Different confessions, difficult choices: Theodore Beza converts after thirteen years of inner struggles

by Scott M. Manetsch

The Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe divided territories, cities, and families. Many townspeople and peasants remained loyal to the traditional church and its teachings, suspicious of doctrinal innovation and horrified by the popular violence that racked the Holy Roman Empire' and France beginning in the 1520s. Hundreds of thousands of other people -particularly from Europe’s towns and cities - defied the Roman church and embraced the religious message championed by reformers such as Martin Luther and (later) John Calvin. These Protestant leaders attacked the systemic abuses of medieval Catholicism and espoused an understanding of Christianity that emphasized God’s gracious acceptance of sinners through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

No doubt numerous converts to Protestantism were influenced by political pressure or personal expediency. But for many others, the decision to leave the traditional church issued from deep religious convictions, arrived at after inner struggles, and resulted in the rupture of relationships, the loss of property, and personal danger. In the letter preface to his popular Confession of the Christian Faith (1560), the Geneva minister Theodore Beza (1519-1605) relates the intense struggle and personal cost that was involved in leaving the religion of his childhood and becoming an openly Protestant believer:

“In the meantime, I was still stuck in the mire. My friends urged me to undertake some kind of livelihood. My uncle placed all of his wealth at my disposal. On the one side my conscience pressed hard on me, and my wife Claudine Denosse called on me to fulfill my promise [to make public our marriage]. On the other side, Satan, hiding behind a most peaceful countenance, tempted me with his blandishments. My income was made greater by the death of my brother. And so I was rendered helpless, incapable of making a decision due to all of these worries.

“But here I will most happily narrate the amazing way the Lord had compassion on me. For it happened that the Lord afflicted me with a very serious illness, so that I almost despaired of life itself. What could I do, wretched man that I am, when I saw nothing before me except the terrible judgment of God? What more can be said? After endless tortures of both mind and body, the Lord showed pity toward his runaway slave and consoled me so that I harbored no doubts about the gift of his pardon to me. Therefore, I renounced myself with tears, I asked for forgiveness, I renewed my vow to embrace his true worship publicly - in short, 1 devoted myself completely to God. And so it happened that the image of death, which stood before me, awakened in me a desire for true life that had previously been dormant and buried, and that illness was for me the beginning of true health. How wonderful is the Lord that, in one and the same stroke, he both knocks down and lifts up, wounds and makes whole again.

“Therefore, as soon as I was able to leave my bed, I broke all the chains that bound me and collected my belongings. 1 left behind my native land, my relatives, my friends in order to follow Christ. And, accompanied by my wife, I went to Geneva in voluntary exile. Accordingly, on 24 October 1548, having fled Egypt,21 arrived at that city and discovered what 1 previously could not even have believed, although I had heard that commonwealth greatly praised by a number of pious men.”3

Theodore Beza’s decision to embrace Protestantism and flee Catholic France in the fall of 1548 occurred after years of personal turmoil. Born into France’s lower nobility, Beza grew up in privilege and wealth. In 1528, when Beza was 9 years old, he was sent to Orléans to study with the famous pedagogue (and secret Lutheran) Melchior Wolmar, who instructed him in the liberal arts and imparted to him a love of classical literature. Beza learned to write elegant French and Latin, and began to study the Greek New Testament. He discovered a gift for writing poetry. He also came to share the conviction of Catholic humanists that a recovery of the Christian Scriptures in their original languages would hasten the reform of the church. In 1535, shortly before he left the household of Wolmar, Beza was introduced to the writings of the Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger, which (he will report later) “caused me to look toward the light of truth.”4 Beza made a personal vow to repudiate one day the Catholic religion and find a safe haven for his conscience in Germany.

