Calvin behaved, in the early years of his recall, with a moderation and modesty that won all but a small minority to his support. Eight assistant pastors were appointed, under him, to serve St. Peter’s and the other churches of the city. He labored twelve to eighteen hours a day as preacher, administrator, professor of theology, superintendent of churches and schools, adviser to municipal councils, and regulator of public morals and church liturgy; meanwhile he kept enlarging the Institutes, wrote commentaries on the Bible, and maintained a correspondence second in extent only to that of Erasmus, and surpassing it in influence. He slept little, ate little, fasted frequently. His successor and biographer, Théodore de Bèze, marveled that one little man (unicus homunculus)could carry so heavy and varied a burden.

His first task was the reorganization of the Reformed Church. At his request the Small Council, soon after his return, appointed a commission of five clergymen and six councilors, with Calvin at their head, to formulate a new ecclesiastical code. On January 2, 1542, the Great Council ratified the resultant Ordonnances ecclésiastiques, whose essential features are still accepted by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of Europe and America. The ministry was divided into pastors, teachers, lay elders, and deacons. The pastors of Geneva constituted “The Venerable Company,” which governed the Church and trained candidates for the ministry. No one henceforth was to preach in Geneva without authorization by the Company; the consent of the city council and the congregation was also required, but episcopal ordinations—and bishops—were taboo. The new clergy, while never claiming the miraculous powers of the Catholic priests, and though decreeing themselves ineligible for civil office, became under Calvin more powerful than any priesthood since ancient Israel. The real law of a Christian state, said Calvin, must be the Bible; the clergy are the proper interpreters of that law; civil governments are subject to that law, and must enforce it as so interpreted. The practical men in the councils may have had some doubts on these points, but they appear to have felt that social order was so profitable to the economy that some ecclesiastical assumptions might for the time being go unchallenged. Through an astonishing quarter of a century a theocracy of clergymen seemed to dominate an oligarchy of merchants and men of affairs.

The authority of the clergy over Genevese life was exercised through a Consistory or Presbytery composed of five pastors and twelve lay elders, all chosen by the Council. As the pastors held tenure throughout their ministry, and the elders for only a year, the Consistory, in matters not vitally affecting business, was ruled by its ecclesiastical members. It took the right to ordain the religious worship and moral conduct of every inhabitant; it sent a minister and an elder to visit every house and family annually; it could summon any person before it for examination; it could publicly reprove or excommunicate offenders, and could rely on the Council to banish from the city those whom the Consistory banned from the Church. 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. Hildebrand, revived, could have rejoiced over this apparent triumph of the Church over the state.

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 of three sous.”32 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 with which the new religion had begun. He had seen the fragmentation of the Reformation into a hundred sects, and foresaw more; in Geneva he would have none of them. There a body of learned divines would formulate an authoritative creed; those Genevans who could not accept it would have to seek other habitats. 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. Catholicism, which had preached this view of heresy, became heresy in its turn. Between 1542 and 1564 fifty-eight persons were put to death, and seventy-six were banished, for violating the new code. Here, as elsewhere, witchcraft was a capital crime; in one year, on the advice of the Consistory, fourteen alleged witches were sent to the stake on the charge that they had persuaded Satan to afflict Geneva with plague.33

The Consistory 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, and would shame the Catholicism that had produced or tolerated the luxury and laxity of Rome. Discipline should be the backbone of personality, enabling it to rise out of the baseness of human nature to the erect stature of the self-conquered man. The clergy must lead by example as well as precept; they may marry and beget, but they must abstain from hunting, gambling, feasting, commerce, and secular amusements, and accept annual visitation and moral scrutiny by their ecclesiastical superiors.

To regulate lay conduct a system of domiciliary 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. Consistory and Council joined in the prohibition of gambling, card-playing, profanity, drunkenness, the frequenting of taverns, dancing (which was then enhanced by kisses and embraces), indecent or irreligious songs, excess in entertainment, extravagance in living, immodesty in dress. 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.34 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.35Censorship of the press was taken over from Catholic and secular precedents, and enlarged (1560): books of erroneous religious doctrine, or of immoral tendency, were banned; Montaigne’s Essays and Rousseau’s Émile were later to fall under this proscription. To speak disrespectfully of Calvin or the clergy was a crime.36 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.37 In the years 1558–59 there were 414 prosecutions for moral offenses; between 1542 and 1564 there were seventy-six banishments and fifty-eight executions; the total population of Geneva was then about 20,000.38 As everywhere in the sixteenth century, torture was often used to obtain confessions or evidence.

Regulation was extended to education, society, and the economic life. Calvin established schools and an academy, searched through Western Europe for good teachers of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and theology, and trained young ministers who carried his gospel into France, Holland, Scotland, and England with all the ardor and devotion of Jesuit missionaries in Asia; in eleven years (1555–66) Geneva sent 161 such envoys into France, many of whom sang Huguenot psalms as they suffered martyrdom. Calvin considered class divisions natural, and his legislation protected rank and dignity by prescribing the quality of dress, and the limits of activity for each class.39 Every person was expected to accept his place in society, and to perform its duties without envy of his betters or complaint of his lot. Begging was banned, and indiscriminate charity was replaced by careful communal administration of poor relief.

Calvinism gave to hard work, sobriety, diligence, frugality, and thrift a religious sanction and laurel that may have shared in developing the industrious temper of the modern Protestant businessman; but this relationship has been overstressed.40 Capitalism was more highly developed in Catholic Florence and Flanders before the Reformation than in Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin rejected individualism in economics as well as in religion and morals. The unit of society, in his view, was not the free individual (with whom Luther had begun his revolt) 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.”41 He had no sympathy with acquisitive speculation or ruthless accumulation.42 Like some late-medieval Catholic theorists, he permitted interest on loans, but in theory he limited it to 5 per cent, and urged loans without interest to necessitous individuals or the state.43 With his approval the Consistory punished engrossers, monopolists, and lenders who charged excessive interest; it fixed prices for food and clothes and surgical operations; it censured or fined merchants who defrauded their clients, dealers who skimped their measures, clothiers who cut their cloth too short.44 Sometimes the regime moved toward state socialism: the Venerable Company established a bank, and conducted some industries.45

If we bear these limiting factors in mind, we may admit a quiet and growing entente between Calvinism and business. Calvin could not long have kept his leadership had he obstructed the commercial development of a city whose commerce was its life. He adjusted himself to the situation, allowed interest charges of 10 per cent, and recommended state loans to finance the introduction or expansion of private industry, as in the manufacture of clothing or the production of silk. Commercial centers like Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London took readily to the first modern religion that accepted the modern economy. Calvinism took the middle classes into its fold, and grew with their growth.

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. A considerable party opposed the regimen, even to the point of open revolt, but a substantial number of influential citizens must have supported it, if only on the general theory of morals—that others need them. The influx of French Huguenots and other Protestants must have strengthened Calvin’s hand; and the limitation of the experiment to Geneva and its hinterland raised the chances of success. The recurrent fear of invasion and absorption by hostile states (Savoy, Italy, France, the Empire) compelled political stability and civic obedience; external danger promoted internal discipline. In any case we have an enthusiastic description of the results from the pen of an eyewitness, Bernardino Ochino, an Italian Protestant who had found refuge in Geneva:

Cursing and swearing, unchastity, sacrilege, adultery, and impure living, such as prevail in many places where I have lived, are here unknown. There are no pimps and harlots. The people do not know what rouge is, and they are all clad in seemly fashion. Games of chance are not customary. Benevolence is so great that the poor need not beg. The people admonish one another in brotherly fashion, as Christ prescribes. Lawsuits are banished from the city, nor is there any simony, murder, or party spirit, but only peace and charity. On the other hand, there are no organs here, no voice of bells, no showy songs, no burning candles or lamps [in the churches], no relics, pictures, statues, canopies, or splendid robes, no farces or cold ceremonies. The churches are quite free from idolatry.46

The extant records of the Council for this period do not quite agree with this report: they reveal a high percentage of illegitimate children, abandoned infants, forced marriages, and sentences of death;47 Calvin’s son-in-law and his stepdaughter were among those condemned for adultery.48 But then again, as late as 1610, we find Valentin Andreae, a Lutheran minister from Württemberg, praising Geneva enviously:

When I was in Geneva I observed something great which I shall remember and desire as long as I live. There is in that city not only the perfect institute of a perfect republic, but, as a special ornament, a moral discipline which makes weekly investigations into the conduct, and even the smallest transgressions, of the citizens.... . All cursing and swearing, gambling, luxury, strife, hatred, fraud, etc., are forbidden, while greater sins are hardly heard of. What a glorious ornament of the Christian religion is such a purity of morals! We must lament with tears that it is wanting with us [Germans], and almost totally neglected. If it were not for the difference of religion, I would have been chained to Geneva forever.49

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