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John Calvin

Protestant Reformer, b. at Noyon in Picardy, France, July 10, 1509, and d. at Geneva, May 27, 1564

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Calvin, JOHN.—This man, undoubtedly the greatest of Protestant divines, and perhaps, after St. Augustine, the most perseveringly followed by his disciples of any Western writer on theology, was born at Noyon in Picardy, France, July 10, 1509, and died at Geneva, May 27, 1564. A generation divided him from Luther, whom he never met. By birth, education, and temper these two protagonists of the reforming movement were strongly contrasted. Luther was a Saxon peasant, his father a miner; Calvin sprang from the French middle-class, and his father, an advocate, had purchased the freedom of the City of Noyon, where he practiced civil and canon law. Luther entered the Order of Augustinian Hermits, took a monk’s vows, was made a priest, and incurred much odium by marrying a nun. Calvin never was ordained in the Catholic Church; his training was chiefly in law and the humanities; he took no vows. Luther’s eloquence made him popular by its force, humor, rudeness, and vulgar style. Calvin spoke to the learned at all times, even when preaching before multitudes. His manner is classical; he reasons on system; he has little humor; instead of striking with a cudgel he uses the weapons of a deadly logic and persuades by a teacher’s authority, not by a demagogue’s calling of names. He writes French as well as Luther writes German, and like him has been reckoned a pioneer in the modern development of his native tongue. Lastly, if we term the doctor of Wittenberg a mystic, we may sum up Calvin as a scholastic; he gives articulate expression to the principles which Luther had stormily thrown out upon the world in his vehement pamphleteering; and the “Institutes” as they were left by their author have remained ever since the standard of orthodox Protestant belief in all the Churches known as “Reformed”. His French disciples called their sect “the religion”; such it has proved to be outside the Roman world.

The family name, spelt in many ways, was Cauvin, latinized according to the custom of the age as Calvinus. For some unknown reason the Reformer is commonly called Maitre Jean C. His mother, Jeanne Le Franc, born in the Diocese of Cambrai, is mentioned as “beautiful and devout”; she took her little son to various shrines and brought him up a good Catholic. On the father’s side, his ancestors were seafaring men. His grandfather settled at Pont l’Eveque near Paris, and had two sons who became locksmiths; the third was Gerard, who turned procurator at Noyon, and there his four sons and two daughters saw the light. He lived in the Place au Ble (Cornmarket). Noyon, a bishop’s see, had long been a fief of the powerful old family of Hangest, who treated it as their personal property. But an everlasting quarrel, in which the city took part, went on between the bishop and the chapter. Charles de Hangest, nephew of the too well-known Georges d’Amboise, Archbishop of Rouen, surrendered the bishopric in 1525 to his own nephew John, becoming his vicar-general. John kept up the battle with his canons until the Parliament of Paris intervened, upon which he went to Rome, and at last died in Paris in 1577. This prelate had Protestant kinsfolk; he is charged with having fostered heresy, which in those years was beginning to raise its head among the French. Clerical dissensions, at all events, allowed the new doctrines a promising field; and the Calvins were more or less infected by them before 1530.

Gerard’s four sons were made clerics and held benefices at a tender age. The Reformer was given one when a boy of twelve; he became Cure of Saint-Martin de Marteville in the Vermandois in 1527, and of Pont l’Eveque in 1529. Three of the boys attended the local College des Capettes, and there John proved himself an apt scholar. But his people were intimate with greater folk, the de Montmor, a branch of the line of Hangest, which led to his accompanying some of their children to Paris in 1523, when his mother was probably dead and his father had married again. The latter died in 1531, under excommunication from the chapter for not sending in his accounts. The old man’s illness, not his lack of honesty, was, we are told, the cause. Yet his son Charles, nettled by the censure, drew towards the Protestant doctrines. He was accused in 1534 of denying the Catholic dogma of the Eucharist, and died out of the Church in 1536; his body was publicly gibbeted as that of a recusant.

