Peter Martyr Vermigli: Italian Reformer

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

Some of the men whom God used to bring reformation to the church in the 16th century are widely known, and even our children are acquainted with them and the work they did. Other Reformers are not so well known. They stand, as it were, in the shadow of Luther, Calvin, Know, and Zwingli. If one knows them at all, they are vague figures in the darker corners of the stage of church history when the great drama of the Reformation was taking place. Because of this, we might conclude that they are of little or no importance to an understanding of the Reformation. Such a conclusion would be a sad mistake.

It is my purpose in this article to bring one such Reformer out of the shadows to stand for a few moments in the spotlight so that we can see him clearly and the great work he did on behalf of the cause of God in these remarkable times. His name is Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Vermigli’s Early Life

Vermigli’s background has two very strange aspects to it, both of which point to the inscrutable ways of God. They have to do with the fact that, although the Reformation swept through nearly the whole of Europe, from the Balkans to the Atlantic, two countries were left almost untouched: Italy and Spain. Both countries played a role in Vermigli’s early life.

Italy was the birthplace of Vermigli. It was, of course, the country in which was found Rome, the seat of the papacy. Yet it would not be correct to say that Italy was the most Roman Catholic of all Europe’s countries. It was almost totally unaffected by the Reformation because it was almost totally worldly. It was the country of the Renaissance at its worst. It was wholly apostate. It was corrupt and depraved. It cared not for God or man, for church or state. It was Jerusalem become Sodom. An Italian by birth, Vermigli was a “brand plucked out of the burning.”1

Vermigli was born in the city of Florence on September 8, 1499.2 He was born of parents who were part of the royalty of the city, moderately wealthy, capable of enjoying the pleasures of what was the largest and most influential city in all Italy. The family name was Vermigli, but Peter was called “Martyr” after a martyr by the name of Peter, whose shrine was near the family home.

Many more children were born into the family, but they all died in infancy except one sister. This was probably why Vermigli’s father disowned him when he joined a convent. It is understandable that the father wanted someone to carry on the family name, something impossible in a convent.

Peter was a gifted student and dedicated man. His progress in his education and in the hierarchy of Italian monastic life was swift and sure. He began his monastic career at the age of 16 as a canon regular of the Order of St. Augustine, the strictest monastic order in Italy; and he spent the early years of his monastic life in the convent of Fiesole near Florence. In 1519 Vermigli transferred to the University of Padua. He was soon ordained a preacher and proved to be powerful and effective. He became abbot of Spoleto; later, principal of the college of St. Peter ad Aram in Naples.

Vermigli’s Conversion

It is not possible to pinpoint that moment in time when God worked His great work of grace in Vermigli’s heart. Vermigli himself did not speak of it in all his writings – and his writings were many. We do know certain influences under which Vermigli came, and which God undoubtedly used in forming him as a servant of Christ.

I spoke above of two strange events in Vermigli’s life. The second was that one of the greatest influences upon Vermigli was that of Juan de Valdez. If Italy was almost untouched by the Reformation because of its awful worldliness, Spain was untouched by the Reformation because of its total loyalty to Rome and the papacy. From Spain came the terrible inquisition, which was responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths of God’s beloved people. Spain was the one country in Europe which had as its unofficial motto: “My church, right or wrong.” The pope’s most loyal supporters were the Spanish. From here God brought a man to Italy, Juan de Valdez, not a Protestant really, but one who almost believed the truth of justification by faith, who was serenely mystical in his life, and who taught and preached the literal meaning of Scripture. All three of these traits seem to have been combined in their influences on Vermigli.

The latter especially, so obvious to us, was a major breakthrough for Vermigli, for it led. him to a more careful study of Scripture, to a form of preaching and teaching which was expository of Scripture in character, and, finally, to trouble with Roman Catholic authorities, when his obedience to Scripture led him to refute certain doctrines held by the church.3 A close reading of the writings of Luther, Zwingli, and Martin Bucer convinced him of the truths of the Reformation. As soon as Vermigli began publicly to propagate his views, his life was in danger. Even though a every heresy under heaven was rampant in Italy, the papacy would not tolerate any teachings of the Reformation.

Vermigli’s Reformatory Work

Though by no means a coward, Vermigli fled Italy to seek refuge in Switzerland and Germany. In 1542 he found asylum in Strasburg, the city where Calvin had spent several happy years during his banishment from Geneva. Because of his vast learning,. he was soon appointed to the theological chair in Strasburg and became the ministerial colleague of Martin Bucer, the chief Reformer of the city. In 1546 he married a converted nun, Catherine Wampmartin by name. These years were happy and productive and gave Vermigli opportunity to develop in reformation thought.

In 1547 he received and accepted an invitation from Cranmer to come to England and work there. Henry VIII had died and his son Edward VI was on the throne, though a young boy. Edward was favorable to reform, and Vermigli, along with the English Reformers, found a congenial home as professor of divinity in Oxford University.

