Lausanne Free Church "believing all things written"

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Switzerland's Christian heritage

Many people in Switzerland's history have upheld the Bible as the Word of God and believed in the doctrines of grace. Some were not born in Switzerland but came to live and work there. Lausanne Free Church stands where these men and women stood.

This is a brief summary of some of these important people and events.

Ulrich Zwingli

John Calvin

The Anabaptists

William Farel

Pierre Viret

Theodore Beza

John Knox

Ulrich Zwingli

The reformation of course started in Germany with Martin Luther rediscovering that great truth “the just shall live by faith”. However the new teaching soon spread to Switzerland and in particular to the northern, German-speaking part. Here it was led by Ulrich Zwingli, who was born in 1484. He was of lowly birth, but still well educated. Zwingli began to study the Bible and became convinced, like Luther, that many of the teachings of the Catholic Church were contrary to scripture. When a colleague of Tetzel (the infamous indulgence selling priest) began to sell indulgences in Switzerland, Zwingli made a protest, although not as boldly as Luther had done.

In 1519 Zwingli became a priest himself and was invited to become preacher in Zürich. This he did on the condition that he could preach the pure Gospel of Christ. Soon, this “new” teaching caused a great stir. It was well received. “Such preaching we greatly need” said one, “he tells us the way of salvation”. Many souls were saved and the city was transformed.

During a terrible plague that came to the city, Zwingli showed himself to be a true pastor. Despite the danger he remained, visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved. 2,500 died out of a population of 17,000. Finally he fell ill himself, but after being close to death recovered. In 1522 Zwingli was plunged into conflict with the bishop of Constance over the subject of fasting during Lent. There was a great public debate. The people sided with Zwingli and his influence became widespread.

Zwingli sought to make changes in the churches only with the agreement of the City Council. This brought him into conflict with some of his own students. This came to light in October 1523 at a public disputation on the mass. Zwingli and one of his students, Conrad Grebel, were in agreement that the mass was an abomination to God. However Zwingli, instead of then pressing the Council to make changes, simply said “My Lords will decide whatever regulations are to be adopted in regard to the mass”. Grebel opposed this. He did not think the permission of the Council was necessary. This was the start of the public divide between Grebel and Zwingli. As Grebel studied the Bible he also came to believe that baptism should follow after conversion, and that therefore infant baptism was wrong.

In January 1525 matters came to a head when Grebel and a number of his followers were baptised as adults and founded an independent church. They started was became known as the Anabaptist movement. Sadly Zwingli proceeded to persecute the Anabaptists, supporting their imprisonment, banishment and even execution. This was a terrible tragedy. These were men who sincerely loved the truths rediscovered at the Reformation, but who differed in their interpretation of baptism and whether the church and the state should be separate. It is not possible to justify Zwingli’s persecution of the Anabaptists from the Scriptures. Today many Bible believers would also support the Anabaptist’s position that the church should be separate from the state.

Luther and Zwingli agreed on many issues, but did differ on some important points including the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Luther taught consubstantiation. Zwingli taught that nothing happened to the elements at communion – the service was simply a remembrance. One of the German princes called a conference in 1529 to try and bring about a resolution, but to no avail. With tears in his eyes Zwingli said “There are no people on earth with whom I would rather be in harmony with than with the Wittenbergers (followers of Luther)”. Sadly Luther would only receive them as friends not as brethren in the Church of Christ.

Soon after the Swiss believers organized themselves into a new religious organization called the Reformed Church. The Reformation made rapid progress in most of Switzerland, but some cantons remained staunchly Catholic. The Catholic cantons formed a league with Austria and a civil war appeared certain. However before a decisive battle was fought a compromise was arranged. Protestants in the Catholic cantons were promised toleration.

Sadly, the persecution continued and another civil war broke out. In 1531 an army of 8,000 Catholics invaded the canton of Zürich and a terrible battle was fought at Kappel. Zwingli did not fight. Instead he cared for the wounded and the dying. As he was tending others he was seriously wounded himself. When a Catholic soldier realized he was a Protestant, he killed him. Zwingli was only 47. The people of Zürich mourned, Luther was shocked. A great and faithful servant of Christ had departed, but a great work of reformation had been accomplished.

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John Calvin

Just as the light brought by Zwingli was extinguished another even brighter light was about to arrive in Switzerland. And this light was going shine far beyond the borders of this beautiful country. The light from this man's writing would be seen over the world.

Four years after Zwingli's death a 26 year old French lawyer and bookworm named John Calvin arrived. He had fled the persecution of King Francis 1 in Paris and found refuge in Basle, a city of comparative freedom. We don't know when Calvin was converted but he came to Basle as one saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He had, in his own words been saved from the “depths of mire” of the superstitions of the papacy.

