Printer Friendly

Calvin's legacy: Kathryn Hadley examines the life and enduring influence of the French theologian 500 years after his birth.

From celebrations in Latin America to exhibitions, debates and conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia, commemorative events are taking place around the world to mark the quincentenary of the birth of the French humanist and religious reformer, Jean Calvin. Born in Noyon in northern France on July 10th, 1509, Calvin gave his last sermon in February 1564 and died on May 27th, that year. A dominant figure of the Reformed faith that was born in the Swiss Confederation, and is now commonly known as Calvinism, his legacy is truly international.

The Calvin09 year was inaugurated last November in front of the Reformers' Wall, a tribute to the key figures of the Protestant Reformation in the grounds of the University of Geneva, by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and the Protestant Church of Geneva.

At the opening ceremony Setri Nyorni, the General Secretary of WARC, noted how: 'Calvin, the visionary' Reformer, sparked off a movement that has spread to the four corners of the earth: more than 80 million Christians living in 107 countries today acknowledge his legacy.'

Such influence is a reflection both of Calvin's life story and his efforts to systematise and unify the Reformed church. During his lifetime, Calvin travelled extensively throughout Europe. Between 1525 and 1532 he studied law at the universities of Grenoble and Bourges in France. He travelled to Paris in October 1533, but his beliefs endangered him and he fled to Basel in January 1535. It was there, in March 1536, that he published the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the compendium of his Reformed doctrines.

In September 1536, Calvin was appointed 'Reader in Holy Scripture' in Geneva and subsequently worked on reform with the French evangelist William Farel (1489-1565). Farel led the Reformation in the French speaking lands of the Swiss Confederation and carried the movement to Geneva. In January 1537, Farel and Calvin presented their Articles on the Organisation of the Church and its Worship to Geneva's ruling council. The work advocated the free use of excommunication and the imposition of a puritan moral discipline throughout Genevan society. However, in February 1538 a new civic council was elected that opposed many aspects of Calvin's doctrine and, following liturgical disputes, Calvin and Farel were banished.

Calvin left for Strasbourg, where he worked as a pastor for French expatriates and published the second Latin edition of his Institutes, as well as a French version. He was eventually recalled to Geneva in September 1541 and he swore a formal oath 'to be forever the servant of Geneva'. This time his charter of reform, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, was accepted and, although his proposed system of ecclesiastical government and strict code of moral discipline initially continued to meet opposition, by the mid-1550s most opponents of the Reformed church had been successfully defeated.

Calvin condemned the disunity of the Reformed churches as one of 'the chief evils of our time'. He exported his doctrine through his writings and with the creation of a model church and community. In Geneva, from 1541 until his death in 1564, he created a blueprint for a church and society which was initially imitated in Europe and North America. Reformed churches became united by a common doctrine and a church constitution for the first time. Calvin spread his doctrinal system via a series of published works, in particular through his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was published in Latin, an international language. He also founded the Genevan Academy in 1559, designed as a school for training Calvinist ministers who would thereafter export his gospels to France in particular. Geneva's geographical location on the crossroads of Europe between Italy, Switzerland and France was also critical in facilitating the spread of Calvinism. As the city attracted adherents, who in turn acquired citizenship and voting rights, Calvin's doctrine also gained political influence.


In Brazil, the first attempt to establish Reformed Protestantism came in March 1557 when 14 Huguenots sent by Calvin arrived at Guanabara Bay near Rio de Janeiro to 'establish a church in accordance with the word of God'. A second attempt was made in the 17th century under the leadership of Dutch Reformed Christians. Presbyterianism was eventually established in Brazil in the 19th century, following a series of missions from the United States. Today, Presbyterian and Reformed churches in Brazil have some 800,000 members. According to Eduardo Galasso Faria, Professor for Systematic Theology at the Theological Seminar in Sao Paulo, the Calvin09 celebrations provide an opportunity to stress the ethical and social dimension of Calvin's work 'as an expression of solidarity with the people living on the margins of Latin American society'.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in South Africa, Calvinism was also imported in the 17th century with the first Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. During the colonial period, a series of waves of European settlers brought different streams of the Reformed church to the Cape. However, the history of Calvinism in South Africa is riddled with ambiguity and controversy. From 1857, black and white parishioners in Dutch Reformed congregations were separated during the Lord's Supper. Believers were thereafter separated into different churches on a more systematic basis according to their race and many white Reformed ministers supported apartheid. Today, one fifth of the population belongs to a Protestant church of some kind, the most influential of which remains that of Dutch Reformed origin. To mark the Calvin09 year, Dr Dirkie Smit, Professor of Systematic Theology at Stellenboseh University, called South African Calvinists to address past injustices and some of the current challenges of poverty, HIV/AIDS and high rates of crime and violence.

