It’s the birthday of theologian and ecclesiastical statesman John Calvin (1509) (books by this author), born Jehan Cauvin in Noyon, Picardy, France. Calvin was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. His father was employed by the local bishop as an administrator in the town’s cathedral. Calvin was a precocious child, and by 12, he was working in a shop as a clerk and had received the tonsure, the severe haircut that symbolized dedication to one’s church.
Calvin’s father wished his son to be a priest, and sent him at age 14 to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university. Calvin studied rhetoric, logic, geometry, astronomy, music, and arithmetic. In Paris, he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannes Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin.
Calvin was in his early 20s and working as a humanist lawyer when he had an epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533. He wrote to a friend, “Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.” He left Roman Catholicism to join the Protestant faith. At that time, this was a dangerous and sometimes fatal undertaking: dozens of Protestants were being declared heretics and burned at the stake. Calvin fled Paris and traveled through France, Italy, and Switzerland for the next several years, settling in Geneva.
In 1536, he published the first version of Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he intended as a kind of primer, laying out the general rules of what would be come known as “Calvinism.” The five principles spell out TULIP:
Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.
Calvin continued revising and publishing the Institutes throughout his life. It made him famous. Though he enjoyed an occasional game of shove ha’penny, which was a kind of precursor to shuffleboard, he was somewhat joyless and austere and disapproved of drinking, dancing, saucy songs, and gambling.
In Geneva, he preached over 2,000 sermons, at least once a day, for over an hour at each time. He used no notes. His friends urged him to marry, but he said, “I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife, it will be because, being better freed from numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord.” He told acquaintances that his wife would have to be “chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health.”
When presented with a young woman from a noble family, he at first refused to marry her, but then reluctantly agreed, but only if she learned French, which she did, dutifully. Still, he backed out of the marriage at the last minute and instead married a widow named Idelette. They had several children, but none survived infancy. When Idelette died, he was bereft. He wrote to a friend, “I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life.”
John Calvin died in 1564. Aside from Martin Luther, he’s the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation.