Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.
In this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, the spotlight naturally falls on Martin Luther (1483-1546). But his somewhat younger contemporary Jehan Cauvin (1509-1564) shouldn’t be overlooked.
Better known among English-speakers as John Calvin, he was born in France. Originally educated as a lawyer, he also received superb training in both Latin and Greek, and — rather curiously, given his later history — his first published book (1532) was a commentary on the first-century pagan Roman philosopher Seneca’s “De Clementia” (“On Mercy”), an indication of his strong early humanist leanings.
Calvin left the Roman Catholic Church sometime around 1530. In 1533, he experienced a powerful religious conversion and, thereafter, devoted himself more to theology than to either humanism or law.
In 1534, he went underground to avoid anti-Protestant violence in France. By 1535, he had reached Basel, Switzerland, where, in March 1536, he published the first edition of his important “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which he initially intended to serve as a catechism or basic introduction to Christian doctrine. Soon thereafter, however, the city of Geneva recruited him as a reader (offering expository lectures on the Bible) and preacher.
But when he was expelled by Geneva’s governing council, he accepted an invitation — although he’d never been ordained — to serve as pastor for a church of 400-500 French refugees in the free imperial city of Strasbourg. Commencing there in 1538, he performed baptisms and weddings and led worship services.
Still in Strasbourg in 1539, he published the second edition of his “Institutes,” expanding it from six to 17 chapters. He also abandoned his plan that it be an elementary Christian primer and transformed it into a systematic statement of Christian doctrine. In March 1540, he published his “Commentary on Romans.” Eventually, he would write commentaries on nearly every biblical book. (His preaching reflected his system of working methodically through the Bible: From March 1555 to July 1556, he delivered 200 sermons on the book of Deuteronomy.)
In 1541, Geneva officials invited Calvin to return, and he spent the rest of his life based there. The city’s political climate had changed, and, perhaps even more important, church attendance had declined noticeably after the popular preacher’s banishment.
Overcoming opposition from several powerful Genevan families, he introduced new forms of liturgy and church government. But here is one of the points at which Calvin becomes very controversial: Although he taught the separation of church and state, Calvin and his fellow pastors exercised enormous political power in Geneva, which some have called a theocracy.
Writing of Luther and Ulrich Zwingli also, but principally and most accurately of Calvin, the 18th-century French skeptic Voltaire said: “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent. Shows and entertainments were expressly forbidden by their religion; and for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva.”
More notorious, though, is the case of Michael Servetus, an important Spanish physician and Protestant theologian who had written against infant baptism, predestination and the doctrine of the Trinity. (Servetus regarded Father, Son and Holy Spirit simply as manifestations of one God, not distinct persons.)
Both the Spanish and the French inquisitions had ordered his execution, and he ultimately came to Geneva. Why he did so is unclear. He had corresponded with Calvin, but Calvin was no fan and had been angered by the exchange. If Servetus ever came to Geneva, Calvin wrote to a friend, “as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive.” Servetus was arrested and, with Calvin’s approval, was burned alive (standing on a pyre of his own writings) on Oct. 27, 1553. Reportedly, his last words were “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.” (He would not be the last person executed at Calvin’s insistence.)
During his remaining years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was largely unchallenged. Between 1558 and his death, he devoted his failing energies to a final revision of his “Institutes,” expanding the work to an impressive 80 chapters. It lays out the fundamental principles of “Calvinism,” which are at the heart of various Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches still today. These principles include God’s absolute sovereignty, predestination and an emphasis on original sin and human depravity.
Calvin is recognized as a saint in both the Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church (USA).
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.