Initially Calvin had two occupations in Basle. He helped a certain Peter Robert on a translation of the Bible into French and he wrote a treatise on the Christian religion. The latter was published in 1535 under the title of Instruction in the Christian Religion. This book (and its later editions) is better known as The Institutes of Christian Religion. Its subject is very simple: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves, yet its contents most profound. It is one of the most influential Christian books ever written.

After spending a year in Basle, Calvin planned to move to Strasbourg in 1536. For political reasons he had to make a long detour south to get there. In doing so he had to spend one night in Geneva. William Farel, another French reformer who was already serving God in Geneva, heard of Calvin's arrival and immediately determined that Calvin would stay more than one night. Using the most forceful language Farel persuaded Calvin to stay.

Farel and Calvin were both powerful preachers of God's Word. However they wanted people not just to be hearers but doers of the Word. They introduced a strict discipline of what a Christian should and should not do. It was too strict for many, and this group (called the Libertines) persuaded the Council of Geneva to banish Farel and Calvin from Geneva after less than three years. Calvin went to Strasbourg where he pastored a church for French refugees. Then, in 1541 he was persuaded to return to Geneva after some of Calvin's friends had regained control of the City Council. He was received back with great joy. Calvin threw himself into the work, preaching twice on Sundays and three times during the week.

Calvin's sermons and expositions of the Bible began to be printed and widely circulated. The influence of his writings soon spread throughout Europe. Calvin took up the mantle of leading the Reformation that Luther laid down when he died in 1546. Calvin now became the rallying point for the reformed faith and Geneva its unofficial headquarters. Many fleeing persecution found refuge there. Others came simply to grow in their knowledge and love of God. One such person was John Knox.

At this time a group of English and Scottish refugees prepared a new translation of the Bible into English. Calvin had an indirect influence on this version, which became known as the Geneva Bible. It remained in print for many years, only being eclipsed when the famed King James version was published in 1611.

Never had a city been organized so thoroughly for Gospel ministry. Almost the whole city would come together to hear the Word of God. Eight ministers and assistant ministers were appointed to conduct services three times on Sundays. In all there were 17 sermons a week for a city with a population of 13,000. There were fines for those who did not attend. Education was a high priority for the children and for young men. At the University 27 lectures were given each week. Every year scores of well educated believers graduated. The lives of individuals were strictly controlled. There were rules about eating and drinking, buying and selling, dress and morals. Most accepted the regime with gladness. The city became thoroughly God fearing.

One sad event during this period concerned a heretic named Servetus. He denied the Trinity. When he was condemned by the Roman Catholic authorities he fled to Geneva for refuge. In Geneva he carried on teaching his heresy so was arrested and put on trial. He was defiant to the end, even accusing Calvin of being heretic and calling for his death. The Council found Servetus guilty and sentenced him to be burned alive. Calvin asked for a milder form of death but was overruled. Although Calvin was not on the Council and did not therefore have a direct say in the matter, he did nevertheless agree that heretics should be put to death. In this matter Calvin was not guiltless. We are reminded that no man, save the Lord Jesus, is perfect.

So Calvin laboured for a further 23 years in Geneva until his death in 1564. As one writer has said, “If Luther set up the foundation of the Reformation, Calvin was the master builder”. Even today his commentaries and sermons are highly valued, widely read and well used. As we read them we see a man who loves the Word of God and is faithful to explain its exact meaning and then apply it to our lives.

John Calvin still exercises a huge influence on Christians today. Many who hold to the Reformed faith actually call themselves Calvinists, in recognition of this. All Calvin sought to do was faithfully expound the Word Of God and point people to the only Saviour of Sinners: the Lord Jesus Christ. As Calvin wrote in his epistle to the reader in the last edition of the Christian Institutes “My most ardent desire has been to advance his kingdom and promote the public good.”

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The Anabaptists

It is often thought that when the Reformation was established Protestants were divided into those who followed Luther and those who followed Zwingli and Calvin. However there was another large group who did not belong to either party - the Anabaptists. They were known as “Anabaptists” because of their practice of re-baptising individuals who had been baptised as infants. It was not a name they chose, preferring to call themselves the brethren.

The Anabaptists formed independent churches who emphasised:

The Bible as the final authority on all matters of faith and practice.

Freedom of religion (in particular that the State should not have control over the Church)

Baptism should follow a profession of faith.

The emphasis on love as the underlying motivation of the Christian life. This lead many refuse to take up arms in any circumstances.

