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The Long Reach of John Calvin


Mark Jones

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Portrait of John Calvin, anonymous (France), oil on panel, c.1550

In December 1541, in a small town in western France, Saint-Seurin d’Uzet, Jean Frèrejean told his father to stop arranging the usual Christmas mass to pray for family members who had died.  Interrogated by the Church authorities, he was fined 100 livres for his refusal to believe in Purgatory.  Looking back, he remembered how this intimidating event persuaded him and his family to conform with Roman Catholic practice “ … until the year 1560, when the church of God began to establish itself and reform the present land of Saintonge.” (1)  So what was it that happened in that part of France from about 1560?


By then, in parts of Germany and Switzerland, even in the earliest phases of the Reformation, people were acting in much more extreme ways to bring about what they saw as a kind of cleansing of the Church.  They were destroying altar-pieces, smashing statues and reliquaries, and burning paintings, books and vestments; and there was clearly some kind of crowd psychology at work.  In 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546), a professor of Theology at the recently founded university of Wittenberg, began to oppose publicly the late medieval Church’s practice of the sale of indulgences; and openly to state his doubts about the theological underpinning for such practices. As is well known, by 1521, this had created a major crisis in both church and state.  Luther was formally excommunicated by the pope on 3 January 1521, and was declared an outlaw in the spring of that year at the Imperial Diet which met at Worms. He went into hiding; so the destruction ofecclesiastical images, which started in Wittenberg in early 1522, and resulted from an irresistible popular movement, happened without his approval.  

Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi, oil on panel,

Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi, Raphael, oil on panel, c.1518

A rather different form of Reformation, though with comparable motives and similar aims, had already broken out in Zürich, spear-headed by another prominent humanist reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1483-1531).  As a vignette of Protestant wrangles still to come, a row broke out there when sausages were eaten by some prominent citizens during Lent, 1522.  Much more significantly, in September 1523 a crowd of people pulled down a crucifix, and image breaking spread quickly from then on.  For example, in 1524, some of the inhabitants of the Thurgau region, north of Zürich, effectively a mob, cut down and burned a statue of St Annewhich had stood for centuries at a deeply venerated place of pilgrimage in their rural community. This iconoclastic spirit, even rage, persisted throughout the Reformation period, though, often, complex local factors fuelled the outbreaks.  Another example is the desecration of the exquisite Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral which began in 1539, the effects of which are visible to this day. Similar events took place in Antwerp and other towns and cities in the Low Countries in August 1566, as a period of Reformation, partly inspired by Calvinist preaching, exploded into life in the region.

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Portrait of Ulrich Zwingli, Hans Asper, oil on parchment, c.1531

In our secular age, it is perhaps difficult to grasp the way in which, in previous generations, religious ideas could have such an electrifying effect upon communities and indeed whole populations; and even harder to do so sympathetically.  The Reformation was a period of intense ideological and social upheaval.  To understand the consequences of John Calvin’s writings and career, we need to consider why men and women across early modern Europe quite suddenly abandoned the symbols, images, prayers, rituals, festivals and stories that had sustained their ancestors for hundreds of years. Why did people across Europe destroy so many previously precious and much-loved objects and transform the rich interiors of their church buildings?  There was no diminution of the depth and intensity of their devotion, so what made them change so drastically the expressions of their faith, the religious language and imagery they used, both in and out of church?  

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The Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, its stained glass and statues removed, a monument to iconoclasm. Courtesy of Wikicommons, 2014

Two significant developments in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries prepared the way for the Reformation.  The invention of the printing press facilitated the production of multiple copies of the Bible (in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and then, where permitted, the vernacular languages) just as Renaissance Humanism was changing habits of reading.  In 1516 the influential humanist scholar, Erasmus, (1466-1536), published a Greek text of the New Testament with a new Latin translation.  Within a generation, this direct access to its source texts had revolutionised Christianity.  Like many of their scholarly contemporaries all over Europe, Luther and the other leading reformers of the first generation were seeking a new kind of connection with God.  This quickly led some of them to question, and others to condemn, the whole apparatus of late medieval piety; and some of them decided that the Christian believer could now lead the life of faith without recourse to the superstructure of the Church.  In addition, many of central theological positions of the Roman Church now seemed to the more thorough-going reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli, to be positively antagonistic to a true apprehension of Christian faith.  Traditional beliefs and practices needed to be swept away. From the early 1520s, starting in Zürich and in Wittenberg, this started to happen. Early modern states struggled to meet the threat posed by a hitherto unparalleled, and unimaginable, level of religious division and disunity.


It takes a prodigious act of imagination to recreate the religious mentalité of the sixteenth century. In the intense early phases of the Reformation, Protestantism in its various forms spread among populations who believed that some kind of eschatological crisis was imminent.  It would be preceded, they thought, by a period of stress and strain that would herald the destruction of the world order and bring in the divine judgement that would settle the eternal fate of each human soul.  This explains why the first reformed communities practised their faith with such extreme ardour and astonishing courage.  By the time that Luther died, Lutheranism had captured many parts of the Holy Roman Empire and spread into Scandinavia.  The Reformed tradition begun by Zwingli, had been taken forward by other great reformers such as Martin Bucer (1491-1551) in Strasbourg and Zwingli’s successor in Zürich, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575).  There was a wide range of practice, and divisions soon started to emerge.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers who wanted to win over the governing authorities had to defend the reputation of the Reformation against the excesses (as they seemed to them) of the more radical reformers.


