Christianity, Calvinism


Civilizations Past And Present

"Here I Take My Stand"

The Second Reformation

While Anglicanism and Lutheranism were developing as state churches,

other forms of Protestantism were emerging in western Europe. Calvinism was

the most popular and most conservative of these, but there were many others,

including multiple forms of Anabaptism. All of them went farther than

Lutheranism and Anglicanism in rejecting Catholic dogma and ritual. The were

also marked by their intensity in pursuing objectives. Generally, they were

opposed to monarchy, but this did not become very apparent until they became

deeply involved in the religious wars after 1560.

The Early Reformation In Switzerland

Popular Protestantism developed early in Switzerland, where conditions

favored its growth. During the late medieval period, the country prospered in

the growing trade between Italy and northern Europe. Busy Swiss craftsmen and

merchants in such cities as Zurich, Berne, Basel, and Geneva, became alienated

by their Habsburg overlords and by papal policies, particularly the sale of

indulgences. In 1499, the Confederation of Swiss cantons won independence from

the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. To many Swiss, this was a first step

in repudiating the authority of the pope.

The Swiss Reformation began in Zurich, shortly after Luther published his

theses at Wittenberg. It was led by Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a humanist

scholar, priest, and former military chaplain, whose regime of clergymen and

magistrates at Zurich supervised government, religion, and individual

morality. Zwingli agreed with Luther in repudiating papal in favor of

scriptural authority. He simplified services, preached justification by faith,

attacked monasticism and opposed clerical celibacy. More rational than Luther,

he was also more interested in practical reforms, going beyond Luther in

advocating more ground for divorce and in denying any mystical conveyance of

grace by baptism or communion; both, to Zwingli, were only symbols. These

differences proved irreconcilable when Luther and Zwingli met to consider

merging their movements in 1529.

As Zwingli's influence spread rapidly among the northern cantons,

religious controversy separated north from south, rural from urban areas, and

feudal overlords, both lay and ecclesiastical, from towns within their

dominions. When, in the 1520s, Geneva repudiated its feudal obligations and

declared its independence from its local bishop and the Count of Savoy, the

city became a hotbed of Protestantism, with preachers swarming in from Zurich.

Zwingli was killed in the resulting religious war of 1531; fortunately, the

fighting ended quickly in a peace which permitted each Swiss canton to choose

its own religion.

Origin And Early Development Of Calvinism

Hoping to secure Protestantism in Geneva after the religious wars,

enthusiastic reformers invited John Calvin (1509-1564) to Geneva. Calvin

arrived from Basel in 1536. His preaching ultimately won enough followers to

make his church the official religion. From Geneva, the faith spread widely in

all directions after the early 1540s.

Calvin was a dour and dogmatic Frenchman of the middle class. Like

Luther, he had an unsympathetic father, who let a friend of the family send

his son to the University of Paris. At first, Calvin studied theology but

later transferred to Orleans, where, at his father's urging, he took up law.

He read some humanist writings, talked to Lutherans, experienced a personal

conversion, was suspected of heresy by the authorities, and ultimately fled to

Basel. There, in 1536, he published the first edition of his Institutes of the

Christian Religion, a most influential theological work because it transformed

the general Lutheran doctrines into a profoundly rational legal system. It

also earned Calvin an invitation to Geneva.

There, Calvin's original plan for a city government dominated by the

clergy aroused a storm of opposition, forcing him into exile at Strasbourg,

where he was associated with other reformers who urged him to take a wife. In

1539, he married Idellette de Bures, a sickly widow with two children. She

came back to Geneva with him in 1541, when his party regained power.

Henceforth, as Protestant refugees packed the city, Idellette managed Calvin's

household, took in friends and refugees, nursed him through frequent

headaches, tried unsuccessfully to bear his children, and left him bereft when

she died in 1549.

Calvin personally ruled Geneva, exercising his power through influence

and republican forms. The town council approved all legislation, including

laws governing morality and religion, but it recognized the Bible as supreme

law and the Institutes as a manual for behavior. Legislative interpretations

of these sources were prepared by the "Congregation of the Clergy," reviewed

by the Consistory, a committee of the clergy plus twelve lay members, and sent

to the town council for final action. The Consistory also apprehended

violators of the law, sending its members into households to check every

detail of private life. Offenders were reported to secular magistrates for


Punishments at Geneva were severe, in keeping with the religious

fanaticism of the time. Punishable offenses included missing church, laughing

during services, wearing bright colors, dancing, playing cards, and swearing.

Religious dissent brought much heavier penalties. The consistory frequently

banished offenders for blasphemy, mild heresies, adultery, or suspected

witchcraft. Magistrates sometimes used torture to obtain confessions and often

executed heretics, averaging more than a dozen annually in the 1540s. Michael

Servetus (1511-1553), the Spanish theologian-philosopher and refugee from the

Catholic Inquisition, was burned for heresy because he had denied the doctrine

of the Trinity. The Consistory in this period showed little sexual

discrimination, punishing men and women with equal severity.

Calvin's Theology

Although he accepted most of Luther's theological principles, Calvin

placed heavier emphasis upon God's unlimited power. For Luther, God's majesty

"served to point up the miracle of forgiveness," but "for Calvin it gave

rather the assurance of the impregnability of God's purpose." ^4 In pursuing

this mysterious purpose, God had created the world and human beings in his

image. The same divine will had caused Adam and Eve to fall from a state of

sinlessness, leaving humans utterly depraved and lost, without God's grace.

[Footnote 4: Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth

Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), p. 114.]

Unlike the Catholic Theologians, Calvin did not emphasize Eve's guilt in

Adam's fall. Both, in his mind, were guilty and so were men and women equally

full of sin. Both were also equal in God's eyes and in the hope of salvation.

Thus, in the 1540s, as he sought recruits, Calvin stressed the rights of women

to read the Bible and participate in church services, a promise of sexual

equality which attracted women to his movement. Very soon, however, he

expressed a conviction that, in practical affairs, even in the conduct of

church business, women were naturally subordinate to their husbands. Without

female patron saints or priestly confessors, they were now expected to seek

protection and moral discipline from their spouses.

Calvin's idea of God's omnipotence, carried to its logical conclusion,

produced his famous docrine of predestination. Since God is all-powerful, He

must also know who are to be saved and who are to be damned eternally. The

human purpose, then, is not to win salvation - for this has already been

determined - but to honor God. Calvin did not profess to know absolutely who

were God's chosen, although he believed that some tests might be partially

successful in identifying the elect: a moral life, a public profession of

faith, and participation in the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's


Impact Of Calvinism Before The Peace Of Augsburg

Before 1555, Calvinism was growing but had not yet gained official status

except in Geneva and the tiny Kingdom of Navarre, on the French side of the

Pyrenees. It was not even recognized as an option by the German princes in the

Peace of Augsburg. Among European governing elites, it was generally regarded

with suspicion if not contempt.

The most promising area for growth was France, Calvin's own homeland. His

message attracted many members of the urban middle classes, who had begun to

feel alienated from both church and state. Missionaries from Geneva carried

Calvin's message to France where the church was organized in a national system

of congregations and synods. French Calvinists, or Huguenots as they were

called, made up an aggressive minority of discontented nobles and middle-class

urban citizens. The new movement also enlisted a large proportion of women,

drawn by opportunities for direct participation in the services. Many joined

reading groups, where they discussed the Bible and theological issues. Early

Calvinist women worked diligently for the cause, not only converting their

husbands and families but also founding religious schools, nursing the sick,

and aiding the poor.

French aristocratic women also promoted the growth of Calvinism. As the

Renaissance moved north, many young French women were educated in the new

humanism and began to question the traditional Catholic dogma. Margaret of

Angouleme, Queen of Navarre (1492-1549) and sister of the French king, often

petitioned her brother on behalf of Protestants accused of heresy and kept

reformers at her court, where Calvin was sheltered at one time. Her daughter,

Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572), who became queen in 1549, established Calvinism

in Navarre, having converted her second husband, the French aristocrat, Antone

de Bourbon. Because Calvinism had enlisted many French dissident nobles who

were intent upon resisting royal power, the Bourbon leader hoped to gain their

support and use it later to further his family's claim to the French throne.

Jeanne, however, was dedicated to Calvinist principles, raising money and

enlisting recruits among her contempories. She was a powerful member of the

aristocratic Huguenot clique, headed by Admiral de Coligny and the Bourbon

Prince, Louis of Conde.