Beza’s ‘spiritual awakening’ was stillborn, or at least delayed for the next thirteen years. When Wolmar left for Germany, Beza remained back in France, earning a degree in civil law, writing provocative love poetry, and associating with a talented coterie of young French humanists. His livelihood was supported by two generous benefices from the Catholic Church. Hence (as Beza described it), the three-fold snare of Satan - the allurements of pleasure, the ambition for literary glory, and the expectation of public honors - dulled his conscience and bound him to the Catholic religion. Marriage to a chambermaid named Claudine Denosse in the mid-1540s made matters still more complicated, since the marriage had to be contracted in secret to avoid forfeiting his benefices. He promised Claudine that one day their marriage would be confirmed in public. Beza finally achieved literary fame when he published a collection of poetry entitled Poemata in the summer of 1548 - but the triumph was short-lived. Within weeks he was stricken with a life-threatening illness. During his convalescence, Beza resolved to fulfill his promises to God and Claudine if he recovered. Thus, in the fall of 1548, Beza and Claudine fled the spiritual ‘Egypt’ of Catholic France for the ‘promised land’ of Reformed Geneva, where the couple confirmed their marriage in a public ceremony presided over by John Calvin. With his conversion, Beza forfeited his financial security, renounced his literary ambitions, alienated family members, and began a new life in exile. The dictates of conscience and the true worship of God justified these substantial sacrifices, he believed.


  • 1 The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, usually called ‘the Empire,’ was a huge and complex political organization in central Europe in medieval and early modern times. It was a loose political union of mostly German and largely self-governing principalities and towns.
  • 2 ‘Egypt’ here denotes France. Beza uses the biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to describe his own experience moving from France to Geneva, which is implied to be his ‘Holy Land.’
  • 3 Beza to Melchior Wolmar, 12 March 1560. Letter-preface to the Confessio christ ianae fidei, Geneva, 1560, in Correspondance de Théodore de Bèze, vol. Ill (1559-1561), compiled by Hippolyte Aubert, published by Henri Meylan and Alain Dufour, Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1963, pp. 42-52. Translated by Scott Manetsch. A slightly different English translation of this letter is in Henry Martyn Baird, Theodore Beza. The Counsellor of the French Reformation, 1519-1605, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899, pp. 355-367, here pp. 364-365.
  • 4 Beza to Bullinger, 18 August 1568, in H. Meylan, A. Dufour, C. Chimelli, and B. Nicollier (eds), Correspondance de Théodore de Bèze: 1568, vol. IX, Geneva: Librarie Droz, p. 121. Translated by Scott Manetsch.

“A priest you were on Sunday / Monday morning a minister”: Clerical conformity in eighteenth-century Ireland

by Monica Brennan

Between 1695 and 1760, the Irish Parliament passed a series of anti-Catholic laws, referred to as ‘penal’ or ‘popery’ laws, to ensure that Protestant supremacy in Ireland would never again be threatened as it had been by the Catholic rebellion of 1641 and the Jacobite War (1688—1691).1 This legislation, it is important to note, did not outline a system of religious persecution, nor did it prohibit the practice of the Catholic religion. It sought to safeguard and strengthen the Protestant interest in Ireland by eliminating Catholic access to political and social power. The most important provisions concerned land ownership. By 1780, Protestants were in possession of 95 percent of the island’s land (compared to 41 percent in 1641).

While efforts to convert Ireland’s Catholics to the Protestant Church of Ireland, the so-called ‘Established Church,’ were limited largely to the country’s remaining Catholic landowners (and in this they were successful), laws were passed banishing bishops and regular clergy. As a result, by the beginning of the eighteenth century the Irish Catholic Church’s diocesan structure and its parochial system were in a state of virtual collapse. Most sees were vacant and their bishops in exile. The secular clergy, though required to register and provide sureties of fifty pounds for good behavior, were generally left alone and free to minister to their people. It was the government’s expectation, though, that banishing bishops, combined with laws against educating Catholics abroad, would result in the gradual extinction of the Catholic clergy in Ireland. This did not happen, but the absence of Catholic seminaries and universities in Ireland resulted in the ordination of many men who lacked proper theological training or a true religious vocation. Disciplining these individuals was extremely difficult. Some were suspended from performing their priestly duties; others were excommunicated.

