The Wild Spitting Nuns of Pre-Reformation Geneva

The events leading up to the Reformation in Geneva before Calvin’s arrival are wild—and so very medieval. As individual Swiss territories were evaluating Zwingli’s message of Reformation and voting on whether they would adopt it or not, a fire-headed evangelist by the name of William Farel took the reformation message into the far corners of Switzerland, and warmed the cool alpine climate with the crackling flames of the gospel. He was known for his passionate speeches, bold blatancy, and for leaving a piqued mob of papists behind him wherever he went. In fact, he was almost injured by an enraged throng of women who had taken his fiery gospel message as a personal attack, and they turned on him with an artillery of shoes, rocks, books, and whatever they could get their hands on. Once he threw an enraged priest into the lake; at another time, he was thrown into the lake.

Nun  Geneva’s Catholic women were a vicious bunch, and heartily involved in the fight to keep the Reformation out of Geneva. Sister Jeanne, a young nun from a convent in Geneva, scribbled a sprightly collection of stories about the cat-fights that her fellow nuns engaged in against both protestant ministers and protestant women. In one of these stories, the Catholics armed themselves against the Protestants, and both lined up, ready to fight if the other made a move.

The wives of the [Catholics] assembled, saying, that if it happens that our husbands fight against those infidels, et us also make war and kill their heretic wives, so that the race may be exterminated. In this assembly of women there were a good seven hundred children of twelve to fifteen years, firmly decided to do a good deed with their mothers: the women carried stones in their laps, and most of the children carried little rapiers… others stones in their breast, hat, and bonnet. (Jussie, Le Levain du Calvinisme, pp. 54-55; cf. pp.70-72, quoted in Jane Dempsey Douglass, “Women and the Continental Reformation,” p. 310-311)

As the day progressed, one Catholic man was mortally wounded. That was all the Catholic women needed to instigate their own war against the Protestant ladies. They ran after one Lutheran man’s wife and almost caught her, saying, “As the beginning of our war, let’s throw this b____ into the Rhone!” She slipped out of their grasp and made it into her home safely, but the Catholic women proceeded to tear everything out of her shop below her home. Meanwhile, the Catholic nuns were praying for the victory of the Catholic women, and prayed even more heartily after someone came and warned them that, if the Catholics lost, the nuns would be forced to get married. The day ended with very little more bloodshed, and the Catholics and Protestants agreed to live peaceably with each other for the time being.  In all of this account, Sister Jeanne never depicted the Protestant women as being violent, and though it would have been easy for her to have embellished her colorful stories with more violence, she does not seem to have done so.

Nun and Books  Other stories Sister Jeanne told are about various occasions when Lutheran women visited the Convent to preach and teach the nuns about the true gospel. According to Sister Jeanne, however, these women spewed “venom” and “detestable words,” and the nuns bolted and barred the door in their faces. Marie d’Entiere, a former abbess who was married, now occupied herself with “meddling with preaching, and perverting people of devotion.” According to Sister Jeanne, she said to the nuns,

O poor creatures! If only you knew that it is good to be with a handsome husband, and how agreeable it is to God. I lived for a long time in that darkness and hypocrisy where you are, but God alone made me understand the abuse of my pitiful life, and I came to the true light of truth… Thanks to God alone I have five handsome children, and I live salutarily. (Jussie, Le Levain du Calvinisme, p. 164, quoted in Jane Dempsey Douglass, “Women and the Continental Reformation,” in Religion and Sexism, p. 312)

As a sign of their rapt attention to these words, Sister Jeanne and her friends spit on Marie d’Entiere.

Sister Jeanne reported that other Protestant ladies who visited the convent to “meddle in preaching” to the nuns “perverted” Holy Scripture by giving a sermon on marriage in the early church, listing all the apostles who were married, and quoting Paul’s words on the two becoming one flesh. I will leave it up to you to judge whether this was really the sum total that these ladies had to say in their testimony of the gospel, or if this is merely what Sister Jeanne hated the most about these “sermons,” seeing as her entire life was dedicated to believing virginity was recommended by the Scriptures. Sister Jeanne’s entire view of the Protestant position seems to be that the Protestants despised the Sacrament, hated icons and pictures, and praised marriage. Protestant women protested Catholic feast days by doing their laundry and knitting in their front windows so that everyone on the street could see that they were working and not celebrating the feast. In spite of all this Protestant “witnessing” by women, only one nun sister was able to be convinced to leave the convent and join the Protestants. When Farel and Viret visited the convent, Sister Jeanne shrieked and howled that she was asked to leave the room. She continued to pound on the walls and put up such a successful filibuster that Farel forgot what he was going to say, and none of the nuns could have heard him over Sister Jeanne’s cacophony anyway. Image

Researchers remind us that, though Sister Jeanne’s journal was the result of a limited experience, it still provides an interesting picture of women during the Reformation—on both sides of the theological issues, but especially concerned by the doctrinal issues that were closest to home: virginity vs. marriage.

John Calvin on Women

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In late October a friend of mine told me about some quotes of Calvin’s she had read that seemed to point to him being a sexist male chauvinist. I went on a wild goose chase and hunted down these quotes and what people were saying about them, read some context surrounding his quotes, and have come back to my original conclusion. John Calvin was not a sexist male chauvinist. ‘Tis true. My own research, as well as the research done by many who have made a lifetime of studying this topic, declare otherwise. John Calvin haters will always hate, but if they actually carefully read what he wrote on women, they would find that he was no radical. His theology on women fits pretty well within the complementarian box, which was actually quite rare in his day. Calvin’s views on women were no different from the Apostle Paul’s. Woman was created from man, to be his helper, and thus holds an earthly rank that could be called inferior to the rank given to the man. But Calvin was careful to point out that spiritually, and in regards to the humanness of man and women, they are equal. Unlike many theologians before him who thought woman was the more “sinful” of the genders (Aquinas was one of these), Calvin points out example after example of how a woman’s uniquely-created gifts bless not only her husband and children, but also the entire world. She does not have to have the same ranking as her husband to be equally used of God for furthering His kingdom. I don’t have the space here to quote every example of this that I found in Calvin’s commentaries, but I am putting it all in my book.

Even an essay by Jane Dempsey Douglass in the book Religion and Sexism (not exactly the place I’d expect to find it) revealed that John Calvin had a beautifully biblical view of women and their role in the family, culture, and church. She describes the “new” theology that the Reformation taught, and proves how this theology elevated women and gave them more freedom than the previous medieval and Roman Catholic perspective. Several other researchers and writers agree with Douglass’s statement that:

“The protestant doctrines of Christian vocation and the priesthood of all believers, along with a new view of marriage, did in fact tend to change the image and role of women in the direction of greater personal freedom and responsibility, both immediately and over the centuries.” (p. 141 in Religion and Sexism)

The doctrine of Christian vocation placed equal honor on the work of the field-laborer, the merchant, the mother, and the housekeeper, as on the pastor or preacher. All vocations that are not outside of the law of God, are blessed of God, and holy when done to the glory of God. Therefore, the wife and mother who found herself entirely occupied by the tasks of “taking pains about housewifery, making clean her children when they be arrayed, killing fleas, and other such like,” as Calvin writes, is giving “sacrifices which God accepteth & receiveth, as if they were things of great price and honourable.” (A Sermon of Master John Calvin, upon the first Epistle of Paul, to Timothie, published for the benefit and edifying of the Church of God [London: G. Bishop and T. Woodcoke, 1579], excerpted from Calvin’s sermon on 1 Timothy 2:13-15)

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers freed all women to have as deep a relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ as was previously only attributed to men and nuns. Calvin used many of the stories of women in the Bible to bring out rich and nourishing commentary designed to encourage women in their faith. He writes of the power of women’s prayers, of the beautiful honor of the resurrected Christ appearing first to the women, and then with almost breathless wonder, he describes the miraculous way that women have been gifted to defeat the effects sin by bringing children into the world. His practice was no different than his writing. In 1541 during Calvin’s time in Geneva, the city set up its first Protestant school for young girls. Calvin also was the one who suggested a change in the divorce law of the city so that women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men (within the lawful biblical parameters for divorce, of course). The Protestant Reformation, and particularly the reformation in Switzerland, brought the first instance of women joining their voices with men during the congregational singing during church, and one refugee visitor to Calvin’s church described, with great pathos, the grandeur of “women and men singing together.”