As the new Protestant churches consolidated their territorial gains and settled down, they cultivated the virtues associated with stability and permanence.  They developed new liturgies, new moral sensibilities, and new patterns of local government and social control.  It was the genius of Calvin to show how this might be done. Like the other reformers of the second generation, he inherited the main theological positions of Luther and did not greatly modify them: but he showed how Reformation principles could provide the foundation for a new kind of polity.  Geneva was the model.  In very different ways, and over different time scales, as will be shown below, Calvin’s system came to be the inspiration for new political and ecclesiastical structures across large swathes of Europe and in the nascent colonial communities along North America’s eastern seaboard.

Map of Europe at the beginning of the Reformation around 1520 (from Spamers Illustrierte W

Map of Europe at the beginning of the Reformation around 1520 (from Spamers Illustrierte Weltgeschichte, 1894, 5[1], 128/129)

The Rise of John Calvin

Jean Cauvin (1509-64), whom we know as Calvin, had a conventional upbringing in Noyon, a provincial town in northern France. His family were ambitious for him and he passed through the universities of Paris, Orléans and Bourges, gaining a doctorate in law. As a young scholar, he won acclaim for his prowess as a Renaissance humanist when, in 1532, he published an edition of Seneca’s de Clementia.  But, perhaps as early as 1530, the direction of his career changed completely when he embraced the principles of the Reformation. In 1534, after the Affair of the Placards, when leaflets attacking the Mass were distributed by Protestant agitators, François I inaugurated the first systematic persecution of French protestants, and Calvin fled to Basel.  When he passed through Geneva in 1536, the leader of the Reformation party there, Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), urged him to stay.  Except for a period of exile from 1538 to 1541, (spent mostly in Strasbourg where he married a local widow, Idelette Stordeur), Calvin lived for the rest of his life in Geneva.


There, by adapting ideas developed in the earlier phase of the Reformation by Luther, Zwingli, and other first generation reformers, Calvin worked out one of the most powerful accounts of Protestant theology ever to be formulated.  He also oversaw the implementation in Geneva of an entirely new ecclesiastical constitution, the model of Church governance which we know as Presbyterianism.  By the late 1540s Calvin was identified as a leading reformer with a recognisable set of ideas, (particularly in relation to controversies about the Eucharist) and the notion of Calvinism was born. 


Calvin’s régime of work was punishing.  When he died exhausted in 1564, he left a huge corpus of writings.  In addition to the Institutes, he wrote commentaries on almost every book in the Bible, sermons on almost every Christian theme, a horde of letters and an extensive cache of occasional papers. He also attracted influential disciples who carried the flame, particularly Théodore de Bèze (1519-1605) in France, William Perkins (1558-1602) in England, and Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641) in the Dutch Republic. Herein lies the first problem with defining ‘Calvinism’, for some of his devoted followers adapted, summarised and, inevitably, changed and even distorted Calvin’s ideas.


Calvin was only one of the Protestant theologians whose work gave rise to the Reformed Tradition of theology and political thought; though he can be said, (with a degree of hindsight, it is true), to have been its leading light. However, because of his French heritage, and his mastery of style, Calvin’s ideas spread quickly into his native France and took root there.  They also inspired powerful new religious movements in those parts of the Low Countries which split from the Habsburg Empire during the Dutch Revolt; in England; in Scotland; in some (but relatively few) territories of the Holy Roman Empire (notably the Palatinate); and in areas of Central Europe such as Bohemia, Transylvania and Hungary.  Many of the early European (primarily English) colonists on the Atlantic seaboard of North America adhered enthusiastically to Calvinist principles, though, as Perry Miller has pointed out, they did not necessarily read Calvin.  The New England Puritans, wrote Miller, “did not think of (Calvin) as the fountain head of their thought, nor of themselves as members of a faction of which he was founder.”  They picked up their ideas from later systematisers and commentators such as David Pareus (1548-1622). (2) Here, therefore, a second problem emerges.  We must ascribe to Calvin the ideas that properly belong to him and bear in mind that ‘Calvinism’ is often used loosely as a ragbag term for reformed and/or puritanical forms of Christianity.  


In the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a period of vigorous debate gave rise to two new movements or tendencies within Calvinism, both of which were abominated by pure Calvinists, and seen by them as a dangerous dilution of the original message; but which showed that Calvinism was a living theological tradition with a capacity for self-criticism and development.  These were Arminianism, derived from theological positions worked out by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), of which more below, and Amyraldism, worked out by Moïse Amyrault (1596-1664).  By the mid-seventeenth century, both in Europe and North America, orthodox Calvinism had been systematised by a succession of writers, one of the most effective of whom was François Turretini (1623-1687), professor of theology in Geneva from 1653.  Since then, at different times and in different places, Calvinism has regained its intellectual energy.  For example, in the early eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), having entered the recently founded Yale College at the age of fifteen, brought a piercing intellect to bear on theological problems, and drew together Calvinism and the teaching of the earlier phases of the Enlightenment.  He was an important catalyst for the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s in North America, and the corpus of his works has been a significant resource for American Calvinists.

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Portrait of James Arminius, David Bailly, oil on panel, c.1620

Calvinism as a system of belief

Calvin’s treatment of the eternal themes of Christian theology is powerful and thought-provoking; and it is conveniently distilled in his great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first version of which was written in Latin during the course of the unsettled period in Calvin’s life after 1534.  Dedicated to the king of France, it was published in Basel in 1536, and quickly came to the notice of reforming theologians as a powerful summary and defence of protestant beliefs: a fact all the more remarkable because Calvin had received no formal theological education.  He went on refining it until the final magisterial edition of 1559, and it was soon translated into many vernacular languages. No other Reformation thinker laid out his ideas so clearly.


Calvin regarded himself as a faithful interpreter of the Christian scriptures, of St. Augustine, whom he quotes extensively, and also of Luther, whom he greatly admired.  Calvin envisages the believer in a relationship with God which is characterised by delight in the grace, mercy and beauty of God, and which is conducted through the medium of prayer (see particularly chapter xx of Book III of the Institutes).  The set of answers he gave to the questions posed by the ‘Christ Event’, such as how we come to know God, to what extent we possess free will, and the interplay between determinism, election and grace, have been the subject of unending controversy: but they are serious and substantial.  Above all, Calvin insists on recognition of the sovereignty of God and the creaturely nature of humankind. 


The idea with which he is inescapably associated is that of ‘double predestination’.  However, Calvin’s formulation of his views about election, foreknowledge and predestination is theologically subtle, and these theological issues are far from central for Calvin; though it is true that he returned to them in successive editions of the Institutes and steadily amplified his teaching about them. When reflecting on the sovereignty of God, Calvin develops a theoretical understanding of God’s foreknowledge in relation to humankind’s power of choice: an understanding rooted in Augustine, and already sharply expressed by Luther in his controversy with Erasmus about the freedom or bondage of the will during the 1520s. Calvin expressed his view in the 1559 Institutes (III. xxi. 5) as follows:  “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.  For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.  Therefore, as every man has been created to one or other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life and death.” (3)


It is important to recall the historical context here, for Calvin (following Luther) was engaged in bitter polemical strife with Roman Catholic theologians about the wellsprings of faith, and the extent to which the believer can collaborate with God’s grace in the act of achieving faith, or is so hindered by sin that he or she can only be a passive recipient of the gift of faith. This is a highly contested aspect of Christian theology, and it is complicated at the best of times.  The sixteenth century theological battles were prefigured by those between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century.  A brief but lucid summary of Calvin’s position has been provided by Professor Diarmaid McCullough, who navigates through these stormy seas with both historical acumen and theological perspicacity. (4) 


What is clear is that Calvin’s mode of expression of these particular theological points led, ultimately, to a parting of the ways.  Orthodox Calvinists, such as Gomarus in Holland, stuck rigidly to what they viewed as Calvin’s path.  Others, though loyal to the Reformed position overall, felt that Calvin had overstated the case and were impressed by the more moderate position on election laid out by the highly respected scholar, also friend and close associate of Luther, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560).  A significant challenge within the fold of Calvinism came from Jacobus Arminius, who had studied under de Bèze in Geneva, and was apparently a pillar of orthodoxy in the Amsterdam church until he started to ask questions, during the 1590s and through the 1600s, about the Calvinist theological position on predestination.  His slight changes of emphasis created alarm in a church and population who had achieved a degree of prosperity and political security after living through a period of savage persecution. The resulting divisions had longstanding consequences.  They would have a significant effect on the history of the English church during the seventeenth century; and, in the eighteenth century, John Wesley (1703-91) would opt for the Arminian way, rather than adhering to the strict Calvinist theology espoused by his earlier colleague, the other great founder of Methodism, George Whitefield (1714-70), and by Jonathan Edwards.


Calvin’s followers extracted five principle points from his works.  Together they constitute what has come to be known in the English-speaking world as TULIP Calvinism.  The points can be expressed as follows: Total depravity - a person cannot save himself; Unconditional election - God chooses whom He will save, salvation has nothing to do with our own efforts; Limited atonement - Jesus’s death on the cross provides atonement for the saved only; Irresistible grace - a person cannot reject the gift of faith; Perseverance of the saints - those chosen for salvation will never fall from faith.  TULIP Calvinism developed from definitions published after the Synod of Dort, 1618-19, which was convened by the Dutch Calvinists in order to secure the condemnation of the Arminian party in the United Provinces: so the question remains whether Calvin would ever have accepted such a crude distillation of theological positions which he worked out with as much subtlety as clarity.

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L'Escalade à Genève, 1602, The catholic forces of the Duchy of Savoy attempt to breach the city walls, Matthias Quad, aquarelle, 1603

‘The Most Perfect School of Christ’




Calvin’s teaching certainly had far-reaching consequences for the citizens of Geneva.  He laid the foundations for Geneva’s later idiosyncratic history. In fewer than thirty years, he transformed the city by sheer dogged hard work, by the power of his rhetoric, and the adamantine strength of his personality.  The population grew (in 1536 it was 10,000, but by 1560 it was 21,000) and its demography changed beyond all recognition as religious refugees flocked in. (During the 1550s as many as 233 of them, with their families, were exiles from Marian England.) These incomers brought new crafts and trades, and settled to their work with the enthusiasm and diligence which Calvinist ethics engendered.


The political history of early sixteenth century Geneva was complicated.  The city was a bishopric, but the Counts of Savoy also had rights over it, and saw it as a valuable possession.  Many of its inhabitants favoured the establishment of a self-governing republic in alliance with the towns and states of the Swiss Confederation, and they achieved this status in 1536.  A new constitution, drafted by Calvin, was agreed in 1541.  It brought in a complex administrative system with interlocking committees and councils, sufficiently close to the system it replaced to be acceptable to Geneva’s long term residents.


