The Conversion of Theodore Beza


The conversion of Theodore Beza occurred a few months after the publication of the Juvenilia and in connection with an illness of so serious a nature that his life was for a time in doubt. Never had man greater reason to regard an apparent calamity as a blessing in disguise. He rose from the bed upon which disease had cast him with views and aims totally different from those which he had cherished until then. The same letter that has enabled us to trace to some extent his intellectual development, raises for a moment the veil that hides the innermost spiritual experiences of the man from the scrutiny of his fellow. Hours of enforced idleness, as well as of extreme peril and suffering, were the condition of his gaining the first glimpse of his true character in God’s sight. Past and present alike seemed to arise and accuse him, and their testimony could not be silenced or refuted. Turn his eyes which way he would, he found confronting him the judgment throne of an offended Deity. The agony was sharp and protracted. It was mercifully succeeded by a view of the pardon extended to him no less distinct and beyond the realm of doubt. Abhorrence of his sins was followed by petitions for forgiveness, and these by a full consecration of his powers to the service of his Savior. From extreme darkness verging upon despair, he emerged into a brilliant and enduring light.

Clearness of religious conviction led to decided and instantaneous action. Old objections and obstacles vanished or were brushed aside. Theodore Beza once thoroughly convinced of duty was not the man to postpone action, or, in the apostle’s words, to be disobedient to the

Theodore Beza

heavenly vision. He did not even wait until he was fully restored to health, but while still far from strong carried into effect the resolution which he had formed of betaking himself to a land where he could freely make profession of his religious belief. He gathered together such of his property as he could carry with him, and, not announcing his purpose to any of his friends or relatives, made his way, accompanied by his wife, and under the assumed name, it is said, of Thibaud de May, to the city of Geneva. He reached it on the 24th of October, 1548.
Such in brief is Beza’s account of the decisive step of his life—no precipitate and enforced flight of a villain unwhipped of justice, a flight rendered necessary by flagitious crimes committed (as malignant and mendacious calumniators subsequently and down to our times have dared to assert with unblushing effrontery), but the honorable withdrawal of an honest man from a country with which were bound up all his prospects of preferment and of worldly prosperity, that in a foreign land he might seek and obtain, along possibly with the discomforts of poverty, the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of his conscience. One of his first acts on reaching Geneva was to procure the public and solemn recognition of his marriage with Claudine Desnoz.

His future was all unknown to him. He possessed no handicraft by means of which the emigrant may hope, as soon as he has gained a slight footing in a foreign land, to secure subsistence. Of learned and unpractical scholars there was an abundance both in Switzerland and in Germany. Many of these were penniless and a burden upon their hosts. We have no reason to believe that this was the case with Theodore Beza, who in his quiet removal from his native land may well be supposed to have been able to bring with him all the funds necessary to meet the temporary needs at least of himself and his wife. But his open renunciation of the Roman Catholic Church cut off every channel of supply that had flowed so freely hitherto, save such as came from the paternal estates, and the anger of father, uncle, and other kinsmen might well be expected to interrupt, if not permanently end, all expectations from this quarter. Under these circumstances, Beza’s thoughts at first turned to a pursuit which, although not strictly a learned profession, had been taken up by some of the most eminent scholars of the day. I refer to the printing of books, which, in the hands of the Aldi at Venice and the Étienne’s or Stephen’s of his own native land, had attained, or was soon to attain, the distinction of ranking with the fine arts.

