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§ 69. Calvin’s Youth and Training.

Calvini Opera, vol. XXI. (1879).—On Noyon and the family of Calvin, Jacques Le Vasseur (Dr. of theology, canon and dean of the cathedral of Noyon): Annales de l’église cathédrale de Noyon. Paris, 1633, 2 vols. 4°.—Jacques Desmay(Dr. of the Sorbonne and vicar-general of the diocese of Rouen): Remarques sur la vie de Jean Calvin tirées des Registres de Noyon, lieu de sa naissance. Rouen, 1621.

Thomas M’Crie (d. 1835): The Early Years of Calvin. A Fragment. 1509–1536. Ed. by William Ferguson. Edinburgh, 1880 (199 pp.). A posthumous work of the learned biographer of Knox and Melville.

Abel Lefranc: La Jeunesse de Calvin. Paris (33 rue de Seine), 228 pp.

Comp. the biographies of Calvin by Henry, large work, vol. I. chs. I.–VIII. (small ed. 1846, pp. 12–29); Dyer (1850), pp. 4–10; Stähelin (1862) I. 3–12; *Kampschulte (1869), I. 221–225.

"As David was taken from the sheepfold and elevated to the rank of supreme authority; so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, has reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honorable office of a preacher and minister of the gospel. When I was yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who follow it, to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy and was put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more burdened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that though I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor."380380    Opera, XXXI. 21 (Latin and French).

This is the meagre account which Calvin himself incidentally gives of his youth and conversion, in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, when speaking of the life of David, in which he read his own spiritual experience. Only once more he alludes, very briefly, to his change of religion. In his Answer to Cardinal Sadoletus, he assures him that he did not consult his temporal interest when he left the papal party. "I might," he said, "have reached without difficulty the summit of my wishes, namely, the enjoyment of literary ease, with something of a free and honorable station."381381    Opera, V. 388 sqq.

Luther indulged much more freely in reminiscences of his hard youth, his early monastic life, and his discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which gave peace and rest to his troubled conscience.

John Calvin382382    The Latinized form of Cauvin or Chauvin. Alcuin, one of his assumed names, is an anagram of Calvin. See La France Protest., III. 518, note. He assumed the name Calvinus in his book on Seneca, 1532. was born July 10, 1509,—twenty-five years after Luther and Zwingli,—at Noyon, an ancient cathedral city, called Noyon-la-Sainte, on account of its many churches, convents, priests, and monks, in the northern province of Picardy, which has given birth to the crusading monk, Peter of Amiens, to the leaders of the French Reformation and Counter-Reformation (the Ligue), and to many revolutionary as well as reactionary characters.383383    Michelet (Histoire de France, XI. 88) calls Picardy "un pays fécond en révolutionnaires, en brouillants amis de l’humanité." Lefranc (p. 24): "Les deux mouvements contraires, la Réforme française et ce qui la combattit avec le plus d’acharnement, la Ligue, sont nés dans le même pays." Noyon lies 67 miles N.N.E. of Paris, is enclosed with gardens, has a large old cathedral, a bishop’s palace, a hospital, a seminary, several public fountains, manufactures of fine linens, tulle, oil, leather, and a brisk trade, with a population of about 6000. From Lippincott’s Gazetteer, p. 1620.

His father, Gérard Cauvin, a man of hard and severe character, occupied a prominent position as apostolic secretary to the bishop of Noyon, proctor in the Chapter of the diocese, and fiscal procurator of the county, and lived on intimate terms with the best families of the neighborhood.384384    "De notaire apostolique, la première charge qu’il obtint, il devint successivement notaire du chapitre, greffier de l’officialité, procureur fiscal du comtéet promoteur du chapitre. C’estàNoyon, en quelque sorte, le fac-totum du clergé." Lefranc, p. 2. His mother, Jeanne Lefranc, of Cambrai, was noted for her beauty and piety, but died in his early youth, and is not mentioned in his letters. The father married a second time. He became involved in financial embarrassment, and was excommunicated, perhaps on suspicion of heresy. He died May 26 (or 25), 1531, after a long sickness, and would have been buried in unconsecrated soil but for the intercession of his son, Charles, who gave security for the discharge of his father’s obligations.385385    Lefranc, pp. 17 and 199. Herminjard, II. 394. Bolsec, in his Histoire de Calvin, calls Gérard Cauvin "un très-exécrable blasphémateur de Dieu." Perhaps he confounded him with his eldest son, Charles.

Calvin had four brothers and two sisters.386386    See the genealogical table in Henry, vol. III.; Beilage, 16, p. 174. Two of his brothers died young, the other two received a clerical education, and were early provided with benefices through the influence of the father.

Charles, his elder brother, was made chaplain of the cathedral in 1518, and curé of Roupy, but became a heretic or infidel, was excommunicated in 1531, and died Oct. 1, 1537, having refused the sacrament on his death-bed. He was buried by night between the four pillars of a gibbet.387387    Carolus ejus frater et presbyter Novioduni mortuus noctu et clam sepultus est inter quatuor columnas furcae publicae quia Eucharistiam sumere noluerat." Papire Masson, Vita Calv.; Lefranc, pp. 18-21 and 210.

His younger brother, Antoine, was chaplain at Tournerolle, near Traversy, but embraced the evangelical faith, and, with his sister, Marie, followed the Reformer to Geneva in 1536. Antoine kept there a bookstore, received the citizenship gratuitously, on account of the merits of his brother (1546), was elected a member of the Council of Two Hundred (1558), and of the Council of the Sixty (1570), also one of the directors of the hospital, and died in 1573. He was married three times, and divorced from his second wife, the daughter of a refugee, on account of her proved adultery (1557). Calvin had innocently to suffer for this scandal, but made him and his five children chief heirs of his little property.388388    Beza, at the close of his Latin Vita Calv. (in Calvin’s Opera, XXI. 171), and Lefranc, l.c., p. 184.

The other sister of Calvin was married at Noyon, and seems to have remained in the Roman Catholic Church.

A relative and townsman of Calvin, Pierre Robert, called Olivetan, embraced Protestantism some years before him, and studied Greek and Hebrew with Bucer at Strassburg in 1528.389389    Letter of Bucer to Farel, May 1, 1528, in Herminjard, II. no. 232, and Opera, X. Pt. I. p. 1. The "juvenis Noviodunensis" there mentioned was not Calvin, as Kampschulte (I. 231) conjectures, but probably Olivetan. There is no trace of such an early visit of Calvin to Strassburg. He joined Farel in Neuchatel, and published there his French translation of the Bible in 1535.

More than a hundred years after Calvin’s death, another member of the family, Eloi Cauvin, a Benedictine monk, removed from Noyon to Geneva, and embraced the Reformed religion (June 13, 1667).390390    La France Prot. III. 639.

These and other facts show the extent of the anti-papal sentiment in the family of Cauvin. In 1561 a large number of prominent persons of Noyon were suspected of heresy, and in 1562 the Chapter of Noyon issued a profession of faith against the doctrines of Calvin.391391    See the list and the profession in Lefranc, 216) sqq. He goes, however, too far when he says (p. x. sq.): "Ce qui ressort d’une étude attentive des faits, c’est que Calvin est sorti déja protestant de sa ville natale. C’est dans ce centre qu’il puisa ses idées. Il y trouva tout d’abord l’appui le plus ferme, ses amis les plus chauds et ses lieutenants les plus dévoués. A un moment donné, la moitiéde la population se déclara pour lui. Chose remarquable, un nombre considérable des ses compatriots, et parmi eux les personnages les plus en vue, le suivirent jusqu’àGenève. Durant toute sa vie, Calvin conserva d’actifs rapports avec sa villenatale et ceux de ses fidèles qui y étaient restés." Calvin was not converted before 1532. See § 72.

After the death of Calvin, Protestantism was completely crushed out in his native town.

Calvin received his first education with the children of the noble family de Mommor (not Montmor), to which he remained gratefully attached. He made rapid progress in learning, and acquired a refinement of manners and a certain aristocratic air, which distinguished him from Luther and Zwingli. A son of de Mommor accompanied him to Paris, and followed him afterwards to Geneva.

