The name John Calvin is well-known to us all. His name is a “household word.” But I don’t think much is known concerning his life. My purpose in writing this, is to make him a little clearer, both to myself and to others.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, Picardy, in the northern part of France, in the year 1509. His parents were Gerard and Jeanne Calvin. He had one younger brother by the name of Anthony Calvin. Calvin, it seems, was brought up by his mother, a very pious woman, to be Roman Catholic. “Gerard Calvin,” says L. Penning, in his book Genius of Geneva, “had his eyes firmly fixed on earthly things, and because of this his children suffered.”
When Calvin was twelve years old, he signed the oaths of the chaplaincy as was the custom. As he grew older, he was sent to Paris where he received his education, and then went on to study in Orleans, Bourges, and Paris Universities. When he was twenty-three, he allied himself with the cause of the Reformation because he had become dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic Church.
At the same time, King Francis I of France decided to settle the religious question in France. But, he favored the Catholics and many Protestants were persecuted. One man, De Klerk, refused to pray to the Virgin Mary and was tortured. His lips and nose, and eventually his entire face, was seared with a red-hot iron. And so Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland where he wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was published in 1536, and is considered by many to be one of the most important and systematic works of Protestant theology.1 After the publication of this book, Calvin went to Geneva before continuing on his way to Strausburg. In Geneva he met William Farel, who was convinced that Calvin was the man “sent by God to help him in his reform work in Geneva.”2 But Calvin was a shy, quiet man who wanted nothing more than a quiet place where he could receive instruction instead of giving it. Finally, Farel stood before Calvin and with flaming eyes said, “May God curse your rest, if you dare hold back and refuse to give help and support.” In the face of such vehemence, Calvin bowed his head.
With Calvin’s help, Farel was able to begin a reformation in the city, both political and religious. But all was not peaceful within the walls of Geneva. There were many battles between the Catholics and Protestants. An example of this can be found in the book Genius of Geneva, by L. Penning. Here I read that one of the servants in an inn where Farel, Viret, Froment, and Calvin stayed, put poison in their soup. Viret ate it, but he did not die.
Many immoral practices were defined. Most were forms of entertainment. Those considered sinners were forbidden to take part in religious services, although they did have to attend them.
Many people were opposed to Calvin’s strict rules, and when a man by the name of Caroli accused Calvin of denying the Trinity it was the last straw. A synod was held, and although Calvin was cleared and set free, the slander spread. It was decided that Calvin and Farel were to be banished from Geneva. From Geneva, Calvin went to Strausburg where he stayed for three years, writing and teaching theology. It was here that he met Idelette Von Bure, a woman possessed of gentleness, kindness, and piety. They were married and lived happily together for seven years until her death. Idelette was a true comfort to Calvin, and he loved her deeply. They had one child, but he died after only a day.
In 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva after his reform party won. Here, he perfected an autocratic system of political and religious government. He selected a group of men called presbyters, who were to control the social and cultural lives of individuals down to the smallest detail.
Calvin was a respected man. He consulted all of the great Protestant religious leaders of his time. Calvin published many works which had a great influence on Protestant theology. One example of his influence would be in Scotland. Here John Knox followed his teachings and brought about the Scottish Protestant Reformation.
Calvin died in 1564, shortly after the followers of Calvin separated from the Lutherans. By doing this, they formed the first great division in the Protestant Church.
Calvin was a great hero of the Reformed faith. Because of him we now have the five points of Calvinism, which were developed from his teachings. They are: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. We owe a great deal to John Calvin, and we ought to thank God for his dedicated, hard work.
1 Moose, George L. World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 3.
2 Penning, L. Genius of Geneva.