Jean Crespin, a native of Arras, came to Geneva at the same time with Beza. They were men of about the same age. Both had studied law, and both had been affected by the “new doctrines,” as they were called. Crespin, in particular, had witnessed in the city of Paris, where he was admitted as an advocate of the court of Parliament, the triumphant death of at least one Protestant martyr. The constancy of Claude Le Peintre, a goldsmith, burnt alive on the Place Maubert in 1540, seems to have led Crespin to the distinct espousal of the tenets of the Reformed Churches. Similarity of views brought the young men together, and they naturally conceived the idea of establishing at Geneva, on the very frontiers of France, a great printing establishment from which books and publications of various kinds in favor of the Gospel might be issued and circulated far and near throughout the kingdom. The project as a joint enterprise finally fell through, for there was in store for Beza a career of usefulness of quite a different character and better suited to his resplendent abilities. But Jean Crespin did not abandon his purpose. His plans were realized within a few years so successfully that not only did his presses gain a celebrity for the beauty of their products only second to the fame of the presses of the great printers I have named, but became instrumental in giving a great impulse to the doctrines of the Reformation.

His own personal activity as an author did good service in his great martyrology, which, in successive editions and under different titles, chronicled “the Acts and Monuments of the martyrs who from Wycliffe and Huss until this our age have steadfastly sealed the truth of the Gospel with their blood in Germany, France, England, Flanders, Italy, and Spain itself.” It was a great historical and biographical work, not indeed free from occasional errors—errors that may well be excused, in view of the difficulty and dangers encountered in the collection of so great a number of particular facts from widely different sources and even from well-guarded prisons and places of execution—but a work, nevertheless, for the most part, wonderfully exact and trustworthy, with which Crespin is to be congratulated for having linked his name for all time.

But while it may not have been very long before Beza definitely renounced the career to which Crespin would gladly have welcomed him, it did not at once appear to what department of activity a man of such marked abilities should devote himself. For manifold were the advantages he possessed. His personal appearance was striking. He was of good stature and well proportioned. His countenance was very pleasing. Refinement was stamped upon his features. His whole bearing was that of a man accustomed to the best society. His manners at once conciliated the favor of the great and found him friends among the gentle sex. This is the testimony both of the inimical historian of The Origin, Progress, and Ruin of the Heresies of Our Time, Florimond de Ræmond, and of the Jesuit Maimbourg. The latter writer furthermore volunteers the statement that it was undeniable that Beza’s intellect was of a very high order, being keen, ready, acute, sprightly, and bright, for he had taken pains to cultivate it by the study of belles-lettres and particularly of poetry, wherein he excelled both in French and in Latin. To which very handsome tribute the critic somewhat grudgingly adds a concession that Beza knew a little philosophy and jurisprudence, learned in the schools of Orleans. Allowance being made in the last sentence for the strong prejudice of the partisan historian, the portrait may be accepted as sufficiently accurate, as it is unexpectedly favorable.

That Theodore Beza was welcomed with delight by John Calvin need scarcely be said. The great Reformer, now at the height of his renown and usefulness, had never forgotten the promising lad, ten years his junior, who had studied under the same teacher and of whose singular brilliancy that teacher had never tired of making mention. And now that, after a long period of hesitation, Beza, by a single bold step, had broken with the past and, sacrificing rank, ease, and every worldly consideration, had thrown himself in for life or for death with the reformatory movement to which Calvin had devoted his own magnificent powers, the joy and the thankfulness to Heaven with which the latter welcomed the new recruit were mingled with lively curiosity respecting the particular work which Providence had reserved for him to accomplish.

At Lausanne Beza met Pierre Viret, himself a native of Orbe in this district, who after having played an important part in the reformation of Geneva, had of late been laboring for the same cause in his native region. Viret recognized in Theodore Beza the very man whom he needed

Hans Franz Naegeli

as a colleague in the “Académie,” or University, recently established at Lausanne, and he begged him to accept a chair in this institution.
The Pays de Vaud, as it was styled, had long been a part of the dominions of the Duke of Savoy. Its conquest by the Bernese was a sequence of the campaign of 1536, in the course of which the great Swiss Canton of Bern sent an army of 6,000 men, under the celebrated Naegeli, to the relief of Geneva. Not content with having accomplished the chief object of their undertaking, and encouraged by the absence of the opposition which they had expected to meet, the Bernese proceeded to annex not only the district of Chablais, on the southern side of Lake Leman, but the district of Gex, and the greater part of that of Vaud, on the western and northern shores. At first the rich bishopric of the “imperial” city of Lausanne was exempted from seizure. But the prize was too tempting. In a second incursion, made only two months later in the same year, the episcopal domain also was incorporated in the possessions of the Canton of Bern.

