Remembering the sufferings of our brothers and sisters may help us to stop complaining about the difficulty of our own journey and instead view it as an honor and a privilege to suffer. As the hymn says, “It is the way the Master went; should not the servant tread it still?”
That in leaving this world we do not go away at a venture, you know not only from the certainty you have that there is a heavenly life, but also from being assured of the free adoption of our God, you go there as to your inheritance. That God should have appointed you his Son’s martyrs is a token to you of super-abounding grace. (John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, 5:406)
John Calvin wrote these words in May of 1553 to five young French students facing imminent death at the hands of the French executioner. More than a year earlier, in April, 1552, the five young men left Lausanne, Switzerland, having completed their theological studies. Before returning to their native country of France, they spent a few days in Geneva, possibly with John Calvin. Their names were Martial Alba, Bernard Seguin, Charles Faure, Pierre Navihères, and Pierre Escrivain.
They were fully aware of the dangers of returning to France, given the fury of the French king’s hostility toward Protestants. Calvin himself had left France in a hurry, never to return. On the way to Lyons, they stopped at Bourg de Colognes, where a stranger joined them on their journey. Upon arrival at their destination, the stranger invited them to visit him. It was a trap. The five were arrested and imprisoned.
Prayers and a Letter
As soon as news of the arrest came to Geneva, Calvin and others sent letters of commendation and began to work on a legal defense. In the first of several letters to the men, dated June 10, 1552, Calvin urges them to remain strong and faithful and reassures them of his prayers and that of the entire community in Geneva.
Interestingly, he also takes up two theological issues that the five men had raised: the first on the issue of celibacy, and the second concerning the nature of the resurrection body. It is fascinating that Calvin wrote all the letters in French (rather than in Latin, which these students would have understood). Perhaps he wished others in France with less education to read these letters and profit from them. He closed the letter by praying that they would be filled with the Holy Spirit and that they would know peace, joy, and contentment in their suffering.
Meanwhile, the men appealed to the parliament in Paris. From June, 1552, to March, 1553, they were moved to Paris and taken from one dungeon to another. All this time, the authorities in the Swiss city of Berne attempted to intervene on their behalf. Finally, on March 1, 1553, they were transferred back to Lyons and received word that they were to be executed.
Worthy to Be Witnesses
News of their imminent execution was carried to Lausanne and Geneva by a pious merchant named John Liner. Calvin had written to him earlier, in August of 1552, commending him for the dangerous work he had done in visiting the five prisoners. Calvin’s letter is one of thankfulness for Liner’s courage, but it also urges him, even at the cost of his own life, if need be, to continue in this ministry. He wrote to Liner,
As for the dangers which they set before you, I have no fear of their coming to pass, for the good brethren for whom you have done so much, feel themselves so indebted to you, that were they at liberty, far from being cowardly enough to betray you, they would expose themselves to death for your sake. (Tracts and Letters, 5:359)
On March 15, 1553, two weeks after the prisoners’ return to Lyons and the news of their fate, Calvin wrote to them, saying that he and others were continuing to exercise what influence they had on their behalf. He went on to write: