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John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-64), twenty-six years younger than Luther, became one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in France while in his twenties. He was a lawyer, a Catholic humanist and among those calling for reform of the Church. And in 1536, still in his twenties, he was driven into exile, to Basel, Switzerland.

Calvin clung to the idea common among Christians that the world worked by God’s mysterious will. Calvin believed that God's power was absolute, and he held to the old contradictory position of predestination and human will. God created order, he believed, and it was a disgrace for someone to allow himself to deviate from that order, including men acting effeminate and women doing masculine things. He described such women as deserving not only of being spat upon but also having some piece of filth thrown at them. note19

Calvin was absolutistic. “All human desires,” he wrote, “are evil.” He added that “Nothing pure or sincere can proceed from a corrupted and polluted nature.” note20

John Calvin

John Calvin, "predestined" to die at the age of 53.

Calvin believed in "the Flood" as it is described in the Old Testament – as did Luther. But having lived around the Swiss Alps, Calvin is said to have believed that God created a world not ravaged by the flood but a world that was beautifully rugged. He interpreted the biblical flood with some difference from Luther and leaned more to a study of humanity's place in the natural world.

Articulating his ideology, Calvin became an authority figure in the Swiss city of Geneva. That city's government saw itself as carrying out God's plan for virtue. It was a government that included a body called the Consistory, whose duty was to watch over everyone and to admonish those it decided were leading "a disorderly life." Calvin believed that the Consistory's activities should be thorough and its eyes everywhere. For adults and children, the city established a set of questions and answers as a guide for daily living.

Geneva had citizens who believed in sexual freedom, and Calvin denounced them. In his book John Calvin, William Bouwsma claims that Calvin “denounced dancing because he thought it a prelude to fornication,” except that Calvin used the euphemism “sleep with” rather than bolder language that he feared might incite sin.

Calvin was troubled by contacts with Islam, which he claimed brought the French “only filthiness and defilement.” Calvin also targeted those who wanted the separation of church and state. He described them as “libertines” – a category of people that he saw as including those who questioned the authority of God.

Calvin saw city authority as providing "medicine to turn sinners to the Lord." Geneva promoted austere living and fasting, and it maintained a curfew. Fancy clothing was frowned upon. Dancing and card playing were prohibited.

News spread that Geneva was a city of morality, and this attracted people to Geneva from around Europe, many of them refugees from persecutions in France, England, Spain, Scotland, and Italy. One of the refugees who went to Geneva was the Spanish humanist Michael Servetus, an old friend of Calvin's who had been arrested by the Inquisition for denying the Trinity. Servetus believed that mortal sins were committed only by adults – not by people under twenty. This view impressed the authorities in Geneva as dangerous, "Especially," said one, "with the young so corrupted." Servetus asked to be allowed to leave Geneva. Instead, in 1553, he was burned at the stake, with Calvin believing that Servetus deserved death because of his "execrable blasphemies."

Calvin cautioned people not to make an "idol" of him or to make Geneva as a new "Jerusalem," and rather than migrate to Geneva he wanted people to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. Despite Calvin's differences with the Lutherans, he spoke of them as members of the true Church. What would become known as Calvinism reached the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands and continued to spread, eventually to England and then to its colonies in North America and to Scotland.


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