John Calvin Primary Source eText

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(Renaissance and Reformation: Primary Sources)

John Calvin was perhaps the most influential leader of the Protestant Reformation. Photograph courtesy of The Library of Congress. John Calvin was perhaps the most influential leader of the Protestant Reformation. Published by Gale Cengage Library of Congress

Excerpt from Ecclesiastical Ordinances Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand Published in 1968

John Calvin (1509–1564) was perhaps the most influential leader of the Protestant Reformation, a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. He was involved in reform efforts at the same time as Martin Luther (see entry), the German theology professor who initiated the Reformation. Calvin interpreted Christianity more strictly than Luther, however, establishing his own distinct form of Protestantism in Geneva, Switzerland. Under his tireless direction, Geneva became the focus of successful and far-reaching evangelism (personal commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, founder of Christianity), which was the foundation of many present-day Protestant churches.

Calvin brings evangelism to Geneva

John Calvin was born Jean Cauvin in Noyon, France, in 1509. His father, Gérard Cauvin, was a lawyer who worked for the local bishop. His mother, Jeanne Lefranc, was the daughter of a fairly well-to-do innkeeper. Calvin was educated in Noyon until 1523, when he was awarded a benefice, or church office in which income is used for education. He enrolled at the University of Paris, where he received an extensive humanist education. (Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Latin works and early biblical texts.) Calvin remained at Paris for five years with the intention of entering the Catholic priest-hood, but in 1528 his father ordered him to switch from theology (study of religion) to law. At some point he converted to Protestantism. Late in 1533 there was a general crackdown on Protestants by the royal government, causing Calvin to flee Paris.

Calvin left France in 1534. Traveling under the assumed name Martianus Lucianius, he settled in Basel, Switzerland. He spent the next two years in private study. In 1536 he published the first edition of his major work, Christianae religionis institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion; see accompanying box). One evening in June 1536, Calvin stopped in Geneva to spend the night. He intended to continue on his journey the following day, but the local evangelical preacher, Guillaume Farel (1489–1565), had another idea. Farel convinced Calvin that it was his duty to God to remain where he was most needed. Farel had hoped to expel Catholicism from the city, which had recently won its independence from the church. Calvin agreed to stay in Geneva, and with Farel he worked to establish Protestantism within the city. Within a couple of years, however, both men were banished for being too strict and for encouraging French Huguenots (Protestants from France) to move to Geneva. Calvin then went to Strasbourg, where he taught at an academy, preached, and developed his ideas on the nature of the ideal Christian church. Calvin's friends in Strasbourg urged him to find a wife. In 1540 he married Idelette Bure, the widow of one of his converts, who already had a son and a daughter. The couple's only child died shortly after birth in 1542. Idelette died seven years later, but Calvin never remarried.

In 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva in response to a call from the floundering church. He had been assured that he would be given the freedom he felt was necessary to build God's earthly kingdom. He then wrote Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which served as the basis of a reorganized local church government to be headed by a group called the consistory. The ordinances were approved by the citizens of Geneva in late 1541.

Things to Remember While Reading Excerpt from Ecclesiastical Ordinances:

  1. In the Ecclesiastical Ordinances Calvin established four church offices—minister, teacher, elder, and deacon. Modeled on leaders described in the New Testament (second part of the Bible), these officials were given distinct responsibilities in the new society. Members of the consistory were the ministers of local churches and twelve elders. Calvin set rules for the selection and approval of church officers, specified the times of worship services, and even designated who would attend which church. He also identified unacceptable behavior and defined procedures for dealing with those who broke the rules. Calvin gave the consistory full authority to suppress any opposition to the policies outlined in Ordinances.
  2. Calvin considered himself to be on the side of godliness and truth. Thus, for him, to tolerate dissent of any kind was to tolerate evil. Though Calvin expected strict enforcement of his orders, he was no different from other sixteenth-century reformers. Notice that Huldrych Zwingli, leader of the Protestant movement in Zurich, Switzerland, persecuted, or severely punished, Anabaptists (see Huldrych Zwingli entry).

Excerpt from Ecclesiastical Ordinances

On the Frequency, Place, and Time of Preaching

Each Sunday, at daybreak, there shall be a sermon in St. Peter's and St. Gervaise's, also at the customary hour at St. Peter, Magdalene, and St. Gervaise. At three o'clock, as well, in all three parishes, the second sermon.

For purposes of catechetical instruction and the administration of the sacraments, the boundaries of all the parishes are to be observed as possible. St. Gervaise is to be used by those who have done so in the past; likewise with Magdalene. Those who formerly attended St. Germaine, Holy Cross, the new church of Our Lady and St. Legier are to attend St. Peter's.

On work days, besides the two sermons mentioned, there shall be preaching three times each week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. These sermons shall be announced for an early hour so that they may be finished before the day's work begins. On special days of prayer the Sunday order is to be observed.

To carry out these provisions, and the other responsibilities pertaining to the ministry, five ministers and three coadjutors will be needed. The latter will also be ministers and help and reinforce the others as the occasion arises.

Concerning the Second Order, Called Teachers

The proper duty of teachers is to instruct the faithful in sound doctrine so that the purity of the gospel is not corrupted by ignorance or evil opinions. We include here the aids and instructions necessary to preserve the doctrines and to keep the church from becoming desolate for lack of pastors and ministers. To use a more familiar expression, we shall call it the order of the schools.

The order nearest the ministry and most closely associated with the government of the church is that of lecturer in theology who teaches the Old and New Testament.

Since it is impossible to profit by such instruction without first knowing languages and the humanities, and also since it is necessary to prepare for the future in order that the church may not be neglected by the young, it will be necessary to establish a school to instruct the youth, to prepare them not only for the ministry but for government.

First of all, a proper place for teaching purposes must be designated, fit to accommodate children and others who wish to profit by such instruction; to secure someone who is both learned in subject matter and capable of looking after the building, who can also read. This person is to be employed and placed under contract on condition that he provide under his charge readers in the languages and in dialectics, if it be possible. Also to secure men with bachelor degrees to teach the children. This we hope to do to further the work of God…

The Third Order Is That of Elders, Those Commissioned or Appointed to the Consistory by the Authorities

Their office is to keep watch over the lives of everyone, to admonish in love those whom they see in error and leading disorderly lives. Whenever necessary they shall make a report concerning these to the ministers who will be designated to make brotherly corrections and join with the others in making such corrections…

The Fourth Order or the Deacons

There were two orders of deacons in the ancient church, the one concerned with receiving, distributing, and guarding the goods of the poor, their possessions, income and pensions as well as the quarterly offerings; the others, to take heed to and care for the sick and administer the pittance for the poor. This custom we have preserved to the present. In order to avoid confusion, for we have both stewards and managers, one of the four stewards of the hospital is to act as receiver of all goods and is to receive adequate remuneration in order that he may better exercise his office…

It will be his task to take diligent care that the public hospital is well administered and that it is open not only to the sick but also to aged persons. Those who are sick are to be kept in a separate lodging, away from those who are unable to work, old persons, widows, orphans, and other needy persons…

Above all, the families of the managers are to be well managed in an efficient and godly fashion, since they are to manage the houses dedicated to God…

The hospital, for the pestilence in any case, is to be set apart; especially should it happen that the city is visited by this rod from God.

Moreover, to prevent begging, which is contrary to good order, it will be necessary that the authorities delegate certain officers. They are to be stationed at the doors of the churches to drive away any who try to resist and, if they act impudently or answer insolently, to take them to one of the syndics. In like manner, the heads of the precincts should always watch that the law against begging is well observed.

The Persons Whom the Elders Should Admonish, and Proper Procedure in This Regard

If there shall be anyone who lays down opinions contrary to received doctrine, he is to be summoned. If he recants, he is to be dismissed without prejudice. If he is stubborn, he is to be admonished from time to time until it shall be evident that he deserves greater severity. Then, he is to be excommunicated and this action reported to the magistrate.

If anyone is negligent in attending worship so that a noticeable offense is evident for the communion of the faithful, or if anyone shows himself contemptuous of ecclesiastical discipline, he is to be admonished. If he becomes disobedient, he is to be dismissed in love. If he persists, passing from bad to worse, after having been admonished three times, he is to be excommunicated and the matter reported to the authorities.

For the correction of faults, it is necessary to proceed after the ordinance of our Lord. That is, vices are to be dealt with secretly and no one is to be brought before the church for accusation if the fault is neither public nor scandalous, unless he has been found rebellious in the matter.

For the rest, those who scorn private admonitions are to be admonished again by the church. If they will not come to reason nor recognize their error, they are to be ordered to abstain from communion until they improve.

As for obvious and public evil, which the church cannot overlook: if the faults merit nothing more than admonition, the duty of the elders shall be to summon those concerned, deal with them in love in order that they may be reformed and, if they correct the fault, to dismiss the matter. If they persevere, they are to be admonished again. If, in the end, such procedure proves unsuccessful, they are to be denounced as contemptuous of God, and ordered to abstain from communion until it is evident that they have changed their way of life.

As for crimes that merit not only admonition but punitive correction: if any fall into error, according to the requirements of the case, it will be necessary to command them to abstain from communion so that they humble themselves before God and repent of their error.

If anyone by being contumacious or rebellious attempts that which is forbidden, the duty of the ministers shall be to reject him, since it is not proper that he receive the sacrament.

Nevertheless, let all these measures be moderate; let there not be such a degree of rigor that anyone should be cast down, for all corrections are but medicinal, to bring back sinners to the Lord.

And let all be done in such a manner as to keep from the ministers any civil jurisdiction whatever, so that they use only the spiritual sword of the word of God as St. Paul ordered them. Thus the consistory may in no wise take from the authority of the officers or of civil justice. On the contrary, the civil power is to be kept intact. Likewise, when it shall be necessary to exercise punishment or restraint against any party, the ministers and the consistory are to hear the party concerned, deal with them and admonish them as it may seem good, reporting all to the council which, for its part, shall deliberate and then pass judgment according to the merits of the case.

What happened next…

Despite considerable opposition, Calvin's influence grew steadily as he defeated theological and political opponents alike. In 1555 the consistory, which acted as a sort of moral court, was accepted and given great powers by the city. From that point onward discipline was strictly enforced in Geneva, which became known as Calvin's "New Jerusalem." Taverns were closed and replaced with abbayes, in which patrons were closely scrutinized for signs of excessive drinking. Indeed, throughout Geneva, citizens monitored one another's behavior, ready to report any sort of wrongdoing. In this spirit, a strict moral order—based on Calvin's particular vision of truth—was built. Constantly preaching and writing, he involved himself in all aspects of Genevan affairs including education, trade, diplomacy, and even sanitation. In 1559 Calvin and the French scholar Theodore Beza (1516–1605) founded the Genevan Academy (now the University of Geneva) for the training of clergy. Calvin was also determined to spread the reform movement abroad, especially within his native France. Under his direction, Geneva became a haven for persecuted Protestants. It was also the unofficial center of growing Protestant movements in places as far removed as Scotland. Before Calvin died in1564 he asked Beza to be head of the church of Geneva and help promote Calvinism throughout the world.

Did you know…

  1. In 1553, Michael Servetus (1511–1553), a Spanish scientist, humanist, and theologian, arrived in Geneva. He was traveling in disguise to avoid persecution for his scandalous religious ideas. Often called the first Unitarian (a present-day Protestant denomination), Servetus denied the divinity, or godliness, of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity (the Christian concept of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). He believed that God was a single, indivisible divine force. His views alienated him from both Catholics and Protestants. One day Calvin recognized Servetus sitting in the crowd listening to one of his sermons. He promptly had Servetus arrested and put on trial. As the "Defender of the Faith," Calvin demanded Servetus's execution. His order was supported by the Geneva city government, and on October 27, 1553, Servetus was burned alive for heresy (violation of the laws of God).
  2. Calvin's teachings were adopted by the Puritans, a strict Protestant group in England. They advocated purification of the Church of England (Anglican Church), the official religion of England. Although the Church of England was considered a Protestant faith, it still practiced many of the teachings and elaborate rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. A few dissenters among the Puritans contended that the church was too corrupt to be saved and they wanted total separation. Separation was considered a crime against the state. Nevertheless, a congregation in Scrooby, England, declared themselves to be Nonconformists, or separatists. When the Scrooby leaders were persecuted in 1607, the congregation went to Leyden in the Netherlands (Holland), where they were free to practice their religion. Eventually they decided to leave the Netherlands and settle in English territory in North America. Calling themselves Pilgrims, they set out aboard a ship called the Mayflower in September 1620. Although they were headed for Virginia, a storm forced them into a harbor on the coast of present-day Massachusetts in December 1620. The Pilgrims the established the Plymouth Colony, which was based on the teachings of John Calvin. In 1630 they were joined by other Puritans, who founded the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony and practiced an even stricter form of Calvinism.

For More Information


Greef, Wulfert de. The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide. Translated by Lyle D. Bierma. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1993.

Parker, T. H. L. John Calvin, a Biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.

Web Sites

"Calvin, John." [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.