Calvin merged morality with precepts of freedom


POSTED: Saturday, July 11, 2009

Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Usually paired with Martin Luther and called a “;great reformer,”; Calvin preached and taught the depravity and helplessness of humankind and the sovereignty of God. He posited the notion of “;predestination.”; He used dictatorial means to make Geneva a “;Protestant Rome,”; but he is often credited with planting seeds of modern democracy.

Calvin taught an austere moral code while stressing the importance of helping others. Some have said Calvin had a share in developing capitalism and a gospel of wealth; however, the association of white, Protestant and capitalism as a development engine for western Europe and North America is largely discredited among historians.

Born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in the French town of Noyon, Calvin became a lawyer. He came to sympathize with the anti-papal theses of Martin Luther, which had rapidly spread into France and the low countries. Religious turmoil forced him to go into exile in Basel, Switzerland. His followers in France were called Huguenots and were restricted to certain towns and areas until King Louis XIV completely banished them from France in the early 18th century.

Calvin was known for his considerable rhetorical talents; these earned him quick prominence as an evangelical teacher and controversial personality.

While Luther's ideas, teachings and writing played a role in crafting the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, the ideas of Calvin were generally antagonistic to the Church of England. Christians separated into denominations, and only in the past half-century have they sought common ground.

There were people in England who proclaimed themselves Puritans, wanting to purify the Church of England and follow Calvin's insistence on plainness, no statues, no images or icons, simple vestments and no stained glass. Puritans wanted nothing to do with the monarch being head of the church in England. Some extremist Puritans called themselves Separatists and declared they wanted to be separate from the Anglican Church.

Calvin's legacy was brought to America by Separatists who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Puritan New England was singular in its religious outlook and tolerated no opposition. When Roger Williams advocated kindness and justice in treatment of native peoples, he was relieved of his church in Salem and forced to flee south to Rhode Island and the Providence Plantation. Williams' tolerance and acceptance of Anglicans, Baptists, Quakers and Jews began a slow evolution in the colonies.

With the end of fighting in 1782, and a treaty of peace between the United States of America and the United Kingdom, American Anglicans organized as independent of the English church.

Centuries of separation between Calvinists and the Church of England will be addressed next week at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim, Calif. Delegates will consider a resolution that would bring the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches closer to inter-communion than at any time since 1782.

Meanwhile, Calvin's role in history is being assessed by theologians and historians in countless lectures, studies and biographies 500 years after he was born. The quincentenary is being observed around the globe with the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches as organizer of “;Calvin '09.”; Although a controversial figure, Calvin's teachings and arguments with Martin Luther were profoundly influential and wide-ranging.


Willis H.A. Moore is a Chaminade University history professor and a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii.