John Calvin’s Geneva

An argument-by-example for the separation of church and state. According to William Manchester’s excellent A World Lit Only by Fire, p. 190:

‘All Protestant regimes were stiffly doctrinal to a degree unknown—until now—in Rome. John Calvin’s Geneva, however, represented the ultimate in repression. The city-state of Geneva, which became known as the Protestant Rome, was also, in effect, a police state, ruled by a Consistory of five pastors and twelve lay elders, with the bloodless figure of the dictator looming over all. calvin-johnIn physique, temperament, and conviction, Calvin (1509–1564) was the inverted image of the freewheeling, permissive, high-living popes whose excesses had led to Lutheran apostasy. Frail, thin, short, and lightly bearded, with ruthless, penetrating eyes, he was humorless and short-tempered. The slightest criticism enraged him. Those who questioned his theology he called “pigs,” “asses,” “riffraff,” “dogs,” “idiots,” and “stinking beasts.” One morning he found a poster on his pulpit accusing him of “Gross Hypocrisy.” A suspect was arrested. No evidence was produced, but he was tortured day and night for a month till he confessed. Screaming with pain, he was lashed to a wooden stake. Penultimately, his feet were nailed to the wood; ultimately he was decapitated.

‘Calvin’s justification for this excessive rebuke reveals the mindset of all Reformation inquisitors, Protestant and Catholic alike: “When the papists are so harsh and violent in defense of their superstitions” he asked, “are not Christ’s magistrates shamed to show themselves less ardent in defense of the sure truth?” Clearly, he would have condemned the Jesus of Matthew (5:39, 44) as a heretic. In Calvin’s Orwellian theocracy, established in 1542, acts of God—earthquakes, lightning, flooding—were acts of Satan. (Luther, of course, agreed.) Copernicus was branded a fraud, attendance at church and sermons was compulsory, and Calvin himself preached at great length three or four times a week. Refusal to take the Eucharist was a crime. calvin-statueThe Consistory, which made no distinction between religion and morality, could summon anyone for questioning, investigate any charge of backsliding, and entered homes periodically to be sure no one was cheating Calvin’s God. Legislation specified the number of dishes to be served at each meal and the color of garments worn. What one was permitted to wear depended upon who one was, for never was a society more class–ridden. Believing that every child of God had been foreordained, Calvin was determined that each know his place; statutes specified the quality of dress and the activities allowed in each class.

‘But even the elite—the clergy, of course—were allowed few diversions. Calvinists worked hard because there wasn’t much else they were permitted to do. “Feasting” was proscribed; so were dancing, singing, pictures, statues, relics, church bells, organs, altar candles; “indecent or irreligious” songs, staging or attending theatrical plays; wearing rouge, jewelry, lace, or “immodest” dress; speaking disrespectfully of your betters; extravagant entertainment; swearing, gambling, playing cards, hunting, drunkenness; naming children after anyone but figures in the Old Testament; reading “immoral or irreligious” books; and sexual intercourse, except between partners of different genders who were married to one another.”

Then there is Calvin’s denouncing of reason and independent judgment:

“Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, not strives towards, nor takes proper aim at this truth: to understand who is the true God or what He wills to be towards us.” And: “From whence come so many labyrinths of errors in the world but because men are led by their own understanding only into vanity and untruth?” And in language that foreshadows Kant: “there is reason naturally implanted within us which cannot be condemned without injustice to God. But this reason has its limits. If reason exceeds these limits, reason vanishes.”

calvinism-posterThen there is sad case of Michael Servetus, who ran afoul of Calvin’s theology and made the mistake of going to Geneva.

More on Calvinism here. The poster image is an amusing take on Calvinist predestinarianism.

All of which (a) helps me understand some my extended family back in farm country, Ontario; (b) gives me hope that some other parts of the world too can learn to tame their religious fanatics; and (c) almost makes me long for the good old days.

7 thoughts on “John Calvin’s Geneva

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  • November 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm


    I’m going to use your article for my term paper.

    May I please kknow whar area of stidy you are in ? I think it’s ohilosopher.

    Thank you
    Sarah MTSU

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  • August 31, 2016 at 12:28 am

    Interesting that the Calvary Chapel movement is able to function and grow without a membership process or requirement! They are able to give tax deductible receipts to donors. The Pastor is not selected by a board or congregational vote either. (People vote with their feet). The early “Restoration” movements during the time of the first “Great Awakenings” had as one of their distinctives an abhorrence of denominations. They sought to imitate the early church as much as possible. ( I am not endorsing this movement but am pointing out that there have been many in the past who rejected man-made structures and sought unity through simple adherence to the teachings of the Bible)

    This does not mean the local congregation does not test those claiming to be apostles, or visiting teachers or those new in their midst. For many false teachers have gone out into the world. Neither does the local assembly lack authority to send out, select elders and deacons or administer biblical discipline.

    When a Christian faces public ridicule, persecution, and excommunication from his local assembly, because he/she does not adhere to denominational distinctives, or a unbalanced emphasis to selected doctrines, or any other non-essential custom or ordinance that is man-made, then we must do like Jesus and confront those who make the Word of God void through the customs of the elders, or removing ourselves from their midst In order to obey God rather than obey man.

    Large centralized denominations or certain forms of local church structure, while they might set guidelines, and seem to protect the members also inherit the danger of putting conformity to ” man-made distinctives” above one’s conscience and even above the Word of God.

    We are only Christians, not the only Christians, just Christians and members of the body of Jesus Christ. (Paraphrased from Restoration Movement literature)

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