On July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France was born Jean Cauvin, known to us as John Calvin. Of all the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, none were as significant in forming biblical theology or ecclesiastic thought as this one man. Calvin’s teaching and tradition penetrated more of the world than any of the other Protestant traditions. He would most influence the worldview of Western Europe, the UK, and the Americas up until the Modern period of history. His organization of the church government in Geneva would influence the church polity of Presbyterianism.
Influence on America
Many of the ideas incorporated into the American Constitution were done so by men inspired by John Calvin who had a healthy view of the depravity of man, the need for checks-and-balances in government, the division of powers, and provision for the rightful and orderly succession of rulers. Founding Father James Madison was strongly influenced by Reverend John Witherspoon, the only clergy signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Witherspoon was a descendant of the Scottish Reformer John Knox, who had been a student of Calvin’s in Geneva, calling it “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the Apostles.” Witherspoon had been president of the Presbyterian college Princeton University, and Madison spent an additional year after graduating studying Hebrew and political philosophy under Witherspoon.
Calvin’s emphasis on representative bodies — not unlike his board of Elders — had spread throughout Northern Europe where his followers became agents of change. Calvin’s emphasis on universal education led him to the forming of his Academy there “to train men for the preaching of the gospel,” It later became known as the University of Geneva.
What about economics? Popular theory holds that Protestants, especially Calvinists of the Dutch, Scottish, and English varieties, were the players in the rise of modern Capitalism. With the “Protestant work ethic” — a sense of thrift, dignity of work, and industry — Capitalism thrived in northern Europe, generally rolling over all competing theories either by its superior worth or simply by the economic power generated by the type of people subscribing to a Calvinist view of work and man.
Even when the original religious and theological vision of Calvin was long lost, as it was found in men like the Unitarian New England Yankees, the spirit of hard work and duty that lived on for hundreds of years. Not until Marxism was a theory found to capture the imagination as the Protestant-inspired Capitalistic view. Calvin also felt that greed was one of the chief examples of idolatry. How prescient, considering today’s economic woes. His motto was Prompte et sincere in opere Domini, ever ready to act “promptly and sincerely in the work of the Lord.”
Though Calvin was originally educated for a position in the church, his father encouraged him to pursue a study of law. After his father’s death, he returned to his interest in the Humanities. But “providentially,” as Calvin later concluded, he had to detour through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg and was confronted by the thunderous Reformed evangelist Guillaume Farel. The French evangelist challenged him to stay and aid him in the work of the Reformation in Geneva, where he had been laboring already for four years. Farel had read Calvin’s magnum opus — and best selling — Institutes of the Christian Religion and pressed his case upon Calvin who was 20 years his junior. When Calvin refused, as he later wrote:
“Farel who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve and after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement and tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refused to give assistance when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from the journey I had undertaken.“
Calvin took Farel’s imprecation seriously, and over more than two decades Calvin lived and worked in Geneva and transformed it into a veritable ecclesiocracy, a “new world order” of Protestantism. This Genius of Geneva lived to write a commentary on almost every book of the Bible and developed a representative form of church government that included pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons.
He died as he had lived, and to the same purpose. A month before he died he wrote in his last will and testament:
“I have always faithfully propounded what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.”
Calvinism spread to the Netherlands, France, Germany, Hungary, Scotland, England and America. As Time Magazine reported over 70 years ago in it’s February 24, 1947 issue “Calvinist Comeback?”
“It came to New England with the Puritans, to New York with the Dutch Reformed, and to Pennsylvania with the German Reformed. And wherever Scottish Presbyterians went… it went with them.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian