The French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the giants of the Reformation movement. He was born into a well-to-do family and spent most of his early years in preparation for the life as a priest. He studied law from 1528 to 1531 and soon came into contact with the Reformation movement. The repression he encountered in France drove him to exile, and he sought refuge in Basel, Ferrara, and Strasbourg. He eventually settled in Geneva where he became one of the leading contributors and innovators of the Reformation. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart.
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John (or Jean) Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in the town of Noyon in Picardy, France. His father, Gerard Calvin (Cauvin), served as a lawyer and high-ranking notary for a bishop in Noyon. It was also in this town where Gerard met his wife, Jeanne Le Franc. In addition to John, the Calvins also had three or four other children. Gerard remarried and had two other children when Jeanne died in 1515..
At that time, the Calvins belonged to France’s wealthy middle-class. John studied at the Colleges des Capettes and was considered a brilliant student by his teachers. He was later sent to the home of the influential de Hangest family where he was educated by a tutor along with the children of the family. Despite his break from Catholicism and his exile from his homeland, the de Hangest family remained Calvin’s lifelong friends.
Around 1520 or 1521, John Calvin came to Paris with the de Hangest brothers. He studied Latin grammar at the College de la Marche in preparation for the degree in theology and eventually, the life of a priest. At twelve years old, Calvin already wore a tonsure and served as the clerk of a bishop. He followed it up by entering the College de Montaigu (still in Paris) to study philosophy.
Calvin During the Early Years of the Reformation
In 1526, Gerard Calvin pulled his son out of Paris and sent him instead to study law at the University of Orleans. The elder Calvin’s withdrawal of his son from Montaigu was said to have stemmed from a disagreement with the bishop of Noyon. It was also a practical move by Gerard as the Reformation raged on in Europe at that time. If Luther became successful and the Church was dissolved, his son, at least, would still be able to make a living as a lawyer.
Calvin then transferred to the University of Bourges in 1529 to study under the humanist lawyer Andreas Alciati. He learned Greek under the humanist Melchior Wolmar and then became a lecturer on rhetoric at a local Augustinian monastery during his 18-month stay in Bourges. He went back to Noyon sometime in 1531 when he heard that his father was ill. Gerard Calvin died in May 1531. By June, the younger Calvin was already in Paris to study Greek and possibly, Hebrew. He stayed there for some time until the arrival of the plague forced him to flee for the countryside.
Calvin returned to Orleans sometime later to finish his law course. He came back in February of 1532 and published his commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (his first book) in April of the same year. On November 1, 1533, Calvin helped the newly-elected rector of the University of Paris Nicolas Cop write his rectorial address. The audience took Cop’s speech as an attack on the Catholic Church and a demand for reforms. The faculty considered the speech heretical, and the Catholic authorities soon sent men to arrest Cop. However, he had already fled for the Swiss canton of Basel.
Calvin had been a supporter of the Reformation for some time, so he was forced to leave Paris to hide in Noyon. He later came back to Paris but left again when it became clear to him that the city was a dangerous place for those who had sympathies for the movement.
Calvin went back to Noyon in May 1534 and gave up the benefices previously granted to him. He then traveled to different cities in his homeland to evade persecution and first came into contact with the Anabaptists while in hiding. He wrote his first tract, the Psychopannychia, to disprove the Anabaptist’s belief that the soul slept after death.
The hostilities towards Protestants in France finally forced Calvin to leave his homeland and seek refuge in Basel in 1535. The Swiss canton was known as a Protestant stronghold and home of various European Reformation leaders who fled repression in their own homelands. Calvin reunited with his friend Nicolas Cop, and later befriended some of the leading Protestant intellectuals in Basel.
Calvin contributed a preface to Pierre Robert Olivetan’s French translation of the Bible that was published in mid-1535. In the March of the following year, he published the Institutio Christianae Religionis. It was a statement of faith aimed at the nation of France and their king, Francis I. It soon reached France and became popular among the people.
Calvin left the safety of Basel to become the secretary of sympathetic Princess Renee of France, in her husband’s court in Ferrara. This stopover did not last long as the repression soon caught up with the French exiles. He then went to back to Basel and lived briefly in France while the Edict of Lyons was in effect. The repressions continued, so Calvin, his brother Antoine, his half-sister Marie, and some residents of Noyon traveled to the Protestant-friendly city of Strasbourg.