Geneva, being neither too small a polity nor too big, then acted as a kind of Petri Dish for ecclesiastical experimentation: though developments in late medieval (or early Renaissance) humanism brought with them a wave of interest in republicanism and self-rule for great cities.  In Geneva, Calvin grew a new culture of church government, though he had witnessed something similar in Strasbourg.  In 1541, his Ecclesiastical Ordinances abolished the historic three-fold pattern of ministry (bishops, priests and deacons), and brought in a four-fold structure comprising elders (or presbyters) who were the principal magistrates; pastors, who were the parish clergy (almost all of them incomers); deacons (effectively the city’s old civil service which oversaw welfare provision); and teachers, who staffed a sophisticated public education system (which pre-dated the Reformation).


Calvin’s particular achievement (though not to everyone’s satisfaction in Geneva) was the reformation of morals.  While in exile in Strasbourg, he watched developments there with great interest, and learned how a population could be persuaded to adopt and then enforce a strict Christian moral code.  In Geneva, he established the Consistory: effectively a court that could try any case in which a citizen had offended against Christian moral standards, and apply what were seenas appropriate penalties, though he could never have achieved this without support from significant groups of the citizenry.  It was John Knox (1514-1572) who referred to Geneva as “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles.”  In 1559, the year in which he was finally granted a form of legal citizenship, Calvin founded the Geneva Academy.  The city had been a nursery for protestant scholars and pastors for many years, but it was from the Academy that scholars who were steeped in Reformed theology fanned out all over Europe to strengthen and inspire Protestant congregations.

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Portrait of John Knox, maker of modern Scotland, anonymous, engraving, 1572

Diffusion and Connection: The Calvinist Internationale


Calvin’s teachings spread quickly.  According to Philip Benedict, the esteemed historian of Calvinism as a social phenomenon, there may have been as many as ten million Calvinists by 1600, and this in spite of vigorous persecution across much of its range.  Geneva sat on long established trade routes and was well connected with other urban centres. Partly because of Calvin’s ascendancy in the city, printers of the highest skill and quality, such as Robert Estienne (1503-59) and Jean Crespin (c.1520-72), settled there: and the printed word was easily exported. From the 1580s onwards, Calvinists had high hopes of achieving an international nexus that would carry Protestantism forward in its struggle with Habsburg Spain, in spite of its stupendous resources; but by 1660 a series of defeats of the Thirty Years’ War saw a significant diminution of the territorial power, of Calvinism.  At the same time, the revitalisation of the Roman Catholic Church in the post-Tridentine era brought about a similar loss of Calvinist influence and prestige. It can nevertheless be said without exaggeration that Calvinist principles have had an incalculable impact on the history of Europe, North America and other parts of the world.


Luther’s ideas, expressed in his pungent German, set the Holy Roman Empire alight, and his books travelled far and wide; but, though they admired Luther for the stand he had taken, many of the clergy and theologians who wanted to change the Church in the sixteenth century found aspects of his theology difficult, particularly his fierce insistence (while repudiating trans-substantiation) on retaining a belief that Christ was truly present in the bread and wine consecrated at communion. (One of Calvin’s great achievements was to forge an agreement about the Eucharist between the theologians of the two very different Reformed traditions of Geneva and Zürich in the Consensus Tigurinus of 1549; but, try as he might, he could not get the Lutherans to join in.) 


Calvin’s writings, on the other hand, were far more accessible, ordered and stylish.  His own French translation of the 1539 version of the Institutes was published in 1541, and the sharpness and clarity of his prose provided a fine model for later writers of French.  Reformation ideas were being promulgated in France from the early 1520s, and by the 1550s, they had taken root in large parts of the country, though under persecution.  It was Calvin’s particular ambition to create a Protestant state in France, and the opportunity for this appeared to present itself during a period of extreme political instability in 1559 after the death of Henry II from an injury sustained while jousting. Calvin’s Company of Pastors began supplying pastors to French congregations from 1555, and at least two hundred missionaries had crossed the border by 1562.  In that year, a massacre of Protestants at Vassy sparked the French Wars of Religion, which lasted until 1598 when an uneasy truce between Catholic and Protestant was declared under the terms of the Edict of Nantes.  Prominent aristocrats such as Louis, Prince of Condé, and Gaspard de Coligny converted to Calvin’s form of Protestantism, and became the leaders of the movement until the disaster of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered in Paris and across provincial France - a setback from which French Protestantism never recovered.  France remained a Catholic nation, though its distinctive Protestant minority tenaciously resisted successive waves of persecution up to the period of the French Revolution.

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St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, François Dubois, oil on panel,1572-1584

Calvin’s writings profoundly affected the development of theology and ecclesiology in sixteenth and seventeenth century England and Wales.  After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the English reformers seized their chance, and the Reformation proceeded at pace.  They had closer ties with Bullinger’s Zürich than with Calvin’s Geneva.  Archbishop Cranmer also corresponded with Bucer and brought other notable and well connected Reformers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) and John à Lasco (1499-1560) across to Oxford.  Nevertheless, Calvin took a close interest in developments in England, and began dedicating works to English princes and grandees from 1548. (Elizabeth I refused hers because of Calvin’s association with Knox, whose First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in Geneva, so incensed her.)  Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer of 1552 (significantly revising the first English prayer book of 1549) set the Church of England in a Reformed rather than a Lutheran direction.  It was this prayer book that was largely re-adopted in 1562, and again, after the Restoration, in 1662.  Many of its elements conform closely with Calvinist theology.  The Calvinist influence on Cranmer’s ecclesiastical settlement has been significantbecause, in both style and content, it shaped the inner architecture of liturgy, homily and doctrinal summary that created what later became Anglicanism.  At much the same time, the Scottish Reformation took place.  Its rapid success, with virtually all of the constitutional work achieved during the single year of 1560, can be attributed to John Knox’s close understanding of the Genevan model.  On his return from exile, he brought an ‘oven ready’ pattern with him for how to reform a state; and, of course, the presbyterian organisation of the Kirk endures to this day.  


