In Loving Memory of Pierre Viret: The Forgotten Reformer, Counselor, Angel, and the “Smiling Face” to the Reformation

This is a short biography of Pierre Viret (1511 – 4 May 1571), a Swiss Reformed theologian, who is as obscure now as his tiny native village. However, he was without a doubt, the most sought after Reformed minister of the Sixteenth Century.

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As, one great scholar and professor has pointed out..

No tourist in Geneva can miss the impressive Reformation Monument with its four towering figures: John Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore Beza, and John Knox. Some visitors might even notice a series of reliefs on the statue’s base, which depict various scenes from the Genevan Reformation. Yet only a sharp-eyed observer is likely to spot in one of the reliefs a spare man with a long beard preaching to a crowd of intent listeners: that man is Pierre Viret. Viret is now virtually forgotten among the major reformers. But if we can say that Calvin systematized the theology of the Reformation, it would be equally just to say that Viret popularized it. He preached in a language simple and colorful. He wrote in a style which captivated people, responded to their questions, and provided them with simple apologetic arguments necessary for the defense of their faith.

As a changed and converted man, Pierre Viret (vee-RAY), was a Sixteenth Century Reformer, and one of three sons of a poor tailor of Orbe, which is an obscure village in present-day French Switzerland, near Lausanne. Viret, was born in 1511, which makes him two years younger than John Calvin, and he was one of the Calvin’s closest friends. These two men worked closely together for many years in Geneva and corresponded regularly when Viret left Geneva to accept a pastorate at Lausanne.

Viret was a precocious child who benefited from the new village school where several of the teachers were trained humanists and suspected Lutherans. He developed an interest in the classics as well as theology.  These interests in 1528, led him to study for the priesthood. He entered the Collège de Montaigu at the University of Paris at about the time Calvin was leaving. After studying intensely there, Viret left Paris two years later a changed man. The new Protestant ideas that were flourishing at the great university, led to Viret’s personal commitment to Jesus Christ.

He returned to Orbe, and there he found that his home village was divided into Protestant and Catholic factions. There he also met with William (Guillaume) Farel, the fiery traveling evangelist who was unsurprisingly, largely responsible for this turmoil.  However, Farel challenged young Viret to become a minister of the Gospel and to do so by begin preaching the Gospel in his native village. Viret resisted, then finally yielded to what the older man told him was the absolute, and certain will of God for Viret’s life. (You may recall Farel did the same thing to young Calvin as well, and with equal success.)

In very short time, it became obvious that Viret possessed outstanding gifts as both a pastor and as a theologian, and there he easily won his people’s hearts over. But Viret’s preaching and attitude not only won the hearts and minds of his own people, but he became highly regarded by many outside his parrish. We know of this by, among others, the great Theodore Beza, who spoke of “the wisdom of Calvin, the thunders of Farel, and the honey of Viret.” He also states elsewhere of Viret: “None possessed more charm when he spoke.” Viret’s preaching, which seemed to embrace his hearers in a calm and tranquil stream, as attested by Verheiden, “[Viret] had a word so sweet that he constantly kept his hearers alert and attentive. His style had such strength and a harmony so caressing to the ear and spirit that the least religious amongst his hearers, the most impatient of others, heard him out effortlessly and with pleasure. His audience was, it was said, as though suspended upon his lips, wishing the sermon were longer.”

Many souls were converted under Viret’s preaching, but of greatest importance to the young pastor was the conversion of his two Roman Catholic parents. As he noted later, “I have much occasion to give thanks to God in that it hath pleased him to make use of me to bring my father and mother to the knowledge of the Son of God … Ah! If he had made my ministry of no other use, I should have had good cause to bless him.”

