John Calvin

1509 - 1564

John Calvin

John Calvin was born at Noyon, in Picardy, about sixty miles north-east of Paris, on 10 July 1509.  Originally his father intended that he should train for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but a dispute with the local bishop led to a change of career path and Calvin began to study law.  He received a Master of Arts degree from Paris in 1528, and then studied law in Orleans and Bourges.  While studying he came under the influence of the writings of the German Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, and became a convert to Protestantism.

He later wrote of his conversion:  �I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law.  To this pursuit I endeavoured faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course.  And first, since I was too obstinately addicted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame�.   

The Reformed faith was being persecuted in France and so Calvin moved to Basel in 1535 where he helped to produce a French translation of the Bible and started writing his book on the teachings of the Christian faith which became �The Institutes of the Christian Religion�.

Calvin spent a year in Basel and was planning to move to Strasbourg.  He planned to spend one night in Geneva on his journey, but when he reached the city he was persuaded by the Protestant Reformer, William Farel, to stay and work in the city.  Calvin�s work in Geneva met with some opposition and the Council of Geneva banished Calvin and Farel.  Calvin moved to Strasbourg where he became the minister of a church of French refugees.  Here he wrote a second edition of the Institutes, published in 1539, produced a psalm book and wrote commentaries on books of the Bible, his commentary on Romans was written in 1539.  While in Strasbourg he married Idelette de Bure.  She died in 1549 and all their three children died in infancy.  He stayed in Strasbourg for three years and in 1541 the Council of Geneva invited him to return to the city.

After the death of Martin Luther in 1546, Calvin became the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation.  Geneva became a haven for Protestants who were being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for their faith.  One of those who found refuge in Geneva was the Scottish Reformer, John Knox, who said that in Calvin�s Geneva he found �the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the Apostles�

In Geneva the English and Scottish Protestant refugees worked on a new translation of the whole Bible into English.  The first edition of the Geneva Bible was printed in 1560 and this soon became the favourite version of English and Scottish Protestants.

Geneva was divided into three parishes with five ministers and three assistant ministers appointed to preach at services held at daybreak, noon and in the afternoons on Sunday, and additional services held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Calvin preached regularly in the Cathedral.

In education the very young were taught the catechism, and at school, as well as teaching reading, writing and arithmetic; Latin and Greek classics were taught, and also logic and rhetoric.  The Greek New Testament was taught to the more capable pupils.  Following school there was the academy, which was founded in 1559.  Here 27 lectures were given every week and there were professors of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, the arts and theology.

Calvin, despite his poor health, undertook a vast amount of work.  As well as preaching, he wrote commentaries on nearly all the books of the Bible, and wrote hundreds of letters to encourage Protestants across Europe, who looked to him for advice and leadership.      
Calvin preached his last sermon on 6 February 1564.  On Easter Sunday he attended church for the last time, and on 25 April he dictated his last will and final testimony.  He died on 27 May 1564 aged 54, and was buried in the common cemetery of Geneva without a tombstone, as he had requested.
Professor William Cunningham, a 19th century Free Church of Scotland Professor of Church History, wrote: �John Calvin was by far the greatest of the Reformers with respect to the talents he possessed, the influence he exerted, and the services he rendered in the establishment and diffusion of important truth ... Calvin did what the rest of the Reformers did, and, in addition, he did what none of them either did or could effect.  He was a diligent and laborious pastor.  He gave much time to the instruction of those who were preparing for the work of the ministry.  He took an active part in opposing the Church of Rome, in promoting the Reformation, and in organising Protestant churches.  Entering with zeal and ardour into all the controversies which the ecclesiastical movements of the time produced, he was ever ready to defend injured truth or to expose triumphant error.  This was work which he had to do in common with the other Reformers, though he brought higher powers than any of them, to bear upon the performance of it.  But in addition to all this, he had for his special business, the great work of digesting and systematising the whole scheme of divine truth, of bringing out in order and harmony, all the different doctrines which are contained in the word of God, unfolding them in their mutual relations and various bearings, and thus presenting them, in the most favourable aspect, to the contemplation and the study of the highest order of minds�.    

In 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin�s birth and the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the university, the International Monument to the Reformation was built in the grounds of the University.  At the centre of the monument are four 5m tall statues of the four most influential figures in the Reformation in Geneva: Theodore Beza, Calvin, William Farel and John Knox.


Other articles on the Protestant Reformation:

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