C is for Calvin

Calvin painted by Titian

Like the underwear?

No, not Calvin Klein…


In the 1530s John Calvin developed a new theology that would later be known as Calvinsim (when you get your own -ism, you know you’ve made it).

Where was he from?

Calvin was born in France in 1509, the son of a cathedral notary. He was a child prodigy, employed as a clerk by the Bishop at the age of 12 and winning patronage from local nobility. He started college in Paris to become a Catholic priest, but his father withdrew him and sent him to study law, thinking this would lead to a better paid job. Whilst at university, Calvin learned Latin and Greek, which allowed him to closely study the New Testament.

It’s not known exactly when Calvin split from the Catholic Church, but he was put in danger when his close friend Nicolas Cop gave a speech saying that Catholicism needed to reform. They both had to flee to Basel in Switzerland, a town where reformers were supported.

What did he do?

In 1536 Calvin published his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, essentially a textbook explaining the Protestant faith and boldly attacking the Catholic faith. The book was extremely influential – read across Europe and translated into many languages over the years.

He wrote a number of other books and biblical commentaries, as well as corresponding with rulers all over Europe about religion.

Calvin would eventually become the leader of the church in Geneva, and spent his life promoting Protestantism in both Switzerland and across Europe. Despite having once fled violence himself, he wasn’t tolerant of the views of others, with one opponent being burnt at the stake for publically disagreeing with him.

What did he believe?

Calvin believed that you couldn’t learn about God by studying the world around you or self-reflection. The only way to access it is to read the Bible.

Calvin believed in predestination. He said that it had been decided before your birth whether you would be saved after death, and that nothing you did during your life would influence this.

Why should I care?

Calvin’s ideas spread internationally after his death. Theologians still read his books, and his views are the foundation for the Presbyterian, Reformed, Reformed Baptist, and Congregational churches.


Feature image: Basel in the 16th century, from the Nuremberg Chronicles 

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