Child of Geneva or Child of God

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One of my oldest and dearest friends from sixteenth-century Geneva is a character named Jacques Simond. In one of my articles [“Cette loi ne durera guère” in the Bulletin de la Soc. d’Hist. de Genève, 1995–96], I wrote a brief “spiritual biography” of Simond. I originally came across him because I thought he represented the sort of person who basically went along with the Reform, but had just one reservation. In his case, as a merchant who traveled the dangerous roads, full of brigands from demobilized armies, he thought it prudent to pray to the Virgin while out on the roads. As it turned out, though, he was actually one of Geneva’s most reluctant Reformed.

Called before the Consistory in 1552 regarding comments he made about Jerome Bolsec, an opponent of Calvin’s doctrine of election (predestination), he was also accused of having said that he himself was a “child of Geneva, not of God” (enfant de Geneve, non point de Dieu) [R.Consist. 7, p. 2]. It’s a curious assertion from a man who, though opposed to the Reform, was deeply religious. What could it mean?

First of all, the Enfants de Genève were the successors of the old youth confraternity that predated the Reform and was essentially a military company, but also essential to the identity of native Genevans. The phrase “enfant de Genève” could have the specific meaning of being a member of the confraternity, or the general meaning of being a native of Geneva, but even in the general sense it always had an emotional connection to old guard Geneva. In short, Simond was identifying himself as a native of Geneva, but choosing a terminology that called up an august and decidely non-French and therefore non-Calvinist past. For Simond, what was important, was to be a citizen, a bourgeois of Geneva. A bourgeois is, by definition, a person who has joined the “commune” (the association of all bourgeois) and sworn a mutual defense pact to the other bourgeois, to the commune. In other words, one has sworn allegiance and committed to the commune as a primary allegiance. The commune is not the same as the city or the city government. It is the association of the bourgeois and though the distinction was becoming less clear by the sixteenth century, it was not lost on any good bourgeois. So Simond was frequently reprimanded for his religious beliefs, but because he was a native-born bourgeois and because he consistently reiterated his loyalty and submission to the commune, his religious differences were tolerated for years. This stuck in the craw of the pastors, but because the councillors still had a sense of the priority of the bourgeoisie, they could not drum a loyal bourgeois out of the community. As such, Simond was not only not banished, but was allowed to retain his position on the Council of Sixty until his dying day.

Meanwhile, the phrase “enfants de Dieu” was a commonplace of Reformed writing to refer to the Reformed and in particular the children of God suffering persecution in France. When the city council of Strasbourg found out there was a preacher in Metz stirring up the population against the Reformed, they wrote to the city council of Metz saying that “these are tribulation, calamities and quarrels that the rabid Satan puts before the children of God in order to divert them from his doctrine and knowledge” (ce sont des tribulations, calamitez et fascheries que l’enragé Sathan oppose aux enfants de Dieu pour les destourner de sa doctrine et connoissance) [Calvini Opera, vol 11, col. 525]. In his preface to the Olivetan Bible, Calvin wrote

“But by knowledge of the Gospel, we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow citizens of the saints, citizens of the kingdom of heaven.” “Mais par la connaissance de l’Évangile, nous sommes faits enfants de Dieu, frères de Jésus-Christ, combourgeois des saints, citoyens du royaume des cieux, héritiers de Dieu….” [Jean Calvin and Guillaume Farel, “La vraie piété”: divers traités de Jean Calvin et Confession de foi de Guillaume Farel, ed. by Irena Backus and Claire Chimelli (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1986), p. 32]

Combourgeois des saints! Here we have a stark contrast to Simond’s communal identity as a bourgeois of Geneva. Calvin, the rootless refugee, was not surprisingly attracted to a bourgeoisie of the saints, but less so to the classic communal identity.

A week later [R.Consist. 7, p. 6], we find out that Simond was responding to people who, seeing Bolsec “merely” banished for opposing Calvin said they wished that the “enfants de Dieu” (Reformed) living under the papacy had it so good, to which Simond retorted that they were not the children of God, but of the Devil, and that he, Simond, was a child of Geneva. This gives us the context. So Simond, wishing not to separate himself from God, but from Calvin and his followers (children of the Devil, as it turns out), decided to underscore which community he belonged to, namely not the one Calvin belonged to, but the one to which Simond himself and his father and his sons had all belonged to by virtue of birth and oath. He was, thus, a child of Geneva, not a child of God.

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