It was in England that some Calvinists began to experiment with new ways of organising their Church life, and the Congregational strand of Calvinism began to break away from the Presbyterian strand.  The publication in 1582 of A Treatise of Reformation without tarrying for anie by Robert Browne (1540-1633) is seen as a key moment in the development of the Congregational way, though the earliest history of these ‘separatists’ is difficult to uncover because they were persecuted so effectively.  Famously, John Milton (1608-1674), who was as radical in his politics as he was gifted as a poet, would declare in the next century that “new presbyter is but old priest writ large”, expressing what became a widespread concern in some circles that presbyterian church government on Calvin’s model was just as repressive and un-Christian as episcopalian.  It is a matter of great interest that the Mayflower ‘pilgrims’ of 1620 were separatists, who had themselves migrated to the Dutch Republic to escape persecution in England.  It was Calvinism of a congregational character that first took root in New England.


Portrait of John Milton, anonymous, oil on canvas, c.1629

The English and Scottish rebels who brought about the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 50s were sympathetic towards Calvinism, though some also drew on more radical theological sources.  Chapter three of the Westminster Confession of 1647, the official expression of faith of the English Church from then until the Restoration, has an explicitly Calvinist summary of the doctrine of predestination.  At the Restoration, the Book of Common Prayer was re-published and the Thirty-Nine Articles were retained, even though the churchmen who championed them had by then departed from rigid Calvinist orthodoxy.  Many English and Welsh ministers preferred, however, to remain outside the episcopalian structures of the English Church.  Their number included impressive and influential pastors such as Richard Baxter (1615-91), a moderate Calvinist with Arminian leanings, and John Owen (1616-83), a traditional Calvinist, though a Congregationalist; and they left a rich legacy of Non-Conformity in England and Wales. In 1685, Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, thereby completing a long process by which the privileges won by French Protestants in the sixteenth century were stripped from them.   England became the refuge for thousands of French Calvinists, the so-called Huguenots, who were forced by the threat of extreme persecution to migrate to those parts of Europe that would accept them.

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Louis Ier de Bourbon, 1er prince de Condé, a study in aristocratic Calvinism anonymous, oil on panel, c.1550s

Calvinism has stamped an indelible mark on the history of the British Isles and Ireland, and also on many of those parts of the world that have embraced Christianity because of British colonial and imperial expansion.  In addition, Calvinism played a vital role in the Dutch Reformation, which entered its critical phase from 1568 when William, Prince of Orange, (1533-84) began the war of rebellion in the Low Countries against the ruling Spanish Empire which resulted in the formation of a new state, the United Provinces.  This new political entity comprised the seven northern provinces, and iteventually emerged as a powerful force for (largely) Calvinist Protestantism.  Though the spread of Calvinism was limited within the bounds of the Holy Roman Empire, the rulers of the Rhineland Palatinate embraced the Genevan teachings. The Palatinate was a significant territory because its princes held one of the imperial Electorships.  For a hundred years or so, the university at Heidelberg, one of Germany’s great seats of learning, became an intellectual powerhouse of Calvinism.  Varying Protestant traditions took root in Central Europe, but, from the 1560s onwards, many noble families in Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Transylvania and Lithuania followed Calvin.  


In 1613, the marriage of Elizabeth (1596-1662), the daughter of James I of England, (and older sister to Prince Charleswho succeeded him) to Frederick V (1596-1632), the Elector Palatine, was heralded as one of the great triumphs of International Calvinism; and great were the celebrations when he was called in 1619 by the Bohemian Confederacy to be their king.  However, imperial forces swept the Protestants aside in the following year, and the effect of the Thirty Years’ War was to return most of Central Europe to the Roman allegiance, as also, after a longer elapse of time, the Palatinate.  That long period of warfare had causes and consequences too complex to discuss here; but it was, in part, a re-balancing of European power blocs along new confessional lines.

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Portrait of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, the "Winter Queen”, workshop of Michiel Jansz.van Miereveldt, oil on panel, c.1623

In spite of the threats that might have brought them together, it became clear in the later sixteenth century that there were significant obstacles to Protestant unity because of the rift between the Lutheran and the Reformed traditions. However, from the 1570s onwards, states that had embraced Reformed theology realised their common interest.  Calvinists also shared an eschatological sense of the importance of their struggle. Many of the Reformed church leaders had experience of exile, and were used to crossing international borders.  Many had been trained in Geneva, and they corresponded from their colleges and universities, and exchanged information. Menna Prestwich notes how:  “ When La Rochelle was besieged in 1572 the magistrates requested and obtained a loan from the city of London.  When Geneva was threatened by the duke of Savoy in 1589, 1590, and again in 1602, the Swiss Protestant cantons, the Count Palatine, the states of Holland and Frisia, all responded with loans …” (5) In spite of the losses sustained during the period of the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, the terms of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 provided diplomatic recognition of and protection for the Protestant states formed during the previous century.  But by then, Europe was about to embark on a very different set of intellectual adventures.

