William Farel

Biographical Sketch

by Caleb Hickenlooper, Biola University

screenshot-2016-10-06-13-22-10Summary of life:

  • Born Guillaume Farel (William Farel) in 1489 near the small town of Gap, France.
  • Noble lineage and intended by family to go into military service, but chose the academic life and went to the University of Paris.
  • Received Master of Arts in 1517 and began to teach at the college of Cardinal Lemoine.
  • Experienced gradual conversion to the Protestant Gospel studying Scripture over the first few years of his teaching position. (Almost simultaneous with Zwingli and Luther.) ● Began working towards Reform in earnest in 1521.
  • Moved from town to town advocating iconoclastic Reform wherever he could.
  • In July 1536 he persuaded (morally compelled) Calvin to join him in Geneva. They co-led the cause there until they were banished from the city in 1538.
  • Continued to travel, but made Neuchâtel his base of operations until his death.
  • In 1558, at the (then) very old age of 69, he was married for the first time to a very young refugee against Calvin’s strong advice.
  • Calvin died in 1564.
  • Farel died soon after, on September 13th 1565, after returning from a typically energetic preaching campaign in Metz.

Influence and Recognition Influences:


  • Was tutored by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (Jacob Faber), a notable humanist doing similar work to Erasmus.
  • Influenced early in his career by Johannes Oecolampadius, the German humanist and Reformer.
  • Strongly influenced by Calvin through long association.


  • He was a very early and vocal supporter of Reform in French-speaking Switzerland. His preaching and advocacy helped lay the foundation both for doctrine and for the overall spirit and culture of the movement.
  • He would always strategically position himself to influence the political and religious decisions of the time, to the point that tracking all the campaigns and relocations of his ministry would pretty well follow the political and cultural development of the region.○ Defended his 13 theses against Roman Doctrine in 1524.○ Planted the Reformation movement in Neuchâtel in 1530.
  • He is perhaps most famous for compelling John Calvin to remain in Geneva. It is important to note that appropriation of pastoral resources was nothing out of the ordinary for Farel. Far more lay-people were converting than priests and the flock needed shepherds. (Though he obviously didn’t ask just anyone to help lead the movement.)
  • He was Calvin’s most trusted friend and advisor almost all his life.


  • Almost universally beloved by his friends and co-workers.
  • Regularly criticized for his lack of tact: saw the world as a battleground between the work of the Devil and the work of the Spirit, so he saw any attack on the deceptions of the Roman Church as a net gain.
  • He was the counterpoint to Calvin’s timid and studious temperament: a supremely effective man of strategy and action.
  • The scandal of his marriage in old age (strongly opposed by Calvin) is a prominent blemish on his legacy.


  • He was deeply, emphatically concerned with prayer. Zuidema posits that this is at least part of the reason that Farel is relatively neglected in historical studies: prayer is subject that is difficult to submit to the empirical cause and effect methodologies of modern historical studies. (Zuidema)
  • Dedicated to the idea of the people hearing the Word of God in their native tongue and of God hearing from them in their native tongue.
  • Dedicated to the complete abolition of the Catholic Mass. Saw the entire practice of Mass as the epicenter of the false piety of the Roman Church.
  • Otherwise very much in keeping with prevailing theology of the Swiss Reformation.


  • During his time, Farel was primarily known for his vigor and zeal in preaching, his skill and energy in obtaining and connecting resources for the cause, and his strong dedication to his flock. Unfortunately, no copies of his sermons are extant.
  • The Sommarie (Summary) is his most systematic and influential work. It is intended mainly as a teaching manual and evangelistic tool. He deliberately neglects standard credibly established statements concerning Christ and the Trinity, so as to solidify the centrality of Scripture in theological reasoning and avoid anything that “might suggest scholastic speculations.” It focuses instead on the Salvation of God in Christ and Biblically established standards of Christian living. (Originally written 1529, regularly revised and expanded.) (Nijenhuis, 79-80)
  • He adapted a Bernese (German Swiss) Reformed liturgy for use by French-speaking churches (1533).
  • We also have a few topical treatises: on purgatory (1534), on the Lord’s Prayer (1543), and on the Supper (1555).
  • It should be noted that He wrote all of his treatises in French, seeking to abandon all intellectual pretense and to connect people more directly to God.


Bevan, Francis. William Farel. True Stories of God’s Servants. Alfred Holness, London.1858.

Blackburn, Wm. N. William Farel and the Story of the Swiss Reform. Presbyterian Board of Publication. Philadelphia, 1865.

Calvin, Jean, Jules Bonnet, and Marcus Robert Gilchrist. 1858. Letters of John Calvin: compiled from the original manuscripts and edited with historical notes. n.p.: Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858., 1858. Biola Library Catalog,

Olson, Jeannine E. The Encyclopedia of Protestantism, s.v. “Guillaume Farel.” London: Routledge, 2004.

Barthel, Pierre, Rémy Scheurer, and Richard Stauffer, eds. Actes du colloque Guillaume Farel: Neuchâtel, 29 september-ler octobre 1980. 2 vols. Cahiers de la Revue deThéologie et de Philosophie no.

Farel, Guillaume. Le Pater noster et le credo en françoys. Edited by Francis Higman. Texteslittéraires français. Geneva, Switzerland: Librarie Croz, 1982. (First Published 1524.)

——————— Sommaire it brève déclaration, 1525. Edited by Arthur-L. Hofer. Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Éditions Belle Rivière, 1980.

Nijenhuis, Willem. Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation Volume 1 of Ecclesiareformata: studies on the Reformation Part 3 of Kerkhistorische Bijdragen , Vol 1,BRILL, 1972.

Zuidema, Jason, Guillaume Farel, and Theodore Van Raalte. 2011. Early French Reform :The Theology and Spirituality of Guillaume Farel. Farnham, Surrey, England:Routledge, 2011. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed September 29, 2016).




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