JULY 10 2009:
JOHN CALVIN’S 500TH BIRTHDAY
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
GENEVA — John Calvin, the Great Reformer, used dictatorial means in making Geneva a “Protestant Rome,” but he also planted the seeds of modern democracy. He enforced rigid morality and stressed the importance of helping others, while he also had a share in developing capitalism. He supported the destruction of religious statues and other images, but described the arts as gifts from God. This is how Calvin’s role in history is being assessed by theologians and historians in countless lectures, studies and biographies 500 years after he was born on July 10, 1509. The quincentenary is being observed around the globe with the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches acting as a central organizer of “Calvin 09.” Although he remains a controversial figure, Calvin’s teachings are still profoundly influential. Events marking the Calvin year range from congresses and exhibitions to concerts and theater performances. His portrait is on a special Swiss postage stamp and souvenirs are for sale. “John Calvin Superstar, Geneva celebrates its saint,” the Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung headlined an article on the “Calvinomania.” The anniversary festivities contrast with Calvin’s very modest life. Born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in the little French town of Noyon, north of Paris, Calvin became a lawyer, but soon came to sympathize with the anti-papal theses of Martin Luther that had rapidly spread to France. Calvin broke with his Catholic past. His great rhetorical talents earned him quick prominence as an evangelical teacher, but religious turmoil forced him to go into exile in Basel, Switzerland. He was 26 when he began writing the
“Institutes of the Christian Religion,” the first compendium of Reformed doctrines, much more profound than Luther’s theses of 1517. They won him an invitation from newly Protestant Geneva. But Calvin was soon banished again because authorities found his ideas were too radical. He returned in 1541 after receiving assurances of official support for his plans to complete a Reformation based on his teachings. He introduced a revolutionary church constitution based on the democratic principles of division of powers. In the late 18th century Calvinist-descended churches began to take root in wide parts of the United States, among Presbyterians and others. Gradually, the movement spread to other parts in the world but the Reformed church became deeply divided. The World Alliance of Reform Churches says its fellowship now includes 75 million Reformed Christians in more than 100 countries. But in Geneva, Reformed Christians have long since shrunk to a small minority. Yet the Calvinist impact remains evident in the city. The Genevabased International Red Cross was founded by a devout Calvinist, Henry Dunant. And the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, was set up in Geneva because U.S President Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, preferred the city to Catholic Brussels.