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The Battle on the White Mountain, a celebrated victory for the imperial Catholic forces at the outset of the Thirty Years War, Peter Snayers, oil on canvas, 1620

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The Power of Principle and the Right to Resist


Reformation thinkers knew well that their theological ideas would have political consequences.  They were also acutely aware of St Paul’s admonitions in Romans 13, “Be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  In the monarchies and city states of pre-Reformation Europe, obedience to the Roman Church underpinned loyalty not so much to ruling dynasties or oligarchies (who could be challenged) as to the set of spiritual principles and assumptions that provided the keystone of social and political stability.  The obligation of the secular authority to enforce religious uniformity was formally written into Canon Law at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and, from then on, attempts to unsettle this obedience were ferociously resisted.  In 1415, the Bohemian reformer, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance; and this eventstayed in the memory.


Luther was acutely aware of the danger posed to his movement by those most powerful opponents, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; and, complex though the reasons were for the sympathetic reception of his ideas, the success of his religious rebellion in its early phases depended entirely on the patronage and protection of successive Electors of Saxony.  Luther himself was firmly opposed to armed rebellion against a lawfully constituted authority.  Though it took him a long time to arrange the chess pieces into a winning position, in the 1540s the Emperor Charles V was at last able to make a concentrated military response to the threat that the Protestants posed within the Empire.  It was during this period that Lutheran apologists began to work out their theories of resistance to the state, which appear in summary form in the Magdeburg Confession of 1550.  Luther’s death in 1546 removed a significant obstacle to this process.


Calvinists in France, the Low Countries, England and Scotland, at first lacking support from the ruling regime, and at times experiencing vigorous persecution, also had to justify their opposition to the governing authorities.  Later on, this also became necessary in Bohemia and Hungary.  For this reason, Calvinist thinkers took up the Lutheran torch and made a significant contributions to post-Reformation debates about liberty of conscience and the right of civil disobedience - themes that loom large in the development of modern sovereign states.  They did so notably in their response to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.  A series of influential texts by Francois Hotman, Francogallia (1574), Theodore de Bèze De Jure Magistratum (1574), and Philippe du Plessis Mornay and his circle Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (1579), reflected on the limits that could lawfully be imposed upon an absolute monarch.  These ideas would resurface in England during the 1640s and thereafter.  At a greater distance, they underpin the secession of the British colonies in North America, 1775-83, and the Declaration of Independence of 1776.


Here it is worth noting Diarmaid McCullough’s judgement that “Calvin’s early saturation in law rather than theology has left its mark on the Institutes … (for) …the 1536 Institutes makes a systematic attempt to integrate a discussion of civil government with doctrine, and it does so in notably humanist and frequently non-scriptural terms.” (6) Right at the end of the Institutes, Book 4, xx, 31, Calvin reflects on civil disobedience as follows:  “For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the wilfulness of kings (as in the ancient times the ephors were set against the Spartankings, or the tribunes of the people against the Roman consuls, or demarchs against the senate of the Athenians; and perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies) I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings …” (7) Here Calvin is anxious to reassure rulers that there is nothing inherently seditious about Reformed theology: however, he is also determined to allow that, where constitutionally appropriate, resistance may be offered to the tyrant.


During this period, Roman Catholic theorists were also busy developing theories of resistance; for, once a state turned Protestant, what were the rights and obligations of those who remained Catholic?  Quentin Skinner has justly pointed out that the Huguenot political theorists also “… turned to the scholastic and Roman Law traditions of radical constitutionalism.” (8) Calvinism made a major contribution to the development of political thought in Early Modern Europe and North America, though we must be wary of presenting Calvinism as being more influential than it actually was.  

Engraving of Petrus Ramus, anonymous, engraving, c.1575

Calvinist Modernity: A Bridge to Enlightenment?


Many of the thinkers who helped bring about the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and the emergence of modes of thinking associated with the Enlightenment had grown up under the influence of Calvinism. In the wake of the Renaissance and Reformation, Calvinism was a powerful tool in the hands of many thinkers who wished to break up the intellectual and religious soil of Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It could not be ignored, not least because it was a new, and revolutionary, system of ecclesiastical organisation and administration as well as a set of theological ideas. Less clear, however, is the extent to which Calvinist ways of thinking functioned as a bridge into the period of the Enlightenment.   Not all Calvinists challenged scholastic modes of doing theology, or abandoned Aristotelianism.  Pierre de la Ramée (1515-72), known as Ramus, is the most prominent example of those who did.  A humanist scholar, determined to replace Aristotelianism with a new scheme of logic, he converted to Protestantism in 1561 and was murdered in the wake of the St Bartholomew’s Massacre.


The worldviews shared and disputed across early modern Europe and North America were fed by many significant intellectual tributaries, some flowing from late-medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelianism, others from Renaissance Humanism (also its fascination for the esoteric, for Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism), also Ramism (as above), and Pyrrhonism. Innovative philosophers such as Descartes and Spinoza were not (and never had been) Calvinists and, from as early as about 1600, Calvinist orthodoxy was becoming exclusive and intellectually restrictive.  However, the intellectual climate of the seventeenth century was created in part by thinkers such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704), who were shaped by Puritan theology in their younger lives (though they modified their thinking as they grew older), and by other writers who knew about, but rejected, Calvinism.  For example, Francis Bacon grew up in a strongly Calvinist milieu.  His mother, Lady Ann Bacon, was a highly educated and immensely learned Calvinist.  (It was she who translated Jewel’s Apology from Latin into English in 1564.)