Faced with financial difficulties stemming from a loss of employment or to revenge themselves on their bishops, some ‘degraded’ priests conformed to the Established Church. Their conformity was encouraged by the “Act for Registering the Popish Clergy,” which promised that “Every popish priest who shall convert and conform to the Church of Ireland as by law established shall have 20 pounds yearly for their maintenance and till they are otherwise provided for, said money to be levied on the inhabitants of such county or city or town when such converted priest did last officiate. And such converts shall publickly read the liturgy of the Church of Ireland in the English or Irish tongue, in such places as the archbishop or bishop of that diocese shall appoint.”2

While the Irish press in the eighteenth century was generally more concerned with foreign, rather than domestic, news, the public was interested in the scandalous and the sensational, particularly, it seems, when Catholics -especially Catholic priests - were involved. Both lay and clerical recantations made the news, as did the obituaries of ‘former’ Catholic priests, like Rev. Richard Archbold, who supposedly conformed ‘‘from a sincere and rational conviction, renounced Popery and embraced the Protestant faith.”3

The exact number of Catholic priests who conformed to the Established Church in this period cannot be determined, but the ‘Convert Rolls,’ the government register of converts to the Church of Ireland, and eighteenthcentury newspaper accounts record approximately 100 clerical recantations.4 Anecdotal material - including poems and songs - bears witness to others.

When a priest changed his religion, he risked earning the contempt of the layfolk he once served and rejection by his family. His actions were all the more galling since the annual maintenance with which he was provided was levied off the people among whom he lived. Protestant bishops regarded most conforming priests with suspicion, and few appear to have been granted good livings. Most lived obscurely; some as teachers, others as couple-beggars, making a living by assisting at clandestine weddings. This was usually neither honorable nor decent, and therefore such men often led a degraded and drunken existence and frequently fell afoul of the law. Some of the bitterest poems in the Irish language lampoon the men who abandoned the Catholic faith of their fathers. ‘‘Fill, Fill a Run 6” (c.1739) is the lament of a Donegal mother whose son, Dominic O Domhnaill, abandoned the church of “Peter and Paul” and became a minister in the Church of Ireland:

“Torment on you, Dominic O Domhnaill

Aren’t you a pathetic sight

A priest you were on Sunday

Monday morning a minister.

“Come back darling and don’t leave me:

Come back from that other world.

You won’t achieve glory till you return.

“You foresook Peter and Paul

On account of gold and silver.

You forsook the Queen of Glory5

And you turned to the coat of a minister.

“When you’re in hell for a while

And tears streaming from your eyes,

That’s the place where you’ll discover

Which is better to be - priest or minister.”6

Clerical conformity in Ireland 285

While these lines suggest the mother’s concern for her son’s soul, in one version of the song she curses him for making her a figure of ridicule:

“When I attend Mass on Sunday

  • 1 hide my shame in my mantle,
  • 1 hear the young girls say;

There goes the minister’s mother.”7

Eighteenth-century press reports highlight the sincerity of those Catholic priests who abjured ‘popery’ and embraced the Protestant faith. Popular literature in Irish, on the other hand, excoriates these men as ignorant and avaricious - disgraces to both faith and family.


  • 1 The ‘Jacobite War,’ also called the ‘Williamite War,’ refers to the conflict over the kingship of England, Scotland, and Ireland between James II and William of Orange after the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when James II had been deposed as king of England and William and Mary installed in his place.
  • 2 “Act for Registering the Popish Clergy,” 2 Ann, c. 7 (1703). 8 Ann, c. 3 (1709) raised the annual maintenance to thirty pounds.
  • 3 Cork Evening Post, 2 July 1767, quoted in Anne R. Chamney, “Catholic Converts Recorded in Some 18th Century Irish Newspapers,” The Irish Genealogist 11:1, 2002, 31.
  • 4 In 1742 there were reportedly 1,400 priests in Ireland. About half are believed to have been secular priests while members of religious orders comprised the rest.
  • 5 The Virgin Mary.
  • 6 Quoted in Maureen Wall, Catholic Ireland in the Eighteenth Century: Collected Essays, ed. Gerard O'Brien, Dublin: Geography Publications, 1989, pp. 32-33. Translated by Annette Byrne.
  • 7 “Fill, fill a run O.” Online. Available at https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid= 14833 (accessed 5 May 2018).
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