A Night's Stay in Geneva

Life of Calvin | 1536–1538

William Farel was the fiery redhead who cursed John Calvin’s ivory-tower life in Strasbourg and twisted his arm to stay in Geneva. Here’s the story.

Having published his Institutes, which were immediately successful, Calvin left Basel, still a fugitive from France, in the Summer of 1536 to make for Strasbourg where he could pursue a life of study and writing while tucked away under the pastoral care of famed reformer Martin Bucer. (Bucer had come to the Reformed faith after seeing Martin Luther defend his emerging Protestant doctrine at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518.)

However, Calvin and his traveling companions (which included his brother Antoine) discovered that the direct way between Basel and Strasbourg was blocked by the troops of Charles V as he was fighting the latest installment of the Hapsburg-Valois war with France’s Francis I. So Calvin and company had to follow the indirect route, which meant stopping for a night—just a single night—in Geneva.

That evening word got to William Farel that the famed writer of the Institutes was staying in town. Farel was the first reformer of Geneva. He was the pioneer who fought to have the city become officially Protestant in May of 1536. But now a year in, he needed help. And Calvin’s mix of gifts seemed to complement Farel's perfectly.

He descended upon Calvin and pled that he stay in Geneva and partner with him in bringing the Reformation there into fullness. Calvin resisted. He saw himself more as an academic than a pastor. He longed to hide away in Strasbourg and write books that would help the Reformation across Europe.

When he saw he was making no headway with Calvin, Farel pronounced a curse, damning Calvin’s quiet studies in Strasbourg when the need was so acute in Geneva. Amazingly, Calvin conceded. Whether it was fear of God or the affect of Farel’s display of earnestness, we don’t know for sure. Maybe both.

So Calvin remained in Geneva, and by January of 1537, he and Farel were fully engaged in their attempt to complete the Reformation in Geneva. But by Easter of the following year, they hit a major snag. The Reformers were expelled from Geneva.