But even here Roman Catholic opposition remained. Richard Smith, a fierce supporter of the papacy, was not reluctant to stir up mobs against Vermigli which interrupted his classroom work. Smith challenged Vermigli to public debate, but fled in a funk to Scotland before the debate could be held. Edward died after a few years, and Bloody Mary, a daughter of Henry VIII and an ardent Catholic, came to the throne. Under her reign Protestantism was harassed, Reformers were, burned at the stake, and many were forced to flee to the continent. Among those who fled was Vermigli himself, aided in his flight by a godly sea captain who secretly brought him across the Straits of Dover and landed him in Antwerp.

One incident of interest occurred in England: his wife of eight years died without leaving him any children. She was a virtuous woman, grave and pious, who spent her time caring for the needs of the poor. Though she was buried in England, when Roman Catholicism once more gained the ascendancy in England, Cardinal Pole ordered her body dug up and thrown on a manure pile to rot. It was an act of cruel spite, indicative of the irrational hatred of Rome towards anything that belonged to reform. She was, however, held in such high esteem that when Mary died and Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, her body was dug out from the pile of manure and given an honorable burial in a cathedral.

Vermigli, in the meantime, resumed his professorial labors in Strasburg, but soon (1556) moved to Zurich in Switzerland to occupy the chair of theology in the university in that city. The call which had come from the Senate in Zurich was urgent and pressing and he could not refuse.

Here in Zurich Vermigli married again. His second wife was an Italian as he was, Catherine Merenda by name. With her he had three children: two died in infancy, and his wife was pregnant with his third child when he himself died.

An outstanding event of these years was his presence at the Colloquy of Poissy in France. The Colloquy was called because of the great struggle which was going on between Catholics and Protestants in France, in the hopes of reaching some accommodation. Vermigli was invited to attend by outstanding leaders in France: Margaret, the queen of France; the king of Navarre; the prince of Conde; and other French Protestant leaders. It is a measure of the respect with which he was held throughout Europe that he was, apart from Theodore Beza, the successor of Calvin in Geneva, the only theologian outside France invited to attend.

The Colloquy accomplished nothing. After many days of fruitless debate, the Roman Catholic prelates ruined the conference by their arrogance, intransigence, and determination to rid France of Protestant heretics. But Vermigli displayed all those spiritual gifts which made him respected and loved throughout Europe: his enormous learning, his wisdom and moderation, and his irenic spirit.

Vermigli’s Death

Vermigli died in Zurich on November 12, 1562, at 63 years of age worn and old with the cares and work of a busy and eventful life. He was described by his contemporaries as

a man of an able, healthy, big-boned, and well-limbed body, and of a countenance which expressed an inwardly grave and settled turn of mind. His parts and learning were very uncommon; as was also his skill in disputation, which made him as much admired by the Protestants as hated by the Papists. He was very sincere and indefatigable in promoting a reformation in the Church, yet his zeal was never known to get the better of his judgment. He was always moderate and prudent in his outward behavior, nor even in the conflict of a dispute did he suffer himself to be transported into intemperate warmth or allow unguarded expressions ever to escape him.

Friend and foe alike acknowledged that he was one of the- most learned writers of ‘the Reformed churches.

His greatest contribution was his development of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. It is a never-ending source of amazement to me that the Swiss Reformers could be so completely biblical in this doctrine. One would expect that they would react against the horrors of Rome’s transubstantiation (along with Luther’s consubstantiation) and adopt some kind of Zwinglian view which reduced the sacrament to a mere memorial service. They did not. Much of the credit for this goes to Vermigli’s work. Some are even of the opinion that John Calvin was, at least in part, indebted to Vermigli for his views on the Lord’s Supper. Whether this is true or not, Calvin himself expressed complete satisfaction with the work of Vermigli in this important field of Reformation thought. The fact remains that the pure doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as taught by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit of Christ who leads the church into all truth. Vermigli was one of those so blessed with the Spirit.

It is partly Vermigli’s heritage which we have in those stirring words in our Belgic Confession:

In the meantime we err not, when we say, that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body, and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same, is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith (Article 35).


1. This must not be construed as meaning that God saved only Peter Martyr Vermigli from the apostates of Italy. Other men and women, though few, were saved, some through Vermigli’s influence. Notable among these were Jerome Zanchius, the author of a still popular book entitled Predestination, and Ochino, an influential Reformer, who later was charged with Arian views. Peter Martyr was also to marry a God-fearing woman from Italy. 

2. Many biographical details of Vermigli are found in a biography of the Reformer written by Josiah Simler, one of Vermigli’s contemporaries. The biography can be found in Peter Martyr, ed, by J. C. McLelland & G. E. Duffield (The Sutton Courtenay Press, 1989). 

3. The actual circumstances were interesting. He was lecturing on I Corinthians 3:12-15. He denied that this passage taught the doctrine of purgatory, a position long held by the Romish Church.