§ 164. Calvin’s Last Days and Death.


Calvin had labored in Geneva twenty-three years after his second arrival,—that is, from September, 1541, till May 27, 1564,1252 — when he was called to his rest in the prime of manhood and usefulness, and in full possession of his mental powers; leaving behind him an able and worthy successor, a model Reformed Church based on the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ; a flourishing Academy, which was a nursery of evangelical preachers for Switzerland and France, and survives to this day; and a library of works from his pen, which after more than three centuries are still a living and moulding power.1253

He continued his labors till the last year, writing, preaching, lecturing, attending the sessions of the Consistory and the Venerable Company of pastors, entertaining and counselling strangers from all parts of the Protestant world, and corresponding in every direction. He did all this notwithstanding his accumulating physical maladies, as headaches, asthma, dyspepsia, fever, gravel, and gout, which wore out his delicate body, but could not break his mighty spirit.

When he was unable to walk he had himself transported to church in a chair. On the 6th of February, 1564, he preached his last sermon. On Easter day, the 2d of April, he was for the last time carried to church and received the sacrament from the hands of Beza.

On the 25th of April, he made his last will and testament. It is a characteristic document, full of humility and gratitude to God, acknowledging his own unworthiness, placing his whole confidence in the free election of grace, and the abounding merits of Christ, laying aside all controversy, and looking forward to the unity and peace in heaven.1254

Luther, defying all forms of law, begins his last will with the words:, I am well known in heaven, on earth, and in hell," and closes: "This wrote the notary of God and the witness of his gospel, Dr. Martin Luther."

On the 26th of April, Calvin wished to see once more the four Syndics and all the members of the Little Council in the Council Hall, but the Senators in consideration of his health offered to come to him. They proceeded to his house on the 27th in solemn silence. As they were assembled round him he gathered all his strength and addressed them without interruption, like a patriarch, thanking them for their kindness and devotion, asking their pardon for his occasional outbreaks of violence and wrath, and exhorting them to persevere in the pure doctrine and discipline of Christ. He moved them to tears.1255  In like manner, on the 28th of April, he addressed all the ministers of Geneva whom he had invited to his house, in words of solemn exhortation and affectionate regard. He asked their pardon for any failings, and thanked them for their faithful assistance. He grasped the hands of every one. "They parted," says Beza, "with heavy hearts and tearful eyes."1256

These were sublime scenes worthily described by an eyewitness, and represented by the art of a painter.1257

On the 19th of May, two days before the pentecostal communion, Calvin invited the ministers of Geneva to his house and caused himself to be carried from his bed-chamber into the adjoining dining-room. Here he said to the company: "This is the last time I shall meet you at table,"—words that made a sad impression on them. He then offered up a prayer, took a little food, and conversed as cheerfully as was possible under the circumstances. Before the repast was quite finished he had himself carried back to his bed-room, and on taking leave said, with a smiling countenance: "This wall will not hinder my being present with you in spirit, though absent in body."

From that time he never rose from his bed, but he continued to dictate to his secretary.

Farel, then in his eightieth year, came all the way from Neuchâtel to bid him farewell, although Calvin had written to him not to put himself to that trouble. He desired to die in his place. Ten days after Calvin’s death, he wrote to Fabri (June 6, 1564): "Oh, why was not I taken away in his place, while he might have been spared for many years of health to the service of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Thanks be to Him who gave me the exceeding grace to meet this man and to hold him against his will in Geneva, where he has labored and accomplished more than tongue can tell. In the name of God, I then pressed him and pressed him again to take upon himself a burden which appeared to him harder than death, so that he at times asked me for God’s sake to have pity on him and to allow him to serve God in a manner which suited his nature. But when he recognized the will of God, he sacrificed his own will and accomplished more than was expected from him, and surpassed not only others, but even himself. Oh, what a glorious course has he happily finished!

Calvin spent his last days in almost continual prayer, and in ejaculating comforting sentences of Scripture, mostly from the Psalms. He suffered at times excruciating pains. He was often heard to exclaim: "I mourn as a dove" (Isa. 38:14); "I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it" (Ps. 39:9); "Thou bruisest me, O Lord, but it is enough for me that it is thy hand."  His voice was broken by asthma, but his eyes remained bright, and his mind clear and strong to the last. He admitted all who wished to see him, but requested that they should rather pray for him than speak to him.

