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Pierre Viret (1511-1571) — another forgotten Reformer (3)

February 2018 | by Brian Ellis

With Calvin now back in Geneva, Viret sought to return to Lausanne, where he was greatly needed. However, Calvin badly needed him still in Geneva.

Calvin wrote to Farel: ‘Should Viret be taken away from me, I shall be utterly ruined, and this church will be past recovery. On this account, it is only reasonable that you and others pardon me if I leave no stone unturned to prevent his being carried off from me. In the meantime, we must look for supply to the church of Lausanne, according as shall be appointed by the godly brethren, and by your own advice. Only let Viret remain with me’ (11 November 1541).

This concern led Calvin to journey to Berne to request a renewal of Viret’s absence from Lausanne. The lords of Berne, greatly moved by his plea, agreed to Viret remaining in Geneva another six months.

John Calvin
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Close friendship

A. Sheats writes of Calvin’s intervention: ‘A wondrous portrayal of the need every Christian possesses of loving, godly companionship is truly painted by Calvin’s letters and requests of this time.

‘Calvin — perhaps the greatest theological mind of his generation — was nevertheless quick to admit his need for godly support and friendship in the time of his desperation. He was by no means above the need for the counsel and consolation derived by the companionship and aid of a holy brother’ (Pierre Viret, the angel of the Reformation, p.120).

However, Viret was needed in Lausanne and returned there, in July 1542, to renew his labours. A few years later tragedy struck. His wife Elizabeth fell ill in 1545 and, although he sought medical treatment for her, she died in early 1546.

This loss struck him with great grief. Calvin urged him to come to Geneva for a short while and Viret eventually journeyed there to have the consolation of his dear friend.

Sheats writes: ‘The wonderful harmony and brotherly love existing between these two Reformers is truly one of the brightest gems in the history of the Reformation’ (p.135). This friendship led Calvin to start seeking for another wife for Viret. He thought he had found her, but unfortunately her father didn’t want his daughter living away from him in Lausanne.

But Calvin didn’t give up and, in November 1546, assisted at the marriage of Pierre Viret to Sebastienne de la Harpe. The wives of the two Reformers became close friends, although it wasn’t to last long, as Calvin’s wife died the following year.

Viret was blessed with several daughters and a son by his second marriage. However, his son died during his second year and only two daughters survived their father.

Pierre Viret
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Lausanne Academy

In 1548, the lords of Berne made what some would say was the greatest addition to the Lausanne Academy. They founded a library and gave money to purchase the necessary books. ‘In a time when books were rare and exceedingly precious, a library was an invaluable resource for both the students and professors of the Academy.

‘The students particularly found this resource an invaluable tool, discovering within the newly created library a wealth of Reformed teaching essential to those who were seeking to exit the voluminous and indoctrinating folds of Catholicism’ (Sheats, p.91).

In 1549, Viret had the great joy of welcoming another prominent Reformer and scholar to Lausanne and its Academy. It was the renowned Theodore Beza, who was later to become Calvin’s successor in Geneva and principal of the Geneva Academy.

Among his many gifts, Viret was a peacemaker. He was often called upon to settle disputes in the French-speaking Pays de Vaud. Calvin too often called on his friend to help him resolve church and civil troubles in Geneva. Sheats writes that ‘Viret’s peaceful character and spirit of reconciliation was so apparent that his very enemies readily accepted him as mediator, confident that the Lausanne Reformer would not only act with equity, but also with a gentleness and loving-kindness that would well reward their trust in him.

‘Viret truly possessed a heart that saw his opponents, not as hated foes, but as men who had yet to be won to the glorious light of the gospel’ (p.147).

Nevertheless, Viret was to face trouble in Lausanne because of his insistence that pastors had the right to impose church discipline in the churches. This went against the view of the lords of Berne, who saw it as their responsibility, and no one else’s, to administer church discipline.

Viret disagreed with them. And so, as Philip Schaff wrote, they became unhappy with Viret and his colleagues: ‘Berne disapproved the ban and also the preaching of the rigorous doctrine of predestination’. This opposition resulted in Beza leaving Lausanne to go to Geneva. Viret himself was deposed at the beginning of 1559, leading to the resignation of a number of professors and preachers, most of whom went with Viret to Geneva.

Lausanne today
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Geneva Academy

The Lausanne Academy had, in many respects, moved to Geneva, and the world-renowned Genevan Academy had now begun.

‘The name of Viret is still associated with the foundation of the Academy of Geneva. The interest which he formerly bore the school of this city, and the establishment and development of the Academy of Lausanne, marked him out as the natural collaborator of Calvin and Theodore Beza in such an important undertaking’ (Sheats, p.205).

Viret laboured for the next two and half years in Geneva. Yet God had other plans for him. He became ill and the cold winter weather he experienced there in no way helped his health. He made no improvement, even when it began to get warmer, so it was decided that he should move to the warmer climate of southern France.

When it was heard by Huguenot believers in France that Viret was probably moving to their country, they were urgent that he should come. Delegations arrived in Geneva to ask him to come to their particular city. He first went to Nimes, in October 1561, where he did much teaching and preaching, but failed to have the rest and recuperation he needed.

During his time in France he became pastor for a while at Lyons, where he presided over the fourth national synod of the Huguenots, in 1563. He preached in Lyons until driven out by the Catholics. He then went to Orthez, close to the border with Spain. There he passed his remaining days as a preacher and teacher. He died in 1571, seven years after Calvin.

Seminal influence             

In closing I must share this quotation from Jean-Marc Berthoud’s biography of Viret: ‘Pierre Viret, Calvin’s most intimate friend, known under the name of the “angel of the Reformation”, was by no means the minor or insignificant figure which most histories of the Reformation lead us to imagine.

‘He had, in 1537, founded in Lausanne the first Reformed Academy. He gave much of his time to the teaching of theology to students who flocked there from every corner of Europe. This Lausanne Academy (and not the Genevan, as is so often thought) became the model of all future Reformed academies.

‘By the time of the expulsion of Viret in 1559, the Academy had up to a thousand students on its roll. For many years, the principal was none other than the celebrated Greek scholar and poet, Theodore Beza.

‘Amongst the students we find men of the stature of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus and Olevianus, and the Belgian Reformer, Guy de Brès, ample proof of the quality of the teaching dispensed in Lausanne. In 1559 the whole staff of the Academy resigned and became the teaching base of the newly founded Genevan Academy’ (p.19).

Brian Ellis has served for over 50 years as a missionary to the Philippines and as founding pastor of Cubao Reformed Baptist Church, in Metro-Manila


Machiel A. van den Berg, Friends of Calvin.

Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, a forgotten giant of the Reformation (Berthoud lists 44 books written by Viret).

Theodore Beza, 1580, Beza’s Icones, contemporary portraits of Reformers.

Ed. F. L. Cross, The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church.

Ed. J. D. Douglas, New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Bruce Gordon, The Swiss Reformation.

Ed. Carter Lindberg, The Reformation theologians.

Ed. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations sourcebook.

Scott M. Manestch, Calvin’s company of pastors.

Elgin S. Moyer (revised by Earle Cairns), The Wycliffe biographical dictionary of the church.

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volume 8, ‘The Swiss Reformation’.

A. Sheats, Pierre Viret, the angel of the Reformation.

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