Pierre Viret (1511-1571), known as “the Angel of the Reformation,” a worthy epithet for a man about whom his friend Farel wrote, “I can say that never have I found in him anything but a sincere affection for Christ and His Gospel, a character devoid of all harshness, a truly Christian soul, walking in love and seeking peace.”1 He has also been called the “forgotten Reformer,” and inasmuch as we have, it is to our loss.
Viret was born in Orbe, Switzerland, a city of Vaud, the region in which he principally worked. When a young man, he was delivered from the darkness of the papacy and given the light of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Then he met the indomitable Farel. It comes as no surprise to the reader acquainted with Farel that he succeeded in convincing Viret, at age twenty, to take up the ministry. God would use Viret mightily for the cause of the gospel not only in his native country and France, but, through his writings, the world over.
In 1534, Viret went to Geneva, where he and Farel sowed the seeds of the Reformation, but not without risk. His back had already been scarred by a priest’s sword; in Geneva he was poisoned, almost fatally. But he survived, and the city was won to the Reformation. For a long time he labored in Lausanne, not only attending to the duties of the ministry, but seeing to the establishment of the Lausanne Academy, where Beza taught for a time and such conspicuous names as Ursinus, Olevianus, and deBrès studied.
But there was trouble. The magistracy of Bern refused to give ecclesiastical discipline to the church, in spite of Viret’s earnest pleadings that the church have her due. The issue culminated in 1559, when Viret obtained permission from Lausanne to postpone the Lord’s Supper rather than celebrate it with unworthy communicants, though Bern had ordered the administration to proceed as usual. Irate, ungrateful for the Reformer’s tireless labors for the church, and with an high hand, Bern deposed Viret and the others. The exiles made an exodus to Geneva.
Viret worked together with Calvin for only a couple years. He was compelled to leave Geneva to seek a climate in southern France more conducive to his health, where he continued his labors in several cities. Although better for his health, France was worse for his safety, where the specter of persecution loomed large. A decree banning foreign ministers eventually brought him to Bearn, where he ministered under the auspices of Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre. The conflict met him here as well, when Catholic forces invaded the territory and, among others, imprisoned the Reformer, sending shockwaves through the Reformed community. But he was released, and continued at Bearn until his death in 1571 when, having faithfully labored in the church of God to the advantage and salvation of many, this devoted servant of the Lord departed this world of tumult and suffering and entered into his rest, receiving a crown from the King.
What kind of a man was Pierre Viret? The words of Farel quoted above do tell. And his peace-seeking spirit was recruited more than once to mediate troubles and disputes in the church. He wanted peace in the church, but never at the expense of the truth: “But when the heritage of the truth must be defended, let us break the silence lest we appear to betray the Church by keeping quiet!”2 And remember that when the church was threatened by the lordship of Bern, Viret chose rather to be deposed than to fold. So many are the testimonies to the character of this angel, but space is wanting. The high demand for Viret by the Swiss and French churches is one—Calvin himself importuned to have him. For another, read the intimate, personal, and even frank letters exchanged between Viret and Calvin, two men knit together with cords of deepest love.
Viret belonged, with Farel and Calvin, to what Schaff calls “the triumvirate of the founders of the Reformed Church in French Switzerland.”3 Comparisons drawn between the three are illuminating. As regards their preaching, Beza says of Viret that he “possessed such winning eloquence, that his entranced audience hung upon his lips.”4 D’Aubigne, comparing them along broader lines, says, “The ardent Farel was the St. Peter of the Swiss Reform, the mighty Calvin the St. Paul, and the gentle Viret the St. John.”5 We need all three. Thank God for His gift to the church of Pierre Viret.
1 R.A. Sheats, Peter Viret: The Angel of the Reformation (Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2012), xvii. Principal source for this article. A must-read biography, containing a captivating exchange of letters between Viret and Calvin.
2 Sheats, Peter Viret, 149.
3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1910), 252.
4 John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), xxix.
5 Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of Europe in the Time of Calvin, vol. 3: France, Switzerland, Geneva (London: Longmans, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1864), 268.