Who was John Calvin?
John Calvin (1509 to 1564) was a Frenchman
who moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and in the mid-1500s became the leader
of the Swiss Reformed Movement from which the Presbyterian Church was eventually
As a young man he was trained in Paris,
France, to become a lawyer. But at the University of Paris he became
deeply involved in some of the intellectual groups gathering to discuss
Luther and Zwingli's "protestant" or reform movement in the church.
Calvin became a strong believer in the importance of church reform and
soon became quite outspoken in the matter--a very dangerous thing to do
in those times.
He was even so bold as to think that
he himself might convince the French king, Francis 1st, to give some kind
of support to the protestant reform movement. Thus in 1536 he published
a work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, dedicated to convincing
Francis of the truth and critical importance of this movement of church
This not only failed to convince the
king, but also identified Calvin as a voice of religious dissent, not tolerated
in France. Calvin knew that he had to get out of France.
How was it
that Calvin came to making Geneva, Switzerland, the center of the Reformed
Calvin intentended to go to either Basle
Switzerland or Strasburg, Germany, where the Reform Movement was thriving.
But to get there and avoid a nasty war going on in the East of France,
Calvin swung south to Geneva, Switzerland. He was planning to stay
there only briefly until he could get on to Strasburg or Basle.
But a protestant reformer in Geneva,
William Farel, begged Calvin to stay in the city and help him with the
church reform movement which was growing rapidly there. Calvin reluctantly
This proved for Calvin to be a stormy
situation. Geneva was an unruly city, and had accepted Farel's reforms
only as a way of excusing their move to overthrow the authority over the
city of the Duke of Savoy. Their interest in religious or spiritual
reform was very shallow. Further, Calvin's natural love of orderliness
and discipline was naturally destined to make him many enemies in the city.
In the spring of 1538 the Genevans decided that they had had enough of
the reforms of Calvin and Farel. Both were banished from Geneva.
Calvin now made his way to Strasburg, and settled in there.
Strasburg was a good time for Calvin.
He was well received, had a chance to work on a new edition of his Institutes,
and married very happily.
But in 1541, a group of Calvin's former
supporters in Geneva came to him in Strasburg and pleaded with him to return
to Geneva. The city was in turmoil and needed his strong hand to
bring things back under some kind of order.
Calvin reluctantly decided to make his
return to Geneva--but on his terms.
Upon his return, Calvin organized (accepting
many compromises with the city Council) the religious life of the city
around his new Ordinances--the foundation of Reformed
the church is organized and run). Geneva in turn became identified
under Calvin's leadership as the model Christian city, the "New Jerusalem"
Soon church reformers from many other
parts of Europe were coming to Geneva to study Calvin's reform methods.
Geneva was becoming the "teaching" center of a rapidly growing movement
of church reform throughout all of Europe.
was Calvin's Reformed Movement closely related to the mindset of the newly
emerging European "middle class" of townsmen?
Calvin was an urban (city) European,
possessing a bourgeois (relating to "burgs" or towns and cities)
mindset of the newly rising European urban "middle class."
Calvin's interest in reform of the crumbling
medieval (focused on the countryside or rural life) moral-legal
order of the old church involved importantly a vision of the new urban
order as central to a "purified" Christianity.
And his interest in reform did not limit
itself merely to matters of personal religious belief and doctrine--as
was the case for Luther. Calvin truly was interested in reshaping
every part of post-medieval or "modern" life: political, economic,
and social as well as theological--built heavily on a lifestyle that was
typical of the rapidly growing European cities.
How did this
cause a new "democratic" spirit to grow up as part of Calvin's Reformed
Calvin gave a theological excuse to
the well educated, well-read urban middle class for their independent-mindedness.
Unlike Luther, Calvin pushed to its fullest extent the protestant idea
of respecting authority (including even political or governmental authority)
when it could show Scriptural justification (sola scriptura) for
In fact Calvin encouraged Christians
to build new governments and societies as a way of cleansing Christianity
of its corruption--and of bringing glory to God in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore Calvin insisted that Christians
not only had the right to have God alone as ruler over them--they had the
Christian duty to see that this was the case. Calvin warned
that any earthly lord or king who placed himself between them and God above
was going to be a real evil in their new relationship with God--and in
their "covenantal" life with each other as the new Christian church and
society--or "commonwealth" To be true to God, they had to get rid
of such evil.
This is something that Luther had resisted
strongly--as he demonstrated in his violent opposition to the peasant revolt
in Germany. Thus it was that the citizens of the new cities looked
to Calvin's rather than Luther's version of the protestant or reformed
movement as they began to remake their world.