Ironically, although Calvin remained French and devoted his life and work, above all, to reforming the church there, France remains one of the countries where his influence is felt the least. In the words of the Reverend Jean-Arnold de Clermont, the President of the Conference of European Churches and coordinator of the Calvin09 jubilee for the Federation Protestante de France: 'Since John Calvin has been forgotten by a great many Protestants and French people alike ... the 09 celebration serves to recall a historic truth, both for his home country, which was not able to keep him, as well as for the French churches that arose from the Calvinist Reformation, which have lost sight of their own identity, again and again.'

Calvin Quincentenary Celebrations

Post Tenebras Uber

Until September 30th

Geneva Library, Espace Ami Lullin

Promenade des Bastions I

CH-1211 Geneva

Telephone: 00 41 22 418 28 00

This exhibition illustrates the contribution of the Calvinist Reformation in four areas of printed matter from the Geneva presses in the 16th century: teaching material for instruction at the College and the Academy, a first Protestant historiography, which illuminates the unrest of the century, polemical writings (disputations between confessions or churches, satires and polemics against the church of Rome, political pamphlets) and Bible exegeses (lectures and commentaries by Calvin).

They Had Calvin in Their Luggage--Calvin and the Huguenots

Until October 31st

German Huguenot Museum

Hafenplatz 9 a, 34385 Bad Karlshafen

Telephone: 00 49 5672 1410

An exhibition devoted to Calvin and the Huguenots in France and Germany.

A Day in the Life of John Calvin

Until November I st

International Museum of the

Reformation, 4 rue du Cloitre

CH- 1204 Geneva

Telephone: 00 41 22 310 24 31

An animated exhibition, in which Calvin describes a typical day in his life and featuring a display of 16th-century artefacts including engravings and books.

John Calvin and the Reformation in Italy

September 4th-6th

Centro Culturale Valdese

Via Beckwith 3, Torte Pellice, Turin

Telephone: 00 39 12 193 27 65

An international historical symposium in Italian organised by the Waldensian Studies Society that will evaluate current studies of the relationship between Calvin and Italy, which Calvin is believed to have visited for the first time in 1536.

Calvin and the Present-Day World

September 24th-25th

Russian Christian Academy

Nab. Fontanka 15

191023 St. Petersburg

Telephone: 007 812 570 02 36

A conference in Russian and English that will explore Calvin's role in society, culture and arts, both in the East and the West.

Calvin a Strasbourg (1538-41)

October 22nd-23rd

Salle Fustel de Coulanges

Palais UniversiCaire

9 Place de l'Universite Strasbourg

Telephone: 00 33 3 88 25 97 35

An international colloquium in French, German and English organised by the Faculty of Protestant Theology in Strasbourg. Speakers will discuss Calvin's stay in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541 and its impact on the development of his doctrine.

Calvin's significance for today

October 6th, 7pm

Crown Court Church

Russell Street, Covent Garden

London WC2B 5EZ

Telephone: 020 7836 5643

A talk by Prof David Fergusson from the University of Edinburgh.

Modernite de Calvin

October 8th, 7pm

Institut Francais

17 Queensberry Place

London SW7 2DT

Telephone: 020 70731350

Lectures by Jean-Paul Willaime, Max Engammare and Gilles Petel.

Calvin et Strasbourg

October 22nd-December 12th

Bibliotheque nationale universitaire de Strasbourg

6 place de la Republique, Strasbourg

Telephone: 00 33 3 88 25 28 00

An exhibition of documents, which provide an insight into Calvin's stay in Strasbourg between 1538 and 1541.

Calvin on Creation and Redemption

September 27th, 12.45pm

Light and Shadow of the Reformation

September 28th, 7pm

Dutch Church of London

7 Austin Friars

London EC2N 2HA

Two lectures hosted by the Dutch Church of London.

University Colloquium in Orleans

November 12-13th

University of Orleans, Department

of Law, Economics and Management

Rue de Blois, 45067 Orleans

Telephone: 00 33 2 38 41 70 31

This colloquium, in French, will examine different aspects of the contributions of Jean Calvin and the Protestant Reformation in various spheres of spiritual, social, economic, literary and political life.

Calvin and Hobbes

December 14th-17th

Institut Protestant de Theologie

83, Boulevard Arago, 75014 Paris

Telephone: 00 33 1 47 07 56 45

A colloquium, in French, organised by the Institute of Protestant Theology and the International College of Philosophy.


For a full list of the events organised throughout the year to mark the Calvin09 festival visit
COPYRIGHT 2009 History Today Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FRONTLINE; John Calvin
Author:Hadley, Kathryn
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Previous Article:Wilkes' way: secrecy shrouded the ways of politicians until the 18th century. Then John Wilkes came along.
Next Article:Round & about: August 2009.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters