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John Calvin was born at Noyon, in Picardy, on July 10, 1509. His father, Gerard Caulvin or Cauvin, was procureur-fiscal of the district of Noyon, and secretary of the diocese. He was one of six children--four sons and two daughters. All the three sons who survived were ecclesiastics; and the reformer himself, while still only twelve years of age, was appointed to a chaplaincy in the cathedral church of Noyon. Calvin was educated in circumstances of ease and even affluence. The noble family of De Mortmar, in the neighborhood, invited him to share in the studies of their children; he was in some measure adopted by them; and when the family went to Paris, in his fourteenth year, he accompanied them. He was entered as a pupil in the College de la Marche, under the regency of Mathurin Cordier, better remembered, perhaps, by his Latin name of Corderius. It was under this distinguished master that Calvin laid the foundation of his own wonderful mastery of the Latin language. During this early period he was so distinguished by the great activity of his mental powers and the grave severity of his manners that his companions, it is said, surnamed him "The Accusative."
For a while his attention was directed to the study of law, and his father sent him to the university of Orleans, then adorned by Pierre de l'Etoile, one of the most famous jurists of his day. At Orleans he continued the same life of rigorous temperance and earnest studiousness for which he was already noted. It was while a law-student in Orleans that he became acquainted with the Scriptures, and received his first impulse to the theological studies which have made his name so distinguished. A relative of his own, Pierre Robert Olivetan, was there engaged in a translation of the Scriptures; and this had the effect of drawing Calvin's attention, and awakening within him the religious instinct which was soon to prove the master-principle of his life. The seeds of the new faith were now beyond doubt sown in his heart, and from this time, although he still continued for a while longer to pursue his legal studies, his main interests appear to have been religious and theological. From Orleans he went to Bourges, where he acquired the knowledge of Greek, under the tuition of a learned German, Melchior Wolmar. He began here to preach the reformed doctrines, and passed over into the ranks of Protestantism, under the slow but sure growth of his new convictions rather than under the agitation of any violent feeling. Here, as everywhere, his life presents a marked contrast to that of Luther.
He proceeded to Paris in 1533, which at this date had become a centre of the "new learning," under the teaching of Lefevre and Farel, and the influence of the Queen of Navarre, sister of Francis I. The Sorbonne itself had not escaped the infection. There was a growing religious excitement in the university, in the court, and even among the bishops. This, however, was not to last. The king was soon stirred up to take active measures to quell this rising spirit, and the result was that Calvin and others were obliged to flee for their lives. After this he repaired for a short time to his native place, resigned the preferment he held in the Roman Catholic Church, and for a year or two led a wandering life, sheltered in various places. We find him at Saintorge; at Nerac, the residence of the Queen of Navarre; at Angouleme, with his friend Louis du Tillet; then for a brief while at Paris again. Persecutions against the Protestants at this time raged so hotly that Calvin was no longer safe in France, and he betook himself to Basel, whence he issued, in the year 1536, the first edition of his "Christianae Religionis Institutio," with the famous preface addressed to Francis I. The concentrated vigor and intensity of feeling of this address, rising into indignant remonstrance, and at times into pathetic and powerful influence, make it one of the most memorable documents in connection with the Reformation. After completing this great service to the cause of Protestantism, he made a short visit to Italy, to Renee, the Duchess of Ferrara. Finally, he revisited his native town, sold the paternal estate, which had devolved to him on the death of his eldest brother, and, bidding Noyon adieu, set out, in company with his younger brother and sister, on his way to Strasbourg. The direct road being rendered dangerous by the armies of Charles V., which had penetrated into France, he sought a circuitous route through Savoy and Geneva.
The result of this journey was memorable for the cause of the Reformation. Arrived in Geneva, in the autumn of 1536, he met there his friend, Louis du Tillet, who communicated the fact of his arrival to Farel, then in the very midst of his struggle to promote the Reformation. Farel hastened to see him, and urge upon him the duty of remaining where he was, and undertaking his share of the work of God. Calvin did not at first respond to the call. He was given, he himself says, to his "own intense thoughts and private studies." He wished to devote himself to the service of the reformed churches generally, rather than to the care of any particular church. By some strange insight, however, Farel penetrated to the higher fitness of the young stranger who stood before him, and he ventured to lay the curse of God upon him and his studies if he refused his aid to the church of Geneva in her time of need. "It was," Calvin said, "as if God had seized me by his awful hand from heaven." He abandoned his intention of pursuing his journey, and joined eagerly with Farel in the work of reformation.
