John Calvin was born in 1509. He died in 1564. John Calvin was the son of a lawyer. He was born in Noyon, Picardy and was therefore a Frenchman. Calvin developed a love for scholarship and literature.

In 1523 he went to the University of Paris where he studied theology.

To maintain himself while a student, Calvin secured a small chaplaincy attached to Noyon Cathedral.

In 1528 he went to Orleans to study Law, and one year later Calvin went to Bourges also to study Law.

Calvin was pressurised by his father to study Law but in 1531 his father died giving Calvin the freedom to resume his religious studies.

In the same year that his father died, Calvin went to the College de France in Paris to study Greek. This college was noted for its Humanistic approach to learning. In fact, all the colleges that Calvin attended had Humanistic leanings and it was only natural that this influenced Calvin. He became an admirer of Erasmus.

At some point between 1528 and 1533 he experienced a “sudden conversion” and grasped Protestantism. “God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion” was how Calvin described this experience.

Many historians look on the time from 1531 to 1533 as being the key time as this was the first time that he had been free from his father’s ‘shackles’. Calvin was highly critical of the abuses in the French Catholic church but he never doubted that he was God’s chosen instrument in the spiritual regeneration of the world.

At this time in France his ideas would have been heretical especially after the Day of the Placards incident when Francis I felt personally threatened by the Protestants and joined with the Sorbonne and the Parlément of Paris to hunt out heretics. Calvin lived at a dangerous time for heretics and in 1533 he fled Paris. In the following year 24 heretics were burned at the stake. For three years (1533 to 1536) he roamed France, Italy and Switzerland.

In 1536 the first edition of “Institutes of the Christian Religion” was published in Basle. It was revised on a number of occasions and the final edition was published in 1559. This book was a clear explanation of his religious beliefs. The later versions expanded on how his church should be organised.

In July 1536, Calvin went to Geneva which became the centre of his work. He had been trying to go to Strasbourg but the spread of the Habsburg-Valois Wars made him detour to Geneva where a fiery Protestant called Guillaume Farel persuaded him to stay.

Geneva was a French-speaking Swiss city. At the time of Calvin’s arrival the city was struggling to achieve independence against two authorities who were trying to exercise control over Geneva. The first was the Dukes of Savoy and the second was the Bishop of Geneva. Geneva was not yet part of Switzerland (not until 1815) and the city allied with the cantons of Bern and Fribourg against Savoy. The bishop fled Geneva and Savoy was defeated in 1535.

In May 1536 the city adopted religious reform: 

  1. monasteries were dissolved
  2. Mass was abolished
  3. Papal authority renounced

But within Geneva itself a struggle took place between those who wanted mild reform (such as no compulsory church attendance) and those who demanded radical reform such as Calvin and Farel. The split was deeper than this however. The mild reformers were called the Libertines and they wanted magistrates firmly in control of the clergy. Calvin wanted a city controlled by the clergy – a theocracy. In 1538, the Libertines won the day and Farel and Calvin fled the city and went to Strasbourg.

From 1538 to 1541 Calvin stayed in Strasbourg. Here he learned a lot about the ideas of Martin Bucer; a moderate Protestant reformer from Germany. Calvin was especially interested in Bucer’s ideas on ecclesiastical organisation.

In 1540 Calvin attended a Catholic/Protestant conference at Hagenau and in the following year he attended similar conferences at Worms and Regensburg.

In September 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva after the Libertines had fallen from power in 1540. It took Calvin 14 years before he could fully impose his version of liturgy, doctrine, organisation of the church and moral behaviour.

Calvin’s services were plain and simple. He placed great importance on the sermon. His sermons were very logical and learned. Though he himself liked music, he distrusted its use in religious services believing that it distracted people from the matter in hand – the worship and the seeking knowledge of God. Musical instruments were banned from churches – though congregational singing was permitted and this proved to be both popular and an effective way of ‘spreading’ the message. All matters relating to worship came from the Scriptures – so psalms took the place of hymns in services.

Church government

In 1541, added by the city council, Calvin drew up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances. He rejected the organisation of the Medieval Church as contrary to the New Testament. He wanted a church modelled on the church in Apostolic times. There were to be no bishops. All ministers were equal. They had to preach, administer the sacraments and look after the spiritual welfare of the people. Moral discipline was also upheld by the ministers – but they were helped by the elders.

The elders were civilian (laymen) who lived within the congregation and who were elected by the city council. Calvin was not keen on this but it provided a link between the Church and state. The elders and deacons (also laymen who looked after the relief of the poor were subject to popular appointment and in that respect they introduced an important element of democracy into the church. All officers in the church belonged to the consistory and if there was a power struggle between the ministers and the laymen the outcome of that power struggle determined whether the church became Erastian (i.e. followed the way Erasmus wished a church to go) or the state would become theocratic i.e. the church controlled all aspects of life. Eventually Geneva became theocratic.

