William Farel

Biographical Sketch of William Farel: French Protestant Reformer

by Lacey Lott

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Summary of Life:

The Pre-Conversion Years

1487-9: Pope Innocent VIII commands that the Waldensians (those living around Gap) be destroyed because of their worship of God and use of His Word

1489: William Farel is born in Gap in France

1489-1509: Farel grows up being taught to be religious as a Roman Catholic

1496: Decides he wants to learn and study, against his father’s wishes

1509: Persuades his father to let him go to Paris to gain more education

1510-1515: Begins reading the Scriptures when Pope Julius II called the OT and NT “the holy Bible”; learns Hebrew and Greek; learning from Jacques La Fevre

around 1515: Becomes a monk near Paris with Carthusian monks

around 1519: Returns to Paris after becoming more unhappy

1519: Forsakes the Roman Catholic Church

Learning, Preaching, Writing, and Being Persecuted

1519-20: Farel and LaFevre are invited by Bishop Briconnet to teach God’s Word at a college in Meaux-in the midst of persecution

1520-3: Begins to preach to villages surrounding Gap, eventually finding shelter from those persecuting him in Basel, Switzerland (a city free from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church)

1523: Writes theses/propositions based on Scripture itself that he submits in Basel against the wishes of authorities; receives much opposition, but also much encouragement by those who agree with him; Farel is actually driven from Basel through the convincing efforts of Erasmus

1523: Goes to Strasbourg, Germany, but is shortly summoned by Duke Ulrich to return to Basel to preach the gospel undercover

1524-5: Begins writing books and preaching more than ever in Montbeliard, France, under the protection of the German Empire

1525: Returns to Strasbourg and becomes depressed over the attacks taking place as well as deception coming to Christians even through well-known theologians

1526: Leaves Strasbourg on foot set to visit Oecolampadius in Basel, but gets stopped by a storm where the Lord renews his vigor

early 1527: The Council of Berne commissions Farel to preach to Aigle and the surrounding villages in the midst of civil opposition

late 1527: Farel is called to a meeting at Berne, which was one of the most powerful and influential meetings in the history of the Reformation

1528-31: Preaching and continuing to be persecuted to the point of near-death

1532: Begins preaching in Geneva where he is received by some, but torn down by the clergy who ask him to leave and find someone quieter to take his place

1532-3: Anthony Froment, a pastor from a small village, goes into Geneva to be a schoolteacher, also teaching about Jesus and drawing crowds of people in, but eventually having to flee because of the pressure of the priests

1536: Geneva supports the Reformation and Farel convinces John Calvin to stay there as his assistant

1538: Both Farel and Calvin are driven from Geneva because they refused to offer communion due to the laxity of church discipline and the lack of separating church and state

1541: Calvin is welcomed back to Geneva where he begins a movement of Protestants

The Final Years

1538-65: Farel lives in Neuchatel for the remaining years of his life

1558: Marries Mary Thorel at the age of 69

1560: Preaches in Gap one last time

1565-Dies in Neuchátel, Switzerland

Influence and Recognition:


  • John Calvin-a student at the University of Paris not too long after Farel
  • Churches such as Montbeliard and Geneva
  • Countless Christians throughout Germany, France, and Switzerland-especially influencing the rise of Christians learning to read the Bible for themselves

Influenced by

  • Jacques LaFevre-one of the most learned professors at the University of Paris who became Farel’s tutor and most influential figure
  • Johann Oecolampadius-a German humanist and reformer who recommended Farel when he left Basel to Germany
  • John Calvin-a student at the University of Paris after Farel had already left
  • Ulrich Zwingli-a fellow theologian who encouraged Farel especially during times of intense persecution

Known for

  • Having translated many German tracts into French, utilizing the French translation of the New Testament that his tutor LaFevre had completed
  • Being “the heretic preacher,” “the blasphemer,” and “the image breaker” especially throughout French-speaking areas in Romanized Switzerland
  • Preaching directly from the Bible
  • Being a long-winded and intense preacher

Key Theological Ideas

  • Jesus Christ is the only One who offers forgiveness of sins, freely and fully, through His work on the cross to those who have faith in Him
  • Scripture
    • The Holy Bible is the only source of divine authority
    • Clarity of Scripture making it able to be understood
  • Complete rejection of Roman Catholicism
    • Rejection of papal authority
    • External tradition outside of Scripture cannot be tolerated
  • Eucharist
    • Greatly disagreed (and was saddened) with Luther’s theology concerning the Eucharist, even causing him to write to Luther with only deaf ears in response
    • Focused on the ‘spiritual’ work of the Eucharist rather than the ‘material’
  • Divine vs. Human Will
    • Divine will-pure in nature and form
    • Human will-deformed and completely unable to do God’s revealed will
    • Only once someone believes in the saving grace of Jesus Christ are they able to follow God’s revealed will



  • Letters/Epistles
  • Tracts
  • Liturgies
  • Prayers
  • Sermons/Dogmatics
  • Books
  • Polemics/Arguments

Major Works

  • Most important work according to Farel:

Sommaire et brève declaration (Summary and brief declaration)

  • Farel wrote to offer clarity on the main points of Christianity that should be understood by all Christians. He expanded upon doctrines such as God, man, sin, good works, fasting, the power of pastors, the instruction of children, satisfaction, the resurrection, and many more, supporting his claims with Scripture throughout the entire document.
  • Le Pater Noster et le Credo (The Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed)
    • Farel’s translation and interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. His goal in this work was to provide prayers for Christians to be able to contemplate and pray.
  • La Maniere et fasson (Liturgical Practices and forms)
    • Farel wrote explanations of the way that Christians should practice baptism, marriage, the Lord’s Supper, public worship, and visitation of the sick, according to Scripture. His purpose in explaining these was to clarify even further his Sommaire for all Christians.

Original Publications (to name a few)

  • De la saincte Cene de nostre Seigneur Jesus et de son Testament confirmé par sa mort et passion. Traicté tresutile à tous chrestiens pour cognoistre la vraye institution et administration d’icelle Cene selon la vraye doctrine de l’Evangile (Of the holy Cene of our Lord Jesus and His Testament confirmed by His death and passion. A treacherous tract to all Christians to know the true institution and administration of this Cene according to the true doctrine of the Gospel). Geneva: Jean Crespin, 1553.
  • Du vrai usage de la croix et Jésus-Christ (From the true use of the cross of Jesus Christ). Reprint, Geneva: Jules-Guillaume Fick, 1865.
  • Epistre Envoyee au Duc de Lorraine (Epistle sent to the Duke of Lorraine). Geneva: Jehan Girard, 1543.
  • Epistre Envoyee aux Reliques de la dissipation horrible de de l’Antechrist (Epistle sent to the relics of the horrible dissipation of the Antichrist). 1544.
  • La Maniere et fasson (Liturgical Practices and forms). Neuchâtel, Pierre de Vingle, 1533.
  • Le glaive de la parole véritable, tiré contre le Bouclier de defense: duquel un Cordelier Libertin s’est voulu servir, pour approuver ses fausses et damnables opinions (The sword of the veritable speech, drawn against the Shield of defense: from which libertine Cordelier intended to serve to approve his false and damnable opinions). Geneva: Jean Girard, 1550.
  • Le Pater Noster et le Credo (The Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed), 1524. Reprint, Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1982.
  • La Tres Saincte Oraison que Nostre Seigneur Iesus a bailée à ses Apostres, les enseignant comme ilz et tous vrays crestiens doivent prier,
  • Sommaire et brève declaration (Summary and brief declaration), 1529/34. Edited by Arthur-L. Hofer. Neuchaˆtel: Belle Rivière, 1980.

Secondary Works:

Bevan, Frances A. William Farel. London: Alfred Holness, 1900.

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

Heyer, Henry. Guillaume Farel: essai sur le développement de ses idées théologiques (Geneva : Ramboz et Schuhardt, 1872)

Junod, Louis. Farel: réformateur de la Suisse Romande et pasteur de l’église de Neuchatel. Neuchatel: Delachoux & Sandoz, 1865.

Kirchhofer, Melchior. Life of William Farel: The Swiss Reformer London : The Religious Tract Society, 1837.

Shidler, Don P. Elijah of the Alps. Smithville: Gospel Missionary Union, 1972.

Zuidema, Jason and Theodore G. Van Raalte. Early French Reform: The Theology and Spirituality of Guillaume Farel. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011.

Shidler’s Elijah of the Alps and Zuidema’s Early French Reform were the most helpful. Shidler provides a detailed and understandable biography of Farel’s life, which can be used alongside Bevan and Balckburn’s biographies. Zuidema’s book focuses more on Farel’s theology and spirituality, making some of Farel’s most well known works available as well.


Bevan, Frances A. William Farel. London: Alfred Holness, 1900.

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

Encyclopedia Britannica. 2012 ed. S.v. “Guillaume Farel.”

Post-Reformation Digital Library. 2014 ed. S.v. “Guillaume Farel: 1489-1565.”

Shidler, Don P. Elijah of the Alps. Smithville: Gospel Missionary Union, 1972.

Van Raalte, Theodore G. “Guillaume Farel’s Spirituality: Leading in Prayer.” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (October 2008): 277-301.

Zuidema, Jason and Theodore G. Van Raalte. Early French Reform: The Theology and Spirituality of Guillaume Farel. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011.


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