I’ve been reading Philip Schaff’s 8 volume History of the Christian Church for a while now. I am constantly struck by just how good Schaff’s writing was. The words flow almost like poetry and the entire series is just a joy to read. Consider some excerpts from his section on William Farel, a pioneer of Protestantism in French Switzerland:
He hated the pope as the veritable Antichrist, the mass as idolatry, pictures and relics as heathen idols which must be destroyed like the idols of the Canaanites. Without a regular ordination, he felt himself divinely called, like a prophet of old, to break down idolatry and to clear the way for the spiritual worship of God according to his own revealed word. He was a born fighter; he came, not to bring peace, but the sword. He had to deal with priests who carried firearms and clubs under their frocks, and he fought them with the sword of the word and the spirit. Once he was fired at, but the gun burst, and, turning round, he said, “I am not afraid of your shots.” He never used violence himself, except in language. He had an indomitable will and power of endurance. Persecution and violence only stimulated him to greater exertions. His outward appearance was not prepossessing: he was small and feeble, with a pale but sunburnt face, narrow forehead, red and ill-combed beard, fiery eyes, and an expressive mouth.
Look at how Schaff introduces this remarkable man! I wish I could write like this. There is such a cadence and majesty to his words. Farel wasn’t described as a zealot; instead Schaff wrote that Ferel, “felt himself divinely called, like a prophet of old.”He was not described as fractious, but rather, “he was a born fighter; he came, not to bring peace, but the sword.” Does Schaff really have warrant to describe a man long dead as having a “red and ill-combed beard, fiery eyes and an expressive mouth!?” I’m not sure, but I love it anyway.
Farel’s work was destructive rather than constructive. He could pull down, but not build up. He was a conqueror, but not an organizer of his conquests; a man of action, not a man of letters; an intrepid preacher, not a theologian. He felt his defects, and handed his work over to the mighty genius of his younger friend Calvin. In the spirit of genuine humility and self-denial, he was willing to decrease that Calvin might increase. This is the finest trait in his character prophet of old.”
“A man of action, not a man of letters.” Indeed! Schaff says so much in such a short paragraph.
He turned every stump and stone into a pulpit, every house, street, and market-place into a church; provoked the wrath of monks, priests, and bigoted women; was abused, called, “heretic” and, “devil,” insulted, spit upon, and more than once threatened with death. An attempt to poison him failed. Wherever he went he stirred up all the forces of the people, and made them take sides for or against the new gospel.
Ferel didn’t make people angry, Schaff wrote that he “provoked the wrath” of people! I wish history were still written this way.
He was also summoned to the Episcopal Council in the house of the Abbé de Beaumont, the vicar-general of the diocese. He was treated with insolence. “Come thou, filthy devil,” said one of the canons, “art thou baptized? Who invited you hither? Who gave you authority to preach?” Farel replied with dignity: “I have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and am not a devil. I go about preaching Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification. Whoever believes in him will be saved; unbelievers will be lost. I am sent by God as a messenger of Christ, and am bound to preach him to all who will hear me. I am ready to dispute with you, and to give an account of my faith and ministry. Elijah said to King Ahab, ’It is thou, and not I, who disturbest Israel.’ So I say, it is you and yours, who trouble the world by your traditions, your human inventions, and your dissolute lives.” The priests had no intention to enter into a discussion; they knew and confessed, “If we argue, our trade is gone.” One of the canons exclaimed: “He has blasphemed; we need no further evidence; he deserves to die.” Farel replied: “Speak the words of God, and not of Caiaphas.” Hereupon the whole assembly shouted: “Away with him to the Rhone! Kill the Lutheran dog!” He was reviled, beaten, and shot at. One of the syndics interposed for his protection. He was ordered by the Episcopal Council to leave Geneva within three hours.
If you haven’t read some of Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, then you’re missing out on both some great history and great literature.