Meanwhile, young John was going through his own trials at the University of Paris, the dean or syndic of which, Noel Bedier, had stood up against Erasmus and bore hard upon Le Fevre d’Etaples (Stapulensis), celebrated for his translation of the Bible into French. Calvin, a “martinet”, or oppidan, in the College de la Marche, made this man’s acquaintance (he was from Picardy) and may have glanced into his Latin commentary on St. Paul, dated 1512, which Doumergue considers the first Protestant book emanating from a French pen. Another influence tending the same way was that of Corderius, Calvin’s tutor, to whom he dedicated afterwards his annotation of I Thessalonians, remarking, “if there be any good thing in what I have published, I owe it to you”. Corderius had an excellent Latin style; his life was austere, and his “Colloquies” earned him enduring fame. But he fell under suspicion of heresy, and by Calvin’s aid took refuge in Geneva, where he died September, 1564. A third herald of the “New Learning” was George Cop, physician to Francis I, in whose house Calvin found a welcome and gave ear to the religious discussions which Cop favored. And a fourth was Pierre-Robert d’Olivet of Noyon, who also translated the Scriptures, our youthful man of letters, his relative, writing (in 1535) a Latin preface to the Old Testament and a French one—his first appearance as a native author—to the New Testament. By 1527, when no more than eighteen, Calvin’s education was complete in its main lines. He had learned to be a humanist and a reformer. The “sudden conversion” to a spiritual life in 1529, of which he speaks, must not be taken quite literally. He had never been an ardent Catholic; but the stories told at one time of his ill-regulated conduct have no foundation; and by a very natural process he went over to the side on which his family were taking their stand. In 1528 he inscribed himself at Orleans as a law-student, made friends with Francis Daniel, and then went for a year to Bourges, where he began preaching in private. Margaret d’Angouleme, sister of Francis I, and Duchess of Berry, was living there with many heterodox Germans about her.

He is found again at Paris in 1531. Wolmar had taught him Greek at Bourges, from Vatable he learned Hebrew; and he entertained some relations with the erudite Budwus. About this date he printed a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia”. It was merely an exercise in scholarship, having no political significance. Francis I was, indeed, handling Protestants severely; and Calvin, now Doctor of Law at Orleans, composed, so the story runs, an oration on Christian philosophy which Nicholas Cop delivered on All Saints‘ Day, 1532, both writer and speaker having to take instant flight from pursuit by the royal inquisitors. This legend has been rejected by modern critics. Calvin spent some time, however, with Canon du Tillet at Angouleme under a feigned designation. In May, 1534, he went to Noyon, gave up his benefice, and, it is said, was imprisoned. But he got away to Nerac in Beam, the residence of the Duchess Margaret, and there again encountered Le Fevre, whose French Bible had been condemned by the Sorbonne to the flames. His next visit to Paris fell out during a violent campaign of the Lutherans against the Mass, which brought on reprisals; Etienne de la Forge and others were burnt in the Place de Greve; and Calvin, accompanied by du Tillet, escaped, though not without adventures, to Metz and Strasburg. In the latter city Bucer reigned supreme. The leading reformers dictated laws from the pulpit to their adherents; and this journey proved a decisive one for the French humanist, who, though by nature timid and shy, committed himself to a war on paper with his own sovereign. The famous letter to Francis I bears date August 23, 1535. It served as a prologue to the “Institutes”, of which the first edition came out in March, 1536, not in French but in Latin. Calvin’s apology for lecturing the king was, that placards denouncing the Protestants as rebels had been posted up all over the realm. Francis I did not read these pages; but if he had done so he would have discovered in them a plea, not for toleration, which the Reformer utterly scorned, but for doing away with Catholicism in favor of the new gospel. There could be only one true Church, said the young theologian, therefore kings ought to make an utter end of popery. (For an account of the “Institutes” see Calvinism.) The second edition belongs to 1539; the first French translation to 1541; the final Latin, as revised by its author, is of 1559; but that in common, use, dated 1560, has additions by his disciples. “It was more God‘s work than mine”, said Calvin, who took for his motto “Omnia ad Dei gloriam”, and in allusion to the change he had undergone in 1529 assumed for his device a hand stretched out from a burning heart.

