In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Calvin

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ideas about Politics
  • Calvin’s Influence in the Reformed world

Renaissance and Reformation John Calvin
Graeme Murdock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0165


John Calvin left his native France in fear of persecution because of his association with a circle of reform-minded intellectuals. He found refuge in Geneva in 1536, in the wake of the city’s revolt against the authority of Catholic Savoy. Calvin was employed by the city council to preach, but his relationship with the Genevan authorities broke down in 1538. Calvin moved to work in Strasbourg but returned to Geneva in 1541 and remained in the city until his death in 1564. On Calvin’s return, the council agreed to his plans for reforms to the structure of the Genevan church. They agreed to establish a consistory of clergy and lay elders who were charged to monitor religious orthodoxy and moral conduct in Geneva. Calvin became the dominant figure among the town’s clergy. His authority was based above all on his scholarship. Calvin’s abilities as a writer and speaker are clear from surviving sermons, polemic tracts, commentaries on the Bible, and most notably from the Institutes of the Christian Religion. His intellectual authority was matched by his relentless energy, single-minded determination, and excellent organizational abilities. Calvin had a certain personal charisma, at least for his friends and admirers. At the same time, he was dismissive of opponents and ready to oppose anyone who disagreed with his vision of church life. Calvin’s influence extended well beyond Geneva’s walls. To build Reformed religion beyond Geneva, he engaged with church leaders in southern German and Swiss towns and territories. Indeed, it would be a profound mistake to see Calvin alone as responsible for the dynamic spread of Calvinism or Reformed Protestantism across Europe (see the article Calvinism). Reformed religion developed as Calvin worked with other reformers to come to a consensus on key points of theology. Much of Calvin’s attention was devoted to efforts to achieve the conversion of his homeland. Toward the end of his life, an academy opened in Geneva to train ministers to be sent into France as civil war spread across the kingdom. Since his death, Calvin has held the attention of many, theologians and historians alike. They have analyzed Calvin’s published work, his sermons, and his correspondence to try to understand his impact on Reformation Europe.

General Overviews

Generations of historians have devoted themselves to studying every aspect of John Calvin’s life, from his childhood to his deathbed. Of the biographies published for the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth in 1509, certainly the best is Gordon 2009 while Backus and Benedict 2011 brings together a range of important perspectives on Calvin’s influence. The sheer volume of surviving texts by Calvin provides challenges to any biographer and to theologians who try to provide interpretations of Calvin’s theology. McKim 2004 and Selderhuis 2009 are very helpful overviews of a wide variety of aspects of Calvin’s career and thought.

  • Backus, Irena, and Philip Benedict, eds. Calvin and His Influence, 1509–2009. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A very important collection of articles by leading historians on Calvin’s career and thought, Calvin’s significance during his lifetime, and legacy both within Europe and beyond.

  • Gordon, Bruce. Calvin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

    An extremely useful and detailed analysis of Calvin’s life. In particular, it sheds a great deal of light on his relations with other reformers, both in the Swiss lands and in the empire. There is also coverage of Calvin’s activities as a church leader and his struggles to enact his vision of reform in the face of popular resistance and a city council unwilling to cede authority to a foreign preacher.

  • McKim, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521816475

    This book provides an excellent starting point for study of Calvin. There are eighteen essays in this collection that cover a wide range of themes of Calvin’s life, work, and legacy. Many of the contributors write with great authority as leading scholars in their areas of expertise in theology and religious history.

  • Selderhuis, Herman J. The Calvin Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1628/978-3-16-151652-8

    This collection by a large number of leading writers offers a very effective introduction to Calvin’s life, theology, diverse activities, and widespread influence.

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