Calvinism made gains elsewhere but did not win political power. In Italy,

the Duchess of Ferrara copied the Navarre church service for her private

chapel and harbored Calvinist refugees; and Zofia Olesnicka, wife of a Polish

noble, endowed a local Calvinist church. Strasbourg, in the 1530s, was a free

center for Protestant reformers such as Matthew Zell and his wife, Katherine,

who befriended many Calvinist preachers, including Martin Bucer, the

missionary to England during the reign of Edward VI. In the same period, John

Knox spread the Calvinist message in Scotland. Such efforts, however, were

most significant in preparing for later aggressive action.

Although Calvin himself was inclined to respect secular authority and to

oppose revolt from below, his political support naturally oriented him against

established governments. Calvin's solution to this problem, like Luther's, was

a compromise. He advised obedience to magistrates but argued that lower

officials were justified in resisting tyrants who commanded violation of God's

laws. He also insisted that the church, under its elected ministers and

elders, was superior to bishops or kings in religious matters. Although this

declaration defined "tyranny" almost exclusively in religious terms, Calvin's

theoretical system strongly implied the necessity for representative

government, an idea which would later challenge absolute monarchy.

Anabaptism And The Protestant Sects

Even more extreme than Calvinism were many divergent Protestant splinter

groups, each pursuing its own "inner lights." Some saw visions of the world's

end; some advocated a Christian brotherhood of shared wealth; some opposed

social distinctions and economic inequalities; some, like the Anabaptists,

repudiated infant baptism as a violation of Christian responsibility; and some

denied the need for any clergy. Most of the sects emphasized biblical

literalism and direct emotional communion between the individual and God. The

majority of them were indifferent or antagonistic to secular government; many

favored pacificism and substitution of the church for the state.

Women were prominent among the sects. They helped found religious

communities, wrote hymns and religious tracts, debated theology, and publicly

challenged the authorities. Some preached and delivered prophecies, although

such activities were soon suppressed by male ministers. More women that men

endured torture and suffered martyrdom. Their leadership opportunities and

relative freedoms in marriage, compared to women of other religions, were

bought at a high price in hardship and danger.

Persecution of the sects arose largely from their radical ideas, but

Catholics and other Protestants usually cited two revolutionary actions. Some

radical preachers took part in the German Peasants' Revolt of the 1520's and

shared in the savage punishments that followed. In 1534, a Catholic army

beseiged Munster, a German city near the northern Netherlands, where thousands

of recently arrived Anabaptist extremists had seized control and expelled

dissenters. Facing desperate circumstances, the new regime confiscated

property, institutionalized polygamy, and laid plans to convert the world.

John of Leyden, a former Dutch tailor who claimed divine authority, headed a

terroristic regime during the final weeks before the city fell. Many of its

defenders suffered horrible torture and execution.

Among the most damaging charges against the Munster rebels were their

reputed sexual excesses and the dominant role played by women in this

immorality. Such charges were mostly distortions. The initiation of polygamy

in the city, while justified by references to the Old Testament, was a

response to problems arising from a shortage of men, many of whom had fled the

city. Many other men were killed or injured in the fighting. The leaders of

the city required women to marry, so that they could be protected and

controlled by husbands. Most Anabaptist women acepted the requirement as a

religious duty. Although some women paraded through the streets, shouting

religious slogans, the majority prepared meals, did manual labor on the

defenses, fought beside the men as the city fell, and died by the hundreds, in

the fighting or at the stake. Many of the original Munster women, however,

fiercely resisted forced marriage, choosing instead imprisonment or execution.

For more than a century, memories of Munster plagued the radical

Protestant sects. They were almost immediately driven underground throughout

Europe. Their persecution continued, long after they had abandoned violence.

In time, they dispersed over the continent and to the New World, as

Mennonites, Quakers, and Baptists, to name only a few denominations. For

obvious reasons, the voices of the radicals were among the first raised for

religious liberty. Their experiences with established governments made them

even more suspicious of authority than were Calvinists. In both the

Netherlands and in England, they participated in political revolutions and

helped frame the earliest written demands for constitutional government,

representative institutions, and civil liberties.

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