John Calvin was one of the early church reformers, born in France in 1509. He was a deeply spiritual man whose brand of Protestantism that he later advocated, called Calvinism, was an effort to redefine the role of the church in daily life and the role of the individual’s relationship to God. Calvinism has some distinct features that today are discarded by some Protestants. However, in his time, and for many years afterwards, Calvinism shaped many early Protestant church beliefs, particularly among the Huguenots of France, and the Protestant movements in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. Some of the Puritan beliefs of the New World immigrants can be directly related to the theories of John Calvin.
As a young man, John Calvin was encouraged by his father to study law, though his real passion leaned toward theological studies. When his father died, Calvin felt he should pursue his passion, and began studying religion at the College de France in Paris. In approximately 1528, or possibly as late as 1533, Calvin experienced a sudden religious insight and change of heart regarding Protestantism. He referred to it in his own writing as a “sudden conversion,” which helped him understand that he needed to follow a Protestant rather than Catholic model in his own ministry.
Like many people who protested the actions of the Catholic Church at the time, John Calvin viewed the French brand of Catholicism as one in which many abuses were taking place. In particular, he disapproved of the hierarchy in the church and felt all ministers should be on equal standing instead of having priests, bishops, cardinals and pope as the extensive power structure. He was also opposed to church music, preferring instead simply sung music, but he was not opposed to all aspects of Catholicism. In particular he favored governments that were theocratic, and a return to greater instead of lesser focus on the importance of religion in daily life.
Calvinism can be caused a very severe and rigid religious code. John Calvin eschewed excess, advocated absolute religious focus on Sundays, and emphasized plainness in dress, and strict adherence to God’s will. Man was essentially corrupt and was placed upon the earth to do God’s will and understand his complete and awesome power. However, no behavior or regular church attendance guaranteed salvation.
Key to Calvin’s doctrine was the idea that through the grace of God, only certain souls were saved, and called the “elect.” The elect would go to heaven despite any actions contrary to God, and all others were damned. There wasn’t anything a person could do about being damned, and there was no way to determine if you were “elected.” Critics saw this concept of predestination as one that didn’t bode well for Calvinism, since the elect clearly didn’t have to do anything to please God, and if you weren’t elected, why would you try to adhere to the strict principles of Calvinism?
Calvin’s principle ministry took place in Geneva, though he was for a time exiled from Geneva and accused of trying to create a new papal organization. He also traveled and wrote extensively, and during his years of exile, practiced and preached his religion in Strasbourg. When politics changed in Geneva, he returned in 1541, and did begin to create an organized church that helped him better pursue his theological ideas.
Perhaps the main controversy in his life was his participation in the prosecution and execution of theologian, Michael Severtus, who published and proclaimed ideas refuting the concept of the trinity. Like most Protestants, John Calvin devoutly believed in the trinity, and his control over Genevan life made him a powerful force to be reckoned with. Many historians allege that he used his power, particularly, his control over civil life in Geneva to attack any who stood in opposition to his ideas, much in the same way the Catholic Church he opposed frequently acted. His ideas on religion were hard, demanding, and not to be contested. Such contests, as those led by Severtus were met with extreme and severe punishment including excommunication up to execution for heresy.
The later life of John Calvin was marked by his continued participation in the Genevan church and by a series of illnesses. Toward the end of his life he suffered from a variety of health conditions including kidney stones, gout, and lung hemorrhages. In the last few years of his life, he sometimes had to be carried to the pulpit in order to preach. Calvin died in 1564, but his work undeniably lived beyond him. The Genevan church leadership was taken up by Theodore Beza, and Calvinist doctrine remained strong; much of it remains today in Protestant churches based on Calvinism.