The European Reformers.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Much has been said and written about Calvin, his works and the structured church that he created, that only a short note is given here - mainly about his formative years before he went Geneva.

Born 10 July 1509 in Noyon, in Picardy  he was a quiet man but possessed of an immovable will that would stand him in good stead.  His grandfather lived in Pont L`Eveque, Normandy, and was a cooper by trade. Aged only twelve years his father obtained for him the chaplaincy of a small church called La Gesine in 1521. In August 1523, as the Black Death raged about Noyon, he was granted permission to go to Paris. Here he attended La Marche college and met his influential tutor and friend  Mathurin  Cordier, a brilliant man of letters. Calvin knew of the happenings at Meaux through his cousin Olivetan who was in Paris. The turning point came when he encountered the truths of the Bible about 1527. From Paris he went to Orleans where he studied under the jurist and lawyer Pierre de L`Etoile. Continuing his law studies he went to Bourges to study with the Italian lawyer Andrew Alciat; it was here that Calvin met Melchior Wolmar who taught Greek  and less publicly read the Bible in Greek. In 1529 his father Gerard, died and he returned to Noyon to deal with the estate.

Returning to Paris it is possible that he was at the execution of Louis de Berquin, but he was in time to join the debates then raging. Calvin now launched himself into preaching and visiting homes throughout Paris. Religion and politics was heady mixture in 1531 when twice Francis tried to enlist the aid of the German Protestant princes against the Emperor. Rebuffed, in October 1531 Francis then met Henry VIII of England at Boulogne. This gave rise to much optimism that Francis would at least tolerate Protestantism in France, and even support a Reformation. Margaret of Valois was now Queen of Navarre and Duchess of Berry and she pressed for the latter. She attempted to open the churches of Paris to the Protestant preachers which raised the hackles of Beda at the Sorbonne and the papists generally; she compromised by arranging services in her own apartments in the Louvre to which thousands of Parisians were admitted. Beda went so far as to threaten the king if he did not stop the heresy, but gained only banishment for his troubles. However, the priests and monks mounted an all out offensive against Protestantism among the common people by the trusted methods of exaggeration, calumny, lies and plain rabble rousing. In the end the masses opted for the freedoms and excesses they enjoyed under the papists and turned away from the Reformation.

Calvin had studied the writings of Luther during 1533 and was finally converted to the Reformation when he drafted an oration for Nicholas Cop to read at the seasonal opening of the Sorbonne. As Rector of the University, Cop was a close friend of Calvin and readily agreed to read Calvin`s draft which focussed on  `Christian Philosophy` and the `Grace of God`. The reaction from the papists present, which day was their festival of All Saints, was astonishment. They immediately denounced Cop as a heretic and demanded his punishment. Cop was prepared to defend himself but friends saw that once engaged in a defence the outcome could only be the stake. They counselled flight and Cop wisely went to Basle. This was followed by rumour that Calvin was the author and was still in Paris, prompting a search for him. Calvin was in his rooms at the College of Fortret when friends warned him. The students rallied round and delayed the search party while Calvin escaped by climbing down knotted bedsheets to the street. Even now he was reluctant to leave France and went first to  Orleans, then Tours  before turning to Angouleme and a student friend of the Du Tillet family. His arrival there was to be of great moment as the family library was one of the finest in all France, with over 4000 volumes. During his stay Calvin indulged himself with study at every possible minute , day and night. It was here that he brought together his thoughts which would be published as his Institutes.  He also met an aged Jacques Lefevre, who lived at Nerac not far from Angouleme. Lefevre`s parting words were prophetic:

"Young man, you will be one day  a powerful instrument in the Lord`s hand; God will make use of you  to restore the kingdom of heaven in France"

After six months at Angouleme Calvin went north to Poitiers in March 1534, to stay with a friend, a member of of the Du Tillet family, He was introduced to the chief magistrate Pierre  de la Planche and in turn the distinguished residents of Poitiers. `Ere long Calvin was preaching in the magistrate`s garden and was the cause of  Ponthus, Abbot  of a Benedictine  convent nearby, becoming the first  abbot in France to profess the reformed faith. The garden of Basses Treilles was an early conventicle site, but prudency dictated that an alternative meeting place be found. This was a large cave in the limestone hills nearby that became known as "Calvin`s Grotto"; it was here that the first Communion in the Protestant fashion, was held in France. Before leaving Poitiers Calvin established a small Protestant congregation and encouraged three local men to become evangelical preachers.

From Poitiers Calvin returned for the last time to Noyon in May 1534 where he sold  his inheritance, and resigned the Chaplaincy of La Gesine and Curacy of Pont L`Eveque thus breaking his bonds with Rome. He returned to Paris in June 1534  still nurturing the hope of a reformation there. Instead he was challenged by the Spanish  adventurer Michael Servetus to debate the Trinity.  Servetus was proposing a form of Theism all his own, but he failed to keep his appointment. Calvin would meet him again in Geneva. In Paris itself Noel Beda had returned from exile in 1533 and had caused some 300 Lutherans to be imprisoned, and preachers forbidden to enter the pulpit. In 1534 he had an act passed by Parliament that decreed death by burning  against those convicted of holding the new opinions on the testimony of two witnesses. He was keenly seeking suitable candidates for the stake. Constrained from preaching and a sense of impending doom, Calvin with his friend Du Tillet left Paris at the end of July 1534 and went to Strasbourg.

Strasbourg was one of the free cities and liberally minded such that it had become a refuge for exiles from surrounding countries. At the time of Calvin`s visit the Reformers - Bucer, Capito and Hedio were resident and Calvin met with them. He was, however, disappointed at their middle of the road views which in his opinion would not make the Reformation that was needed. It was these three Divines who were embroiled in the chimerical plan of Francis I to unite Rome and the Protestants. Weary of the endless wrangling that was going on and not believing in what was proposed, Calvin left Strasbourg for Basle.

With France turning its face to Rome, and the burnings at the stake already taking place in Paris (November 1534) Calvin decided that an in cognito exile in Basle was prudent but also the opportunity to return to his beloved studies. This included drafting his Institutes which was published  in 1536. He was recruited by William Farel to be minister in Geneva but his beliefs were rejected by the people at that time. He returned in 1541 when the council accepted his proposals but he had many problems with an immoral populace which he faced by daily preaching.  He was energetic in ironing out issues of theology that arose  and brought the French and German speaking churches of Switzerland closer together. In 1553 he was responsible for having Michael Servetus, a vehement critic of the doctrine of the Trinity, arrested and burnt at the stake for  heresy.

 He founded the Geneva Academy to which students flocked from all over Europe, including John Knox and Andrew Melville from Scotland. It was from his systematic application of intellectual discipline to the ideas of the first Reformers that he created his church. Strong in its Lutheran content, he resolutely held that all knowledge of God and man is to be found only in the Word of God; pardon and salvation  are only possible through the free working of the grace of God. and God chose some of his creatures  for salvation and others for destruction.  For him the Church was supreme and not to be restricted in any way. He gave much greater consideration to the external organisation than Luther and accepted only baptism  and communion as sacraments. He rejected Zwingli`s idea that the communion  was only symbolic but also counselled against any magical belief in the real presence of Christ.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605)

Beza  trained as a lawyer and was a reputable Latin poet. In 1548 he went to Geneva announced that he had been converted to Protestantism, and was made Professor  of Greek at Lausanne University. In 1559 he became the first rector of the Geneva Academy. As well as becoming Calvin`s successor he also was a friend to the Huguenots in France, and produced new versions of the  Greek and Latin New Testaments which became the basis for the Geneva and King James Bibles. A political person by nature Beza wrote many political, polemical and theological tracts, and also a biography of Calvin. Through his interests Beza strengthened the Protestant position  so that Geneva became the centre of Reformed Protestantism.

Calvin is often held up to have created a stern and unforgiving creed that led to the extremes of some Puritans and the Covenanters in Scotland. As is often the case, the critics take  issues out of context. Like Sir Thomas More, Calvin sought a Utopia at a time when the limits of such a proposal were simply unknown. Personal freedom, liberty of conscience, politics and constitutional government were concepts that had only just been born, and no one had considered the practical interfaces of theology and theocracy that applied at that time. There was no reason not to go for perfection, indeed. it is easy to visualise him saying to himself - "If I don`t ask, I wont get". Some modern Calvinists and Presbyterians display their ignorance and jump up and down and yell strenuously if Calvin and Knox are referred to as zealots. Yet if they stopped to look at a dictionary they would find that `zeal` means an intense enthusiasm for a cause or person; a passionate ardour. `Zealous` means ardent, enthusiastic, earnest. They too readily confuse zealot with the modern down side of fanatic, which can mean bigoted, but it also means a devotee. They were not bigots in the modern sense because they were not unreasonably wedded to their beliefs - thus Calvin et al were zealots of the best possible kind.

 Geneva under Calvin from 1541.

 The extract below sets in context what life was like in Geneva under Calvin at the time of his reforms to both church and civil authority. Importantly it illustrates the reaction of a fairly relaxed and free living society under ecclesiastic constraints that seemed to them to replace one rigorous regime for another. The particular relevance is that these ideas, which were the beginning of reform - not the end, were carried into England by the Puritans, and later maintained in Scotland by the Covenanters. It was the apparent extremes, the absolutism, of the principles of Calvin  that were resented by Elizabeth I  and by James VI/I, which gave rise to the Millenary Petition, the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, and eventually the Pilgrim Father`s exodus in 1620.

