John Calvin

John Calvin was born in 1509 in Picardy, France. He was the son of a lawyer. He had a good education in childhood and in 1523 went to Paris to study theology. To help support himself as he gained an education, he worked at a minor post at the Noyon Cathedral.

Although he was very interested in religious theological studies, his father insisted that he follow in the paternal footsteps. In 1528 John Calvin succeeded in getting accepted to the school at Orleans where he went to study law for one year. He continued at Bourges until 1531 when his father died, giving Calvin, now in his twenties the freedom to pursue a career in theology.

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John Calvin returned to Paris where he embarked upon a study of the Greek language, which was necessary to be able to read the Bible in its original language. At this point Calvin came under the influence of the humanistic works of Desiderius Erasmus. The focus of Erasmus was on church reform and away from monasticism.

Martin Luther had posted his 95 Theses in 1517. Pamphlets and other writings of Luther had been disseminated throughout Europe. The Protestant Reformation by the 1530s was in full swing in both Germany and Switzerland. It was in the early 1530s that John Calvin was suddenly taken with Protestantism.

While Protestantism was on the rise in the early 1530s, so too was the reaction against it. The King of France, Francis I, began a campaign of persecution of the Protestants. (These people would become known as the Huguenots.) John Calvin felt threatened and began to wander about France, Italy, and finally, Switzerland.

Drawing of John Calvin

The first edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1536. It was a clear explanation of his beliefs and laid out his ideas on church governance. It was the same year that he travelled to Geneva. The biography of Calvin becomes intimately tied up with the history of that great city. At the time, Geneva was not part of Switzerland, though it was allied with several of the Swiss cantons especially against the Duchy of Savoy. It was a city state vying for its independence. It achieved freedom from Savoy in 1535, just before Calvin's arrival. It had also expelled the Catholic bishop who was attempting to control the government.

Two factions arose in Geneva; one looking for temporal control of the city; the other faction, led in part by Calvin, wanted a theocracy. Calvin's party lost in the early rounds (1538). Calvin felt constrained to move temporarily to Strasbourg. While there he continued to steep himself in theology and the study of church governance. In 1540 Calvin married the widowed Idelette von Bure. (She gave him one child which died in infancy. She died in 1549.) In 1541 his party gained power in Geneva, and he returned to that city.

Calvin disdained the ceremony of the mass. He thought church services should be centered around the sermon. He also allowed the singing of hymns. Back in Geneva he had an opportunity to try out his own beliefs of church government. Like Zwingli he minimized church hierarchy. He abolished bishops. All ministers were equal. The city council would elect a body of people to act as elders. These people would form the actual government of each individual church and would do so as a committee. Further, deacons, who looked after the welfare of the church members and the poor, were elected by the congregation.

In Geneva the city council was made up mainly of very religious people. They were able to impose theocratic government not only on the Church of Geneva, but on the civil government as well. In this position, the city council made violation of church rules a crime. Thus, even to work on a Sunday was punished by civil authorities. Although Calvin was not designated as "president" or "dictator" or even "mayor", it was his rules that ran the town. It was his preaching that held sway. He continued to have disputes with the "libertine" party. But eventually most were forced to flee. Some were even burned as heretics. It is thought by some that Calvin himself had a hand in the judicial destruction of Michael Servetus (one of his rivals) in 1553. Servetus had opposed Calvin both from the pulpit and in writing.1

Beyond church governance, one of the basic tenets of Calvinism was the belief in predestination. This was the idea that an all-knowing God had pre-ordained the life of every individual. Thus, whether a person was to achieve salvation was determined before that person was even born. Since the number of "elect" individuals who were predestined for salvation was limited, it caused people to vie with each other to prove their own worthiness. Austerity and zeal became the norm in Geneva.

Calvin's rule in Geneva had great significance for all of Europe. Geneva established a University in 1559 that trained ministers to go out and preach Calvin's doctrines. Geneva became a center for the spread of Protestantism. It was especially significant for the Huguenots of France as well as the Puritans of England. Ultimately the foundation of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland by John Knox was also a result of Calvin's influence.

Calvin died in 1564 with no pomp or ceremony. Today his burial place is unknown.

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