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§ 110. Geneva Regenerated. Testimonies Old and New.

The final result of this long conflict with Libertinism is the best vindication of Calvin. Geneva came out of it a new city, and with a degree of moral and spiritual prosperity which distinguished her above any other Christian city for several generations. What a startling contrast she presents, for instance, to Rome, the city of the vicar of Christ and his cardinals, as described by Roman Catholic writers of the sixteenth century! If ever in this wicked world the ideal of Christian society can be realized in a civil community with a mixed population, it was in Geneva from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century, when the revolutionary and infidel genius of Rousseau (a native of Geneva) and of Voltaire (who resided twenty years in the neighborhood, on his estate at Ferney) began to destroy the influence of the Reformer.

After the final collapse of the Libertine party in 1555, the peace was not seriously disturbed, and Calvin’s work progressed without interruption. The authorities of the State were as zealous for the honor of the Church and the glory of Christ as the ministers of the gospel. The churches were well filled; the Word of God was preached daily; family worship was the rule; prayer and singing of Psalms never ceased; the whole city seemed to present the aspect of a community of sincere, earnest Christians who practised what they believed. Every Friday a spiritual conference and experience meeting, called the "Congregation," was held in St. Peter’s, after the model of the meetings of "prophesying," which had been introduced in Zürich and Bern. Peter Paul Vergerius, the former papal nuncio, who spent a short time in Geneva, was especially struck with these conferences. "All the ministers," he says,774774    Letter in the Zürich library, quoted by Gaberel, I. 612, and Stähelin, I. 864. "and many citizens attend. One of the preachers reads and briefly explains a text from the Scriptures. Another expresses his views on the subject, and then any member may make a contribution if so disposed. You see, it is an imitation of that custom in the Corinthian Church of which Paul speaks, and I have received much edification from these public colloquies."

The material prosperity of the city was not neglected. Greater cleanliness was introduced, which is next to godliness, and promotes it. Calvin insisted on the removal of all filth from the houses and the narrow and crooked streets. He induced the magistracy to superintend the markets, and to prevent the sale ofunhealthy food, which was to be cast into the Rhone. Low taverns and drinking shops were abolished, and intemperance diminished. Mendicancy on the streets was prohibited. A hospital and poor-house was provided and well conducted. Efforts were made to give useful employment to every man that could work. Calvin urged the Council in a long speech, Dec. 29, 1544, to introduce the cloth and silk industry, and two months afterwards he presented a detailed plan, in which he recommended to lend to the Syndic, Jean Ami Curtet, a sufficient sum from the public treasury for starting the enterprise. The factories were forthwith established and soon reached the highest degree of prosperity. The cloth and silk of Geneva were highly prized in Switzerland and France, and laid the foundation for the temporal wealth of the city. When Lyons, by the patronage of the French crown, surpassed the little Republic in the manufacture of silk, Geneva had already begun to make up for the loss by the manufacture of watches, and retained the mastery in this useful industry until 1885, when American machinery produced a successful rivalry.775775    Gaberel, I. 524; Stähelin, I. 372. Even now the Swiss watches (of Geneva and Neuchâtel) are considered the best of those made wholly or mainly by hand labor.

Altogether, Geneva owes her moral and temporal prosperity, her intellectual and literary activity, her social refinement, and her world-wide fame very largely to the reformation and discipline of Calvin. He set a high and noble example of a model community. It is impossible, indeed, to realize his church ideal in a large country, even with all the help of the civil government. The Puritans attempted it in England and in New England, but succeeded only in part, and only for a short period. But nothing should prevent a pastor from making an effort in his own congregation on the voluntary principle. Occasionally we find parallel cases in small communities under the guidance of pastors of exceptional genius and consecration, such as Oberlin in the Steinthal, Harms in Hermannsburg, and Löhe in Neudettelsau, who exerted an inspiring influence far beyond their fields of labor.

Let us listen to some testimonies of visitors who saw with their own eyes the changes wrought in Geneva through Calvin’s influence.

William Farel, who knew better than any other man the state of Geneva under Roman Catholic rule, and during the early stages of reform before the arrival of Calvin, visited the city again in 1557, and wrote to Ambrosius Blaurer that he would gladly listen and learn there with the humblest of the people, and that "he would rather be the last in Geneva than the first anywhere else."776776    Kirchhofer, Farel’s Leben, II. 125.

