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Biography of John Calvin


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JOHN CALVIN, one of the most eminent of the reformers of the 16th century, was born at Noyon, in Picardy, on the loth of July 1509. His father, Girard Cauvin or Calvin, was procureur-fiscal of the district of Noyon, and secretary of the diocese. Calvin was educated in circumstances of ease, and even of affluence. He was entered as a pupil in the college de Marche, under the regency of Mathurin Condier. It was under this distinguished master that Calvin laid the foundation of his own mastery of the Latin language.

For a while, his attention was directed to the study of law. His remarkable talents seemed to promise great success in this branch of study, and his father sent him to the university at Orleans. 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 in him the religious instinct which was soon to prove the master-principle of his life.

From Orleans he went to Bourges where he acquired the knowledge of Greek, under the tuition of a learned German, Melchior Wolmar, to the influence of whose spiritual instruction he was also greatly indebted. 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, 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. He betook himself to Basel, where he is supposed to have prepared the first edition of the "Institutes of the Christian Religion," and whence he certainly issued, in the year 1535, the celebrated preface addressed to Francis I. The concentrated vigor of this address, its intensity of feeling, rising into indignant remonstrance, and at times a pathetic and powerful eloquence, make it one of the most memorable documents in connection with the Reformation. After completing this great service to the cause of Protestantism, he revisited his native town; sold the paternal estate which had devolved to him on the death of his oldest brother, and bidding it adieu, set out with his younger brother and sister to Strasburg. The diret 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 to the cause of the Reformation. Arriving in Geneva, he met there his friend, Louis Tillet, who communicated the fact of his arrival to Farel, then in the very midst of his struggle to promote the Reformation in the city and neighborhood. Farel hastened to see him, and urged upon him the duty of remaining where he was, and undertaking his share of the work of God, under the burden of which he was likely to fail. Calvin did not at first respond to this call, but finally he abandoned his intention of pursuing his journey, and joined with Farel in the work of Reformation.

Such was the beginning of Calvin's great work in Geneva. Having entered upon the work, he soon infused an energy into it, which crowned the struggling efforts of Farel with success. The magistrates and the people eagerly joined with the reformers in the first heat of their freedom and zeal. A Protestant Confession of Faith was drawn out, and approved by the Council of Two Hundred, the largest governing board of the city, and then proclaimed in the Cathedral church of St. Peter's, as binding upon the whole body of citizens. 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 the people. The strain, however, was too sudden and too severe. A spirit of rebellion to the rule of the reformers soon broke forth; 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 nick-name of Libertines. A struggle with this party ensued, which lasted with various fortune for no less a period than fifteen years, and was only terminated in 1555, when the reformer's authority was firmly established.

During the period of this long struggle with the Libertines, Calvin had many other disputes, in which he conducted himself with no less heartiness and zeal. Of all these contests, the most memorable is that with Servetus. A melancholy interest encircles the name of this great heretic, which the criminal tragedy of his death keeps always fresh and vivid in the minds of all who hate intolerance, and who love truth rather than dogmatism. The history of his seizure and condemnation at Vienna by the Catholic authorities, and especially of Calvin's share in the correspondence which led to his seizure, is very complicated aad obscure. It has been maintained that Calvin was the instigator of the whole transaction; it is certain that he forwarded to the authorities private documents which Servetus had intrusted to him, with a view to the heretic's identificaticn, and as materials of his condemnation. Servetus was sentenced to be burned, but effected his escape, and after several months wandering he was found at Geneva. Having ventured to church; according to common account, he was recognized, apprehended, and conveyed to prison by Calvin's order, just as he was about to leave the city. The particulars of his trial are full of interest, but too lengthened to be detailed here. At length, on the 26th of October, 1553, sentence was passed upon Servetus, condemning him to death by fire. Calvin used his influence to have the mode of death alleviated but without success.

After the expulsion of the Libertines, Calvin's power in Geneva, was firmly established, and he used it vigorously and beneficently for the defense 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. He died on the 27th of May, 1564.

Very different estimates, it may be imagined, have been formed of Calvin's character, according to the point of view from which it is contemplated. None, however, can dispute his intellectual greatness, or the powerful service which he rendered to the cause of Protestantism.