History of John Calvin: The Genius of Geneva

jean calvin

John Calvin. Image: Wikipedia


On July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, Jean Cauvin, known to us as John Calvin, was born. Of all the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, none were more significant in forming biblical theology or ecclesiastic thought than this one man. Calvin’s teaching and tradition penetrated more of the world than any other Protestant tradition.

He most influenced the worldview of Western Europe, the UK, and the Americas until the 20th century. His organization of the church government in Geneva influenced the church polity of Presbyterianism. His theology influenced the Congregational (Puritan) and German and Dutch Reformed Churches. Though they did not fellowship with Calvinistic churches, some Baptists and Unitarians often contained aspects of his theology.


Who was this singular Reformer, why did he work in Geneva, what did he influence?


John Calvin’s Influence on America

Many ideas incorporated into the American Constitution were done so by men inspired by John Calvin. He had a healthy view of the depravity of man, the need for checks and balances in government, the division of powers, and the provision for the rightful and orderly succession of rulers. Founding Father James Madison was strongly influenced by the Scottish Presbyterian (Calvinist) Reverend John Witherspoon, the only clergy signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Witherspoon was a descendant of the Scottish Reformer John Knox. Knox, once chaplain to the English King Edward VI, subsequently became a student of Calvin in Geneva, calling it:

the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the Apostles.”

Witherspoon had been president of the Presbyterian school Princeton (known then as the College of New Jersey). Madison spent another year after graduating, studying Hebrew and political philosophy under Witherspoon.

Reformer Wall, Geneva.

Reformers Wall, Geneva: Guillaume Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox. Image: Wikipedia

Unlike Martin Luther‘s Germany, which operated under a monarchy, Calvin’s Geneva was a republic. Calvin’s emphasis on representative bodies – similar to his church’s board of Elders (Consistory) – had spread throughout Northern Europe, where his followers became agents of change. Calvin’s emphasis on universal education led him to the forming of his Academy there:

“to train men for the preaching of the gospel.”

It later became known as the University of Geneva.


Economics and Calvinism

John Calvin's House

John Calvin’s House, Geneva. Author’s photo

What about economics? Popular theory holds that Protestants, especially Calvinists of the Dutch, Scottish, and English varieties, were the players in the rise of modern Capitalism. With the “Protestant work ethic” – a sense of thrift, dignity of work, and industry – Capitalism thrived in northern Europe. It generally rolled over all competing theories either by its superior worth or simply by the economic power generated by the type of people subscribing to a Calvinist view of work and man.

Even when Calvin’s original religious and theological vision was long lost, as it was in men like the 18th century Unitarian New England Yankees, nevertheless, the spirit of hard work and duty lived on for hundreds of years. Not until Marxism in the last century or two was a theory that captured the imagination as much as the Protestant-inspired Capitalistic view. Calvin also felt that greed was one of the chief examples of idolatry. How prescient, considering today’s economic woes. His motto was:

Prompte et sincere in opere Domini

… ever ready to act “promptly and sincerely in the work of the Lord.”


A Detour for John Calvin

Guillaume Farel

Guillaume Farel, Neuchâtel. Author’s photo

Though Calvin was initially educated for a position in the church in France, his father encouraged him to study law. After his father’s death, Calvin returned to his interest in the Humanities. But “providentially,” as Calvin later concluded, he had to detour through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg and was confronted by the thunderous Reformed evangelist Guillaume Farel.

The French evangelist challenged Calvin to stay and aid him in the work of the Reformation in Geneva, a town of about 10,000, where he had been laboring already for four years. Farel had read Calvin’s magnum opus – and best-selling – Institutes of the Christian Religion and pressed his case upon Calvin, who was 20 years his junior.

When Calvin refused, as he latter wrote:

Farel who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve and after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement and tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refused to give assistance when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from the journey I had undertaken.


John Calvin in Geneva

genève 1550

Geneva, 1550. Image: Wikipedia

Calvin took Farel’s imprecation seriously. Over more than two decades, Calvin lived and worked in Geneva and transformed it into a veritable ecclesiocracy, a “new world order” of Protestantism. This Genius of Geneva lived to write a commentary on almost every book of the Bible. He developed a representative form of church government that included pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons.

He died as he had lived and for the same purpose. A month before he died, he wrote in his last will and testament:

I have always faithfully propounded what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.”

Calvinism spread to the Netherlands, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Scotland, England, and America. As Time Magazine reported over 70 years ago in its February 24, 1947, issue “Calvinist Comeback?”

“It came to New England with the Puritans, to New York with the Dutch Reformed, and to Pennsylvania with the German Reformed. And wherever Scottish Presbyterians went… it went with them.”



Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. […] Reformer and the preaching of John Knox (the Scottish Reformer who would later studied under John Calvin in Geneva). However, this advanced form of Protestantism ended when the sickly Edward died at the […]

  2. John Elliott on July 11, 2015 at 5:52 pm


    Are the Pilgrims considered Calvinists or just the Puritans?

    What about Methodists? Any of the other surviving church organizations?


    • Bill Petro on July 18, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Pilgrims: yes, but. While Calvinist in their theology, they were first Separatists.
      Puritans: yes, very. They were Non-separating Congregationalist.
      Methodists: very no, they were Arminian in their theology.

      Calvinism survives today with: Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Reformed, some Baptists.

      The Pilgrims and Puritans, though they came to America 10 years apart differed in many ways though they’re often confused:


      Poor class…Upper middle class
      Separatists..Loyal to Church of England
      Plymouth…..Salem, Boston

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