As the world becomes ever more addicted to video streaming, I take a different route. I become obsessed by power struggles of European history. Revolutionary France under Napoleon tops the list. One compelling question, among others, is how much did Thomas Jefferson’s transfer of gold to France help Napoleon? Seriously, Bonoparte crowned himself Emperor of the French after America bought Louisiana. I don’t think this was coincidental.

Another growing obsession is the Protestant Reformation. Americans in the 21st century scoff at history when they consider actors from 1500 to 1650 as “stupid” for killing each as Protestants or Catholics. What they fail to realize is that there were profound political and economic consequences for which religion their kings and lords chose. The Catholic Church’s secular power was enormous. German Monk Martin Luther set off a firestorm when he defied the Pope in 1517. Millions died in fighting thereafter.

The Reformation was a war of civilizations. It was the real Game of Thrones, like Napoleon’s saga. I prefer the real story.

My point in this preceding commentary is to preface why I’ve spent seven hours in the past day writing a couple of paragraphs below. I didn’t want to. However, the perfectionist in me demands good details, and researching them made time pass sweetly.

The non-italicized words below are from Once Upon a Time in Europe, which is a book-narrative of my first travel to Europe, with small explanations of European history interwoven into my personal experiences. I don’t know how palatable my historical narratives are. I don’t know if they’re a boring distraction. Yet, I plan to keep them in my book, which I aim to publish shortly.

I went to Geneva, honestly, looking for marijuana. I found it at Interlaken. However, though seeds of becoming an everyday smoker were planted in Switzerland, so were other better things.

And, no, I can’t touch ganja now. Too much paranoia hell. And I’m grateful for this preference for sobriety….

WHAT STARTED HERE CHANGED THE WORLD

On the 7th day of June in the year of our Lord 2000, I woke up in Geneva. This is the city where John Calvin made his Bible. Who’s he? Ok… let me get academic for a moment again…

Calvin was a man of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was a great separation of the Christian Faith between Catholics and those who protested Papal authority defining Christianity, whom we call Protestants. The German monk Martin Luther, though he was not the first to denounce the Pope, nonetheless came to spearhead the Reformation because, unlike his predecessors, Luther had the printing press to spread his ideas beyond Germany. Luther’s first open show of defiance was posting his 95 Thesis against various Catholic doctrines on October 31st, 1517. Thereafter, his genius became quite troublesome to Rome.

One man touched by Luther’s protests was a Frenchman born Jean Cauvin. In English we call him John Calvin. He took up the banner of Protestantism in the 1530’s, in France. Though he found many French sympathetic, the Kings of France openly sided with the Pope, and murdered many French Protestants, or Huguenots. Fearing for his life, Calvin left for freer French-speaking Geneva, which was outside the reach of the French king. In the process Calvin produced the famous Geneva Bible, whose 1599 English translation inflamed England in the 1600’s. He was a titan of scholarship, and said many things that pissed the Pope off royally.

Geneva was becoming a haven for Protestant scholars in these times, especially after winning independence from the Duchy of Savoy. Calvin’s intellect in re-interpreting Scripture cultivated a scholarly climate that encouraged many brilliant minds to descend upon this pious city. For a time Geneva was called the Rome of Protestantism. Though much turmoil lay ahead for this enclave in the latter 1500’s, it never lost its reputation as a bastion of feee and open discussion of the Faith and other civil matters. It continued to be so even during Europe’s Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648, which was a European-wide war fought between Catholics and Protestants to control their religious and political destinies.

Though I myself am not a Calvinist, I say his Geneva Bible is a masterpiece. I possess a 1599 English translation, and consider it to be of higher quality than the King James Version. King James himself called some of Calvin’s footnotes, found on every page illuminating verses, “partial, vntrue, seditious and sauouring too much daungerous, and trayterous conceites, and cited as an example Exodus 1:19.” (1) The footnotes in many other places reiterated God as final authority over Kings and Popes. They furthered Sola Scriptora – not Papal decrees. The Geneva found great reception in Puritan England, and became a preferred Bible for tens of thousands. It then sailed over the Atlantic with the Pilgrims to Massachusetts. Truly, the Anglo-Saxons prized its words.

As one scholar said, “Western society owes many of its best political advances to Reformation theology, and the establishing of America during the 1600’s owes more to the Calvinism of the Geneva Bible than to many other influences.” (2) Why? Because “many Protestant churches [adopted] less hierarchical forms of church government [like] government by the local congregation (congregationalism) or government by local synods (Presbyterianism). This provided an impetus and practical experience in representative government, and decentralized government…” (3)

“No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England during the years which parted the middle of the reign of Elizabeth from the meeting of the Long Parliament [roughly 1600 to 1650]. England became a people of the book, and that book was the Bible.” (4) The English Colonies were people of the Bible too. Regardless of your political or religious beliefs, the Anglo-Saxon nations came to be enormously powerful for their intelligence, creativity, industry and morality. I believe the promulgation of printed English Bibles, specifically Calvin’s Geneva Bible, was a huge factor for this.

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Now, had someone explained these historical dynamics to me during my 12 years of government schools, or during my 5 years of Rice University, I would have enjoyed this seed of knowledge being planted. Frankly, it would have mesmerized me. However, this was ancient history. Me and Mr. Tummy were in Switzerland looking for marijuana.

When I stepped off the train at Geneva, the air was a cool 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky above was deep blue. Geneva’s buildings were modern and boring. I’m sure there were some that were old and exciting, but I didn’t see them. Geneva lacked Paris’ flare for ornamentation. But whatever.

I got off the train to wait for another one which would take me to Interlaken. All signs were in French. This western part of Switzerland is French-speaking (French kings never annexed Geneva because tough Swiss resistance wasn’t worth the fight). Of course, in international Geneva, most people also speak German, and probably Italian, and certainly English. Once again using my native tongue in a foreign land, this time to buy Mr. Tummy an egg sandwich, stung. How smart, Joe Cool American, are you really when everyone around you speaks your native language and several others, and you only English? It’s humbling.

At the same time, though Swiss speak more languages than Americans because of a more rigorous educational system, it’s also because they need to. Within five-hundred miles of Geneva, Spanish, Catalan, French, Dutch, German, Italian, English, Romansch, Czech, Croatian and all sorts of unknown dialects are spoken. There is a real need to communicate in many tongues in Switzerland. How necessary is it to use any language but English in the United States today?

Oh well. Humbling moments like this sewed seeds which have motivated me to attain a high level of Spanish fluency, and improve, albeit a little, the German I learned in high school. I know what is meant by “learn a new language and gain a new soul.” Yes, buying an egg sandwich helped guide me here.

Then, shortly after indulging, I was eastbound to Interlaken. The train followed the northern shore of Lake Geneva. Oh my gosh. Forever will this spectacle be burned into my mind. Forever will I see Lac Leman’s vast, blue waters shimmering under perfect heavens with green mountains surrounding the shore. In that moment I didn’t care whether I’d be able to find ganja. Mother Nature was already overpowering me. This moment alone demonstrated I’d made the right decision to visit Switzerland…

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. 1599 Geneva Bible: Calvin Legacy Edition. Page xvii. Copyright 2008. Tolle Lege Press.
  2. 1599 Geneva Bible: Calvin Legacy Edition. Page xvi. Copyright 2008. Tolle Lege Press.
  3. “The Lutheran Reformation” by John Eidsmoe. An essay contained in 1599 Geneva Bible: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, Luther Edition. Page 1406. Copyright 2010-2021 Tolle Lege Press.
  4. 1599 Geneva Bible: Calvin Legacy Edition. Page xvii. Copyright 2008. Tolle Lege Press.