What Happened 500 Years Ago

Before July 2009 fades away into the annals of history, we want to recognize an important Christian milestone.  On July 10, 2009, Calvinists across the globe celebrated the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth.


Two weeks before that significant anniversary, one of us was in France, the native country of John Calvin.  I (Deb) chaperoned a choir of 27 young ladies, which included my daughter.  While there the choir performed at a Reformed church in Caen.  The members were gracious and had flyers posted throughout the church announcing upcoming events to commemorate John Calvin.


Exactly one month ago (Sunday, June 28) the choir sang during the worship service at The American Church in Paris.  Although the church is non-denominational and attracts worshippers from all over the world, the American pastor encouraged everyone to come and participate in a Bible study series focusing on the teachings of John Calvin.  Yes, the few remaining Calvinists in France are keeping the memory of this great reformer alive, just like his followers here in the United States.

For those of you who may not be that familiar with John Calvin, we want to provide a brief biographical sketch in today's post.  Then tomorrow, we'll take a realistic look at John Calvin and emphasize “the man” instead of the theologian.  Sometimes nostalgia for a city of God here on earth and sentimentality that Calvin's theology provided a perfect solution for the problem of man causes us to forget that this great reformer was a sinner just like the rest of us.  While Calvin made many positive contributions to Christendom, there was also a dark side to his theology, which we plan to discuss. 

John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509.  Noyon is located about 60 miles northwest of Paris.  Noyon has long been a religious center, and it is here that Charlemagne (768) and Hugh Capet (987) were coranated.  Noyon has its own “Cathedral Notre Dame”, commonly referred to as Noyon Cathedral. This sacred building, the fifth to be built at that location, was badly damaged during both World Wars.  Calvin's birthplace was destroyed during World War I, but it has been reconstructed and houses the Musée Jean Calvin.  For more information on this museum honoring the life of John Calvin, check out this link:


John Calvin’s mother died when he was very young.  He and two of his four brothers survived infancy.  Their father married a widow, whose name is not known, and she gave birth to two daughters.  When Calvin was just 14 years old, he began attending the University of Paris where he studied Latin, philosophy, and logic.  He likely attended mass at the Cathedral de Notre Dame, which dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries.  Then In 1528 he began studying law in the city of Orleans.  The logic of law greatly appealed to him and later influenced his religious thinking.


Three years later in 1531, John Calvin returned to Paris.  It was around this time that he turned to the new Protestant faith.  Just how new was it?  In the coming days, we’ll be discussing Martin Luther who is credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation, but for now let’s look at a few significant events that took place during John Calvin’s childhood.


The Reformation “officially” began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther publicly protested the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church.  He prepared a list of 95 theses (or statements) and nailed them to the door of All Saints' Church (also known as Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Germany.  During that time, public notices were often posted in this manner.  Have you ever wondered why Martin Luther chose "All Hallows' Eve" to protest?  Is there some significance to that particular day?  Our upcoming post on Martin Luther will reveal the answer.   

John Calvin was just 8 years old when Martin Luther rocked the Christian world, although Luther probably had no idea what the outcome would be.  We know Calvin’s religious background because all of Western Europe was Catholic during this era.  Did the religious leaders of Noyon publicly address Luther’s attempt at reform, and if so, how did their attitudes affect the young lad?  In 1521 when Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, Calvin was a mere 12 years old.  What knowledge did he have about the actions of Pope Leo X against Luther?

When John Calvin headed to college in Paris just two years after Luther’s excommunication, France was in the midst of the Renaissance.  This no doubt  had a tremendous influence on Calvlin's thinking.  What had happened to Martin Luther likely affected him as well.  When he routinely attended mass, did thoughts of Luther run through his mind?  Had he discovered by this time that Luther had not been murdered, as so many speculated?  

Obviously, much had changed in Calvin’s religious beliefs from the time he was a college student until his return to Paris after earning his law degree.  There can be no doubt that Martin Luther had a profound effect on him.  Because of John Calvin’s newfound beliefs, he was forced to flee from Paris and then finally from his beloved homeland.  For several years he wandered from city to city, and finally he settled in Geneva, Switzerland, which is located 414 kilometers (or 257 miles) from Paris. 

Calvin was so dedicated to his labors that he postponed the consideration of marriage until age 30 or so. He requested that his friends help him find a woman who was "chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for (his) health".   He had planned to marry a lady of noble birth, but then a colleague who knew a widow with two children encouraged Calvin to marry her because she would fit the bill.  John and Idelette de Bure were married in August 1540.

Idelette bore Calvin three children.  Sadly, each one died in infancy.  


In response to harsh criticism by Catholics who believed this to be a judgment from God, Calvin said he was content with his many sons in the faith.  In the absence of a brood of children, Idelette stayed busy attending to her husband in his many illnesses, faithfully visiting those who were sick, and opening her home to refugees who fled for their lives and their faith.  Although she survived the plague that ravaged Geneva, Idelette died after a lengthy illness in 1549, leaving her husband to raise her two children as his own.

Calvin spent the next 15 years immersed in his work.   For further reading on the extensive contributions he made to Christendom, here’s a link:



Toward the end of his life, Calvin recounted his experiences in Geneva, sometimes recalling bitterly the hardships he had suffered.  He gave strict instructions that he was to be buried in a common cemetery without a tombstone because he didn't want to encourage his followers to make his final resting place a Protestant shrine. John Calvin died on May 27, 1564, fifteen long years after the death of his beloved wife, at the age of 55.  According to his wishes, Calvin was buried in the Cimetière de Plainpalais.  While the exact location of his burial is unknown, a stone was added in the 19th century to mark a grave traditionally thought to be his.

Although he never met the great German Reformer, Martin Luther, Calvin esteemed him very highly.  To his friend Heinrich Bullinger, Calvin wrote: “Even if he (Luther) were to call me a devil I should still regard him as an outstanding servant of God.”

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