John Calvin



HE was born at Noyon, France, July 10, 1509. It was an ecclesiastical city, dominated by its cathedral and its bishop; here at the outset he had an example of theocracy—the rule of a society by clergymen in the name of God. His father, Gérard Chauvin, was secretary to the bishop, proctor in the cathedral chapter, and fiscal procurator of the county. Jean’s mother died while he was still young; the father married again, and perhaps Calvin owed to stern step-rearing part of his somber spirit. Gérard destined three of his sons for the priesthood, confident that he could place them well. He found benefices for two, but one of these became a heretic and died refusing the sacraments. Gérard himself was excommunicated after a financial dispute with the cathedral chapter, and had some trouble getting buried in holy ground.

Jean was sent to the Collège de la Marche at the University of Paris. He registered as Johannes Calvinus, and learned to write excellent Latin. He passed later to the Collège de Montaigu, where he must have heard echoes of its famous pupil Erasmus; and he remained there till 1528, when his Catholic counterpart, Ignatius Loyola, entered. “The stories told at one time of Calvin’s ill-regulated youth,” says a Catholic authority, “have no foundation.” 1 On the contrary, the available evidence indicates an assiduous student, shy, taciturn, pious, and already “a severe censor of his comrades’ morals”;2 yet loved by his friends, now as later, with an unshakable fidelity. In the hot pursuit of esoteric knowledge or fascinating theory he read far into the night; even in those student years he developed some of the many ailments that plagued his mature life and helped to form his mood.

Unexpectedly, late in 1528, a directive came from his father to go to Orléans and study law, presumably, said the son, “because he judged that the science of laws commonly enriched those who followed it.”3 Calvin took readily enough to the new study; law, not philosophy or literature, seemed to him the outstanding intellectual achievement of mankind, the molding of man’s anarchic impulses to order and peace. He carried into theology and ethics the logic, precision, and severity of Justinian’s Institutes, and gave his own masterpiece a similar name. He became above all a lawgiver, the Numa and Lycurgus of Geneva.

Having taken his degree as Licentiate or Bachelor of Laws (1531), he returned to Paris and entered upon a voracious study of classical literature. Feeling the common urge to see himself in print, he published (1532) a Latin essay on Seneca’s De dementia; the sternest of religious legislators began his public career with a salute to mercy. He sent a copy to Erasmus, hailing him as the “second glory” (after Cicero) and “first delight of letters.” He seemed dedicated to humanism when some sermons of Luther reached him and stirred him with their audacity. Alert circles in Paris were discussing the new movement, and there must have been much talk about the reckless monk who had burned the bull of a pope and defied the ban of an emperor; indeed, Protestantism had already had martyrs in France. Some men who were urging Church reform were among Calvin’s friends; one of them, Gérard Roussel, was a favorite of the King’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre; another, Nicholas Cop, was chosen rector of the university, and Calvin probably had a hand in preparing Cop’s fateful inaugural address (November 1, 1533). It began with an Erasmian plea for a purified Christianity, proceeded to a Lutheran theory of salvation through faith and grace, and ended with an appeal for a tolerant hearing of the new religious ideas. The speech created a furore; the Sorbonne erupted in anger; the Parlement began proceedings against Cop for heresy. He fled; a reward of 300 crowns was offered for his capture alive or dead, but he managed to reach Basel, which was now Protestant.

Calvin was warned by friends that he and Roussel were scheduled for arrest. Marguerite seems to have interceded for him. He left Paris (January 1534) and found refuge in Angoulême; and there, probably in the rich library of Louis de Tillet, he began to write hisInstitutes. In May he ventured back to Noyon, and surrendered the benefices whose income had been supporting him. He was arrested there, was freed, was rearrested and again freed. He returned clandestinely to Paris, talked with Protestant leaders, and met Servetus, whom he was to burn. When some Protestant extremists posted abusive placards at various points in Paris, Francis I retaliated with a furious persecution. Calvin fled just in time (December 1534), and joined Cop in Basel. There, a lad of twenty-six, he completed the most eloquent, fervent, lucid, logical, influential, and terrible work in all the literature of the religious revolution.

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