After Viret had won Orbe over to the Reformation’s side of the Gospel, Viret regularly traveled between several of the surrounding villages for the next three years to further the work of the Reformation. Accompanied by Farel, he journeyed first to Grandson, a small town just north of Orbe, which was quickly won to the gospel under the Reformers’ preaching.  He was then asked to preach in Payerne, and it was there that he was badly wounded when a band of Catholics, led by a priest with a sword attempted to kill him. It was perhaps here that the young preacher met with his deadliest opposition. The city was strongly Roman Catholic and violently protested the preaching of the “new faith.” Viret, knowing that his teaching was no more than the truth of the Word of God, begged for a public disputation in which he would be permitted to prove his case from Scripture. The Council of Payerne at last acceded to this request and a date was fixed. The night before the disputation, however, Viret, returning home, was ambushed in a solitary field by a priest from the Payerne Abbey. The would-be murderer gravely wounded the young preacher with his sword and left him for dead, thus seeking to douse the Light against which he could not dispute. Discovered by his friends, Viret, half-dead, was slowly nursed back to health and soon continued his work in another city: Geneva. He later, he preached at Neuchâtel however, before linking up again with Farel in Geneva in 1534.

In 1534 Viret journeyed to Geneva to again assist Farel in his Reformation work. Viret and Farel preached salvation and reform in Geneva for the next two years. The city was in an uproar: its citizens had decided to cast off the rule of the Catholic Duke of Savoy, but they had not yet embraced Protestantism. Viret celebrated the first Genevan baptism according to evangelical forms, took part with Farel in the debate that convinced the Council of Geneva to renounce Catholicism, and, in 1536, silently witnessed Farel accost Calvin and inform him of God’s will for his life.

But in 1534 Geneva was still quite hostile to the teaching of the new preachers, and another murderous attempt awaited the young men. Catholic radicals tried again to silence Viret’s voice, this time by poisoning his spinach soup. At the instigation of the Catholic authorities, a woman, Antonia Vax, was persuaded to eliminate both Farel and Viret by serving them a poisoned spinach soup. Farel, declaring the soup to be too thick, asked for something else to eat. Viret, however, still pale and weak from his sword wounds, was assured by Antonia that the soup would aid in the restoration of his health, and trustingly ate an entire bowl of the poisoned dish. He grew dangerously ill and lay for some time at the point of death.

Upon hearing the news, the townspeople of Geneva mourned the impending loss of their beloved Reformer, exclaiming, “Must the Church be robbed of such a pearl?… Poor Viret! Poor reformers!… Sword-cuts in the back, poison in front … Such are the rewards of those who preach the Gospel!” Viret suffered from digestive problems for the rest of his life, but he would not be intimidated. This episode, though so detrimental to the Reformers, also brought much damage to their adversaries as many now looked with suspicion and contempt upon the perpetrators of such a base crime. The priests and monks were henceforth regarded with grave doubt and misgiving, and little more than a year later, through the indefatigable labors of Farel and Viret, the General Council of Geneva officially accepted the Reformation.

Leading Lausanne to Christ

With the Protestant faith now firmly planted and Calvin ensconced alongside Farel, Viret left Geneva to help consolidate the Reformation in Lausanne, the chief city of his native Pays de Vaud. Lausanne had just come under the authority of Bern, a Protestant canton of Switzerland. The Bernese, desirous of winning their newly acquired city to the gospel, organized a public disputation in which the principal elements of the faith would be discussed.

All Catholic clergy were required to be in attendance. The defense for the Reformed was offered primarily by Farel and Viret, who ably championed the cause of Christ. Calvin also attended the debate, speaking twice throughout its course. At the close of the week-long disputation, Lausanne declared for the Reformation, and Viret was appointed pastor of the city.

Though Lausanne was now officially Reformed, it was still heavily steeped in Catholicism. To rectify the ignorance rampant among the priesthood, Viret determined to begin an academy for the training and education of young men for the ministry. Under the oversight of the Bernese authorities, the Academy was founded in January of 1537 and was the first Protestant and Reformed academy of the French-speaking world. The Lausanne Academy boasted learned instructors from Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland. Theodore de Beze, future successor to Calvin in Geneva, was principal of the Academy for nine years. Many renowned men of the faith received their training at Viret’s Academy, including Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, authors of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, and Guido de Bres, author of the Belgic Confession of 1561.

At the Lausanne Academy, Viret met with a singular joy when the Lord provided him a godly bride. On Sunday, October 6, 1538, Viret and Elisabeth Turtaz, a lady of Orbe, were married. Farel presided over the ceremony.

Two months following these celebrations, Viret was recalled to Geneva after Calvin had been banished from that city. Viret’s loving spirit and gentle character had made him a favorite among the Genevans, and they longed to again have him as their pastor. Known as the Smile of the Reformation, Viret worked in Geneva “to rebuild the ruins, to dress the wounds, to reconcile the divers and opposing elements.” Viret remained a year in Geneva, during which time he urged the Council upon several occasions to recall the exiled Calvin.

However, upon his return, Viret lived in constant tension with the authorities in Berne, however, who wanted to keep a tight political rein on Lausanne. Following a confrontation at Easter 1559, the Bernese exiled Viret. Soon thereafter, Viret joined his old friend Calvin in Geneva, bringing with him many of the Lausanne ministers, all but one of the faculty of the Academy of Lausanne, and nearly 1,000 of his parishioners. From this, Calvin’s city became the undisputed center of the Reformed world.

Needless to say, the Genevans loved Viret. They immediately elected him a minister of the Geneva Church and assigned him a salary of 800 florins plus 12 strikes of corn and two casks of wine a year. The Council also provided him a commodious house, which Calvin, perhaps a bit enviously, noted was bigger and better furnished than his own.

Touching for a moment again upon John Calvin; Geneva had expelled Calvin, and it was, as noted, only the continued pleadings of Viret, that Calvin even got a call back to the city, let alone a continued and anxious call to come back.  And frankly, Calvin, perhaps a bit worn from the inter-church/government warfare, was not at all anxious to go back into that “snake-pit.”  After first rejecting the proposal, he writes to Viret, remarking,

I read that passage of your letter, certainly not without a smile, where you shew so much concern about my health, and recommend Geneva on that ground. Why could you not have said at the cross? For it would have been far preferable to perish once for all than to be tormented again in that place of torture. Therefore, my dear Viret, if you wish well to me, make no mention of such a proposal.

While refusing to return to the troubled city of Geneva, Calvin simultaneously harbored hopes of the city’s reformation after learning of Viret’s arrival there. Writing to Farel in February of 1541, he expressed his assurance of the salubrious effects of Viret’s influence on the tumultuous population, “It was a singular joy for me to learn that the Church of Geneva is endowed with the arrival of Viret … I now foresee that the matter is out of danger.”

Viret, however, could not be dissuaded from calling his friend back to his duty, and exerted his utmost influence to convince the reluctant Calvin to return. Writing again, Viret described the transformation of the city and the people’s willingness to receive the gospel,

You cannot imagine the attentiveness with which they listen to my discourses, and what a crowd of men they attract … such tranquility reigns in the republic, it is completely transformed, and has taken on a wholly new appearance … The Lord has offered us a most favorable moment. If you neglect it, Calvin, the Lord will certainly punish you for neglecting the Church, and not you only, but also those who restrain you.

After many such appeals, Calvin was at last persuaded to return; Viret joyfully assisted him in his reentrance. Having finally restored his friend to his post, Viret at once desired to return to his pastorate in Lausanne, but he was persuaded to remain for several months to aid Calvin. Farel, writing to the pastors of Zurich, noted the importance of Viret’s presence in the city of Geneva at this crucial time, “If Viret is recalled [to Lausanne], then surely Calvin and the Church of Geneva shall fall again into ruins!” Calvin also shared this opinion, as is noted by historian Michael Bruening,

Three days after his return, Calvin told Farel, “I have also kept Viret with me, whom I absolutely would not allow to be taken away from me.” Now it was Calvin who sought to persuade Viret that he was needed in Geneva. He explained to Farel, “If Viret leaves me, I am completely finished; I will not be able to keep this church alive. Therefore, I hope you and others will forgive me if I move every stone to ensure that I am not deprived of him.”

Viret’s selfless assistance of Calvin was not overlooked by the elder Reformer. The friendship of these two men expanded significantly during this time and showed itself in a beautiful brotherly relationship growing and deepening throughout the course of their lives.

Viret finally returned to Lausanne in 1542. His absence had been very detrimental to the health of the church, which he found in a terrible state. Writing to Calvin upon his return, he mourned, “I came, I saw, I was dumbfounded (veni, vidi, obstupui). If only what we had heard about the state of this church were not so true.”

