one of the most important figures in christian history was born in 1509 in france, in noyon, in the area of picardy, as jehan or jean cauvin. Later opponents of his would dismissively label his followers as Picards or, later, Calvinists, which was originally an insulting term. His father, a lawyer, destined him for the priesthood and sent him to the University of Paris when he was 14 years old, but he decided not to be a priest. In his student days he was drawn to the rising tide of ideas soon to be labeled Protestantism, which believed that the Roman Catholic Church had fallen prey to materialism and superstition and called for a return to the original Christianity of the early centuries. he would later write that God “overpowered and brought my mind to a teachable frame of mind, that I was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected of one in the early period of my life.”
calvin became so identified with “reformism” that he could not safely stay in france. In 1535 he arrived in Basel in the Swiss Confederation, where in 1536 he published the first edition, in Latin, of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, later known simply as the Institutes. by claiming to teach “almost the whole sum of piety,” he attracted the attention of other enthusiastic Protestants. he published revised editions for the rest of his life and would make him famous.
Leaving Basel in 1536 for Strasbourg in Germany, Calvin passed through Geneva, an independent city on the outskirts of Switzerland, which had attracted reformist refugees from France and Italy. One of them, a Frenchman named Guillaume Farel, persuaded Calvin to stay and help establish Protestantism there. Farel and Calvin were too adamant for the Geneva City Council, which in 1538 ordered them to leave. They went to Strasbourg, where in 1540 Calvin married a widow named Idelette de Bure. her death just nine years later would be a terrible blow to him.
By 1541, Calvin’s reputation had grown to the point where the Council of Geneva asked him to restore order to the chaotic religious situation, which he did. he believed that the Protestant church should be led by pastors and teachers to care for and guide the laity, elders to help pastors maintain discipline, and deacons to perform charitable works. citizens who refused to accept Calvinism were expelled from the city or, in extreme cases, executed as heretics.
On the surface at least, Calvin was a dreary, imposing figure. Although he believed that the very few human beings who would achieve salvation did, and were predestined to achieve it, by God’s grace, not by leading a good moral life, he took an uncompromisingly austere moral line and severely disapproved of sexuality. misconduct, drunkenness, obscene songs, swearing, gambling, and dancing. As Diarmaid Macculloch put it in her study of reform, although Calvin liked to play the equivalent of pushing half a penny and an occasional game of shuffleboard, ‘he was not inclined to conviviality…he did, however, enjoy getting his way, which he did. which was identified with doing the will of God’.
Doing God’s will made Calvin work desperately. he preached hundreds of sermons and conducted countless baptisms and weddings. He maintained a vigorous correspondence with religious and political leaders throughout Europe, as well as writing widely circulated commentaries on scripture, including much of the Old Testament and all books of the New Testament except Revelation. In 1559 he founded the Geneva Academy, where students were prepared for the ministry, which the Scottish reformer John Knox called “the most perfect school of Christ seen on earth since the days of the apostles.” Protestant immigrants, meanwhile, nurtured new industries and businesses, and Geneva prospered. its printing industry was a success for the city’s economy, as well as an efficient Calvinist propaganda machine.
His workload put increasing pressure on Calvin’s health. in 1558 he fell ill with quartan fever, or malaria, but worked to complete a greatly enlarged and, as he intended, definitive edition of his institutes to leave to posterity. Michael Mullett in his biography of Calvin quotes a contemporary admirer, Theodore Beza, who described him in 1563 as “worn out with toil” and “devastated with suffering.” he had lung problems, gout, and excruciating pain in his kidneys and bladder.
calvin was 54 when the end came the following year and the council recorded that he had ‘gone to god’. he was buried with little ceremony, it is believed, in the cimetière des rois. the grave was not marked, although a stone was placed in the 19th century in what is traditionally identified as the last resting place of the man beza called ‘the greatest light that was in this world for the direction of the church of god’