The new view of marriage which Bucer, Luther, and many other reformers held, gave women a more hopeful perspective in the way they viewed themselves and their work. Previous to the reformation, women were considered to be the cause of lust. According to some church fathers, women were specially gifted with all the pleasing characteristics that caused good men to stumble. Therefore, righteous men who were not “gifted” with celibacy or could not take the vow of the monk, married to escape the sin of lust. Yet even then, marriage was “second best” because it allowed physical intercourse, and celibacy was the ideal, if it could be achieved. Virginity received special rewards in heaven, and women who could deny every womanly desire for a husband and children were the most revered.

After the Reformation, as many historians have pointed out, the new role of “pastor’s wife” was formed. Though she was not up front teaching, she was ministering to the congregation in her own womanly way. We see this in Idelette Calvin, who could take dictation for her husband in Latin when his secretary wasn’t available, and who visited sick beds with Calvin, and who helped Calvin to open their home to house and feed many wayfaring strangers.

Advice for Idelette Calvin from a Dying Old Man

In the summer of 1542, a few months after Idelette had arrived in Geneva as the new wife of John Calvin, a friend of Calvin’s lay dying. His name was Ami Porral, and he was the chief magistrate of the city, as well as the one who Calvin had consulted in drawing up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances the year before. Porral was the kind of man who loved to teach and exhort. Calvin visited him before his wife Idelette had a chance to, and they talked about salvation, the resurrection, and church unity.

Calvin recounted, “Whoever called to see him, heard some suitable exhortation; and that you may not suppose it to have been mere talkative vanity, as far as was possible he applied to each individual what was best adapted to his circumstances, and most likely to be of use to him.” Porral directed some extraordinary advice to Calvin and Viret, who visited his bedside each day that week. His advice nearly knocked them over.

John CalvinCalvin says, “We were both of us in a sort of stupor of astonishment; and whenever it recurs to my memory, even yet I grow bewildered. For he spoke in such a way, that it seemed to reflect some discourse by one of ourselves after long and careful meditation… Thence he proceeded to exhort us both, as well regarding the other departments of our charge as ministers, as also to constancy and firmness; and when he discoursed at some length on the future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel, he seemed inspired with the foresight of a prophet. It was wonderful how wisely he spoke to purpose on what concerned the public weal.” The tone of Calvin’s letter shows how sincerely he took to heart this strangely insightful advice from his dying friend. The “future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel” were to be great indeed, and Calvin no doubt pondered Porral’s words in his heart for many years after.

The second afternoon, when Idelette was able to free herself from household duties, she joined her husband at Porral’s deathbed. Porral’s specific advice for Idelette penetrated her heart as well. Porral “told her to be of good courage whatever might happen, that she ought to consider that she had not been rashly led hither, but brought by the wonderful counsel of God, that she also might serve in the Gospel.”

Idelette de bure calvinThat the dying man chose this topic to encourage Idelette is interesting, because it exposes that she may have been distressed about her move to Geneva and the role it would play in her life (or he may have thought as much, whether or not it was true). At this point, she was eight months pregnant with her third child, feeling like she might be coming down with the flu, still trying to navigate this strange and new city of Geneva, and finding the inhabitants not very welcoming to foreigners. To “be of good courage, whatever might happen,” was probably exactly what she needed to hear. Porral’s encouragement that “she also might serve in the Gospel” shows his desire for her to be a true helpmeet to Calvin, “also” serving Geneva by preaching the Gospel in her work alongside her husband.

Reading over this detailed account in Calvin’s letter, I am struck by how fully the Lord used this man’s dying words to prophetically address specific fears and weaknesses in both John and Idelette Calvin’s lives. John Calvin was young and timid, by his own admission, and shied away from public spectacle whenever he could. Yet here he was exhorted to “constancy and firmness” in every future difficulty that he must take on. Idelette was far away from the home, and family, and religion of her youth, and may well have felt “rashly led” to Geneva. But Porral’s exhortation was to consider that it was by the Lord’s providential counsel that she had been brought here, and that she should courageously serve in the Gospel.

Calvin and Idelette remained at his bedside the rest of the day until he could no longer speak. Since it was getting late, Calvin and Idelette started for home, walking slowly up the dark street, pondering together the unique charges they had been given to carry out. The next morning they found out that Porral had passed away. “Scarcely had we left,” Calvin writes, “when he gave up his pious soul to Christ.”

