What are we to think of Calvin?

Rev . Fr. Philippe  Marcille

The influence of John Calvin (1509-1564) has been immense, perhaps even more so than that of Luther. Certainly, without the bellowing revolutionary Luther, Calvin would not have been able to do anything; yet without Calvin, the revolt would not have had the political impact that it did in France and especially the United States.


He was born in Picardy, France, in 1509. His parents were well-to-do people. A very gifted student, he received a benefice from the Church and continued his studies at Paris. He was not well liked by his classmates: they nicknamed him "the accusative." He readily scolded others and tattled on them, while remaining aloof and bitter. But when in public, he would lose all his reserve and stand out in debates. An anti-Lutheran, defender of authority, he approved the legal actions brought against the most strident Lutherans.

 The Personal Crisis

In 1532, at the College of France, he was still Catholic. By the end of 1533, he had suddenly turned Protestant, sold his benefices, and begun the life of an itinerant preacher. What happened?

Protestant hagiography has sought to explain it by edifying conversations in his room that would have taken place between Calvin and a Protestant cousin. Recent studies, however, have shown that the two were hundreds of miles apart at the time. A key, though, was left in part by Calvin himself:

Each and every time I entered within myself, a horror so great came over me that neither purifications nor satisfactions could have effaced it. The more I considered myself the more my conscience was pricked with sharp darts, so much so that only one consolation remained, and that was to deceive myself by forgetting about myself ....bewildered by the misery into which I had fallen, and even more so by the knowledge of how close I was to eternal death (Letter to Sadolet).

It is only fair to wonder what could be the nature of such a burning self-reproach. There is one answer, based upon serious evidence, one that has always been passionately denied by the Protestants. In 1551, a Catholic controversialist revealed that the archives of the city of Noyon, Calvin's birth place, contain the record of a condemnation against Calvin, at age 18, for sodomy. He had by then already received the tonsure. His parents obtained clemency from the bishop, so that in­stead of being condemned to death as the law demanded, he was branded as a sign of infamy. The Catholic controversialist presented the evidence signed by all the eminent personages of the city. The English scholar Stapleton went there to examine the archives during Calvin's lifetime, and vouched for the fact. The contemporary German Lutherans spoke of it as an established fact (Schlusselburg, Théologie calvinienne).

At twenty-four, Calvin was at a crossroads. He had to choose between confession or Lutheranism. He chose: "Only believe, and you are as sure of your own eternal salvation as of the Redemption of Christ. Only believe, and despite all the crimes, not only will you remain in the grace of God, in justice, but you will always remain in grace and you will never be able to lose it" (Bossuet's summary of his doctrine in "Variations").

 The Heresiarch

His career began. He wandered to Strasbourg, Basel, Ferrara, and finally settled at Geneva in 1536 as preacher. There he was to show his full worth, not only as a preacher, but also as a political virtuoso. In five years, he was able to solidify his authority over the Consistory the Council of the Ancients, a disciplinary tribunal that passed sentence on all public sinners]; first as leader of the Protestants in exterminating the Catholics (half the city fled, ruined, all their property and possessions confiscated), then as president of the Council that voted on the right interpretation of the Bible, and finally as chief of the tribunal and the army of informers and police in charge of morality and doctrine.

 The Tyrant

He began obsessively multiplying laws of public morality. Death was the penalty for high treason against religion as well as for high treason against the city, and for the son who would strike or curse his father, and for the adulterer and the heretic. Children were whipped or hanged for calling their mother a devil. A mason wearily exclaimed "to the devil with the work and the master," and was denounced and condemned to three days in prison. Magicians and sorcerers were hunted down. They always confessed, of course. According to the city register, in 60 years, some 150 were burnt at the stake.

The years went by; Calvin's obsession gripped the Genevans. The number of dishes that could be served at table was regulated, as well as the shape of shoes, and the ladies' hair styles. In the registers are to be found condemnations such as these: "Three journey­men tanners were sentenced to three days on bread and water in prison for having eaten at lunch three dozen pates, which is a great immorality."

That was in 1558. Drunkenness, taverns and card games were punished by fines. The city's coffers filled up and served to pay new informers. For there were ears everywhere in the republic of evangelical liberty, and the failure to inform was itself a misdemeanor. "They are to be stationed in every quarter of the city, so that nothing can escape their eyes," wrote Calvin. Sermons were given on Thursdays and Sundays. Attendance was obligatory under pain of fine or flogging. Not even children were excused. The spies would verify that the streets and houses were empty. Every year, the controllers of orthodoxy went house-to-house to have everyone sign the profession of faith voted that year. The last Catholics disappeared by death or exile. None spoke of changing religion, for Calvin had had a law voted punishing by death anyone who would dare question the reforms of the "servant of Geneva."

 Calvin's City

Outwardly Geneva become an exemplary city where an iron morality reigned. Inwardly it was rotten. The population had been augmented by refugees of all sorts: Protestants chased from France, but also delinquents seeking impunity. Calvin's law allowed divorce: people hastened to Geneva from Savoy and the province of Lyons to get remarried. The Protestant Genevan Galiffe, a genealogist, concluded from his studies that the Geneva of Calvin's time was the gutter of Europe. And Calvin knew it:

Out of ten evangelists, you will scarcely find a one who became evangelical for any other reason than to be able to abandon himself more freely to drinking and dissolute living.

Calvin humbly took the title of "servant of Geneva," but God, he held, spoke by his mouth. "Since God has deigned to make known to me what is good and what is evil, I must rule myself by this measure..." And every­one else, too! One morning the city awoke to find gallows had been erected in all the public squares, to which a placard was attached: "For whomever shall speak ill of Mr. Calvin." A letter from the dictator sums up his attitude: "It is necessary to rid the land of these damned cads who exhort the people to resist us, blacken our conduct ...such monsters must be stamped out."

 Absolute Power

Calvin's life was not snow white: there are stories of seized inheritances, "spontaneous gifts" made to the great man by merchants, considerable sums sent from the queen of Navarre or the duchess of Ferrara or from other well-off foreigners destined for the poor of the city, but which disappeared into the poor pockets of the great man; marriages arranged for members of his family by threatening rich refugees with expulsion.

Lampoons were circulated: woe to whomever the evangelical police seized in possession of one of them. Some escaped from torture or death by fleeing in time. Calvin then had their wives banished and their goods confiscated. For security's sake, he had the death penalty voted for whomever would even speak of recalling the exiles from their banishment.

Daniel Berthelier, master of the Mint of Geneva, had learned at Noyon the truth about Calvin's past, and had kept written evidence at his house. He was discovered, horribly tortured, and finally beheaded.

It was the execution of Servetus that consolidated the dictator's power. Calvin had cleverly had his adversary's book sent to the hive of Protestant popes, all of whom, including Melancthon, congratulated him on instigating the condemnation of this horrible heretic. Calvin immediately exploited this fleeting prestige to have appointed as electors a multitude of the men who had taken refuge in Geneva, for reasons which were not always based on religion, whom he called "the confessors of the faith." He soon controlled an absolute majority on the Consistory. He then had his last adversaries hunted down, exiled, or educated. It was 1554: before him were ten years in which to exercise absolute power.

There was no more resistance. Even the most powerful citizens could be forced to walk bare-footed around the city, clothed in a shirt, a candle in- hand, crying out "Mercy to God," the ordeal ending by a public confession made kneeling before the Consistory.

When not consulting the spies' reports, Calvin wrote his own book of revelation entitled Institutes of the Christian Religion. He worked on it incessantly, rearranging it, augmenting and re-editing, until it reached a thousand quarto pages. Woe to the critics, whose criticism would elicit from the author a rain of invectives. His ire was as likely to inveigh against Protestants as Catholics. Of Lutherans he was provoked to say: "They are quick­tempered, furious, fickle, inconstant, liars, full of canine impudence and diabolical pride."

The quality of Calvin's cold hatred was terrible in­deed. It is manifested especially in the affair of Michael Servetus. This learned doctor, a closet Protestant, amused himself by picking out all the blunders and errors that he could find in Calvin's pride and joy, The Institutes. He then sent the book with his own annotations to Calvin. That was in 1546. Calvin clenched his teeth: "If he comes hither and I have any authority, I will never let him quit this place alive" (Letter to Viret, a preacher of Lausanne). He awaited the moment of vengeance for seven years. In 1553, Servetus published anonymously an anti-trinitarian treatise. Calvin, who knew all the publishing channels of Protestant books, was able to discover the author's identity. He denounced him, furnishing proof to the Inquisition, which condemned Servetus, and then helped to obtain the mitigation of his punishment in light of all the good he had done as a physician. The unfortunate Servetus fled to Geneva, where he was arrested on sight. He was made to rot in prison two months. He pleaded to be allowed to have clean clothes and linen, but Calvin opposed the request. He was condemned to be burned alive. Calvin himself arranged the pyre: the pile of faggots was disposed in a circle around the stake so as to make the condemned man be burnt slowly. Calvin remained for two hours at his window listening to the man's screams. He received the approbation of the Protestant hive.

After 1559, the spleen that he had vented on his enemies seemed to be concentrated in his own entrails: stomach aches, intestinal pains, nephritic colic, bloody coughing racked him. His successor Theodore Beza confined him to his room and maintained the legend of the great man. But he confided that his master was becoming daily more imperious and tyrannic. He had unforeseeable fits of anger. Nothing satisfied him. He scolded; he threatened; he inveighed against all the pastors. He made the members of the Consistory confess publicly before him.

He died on the 27th of May 1564 after, it seems, thanking God for his evangelical mission. Was he a prophet, as the Protestants think? Maybe, in the final analysis, the prophet of religious democracy, the Antichrist's democracy. As he lay dying, though, he never had upon his lips the final cry that graced the lips of his dying victim, Michael Servetus: "Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me."

(Translated from Le Bachais, No. 35, November-December 1999, the publication of the Priory St. Pierre Julien Eymard, France)