John Knox, the Reformer of Scotland, who studied several years in Geneva as a pupil of Calvin (though five years his senior), and as pastor of the English congregation, wrote to his friend Locke, in 1556: "In my heart I could have wished, yea, I cannot cease to wish, that it might please God to guide and conduct yourself to this place where, I neither fear nor am ashamed to say, is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so seriously reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place besides."777777    Thomas M’Crie, Life of John Knox, p. 129 (Philadelphia ed. 1845). I quoted a sentence from this letter by anticipation on p. 263, but cannot omit it at this place.

Dr. Valentine Andreae (1586–1654), a bright and shining light of the Lutheran Church of Würtemberg (a grandson of Jacob Andreae, the chief author of the Lutheran Formula of Concord), a man full of glowing love to Christ, visited Geneva in 1610, nearly fifty years after Calvin’s death, with the prejudices of an orthodox Lutheran against Calvinism, and was astonished to find in that city a state of religion which came nearer to his ideal of a Christocracy than any community he had seen in his extensive travels, and even in his German fatherland.

"When I was in Geneva," he writes, "I observed something great which I shall remember and desire as long as I live. There is in that place not only the perfect institute of a perfect republic, but, as a special ornament, a moral discipline, which makes weekly investigations into the conduct, and even the smallest transgressions of the citizens, first through the district inspectors, then through the Seniors, and finally through the magistrates, as the nature of the offence and the hardened state of the offender may require. All cursing and swearing gambling, luxury, strife, hatred, fraud, etc., are forbidden; while greater sins are hardly heard of. What a glorious ornament of the Christian religion is such a purity of morals! We must lament with tears that it is wanting with us, and almost totally neglected. If it were not for the difference of religion, I would have forever been chained to that place by the agreement in morals, and I have ever since tried to introduce something like it into our churches. No less distinguished than the public discipline was the domestic discipline of my landlord, Scarron, with its daily devotions, reading of the Scriptures, the fear of God in word and in deed, temperance in meat and drink and dress. I have not found greater purity of morals even in my father’s home."778778    See his autobiography, written in 1642, and his "Respublica Christianopolitana," or "Christianopolis," 1619,—a description of a Christian model commonwealth, dedicated to John Arndt, the author of "True Christianity." Comp. Hossbach, Das Leben Val. Andreae, p. 10; Henry, p. 196 (small biography); Tholuck’s article in Herzog, I. 388 sqq.; Schaff, Creeds, I. 460 (which gives the German original). Andreae’s memory was revived by the great Herder. Spener said: "If I could raise any one from the dead for the welfare of the Church, it would be Andreae."

A stronger and more impartial testimony of the deep and lasting effect of Calvin’s discipline so long after his death could hardly be imagined.


The condemnation of Calvin’s discipline and his conduct toward the Libertines has been transplanted to America by two dignitaries of the Roman Church—Dr. John McGill, bishop of Richmond, the translator of Audin’s Life of Calvin (Louisville, n. d.), and Dr. M. S. Spalding, archbishop of Baltimore (between 1864 and 1872), in his History of the Protestant Reformation (Louisville, 1860), 8th ed., Baltimore, 1875. This book is not a history, but a chronique scandaleuse of the Reformation, and unworthy of a Christian scholar. Dr. Spalding devotes twenty-two pages to Calvin (vol. I. 370–392), besides an appendix on Rome and Geneva, and a letter addressed to Merle D’Aubigné and Bungener (pp. 495–530). He ignores his Commentaries and Institutes, which have commanded the admiration even of eminent Roman Catholic divines, and simply repeats, with some original mistakes and misspellings, the slanders of Bolsec and Audin, which have long since been refuted.

"Calvin," he says, "crushed the liberties of the people in the name of liberty. A foreigner, he insinuated himself into Geneva and, serpent-like, coiled himself around the very heart of the Republic which had given him hospitable shelter. He thus stung the very bosom which had warmed him. He was as watchful as a tiger preparing to pounce on its prey, and as treacherous … . His reign in Geneva was truly a reign of terror. He combined the cruelty of Danton and Robespierre with the eloquence of Marat and Mirabeau … . He was worse than ’the Chalif of Geneva,’ as Audin calls him—he was a very Nero!... He was a monster of impurity and iniquity. The story of his having been guilty of a crime of nameless turpitude at Noyon, though denied by his friends, yet rests upon very respectable authority. Bolsec, a contemporary writer, relates it as certain … . He ended his life in despair, and died of a most shameful and disgusting disease which God has threatened to rebellious and accursed reprobates." The early Calvinists were hypocrites, and "their boasted austerity was little better than a sham, if it was not even a cloak to cover enormous wickedness. They exhibit their own favorite doctrine of total depravity in its fullest practical development!" The archbishop, however, is kind enough to add in conclusion (p. 391), that he "would not be understood as wishing to reflect upon the character or conduct of the present professors of Calvinistic doctrines, many of whom are men estimable for their civic virtues."

