In This Article Calvinism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources

Renaissance and Reformation Calvinism
Graeme Murdock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0164


Calvinism was a term first used by Calvin’s opponents. Calvinism has become a widely used label to describe the ideas adopted by Reformed churches across Europe. Some writers prefer to use the label “Reformed” to describe a movement that owed much to the insights of a range of reformers, and was certainly not solely reliant on John Calvin’s leadership. Calvinism was distinctive among 16th-century reform movements because of particular notions about God’s plan for the salvation of humanity, about the meaning and celebration of the sacraments, and about the danger posed by idolatry. Calvinism spread quickly across the Continent during the middle decades of the 16th century as a dynamic and an international reform movement. International connections were maintained by correspondence between reformers and by contacts between Reformed churches. A strong sense of belonging to an international religious community was felt by many Calvinists, and in particular by exiles and refugees from religious persecution. There were differences between the beliefs and practices of Reformed churches in a range of distinct political and social conditions. Reformed communities in France and the Netherlands had to fight for the right to worship. This gave Calvinism a certain reputation for political radicalism. However, Calvinism also received the support of monarchs and princes in parts of the Holy Roman Empire, central Europe, and the British Isles. Different Reformed churches developed a variety of structures. One important institution in many churches was the consistory, used to promote moral and social discipline. Historians and theologians have examined the nature of Calvinist ideas, the dynamic growth of Calvinism, the international character of Calvinism, and the complex impact of Calvinism on the political and cultural history of diverse European societies from Ulster to Transylvania.

General Overviews

Calvinism’s rapid spread into a diverse range of societies has made it difficult for historians to provide a clear overview of the movement as a whole. Two important collections of articles, Prestwich 1985 and Pettegree, et al. 1994, outline the impact of Calvinism in different countries. A third collection of articles, Graham 1994, aims to provide a sense of the international scope of Calvinism after Calvin’s death. More recently, Benedict 2002 attempts to analyze the history of Calvinism as a whole in a single narrative. For a sense of context on Calvinism within the Reformation readers can consult articles in Pettegree 2000.

  • Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

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    This wide-ranging study offers detailed analysis of the formation of the Reformed tradition in Zurich and Geneva, and of Calvinism’s expansion into France, Scotland, the Netherlands, the Empire, the British Isles, and central Europe. The second half of the book addresses political and theological developments in the 17th century and considers the impact of Calvinism on the lives of individuals and communities.

  • Graham, W. Fred, ed. Later Calvinism. International Perspectives: Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies. Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1994.

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    The focus of the articles in this collection is on Calvinism after Calvin’s death. There are sections on Reformed churches in the Swiss lands, France, the Rhineland, the Netherlands, and England.

  • Pettegree, Andrew, ed. The Reformation World. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    This large collection of articles includes surveys of the ways in which countries and societies were affected by reform, and a wide range of different themes of political, cultural, and social life in Reformation Europe.

  • Pettegree, Andrew, Alastair Duke, and Gillian Lewis, eds. Calvinism in Europe, 1540–1620. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    A number of these articles provide very helpful introductions to otherwise poorly understood subjects: for example, the piece by Jane Dawson on Calvinism in Gaelic-speaking Scotland, one by Mark Greengrass on the state reformation in Béarn, and the work of Ole Grell on the reception of Calvinism among merchants.

  • Prestwich, Menna, ed. International Calvinism, 1541–1715. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

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    This collection includes articles that reveal important insights about Calvinism in the Empire by Henry Cohn, Calvinism in central Europe by Robert Evans, and the “ambivalent face of Calvinism” in the Netherlands by Alastair Duke.

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