Who Was William Farel?

On May 21, 1536, the council of all the heads of city households voted the following motion, drafted by Farel: “With God’s help, we want to live according to the evangelical law and the Word for God as it is preached to us, forsaking all masses, other ceremonies and papal deceits, images, idols and live united and obedient to God’s justice.” Geneva was now officially and democratically a Reformed city. In God’s providence, only two months later, a promising twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman, John Calvin, passed through the city. The rest is history. 

Guillaume (William) Farel is mainly remembered today for that famous encounter with John Calvin in 1536, when he convinced his compatriot to stay in Geneva and work alongside him. Like many other French-speaking Reformers, Farel has been overshadowed by Calvin. He is often described as a mere “fiery preacher,” more gifted at tearing down than building up. The reality, however, is far more complex, and he deserves to be better known. 

Farel was born in 1489 in the French Alps, only six years after Luther and twenty years before Calvin. He died in 1565 at age seventy-five, outliving Calvin by about a year. He received a classic education in humanities in Paris and was converted to the new “Lutheran faith,” as it was then known, sometime in 1521. He was soon compelled to leave France for Switzerland, where he would live as an exile for the rest of his life. Beginning in 1527, he exercised an itinerant preaching ministry under the protection of the city of Bern and then ministered in Geneva from 1533–1538. During that period, Farel’s ministry was akin to what we would call “church planting,” which is unique among the first-generation Reformers.

Farel started evangelizing the city of Geneva in December 1533 and was instrumental in convincing the whole city to embrace the Reformed faith. He preached the Word tirelessly in the streets, and later, when the priests and monks left the city, in church buildings. He convinced several other men to join him, notably Pierre Viret. He also engaged in several successful public disputations against Roman Catholic opponents.

He wrote a few books that are forgotten today but were the first resources in French about the new Reformed faith: a short summary of the Reformed faith first published in 1529, a brief Reformed liturgy in 1533, and a short commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (largely inspired by Luther).

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