A much-disputed chapter in Calvin’s biography is the visit which he was long thought to have paid at Ferrara to the Protestant Duchess Renee, daughter of Louis XII. Many stories clustered about his journey, now given up by the best-informed writers. All we know for certain is that the Reformer, after settling his family affairs and bringing over two of his brothers and sisters to the views he had adopted, undertook, in consequence of the war between Charles V and Francis I, to reach Basle by way of Geneva, in July, 1536. At Geneva the Swiss preacher Farel, then looking for help in his propaganda, besought him with such vehemence to stay and teach theology that, as Calvin himself relates, he was terrified into submission. We are not accustomed to fancy the austere prophet so easily frightened. But as a student and recluse new to public responsibilities, he may well have hesitated before plunging into the troubled waters of Geneva, then at their stormiest period. No portrait of him belonging to this time is extant. Later he is represented as of middle height, with bent shoulders, piercing eyes, and a large forehead; his hair was of an auburn tinge. Study and fasting occasioned the severe headaches from which he suffered continually. In private life he was cheerful but sensitive, not to say overbearing; his friends treated him with delicate consideration. His habits were simple; he cared nothing for wealth, and he never allowed himself a holiday. His correspondence, of which 4271 letters remain, turns chiefly on doctrinal subjects. Yet his strong, reserved character told on all with whom he came in contact; Geneva submitted to his theocratic rule, and the Reformed Churches accepted his teaching as though it were infallible.

Such was the stranger whom Farel recommended to his fellow-Protestants, “this Frenchman”, chosen to lecture on the Bible in a city divided against itself. Geneva had about 15,000 inhabitants. Its bishop had long been its prince, limited, however, by popular privileges. The vidomne, or mayor, was the Count of Savoy, and to his family the bishopric seemed a property which, from 1450, they bestowed on their younger children. John of Savoy, illegitimate son of the previous bishop, sold his rights to the duke, who was head of the clan, and died in 1519 at Pignerol. Jean de la Baume, last of its ecclesiastical princes, abandoned the city, which received Protestant teachers from Berne in 1519 and from Fribourg in 1526. In 1527 the arms of Savoy were torn down; in 1530 the Catholic party underwent defeat, and Geneva became independent. It had two councils, but the final verdict on public measures rested with the people. These appointed Farel, a convert of Le Fevre, as their preacher in 1534. A discussion between the two Churches from May 30 to June 24, 1535 ended in victory for the Protestants. The altars were desecrated, the sacred images broken, the Mass done away with. Bernese troops entered and “the Gospel” was accepted, May 21, 1536. This implied persecution of Catholics by the councils which acted both as Church and State. Priests were thrown into prison; citizens were fined for not attending sermons. At Zurich, Basle, and Berne the same laws were established. Toleration did not enter into the ideas of the time.

But though Calvin had not introduced this legislation, it was mainly by his influence that in January, 1537, the “articles” were voted which insisted on communion four times a year, set spies on delinquents, established a moral censorship, and punished the unruly with excommunication. There was to be a children’s catechism, which he drew up; it ranks among his best writings. The city now broke into “jurants” and “nonjurors”, for many would not swear to the “articles”; indeed, they never were completely accepted. Questions had arisen with Berne touching points that Calvin judged to be indifferent. He made a figure in the debates at Lausanne defending the freedom of Geneva. But disorders ensued at home, where recusancy was yet rife; in 1538 the council exiled Farel, Calvin, and the blind evangelist, Couraud. The Reformer went to Strasburg, became the guest of Capito and Bucer, and in 1539 was explaining the New Testament to French refugees at fifty-two florins a year. Cardinal Sadolet had addressed an open letter to the Genevans, which their exile now answered. Sadolet urged that schism was a crime; Calvin replied that the Roman Church was corrupt. He gained applause by his keen debating powers at Hagenau, Worms, and Ratisbon. But he complains of his poverty and ill-health, which did not prevent him from marrying at this time Idelette de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist whom he had converted. Nothing more is known of this lady, except that she brought him a son who died almost at birth in 1542, and that her own death took place in 1549.