His ambitious father destined him first for the clerical profession. He secured for him even in his twelfth year (1521) a part of the revenue of a chaplaincy in the cathedral of Noyon.392392    Desmay (quoting from the Registres of Noyon, see Op. XXI. 189): Jean Calvin obtient une portion du revenue de la chapelle de la Gésine de la Vierge fondée dans la cathédrale de Noyon." There were four chaplains at Noyon. The first two had to say mass alternately every morning. John Calvin, not being ordained, had to pay a priest to take his place. Lefranc, p. 10. Zwingli received a papal pension even after he had begun his work of reform. See above, § 8, p. 31 sq. This is all wrong, but was not so considered at that time. In his eighteenth year Calvin received, in addition, the charge of S. Martin de Marteville (Sept. 27, 1527), although he had not yet the canonical age, and had only received the tonsure.

Such shocking irregularities were not uncommon in those days. Pluralism and absenteeism, though often prohibited by Councils, were among the crying abuses of the Church. Charles de Hangest, bishop of Noyon, obtained at fifteen years of age a dispensation from the pope "to hold all kinds of offices, compatible and incompatible, secular and regular, etiam tria curata "; and his nephew and successor, Jean de Hangest, was elected bishop at nineteen years of age. Odet de Châtillon, brother of the famous Coligny, was created cardinal in his sixteenth year. Pope Leo X. received the tonsure as a boy of seven, was made archbishop in his eighth, and cardinal-deacon in his thirteenth year (with the reservation that he should not put on the insignia of his dignity nor discharge the duties of his office till he was sixteen), besides being canon in three cathedrals, rector in six parishes, prior in three convents, abbot in thirteen additional abbeys, and bishop of Amalfi, deriving revenues from them all!

Calvin resigned the chaplaincy in favor of his younger brother, April 30, 1529. He exchanged the charge of S. Martin for that of the village Pont-l’Evèque (the birthplace of his father), July 5, 1529, but he resigned it, May 4, 1534, before he left France. In the latter parish he preached sometimes, but never administered the sacraments, not being ordained to the priesthood.393393    Beza says: "Quo loco [Pons Episcopi] constat Calvinum, antequam Gallia excederet, nullis alioqui pontificiis ordinibus (unquam) initiatum, aliquot ad populum conciones habuisse." Op. XXI. 121. "Unquam" is omitted in the text, but added in the notes. The French biography of Colladon reads: "En laquelle cure il a depuis preschépar fois, avans qu’il se retirast de France." Ibid. 54.

The income from the chaplaincy enabled him to prosecute his studies at Paris, together with his noble companions. He entered the College de la Marche in August, 1523, in his fourteenth year.394394    This is the date given by Kampschulte (I. 223), Lefranc (p. 14), and others. According to Opera, XXI. 189, Calvin was "Corderii discipulus in Collegio de la Marche Lutetice," in the year 1529; but in that year he was a student of the university. There is some confusion in the dates referring to the period of his studies in Paris. He studied grammar and rhetoric with an experienced and famous teacher, Marthurin Cordier (Cordatus). He learned from him to think and to write Latin, and dedicated to him in grateful memory his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians (1550). Cordier became afterwards a Protestant and director of the College of Geneva, where he died at the age of eighty-five in the same year with Calvin (1564).395395    Cordier was called "linguae, morum vitaeque magister." He was the Rollin of the sixteenth century. He wrote Rudimenta grammaticae; le miroir de la jeunesse; commentarius puerorum, etc. See Lefranc, p. 62, and "Bulletin de la Soc. de l’hist. du Protest. français," XVII. 449.

From the College de la Marche Calvin was transferred to the strictly ecclesiastical College de Montague, in which philosophy and theology were taught under the direction of a learned Spaniard. In February, 1528, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order of the Jesuits, entered the same college and studied under the same teacher. The leaders of the two opposite currents in the religious movement of the sixteenth century came very near living under the same roof and sitting at the same table.

