The Swiss theologian Pierre Viret (1511–1571) was an influential figure during his time, but he was later to become known as the “forgotten reformer.” A Protestant trained in France and active during the Reformation (an effort to reform the Roman Catholic Church), Viret was influenced by Calvinist theology, which prioritizes the Bible over the pope as
a source of authority. In 1537 he founded the first Reformed Protestant theological institution in French-speaking Switzerland.
Dubbed by some historians as the “forgotten reformer,” Pierre Viret (pronounced vee-RAY) was born in 1511 in Orbe, a small village in the Swiss canton of Vaud. His father, Guillaume Viret, was a tailor struggling to raise his family of three sons. Following the tradition of their region, the Viret family were devout Roman Catholics and Pierre was schooled in Catholic liturgy and doctrine.
Viret has been described as a precocious child; while still a boy, he attended a local school where some of his teachers were humanists and suspected Lutherans. For humanists, human beings have agency, and through through their intellect they can chose to accept or reject rituals and traditions. One of Viret's teachers, Marc Romain, was a Lutheran, a follower of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and his influential 95 Theses, published in 1517. Luther's theses—which are historically (and likely erroneously) said to have been posted by their author on the door of a Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany—rejected several significant teachings and practices of Catholicism, among them the belief that one could be freed from sin through indulgences, such as reciting the Rosary, engaging in good works, or intense prayer. Through Romain, Viret became aware of the movement underway to reform the Roman Catholic Church. As an intellectual child, he was intrigued by the philosophical issues that these reforms would entail.
Meanwhile, Viret demonstrated an aptitude for learning and he developed interests in classic literature and theology. His parents noted this and, in 1528, sent him to Paris to receive a good education in preparation for the priesthood. In an act that likely disappointed his parents, while attending the Collège de Montaigu at the University of Paris, Viret encountered other reform-minded thinkers and converted to the Protestant faith. At the time, this was a risky move, as Paris was a stronghold of Roman Catholicism and Protestants were often persecuted for their beliefs. He avoided such punishment by returning to Orbe.
Viret was 20 years old when he returned home to Orbe, and Guillaume (William) Farel (1489–1565) encouraged him to preach before a Reformist congregation. The French-born Farel had fled France and established the Reformed Church in several Swiss canton (districts), including one in Vaud. Although the introverted Viret dismissed the idea, Farel was insistent, impressing upon the young man that a preaching path revealed the will of God. Viret gave his first sermon on May 6, 1531, and impressed those who heard him with his wisdom and his oratorical skills. Among those converted by his enthusiastic preaching were members of Viret's own family. From there, Viret began preaching in surrounding towns and villages, promoting the concepts of the Reformation.
Like many communities throughout Europe, Orbe was divided into two theological factions. On one side were the Reformed Protestants and on the other were Roman Catholics. Viret would experience the strong emotions underlying this factionalism when he arrived at Payerne, a Swiss municipality, in 1532. Payerne was a Roman Catholic stronghold, and many of its citizens strongly opposed any teaching of this “new faith.” One night after preaching, Viret was attacked in a solitary location by a small group of Roman Catholics. The attackers wanted to kill him but only succeeded in wounding him with their swords. When he was found by friends, he was nearly dead, and his recovery was a lengthy one. When he was well enough, he began preaching again. Through Viret's efforts, Payerne would eventual adopt the Reformed Protestant faith, and in modern times allegiance to each of the two faiths is almost equally split.
Following Farel's instructions, Viret next served as a pastor in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was here, in 1537, that he founded the Reformed Academy, the first academic and religious institution of its kind in French Switzerland. The academy trained male students to carry on the work of the Reformation and it was successful for nearly two decades, graduating thousands of martyrs, missionaries and pastors. The academy benefitted from the best instructors in Europe and was staffed by professors from France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Unfortunately, in 1559 Viret would encounter trouble with the governing lords of Berne, Switzerland, and was forced to relocate his academy to Geneva.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 1538, Viret met Elisabeth Turtaz, a lady of Orbe. He considered the meeting a blessing from God, and he married her that same year. When in 1535 Elisabeth succumbed to the plague, he struggled hard and desperately to improve her rapidly failing health, but she died in March of 1546. Following her death, he sent a letter to his friend Farel, who had presided over their wedding ceremony. “I am so afflicted by this blow that I appear to myself a stranger in my own house,” he wrote. Farel was worried that the tragic blow would eventually kill his friend, but Viret persevered in his work undaunted. Unfortunately, he was destined to suffer more personal tragedy: He lost a son, two daughters, and a second wife during subsequent outbreaks of the plague in France.