Ask John Calvin: What is a wife for?

This summer I began to work through reading all of Calvin’s commentaries, particularly noting the sections in which he wrote about families, women, marriage, children, husbands, and fathers, and all the many ways they are intertwined. It has been incredibly rewarding. One of the major ideas so far has been that a marriage includes “all parts and usages of life” and it wasn’t established just for procreation of children. Calvin loved the Scriptural idea that God created a wife to be a man’s companion, so they could work alongside each other as if they were one and the same person, neither being inferior because both were created in God’s image.

Floris Gerritsz van Scooten  (Dutch artist, 1590–1655) Larder

“Christ is the head of man and woman without any distinction,” he said, and his view of women as equally faithful, intelligent, and spiritual followers of Christ made its way into numerous sermons and writings.

He plunged into the Hebrew of the phrase “meet for him” in the story of Eve’s creation, showing linguistically that the phrase expressed that the woman was “as if opposite to,” or “over against him… because she responds to him.” He continued,

“The Greek translators have faithfully rendered the sense, and Jerome, ‘Which may be like him,’ refuted the error of some, who think that the woman was formed only for the sake of propagation, and who restrict the word ‘good,’ which had lately been mentioned, to the production of offspring. They do not think that a wife was personally necessary for Adam, because he was hitherto free from lust; as if she had been given to him only for the companion of his chamber, and not rather that she might be the inseparable associate of his life.”

There was no place for man being the “spiritual” spouse, and women being the “practical” one, created to fulfill a man’s sexual needs, produce children, and manage the home. Though this was a common philosophy of the day and contains a bit of truth, the Scriptures—and Calvin—so obviously disagreed. A wife is the “inseparable associate of his life,” which must mean she is intelligent, companionable, talented, and fully able to come alongside or “across from” her husband to help him with his mission in life.

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Part of this mission may be to cuddle in bed, carry his children, cook his meals, and teach his sons and daughters how to spell. But that should not at all detract from the understanding that her mission is to inseparably associate herself with every aspect of his life in which she can prove herself helpful, be it business accounting, back massages, writing letters and making phone calls, editing books, research and writing, understanding and being able to discuss the gospel, buying land, giving to charity, making decisions he would have made when he is absent, and in every way proving herself a help. She should truly be a crown that does not diminish the glory of God in her husband, but causes it to show the brighter. Those are my thoughts, but read Calvin. His opinion is what you really want to hear. It’s a long quote, but hopefully my (added) paragraph breaks will help you to process it! Here it is:

“Moses now explains the design of God in creating the woman; namely, that there should be human beings on the earth who might cultivate mutual society between themselves… Since it was not expedient for man to be alone, a wife must be created, who might be his helper. I… take the meaning to be this, that God begins, indeed, at the first step of human society, yet designs to include others, each in its proper place. The commencement therefore, involves a general principle, that man was formed to be a social animal…

Now, the human race could not exist without the woman; and, therefore, in the conjunction of human beings, that sacred bond is especially conspicuous, by which the husband and the wife are combined in one body, and one soul… But although God pronounced, concerning Adam, that it would not be profitable for him to be alone, yet I do not restrict the declaration to his person alone, but rather regard it as a common law of man’s vocation, so that everyone ought to receive it as said to himself, that solitude is not good, excepting only him whom God exempts as by a special privilege.

Many think that celibacy conduces to their advantage, and, therefore abstain from marriage, lest they should be miserable. Not only have heathen writers defined that to be a happy life which is passed without a wife, but the first book of Jermoe, against Jovinian, is stuffed with petulant reproaches, by which he attempts to render hallowed wedlock both hateful and infamous. To these wicked suggestions of Satan let the faithful learn to oppose this declaration of God, by which he ordains the conjugal life for man, not to his destruction, but to his salvation… 

Now, since God assigns the woman as a help to the man, He not only prescribes to wives the rule of their vocation, to instruct them in their duty, but he also pronounces that marriage will really prove to men the best support of life.