Having entered upon his task, he soon infused an energy into it which crowned the struggling efforts of Farel with success. The hierarchical authority was already overturned before his arrival; the citizens had asserted their independence against the Duke of Savoy. The magistrates and people eagerly joined with the reformers in the first heat of their freedom and their zeal. A Protestant Confession of Faith was drawn out, approved of by the Council of Two Hundred, and then proclaimed in the cathedral church of St. Peter. Great and marvellous changes were wrought in a short time upon the manners of the people; where license and frivolity had reigned, a strict moral severity began to characterize the whole aspect of society. The strain, however, was too sudden and too extreme. A spirit of rebellion against the rule of Calvin and Farel broke forth; but they refused to yield to the wishes of a party animated by a more easy and liberal spirit than themselves, and known in the history of Geneva under the nickname of Libertines; and the consequence was that they were both expelled from the city after less than two years' residence.
Calvin retreated to Strasbourg, and devoted himself to theological study, especially to his critical labors on the New Testament. Here, in October, 1539, he married the widow of a converted Anabaptist.
The Genevans found, after a short time, that they could not well get on without Calvin. His rule might be rigid; but an authority even such as his was better than no settled authority at all; and the Libertine party seem to have been unable to construct any efficient and beneficent form of government. Accordingly, they invited Calvin to return; and, after some delay on his part, in order to test the spirit in which they were acting, he acceded to their invitation, and in the autumn of 1541, after three years' absence, once more made his entry into Geneva.
Now, at length, he succeeded in establishing his plan of church-government. By his College of Pastors and Doctors, and his Consistorial Court of Discipline, he founded a theocracy, which aimed virtually to direct all the affairs of the city, and to control and modify both the social and individual life of the citizens. The Libertines still remained a strong party, which was even augmented after Calvin's return, by men such as Ami Perrin, who had strongly concurred in the invitation to Calvin, but who were afterward alienated from him by the high hand with which he pursued his designs, as well as by their own schemes of ambition. The struggle with this party lasted, with varying fortune, for no less a period than fifteen years, and was only terminated in 1555, after a somewhat ridiculous emeute in the streets. Perrin and others, driven from the city, were executed in effigy; and the reformer's authority from this date was confirmed into an absolute supremacy. During the long struggle with the Libertines occurred also Calvin's controversies with Sebastian Castellio, Jerome Bolsec, and above all, Michael Servetus.
After the execution of Servetus, and the expulsion of the Libertines two years later, Calvin's power in Geneva was firmly established, and he used it vigorously and beneficently for the defence of Protestantism throughout Europe. By the mediation of Beza he made his influence felt in France in the great struggle that was there going on between the hierarchical party, with the Guises at its head, and the Protestants, led by Conde and Coligny. In 1561 his energies began to fail. He had been long suffering from bad health, though his strength of will and buoyancy of intellect sustained him; but his health grew very much worse, and although he survived for more than two years, he never regained any vigor. He died on May 27, 1564.
Very different estimates have been formed of Calvin's character. None, however, can dispute his intellectual greatness or the powerful services which he rendered to the cause of Protestantism. Stern in spirit and unyielding in will, he is never selfish or petty in his motives. Nowhere amiable, he is everywhere strong. Arbitrary and cruel when it suits him, he is yet heroic in his aims, and beneficent in the scope of his ambition. His moral purpose is always clear and definite: to live a life of duty, to shape circumstances to such divine ends as he apprehended, and in whatever sphere he might be placed, to work out the glory of God.
He rendered a double service to Protestantism, which, apart from anything else, would have made his name illustrious: he systematized its doctrine, and he organized its ecclesiastical discipline. He was at once the great theologian of the Reformation, and the founder of a new church polity which did more than all other influences together to consolidate the scattered forces of the Reformation and give them an enduring strength. As a religious teacher, as a social legislator, and as a writer, especially of the French language, whose modern prose style was then in process of formation, his fame is second to none in his age, and must always conspicuously adorn the history of civilization.
His famous "Institutio" entitles Calvin to the foremost place among the dogmatic theologians of the Reformed Church. This masterpiece of luminous argument presents a complete system of Christian faith, based on the Protestant principle that the Scriptures are the source of Christian truth. "Two things there are," says Hooker, in the preface to the "Ecclesiastical Polity," "which have deservedly procured him honor throughout the world--the one, his exceeding pains in composing the 'Institutions of the Christian Religion;' the other, his no less industrious travails for exposition of Holy Scripture." His Commentaries embrace the greater part of the Old Testament and the whole of the New, except the Revelation, and place him in the front rank of expositors of Scripture.