Born in Noyon, France, July 10, 1509, John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was the son of Gerard Cauvin, a notary, and Jeanne Lefranc. He was early sent to tutors, then to a boy’s school in town. His mother passed away when he was but a child. His father wanted him trained in the university. By 1523, at age fourteen, he was ready to enter the College de la Marche in the University of Paris.
He was a precocious child, a quick learner at the school. Even though he devoured books he still had friends. Modern Americans tend to read into Calvin an austere personality, but many of the friends he made were friends for life. In fact, his seal—an open hand with a flaming heart on it—reads, "Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere"—“My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely." During this time, his father told him to change studies from the clerical to the legal. Shortly thereafter his father died. But he still finished his legal studies.
It was at the university that he encountered some leading edge thinkers that were influenced by Luther. Of his conversion we know little beyond a comment in his commentary on the Psalms (1557): “Since I was more stubbornly addicted to the superstitions of the Papacy than to be easily drawn out of that so deep mire, by a sudden conversion. He subdued my heart (too hardened for my age) to docility.” He was probably converted around 1531.
Written in 1536, Calvin’s magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, was a profound book with a profound impact upon Western Civilization. It was one of the first of the Reformed books to systematize much of the Reformational theology. This introduction to the faith was revised and expanded six times. It was popular, helping cement the Reformed branch of the Reformation.
A detour changed Calvin’s life forever. While passing through Geneva, seeking a life of quite research, the local reformer, William Farel, implored Calvin to stay and help. Calvin was reluctant. Farel thundered in reply: “If you refuse to devote yourself with us to the work…God will condemn you.” Shaken and terrified, Calvin acquiesced.
Calvin’s work in Geneva was not a bed of roses. He was not even a citizen of Geneva until late in life. Early on there was resistance between the pastors in Geneva and the council. In fact, Calvin and Farel were kicked out of Geneva after refusing to serve Communion, believing it could not be served during the political in-fighting between the church and city government.
Calvin stayed in Strasbourg after leaving Geneva. There, in 1540, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children, a teen-age boy and a girl. Shortly thereafter they returned to Geneva at the bequest of the city council. Their only natural-born child died in infancy, then seven years later Idelette went home to the Lord (1549). Both events deeply grieved him.
The Servetus incident is a sticking point for most Americans. Servetus was a wanted fugitive in Western Europe because he publicly denied the Trinity, trying to propagate his heresy. Burning at the stake was common for heretics. Knowing this, Servetus purposefully came to Geneva, and the local magistrates arrested him. Calvin did not start, run or finish the trial; he was only used as a theological witness. In fact, he pleaded for a merciful execution with the sword instead of by fire. Other heretics (less celebrated and more inquisitive than antagonistic) dialogued with Calvin, but he never handed them over to the magistrates.
Calvin was a leader in Geneva, but he did not rule the city. Many times the city councils had their way over the protest of the ministers. It was only through tireless preaching, teaching and counseling that Calvin and his fellow ministers influenced the city to reform her beliefs and manners. Just as eloquent and deep thinkers today can persuade political leaders so Calvin influenced Geneva.
He was a tireless leader: writing commentaries on most the Bible, preaching sermons methodically through many books, lecturing almost daily in town, erecting the Geneva Academy for young boys, corresponding extensively throughout Europe, uniting the Reformed churches and counseling his sheep.
Racked with various sicknesses near the end of his life, he last preached in February of 1564. April 20th was his last attendance to public worship. Humbled by God’s grace even to the end of his life, he confessed at his deathbed, “My sins have always displeased me and the fear of God has been in my heart.” At his behest he was buried in an unmarked grave.
The Lord called home His prodigious and faithful servant on May 27th, 1564.