We may therefore conclude, that the order of nature implies that the woman should be the helper of the man… The voice of God [is] to be heard, which declares that woman is given as a companion and an associate to the man, to assist him to live well. I confess, indeed that in this corrupt state of mankind, the blessing of God, which is here described, is neither perceived nor flourishes; but the cause of the evil must be considered, namely, that the order of nature, which God had appointed, has been inverted by us. For if the integrity of man had remained to this day such as it was from the beginning, that divine institution would be clearly discerned, and the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage; because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful [communication]. (from John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1)

I especially love this line: “The sweetest harmony would reign in marriage, because the husband would look up with reverence to God, and the woman would be a faithful assistant to him.”

Clamming up Instead of Rising up

My mom’s birthday was today. I don’t know if it was the fact that it is her birthday, or just some other thoughts I’ve had lately about womanhood and motherhood, but something put it in me that I should be thanking and praising her more.

“Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.” I saw this verse in new light today. This isn’t just the pro-activeness of the mother’s virtues that somehow causes “you are blessed” to burble out of her children like fizz in an elementary classroom volcano. No, this rising up is the initiation of the kids, in response to their mother’s virtue. They rise up, call people’s attention with the clink of a glass, “Ahem, ahem, ladies and gentlemen,” and speak of the virtuous facets of their mother.

Except I wasn’t quite that bold. The restaurant was noisy and full of people. I don’t make speeches very well in front of my family. So, into the gift I gave her, I slipped a card on which I had put some scribblings of what I hoped were thoughtful praises. She opened it and read it, that permanent, sweet smile on her face that always shows up when there is the least bit of a reason to be glad. The table was silent as they watched her read. After glancing over her shoulder, my dad explained to everyone else that I had “written her an essay.” That awkwardness that always arises when someone reads in front of you something you wrote, suddenly bubbled and boiled over, and I slurped on my straw for good measure. Unfortunately, the Lord saw fit to place no water in my straw except for some ill-begotten droplets, which went immediately into my lungs, which gave me the lucky role of hacking and coughing and spewing and barking until every droplet rued the day it ended up in my straw. I’ve never been good at filling a silence. My mom got to the end of the card, and thanked me for it with shining violet eyes.

I don’t know if it said everything I wanted it to say. It probably didn’t. I don’t know if it said anything that she needed to hear. It might have. I do know that it’s been much too long since I’ve tried to tell her thank you. And I do hope, and will intentionally try, to not clam up so much when I should be rising up.

Satisfied, Satisfied, Christ Has Satisfied

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A new editing project has been fed my way, so it will be another week before I can really dig into more research on John Calvin’s marriage. This editing project is a workbook accompaniment to a video series on mentorship and success. The audience is Christian students who are ready to launch out into the world and are trying to choose a path. What I love about this project is the focus it has on seeking God first, because many of the more specific particulars of our future will be added to us once we have sought God. (“Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.”)

This also fits perfectly with a chapter I just read in C. S. Lewis’s book on the Psalms. I don’t have it here with me; I’m in the library and could probably find it here if I really wanted to, but let me try to sum it up from memory. Lewis speaks of a thirst for God as if we are a parched land that soaks up water because water is the one solution to all its other problems. He talks about the rambunctious, indecently raucous praise of God that the Psalmist indulges in. This is the God of feasting, noisemaking, dancing, party poppers, and uncontrollable laughter. This is the God we seek and desire, not as a stuffy, starched-collar ascetic, but as a child who just woke up on Christmas morning and saw that it had snowed and that his parents were downstairs all rosy and jolly and full of love.

And, to round up everything I’ve read still further under one blanket topic, I recently came across a video post by Steve DeWitt called, Dealing with Disappointment When You’re Single. His main point was that he had “done” all that could be done, as a righteous man, to prepare for marriage. He was a pastor, he had prayed for his wife since he was 18, he truly wanted to be content while at the same time wanting to be married. Many married people tried to encourage him, like Job’s friends tried to encourage Job– not really helpful, not very truthful– with all their solutions. Finally the reigning glory and the thought that overcame his loneliness was that God had provided Jesus Christ for his salvation, and with Him, has He not freely provided him all things? Rather than it being a promise that he would get married, Steve took it as a promise that God was ultimately the satisfaction of all desires. Whether He provided marriage or not, He would, and did, satisfy.

This was a blessing to me. It is not wrong to want marriage and to look for it, but in the cosmic order of things, Jesus Christ Himself has been provided for my satisfaction and happiness. Nothing else will give it.