 Extract from Johann Calvin, seine Kirc lie and sein Staat in Genf. Von F. W. Kampsohulte, Professor der Geschichte an der Universitat Bonn. Erster Band. Leipzig: 1869.; and  Reformation Papers by N Pocock , Michel Fellow, Oxford; Chatterton Dix, Bristol,1872.

Geneva was one of the fragments of the broken-up kingdom of Burgundy. Its bishop was its king, and was chosen by the canons of its cathedral. His civil and military power was delegated to a vidome (vice domini), who held the castle on the Isle of the Rhone. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Duke of Savoy was the vidome, and the honour had become hereditary in his house. But under the bishop and the vidome the Genevese enjoyed very republican institutions and a large share of liberty. Twice a year, to the tolling of the great bell of St. Peter, the citizens assembled to elect four syndics, and these four syndics had during their term of office the actual government of the city. The ambition of the vidomes disturbed this order of things. They usurped the jurisdiction of the bishop, and encroached on the liberty of the people. A fierce and long-continued conflict began ; the city was divided into factions—the Eidgenossen (or Confederates) struggling to maintain the liberties of the city, and the Mamelukes willing to give up everything to the House of Savoy. The patriot party formed an alliance with Friburg and Berne, and by their help the Savoyards were banished, the office of vidome abolished, and the city rendered more independent and more republican than ever.

 This political revolution prepared the way for ecclesiastical reform. The very ferment of mind which prevailed in the city was favourable to change. But the ecclesiastical party was still strong. The authority of the bishop was still recognised. The clergy still numbered nearly three hundred, in a population of not more than twelve or fourteen thousand. If Berne, being Protestant, inclined its ally to reform, Friburg, which was Catholic, used all its influence to retain it in alliance to the ancient Church. But Reformation ideas were penetrating everywhere; and the young men who had fought the battle of the city's freedom promised themselves still greater liberty, and even license, by the overthrow of the Church. Things were in this state of flux in 1532, when William Farel appeared within the walls of Geneva. The German-Swiss Reformers had fixed upon him as the proper man to carry their principles into French Switzerland. Though come of gentle blood, he was a little mean-looking man, with a plebeian face, red unkempt beard, fiery eyes, and somewhat violent ways. The fastidious Erasmus could not bear him, and affixed to him an odious nickname. His friends called him the Zealot. But he was the right man for the work to be done. He was indefatigable, dauntless, possessed of an impassioned popular eloquence, which carried conviction with it. Threatened with 'the Rhone,' with poison, with a bullet in his brain, he remained firm, and in the end had the great happiness of seeing the Reformation firmly established in Geneva.         

Geneva, with its twelve thousand souls, its new-born independence and its new­born faith, was now to become the platform where an experiment was to be tried, and great religious problems solved affecting all mankind. In this city, and at this crisis of its history, John Calvin arrived, a wayfarer seeking rest for a night. He travelled as usual under an assumed name, and lodged at an inn. But Du Tillet was there, and made his arrival known. Farel no sooner heard that the author of the ' Institutes ' was in the town than he resolved to do everything in his power to detain him. He needed such a man for a helper in his work. The old Church was torn down, but a new one was yet to be built up. Even society, demoralised by the struggles of thirty years, required to be reconstructed from its very basis He therefore hurried to Calvin, and begged him to remain and assist him to preach in the Genevese Church. Calvin at first declined. He pleaded his unfitness for public life, his love of study and retirement, and implored Farel in God's name to have pity upon him."May God curse your life and your learned leisure" said Farel, assuming the air of a prophet. "if you do not now come to His help in this necessity." Calvin was startled and even intimidated by the words of the apostle of Geneva, and consented to remain. '  M. Mignet, in his remarkable paper on 'The Reformation at Geneva,' read before the Academie des Sciences, Morales et Politiques,said "Farel gave Geneva to the Reformation, and Calvin to Geneva."

Calvin at first undertook no definite office ; he merely undertook to give prelections on Scripture in the Church of St. Peter. Two months afterwards, however, he was elected a minister. The city does not appear to have either greatly honoured or richly rewarded him. he is spoken of in the registers simply as ' the Frenchman' (iste Gallus), and in the following spring six gold crowns were voted him, with the significant remark that he had previously scarcely got anything. But he soon began to make his influence felt. He took a part in the conference at Lausanne, which resulted in the Reformation being established in the Pays de Vaud. He procured the expulsion of some Anabaptists who were creating disturbances in the city, for in the city of the Reformed there must be but 'one faith and one baptism.' He got a victory over Caroli in the synod of Lausanne, but he obtained it by violence and vulgar abuse. Caroli charged Calvin and Farel with being Arians, denying the Trinity of Persons. Calvin retorted by declaring that Caroll was an atheist, with no more faith than a dog or a pig. Professor Kampschulte thinks there was some ground for Caroli's accusation, and that Calvin at this period had a dislike of the terms ' trinity ' and `person,' and had in fact declared that no true Church could accept the Athanasian Creed.