Calvin was a strong believer in behaving as God wished. Immorality was severely condemned but to begin with the consistory was not an effective body. It only started to be so when the number of appointed ministers was greater than the elders. Also in 1555, the city council gave the consistory the right to excommunicate offenders. Only after this date was a strict moral code imposed and every sin was made a crime e.g. no work or pleasure on a Sunday; no extravagance in dress. If you were excommunicated you were banished from the city. Blasphemy could be punished by death; lewd singing could be punished by your tongue being pierced.

Calvin believed that the church and state should be separate but the consistory tried moral and religious offenders. Two members of the consistory, accompanied by a minister, visited every parish to see that all was well and that people could see that they were being checked on. The state had to obey the teachings of the church, according to Calvin, and once he had managed to ensure this power, he felt confident enough to shut down taverns – though this was actually done by magistrates – and replace them with “evangelical refreshment places” where you could drink alcohol but this was accompanied by Bible readings. Meals (in public) were preceded by the saying of grace. Not surprisingly these were far from popular and even Calvin recognised that he had gone too far and the taverns were re-opened with due speed!!

Was Calvin totally supported in Geneva? It must be remembered that he was introducing a very disciplined code to the city and that this code effectively controlled peoples lives. There were those who opposed Calvin and he was never totally secure until he had the support of Geneva’s most important families. These 1,500 men had a right to elect the city council which governed the city’s 13,000 people. Many felt angered that their privacy was being trespassed on and though a moral code to maintain standards was accepted, Calvin saw it going all the way so that everybody in the city was affected – a view not shared by everyone. This changed in favour of Calvin when a Spanish scholar called Michael Servetus came to Geneva in 1553. He questioned the validity of the Trinity which is central to all Christianity. The Libertines sided with Servetus to ‘get’ at Calvin and but his trial and burning as a heretic gave Calvin the opportunity to target the Libertines who fled Geneva. In May 1555, the Libertines attempted a take-over of Geneva which was a disaster. The ringleaders were caught and executed and this success further strengthened Calvin’s hand.

What were Calvin’s beliefs?

Calvinism was based around the absolute power and supremacy of God.

The world was created so that Mankind might get to know Him. Calvin believed that Man was sinful and could only approach God through faith in Christ – not through Mass and pilgrimages.

Calvin believed that the New Testament and baptism and the Eucharist had been created to provide Man with continual divine guidance when seeking faith.

In Calvin’s view, Man, who is corrupt, is confronted by the omnipotent (all powerful) and omnipresent (present everywhere) God who before the world began predestined some for eternal salvation (the Elect) while the others would suffer everlasting damnation (the Reprobates).

The chosen few were saved by the operation of divine grace which cannot be challenged and cannot be earned by Man’s merits. You might have lead what you might have considered a perfectly good life that was true to God but if you were a reprobate you remained one because for all your qualities you were inherently corrupt and God would know this even if you did not. However, a reprobate by behaving decently could achieve an inner conviction of salvation. An Elect could never fall from grace.

However, God remained the judge and lawgiver of men. Predestination remained a vital belief in Calvinism.

“We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which He determined what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.” (Institutes)

Calvin and Europe

Calvinism was a belief that was dependent on the strength of the individual. You controlled your own goodness on Earth and this depended on the strength of your inner conviction. This was a personal belief not dependent on the whims of an individual pope or relics, indulgences etc. You may have been a reprobate in the eyes of God but you would not know this and so a person would lead a life for God to fully know him.

Geneva became the most influential city in the Protestant movement. It represented the city where religion had been most truly reformed and changed for the better. John Knox, the Scottish Protestant leader, called Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ.” Geneva’s impact on Europe was huge for two reasons:

Calvin did not want his belief to be restricted to just one area and he did not want Geneva to become a refuge for fleeing Protestants. The city was to be the heart that pumped Calvinism to all of Europe. This spread was to be based on a new educational system which was established in Geneva. Both primary and secondary schools were created and in 1559 the Academy was established which was to become the University of Geneva.

Geneva was/is French speaking and Calvin spoke French. It was expected that many French Huguenots (Calvinists in France were known as Huguenots) would head for the university to train as missionaries. This was the main task of the university. In 1559 it had 162 students. In 1564, it had over 1500 students. Most of these were foreign. Calvin had some luck with his teaching staff as there had been a dispute over the level of pay at Lausanne University and many of the teaching staff there simply transferred to Geneva as the pay was better and the financial structure of the university was on a stronger footing. After their course at Geneva, the missionaries were given a French-speaking congregation in Switzerland where they could perfect their skills before moving on to France itself. The ease with which ministers could get into France was a bonus for Calvin. However, the size of the country was to be both a help and a hindrance to Calvinists.


The first Huguenot (Calvinist) ministers arrived in France in 1553. By 1563, there were nearly 90 Huguenots in France and the speed of its spread surprised even Calvin.