Some Anabaptist churches held extreme and erroneous views, but it appears that many were similar in belief to a modern day independent Bible-believing church. This article will concentrate on events in Switzerland at the beginning of the 16th century and in particular on three men who were the founders of the movement: Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock and Felix Manx.

In 1521 a young man named Conrad Grebel came to Zurich and began to study under the guidance of Zwingli. He had been to university in Paris and arrived as a dedicated humanist. As he studied the Bible in the original languages he came to understand the way of salvation. Sometime prior to July 1522 he was saved from his sins. Soon he began to defend the Gospel publicly and desired to become a minister. As he studied he became convinced in particular of the authority of the Scriptures in all matters of faith and practice. In fact he went further than Zwingli. Zwingli, although he had a similar view of the Scriptures, preferred to allow the City Council to settle doctrinal matters.

This came to light in October 1523 at a public disputation on the mass and on images. Grebel and Zwingli were in agreement that the mass was an abomination to God and that images were wrong. However Zwingli, instead of then pressing the Council to make changes, simply said “My Lords will decide whatever regulations are to be adopted in regard to the mass”. Grebel opposed this. He did not think the permission of the Council was necessary. This was the start of the public divide between Grebel and Zwingli. Grebel’s refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the City Council is seen by some scholars as the start of the “free church” movement.

During 1524 Grebel emerged as leader of the embryonic Anabaptist movement and was joined by Simon Stumff and Felix Manx who had also been studying under Zwingli. They made many attempts to persuade Zwingli to a more biblical reform, but without success. So they began to meet separately at the home of Manx for Bible study. As they studied the Bible they also began to have serious doubts about infant baptism. Pastor William Reublin, who lived near Zurich seems to have been the first to preach against it. Not long afterwards he was imprisoned and then forced to leave the area. Grebel and the others quickly took up the cause. They knew that Zwingli and other reformers had previously expressed doubts about infant baptism and as they read the scriptures, they became convinced. Their conviction could only have one logical conclusion. They should be re-baptised themselves.

On the evening of 21 January 1525 about 12 men met at the home of Felix Manz. George Blaurock, a priest from Chur, was also present. Grebel baptised Blaurock and he in turn baptised all the others. With these first baptisms the Anabaptist church was born. It was a momentous day. Soon the persecution started. They were at odds with both the Catholic and Protestant authorities. Their insistence in particular on “rebaptism” was considered by all the authorities to be sedition and anarchy against the State powers. On 29th May 1525 a preacher named Eberli Bolt was burnt at the stake in Schwyz, Switzerland by the Catholic authorities. Many others were to follow.

Conrad Grebel lived only a further 18 months but in that time his work for the Lord was great. In February 1523 he went from house to house witnessing, baptising and conducting the Lord’s Supper. Many were baptised and formed new Anabaptist churches. Some brethren went to St. Gall where 500 responded and were publicly baptised on 9 April 1525 in the local river.

In June 1525 Grebel decided to go to his home town of Grüningen. He worked with extraordinary success. His message emphasised the necessity of repentance and faith in the full authority of scriptures. A large independent church came into being. During October 1525 Grebel, Manx and Blaurock were arrested by the Protestant government of Zurich. At their trial in November 1525 they were accused by Zwingli of sedition. Found guilty, they were condemned to an indefinite term of imprisonment because of their belief in Anabaptism and their “unbecoming conduct of life”. Their sentence was to “lie in the tower on a diet of bread and water, and no-one was permitted to visit them except the guards”. It was a sad day for the Reformation when these men were imprisoned by Protestant authorities for teaching that baptism should follow repentance and confession of faith.

Matters got worse in March 1525. A new magistrate came to power in Zurich and he immediately made the act of performing adult baptism a crime punishable by death. Grebel, Manx and Blaurock managed to escape from prison in the same month. Grebel now lived a nomadic life. He was able to have a book on baptism printed before he died of the plague in the summer of 1526. Felix Manx worked especially among the peasants and artisans in and around Zurich. After his escape he managed to evade recapture until the end of 1526. After another trial, he became the first victim of the new law against Anabaptists and was executed on 5 January 1525. On the way to his death he praised God that, even though a sinner, he would die for the truth. One line of a hymn that he wrote still survives:

With gladness will I sing now;

My heart delights in God,

Who showed me such forbearance,

That I from death was saved

Which never hath an end.

I praise thee, Christ in heaven

Who all my sorrow changed.

George Blaurock was severely beaten with rods on the day that Felix Manx was executed. He left Zurich never to return again. He went to Bern where he faced Zwingli in a disputation on baptism. Blaurock refused to recant so was banished. He then worked in various towns in Switzerland, building up fledgling independent churches before finally being banished for good in April 1527. He moved to Austria, becoming pastor of an Anabaptist church in the Adige valley. Their previous pastor had been burned at the stake. Two years later he himself died the martyr’s death.

Even though the three founders of the Anabaptists all died within 4 years of the start of the movement, the churches they founded did not. Despite constant persecution and many executions, Anabaptist churches survived and grew. Little of their history has been recorded here on earth, but the Lord knows who are his. Many groups claim to be the descendants of the Anabaptists - Unitarians, Baptists, Quakers, and even Communists! However, the lasting legacy of the early Anabaptists is that they helped the reforming church to rediscover important teachings in God’s word. In particular we can be thankful to them for seeing the need for the separation of the church and state, freedom of religion and that baptism should follow conversion.

William Estep (in his excellent book) summarizes the heritage of the Anabaptists as follows: "Where men believe in the freedom of religion, supported by a guarantee of separation of church and state, they have entered into that heritage. Where men have caught the Anabaptist vision of discipleship, they have become worthy of that heritage. Where corporate discipleship submits itself to the New Testament pattern of the church, the heir has then entered full possession of his legacy.”(1)

(1)“The Anabaptist Story” by William R. Estep. Published by Wm. B. Eeerdmans.

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William Farel

William Farel was born in the French Alps near Gap in 1489. This was in an area that had once been under the influence of the Waldensians. He was brought up a Catholic and was, in his own words “more popish than popery”. He went to Paris to complete his studies, concentrating on philosophy, theology and Hebrew. God used these very studies to enable him to see the scriptures in a new light. Luther's teachings were being circulated and discussed. His beliefs were turned upside down and he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. He now saw the terrible errors of the Catholic Church and began a lifelong mission to draw people away from the darkness and superstition of what the Pope and the priests taught. In 1521 he received a license to preach at Meaux, France. He was never actually ordained for the ministry, but became a roving Evangelist, travelling through eastern France, southern Germany and Switzerland. He never stayed long in one place and was more adept at bringing down rather than building up. The following are illustrations of the tenor of his work:

In Meaux he was soon in trouble for his zealous proclamation of Bible doctrine, narrowly escaping with his life.

In Balse he was run out of the city for insulting the Greek scholar Erasmus.

By 1525 he was back in France in Monteliard. On a Catholic procession day he snatched the image of St.Anthony out of a priest's hand and threw it into a river. He only just escaped the enraged mob.

But Farel is most famous for the time he spent in Geneva. He first went there in 1532 and found a city full of strife and religious turmoil. It was still largely Catholic, but there were a few who had discovered the truths of the Reformation. He started by preaching in the private homes of those who were sympathetic, but soon he was too successful for to be kept secret. Persecution started so he had to flee the city.

Farel returned to Geneva in 1533, labouring with great courage. Gradually the city was turned from the Catholic faith to the Protestant faith, as the pure teaching of the Bible was made known. In 1535, the city Council passed a resolution declaring Geneva Protestant. However there was still much work to be done. The Catholic faith still had many in its grip. It was into this situation that the unsuspecting John Calvin arrived one night in 1536.

Calvin had no intention of staying. He was a quiet man who shunned controversy and just wanted to study in peace. But Farel had other ideas. As soon as he heard he was there he sought him out and pleaded with Calvin to stay. Calvin refused, and in exasperation Farel cried out: “I declare, in the name of God, that if you do not assist in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for following your own interest rather than his call”. Calvin was so affected by these words that he agreed to stay.

Farel and Calvin now worked side by side to bring the city out of superstition and into the truth as found in the Bible. But there was great opposition, especially from a group called the Libertines. After 3 years both Farel and Calvin were banished. When in 1541 Calvin was invited back, Farel did not join him, but they remained close and firm friends for the rest of their lives. Farel resumed his itinerant evangelistic ministry right into his old age.

In 1563 when Calvin was near to death, the aged Farel (now 74) travelled to Geneva to see his friend one final time. When Calvin died the following year, Farel wrote: “Oh. Why was not I taken away in his place, while he might have been spared for many years.… thanks be to Him who gave me the exceeding grace to meet this man and to hold him against his will in Geneva”. Farel himself died in September 1565 worn out by so much travelling, sufferings and old age.

Although we might question some of his methods, no-one can ever question his love for the truth, his courage, or his faithfulness to the One who loved him and gave His life for him. God used Farel to break down and Calvin to build up. Farel himself recognized this and in deep humility was happy that Calvin had the pre-eminent position, whilst he receded into the background.