Now back in cosmopolitan Geneva, Viret merged his academy with the Collège de Genève, a newly established secondary school. Opened on June 5, 1559 and founded by French theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) to replace a previous school, the Collège de Genève accepted Viret's professors and students, and he and Calvin became close friends. (Farel had by now been banished from the city, and had retired to Neuchâtel.) Calvin was ill and near the end of his life, and his history within Geneva had been eventful. Urged to visit the city by Farel in 1536, he worked to build a Reformist following, but liturgical issues caused his expulsion from the city two years later. After ministering in several other cities, he returned to Geneva in 1541, where his ministry became overly integrated in the city council. Although his theological approach was challenged on several occasions, Calvin's vision of a Reformed Geneva was assured when the city was flooded with French Protestant emigres and the power of the Council of Geneva shifted strongly in his favor.
Viret remained in Geneva until 1561, when his doctors encouraged him to seek a milder climate due to his ongoing health problems. He traveled to southern France, where warmer weather strengthened his spirits and inspired him to begin his missionary journeys. Viret spread the Reformist message to those who would listen, traveling to French cities such as Lyon and Nîmes. He eventually settled in Lyon, spending four years preaching to enthusiastic audiences. Crowds that gathered to hear him sometimes included thousands of people.
The early 1560s was a troubled time for Lyon; the French city was the site of a Reformed coup in April 1562, another skirmish in the religious war between Protestants and Catholics. Many Catholic churches and monasteries stood in ruins when the plague returned for another round of death. Although Viret continued suffering health problems, he was able to preach and also found time to write over ten volumes of theology. When the French Crown appealed to a powerful faction and reasserted Roman Catholicism within the city of Lyon, Viret was disheartened. Learning of the death of Calvin, on May 27, 1564, at age 54, must have both saddened and discouraged the now-middle-aged Viret. Ultimately, the city's Catholic clergy obtained a Royal edict to expel him, and he left Lyon on August 27, 1565.
From Lyon, Viret moved to the French province of Béarn, where he became superintendent of the Academy of Orthez. His methods put him frequently into conflict with regional authorities who disagreed with him on matters involving politics and theology. During a third French religious war (1568–1570), Viret and 11 other Reformed preachers were rounded up in a surprise attack by Roman Catholic forces. Most of the captives were executed, but the Catholic commander spared Viret, mainly because he had been able to establish a positive reputation and relationship with his theological opponents. After he was rescued by Protestant forces, he returned to his ministry, which continued to be successful.
Viret lived and preached in a turbulent religious and political period of European history. Fortunately, although he often found himself in the middle of intense, multi-sided conflicts, he offered a conciliatory approach that envisioned the coming together of Catholics and Protestants. As such, people viewed him as a fair judge in matters that typically fostered bitter dispute. In addition, Viret possessed an eloquent speaking style which made him a charismatic religious leader. Historians have attributed his popularity to his untainted reputation and his ability to weather the storms of conflict. Stories about the murder attempts and the verbal attacks he often suffered were well-known by the French people, and his nonviolent and highly principled response to such attacks earned him respect. He
When Viret died on May 4, 1571, in Orthez, France, French Protestants took his death very hard. A revered figure, he had been preparing for a trip to the National Synod of Reformed Churches at La Rochelle, also in France, and was by now 60 years old. With the cooling of religious passions over the intervening years, historians have increasingly shed light on the many contributions of this conciliatory man, this “forgotten reformer.”
Berthoud, Jean-Marc, Pierre Viret: Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, Zurich Publishing, 2010.
Christianity Today, number 71, 2001, Robert D. Linder, “Forgotten Reformer.”
Church History, March 1964.