The College Days of John Calvin

Last night I was looking through my Logos library, searching for something to read before bed. William Blackburn’s book, College Days of Calvin, caught my eye. While I wasn’t able to find out much about Blackburn online, the little I did find seems to indicate that he was a fairly prolific biographer, particularly of those involved in the Reformation.

His book is a fascinating glimpse into the young and formative years of John Calvin. While much of the book is worth sharing, I was particularly impressed with Blackburn’s account of Calvin’s encounter with the one only referred to as, the hermit of Livry. The hermit’s presentation of the Gospel and evangelistic vigor was both encouraging and convicting. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. In fact, his presentation was so grand that, as Blackburn accounts, the hermit of Livry is later seen as such a threat to the Catholic Church that he is burned at the stake for sharing the Gospel.

I’ve included Calvin’s encounter with the hermit below:

In the forest of Livry, about seven miles from Paris, dwelt a hermit, who had built his hut from the ruins of an old abbey of the Augustine monks. In his wanderings, begging through the country, he had met some men who told him of the wonderful reformation at Meaux. Farel and Lefevre were there teaching the gospel. Meaux might have become the Wittemberg of France, had not the bishop proved false to the gospel, and Noel Beda been commissioned to persecute and slay the believers in justification by faith. Driven from Meaux, the disciples went everywhere preaching the word. By some wayside this poor hermit learned the true way of salvation. His heart leaped for joy. He had once thought that, by living a life of solitude and denial, he was best imitating Christ and the holiest saints, and that his extreme poverty would save his soul. But now he renounced the supposed store of merits he had laid up for himself, and believing in Jesus, began to publish his faith. He went from house to house in the surrounding villages; he pointed out the way to heaven to the poor peasants in their lowly huts; and at the door of the mansion where the inmates gave him a crust, he offered them in return the ever new bread of life. It was not long until he was known in the suburbs of Paris.

One evening he was about leaving the banks of the Seine, thinking less of the long walk before him than of the poor cottagers whom he was leaving happier for his words and prayers, when he saw two persons standing and gazing at the setting sun.

“Let me tell you of a glorious Sun of righteousness that never sets,” he cried out to them. The voice startled Mathurin Cordier and his pupil (John Calvin). The professor’s astronomical descriptions were suddenly broken off, and they turned to see the aged man, bent and broken, walking towards them with his rough cap in the hand extended toward them. Supposing he had a long story to tell, which he would wind up with an appeal for money, the generous professor was about to toss him a franc, and thus cut short the interview.

“I ask not your silver and gold,” said the hermit; “I am rich. I come to show you the richest pearl that ever dropped from heaven. Yes, I am richer than the king.” Cordier thought him deranged.

“In what does your wealth consist?” inquired the professor in a tone of pity.

“Not in the merits and good works which I once imagined myself to have; but in the grace of Jesus Christ. He is my confessor now. He has granted me, I trust, a perfect pardon; one that no man can buy of a priest; one that he purchased with his own blood. Why, good gentlemen, why give your money for naught in paying for masses and absolutions, and to deliver souls out of purgatory?”

“Would you have us give it to you?”

“Nay, nay, kind gentlemen; but I would have you accept the salvation of my Lord Jesus Christ as a free gift.”

“Where do you live, my aged friend?” was the next compassionate inquiry of Cordier, who thought that the poor man should be taken up as an object of public charity.

“I stay in my hermitage; but my heart lives in heaven with my blessed Lord Jesus. There are poor people here in these huts around us, who would gladly give me a home; but I choose to spend the rest of my few nights on earth in my old abode. And when I am sick, these kind peasants come to see me, and sometimes the rich come, and then we talk of what great things the Lord hath done for us, whereof we are glad.”

“Do you not hunger sometimes?”

“The bread which came down from heaven is my food.”

“Does not the rain pour down upon you?”

“The Lord is my shelter; the shadow of the Almighty is over me.”

“Are you not cold when the winter storm beats?”

“The love of God is a fire in my heart.”

“Are you not afraid to dwell alone in the forest? Afraid that you will die with no friends near you.”

“No friend near me! Ah, kind gentlemen, you neither believe nor understand. Perhaps you are a nobleman and his son, living in yonder castle, with great bolts on your doors, and a retinue of servants and soldiers around you.”

“Oh, no; we are quite humble persons, and good Christians too, I trust.”

“Yet you do not know that I am never alone. My Lord is always with me, and if I should die, his holy angels would take me right up into heaven. How can good Christians be ignorant of this? Do you believe that a man is justified by faith and not by works?”

“Not, perhaps, in your sense of the words. God has given us the church as the channel of his grace. Through the church, built on St. Peter, we believe in Christ. The good works which we do in the church are done to Christ.”

“Oh, kind gentlemen, you are too learned to believe the simple gospel. You cover up the sense by words, and faith by works. You make a Saviour of the church, and Christ is so hidden in its dark shadow that you do not find him. I know all about it. I have read your books. I once thought as you do. I retired from the world, and dreamed that I was far away from its sins. I imagined that I was a saint. But Christ came to my soul, and he showed me that I was a great sinner. I had an awful fear that I was doomed and lost for ever. Then he came again with his Holy Spirit. I confessed my sins to him. I took him at his word, as he said, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ And now I renounce the learning which perverts the word of Christ. Enough for me that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

The professor and the student looked at each other, abashed and confused in their thoughts, for they did not yet know the Scriptures. They felt the deepest pity for the old man, whom they supposed to be under some strange delusion. Such simple faith was to them a mystery. And their looks seemed to say, “Why talk farther with an insane hermit?”

“I perceive that you will not believe,” said he, as he bowed politely and turned away. “It is growing dark; my walk is long and weary; may God give you light, and show you the free way to heaven. Remember Christ’s pardon is free; it may be had by a prayer of faith. Good-night, kind gentlemen.” They heartily returned the adieu to the hermit of Livry, the mild and fervent missionary for the simple people of the suburbs and villages.

Wm. M. Blackburn, College Days of Calvin (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 28-33.

College Days of Calvin can be found in the Calvin 500 collection, as well as in the Calvin and History of Calvinism Collection, for Logos Bible Software.

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