Reforms in Geneva and Calvin in Strasbourg
The caravan could not travel directly to Strasbourg because of the dangers on the road, so they decided to detour to the canton of Geneva. The original plan was to stay only for the night, but Calvin became ill, so they had to remain there for several months. While they were stranded in Geneva, the French preacher Guillaume Farel approached Calvin and urged him to stay. Calvin agreed and served as a preacher (and later on as pastor) under Farel.
On January 16, 1537, the two French pastors presented the Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship in Geneva to a city council. The two men introduced some innovations in the Protestant church in Geneva and attempted to reform the city itself. The reforms did not sit well with the citizens, and they were suspected as agents of France. They were soon driven out of Geneva by a mob in 1538. They then sought refuge first in Bern and then in Zurich to appeal to the Protestant leaders, but to no avail. Calvin and Farel had no choice but to leave Zurich and seek temporary haven in Basel.
The two men soon parted ways when Calvin received an invitation from Strasbourg-based German reformists Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer. Calvin accepted their offer, while Farel moved to Neuchatel. His decision to settle in Strasbourg was a good one, and it was said that he was at his happiest there. He served as a minister to fellow French refugees which may have eased the pangs of homesickness during his exile. Money was hard to come by at first, but he supplemented his income by teaching in private. He expanded the original Institutio and had the second edition published in 1539. He also wrote a lengthy commentary on the Romans in the same year and had it published in 1540.
Calvin was always in poor health, so his friends convinced him to marry so there would be someone to take care of him. He agreed to see some candidates, but somehow never found them to his liking. With the help of his friends, Calvin married an Anabaptist widow named Idelette de Bure in 1540 and took in her two children from her previous marriage. The only child between her and Calvin, however, died soon after he was born.
Factional conflicts once again broke out in Geneva after the arrival of new church ministers, but Calvin wrote to his friends there that they should not give in to division. They should, he advised, follow the ministers appointed over them for the sake of unity.
A conflict also flared up between the cantons of Geneva and Bern in 1539 because of a piece of land which sat between their borders. The Genevan delegates sent by the authorities for the negotiations not only failed but also quarreled with their counterparts in Bern. They had to flee for their lives and were soon replaced by the followers of Farel. Farel’s partisans fared no better, and the situation only worsened.
Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, the Archbishop of Carpentras, quickly capitalized on this conflict in hopes that the Genevans would come back to Catholicism. He sent the council a letter convincing them to turn back from Protestantism and encouraged them to embrace Catholicism. The council of Geneva did not want to offend him, so the members decided to ask the Swiss theologian Pierre Viret to come up with a reply. Viret refused, so the Genevans sent a letter to Calvin in Strasbourg instead. He agreed and wrote the Responsio ad Sadoletum in which he defended Geneva’s stance on the Reformation.
Many of the people who were instrumental in driving Calvin and Farel out of Geneva died or fell out of favor in the city during this time. The Genevans also realized that they had been wrong in driving the Frenchmen out, so they decided to make amends to entice Calvin back to their city. The council first sent envoys to Strasbourg but were disappointed when they found that Calvin had traveled to Worms to attend a colloquy between the Catholics and Protestants.
The envoys followed him to Worms and convinced him to come to Geneva. Calvin, however, could not promise anything concrete as he still had commitments in Strasbourg. He was also hesitant to return as he considered the canton a dangerous place. He only promised the envoys to visit the city after the colloquy and asked the council to convinced Pierre Viret to take over for six months instead. He also made it clear that if he were to return, the people would have to submit to the reforms he had in mind both in church and in the city’s politics itself.
The council agreed, and he accepted a 6-month trial run in mid-1641. On September 13, 1541, John Calvin re-entered Geneva with his family, and they were received warmly—a far cry from the reception he received when he first entered it as a refugee. The council also gave him an allowance and allowed him and his family to live in a good house.
The Reformer of Geneva
Calvin’s first task was to help the council draft a set of ordinances for Geneva. The laws called Ordonnances ecclesiastiques were passed by a committee of councilors and ministers on November 20, 1541. Calvin’s Ordonnances allowed the committee to create a church hierarchy made up of pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. The pastors’ main tasks were to preach and dispense the sacraments. Pastors were elected to the office by their peers and then confirmed by a committee. The twelve elders were in charge of discipline which was imposed with a heavy hand in Calvin’s Geneva. Deacons, meanwhile, took charge of charity works which included taking care of the city’s poor, ill, and imprisoned.
Calvin expected the people to attend regular sermons on Sunday and specific days during the week. Those who failed to attend church services without a valid reason received rebukes. Those who committed grave sins were excommunicated, banished, or executed. He also introduced some innovations for church services which included:
- Congregational singing (especially of the Psalms)
- Conveying the sermon in the people’s native language
- Explanation of the sacraments
John Calvin initially preached several times each week. The task, however, became too much, so some of the responsibilities were passed on to other preachers. He was a prolific preacher, but it was not until 1549 that his sermons were transcribed by a French scribe named Denis Raguenir. His knowledge of the Bible and his immense memory also allowed him to preach without the aid of notes.
His work in Geneva, however, was not without opposition. Calvin’s Geneva was to be upright to the point that some residents (which he called the “libertines”) considered the laws too strict. Some of Geneva’s most prominent families made up the so-called libertines. At the center of this group was the Favre family patriarch Francois, his daughter Francoise, and his son-in-law Ami Perrin.
Calvin’s main issue was with Francoise Favre who violated the law against dancing in the city. She and her husband spent some time in prison when their behavior was reported (Perrin was imprisoned because of a separate offense). Perrin initially refused to apologize for his behavior but was later forced to submit.
In his quest to reform Geneva, Calvin and the city council ordered the taverns to be closed down. They were then converted to religious houses but were able to return to business many years later. Staging of certain plays was also prohibited for some time after a riot broke out in the city. Apart from dancing, other acts that were prohibited were swearing and gossiping. The council also requested Calvin to come up with a list of names that parents should not give to their children.
Calvin continued working on the revisions on the Institutio and the commentaries on several books of the New Testament in Geneva. He also wrote a commentary on the book of Isaiah in 1551 which he dedicated to the English king Edward VI.
Idelette Calvin died after a series of illness in 1549. Her grief-stricken husband promised to take care of her children from her first marriage. Calvin himself was often ill, but he made good on his promise to his wife and took care of her children.
The libertines led by Perrin and his father-in-law continued to cause trouble for Calvin over the years. In spite of their resentment, they knew that they would not be able to drive him out of the city again. In 1552, Ami Perrin was elected to a high position in the city, and it seemed that it was the start of Calvin’s defeat. After several standoffs with the libertines, Calvin decided to resign in July 1553. The council, however, refused to accept his resignation. The libertines themselves did not push for him to be driven out of the city again but only wanted him out of their way.
In summer of 1553, Calvin played a role in the downfall of the Spanish humanist and theologian Michael Servetus. The bad blood between Calvin and Servetus started in 1546 when they sent letters to each other but could not agree on doctrine. Calvin was further offended when Servetus sent back a copy of his very own Institutio with some annotations.
Branded as a heretic because of his denial of the Trinity, Servetus was forced to wander in some parts France and Italy. He was caught and imprisoned in the French city of Vienne, but he managed to escape before he was condemned to death by fire. Servetus then traveled to Geneva and even sat boldly inside the St. Pierre Cathedral where Calvin was preaching on August 13, 1553. It was a foolish decision as some people recognized him. Servetus was immediately arrested and imprisoned by the authorities.
To his credit, Calvin initially tried to reason out with Servetus, but the latter only stood by his beliefs. The council condemned Servetus as a heretic on October 20, and he was sentenced to death by fire six days later. Calvin asked the council to behead Servetus instead (considered more “humane” than burning), but the council refused to grant his request. Servetus was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553.
Calvin continued to write the commentaries on several Old Testament books starting between 1557 and 1564. He caught malaria in 1558, so he hurriedly expanded the Institutio for fear it would go unrevised when he died.
After overcoming roadblocks such as lack of funds and lack of enthusiasm from the council, Calvin’s dream of establishing a university in Geneva was finally realized in 1558. The university opened in summer of the following year, but it was still far from perfect. Calvin managed to secure Theodore Beza as rector of the university. Francois Berauld taught Greek, while the Frenchman Antoine Chevalier became a professor of Hebrew. He also hired the whole Lausanne faculty after they resigned en masse. Calvin himself taught theology, along with another professor.
Calvin was often ill with piles, bladder stones, and tuberculosis during the early 1560s. He became very weak and was unable to stand at the pulpit to preach without some form of assistance. On May 27, 1564, the 54-year old giant of the Reformation died peacefully in his home in his adopted city of Geneva. He was buried the following day in an unmarked grave in the common cemetery, as was his instruction when he was alive
Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Parker, Thomas Henry Louis. John Calvin: A Biography. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975.
Selderhuis, H.J, ed. The Calvin Handbook. Translated by Henry J. Baron. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.