Despite Lausanne’s manifest need for Viret, Calvin still desired to have his fellow Reformer at his side, and in July of 1544 he urged the Council of Geneva to write to the Bernese lords, requesting permission to permanently retain Viret at Geneva. Upon hearing of the letter, however, the Lausanne counselors and pastors immediately sent their own ambassadors to Bern, begging the lords to reject Geneva’s request. Meeting with such a desperate appeal from Lausanne, Bern declined to grant the transfer and ordered Viret to remain in Lausanne. Upon hearing that Geneva’s request was refused, Viret wrote to Geneva to express his devotion to the city, assuring them of his love, “As for me, if you so desire, you will always have me as your humble servant, no less than if I were present with you, as truly I am in spirit, though I am distant in person; I will also be joined with you in body as soon as it is the good pleasure of Him who has called us in His service.”

In 1545 Viret’s life was disturbed by another great tragedy. His wife Elisabeth fell ill, and despite Viret’s desperate efforts to revive her failing health, she died in March of the following year. Writing of her death to a dear friend, Viret wrote, “The Lord has dealt me such a painful blow … in the death of my well-beloved wife. He has taken half of myself … I am so afflicted by this blow that I appear to myself a stranger in my own house.”

Viret’s sorrow was so great that Calvin was terrified lest his friend perish under the weight of the blow. Writing his comrade, Calvin begged Viret to come to Geneva for a time:

“Come to distract yourself, not only from your sorrow, but also from all your troubles. You need not fear that I will impose any work on you. I will take care that you enjoy your own pleasure in tranquility.

The wonderful harmony and brotherly love existing between these two Reformers is truly an example for all ages. Though each man was called individually and fashioned in a particular way quite distinct from the other, God saw fit to bring these tools together, separately crafted, but each endued with the same vision: to engage in the work of the Kingdom of Christ. Writing of this holy friendship in a book dedicated to Viret and Farel, Calvin wrote,

It will at least be a testimony to this present age and perhaps to posterity of the holy bond of friendship that unites us. I think there has never been in ordinary life a circle of friends so heartily bound to each other as we have been in our ministry.

One matter of constant concern to Viret was church discipline. This, he rightly believed, was a tool pertaining solely to the church authorities, not the civil government. The lords of Bern, on the other hand, reserved this right to themselves alone, requiring Viret and other pastors to submit all requests for discipline to the Bernese for either approval or rejection.

Throughout his pastorate at Lausanne, Viret made numerous journeys to Bern to request the magistrates to cede him the authority necessary to establish and build the church. Viret pled with the Bernese lords, assuring them that a true church must be permitted to govern its members. Bern, desirous of retaining its power, refused to relinquish such authority to the church, declaring that it was the state’s prerogative to govern all. For Viret knew well that a lack of discipline would result in no church at all. Pastors, he stated, must be allowed to enforce “this discipline, by which we can distinguish between swine, dogs, and sheep, according to Christ’s teaching.” “Discipline,” he noted, “can be abandoned, if the administration and use of the Word of God and the sacraments are also abandoned, for the Word and the sacraments cannot be properly administered without it.”

Despite the continued appeals, Bern refused to allow Viret to exercise church discipline or restrict the Lord’s Table. They stated that all must be permitted to participate and any pastor who refused to administer communion was to be immediately discharged. The Lausanne pastors, following Peter’s initiative (Acts 5:29), sent numerous letters to Bern in which they stated their obligation to follow God rather than men:

We have not been called to this charge [the ministry] to close our eyes, to keep silent, to conceal vice, and to cover the scandals of those who have been entrusted to us, but to be on guard, to be attentive, to unceasingly lift our voice with strength, when needed … We must do this to discharge our duty in good conscience.

The dispute finally came to a head in 1558. Writing to Calvin on August 24, Viret confided,

“I have more bitter worries than anyone. I am between the anvil and the hammer, and know not where to turn … I pray that God does not withhold His directions from me.”

As Christmas communion approached, Viret announced that he could not in good conscience administer the sacrament without first being permitted to examine and instruct those who wished to partake. Going before the Council of Lausanne, he begged a seven-day postponement of the communion service to provide the time necessary to examine the communicants. After much debate, the Council agreed to grant the pastors the stipulated time.

