own hands, (as they said,) not to abdicate the authority which God had intrusted to them, and not to give occasion to sedition, with many other arguments of a like nature. We dared not close our eyes to such perfidious conduct. We endeavoured, however, to arrange the matter in such a way as not to stir up strife among us. We at length possess a Presbyterial Court, such as it is, and a form of discipline, such as these disjointed times permit. Do not, however, allow yourself to suppose that we obtained so much without the most vigorous exertion. And besides, those troops of unclean spirits break forth in all directions, who, in order that they may escape from healthy discipline, which they can in no way submit to, seek every sort of pretext for slipping away from the authority of the Church. The world, moreover, holds this laxity to be an established custom, which, for the sake of its lust, must reign paramount, because it cannot endure to resign the dominion of the sensual appetites to Christ.

But however impostors of this kind may plead the plausible case of the world and the flesh, the Lord will consume them with the breath of his mouth, provided we go forward to the assault with united courage and resolution, and fight manfully, with a stout heart and unwearied zeal, for that sacred authority and power of spiritual jurisdiction over the members of the Church which ought ever to be held inviolable. For, indeed, the truth of God shines more brightly of itself in this evangelic order of discipline, than to allow of its being easily overlaid with such lying devices. They adduce Moses and David as examples: as if, forsooth, these two rulers had exercised no other charge over the people than to rule them in the ordinance of civil government. Let those insane pleaders for the authority of the magistrate give us such men for magistrates as were Moses and David, that is, excelling in the singular spirit of prophecy, and sustaining both characters, not at their own mere will and pleasure but by the calling and commission of God, we shall then willingly concede to such persons that authority which they demand. I have no doubt that Moses himself discharged the functions of priesthood before the consecration of Aaron to the office: afterwards he prescribes, by the command of God, what was to be done. David, also, did not proceed to take order in the settling the administration of the Church, before he was invested with that power by the permission of God. Other pious godly kings defended and protected the established order by their authority, as became them; they let the Church alone, however, in the exercise of her peculiar jurisdiction in spirituals, and left to the priests the charge assigned to them by the Lord.

But am I not foolish to enter upon so complicated a question, when the letter-carrier is just upon the eve of setting out? whence it happens that we have not at present sufficient leisure for going fully and particularly into the long story of Alberg. I shall make a beginning, however, and follow it forth until the messenger shall arrive to snatch away the half-completed letter out of my hands. You must understand, in the first place, that this individual has now, for many years, been engaged in nothing else than constantly running about hither and thither, to shuffle money out of some, clothes from others, and thus to live from hand to mouth, maintaining a livelihood by imposture, as is the practice of those vagabonds who wander to and fro. He had come hither more than once before our expulsion: and had asked for a situation, but did not find one to suit him, because he wished a school of some standing, which is nowhere to be found in this quarter, and with a large salary.

In a little while after he returns, deploring as usual that he had been plundered by highway men. He repairs to a neighbouring small town, goes round canvassing for the mastership of the school, which he does not obtain. This repulse he charges upon us, who were so destitute of influence there, that had it been known that his appointment would not have been pleasing to us, on that account alone he would have obtained it; and yet, God is our witness, that at that time we had endeavoured nothing else than that he might find somewhere or other a situation fit and suitable for him. He came afterwards to Strasbourg, where he extorted twenty batzen from me, which I myself was obliged to borrow in another quarter; for I had sold my books, and was then entirely without funds. He had promised that he would return them within a few days. A box, of no value, he deposited with me as a pledge. Having returned after an interval of some months, laughing in his sleeve, or rather making game of it, he asked whether I would not let him have some crowns by way of loan, and my reply was, that I needed the small sum which he had already got. The rascal, in the meantime, having stealthily conveyed the box away out of my library, consigns it to the care of Bucer’s wife. She would have nothing to do with it, and gave me intimation. Thereupon I reprimanded his impudence, in the presence of several witnesses. In half a year after, or perhaps a whole year, he coolly wrote me that he was shut up at Baden, that all the gentry of the district had combined against him, that he could not otherwise escape, unless I sent him a travelling merchant, who might bring him away in his basket of goods.

Bedrot received one, couched in similar or nearly the same terms. We had a laugh. I wrote a few words also in reply; for we had reason, from many circumstances, to conjecture that he was all the while in that city. From that time he has never made his appearance. A year and a half has elapsed in the meantime. As I was aware that the little box contained many trifling articles of no Value, I opened it, in the presence of many witnesses. It contained mouldy apples, and all sorts of trash, some books, tattered and torn, and these quite commonplace, such as Despautier, and the like. I found also a letter, which he had surreptitiously carried off from me. This Sturm is well aware of, whom I called to be present. We replaced every thing, not without much laughter. When Grynée, of worthy and revered memory, came to Worms, he brought word that Alberg was then at Basle. On coming away from Strasbourg I requested my friends to send him back the box. The rascal, having received it, went about proclaiming that I was a thief, that I had taken out of it many incomparable books. He came to Lausanne,—related the same story to Viret. When lately he had betaken himself hither again, he was for ten days in the city before I was aware of it.

A while after, at the suggestion of Viret, I went to him, asked whether it was his intention to raise an action of theft against me, when he said that he had lost some remarkably rare books. I told him he was a most impudent scoundrel. The day after, he attacked me in my own house, not only with the most abusive language, but also making a furious assault; hereupon he was given into custody. When I was afterwards interceding earnestly for him with the magistrate, and he was about to be called and sent away without any further trouble, the jailer brought word that he had spoken still more outrageously against me there. In this manner he would not suffer himself to be benefitted; and yet he is punished less than he deserves. It is his old song, that something has been taken away from him. He could not formerly go three miles’ distance but he must fall among robbers.

Everywhere he boasts that he has a great store of invaluable books; even as he offered books in pledge to me, which he had at Basle, when he sought my aid in getting out of durance at Baden. In like manner, at Berne, when he sought ten crowns from me and Farel, he said that he had at your house a large package of books, and fifty Bohemian ducats. Lately, also, in the taverns, he talked of nothing else than the noble library which he had left at Basle. But, in truth, it is somewhat offensive that I should have to speak a word to clear myself, for I reckon that I have so lived as to be beyond the suspicion of theft. The letter has now been twice called for.

Adieu, most excellent and very much esteemed brother. May the Lord Jesus direct you continually by his Spirit in his own work, and govern your household. Viret particularly and reverently salutes you.
Wholly yours,

JOHN CALVIN*

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*J. Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, Vol. I, pp. 312–320. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.