For his misfortune the Bishop of Lausanne, Sebastian de Montfaucon, had only himself to blame. He had been so imprudent as to write from the town of Fribourg, where he had taken refuge, a letter inciting the people of his diocese to take up arms against the Bernese. This was early in 1536. At once the conquerors set about consolidating their power by the abolition of the three special “estates” of Lausanne, as well as of the “estates” by which Vaud was governed, and by the substitution of a government administered through eight bailiffs set up at as many places in the district. A solemn conference, or colloquy, was called by the Lords of Bern and met, in October, in the cathedral of Lausanne during a number of successive days. Here were discussed ten theses drawn up by the Reformer William Farel. Six commissioners of Bern and of Vaud were present to hear the debate. Four presidents superintended the sessions. Four notaries kept an official record of the proceedings, and read, as the occasion arose, any chapter of Holy Scripture that might be called for.

The discussion covered in general the whole field of controversy between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. It was carried on with vigor, but with more hopefulness by the Reformers—Farel, Viret, Calvin, and others—than by their opponents. As the Roman Catholics entered upon the struggle reluctantly, their first step was to submit a protest on the part of the chapter of the cathedral itself against any disputation. God is not, said they, the author of dissension but of peace, and discussion may be pernicious to the particular church, which even though gathered in Christ’s name is liable to fall into error. When this protest and other protests of a like kind were disregarded, the opposition instituted was somewhat wanting in courage, as though the result of the matter were a foregone conclusion. Once, indeed, Jean Michodus, “the Reverend of Vevey,” grew confident when replying to the Protestant view of the impossibility of justification by works as set forth by Saint Paul, and turned upon one of the champions of the other side, Caroli—formerly a Roman Catholic doctor of the Sorbonne, now a professed Protestant, although later he returned to his original faith. “I have heard many good doctors at Paris,” said he, “but they did not, like you, explain the third chapter of Romans as referring to the deeds of the law, but Only to the ceremonies. And you yourself, Monsieur our master Caroli, I have heard you explain this passage otherwise than as you expound it now.” To which Caroli could only reply, “That I expounded this passage as you assert, I confess. I was then of the number of the persons of whom Saint Peter speaks, those ignorant men that wrest the Holy Scriptures, because they do not understand them. So I acted, and could not satisfy my own conscience. Then I set myself to reading the Scriptures and comparing passage with passage, and praying God to grant me a true intelligence. And God has opened my understanding. He has brought me to the true knowledge of His gospel, as you see. Do not therefore marvel if I have changed, but rather do as I have done; forsake every doctrine not taken from the Scriptures, and hold by them alone.”

There was a dramatic episode at one point when the ground of justification was under discussion. Farel called for the reading of the latter part of Romans 3, and exclaimed, “You see how that it is freely, without desert, without the deeds of the law, that a man is justified!” Hereupon the Roman Catholic disputant, a physician, Dr. Blancherose, burst out, “I do not believe that it is so.” At once a Bible was brought and laid before him, not a printed volume of modern times, whose authority might be questioned, but an old manuscript Bible written on parchment, taken from the library of the Franciscan convent, and he was bidden to read the passage for himself. There to his amazement were the words themselves, and, though scarcely believing the evidence of his senses, he cried out, “It is true! A man is justified by faith as the holy Apostle says! We are not saved by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy, God saved us!”