As Richard Popkin has decisively shown, the intellectual temperature of the early and mid-seventeenth century was set by Pyrrhonism. (9)  Hugh Trevor Roper has offered this neat description of the effects of Pyrrhonian scepticism: “It began as a religious crisis, but soon became a crisis of knowledge.  By the early seventeenth century the mutually destructive criticism of the religious parties had undermined, on each side, the foundations of belief, and intellectuals looked desperately for a solid base on which to rebuild it.” (10)  Arguably, the great thinkers of the period that begins with Montaigne, notably Hugo Grotius, were asking questions about religious epistemology that Calvinism was not able to answer; and they were developing modes of enquiry that would open up new worlds of thought that shaped modernity until its greatest crisis during the period of the First World War.

Frontispiece to Francis Bacon, 'Instauratio Magna', with two columns standing on a rocky s

Frontispiece to Francis Bacon, 'Instauratio Magna' (London, J.Bill, 1620), etching and engraving. Courtesy of the British Museum

Right on the Money?


In his famous and influential essay published in 1904, Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, Max Weber (1875-1920) developed his view that Calvinism (as opposed to Lutheranism) moulded the inner moral dispositions of its adherents in such a way that they developed new approaches to business and commerce.  This was a powerful and original contribution to the wider debate about the origins of Capitalism that had been started by Marx.  R.H.Tawney brought Weber’s ideas to the notice of English readers in his book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926).  However, Tawney (and Weber’s other critics) quickly pointed out that, for example, banking flourished in late medieval Italy and city states like Augsburg in the Holy Roman Empire long before the Reformation.  They drew attention to the counter-example of Scotland, where economic conditions stagnated in the hundred years after the nation’s conversion to Calvinism, and they argued that there had been no notable development of capitalism in the central European areas of Calvinist influence.  Tawney thought that the embryonic capitalism of the seventeenth century, as it emerged in England and Holland, was driven more by the extraordinary amplification of economic opportunity created by the success of colonial and imperial adventures from the late fifteenth century onwards.  

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R. H. Tawney writing at his desk, anonymous photograph, c.1958

What cannot be doubted is that Calvinism introduced a new set of theological emphases into Christian life and experience. Calvin’s theory of double predestination could, perhaps, have had the kind of influence that Weber claimed.  This is much disputed territory, but Calvin’s view of usury was every bit as strict and disapproving as that of the medieval moralists who preceded him.  In the Bible, usury is vehemently condemned because of the supposition (entirely reasonable at the time of writing) that it would always be the rich who would lend to the poor, and that, if they demanded any interest at all on the loan, this would inevitably both oppress the poor and further aggrandize the rich.  Usury seemed utterly indefensible. But, once again, Calvin the humanist and lawyer used new forms of expression in the minutiae of his ethical expositions.  Writing in the context of the commercial expansion of the mid-sixteenth century, in his tract de Usuris, while powerfully restating the traditional Christian teaching that lending at interest to the poor is morally wrong, Calvin declared that there is no harm per se in mercantile profit.  


The key point for Weber, however, was that Calvinism adds a new level of anxiety to the life of faith.  Under Calvin’s scheme of double predestination, how might a person know whether he or she is destined for salvation or damnation? Calvin suggested that those who are predestined for salvation will prove this to themselves and the world by living out a life that truly reflects their inner beliefs.  They will discover that they are ‘called’ by God to live their lives in a new way.  Mainstream religious ideas, once disseminated, shape, (often unconsciously), the myriad transactions of daily life.  This idea of calling, argued Weber, was transmuted over time into the notion of usefulness.  A person must work hard and conscientiously.  Life must be ordered and routine must be steady.  The person who works in this way is likely to be successful.  They will find their industry rewarded with prosperity.


Tawney looks at the writings of some of the creators of the English banking system of the late seventeenth century.  For example, he focuses on the career and outlook of Dr Nicholas Barbon, author of a Discourse of Trade, a pamphlet which appeared in 1690.  He describes Barbon as a “currency expert, pioneer of insurance, and enthusiast for land banks”. (How curiously modern.  And we will return to this.) Then Tawney comments further:  “In their emphasis on the moral duty of untiring activity, on work as an end in itself, on the evils of luxury and extravagance, on foresight and thrift, on moderation and self-discipline and rational calculation, (the Puritan moralists) had created an ideal of Christian conduct, which canonized as an ethical principle the efficiency which economic theorists were preaching as specific for social disorders.  It was as captivating as it was novel … Not sufficiency to the needs of daily life, but limitless increase and expansion, became the goal of the Christian’s efforts.” (11)


The Weber-Tawney thesis remains controversial.  But it continues to provoke argument and reflection.  As with the perplexing conundrum of predestination, the interpreters of Calvin dig deep into his works to try to discover precisely what he said, and how his phraseology might have given rise to the far-reaching social and ideological changes which, it is supposed, he has somehow caused – but none of his interpreters have quite resolved the questions yet.


Johnston’s view of Yale College, the first Yale College building in New Haven, Connecticut, built 1718, John Greenwood, etching and engraving, c.1742-1745

The Further Shore


The USA is diverse, regionally, ethnically and culturally, and has been shaped by multiple waves of immigration.  However, aspects of its national myth have certainly descended from the story told about themselves by the settlers who first colonized New England, the ideas that animated them and the values by which they lived.  As noted above, many of these Puritan settlers espoused religious principles that derived from Calvin, and one of them was John Winthrop.  Here are the oft-quoted words from his manifesto, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630): “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”


Here we can only pose the question:  To what extent did Calvinism contribute to the creation of a specifically American outlook and way of life, to American Exceptionalism and the concept of the ‘Elect’ Nation?  Many commentators have thought that it did so, at least since Alexis de Tocqueville, when he wrote in his introduction to Democracy in America (1835), that “The immigrants settling in America at the start of the seventeenth century somehow unlocked the democratic from all those other principles it had to contend with in the old communities of Europe and they translated that alone to the New World.” (12)  



Few thinkers have exercised greater influence on those who came after them than John Calvin - though often enough he influences by contradiction as much as by persuasion.  For half a millennium, Calvin’s version of Christianity has won hearts and minds, repelled others, but forced all those who have engaged seriously with his ideas to think about the world in new ways. 