Henry II of France was a strong catholic and he had established a body called the Chambre Ardente in 1547 to monitor and hunt out ‘heresy’ in France. It was not a success and was disbanded in 1550. Whereas his father (Francis I) had used Protestantism to help advance his power against the Parlement de Paris, Henry had no wish to have any association with Protestants whatsoever.

In 1555 the first Huguenot congregation to have a permanent minister was established in Paris. By 1558, this congregation was worshipping in the open guarded by armed sympathisers.

In 1559, the first synod (national council) was held in Paris. 72 local congregations were represented by the elders from each congregation. In some regions of France travelling ministers had to be used but this was never a major problem as the organisation of the church was so tight. Many Huguenot communities were near each other so communication was never really a problem. Educated merchants were drawn to Calvinism. This occurred probably as a result of the impact of the Renaissance and as a reaction to the rigidity of the catholic Church.

A number of noble families converted to Calvinism though there is not one common link to explain their conversion. Each family had its own individual reason. Ironically one of these reasons may have been patriotic. Catholicism was linked to Rome and since the Concordat of Bologna, the French had always linked their religion to national causes. By associating yourself with Calvinism, you would be expressing your belief that France should have no links to Italy.

The Huguenots were concentrated on the coast mainly in the west (La Rochelle) and in the south-east. They develop their own cavalry force and openly worshipped in their own churches. The sheer size of France aided them in the respect that the royal government in Paris found it difficult enough to assert its authority generally. The strict organisation of the Huguenots made any attempt by the authorities to crush them very difficult. Added to this was the simple fact that la Rochelle was a long way from Paris.

By 1561, there were 2150 Huguenot churches in France and Calvinists were estimated to be about 10% of the population – about 1 million people. It has to be remembered that the first Calvinist ministers only got to France in 1553. Calvinism within France became a large minority religion.

The Netherlands:

Calvin made important gains in this state. Ministers first arrived here in the 1550’s aided by Huguenot preachers who were fleeing from France. They made slow progress at first. Why?

Lutheranism had already taken root as had Anabaptism so Calvinism was seen as another protest religion in a ever crowded field. There was also a lot of persecution in general against Protestants. In 1524, Charles V had introduced his own Inquisition to the region and in 1529 and 1531 new edicts were introduced ordering death to anyone who was found guilty of being a Lutheran or simply sheltered them or help Lutherans spread their beliefs.

In 1550 Charles V removed the authority of city councils to try heretics. It was his belief that city magistrates were too lenient and that the provincial courts which took over this duty would have far greater control than the city magistrates.

These measures did check the spread of Protestantism but Calvinism was the most successful of the three and the best equipped to survive. Why?

Its system of non-religious governments by elders allowed it to operate regardless of the authorities. The Anabaptists were too reliant on the role of the individual as opposed to strength in numbers and organisation while the Lutherans were poorly organised and more open to attack from the authorities.

By 1560, Calvinism had not spread far because the authorities were very active against it. In total, Protestantism accounted for 5% of the whole population in the Netherlands of which the Calvinists were just a small part. No noble men appeared to be interested as they were too concerned with their political power and economic well being. Their knew that the Catholic Church was corrupt but they found the Calvinists far too authoritarian as the church told you what you could do and what you could not. Most Calvinists were from Antwerp, Ghent and regions near Germany.


Calvinism developed into a popular movement in NW Rhineland and Westphalia – both neighbours of the Netherlands. These were the only areas to convert. In 1562, Frederick III modelled churches in his territory on the Calvinist model which was contrary to the 1555 Religious Settlement of Augsburg which stated that churches could only be Catholic or Lutheran. Heidelburg became a leading intellectual centre but the spread elsewhere was very limited due to Lutheranism and the input of Calvinism into Germany served to disunite the Protestant movement and help the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation. John Sigismund of Brandenburg was to convert at a later date and his state followed.


The western area of Poland was German speaking which had helped Luther. However, Poland had a history of nationalism and a desire to be independent and this did not help Luther who had not spent time organising his church. Calvinism first reached Poland in 1550 and the nobles latched on to the idea of using the civilian population – and giving them some power in their religious rights – as a lever to expand their own power. Two leading nobles (Prince Radziwill the Black and John a Lasco) actively helped the spread of Calvinism as did two kings (Stephen II and Stephen Bathory). Regardless of this, Calvinism did not spread far. Why?

Most Poles did not speak German and therefore language remained a major stumbling block as most Calvinist preachers did not speak Polish and could not communicate with the population. Another problem was that numerous Protestant religions already existed in Poland (Bohemian Brethren, Anabaptists, Unitarians etc.) and those who might be won away from the Catholic Church had already been so.

In 1573 in the Confederation of Warsaw, both Catholics and Protestants agreed to make religious toleration part of the constitution to be sworn by each succeeding king. But the division among the Protestants meant that the Catholic Church dominated the country and her nickname at this time was the “Spain of the north”.