What exactly did Jean Calvin (1509–1564) do for Geneva?

18 February 2008
What exactly did Jean Calvin (1509–1564) do for Geneva?

JEAN CALVIN (1509–1564)

What exactly did Jean Calvin do for Geneva?

In 1509 Jean Cauvin (as the name was written at that time) was born in the town of Noyon in Picardy, Northern France, into a wealthy family. When he was 12 he was sent to school in Paris with the intention of becoming a priest, but his father later thought that he would earn his living better as a lawyer so he studied law in Bourges and Orl?ans. He also learned classical languages and the humanist philosophy of Erasmus. As a young lawyer in Paris Calvin became attracted to the reforms of the church, subsequently known as Protestantism, proposed by the German priest Martin Luther. Calvin and his friend Nicolas Cop tried to organize and give structure to the new religious ideas. However, at the end of 1533 the French parliament considered that this movement would disturb the peace, so Cop and Calvin were exiled.

In 1536 in Basel Calvin published a book entitled The institutes [Manual] of Christian Religion, which, based on a literal reading of the Christian scriptures, was immediately recognized as a model of how the Protestant form of worship should be carried out. The two central ideas are spreading the word of God and moral supervision, and these would guide all of Calvin’s subsequent work. This book would be expanded and revised in several editions over the next twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, during the 1520s and 1530s political freedom and religious reform had become inseparable as the city sought independence from the Duke of Savoy and the local bishop-prince. Both the civil and the religious authorities used Protestantism to give legal justification to the city’s revolt. To support its claim for independence, Geneva had allied itself with the Canton of Berne, and Berne had sent a zealous French refugee, Guillaume Farel, to preach the new faith. Religion was reduced to its bare essentials: all decoration, ceremony, luxury and ritual were excluded from religious services—including Christmas.

But Calvin knew none of this because he did not enter the city until July 1536. He was returning from Paris to Strasbourg, presumably to meet other religious reformers like himself. But there was a war going on in Eastern France and he was obliged to make a detour via Geneva. He introduced himself to the middle-aged Farel, who coerced the twenty-seven year old Calvin into staying as an unwilling and unpaid preacher. Calvin was immediately recognized as a Protestant leader of immense significance. He was never ordained as a priest; but became a preacher by order of the city council. Calvin’s strong influence on the city’s inhabitants soon became evident. Moral guidelines had existed in Geneva for a long time, but had never been enforced. Calvin stated that any person not observing the uncompromising moral code would be severely punished.
But the people of Geneva had difficulty accepting that the power of Farel and Calvin—both Frenchmen—should extend from religion into politics. Matters came to a head at Easter 1538 when Farel and Calvin were expelled by the magistrates. They took refuge in Basel.

Calvin was then invited to Strasbourg by the leader of the reformed church there, Martin Bucer. Once again, Calvin found himself under the influence of an older priest. He lived here happily for three years and even got married to Idelette de Bure, a widow who already had two children. She would be a wonderful companion to him and bore him at least three children, all of whom unfortunately died in infancy. The French Church in Strasbourg was to be a model for what Calvin had in mind.
In the meantime, political and religious chaos had taken over in Geneva. Calvin was officially invited several times to return as head of the reformed church. After a long hesitation, he reluctantly agreed to do so and arrived in Geneva on 13 September 1541. Even though he had no other role than that of preacher, from this moment until his death he was the virtual ruler of Geneva. While nominally responsible for religious affairs (see box), Calvin’s powers were greater than those of the Genevan government. Such was his genius that he was consulted on matters great and small: law, police, foreign diplomacy, sanitation. Calvin wrote the laws governing the Reformed Church (1541) and the Constitution of the Genevan Republic (1543).

Calvin believed that the authority of the church was superior to that of the politicians, but there was a continued unwillingness of the Genevan aristocracy to submit to his discipline (remember that all luxury was banned). In May 1555 the nobles rose up in protest about the number of refugees entering the city and some of the protestors were executed. After that the government of the city was favourable to Calvin for the nine remaining years of his life. With the granting of citizenship to large numbers of religious refugees, the new doctrine was finally made secure. Calvin did not become a citizen of Geneva himself until 1559. Among the refugees who Calvin welcomed to Geneva were wool, cotton and silk weavers, bankers, printers, goldsmiths and watchmakers—an intellectual and moral elite who formed the pillars of a prosperous economy. He encouraged the arts, education, science and the economy and under Calvin Geneva became a flourishing city—the most important Protestant centre of Europe in the sixteenth century.

Calvin was a confrontational person. For Protestantism to be accepted, he needed great energy, as well as obstinacy and rigor. He was never satisfied with his own performance. He took very seriously his responsibility for strict supervision of the citizens, and every effort was made such that the law was respected to the letter. Under Calvin, Geneva was called the “Protestant Rome” and became a bastion of rigorous morality.

In 1559 he founded the academy that became the intellectual centre of Calvinism for many years to come. The doctrines and practices of reformed churches later became associated with Presbyterian groups throughout the world, among them the Puritans, the Quakers and the Mormons.

By the time he was thirty years old, Calvin was gaunt and white-haired. Throughout his adult life, he was ravaged by poor health: arthritis, kidney stones, haemorrhoids, cramps, gout, but particularly long periods of migraine. This perhaps explains his reputation for irascibility! He ate sparingly and dressed in simple robes. He slept little but was capable of extraordinary intellectual effort; he had a most retentive memory combined with keen powers of observation. It is estimated that in his lifetime he preached 4,000 sermons (of which 1,500 survive), often starting at 6 o’clock in the morning. His fragile body could not support these incessant labours. In the late winter of 1564 Calvin fell ill and died on 27 May surrounded by his disciples just short of his 55th birthday. He was buried the next day in a common cemetery on Plainpalais after a simple ceremony. The actual grave is now lost.


Calvinism means theological ideas, patterns of worship, church organization and moral discipline that are generally known in English as Presbyterianism. The core of Calvinism is the literal reading of the Christian scriptures. Anything not contained in these scriptures is to be rejected; anything that is explicitly stated is to be followed exactly. Significantly, Calvin did not think that he was creating something new, but rather restoring the church to its original pure state. Church organization too was based on a literal reading of the scriptures. Following an account of the earliest church contained in The Acts of the Apostles, Calvin’s church was organized into four levels:
• Five pastors controlled religious matters in Geneva;
• A larger group of teachers taught doctrine to the population;
• Twelve elders oversaw people’s conduct;
• Deacons looked after the sick, the poor, the widowed and the elderly.
The congregation of the church consisted of “living saints” or good people, who would only admit other good people like themselves. This organizational principle was called a “voluntary association”, that is a community that selects its own members and those members choose to be members of that community. Such a concept would later become the basis of civil and political society in Western culture during the modern period. Calvin believed that the city should be ruled by a representative government elected by an educated population, but with a strong aristocratic element acting as a counterweight to the unpredictability of the general population.