And just so I wouldn’t forget the lesson, one more reminder was given to me—this time in a sermon by Barry Cooper on Ecclesiastes 2. Believe it or not, the topic was on the Search for Satisfaction, and verse by verse Barry listed every reason that Solomon had to be satisfied… and yet he wasn’t. “One of the things that spoils our pleasures is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give. They weren’t designed to bring ultimate satisfaction. They were designed to point to Someone who can. …The problem is that we are far too easily pleased.”

Solid joys and lasting pleasure,

None but Zion’s children know.

John Calvin’s Personality – “I assure you that by nature I am shy and timid.”

Many people have categorized John Calvin as a particularly severe and judgmental man.  Their insights are based not so much on the many eyewitness accounts or on Calvin’s own perception of himself, but on the multitude of misconceptions about his theology. This is crazy. Why not go to the people who knew him to find out what he was really like? And it wouldn’t hurt to look at what he thought of himself, too.

  • “a bow that was always tightly strung.” -Wolfgang Musculus, a minister and professor
  • “of a rather timid disposition” -Theodore Beza, personal friend and biographer of Calvin
  • “I assure you that by nature I am shy and timid.” -Calvin
  • “a person rather overmuch attentive, not to say troublesome, in the frequency of my correspondence.” -Calvin
  • “[his preaching was] marked by much grace, strength and simplicity and yet was completely lacking in ostentation.” – Theodore Beza
  • “every day I talk to all those who need to see me, even the youngest and the poorest.” -Calvin
  • “He was constantly filled with a great sense of compassion, as if he could see for himself the distress which overtook the churches and the dreadful massacres perpetrated against the poor believers.” – Beza
  • “His only difficulty was that his body had trouble keeping up with his mind, although at times he tried hard to make it do so.” -Beza, p. 95
  • “even when we thought he was resting, he continued to give himself unstintingly to the work.” -Beza
  • “God had bestowed upon him such a measure of wisdom and discernment that no one was ever any the worse for having followed his advice.” – Beza
  • “He sat supporting his head with one hand, as he often did.” -Beza
  • “You could see from his face how he was rejoicing in the Lord with the whole congregation.” -Beza
  • “Besides a temperament that was by nature prone to anger, there were a number of things that tended to make him irritable and difficult to get on with. These included, for example, his own lively mind, the lack of discretion on the part of many of those around him, and the many varied affairs he had to deal with concerning the church of God. …But he was far from seeking to make excuses for this failing. On the contrary, no one was more aware of it, or more conscious of its importance, than he was himself.” -Beza
  • “…his remarkable affability, which meant that he could meet the very young on their own level when the need arose.” -Beza
  • “gentleness in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others” -Beza
  • “in what way was he any different from the rest of us, except that he surpassed all of us in humility and went to a lot more trouble than any of us?” -Beza
  • “Some have accused Calvin of being short-tempered. I do not want to make this man out to be an angel. However, I cannot fail to mention the remarkable extent to which God made use of the very forcefulness of his character.” -Beza
    Drawing of John Calvin by one of his students.

    This drawing of John Calvin was done by one of Calvin’s students while Calvin was teaching.

    Was Calvin aloof? Disapproving? So cranial that he had no heart?

    Not at all. He was always accessible and eager to converse. He wrote more letters than any other protestant reformer, and at a guess from what I’ve read so far, I’d say 70% of those or more were to good friends who he retained his entire life, in spite of theological differences. His letters are full of relational content. He apologizes for the lateness of the letter. He inquires about the health of the family. He explains in great detail how he hoped not to offend. He begs a recently widowed friend to come for a visit and a change of pace. He includes greetings from his wife to his friends’ wives. He congratulates a father on the marriage of his daughter, and sends condolences when a man loses his child to the plague. Also, the hospitality of John Calvin’s home was famous in all of protestant Christendom.

    From Calvin’s own admission, it’s true that Calvin had an occasional temper flare-up. The trigger seemed to be when there was a particularly erroneous statement made about essential doctrines of the faith, and none of Calvin’s peers detected it, but instead embraced it without looking into it. That was what angered him. But most of the time he was able to discuss theological differences with gracious and elegant rhetoric, but occasionally the foolishness of others got the better of him. When this happened, nothing worked better to calm him and bring him back into the room after he had stormed out, than the famed “architect of subtleties,” reformer Martin Bucer. This gentle man was especially gifted in peacemaking, and as a good friend of Calvin’s, could always bring peace to the situation.

    We find all kinds of personality synopsis for Calvin on the internet. Some say he was a crazed control-freak who burned up people who didn’t believe the same thing as him. This is far from the truth. Initially, he had to be forcibly put into a position of authority by an older man who needed his help in Geneva. Calvin was well known by the Council of Pastors as well as the Consistory in Geneva (the ruling bodies of the church and state, respectively), as shunning control and deferring to others’ judgment, though he readily gave his advice when they asked. All major decisions that were made in Geneva were made by a ruling body, not by Calvin. The “burning” incident was the heretic Servetus, who Calvin had, for many years, attempted to reconcile, or at least to convince Servetus to stop preaching his heresy. The decision for Servetus to be put to death was not Calvin’s alone, and Calvin begged his fellow pastors to give Servetus a more merciful death. Calvin was the one who visited Servetus in prison, and spent much of the night before his death with him, to try to convince him to come back to the truth. If anything, Calvin was the most merciful Genevan authority involved in this situation. But because his name is tied with everything Geneva, he frequently gets bad-mouthed over this.

    Who was he? A genius, an introvert, a man who could remember and quote everything he read, a good friend, a passionate disposition that occasionally erupted, and very much a human.

Accessibility

I’m at the Denver Seminary Library right now, my favorite place to work because they have secluded desks and aisles upon aisles of delicious books, including all of Calvin’s letters and many compilations of his other writings. At this very moment they’re pumping cinnamon roll smell from the coffee shop into every nook and cranny. But I must stay focused, as much as I’d like to take my English tea and a book and be done with writing for the day. Anyway, I just came across this quote from Calvin in Beza’s biography of him, that shows how accessible he was, to everyone.

He says, “M. de Farges boasts of having talked with princes and kings, whereas I refused to speak to him. Speaking for myself, I do not boast of having talked to great noblemen. I will simply say that every day I talk to all those who need to see me, even the youngest and the poorest.”

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My nephew and I. This little child is easy to love.

Take a moment to think what this means. Though the theology Calvin wrote about penetrated through centuries of heresy to establish most of the doctrines that the evangelical church holds to today, Calvin himself wasn’t so busy being visionary that he couldn’t talk to little people with little minds and little finances. Beza describes his great gentleness in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others, and his remarkable affability in meeting the young on their own level.

To be able to explain great doctrines to both children and seminary students would be incredible, except that it is a characteristic that many great minds have had. C. S. Lewis was just as influential (perhaps more so) in his Narnia stories to the children as he was to the Oxford pupils he tutored, or to the adults who read Mere Christianity.  And Jesus rebuked his disciples for them turning children away from Him, saying “Let the little children come to Me.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Are you convicted a little bit? Do you think more highly of your conversations than Calvin did? What would happen if we took a moment to talk with the “least of these,” to listen compassionately to the incessant woes of the widow, to explain what it means to get along with siblings to an eight-year-old, to “every day” talk to those who need to see you, “even the youngest and the poorest”? I don’t know what that would look like, but I think it would be good.

It’s interesting that his dying words included an admonition to the young, to beware of this very thing.

“Let the young retain a sense of modesty without wanting to press too far ahead, for youth always entails an element of boasting, which seeks to exalt oneself and look down on others.”

Hospitality in John Calvin’s Home

Calvin and Idelette’s home was famous for its hospitality. One guest to their home wrote to the couple, “Your hospitality in the name of Christ is not unknown to anybody in Europe.” One of Calvin’s personal friends, Theodore Beza, recounts several times in which Calvin invited people with disputes or questions into his home fora meal. As they relaxed and enjoyed their meals, they would inevitably end up talking about whatever it was that had troubled them, and usually in a peaceable manner. Friendship extended over a table of steaming platters did much to soothe a troubled heart. Beza describes Calvin’s “remarkable affability,” revealed in how “he could meet the very young on their own level when the need arose,” and how he demonstrated great “gentleness… in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others.”Image

He was also a fascinating conversationalist because of his great knowledge and memory. “If someone brought up the subject of particular things that he had witnessed in the past, whether in France, Italy, or Germany, [Calvin] would be able to talk about them, mentioning people and places by name and turning the discussion to good account.”

One preacher who enjoyed the hospitality of the Calvin house was John Knox, the famous reformer of Scotland. He greatly admired Calvin and had many questions for him, especially about his opinion on women in a civil office of authority. He was also astonished to find that “the Theologian” Calvin liked to play a game of “clef” after dinner! When all the dishes were cleared from the table, two objects—books or bottles perhaps—were set up at the opposite end of the table as “goal posts.” Each player was to slide a key across the table so it went between the two objects but did not fall off the other side of the table. Local lore also holds that he enjoyed playing lawn bowling too. This was a simple game of rolling a ball across the lawn, attempting to hit or touch a certain object.

Sometimes Calvin and Idelette took their visiting friends on a tour of the countryside, introducing them to other friends along the way. Writing to his friend Viret, Calvin dangles a tempting itinerary, hoping he’ll stay.

“Someone told me that you are inclined to come to Geneva. I have seized the hope with as much fervor as if you were already here. If such is truly your intention, come Saturday. Your arrival could not be more timely. You will preach for me Sunday morning in the city so that I can preach at Jussy, and join me after dinner. We’ll take a visit to Monsieur de Falais; then, crossing the lake, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of the country together at the home of our friends Pommier and Delisle, and we shan’t return until Thursday. The day following, if you’d like to go to Tournay or Bellerive, I’ll accompany you. Above all, you can count on the warmest reception.” (“Les Amitiés de Calvin,” Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (Paris, 1864), page 93. Author’s translation.)

The warmest reception. Those who know little of Calvin’s theology and even less of the man himself assume that he was austere, judgmental, and scared people away. Yet both those who disagreed with him and those who were his closest friends were invited into his home for a warm meal, invigorating and affirming conversation, with games on the lawn to finish off the day.

John Calvin and Hospitality in Geneva

It’s well known that John Calvin the bachelor practiced active hospitality before he was married, and that during the first months of his marriage to Idelette, many guests and boarders enjoyed John and Idelette’s home for both long and short periods of time. Calvin believed that hospitality was not a question of personal preference, but of obedience to the command to show kindness to “strangers within your gates.” Hospitality has “nearly ceased to be properly observed among men,” Calvin writes, “for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers.” (Calvin, John, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 340)

Calvin was especially hospitable to religious refugees, teaching others in his congregation that “no duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than to provide kind hospitality to religious refugees.

“Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, ‘He is a stranger;’ but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that He forbids you to despise your own flesh (Isa. 58:7, Vg.). Say, ‘He is contemptible and worthless;’ but the Lord shows him to be one to who He has deigned to give the beauty of His image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to Himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.7.6.)

Calvin’s preaching on hospitality influenced more than his own home and congregation. During Calvin’s years in Geneva, the city’s population more than doubled! Most were refugees looking for a place to safely raise their families, and with Geneva being just a few miles from the border of anti-Protestant France, Geneva was a practical and nurturing “city of refuge.” We find numerous letters of Calvin’s inviting his friends and friends of friends to Geneva. He loved having all his friends near him, and he loved adding people he had not met yet to his circle of friends.

One modern-day visitor to Geneva described some of the homes from Calvin’s era that still carry a visible mark of the incredible hospitality the Genevans practiced during the reformation. With the streets in Geneva narrowly winding in a tightly-cramped city and the surrounding gardens being very small, there was no place to expand a house’s square footage, but up! So roofs were literally lifted off these homes and another floor or two was added onto the upper story in order to accommodate more guests. The roof was then put back on the highest story, and the house was twice as accommodating than before. Like a high water-mark in a river, these homes show a high point in Geneva’s history. (Rev. Mark Englund-Krieger, “Report to the Presbytery, May 22, 2012,” on Carlisle Executive Presbyter, <http://markekrieger.blogspot.com/2012/05/report-to-presbytery-may-22-2012.html> accessed on June 16, 2012.)

Calvin was also known to have established the “5% rule” amongst local businessmen in order to obtain loans for foreign refugees in Geneva. He personally requested that banks loan refugees what the refugees would need to start a life and a business in Geneva, and to only charge them 5% interest, with no increases. This request was not a civil or pastoral command, but more of a challenge and encouragement to the business owners of Geneva. As a result of this wise “hospitable” strategy of Calvin’s, the city’s economy boomed, bringing in more still more merchants and business owners.