On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Historians mark that as the beginning of the Reformation. Hence, Reformation Day. In honor of this special Protestant holiday, this article features the most beloved reformer of all, John Calvin. In particular we’ll examine life in Geneva when it was under Calvin’s rule.
Pulitzer Prize winning historian Will Durant describes life in Calvin’s “City of God”: “The authority of the clergy over Genevese life was exercised through a Consistory … Calvin held power as the head of this Consistory; from 1541 till his death in 1564 his voice was the most influential in Geneva. His dictatorship was one not of law or force but of will and character. The intensity of his belief in his mission, and the completeness of his devotion to his tasks, gave him a strength that no one could successfully resist …
“So empowered, the clergy first regulated religious worship. ‘The whole household shall attend the sermons on Sunday, except when someone shall be left at home to tend the children or the cattle. If there is preaching on weekdays all who can must come.’ (Calvin preached three or four times a week.) ‘Should anyone come after the sermon has begun, let him be warned. If he does not amend, let him pay a fine’ … No one was to be excused from Protestant services on the plea of having a different or private religious creed;
Calvin was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief; this greatest legislator of Protestantism completely repudiated that principle of private judgment … Persistent absence from Protestant services, or continued refusal to take the Eucharist, was a punishable offense. Heresy again became an insult to God and treason to the state, and was to be punished with death … Between 1542 and 1564 fifty-eight persons were put to death, and seventy-six were banished, for violating the new code.
“The Consistory [governing body] made little distinction between religion and morality. Conduct was to be guided as carefully as belief, for good conduct was the goal of right belief. Calvin himself, austere and severe, dreamed of a community so well regulated that its virtue would prove his theology …
“To regulate lay conduct a system of domiciliary [home] visits was established: one or another of the elders visited, yearly, each house in the quarter assigned to him, and questioned the occupants on all phases of their lives … The allowable color and quantity of clothing, and the number of dishes permissible at a meal, were specified by law. Jewelry and lace were frowned upon. A woman was jailed for arranging her hair to an immoral height. Theatrical performances were limited to religious plays, and then these too were forbidden. Children were to be named not after saints in the Catholic calendar but preferably after Old Testament characters; an obstinate father served four days in prison for insisting on naming his son Claude instead of Abraham … To speak disrespectfully of Calvin or the clergy was a crime. A first violation of these ordinances was punished with a reprimand, further violation with fines, persistent violation with imprisonment or banishment. Fornication was to be punished with exile or drowning; adultery, blasphemy, or idolatry, with death. In one extraordinary instance a child was beheaded for striking its parents.
“Calvin rejected individualism in economics as well as in religion and morals. The unit of society, in his view, was not the free individual but the city-state community, whose members were bound to it in rigorous law and discipline. ‘No member of the Christian community,’ he wrote, ‘holds his gifts to himself, or for his private use, but shares them among his fellow members; nor does he derive benefit save from those things which proceed from the common profit of the body as a whole.’
“What were the results of Calvin's rule? The difficulties of enforcement must have been extreme, for never in history had such strict virtue been required of a city.”
“In a class by themselves stood crimes against Calvin. It was a crime to laugh at Calvin’s sermons; it was a crime to argue with Calvin in the street. But to enter into theological controversy with Calvin might turn out to be a very grave crime. Gruet, one of his opponents, was tortured for three years and finally executed, for having affixed a scurrilous placard to Calvin’s pulpit.”
The most well-known execution for heresy in Calvin’s Geneva was that of Michael Servetus, one who boldly promoted his unorthodox religious opinions. William Gilbert states that Servetus, because of his heresy, “was a marked man, in danger from both Protestants and Catholics … Servetus carried on a correspondence with Calvin, which served to reveal the great differences between them. It roused the bitter hatred of Calvin … Eventually Calvin broke off the correspondence. He wrote Farel that if Servetus came to Geneva, he would try to keep him from getting out of the city alive.
“Servetus appeared in Geneva on his way to Italy. Here he was recognized, and the news of his presence was conveyed to Calvin, who had him arrested. On the basis of charges preferred by Calvin, Servetus was put on trial. The trial was carried on by the civil authorities, but the accusations were all based on Servetus's writings and theology. Much of the proceedings consisted of direct encounters between Servetus and Calvin himself, during which Calvin was not always fair or just. The same can be said of the civil authorities, who refused Servetus's request for counsel and kept him imprisoned under filthy and uncomfortable conditions.
“Servetus was condemned to death … as a heretic. This means that he was to be burned at the stake. Calvin tried to get the sentence changed to death by the sword, but failed.
“This combination of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, of Catholics and Protestants, in hounding to death one radical thinker … did not go uncondemned, even in its own day. It aroused so much opposition that Calvin felt compelled to issue a defense in both Latin and French versions in 1554 in which he argued for the right to put to death those who dishonored God by teaching false doctrine.”
Calvin’s ministry contrasted Christ’s Who said “the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Lk. 9:56). Moreover, Jesus warned: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15 & 16). Calvin’s fruits are religious tyranny, suppression of conscience, and murder - “and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (I Jn 3:15).
Baptists are not Protestants. We didn’t separate from Rome - MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT is not our spiritual ancestry. As Mr. Spurgeon said, “We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther or Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the very days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel underground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents. Persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a Government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor, I believe, any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man. We have ever been ready to suffer, as our martyrologies will prove, but we are not ready to accept any help from the State, to prostitute the purity of the Bride of Christ to any alliance with Government.
1 The Story of Civilization, Part VI, 1975, pp. 472-475.
2 John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist, Edwin Muir, 1972, pp. 106, 107.
3 Renaissance and Reformation, 1997, ch. 14.
4 The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 7I, C. H. Spurgeon, 1861, p. 225.