Born: July 10, 1509
Noyon, Picardy, France
Died: May 27, 1564
French religious leader and reformer
The French religious reformer John Calvin created a strict version of Protestantism, which originally arose in opposition to the Catholic Church. He is known for his belief in predestination (meaning God has already chosen who will and will not be saved) and his view of the state as enforcer of church laws.
John Calvin was born at Noyon in Picardy, France, on July 10, 1509. He was the second son of Gérard Cauvin, who was secretary to the bishop of Noyon. It was decided early in his life that Calvin would serve the Catholic Church, and at the age of twelve he became a chaplain at the Cathedral of Noyon. In August 1523 he went to Paris, France, and entered the Collège de la Marche at the University of Paris, where he soon became skilled in Latin. He then attended the Collège de Montaigu until 1528. Then, at the suggestion of his father, he moved to Orléans, France, to study law.
In 1531 Calvin returned to Paris with his law degree. At this time Protestant opposition to the church was growing. The ideas of Martin Luther (1483–1546) concerning the saving of one's soul by faith alone were becoming popular in the city, and Calvin became involved in the movement for church reform. In January 1534 he fled Paris during a crackdown on Protestants and went to Angoulême, France, where he began writing down a full description of his beliefs. After several trips back to Paris he finally settled in Basel, Switzerland.
In 1536 Calvin expressed his new beliefs in the most famous book on Protestantism ever, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he continued to work on until his death. The book's theme is the majesty of God and the worthlessness of man. God has predestined (decided in advance) who will be granted eternal glory or suffer eternal damnation, and man can do nothing to change this decision. Calvin was not the creator of this idea, but no one ever expressed it more clearly.
Calvin also advised people to pray, saying men must worship even though they may have no chance to be saved. The prayer should be simple, and all fancy ceremony should be rejected. Calvin said that Christ is present whenever believers gather in prayer, and that priests have no special powers. He also stated that there was no separation of Church and state; both must work together to preserve the word of God, and the state was allowed to use force if necessary against those engaging in false teachings.
After returning briefly to France in 1536, Calvin left his homeland permanently. Traveling through Geneva, Switzerland, he met Guillaume Farel, a Protestant who asked him to stick around. In 1537 the city fathers
Back in Geneva, Calvin went right to work organizing the Reformed church. In 1542 the council approved his new regulations. The ministry was divided into pastors, teachers, lay (nonreligious) elders, and deacons. The pastors governed the Church, and their permission was required to preach in Geneva. To control public behavior, an elected group of pastors and elders were given the right to search people's homes; to banish anyone from the city; to force attendance at weekly sermons; and to ban gambling, drinking, dancing, and immodest dress. Criticism of Calvin or other church officials was forbidden, as were immoral writings and books about Catholicism. Punishment for first offenses was usually a fine. Repeat offenders were banished, and extreme offenses carried the death penalty. From 1541 until Calvin's death fifty-eight people were executed and seventy-six were banished in order to preserve morals and order.
Calvin's last years were spent criticizing his enemies and updating Geneva's laws and the Institutes. Geneva became a model of order and cleanliness and was admired by visitors. Men trained by Calvin carried his ideas all over Europe. He lived to see his following grow in the Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, and even France. On May 27, 1564, Calvin died after a long illness, having left a huge mark on the Christian world.
Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Cottret, Bernard. Calvin: A Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Wellman, Sam. John Calvin: Father of Reformed Theology. Ulrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2001.