Calvin 500 Website
August 19, 2009
Celebrating 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth - Westminster's CALVIN 500 Website
"John Calvin: A Life Worth Knowing"
David W. Hall
It is admittedly difficult for most contemporaries to relate to John Calvin or to his times. He lived a half millennium ago chronologically (b. 1509), but in terms of experience and culture he may seem closer to the Paleolithic period than to a coming decade. Thus, it is understandable that in order for folks to relate to him, he must be personalized and contextualized. That is a fair challenge for an author, and this small work seeks to ease that burden and close that gap. We obviously believe that if we can build such bridges to the past then this Genevan theologian can serve as a helpful exemplar for leaders in many different fields.
Europe was a quilt of various tribes, family alliances, and fiefdoms in Calvin’s day. The most centralized power was the Roman Catholic Church which sought to hold Christendom together. The city of Geneva, which became important as the primary staging area of Calvin’s action, was not removed from these greater trends. Whether priests or governors realized it, a Reformation was about to commence in the early decades of the sixteenth century, and human society would irrevocably change through the decisive leadership of men like a once-quaint academic.
Calvin stood at the beginning of modernity, and his ideas and actions would change history forever. Others—today, though, mainly forgotten voices—have previously recognized the influence of Calvin. The highly respected nineteenth-century Harvard historian George Bancroft was one of many who earlier asserted that Calvin’s ideas buttressed liberty’s cause. He and others noted the influence of this thought on the development of various freedoms in Western Europe and America. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Bancroft extolled Calvin as “the foremost of modern republican legislators,” who was responsible for elevating the culture of Geneva into “the impregnable fortress of popular liberty, the fertile seed-plot of democracy.” Why, Bancroft even credited the “free institutions of America” as derived “chiefly from Calvinism through the medium of Puritanism.” Moreover, he traced the living legacy of Calvin among the Plymouth pilgrims, the Huguenot settlers of South Carolina, and the Dutch colonists in Manhattan, concluding: “He that will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”
Bancroft esteemed Calvin as one of the premier republican pioneers, at one point writing, “The fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty; and, in the moral warfare for freedom, his creed was his most faithful counselor and his never-failing support. The Puritans . . . planted . . . the undying principles of democratic liberty.” During the nineteenth century, fairly widespread appreciation of the societal impact of Calvin was not limited solely to American scholars. The world-renowned German historian Leopold von Ranke, for example, reached the similar conclusion that “John Calvin was virtually the founder of America.”