The best answer to such a caricature, which turns the very truth into a lie, is presented in the facts of this chapter. With ignorance and prejudice even the gods contend in vain. But it is proper, at this place, to record the judgments of impartial historians who have studied the sources, and cannot be charged with any doctrinal bias in favor of Calvinism. Comp. other testimonies in § 68, pp. 270 sqq.

Gieseler, one of the coolest and least dogmatic of church historians, says (K. G. III. P. I. p. 389): "Durch Calvin’s eiserne Festigkeit wurden Genf’s Sitten ganz umgewandelt: so dankte die Stadt der Reformation ihre Freiheit, ihre Ordnung, und ihren aufblühenden Wohlstand."

From the Article "Calvin" in La France Protestante (III. 530): "Une telle Organisation, un pareil pouvoir sur les individus, une autorité aussi parfaitement inquisitoriale nous indignent aujourd’hui; c’était chose toute simple avec l’ardeur religieuse du XVIe siècle. Le consistoire atteignit le but que Calvin s’était proposé. En moins de trois générations, les moeurs de Genève subirent une métamorphose complète. A la mondanité naturelle succéda cette austérité un peu raide, cette gravité un peu étudiée qui caractérisèrent, dans les siècles passés, les disciples du réformateur. L’histoire ne nous offre que deux hommes qui aient su imprimer à tout un peuple le cachet particulier de leur génie: Lycurgue et Calvin, deux grands caractères qui offrent plus d’une analogie. Que de fades plaisanteries ne s’est-on pas permises sur l’esprit genevois! et Genève est devenue un foyer de lumières et d’émancipation intellectuelle, même pour ses détracteurs."


Marc-Monnier was born in Florence of French parents, 1829, distinguished as a poet and historian, professor of literature in the University of Geneva, and died 1885. His "La Renaissance de Dante à Luther" (1884) was crowned by the French Academy.

From "La Réforme, de Luther à Shakespeare"(Paris, 1885), pp. 70–72.

"Calvin fut done de son temps comme les papes, les empereurs et tons les rois, méme François 1er, qui brûlèrent des hérétiques, mais ceux qui ne voient dans Calvin que le meurtrier de Servet ne le connaissent pas. Ce fut une conviction, une intelligence, une des forces les plus étonnantes de ce grand siècle: pour le peser selon son mérite, il faut jeter dans la balance autre chose que nos tendresses et nos pitiés. Il faut voir tout l’homme, et le voir tel qu’il fut: ’un corps frêle et débile, sobre jusqu’à l’excès,’ rongé par des maladies et des infirmites qui devaient l’emporter avant le temps, mais acharné à sa tâche, ’ne vivant que pour le travail et ne travaillant que pour établir le royaume de Dieu sur la terre; devoué à cette cause jusqu’à lui tout sacrifier:’ le repos, la santé, la vie, plus encore: les études favorites, et avec une infatigable activité qui épouvantait ses adversaires, menant de front, à brides abattues, religion, morale, politique, législation, littérature, enseignement, prédication, pamphlets, oeuvres de longue haleine, correspondance énorme avec le roi et la reine de Navarre, la duchesse de Ferrare, le roi François 1er, avec d’autres princes encore, avec les réformateurs, les théologiens, les humanistes, les âmes travaillées et chargées, les pauvres prisonnières de Paris. Il écrivait dans l’Europe entière; deux mille Églises s’organisaient selon ses idées ou celles de ses amis; des missionnaires, animés de son souffle, partaient pour l’Angleterre, l’Écosse, les Pays-Bas, ’en remerciant Dieu et lui chantant des psaumes.’ En même temps cet homme seul, ce malade surmené s’emparait a Genève d’un peuple allègre, raisouneur, indiscipliné, le tenait dans sa main et le forçait d’obéir. Sans étre magistrat ni même citoyen (il ne le devint qu’aux dernières années de sa vie), sans mandat officiel ni titre reconnu, sans autre autorité que celle de son nom et d’une volonté inflexible, il commandait aux consciences, il gouvernait les maisons, il s’imposait, avec une foule de réfugiés venus de toute part, à une population qui n’a jamais aimé les étrangers ni les maîtres; il heurtait enfin de parti pris les coutumes, les traditions, les susceptibilités nationales et il les brisait. Non seulement il pesait sur les consciences et les opinions, mais aussi sur les moeurs, proscrivait la luxure et même le luxe, la bijouterie, la soie et le velours, les cheveux longs, les coiffures frisées, la bonne chère: toute espèce de plaisir et de distraction; cependant, malgré les haines et les colères suscitées par cette compression morale, ’le corps brisé, mais la tête haute,’ il gouverna longtemps les Genevois par l’autorité de son caractère et fut accompagné à sa tombe par le peuple tout entier. Voilà l’homme dont il est facile de rire, mais qu’il importe avant tout de connaitre.

"Calvin détruisit Genève pour la refaire à son image et, en dépit de toutes les révolutions, cette reconstitution improvisée dure encore: il existe aux portes de la France une ville de strictes croyances, de bonnes études et de bonnes moeurs: une ’cité de Calvin.’ "

A remarkable tribute from a scholar who was no theologian, and no clergyman, but thoroughly at home in the history, literature, manners, and society of Geneva. Marc-Monnier speaks also very highly of Calvin’s merits as a French classic, and quotes with approval the judgment of Paul Lacroix (in his ed. of select Oeuvres françoises de J. Calvin): "Le style de Calvin est un des plus grands styles du seizième siècle: simple, correct, élégant, clair, ingénieux, animé, varie de formes et de tons, il a commencé à fixer la langue française pour la prose, comme celui de Clement Marot l’avait fait pour les vers."

George Bancroft.

George Bancroft, the American historian and statesman, born at Worcester, Mass., 1800, died at Washington, 1891, served his country as secretary of the Navy, and ambassador at London and Berlin, with the greatest credit.

"A word on Calvin, the Reformer." From his Literary and Historical Miscellanies (New York, 1855), pp. 405 sqq.

"It is intolerance only, which would limit the praise of Calvin to a single sect, or refuse to reverence his virtues and regret his failings. He lived in the time when nations were shaken to their centre by the excitement of the Reformation; when the fields of Holland and France were wet with the carnage of persecution; when vindictive monarchs on the one side threatened all Protestants with outlawry and death, and the Vatican, on the other, sent forth its anathemas and its cry for blood. In that day, it is too true, the influence of an ancient, long-established, hardly disputed error, the Constant danger of his position, the intense desire to secure union among the antagonists of popery, the engrossing consciousness that his struggle was for the emancipation of the Christian world, induced the great Reformer to defend the use of the sword for the extirpation of heresy. Reprobating and lamenting his adhesion to the cruel doctrine, which all Christendom had for centuries implicitly received, we may, as republicans, remember that Calvin was not only the founder of a sect, but foremost among the most efficient of modern republican legislators. More truly benevolent to the human race than Solon, more self-denying than Lycurgus, the genius of Calvin infused enduring elements into the institutions of Geneva, and made it for the modern world the impregnable fortress of popular liberty, the fertile seed-plot of democracy.

"We boast of our common schools; Calvin was the father of popular education, the inventor of the system of free schools. We are proud of the free States that fringe the Atlantic. The pilgrims of Plymouth were Calvinists; the best influence in South Carolina came from the Calvinists of France. William Penn was the disciple of the Huguenots; the ships from Holland that first brought colonists to Manhattan were filled with Calvinists. He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.

"If personal considerations chiefly win applause, then, no one merits our sympathy and our admiration more than Calvin; the young exile from France, who achieved an immortality of fame before he was twenty-eight years of age; now boldly reasoning with the king of France for religious liberty; now venturing as the apostle of truth to carry the new doctrines into the heart of Italy, and hardly escaping from the fury of papal persecution; the purest writer, the keenest dialectician of his century; pushing free inquiry to its utmost verge, and yet valuing inquiry solely as the means of arriving at fixed conclusions. The light of his genius scattered the mask of darkness which superstition had held for centuries before the brow of religion. His probity was unquestioned, his morals spotless. His only happiness consisted in his ’task of glory and of good;’ for sorrow found its way into all his private relations. He was an exile from his country; he became for a season an exile from his place of exile. As a husband he was doomed to mourn the premature loss of his wife; as a father he felt the bitter pang of burying his only child. Alone in the world, alone in a strange land, he went forward in his career with serene resignation and inflexible firmness; no love of ease turned him aside from his vigils; no fear of danger relaxed the nerve of his eloquence; no bodily infirmities checked the incredible activity of his mind; and so he continued, year after year, solitary and feeble, yet toiling for humanity, till after a life of glory, he bequeathed to his personal heirs, a fortune, in books and furniture, stocks and money, not exceeding two hundred dollars, and to the world, a purer reformation, a republican spirit in religion, with the kindred principles of republican liberty."

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