Jean Calvin

Nation: France

Religious Figure

Birth Date: July 10, 1509
France Jean Calvin Religious Figure Cover
I. Early Studies
II. Initial Opposition to Rome
III. First Attempt at Reform in Geneva
IV. Religious and Political Rule of Geneva
V. Execution of Servetus
VI. Legacy
I. Early Studies
Jean Calvin was born at Noyon in Picardy, France on July 10, 1509. He was intended in the first instance for the profession of the church, and two benefices were already set apart for him, when, at a very early age, from what motive is not exactly known, his destination was suddenly changed, and he was sent, first to Orleans and then to Bourges, to learn under distinguished teachers the science of jurisprudence. He is said to have made great proficiency in that study, but nevertheless, he found leisure to cultivate other talents. He made himself acquainted with Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, during his residence at Bourges. However, his natural inclination seems ever to have bent him towards those pursuits to which his earliest attention was directed, and though he never attended the schools of Theology, nor had at any time any public master in that discipline, yet his thoughts were never far away from it. The time which he could spare from his professional labors was employed on subjects bearing more or less directly upon religion. Thus it was, that he failed not to take part in the discussions, which arose in France during his early years, respecting the principles of the Reformation.

Malkin, A. T., & Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (London). (1836). Calvin. In The gallery of portraits with memoirs (Vol. 6, pp. 55-61). London: Charles Knight.
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II. Initial Opposition to Rome
Calvin's opposition to the Church of Rome soon became notorious, and made him, young as he was, an object of jealousy to some of its powerful adherents. Even the moderate Erasmus viewed his aspiring talents and determined character with some undefined apprehension, and he is related (after a conversation with Calvin at Strasbourg) to have remarked to Bucer, who had presented him, "I see in that young man the seeds of a dangerous pest, which will some day throw great disorder into the Church." The weak and wavering character of Erasmus renders it difficult for us to understand what sort of disorder it was that he anticipated, or what exactly was the Church on which the apprehended mischief was to fall. In 1536 Calvin published his great work, the Christian Institute, which was intended as a sort of confession of faith of the French reformers, in answer to the calumnies which confounded them with the frantic Anabaptists of Germany.

Malkin, A. T., & Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (London). (1836). Calvin. In The gallery of portraits with memoirs (Vol. 6, pp. 55-61). London: Charles Knight.
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III. First Attempt at Reform in Geneva
In 1536, finding that his person was no longer secure in France, Calvin determined to retire into Strasbourg, and was compelled by accident to pass through Geneva. He found this city in a state of extreme confusion. The civil government was popular, and in those days tumultuous. The ecclesiastical had been entirely dissolved by the departure of the bishops and clergy on the triumph of the Reformation, and only such laws existed as the individual influence of the pastors was able to impose upon their several flocks. It was a tempting field for spiritual ambition, and Calvin was readily persuaded to enter into it. He decided to remain at Geneva, and forthwith opened a Theological school.

In the very year following his arrival, he formed the design of introducing into his adopted country a regular system of ecclesiastical polity. He assembled the people and, not without much opposition, prevailed on them at length to bind themselves by oath: first, that they would not again, on any consideration, ever submit to the dominion of Rome; secondly, that they would render obedience to a certain code of ecclesiastical laws, which he and his colleagues had drawn up for them. Some writers do not expressly mention that this second proposition was accepted by the people. If accepted, it was immediately violated and as Calvin and his clerical coadjutors (who were only two in number) refused with firmness to administer the holy communion to such as rejected the condition, the people, not yet prepared to endure that bondage, banished the spiritual legislators from the city, in April 1538.

Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he renewed his intimacy with Bucer, and became more and more distinguished for his talents and learning. He was present at the Conferences of Worms and Ratisbon, where he gained additional reputation. He founded a French reformed church at Strasbourg, and obtained a theological chair in that city. At the same time, he continued in communication with Geneva, and in expressions of unabated affection for his former adherents. Meanwhile, the disorders which had prevailed in that city were in no manner alleviated by his exile, and a strong reaction gradually took place in his favor. In the year 1541, with there being a vacancy in the ministry, the senate and the assembly of the people proclaimed with equal vehemence their wish for the return of Calvin. "We will have Calvin, that good and learned man, Christ's minister." "This," says Calvin, Epist. 24, "when I understood, I could not choose but praise God; nor was I able to judge otherwise, than that this was the Lord's doing; and that it was marvellous in our eyes; and that the stone which the builders refused was now made the head of the corner."

Malkin, A. T., & Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (London). (1836). Calvin. In The gallery of portraits with memoirs (Vol. 6, pp. 55-61). London: Charles Knight.
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IV. Religious and Political Rule of Geneva
It was on September 13, 1541 that Calvin returned to Geneva from his exile in the pride of spiritual triumph. He began, without any loss of time, while the feelings of all classes were yet warm in his favor, to establish that rigid form of ecclesiastical discipline which he may formerly have meditated, but which he did not fully propound until then. He proposed to institute a standing court (the Consistory), consisting of all the ministers of religion, who were to be perpetual members, and also of twice the same number of laymen to be chosen annually. To these he committed the charge of public morality, with power to determine all kinds of ecclesiastical causes. They had the authority to convene, control, and punish, even with excommunication, whomsoever they thought deserving. It was in vain that many objected to this scheme. The perpetual judges, though fewer in number, would predominate over a majority annually elected. Calvin, through his power over the clergy, would be master of the decisions of the whole tribunal. He persisted inflexibly, and since there now remained with the people of Geneva only the choice of receiving his laws or sending him once more into exile, they acquiesced reluctantly in the former determination. On November 20, in the same year (1541), the Presbytery was established at Geneva.

Maimbourg, in his History of Calvinism, has remarked that, from this time forward, Calvin became, not pontiff only, but also caliph, of Geneva. Since the unbounded influence which he possessed in the Consistory extended to the council, and no important state-affair was transacted without his advice or approbation. At the same time, he enlarged the limits of his spiritual power, and made it felt in every quarter of Europe. In France most especially he was regarded personally as the head of the Reformed Church. He composed a liturgy for its use and, secured from persecution by his residence and dignity, he gave laws by his writings and his emissaries to the scattered congregations of Reformers. The fruits of his unwearied industry were everywhere in their hands. His Institute, and his learned Expositions of Scripture, were substantial foundations of spiritual authority. and he became to his Church what the "Master of the Sentences" — almost what Augustine himself — had been to the Church of Rome. Furthermore Calvin did the Reformed Church an essential service by procuring the establishment of the academy, or University of Geneva. It was long the principal nursery of Presbyterian ministers, and which was the chief instrument of communicating to the citizens of its little state, that general mental culture and love of literature for which they were remarkable.

Malkin, A. T., & Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (London). (1836). Calvin. In The gallery of portraits with memoirs (Vol. 6, pp. 55-61). London: Charles Knight.
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V. Execution of Servetus
A Spaniard named Michael Servetus had been long engaged in a correspondence with Calvin, and it had finally degenerated into angry and abusive controversy. Servetus had been educated as a physician and had acquired great credit in his profession. He later entered the field of theological controversy and defended the Unitarian doctrine, adding to it some obscure and fanciful notions peculiar to his own imagination. He published very early in life Seven Books concerning the Errors of the Trinity and he continued in the same principles until the year 1553, when he put forth (at Vienne, in Dauphiné), a work entitled The Restoration of Christianity, in further support of his views.

The propagation of these opinions by a professed Reformer was at that crisis a matter of great scandal, and perhaps even of some danger to the cause of the Reformation. It was felt as such by some of the leading Reformers. Zwingli and Oecolampadius eagerly disclaimed the error of Servetus. "Our Church will be very ill spoken of," said the latter in a letter to Bucer, "unless our divines make it their business to cry him down."

Calvin was not a man who would argue where he could command, or persuade where he could overthrow. Full of vehemence, inflexible and relentless, he was prepared to adopt and to justify extreme measures, wheresoever they answered his purpose best. He was animated by the pride, intolerance and cruelty of the Church of Rome, and he planted and nouirished those passions in his Consistory at Geneva.

Servetus, having escaped from confinement at Vienne, and flying for refuge to Naples, was driven by evil destiny or his own infatuation to Geneva. Here he strove to conceal himself, until he should be enabled to proceed on his journey. However he was quickly discovered by Calvin and immediately cast into prison, in the summer of 1553. His trial soon followed.

The magistrates did not venture completely to execute the will of Calvin, without first consulting the other Protestant cities of Switzerland; namely, Zurich, Berne, Basel, and Schaffhausen. The answers returned by these all indicated very great anxiety for the extinction of the heresy, without however expressly demanding the blood of the heretic. The people of Zurich were the most violent, and the answer of their "Pastors, Readers, and Ministers," which is praised and preserved by Calvin, is worthy of the communion from which they had so lately seceded. As soon as these communications reached Geneva, Servetus was immediately condemned to death (on October 26, 1553), and was executed on the day following by burning at the stake.

There is extant a letter written by Calvin to his friend and brotherminister, William Farel (dated the 26th), which announces that the fatal sentence had been passed, and would be executed the next day. It is remarkable for the cold conciseness and heartless indifference of its expressions. Not a single word indicates any feeling of compassion or repugnance. As the work of persecution was carried on without mercy, and completed without pity, so likewise was it recollected without remorse. The Protestant Republican Minister of Christ continued for some years afterwards to insult with abusive epithets the memory of his victim.

Soon after the death of Servetus, Calvin published a vindication of his proceedings, in which he defended, without any compromise, the principle on which he had acted. It is entitled, A Faithful Exposition and short Refutation of the Errors of Servetus, Avherein it is shown that heretics should be restrained by the power of the sword. His friend and biographer Beza also put forth a work On the propriety of punishing Heretics by the Civil authority. Thus Calvin not only indulged his own malevolent humor, but also sought to establish among the avowed principles of his own church the duty of exterminating all who might happen to differ from it.

Malkin, A. T., & Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (London). (1836). Calvin. In The gallery of portraits with memoirs (Vol. 6, pp. 55-61). London: Charles Knight.
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VI. Legacy
Calvin expired at Geneva on May 27, 1564, having maintained his authority to the end of his life. This need not surprise us, for it was his character to awe and to command. Fearless, indexible, morose, and imperious; he neither courted anyone, nor yielded to any one, nor conciliated any one. Yet he was sensible of, and seemingly contrite for, his defects of temper; for he writes to Bucer, "I have not had harder contests with my vices, which are great and many, than with my impatience"."

His talents were extremely powerful, both for literature and for business. His profound and various learning acquired for him the general respect which it deserved. He was active and indefatigable. He slept little and was remarkable for his abstemious habits. He affected a perfect simplicity of manner, and professed, and may indeed have felt, a consummate contempt for the ordinary objects of human ambition. He neither loved money for itself, nor grasped at it for its uses. At his death, the whole amount of his property, including his library, did not exceed, at the lowest statement, one hundred and twenty-five crowns, at the highest, three hundred.

Thus it was that Calvin acquired power almost uncontrolled over a state of which he was not so much as a native, and considerable influence over the spiritual condition of Europe — power and influence, of which deep traces still exist both in the country which adopted him, and in others where he was only known by his writings and his doctrines.

Malkin, A. T., & Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (London). (1836). Calvin. In The gallery of portraits with memoirs (Vol. 6, pp. 55-61). London: Charles Knight.
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