Calvin showed during this early period already the prominent traits of his character: he was conscientious, studious, silent, retired, animated by a strict sense of duty, and exceedingly religious.396396    Beza-Colladon (XXI. 54): "Quant àses moeurs, il estoit sur tout fort consciencieux, ennemi des vices, et fort adonnéau service de Dieu qu’on appeloit pour lors: tellement que son coeur tendoit entierement àla Theologie, et son père pretendoit de l’y faire employer." In the Latin Vita, Beza says that he was "tenera aetate mirum in modum religiosus." With this agrees the testimony of the Roman Catholic, Florimond de Raemond, previously quoted, p. 273. An uncertain tradition says that his fellow-students called him "the Accusative," on account of his censoriousness.397397    Le Vasseur, p. 1158. Beza gives some probability to this report by the notice that Calvin was "severus omnium in suis sodalibus censor."


Thirteen years after Calvin’s death, Bolsec, his bitter enemy, once a Romanist, then a Protestant, then a Romanist again, wrote a calumnious history of his life (Histoire de la vie, moeurs, actes, doctrine, constance, et mort de Jean Calvin, Lyon, 1577, republished by Louis-François Chastel, Magistrat, Lyon, 1875, pp. 323, with an introduction of xxxi. pp.). He represents Calvin as "a man, above all others who lived in the world, ambitious, impudent, arrogant, cruel, malicious, vindictive, and ignorant"(!) (p. 12).

Among other incredible stories he reports that Calvin in his youth was stigmatized (fleur-de-lysé, branded with the national flower of France) at Noyon in punishment of a heinous crime, and then fled from France in disgrace. "Calvin," he says (p. 28 sq.), "pourveu d’une cure et d’une chapelle, fut surprins ou (et) convaincu Du peché de Sodomie, pour lequel il fut en danger de mort par feu, comment est la commune peine de tel peché: mais que l’Evesque de laditte ville [Noyon] par compassion feit moderer laditte peine en une marque de fleur de lys chaude sur l’espaule. Iceluy Calvin confuz de telle vergongne et vitupère, se defit de ses deux bénéfices es mains du curé de Noyon, duquel ayant receu quelque somme d’argent s’en alla vers Allemaigne et Itallie: cherchant son adventure, et passa par la ville de Ferrare, ou il receut quelque aumone de Madame la Duchesse."Bolsec gives as his authority a Mr. Bertelier, secretary of the Council of Geneva, who, he says, was sent to Noyon to make inquiries about the early life of Calvin, and saw the document of his disgrace. But nobody else has seen such a document, and if it had existed at all, it would have been used against him by his enemies. The story is contradicted by all that is authentically known of Calvin, and has been abundantly refuted by Drelincourt, and recently again by Lefranc (p. 48 sqq., 176–182). Kampschulte (I. 224, note 2) declares it unworthy of serious refutation. Nevertheless it has been often repeated by Roman controversialists down to Audin.

The story is either a malignant slander, or it arose from confounding the Reformer with a younger person of the same name (Jean Cauvin), and chaplain of the same church at Noyon, who it appears was punished for some immorality of a different kind ("pour avoir retenue en so maison une femme du mauvais gouvernement") in the year 1550, that is, about twenty years later, and who was no heretic, but died a "bon Catholic" (as Le Vasseur reports in Annales de Noyon, p. 1170, quoted by Lefranc, p. 182). b.c. Galiffe, who is unfriendly to Calvin, adopts the latter suggestion (Quelques pages d’histoire exacte, p. 118).

Several other myths were circulated about the Reformer; e.g., that he was the son of a concubine of a priest; that he was an intemperate eater; that he stole a silver goblet at Orleans, etc. See Lefranc, pp. 52 sqq.

Similar perversions and inventions attach to many a great name. The Sanhedrin who crucified the Lord circulated the story that the disciples stole his body and cheated the world. The heretical Ebionites derived the conversion of Paul from disappointed ambition and revenge for an alleged offence of the high-priest, who had refused to give him his daughter in marriage. The long-forgotten myth of Luther’s suicide has been seriously revived in our own age (1890) by Roman Catholic priests (Majunke and Honef) in the interest of revived Ultramontanism, and is believed by thousands in spite of repeated refutation.

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