But his most important work was a Confession of Faith which he drew up in conjunction with Fare!, `to give,' as Beza says, ` some shape to the newly established Church.' ` This ` first Confession of Faith by the Reformed Church in France,'  `was simple in form, moderate in tone, and ` free from many of the theological controversies which afterwards arose among the Reformers; its principal object was to separate the Reformed Faith clearly and entirely from the Church of Rome, its traditions, its priest craft, and its ritual.' It consisted of twenty-one articles. Together with this Confession, a document was presented to the magistrates, tracing an ecclesiastical organisation and the relation of the civil to the ecclesiastical power. The power of excommunication was claimed for the Church. ' We hold,' said the ministers, ` that it is expedient, and according to the ordinance of God, that all open idolaters, blasphemers, murderers, thieves, adulterers, and false witnesses, all seditious and quarrelsome persons, slanderers, pugilists, drunkards, and spendthrifts, if they do not amend their lives after they have been duly admonished, shall be cut off from communion with believers until they have given satisfactory proofs of repentance.' This Confession and church polity, after some hesitation, were adopted by the Council of Two Hundred, and afterwards by the assembled citizens in the Church of St. Peter.

Having secured the acceptance of this ecclesiastical constitution, Calvin was not a man to allow its principles to lie idle. He began to apply them rigorously, and the stout burghers, who had thrown off' the yoke of Savoy and the yoke of Rome, and thought that at last they must be free, discovered to their surprise that Calvin's little finger was thicker than the Pope's loins. The Genevese were then a gay, pleasure-loving people. The indulgent humour of the Romish Church had accustomed them to amusements. They loved music and dancing, mumming and masquerades. They had their festivals, their processions, their plays, their `merry andrews` (clowns or jokers) making mirth on the green. They lounged about their wine-shops, and enjoyed with their glass of wine a quiet hand at cards, as every inhabitant of every continental city does at the present day. But weddings, as was natural, were their special occasions of rejoicing. The bride was adorned in her best, her tresses hung gracefully down on her shoulders, flowers found their appropriate place on her head and breast; she repaired to the church amid the ringing of bells and surrounded by her friends, and when the ceremony was over the day was spent in feasting and dancing.

 But all this was now to be changed. All festivals but Sunday were abolished, and Sunday must be devoted to the hearing of sermons. Marriages must be celebrated before a small company and with no mirth, and the bride must appear without her tresses. Dancing, masquerading, and card-playing were prohibited. All taverns were to be shut at nine o'clock, and the citizens to be in their own houses at that hour in the evening. Like the inhabitants of a newly conquered country, their pleasures must end, if not their fires be extinguished, when the curfew tolled. It is fair, however, to say that considering the early habits of the time, nine o'clock was as late then as eleven o'clock is now—the hour at which, according to recent and on the whole, beneficial legislation, every tavern in Scotland used to be shut.

It is generally said, in vindication of these severe rules, that the 16,000 or so Genevese were at this time a loose people, that immorality had tainted their whole social life and usages, and that nothing but rigour would cure them. It may have been so; but there is no evidence that they were exceptionally wicked, and there is nothing about which we are more apt to form false estimates than popular morality in the absence of correct statistics. Modern facts have dispelled many old delusions. Roman Catholic countries are not always more impure than Calvinistic ones. Rude peoples are not always more licentious than refined ones. Free manners do not always indicate loose morals; and even coarseness of speech and behaviour does not always imply profligacy. The same apology which is made for Queen Margaret's tales must be equally valid for much of the indelicacy and indecency of the time. In our own day, a peasant girl would use language and do things which would shock a fine lady; but that does not prove that the one is more immoral than the other. It is true the preachers declaimed against the sins of the people, but the language of sermons is often framed in accordance with theological tenets rather than tabulated facts. The simple truth is, Calvin had never troubled himself with questions about the comparative wickedness of Geneva. He had his dream, like Plato and Sir Thomas More, of a model State -- `a Utopian Christian community into which there should enter nothing that defileth, nothing that worketh abomination; a new Jerusalem, a heaven upon earth.` It was at the realisation of this idea that he aimed, yet knowing of the frailties of man, that such perfection was not possible.

For a shy and retiring man, Calvin pursued an unending and vigorous ministry. In almost twenty three years in Geneva , every year  it is reckoned that he preached 300 sermons and rendered 200 lectures. He was constantly writing letters and replying to criticisms, and in later years, ill health forced him to dictate from his sick bed. He took a leading part in the civil administration and law and order and  doubtless knew about the fifty eight executions and seventy six banishments, chiefly for religious offences, between 1542-8.


Ulrich Zwingli.

Martin Luther.


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