Thunder in Geneva: William (Guillaume) Farel and the Swiss Reformation

Statue of William Farel as it stands in Neuchâtel - Photography courtesy Martouf

Statue of William Farel as it stands in Neuchâtel – Photography courtesy Martouf

Jesus Christ must be our polar star, by whose power all things are governed, and not by the constellations, or the elements. We trust that this will be the case in [the] future, when every thing will be conformed to the evangelical model; when all strife (so abhorrent to every Christian) will be done away with, so that the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, may dwell in our hearts. – William Farel (quoted in Kirchhofer, p.20)

William or Guillaume Farel worked with passion, zeal, and a sincere love of the gospel. He stood as an organizer of Reformation with just a few debates that turned into all-out brawls. Farel is overlooked often times as he was the one that pressed into John Calvin the importance of coming to Geneva. However, he served as an accomplished pastor and debater in his own right, organizing the transformation of Geneva from Roman Catholic to Protestant.

Portrait of Farel - 16th Century - Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire Geneva

Portrait of Farel – 16th Century – Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire Geneva

Born in 1489 at Gap in Dauphiné, France, Farel belonged to a wealthy family. According to one of his early biographers, “He had three brothers, Daniel, Gautier, and Claudius, and at least one sister.” (Kirchhofer B1) Educated at the University of Paris, Farel took a liking to philosophy and Christian humanism. He served as a professor at the Collège Cardinal Lemoine and eventually as a diocesan preacher with reforming leanings, of course. (Encylcopedia Britannica). Farel, much like Beza, grew up in an exciting time in French history. Renaissance humanism had opened the door to the revival of old ideas and the explosion of new protestant ideas. People began to challenge the authority of the church.

Farel tended to be one of those people who could not take an idea and just let it die. If it was a wrong idea, he needed to prove why it was wrong and would not back down. Church history professor David Calhoun puts it that Farel, “was sometimes called a ‘hot gospeler.'” One of his biographers relates at least one incident where a debate with a monk got so heated and noisy that it “ended abruptly by the appearance of a magistrate, who put both Farel and the monk under arrest, and confined them apart from each other in the prison belonging to the castle.” (Kichhofer 59) It was this hot-headedness that made it necessary for him to flee France for Basel, Switzerland in 1523, “but a dispute with the humanist Desiderius Erasmus brought about his banishment.” (Enclopedia Britannica) Eventually, he did make it to Geneva and it was in October of 1536 that he finally met John Calvin.

Farel’s meeting with Calvin is well documented by both Calvin’s biographers and Calvin himself. When Farel heard about Calvin, the writer of the Institutes in Geneva who stopped for a night on his way to Strasborg, he did everything in his power to convince Calvin stay and take part in the Swiss Reformation. Calvin did not particularly like Geneva that much and really wanted to continue his studies. Dr. Peter Hammond relates the story:

When, at last, Calvin pleaded his inexperience, general unsuitability for the pastorate, and his need for further study, Farel rose from his chair, and stretched himself out to his full height. As his long beard swept his chest, Farel directed his piercing eyes and burrowing into the young man seated before him. He thundered: “May God curse your studies if now, in her time of need, you refuse to lend your aid to His Church.”

Calvin was visibly shaken, and, as he said later, he was struck with terror. In Farel’s voice of thunder, Calvin had heard the call of God. There and then he yielded and consented to stay in Geneva.

Farel’s legacy is one of great accomplishment. He did not have the gifts of Calvin. Calhoun relates, “Farel wrote his friends and said, “Do not read my book anymore. Read Calvin’s. This is a book you need to read.” This urging is telling of how Farel used his influence to organize and shape the reformation. In fact, without Farel’s prodding and leadership the reformation in Geneva may have stalled. History thankfully tells us a different story and today he is honored with a place on the Reformation Wall. Farel passed away on September 13th, 1565 in Neuchâtel where another statue of him stands in front of his former congregation.

William (Guillaume) Farel - The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. Courtesy Apostles Creed.

William (Guillaume) Farel – The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. Courtesy Apostles Creed.

Statue of Farel at Neuchâtel - Courtesy Michel Jeandepeux

Statue of Farel at Neuchâtel – Courtesy Michel Jeandepeux

Calhoun, David. Transcript “Calvin’s Institutes. Lesson 1b. Page 2.” Covenant Theological Seminary. Web. 4 Oct 2015.

“Guillaume Farel | Biography – French Religious Leader.” Encyclopedia BritannicaWeb. 4 Oct. 2015.

Hammond, Peter. “William Farel – Fiery Debater and Evangelist (1489 – 1565) – Reformation Society.” Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

Kirchhofer, Melchior. The Life of William Farel, The Swiss Reformer. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1837. Available through


2 thoughts on “Thunder in Geneva: William (Guillaume) Farel and the Swiss Reformation

  1. Pingback: John Calvin: Scholar of Grace | Continuing Reformation

  2. Pingback: Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of Basel | Continuing Reformation

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