Calvinism is far from spent as an intellectual force.  Indeed, after a resurgence of Calvinism in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps as a reaction to the crisis and disaster of the two World Wars, we are now living through another period during which Calvinism of a fairly traditional kind has recovered much of its confidence. Calvinism profoundly influenced Christian Theology in the twentieth century as a result of the work of, among others, Karl Barth (perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century theologians of any tradition or church) and Paul Ricoeur (one of its finest philosophical minds of the last generation).  Over the last forty years,  Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have been major influences in the development of what is termed Reformed Epistemology,  which in their hands is a powerful (and widely respected) restatement of Calvinist theological principles, and a theistic contribution to philosophy during a period when theism has largely been supposed to be in decline. 


A full treatment of Calvinism’s ecclesiastical and social influence would also need to cover Dutch Neo-Calvinism, the history of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Republic of South Africa and the legacy of Apartheid, and the existence of vigorous Reformed Churches in Indonesia, Korea,  Australia and Canada: but it is worth finishing this introductory paper with the thought that, though the influence of Calvinism has greatly abated (Marilynne Robinson’s reflections upon this phenomenon are of great interest), Calvinism has not evaporated into thin air in the USA.  In fact, it has recently come back into view as a particular matter of interest. Michael Sandel’s latest book, The Tyranny of Merit:  What’s Become of the Common Good? (September 2020), elaborates on Michael Young’s prescient parable The Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958.  In a significant passage, Sandel swallows the Weber thesis whole, and puts forward the view that Calvinist theology provided the seedbed for the early development of Capitalism, and that aspects of this theology continue to cast a long shadow which underlies the heartlessness of wealthy and successful (i.e. meritocratic) Americans today.  In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press, February 2020), Anne Case and Angus Deaton also suggest that Calvinism lurks beneath the surface of our modern discontents. Reviewing their work in the TLS (18 September 2020) Anne Nelson commented on the ‘tragic landscape’ of the welfare scene in the USA where “ … income inequality has reached its highest level in fifty years …”  She continued “Case and Deaton call this situation the dark side of meritocracy, in which ‘the less educated are devalued and disrespected’. In this view, the collapse of social constructs, including marriage, institutional religion and trade unions, leaves people unmoored and their interests undefended.  And while the elites of the past often regarded noblesse oblige and charity as the obligations of privilege and faith, modern American meritocracy, rooted in the founding religion of Calvinism, suggests that the happy “elect” are deserving of their good fortune, and that the “losers” are simply reaping what they sow.”


Can Calvinism really be blamed, even in part, for the malaise that currently seems to afflict the USA and perhaps the West in general?  If so, that would be a grave charge indeed.  Is it not more likely that the theological foundations (such as they are) of current popular thinking about personal wealth and communal wellbeing in the USA and some other Western nations, are to be found in religious expressions that are closer to some forms of Pentecostalism, with their contemporary emphasis on prosperity, than to traditional Calvinism? And, as Adrian Wooldridge has recently tried to argue, in his book The Aristocracy of Talent, perhaps any other form of oligarchy is, in the end, even more distasteful.  On the worldwide scene, Calvinism has long been superseded by Pentecostalism as an engine of Church growth, and its strongly ethical, indeed communitarian, instincts have been shouldered out by decades of secular hedonism and utilitarianism.  In the last century, Karl Barth recalled all believers and all the Churches to a greater sense of scepticism about the glories of the achievements of humankind and a deeper sense of humility in the face of the divine.  If that is Barth's enduring legacy, then Calvin, speaking to us with characteristic clarity and force through his great twentieth century interpreter, may still have something important to say to us today.




1. Benedict, Philip, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A social history of Calvinism (Yale University Press, 2002), p.133

2. Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939; reprinted Boston: Beacon Press, 1963)

3. Ed. J.T.McNeill, translated into English, F.L.Battles, Calvin : Institutes of the Christian Religion 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), Vol.2, p.926

4. McCullough, Diarmaid, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490 – 1700 (London: Allen Lane, 2003), pp.243-4

5. Prestwich, Menna, ed., International Calvinism 1541-1715 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), p.5

6. McCullough, Diarmaid, All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation (Allen Lane, 2016), p.57; from his essay ‘John Calvin’, originally published in I.Backus and P.Benedict eds. Calvin and his Influence, 1509-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2011)

7. Ed. J.T.McNeill, translated into English, F.L.Battles, Calvin : Institutes of the Christian Religion 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), Vol.2, p.1519

8. Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought Vol.2 (Cambridge University Press, 1978), p.320

9.  Popkin, Richard, The History of Scepticism: from Savonarola to Bayle (revised and expanded edition,Oxford University Press, 2003)

10. Trevor Roper, Hugh, ‘Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon’ commemorative lecture, 1974 (republished in From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution, London: Secker and Warburg, 1992), p.175

11. Tawney, R.H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (revised and augmented edition, with a new preface, Penguin, 1937) p.246

12. de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America (1835) (English translation by Gerald E. Bevan, Penguin Books, 2003)

Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861

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