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John Calvin and the Reformation

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

John Calvin

John Calvin was born in France in 1509. He studied philosophy, law, and humanism and learned both Latin and Greek. Like Luther, Calvin came to believe that the Catholic Church needed reform. When he spoke out on this issue, he found himself so unpopular in France that he fled to Switzerland. Here he eventually acquired so much power and influence that many historians describe the city of Geneva as a theocracy—a state ruled by religious laws.

The central idea of Calvinism is predestination—the belief that God predetermines everything that will happen on earth. According to this belief, human beings are already marked for salvation or damnation at birth, and no amount of faith or good deeds can earn salvation. Calvin argued that those who were saved would naturally perform good works and lead exemplary lives; therefore, all believers must live this way, because it was one sure sign that they were among the saved. Calvinism strictly regulated every aspect of a person’s life: it made church attendance mandatory, encouraged simplicity in dress, and for- bade many forms of enjoyment such as dancing, singing, and playing cards.

Despite its harsh rules and its intolerance of other forms of worship, Calvinism gained many converts. Calvin’s followers spread his ideas and practices throughout Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. John Knox transported many of Calvin’s ideas home to Scotland, where the religion was called Presbyterianism after the presbyters, or elders, who ruled the church. In 1560–1561, Parliament made Presbyterianism the state religion of Scotland.

In France, Calvin’s followers were called French Protestants or Huguenots. Despite tens of thousands of individual converts to Protestantism, France as a whole was not sympathetic to the Reformation. The French monarchs sided with the Catholics throughout a series of civil wars fought from 1562 to 1598, helping to ensure that Protestantism could not establish itself securely. Thou- sands of Huguenots were massacred, and many more fled France to settle in Holland, Belgium, and England.

The 1580s saw a struggle for the French throne known as the War of the Three Henries. These were King Henry III and two of his kinsmen, Henry of Guise and Henry of Navarre. With the support of Philip II of Spain, Henry of Guise made a bold move to take the throne, but he was taken by surprise by supporters of Henry III and assassinated. When a fanatic assassinated the king the following year, Henry of Navarre inherited the throne. He would rule as King Henry IV of France.

Henry IV was a Calvinist, but his religious convictions were not nearly as strong as his political ambition. His main goal was to strengthen the monarchy, and he believed that siding with the religious majority was a crucial step to achieving security on his throne. Therefore, Henry converted to Catholicism. In 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes, which established Catholicism as the state religion of France and its territories, but allowed Protestants to worship as they saw fit, without molestation. This ended the French civil wars of religion. Henry was enlightened enough to understand that tolerance in the matter of private worship would lead to domestic accord in the population and would therefore benefit the kingdom.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Reformation in Europe Practice Test
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