French evangelist and theologian Guillaume Farel (1489–1565), also known as William Farel, was a key figure in the development of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. A fiery, aggressive figure, Farel exerted a significant influence on John (Jean) Calvin, the French Protestant founder of the strict religious doctrine that still bears the name of Calvinism, and the two became close friends.
Guillaume (or Guilhem) Farel was born into a family that had once been part of the French nobility but had fallen on hard times. Born in the small town of Gap, in the mountains of southeastern France, in 1489, he was the son of a notary. Gap and the surrounding area were notable for their preponderance of Waldensians, a Catholic splinter group that emphasized biblical purity and often came into conflict with the Catholic hierarchy; the group eventually joined the Protestant Reformation. Interestingly, Farel was not particularly religious as a young man, but as a student at the University of Paris he would undertake the study of theology along with philosophy and ancient languages.
By the early 16th century, the University of Paris had become a hotbed of progressive thinking within Catholicism. Even the writings of radical German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546), the founder of what became the Protestant branch of Christianity, were in circulation on campus. Farel's teacher Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples was typical of the faculty members there: he was troubled by what he saw as Catholic ritual that had become divorced from biblical roots, but like his colleagues he had not yet taken the step of distancing himself from the faith.
Farel lived and studied in Paris from 1509 to approximately 1520. At this point he and Lefèvre moved to Meaux, northeast of Paris and a town whose bishop, Guillaume Briçonnet, was sympathetic to progressive religious thought. Meaux was officially licensed to preach, although he was never ordained as a priest, and he set about establishing an evangelical school to promote Reform doctrines such as Luther's, which realigned the relationship between salvation and God's grace. The reform movement in Meaux did not last long, however; when French king Francis I was imprisoned in Spain after a military defeat at the Battle of Pavia in February of 1525, traditionalist forces in the French Parliament moved to imprison Protestants and thus stamp out the new religious currents. Farel, believing that his call to preach had come directly from God, refused to back down and soon was forced to flee the city. He traveled for a time in Aquitaine in southern France, returned home to Gap, and then began to preach in Basel, in western Switzerland.
Farel had supporters whose feelings were as positive as Erasmus's had been negative, and both supporters and detractors could agree that his style was uncompromising in the extreme. “His sermons,” remarked a biographer writing on the website of the Reformation Society of South Africa, “were cannon blasts.” Farel called the Roman Catholic pope the Antichrist or worse, and he proclaimed the Catholic Mass an example of idolatry. Typically, he would visit market towns, begin preaching in a public gathering place, and challenge local priests to debate him. With his direct appeal to biblical Scripture, Farel would often win. As a result, he became known (according to the Reformation Society biography) as “the scourge of the priests.”
Opposition to Farel often extended beyond theological debate into actual physical resistance and even violence. A group of Dominican monks in the French city of Metz rang church bells continuously in an attempt to drown the visiting preacher out, but he continued his sermon. He was attacked by mobs, including one consisting entirely of women. He pulled an image of St. Anthony out of a priest's hand in Montbéliard, France, and threw it into a nearby river, whereupon he narrowly escaped death at the hand of enraged onlookers. Priests attempted to assassinate Farel on several occasions, and in one such instance he was said to have faced the shooter and told him that he was not afraid of being shot. One town bishop incited a mob to try to drown the Protestant reformer in a local fountain.
After leaving Basel in 1524, Farel traveled among several different French and Swiss cities in the late 1520s and early 1530s. For several years he taught in the small Swiss town of Aigle, where he had been recommended for a position by Reformation-friendly authorities in Berne, Switzerland. As the influence of that city increased, so too did the range of places where he was welcome to travel and spread his ideas. Beginning in 1529, he visited Lausanne, Orbe, Grandson, Yverdon, and Neuchâtel, often demanding that observation of the Catholic mass be abolished. Farel also made a trip across the Alps to visit the Waldensians in France, and he is thought to have convinced them to ally themselves with the Reformation cause.
By 1532, Farel was in Geneva, which, while not under Bernese control, situated him within the influence of his powerful patrons and thus afforded him space in which to work. In 1535, he and his followers—now more like an army—took over the cathedral, as well as another church in Geneva, and there Farel delivered thunderous sermons and sent out his minions to destroy what he considered idolatrous materials. By May 1536, he had convinced the Catholic churches of Geneva to accept the precepts of Reformation theology.
Despite its influence within Switzerland, the city of Geneva was still ringed by Catholic powers, many of them French and hostile to Farel's ideas. Only months after Farel's victory, in July of 1536, John Calvin (1509–1564), fleeing nearby military unrest, entered the city, planning to remain there only a single night.
Calvin, whose aims at the time were primarily scholarly, was on his way to the university in Strasbourg, France, to take courses there. Farel realized that the French theologian had a philosophical depth and a writing talent that he lacked. He asked Calvin to remain in Geneva and, when the man protested that he was too inexperienced and too unfamiliar with local conflicts, threatened him with the wrath of God if he did not agree to serve the cause of reformation at this crucial time. Calvin would later recount his terror at the fulminations of the wild-eyed Farel, but, unsettled in the extreme, he came to believe that the man conveyed a direct message from God. He remained in Geneva, where from 1536 to 1538 the two jointly led the city's Reformation movement. The pair disagreed on some theological points, including the nature of the Eucharist, but they became close friends. In 1538, with the selection of new Geneva magistrates opposed to the strict discipline promoted by Farel and Calvin, both men were banished from the city. Calvin, at Farel's urging, would return in 1541.
Soon after leaving Geneva, Farel took a post as minister in a church in Neuchâtel, a city where he had established Protestantism as dominant in 1530. He would remain there for the rest of his life. At age 69, he married for the first time; his friend Calvin was disgusted but wrote a letter to other ministers in Neuchâtel asking them to “bear with patience the folly of the old bachelor,” according to the Protestant Reformed Churches of America website. Farel remained active until shortly before his death and visited Calvin in Geneva shortly before the latter's death in 1564. Farel himself died in his sleep a year later, on September 13, 1565.
Farel's preferred medium was the sermon, not the theological treatise. As a prose stylist, he was repetitive and hectoring, unable to match the elegant simplicity of Calvin's persuasive writings. Much of what Farel did write was practical in intent: among his works was the first French-language liturgy for Reformed churches. He also persuaded the Waldensians to produce a French translation of the Bible—the first one ever done, and it was published in 1535. Farel's most personal book was a short essay titled the Sommaire (Summary), a declaration of his own faith.
For many years, Farel remained comparatively little known among scholars writing in English and some of the information still available has been culled from strenuously anti-Catholic tracts issued by Reformed churches. His direct influence on Calvin, has attracted the attention of historians, however, and the nature of that influence remains a matter of debate. Farel's own positions underwent little change, even after Calvin began to develop his own ideas, and his legacy resides in the numerous cities and towns of French-speaking Switzerland where Protestantism remains the dominant religion today.
Zuidema, Jason, and Theodore van Raalte, Early French Reform: The Theology and Spirituality of Guillaume Farel, Routledge, 2011.
Church History, June 1955, p. 175.
American Presbyterian Church website, http://www.americanpresbyterianchurch.org/ (December 28, 2016), “The Life of William Farel.”
Protestant Reformed Churches in America website, http://www.prca.org/ (December 28, 2016), “William Farel: Fiery Evangelist of the Reformation.”
Reformation Society (South Africa) website, http://reformationsa.org/ (December 28, 2016), “William Farel—Fiery Debater and Evangelist.”❑