The commissioners had no judicial powers. They could only report the proceedings of the colloquy to the Lords of Bern. The answer of the latter was soon forthcoming. The conference ended on Sunday, the eighth of October; on Thursday, the 19th, or only eleven days later, the decree was issued. By virtue of their duty, not only to govern their subjects in equity and justice, but “to employ all diligence and force that these subjects may live according to God in true and lively faith which produces good works,” the Bernese proclaimed their decision “to cast down all idolatries, papal ceremonies, traditions, and ordinances of men not conformable to the Word of God.” In the execution of this purpose, they ordered all their bailiffs and subordinate officers to make a personal visitation, immediately upon the receipt of these letters, and command all priests, deans, canons, and other churchmen so called at once to desist from all “papistical ceremonies, sacrifices, offices, institutions, and traditions,” as they desired to avoid the displeasure of the government. They especially recommended them without delay to overthrow all images, idols, and altars, whether in church or monastery, doing all this without disorder or tumult. And they bade all these and their other subjects to betake themselves, for the purpose of hearing the Word of God, to the nearest places in which preachers had already been appointed or should hereafter be appointed, and to give them a favorable audience. As to the further dispositions respecting the so-called churchmen and church property, the latter gave promise, with God’s help, of “so reasonable and holy a reformation that God and the world shall be well pleased.”

Lausanne had not waited for the receipt of the decision of Bern. No sooner was the conference concluded, than the people, anticipating the forthcoming decree, began in an unauthorized fashion the work of destruction and spoliation. The beautiful cathedral of Nôtre Dame was the first victim of their iconoclastic zeal, and a church whose erection is traced back to the early part of the 13th century still bears testimony to the zeal of men who were resolved to remove every trace of a superstitious worship. Here, as elsewhere throughout Vaud, there was no lack of opposition; but the overwhelming influence of the great Canton of Bern everywhere carried the day, and the whole district was ultimately brought over to a profession of the Reformed doctrines.

The immense store of treasures which the cathedral contained was dispersed. A large part found its way to Bern. But fortunately the government of this sagacious republic saw the propriety of applying no inconsiderable portion of the ecclesiastical property that fell into its hands to the promotion of the higher intellectual interests of the region itself. Whether from disinterested motives, or from the desire to attach their new subjects to them by self-interest, the Lords of Bern gave to the communes, or sold to them at an insignificant price, lands heretofore belonging to churches and monastic foundations, and we are told that the proceeds of this property served to form those school and eleemosynary funds which the Vaudois townships still possess at the present day.

A fragment of the treasures, or of the endowment of the cathedral of Lausanne, was applied to the establishment of the “Académie.” The

William Farel

Bernese in the capacity of lords paramount had, in accordance with the prevalent ideas of the rights and duties of the civil government, undertaken to change the religion of the Pays de Vaud. They had taken away a religion that appealed to the senses and to the imagination of the people, and substituted for it a religion which presupposed a knowledge of the Word of God; but they had found themselves utterly unable to supply the teachers or preachers of that Word whom every place, even to the smallest village, absolutely required in order to prevent the inhabitants from lapsing into a state of still more abject ignorance than had hitherto prevailed. It was primarily for the purpose of training men for the pastoral office, and not for that of preparing men for professional or public life, that the “Académie” was founded.
Beza did not at once undertake the duties which he was invited to assume, but returned to Geneva and consulted with his brethren and especially with John Calvin. The call was altogether unexpected, and Beza was at first disposed to decline it. Doubtless, as Professor Baum suggests, the state of his health, not yet altogether restored, was one chief reason for this. But it would appear from the sequel that when he thought of deciding to go to Lausanne, the matter of the recent publication of his unfortunate Juvenilia weigh-ed much in his mind against such a step. But Viret wrote to Calvin, and the latter with other friends endeavored to remove Beza’s scruples. The authorities of the Canton of Bern, adopting the action of the Academy of Lausanne, extended a formal but flattering invitation. To this Beza felt himself no longer at liberty to turn a deaf ear. It is characteristic of the man, however, and the circumstance throws a bright light upon the sincerity of his character and the thoroughness of his conversion, that before he consented to be inducted into the office of a teacher of sacred as well as secular learning to whom the interests of the young were entrusted, he was foremost in calling the attention of the ecclesiastical council which, as the manner of the Reformed Churches was, met to inquire into his past life and into his doctrinal belief, to the great error of his youth.