After some negotiation Ami Perrin, commissioner for Geneva, persuaded Calvin to return. He did so, not very willingly, on September 13, 1541. His entry was modest enough. The church constitution now recognized “pastors, doctors, elders, deacons” but supreme power was given to the state. Ministers had the spiritual weapon of God‘s word; the consistory never, as such, wielded the secular arm. Preachers, led by Calvin, and the councils, instigated by his opponents, came frequently into collision. Yet the ordinances of 1541 were maintained; the clergy, assisted by lay elders, governed despotically and m detail the actions of every citizen. A presbyterian Sparta might be seen at Geneva; it set an example to later Puritans, who did all in their power to imitate its discipline. The pattern held up was that of the Old Testament, although Christians were supposed to enjoy Gospel liberty. In November, 1552, the Council declared that Calvin’s “Institutes” were a “holy doctrine which no man might speak against.” Thus the State issued dogmatic decrees, the force of which had been anticipated earlier, as when Jacques Gouet was imprisoned on charges of impiety in June, 1547, and after severe torture was beheaded in July. Some of the accusations brought against the unhappy young man were frivolous, others doubtful. What share, if any, Calvin took in this judgment is not easy to ascertain. The execution of Servetus, however, must be laid at his door; it has given greater offense by far than the banishment of Castellio or the penalties inflicted on Bolsec—moderate men opposed to extreme views in discipline and doctrine, who fell under suspicion as reactionary. The Reformer did not shrink from his self-appointed task. Within five years fifty-eight sentences of death and seventy-six of exile, besides numerous committals of the most eminent citizens to prison, took place in Geneva. The iron yoke could not be shaken off. In 1555, under Ami Perrin, a sort of revolt was attempted. No blood was shed, but Perrin lost the day, and Calvin’s theocracy triumphed.

“I am more deeply scandalized”, wrote Gibbon, “at the single execution of Servetus than at the hecatombs which have blazed in the autos-da-fe of Spain and Portugal“. He ascribes the enmity of Calvin to personal malice and perhaps envy. The facts of the case are pretty well ascertained. Born in 1511, perhaps at Tudela, Michael Served y Reves studied at Toulouse and was present in Bologna at the coronation of Charles V. He travelled in Germany and brought out in 1531 at Hagenau his treatise “De Trinitatis Erroribus”, a strong Unitarian work which made much commotion among the more orthodox Reformers. He met Calvin and disputed with him at Paris in 1534, became corrector of the press at Lyons, gave attention to medicine, discovered the lesser circulation of the blood, and entered into a fatal correspondence with the dictator of Geneva touching a new volume, “Christianismi Restitutio”, which he intended to publish. In 1546 the exchange of letters ceased. The Reformer called Servetus arrogant (he had dared to criticize the “Institutes” in marginal glosses), and uttered the significant menace, “If he comes hither and I have any authority, I will never let him quit the place alive.” The “Restitutio” appeared in 1553. Calvin at once had its author delated to the Dominican inquisitor Ory at Lyons, sending on to him the man’s letters of 1545-46 and these glosses. Hereupon the Spaniard was imprisoned at Vienne, but he escaped by friendly connivance, and was burnt there only in effigy. Some extraordinary fascination drew him to Geneva, from which he intended to pass the Alps. He arrived on August 13, 1553. Next day Calvin, who had remarked him at the sermon, got his critic arrested, the preacher’s own secretary coming forward to accuse him. Calvin drew up forty articles of charge under three heads, concerning the nature of God, infant baptism, and the attack which Servetus had ventured on his own teaching. The council hesitated before taking a deadly decision, but the dictator, reinforced by Farel, drove them on. In prison the culprit suffered much and loudly complained. The Bernese and other Swiss voted for some indefinite penalty. But to Calvin his power in Geneva seemed lost, while the stigma of heresy, as he insisted, would cling to all Protestants if this innovator were not put to death. “Let the world see”, Bullinger counselled him, “that Geneva wills the glory of Christ.”