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Pierre Viret

Pierre Viret was born in the small village of Orbe, near Lausanne, in 1511. He was a bright child who benefited from a new village school. He developed an interest in the classics and theology which, in 1528, led him to study for the priesthood. He entered a college in Paris at about the time Calvin was leaving. Whilst at college Viret was exposed to the new Protestant teaching of justification by faith. He left the university a changed man – changed not by education but by the work of the Holy Spirit. He was now committed to Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. On returning to Orbe, he found the village divided into Protestant and Catholic factions. Viret met Farel, who challenged Viret to become a minister of the Gospel and to preach in his native village. Viret initially said no, but in time accepted Farel’s guidance.

Viret was a wonderful preacher of the Gospel. He preached in love to win Catholic friends to Christ. He won the people of his village over to the Reformation. He was so effective that Catholic enemies tried to stab him to death. Later, Catholics poisoned his spinach. He survived, but forever afterwards suffered stomach problems. For many years he worked in Lausanne and the surrounding area. Many were saved under is powerful and persuasive preaching. In Lausanne he taught theology at the academy founded in 1537, and persuaded Beza to become the professor of Greek in 1549.

In 1561 he moved to France, first to Nimes and later to Lyons. At Lyons he presided over the national synod of reformed churches in August 1563. However, shortly afterwards the Catholics regained control of that region. In 1565 Pierre received a notice telling him to leave. He went instead to Naverre where the Protestant queen Jeanne d'Albret appointed him head of the academy she had founded. He died at the age of sixty in 1571.

Viret suffered many things in his life. His first wife and their children died of plague. His second wife and her two children also died of plague. These tragedies made him a sympathetic Pastor. Despite ill health, Viret preached countless sermons and wrote about fifty books. He has been described as “the champion of the reformation in Vaud”. Truly the Lord did a mighty work through his faithful preaching and teaching of the Gospel.

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Theodore Beza

Theodore Beza was born in Burgundy, France in 1519. After he had finished his education he settled in Paris in 1539 and soon gained a prominent position in literary circles. He published a collection of Latin poems which made him famous. He then fell ill, and during his distress God revealed to him his spiritual illness. Gradually he came to see that he was a sinner who needed to know the Lord Jesus as his Saviour. Once he was saved, he resolved to start a new life so he moved to Geneva, the centre of the Reformation, in 1548. In Geneva, he was warmly welcomed by Calvin. On a visit to nearby Lausanne a year later he visited Viret who immediately had him appointed as professor of Greek at the academy there.

In 1557, Beza took a special interest in the Waldensians of Piedmont who were being harassed by the French government and on their behalf went to several cities. In the same year he travelled to Worms to try and secure support of the Evangelical German princes for the persecuted Christians in Paris. In view of certain difficulties in Lausanne, Beza thought it best in 1558 to move to Geneva. There he was appointed to the chair of Greek at a newly established academy. For the next 6 years, Beza laboured alongside Calvin in the city.

When Calvin died in 1564, Beza was the natural successor. Beza proved an adept leader, carrying on the work and ensuring the doctrinal stance of Calvin was maintained. Throughout this time Beza maintained close links with the Protestants in France, being the Moderator of the general synod that met in 1571. Beza wrote a number of books on theology and history. He also wrote several satirical books and a biography of Calvin. In 1565 and 1582 he published editions of the Greek New Testament incorporating his own translation. Beza was active in teaching until 1597 and died in Geneva in 1605. Beza proved himself to be a perfect pupil of Calvin, standing shoulder to shoulder with him in his belief in the reformed faith.

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John Knox

John Knox was born and saved in Scotland. In 1555 he, fled to Geneva to escape the persecution of Mary, Queen of England. He spent four happy years in Geneva revelling in the teaching of Calvin and the Godly nature of the city. John Knox wrote in 1556: “Here exists the most perfect school of Christ which has been since the days of the Apostles on earth. Christ is preached elsewhere too; yet nowhere did I find that morals and faith have been improved more sincerely than here”.

Knox returned to Scotland in 1559 and started to contend vigorously against idolatry, urging everyone to repent and believe on the Lord. His preaching was powerful and many were saved. Scotland now began to experience a great reformation similar to that of Geneva. John Knox died in 1572, leaving a lasting legacy of a strong reformed church in Scotland which, to some degree, still exists today in some parts of that country.

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Recommended reading:

The Pilgrim Church by E. H. Broadbent

Sketches from Church History by S. M. Houghton

The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep

John Calvin by Emmanuel Stickelberger

Pierre Viret by Jean-Marc Berthoud

John Knox and the Reformation by D. M. Lloyd-Jones & Iain H. Murray