When news of the ruling reached Bern, however, the magistrates were outraged at this usurpation of their authority. They sent immediately to Lausanne to countermand the decision of the Council and to dismiss and expel Viret and his colleagues. Thus ousted, Viret and his associates were ordered to pack their belongings and leave the city. A refuge was soon found in the neighboring town of Geneva, where Calvin welcomed his friend with the warmest affection.

Geneva’s joy at receiving their former pastor again after a “loan” to Lausanne of twenty-two years was unimaginable. The city welcomed the exiled Viret with acclamation and open arms. Viret was immediately assigned the Church of St. Germain in which to preach, but the multitudes that pressed in to hear his sermons were so numerous that a new location had to be found to accommodate the crowds. The Council therefore determined to move Viret’s preaching to the larger church of St. Pierre, which would provide ample room for the masses desirous of attending the sermons.

Viret’s time in Geneva was cut short, however, due to a serious illness. In April of 1561 he fell dangerously ill and, fearing that this sickness would soon bring him to the grave, drew up his will on April 12. Concerning this time, he later wrote,

“I fell into an illness whereby my body was so debilitated and brought so low that in my judgment I could expect nothing else but to be lowered into the grave. I had never before had a sickness that had brought me so close to death, not even when I was poisoned by the art and cunning of the enemies of the Gospel.”

Despite Viret’s important assignment and generous treatment, he grew restless. Geneva was now almost completely Protestant and back again firmly under Calvin’s theological control. News from France, where Protestants suffered harsh persecution and lacked pastoral guidance, turned his mind to a new challenge.

France

In 1561 Viret requested leave from the Geneva Council and Company of Pastors to visit the land of the Huguenots. The official reason was that his ailing health demanded warmer climes. However, once in southern France, his heart is touched by the need that he sees there, and he quickly recovers sufficient strength to engage in continuous rounds of impassioned preaching.

Viret’s reputation by this time was so great that the moment he set foot on French soil, he was given immediate authority in the Reformed French churches wherever he chose to go. “Offers poured in requesting Viret to come to such places as Orleans, Avignon, Montauban and Montpellier.” “When Viret arrived in France, churches from all over the country sought him out. The churches in Nimes and Paris even sent delegates to Geneva to ask officially for his services.”

He traveled first to Lyon, and then on to Nîmes, Viret arrived in Nimes on October 6; the city received him with the greatest warmth. Indeed, the churches were not large enough to contain the crowds that sought to hear him; Viret was therefore compelled to preach in open fields and pastures. The multitudes responded eagerly to the Word of God, and on January 4, 1562, in a service lasting six hours, Viret administered communion to over eight thousand believers —almost the entire population. Riots followed many of his sermons, despite Viret’s pleas for peace.

Friend and foe alike were drawn to the sweetness and gentleness of Viret’s preaching. As he preached one day in a field in the Vaunage, the very prior and monks themselves came to listen to the man’s words. As Viret explained to his listeners the wonders of the gospel and the blessedness of the Redeemer, his words did not return void: “The success was complete. The priests, the officers,… became Protestant, and the abbey consecrated half its revenues to evangelization, and the other half to aid the poor.”

As Viret’s leave of absence from Geneva neared its conclusion, the Council of Nimes grew terrified of losing their pastor. In an effort to retain him, they sent a delegation to the Genevan Council, writing,

“The harvest surpasses belief, and the famine is intolerable … We need reapers … In the name of the God you honor, we beseech and beg with our greatest affection that you leave [Viret] with us.”

Despite the desperation of the letter, the Council of Geneva did not grant the request. Indeed, they were so flooded with letters begging for Viret’s presence that they at last decided to let Viret himself decide where to proceed. The leaders of Nîmes begged him to remain with them. Requests again poured in from Montpellier, Montauban, Orleans, and even Paris. Viret at length decided upon Montpellier; he entered that city in February of 1562. There he saw the conversion of nearly the entire faculty of the city’s famous medical college. Only the outbreak of the first War of Religion interrupted his ministry. Though there was fighting in the Montpellier area, Viret’s personal intercession apparently kept bloodshed to a minimum.

He then returned to Lyon, the major city of southeastern France, to begin a three-year ministry. Despite ill health, civil war, and a violent outbreak of the plague, Viret was able to establish his moral authority in the city. He preached daily to large crowds, counseled the soldiers of the Protestant army, and wrote at least 12 books while revising and reprinting several more, including his monumental Instruction chrestienne. He also ministered to victims of the plague and carried on a lively correspondence with other leaders of the Protestant Reformation.