“Of my own accord,” he writes at a later time, “I made mention of the Epigrams I had published, lest perchance the matter might be to the damage of the Church, because there were among them some of an amatory character and certainly now and then written with too much license, that is, in imitation of the ancient poets. It pleased the assembly of the brethren that nevertheless I should assume that function in the Church, in the first place because it seemed plainly unjust that in the case of a person who had passed over to Christ from the Papal religion, just as from paganism, there should be imputed to him the error in question in a life otherwise honorable and blameless, and in the second place, because I voluntarily pledged myself to make it publicly known to all men how greatly that inconsiderate act of mine displeased me.”

On assuming his office, Beza took an oath declaring his hearty approval of all the decrees of the disputation held at Bern in 1528 respecting the Christian religion, and promised, on pain of God’s anger, to conform his life and teaching thereto.

Thus began the course of a brilliant and fruitful professorship extending over a period of nine years (1549–1558). The work was congenial. All his past studies had prepared Theodore Beza for a thorough discharge of its duties. Greek was his favorite tongue. Its direct bearing upon the preparation for the Christian ministry of the youth that were drawn to his classroom by the reputation of his learning, procured him peculiar gratification. There had been a time when secular learning pursued for its own sake satisfied his highest aspirations; now he could not be happy without the conviction that, in the professor’s chair, he was rendering no less important a service to the advancement of religion than he would have rendered in the pulpit devoting his entire time to the work of a popular preacher. Thus it was that his labor became from the very start a labor of love. Apart from the inspiration created by contact with bright minds among his pupils, there was also the friendly intercourse with his eminent colleagues and the growing intimacy with scholars and theologians eminent for their attainments residing in neighboring cities, men already well known to him by reputation, but now beginning to be familiar to him through personal relations or by correspondence —no small compensation to his mind for the losses he had sustained in forsaking home and native land—men like Bullinger, Musculus, and Haller, not to speak of Calvin himself and Viret.

We should have known, even had not Beza himself expressly told us, that it was this thought and the analogy of the patriarch who, at the bidding of Jehovah, left the land of his nativity not knowing whither he went, that chiefly influenced Beza in the choice of the subject of the first poetical production that he brought out after his conversion. He had not been quite a year at Lausanne when he gave to the world a sacred tragedy, under the title of Abraham’s Sacrifice. In the preface he introduced it with these words (dated Lausanne, October 1, 1550): “I admit that by nature I have always delighted in poetry, and I cannot yet repent of it; but much do I regret to have employed the slender gifts with which God has en-dowed me in this regard, upon things of which the mere recollection at present makes me blush. I have therefore given myself to such matters as are more holy, hoping to continue therein hereafter.”

The drama was written originally for the use of the students, and was first performed by them in one of the halls of the former “officiality,” or seat of the judge representing the late Bishop of Lausanne in the trial of ecclesiastical cases. So favorable was its reception by the public, that it was repeatedly brought on the boards. From Lausanne it passed to other places, not only in Switzerland, but in France, where it was played with great applause in many cities. It was also translated into foreign tongues.

The famous President Étienne Pasquier, while he is certainly mistaken in the date and occasion to which he ascribes the work, is a witness whose testimony cannot be challenged to the impression it made upon himself: “Theodore Beza, a fine poet, both Latin and French, composed, on the accession of King Henry [the Second], the Sacrifice of Abraham in French verse, so well portrayed to the life, that, as I read it in former days, tears flowed from my eyes.”

Abridged from “Theodore Beza, The Counsellor of the French Reformation” by Henry Martyn Baird; G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, The Knickerbocker Press, 1899.