Accordingly, sentence was pronounced October 26, 1553, of burning at the stake. “Tomorrow he dies”, wrote Calvin to Farel. When the deed was done, the Reformer alleged that he had been anxious to mitigate the punishment, but of this fact no record appears in the documents; He disputed with Servetus on the day of execution and saw the end. A defense and apology next year received the adhesion of the Genevan ministers. Melanchthon, who had taken deep umbrage at the blasphemies of the Spanish Unitarian, strongly approved in well-known words. But a group that included Castellio published at Basle in 1554 a pamphlet with the title, “Ought heretics to be persecuted?” It is reckoned the first plea for toleration in modern times. Beza replied by an argument for the affirmative, couched in violent terms; and Calvin, whose favorite disciple he was, translated it into French in 1559. The dialogue, “Vaticanus”, written against the “Pope of Geneva” by Castellio, did not get into print until 1612. Freedom of opinion, as Gibbon remarks, “was the consequence rather than the design of the Reformation.” (For a bibliography of Servetus see Erichsohn in “Opera Calvin”, LIX, 533, 534.)

Another victim to his fiery zeal was Gentile, one of an Italian sect in Geneva, which also numbered among its adherents Alciati and Gribaldo. As more or less Unitarian in their views, they were required to sign a confession drawn up by Calvin in 1558. Gentile subscribed it reluctantly, but in the upshot he was condemned and imprisoned as a perjurer. He escaped only to be twice incarcerated at Berne, where, in 1566, he was beheaded. Calvin’s impassioned polemic against these Italians betrays fear of the Socinianism which was to lay waste his vineyard. Politically he leaned on the French refugees, now abounding in the city, and more than equal in energy, if not in numbers, to the older native factions. Opposition died out. His continual preaching, represented by 2300 sermons extant in the MSS and a vast correspondence, gave to the Reformer an influence without example in his closing years. He wrote to Edward VI, helped in revising the Book of Common Prayer, and intervened between the rival English parties abroad during the Marian period. In the Huguenot troubles he sided with the more moderate. His censure of the conspiracy of Amboise in 1560 does him honor. One great literary institution founded by him, the College, afterwards the University, of Geneva, flourished exceedingly. The students were mostly French. When Beza was rector it had nearly 1500 students of various grades.

Geneva now sent out pastors to the French congregations and was looked upon as the Protestant Rome. Through Knox, “the Scottish champion of the Swiss Reformation“, who had been preacher to the exiles in that city, his native land accepted the discipline of the Presbytery and the doctrine of predestination as expounded in Calvin’s “Institutes”. The Puritans in England were also descendants of the French theologian. His dislike of theatres, dancing and the amenities of society was fully shared by them. The town on Lake Leman was described as without crime and destitute of amusements. Calvin declaimed against the “Libertines”, but there is no evidence that any such people had a footing inside its walls. The cold, hard, but upright disposition characteristic of the Reformed Churches, less genial than that derived from Luther, is due entirely to their founder himself. Its essence is a concentrated pride, a love of disputation, a scorn of opponents. The only art that it tolerates is music, and that not instrumental. It will have no Christian feasts in its calendar, and it is austere to the verge of Manichinan hatred of the body. When dogma fails the Calvinist, he becomes, as in the instance of Carlyle, almost a pure Stoic. “At Geneva, as for a time in Scotland,” says J. A. Froude, “moral sins were treated as crimes to be punished by the magistrate.” The Bible was a code of law, administered by the clergy. Down to his dying day Calvin preached and taught. By no means an aged man, he was worn out in these frequent controversies. On April 25, 1564, he made his will, leaving 225 French crowns, of which he bequeathed ten to his college, ten to the poor, and the remainder to his nephews and nieces. His last letter was addressed to Farel. He was buried without pomp, in. a spot which is not now ascertainable. In the year 1900 a monument of expiation was erected to Servetus in the Place Champel. Geneva has long since ceased to be the head of Calvinism. It is a rallying point for Free Thought, Socialist propaganda, and Nihilist conspiracies. But in history it stands out as the Sparta of the Reformed churches, and Calvin is its Lycurgus.


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