Calvin, John 1509–1564 Protestant Reformer
The leading intellectual spokesman for the Protestant Reformation* was John Calvin (born Jean Chauvin in Noyon, France). More than any other reformer, Calvin brought Renaissance humanism* to the study of Protestant religion.
While still in his teens, Calvin moved to Paris to study theology*. However, at his father's urging, he later switched to the field of law. His studies brought him into contact with several of the royal lecturers the king had appointed to promote humanist learning in Paris. Calvin became a young humanist and, in 1532, produced his first major publication, a study of the ancient Greek writer Seneca. Calvin's work displayed his mastery of both Latin and rhetoric*. His abilities as a speaker and a writer proved to be the key to his power as a reformer.
In the early 1530s Calvin became a Protestant and began associating with other Protestants in Paris. He fled Paris in 1533 after the government took a firm stand against the Protestant Reformation. For the next few years he privately studied a number of Protestant theologies, especially the works of Martin Luther.
In 1536 Calvin published his most important book, Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, Calvin explained the essentials of Protestant Christianity to common readers and promoted his vision of the Christian faith. Institutes became the most widely read book on theology published during the Reformation. While other reformers produced a variety of texts, Calvin spent much of his life adjusting, translating, and expanding this single book. Final versions appeared in 1559 in Latin and in 1560 in French.
Because of the strength of Institutes, reformer Guillaume Farel invited Calvin to join him as a teacher in Geneva. The city expelled both men in 1538 but invited Calvin back in 1541—this time as both a teacher and a pastor. From Geneva, he spread his new version of Christianity throughout Europe. His Reformed Church became the chief Protestant alternative to Lutheranism.
Some of the most important reforms that Calvin introduced in Geneva were his efforts to promote humanist education. He reformed the elementary school system and created an academy to teach advanced humanist studies and theology. The academy, established in 1559 to train Protestant pastors, is now the University of Geneva.
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches
- * humanism
Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * theology
study of the nature of God and of religion
- * rhetoric
art of speaking or writing effectively