The City Council of Lyon, in writing to the Council of Geneva, expressed their indebtedness to Viret in November of 1562,

“We derive more aid and assistance from his learned and holy teaching than from our entire army.” “Without his presence it would be impossible for us to hold our soldiers to their duty.”

Royal authority was re-established in Lyon in July, 1563, however, and with it Roman Catholic worship. In the months that followed, Viret participated in a pamphlet war with the returned Catholic leader and with various radicals and dissidents in the city. This multi-sided verbal warfare continued for nearly two years until local Catholic clergy obtained a royal order for Viret’s expulsion from the kingdom of France. The notice giving him eight days to leave the country was delivered on August 27, 1565.

Viret fled to Béarn in Navarre, a semi-autonomous kingdom in what is now southwestern France. He was befriended there by Jeanne d’Albrêt, the staunchly Protestant Queen of Navarre and mother of the future Henry IV of France. She made Viret one of her chief advisers and superintendent of the academy she had established at Ortez.

In March of 1563 Viret’s ministry was severely threatened by the issuance of a royal edict forbidding all foreign-born pastors from ministering in France. Because of Viret’s renowned Christian character, however, he was exempted from the edict by request of the Catholics themselves.

Eventually, Catholic forces captured Viret and 11 other Reformed ministers in a surprise attack during the third religious war (1568-1570). The Catholic commander ordered the execution of 7 of the 12 but spared Viret largely because of the positive reputation he enjoyed even among his ecclesiastical enemies. A few weeks later, he was rescued by counter-attacking Protestant forces and returned to his intense and successful ministry.

How could Viret, a foreigner, become the most successful and sought-after Protestant preacher in sixteenth-century France?

After a difficult—though fruitful—life spent in service to his God, Pierre Viret died in early 1571 at the age of sixty, as he was preparing for a trip to the National Synod of Reformed churches at La Rochelle. The Protestants in France greatly lamented his death. Jeanne d’Albrêt wrote to the Council of Geneva:

“Among the great losses which I have sustained during and since the last war, I place in the fore-front the loss of Monsieur Viret.”

Like the site of his death and burial, which remains unknown to this day, the life and theological greatness of Pierre Viret remains unknown to the church at large. Is this also the work of God? Has He thus withheld His Reformer, perhaps awaiting the time when, in His providence, Viret’s life and thought shall be most needed for His church?

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Taken and adapted from: 
Pierre Viret: The Unknown Reformer, by R. A. Sheats
Robert D. Linder, “Forgotten Reformer,” Christian History Magazine, Issue 71 (2001), 37
Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation 

Further references, authors, and materials that were used herein, referenced and provided by R.A. Sheats 
J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, D.D., History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, Vol. III 
Emile Doumergue, Lausanne au temps de la Reformation 
Henri Vuilleumier, L’Église Réformée du Pays de Vaud, Tome I 
Henri Meylan, La Haute École de Lausanne, 1537–1937
Pierrefleur, Mémoires de Pierrefleur (Lausanne: Éditions La Concorde, 1933), 137.
Jean Barnaud, Pierre Viret, Sa Vie et Son Oeuvre 
Felix Bungener, Calvin: His Life, His Labours, and His Writings 
Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, Vol. 1
“Viret: Réformateur de Lausanne,” 
Pierre Viret D’Après Lui-Même (Lausanne: Georges Bridel & Cie Éditeurs, 1911)
Henri Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Lausanne: Librairie Paytot & Cie, 1911), 87.
Michael Bruening, “Pierre Viret and Geneva,” Archive for Reformation History, Vol. 99 
Michael W. Bruening, Calvinism’s First Battleground: Conflict and Reform in the Pays de Vaud, 1528–1559 
Schnetzler, ed., Pierre Viret, 65.
Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (Paris, 1864), 93. 
Doumergue, Lausanne au temps de la Reformation, 46. 
J. Cart, Pierre Viret, le Reformateur Vaudois (Lausanne, 1864), 118.
Pierre Viret, Instruction Chrétienne (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 2008), 348.