On the day of his death he spoke with less difficulty. He fell peacefully asleep with the setting sun towards eight o’clock, and entered into the rest of his Lord. "I had just left him," says Beza, "a little before, and on receiving intimation from the servants, immediately hastened to him with one of the brethren. We found that he had already died, and so very calmly, without any convulsion of his feet or hands, that he did not even fetch a deeper sigh. He had remained perfectly sensible, and was not entirely deprived of utterance to his very last breath. Indeed, he looked much more like one sleeping than dead."1258

He had lived fifty-four years, ten months, and seventeen days.

"Thus," continues Beza, his pupil and friend, "withdrew into heaven, at the same time with the setting sun, that most brilliant luminary, which was the lamp of the Church. On the following night and day there was immense grief and lamentation in the whole city; for the Republic had lost its wisest citizen, the Church its faithful shepherd, the Academy an incomparable teacher—all lamented the departure of their common father and best comforter, next to God. A multitude of citizens streamed to the death-chamber and could scarcely be separated from the corpse. Among them were several foreigners, as the distinguished Ambassador of the Queen of England to France, who had come to Geneva to make the acquaintance of the celebrated man, and now wished to see his remains. At first all were admitted; but as the curiosity became excessive and might have given occasion to calumnies of the enemies,1259  his friends deemed it best on the following morning, which was the Lord’s Day, to wrap his body in linen and to enclose it in a wooden coffin, according to custom. At two o’clock in the afternoon the remains were carried to the common cemetery on Plain Palais (Planum Palatium), followed by all the patricians, pastors, professors, and teachers, and nearly the whole city in sincere mourning."1260

Calvin had expressly forbidden all pomp at his funeral and the erection of any monument over his grave. He wished to be buried, like Moses, out of the reach of idolatry. This was consistent with his theology, which humbles man and exalts God.

Beza, however, wrote a suitable epitaph in Latin and French, which he calls "Parentalia" (i.e. offering at the funeral of a father):—


"Shall honored Calvin to the dust return,

From whom e’en Virtue’s self might learn;

Shall he—of falling Rome the greatest dread,

By all the good bewailed, and now (tho’ dead)

The terror of the vile—lie in so mean,

So small a tomb, where not his name is seen?

Sweet Modesty, who still by Calvin’s side

Walked while he lived, here laid him when he died.

O happy tomb with such a tenant graced!

O envied marble o’er his ashes placed!"1261


On the third centennial of the Reformation of Geneva, in 1835, a splendid memorial medal was struck, which on the one side shows Calvin’s likeness, with his name and dates of birth and death; on the other, Calvin’s pulpit with the verse: "He held fast to the invisible as if he saw Him" (Heb. 11:27), and the circular inscription: "Broken in body; Mighty in spirit; Victor by faith; the Reformer of the Church; the Pastor and Protector of Geneva."1262

At the third centenary of his death (1864), his friends in Geneva, aided by gifts from foreign lands, erected to his memory the "Salle de la Reformation," a noble building, founded on the principles of the Evangelical Alliance, and dedicated to the preaching of the pure gospel and the advocacy of every good cause.

The Reformed Churches of both hemispheres are the monument of Calvin, more enduring than marble.

Zwingli, of all the Reformers, died first (1531), in the prime of life, on the battlefield, with the words trembling on his lips: "They can destroy the body, but not the soul."  The star of the Swiss Reformation went down with him, but only to rise again.

Next followed Luther (1546). He, too, died away from home, at Eisleben, his birthplace, disgusted with the disorders of the times, weary of the world and of life, but holding fast to the faith of the gospel, repeating the precious words: "God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son," and, in the language of the 31st Psalm, committing his spirit into the hands of his faithful God, who had redeemed him.

Melanchthon left this world at his own home (1560), like Calvin; his last and greatest sorrow was the dissensions in the Church for which he could shed tears as copious as the waters of the Elbe. He desired to die that he might be delivered first of all from sin, and also from "the fury of theologians."  He found great comfort in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and the first, and seventeenth chapters of John; and when asked by his son-in-law (Peucer), whether he desired anything, he replied: "Nothing but heaven."

John Knox, the Calvin of Scotland, "who never feared the face of man," survived his friend eight years (till 1572), and found his last comfort likewise in the Psalms, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and the sacerdotal prayer of our Saviour.

The providence of God, which rules and overrules the movements of history, raised up worthy successors for the Reformers, who faithfully preserved and carried forward their work: Bullinger for Zwingli, Melanchthon for Luther, Beza for Calvin, Melville for Knox.

The extraordinary episcopal power which Calvin, owing to his extraordinary talents and commanding character, had exercised without interruption, ceased with his death. Beza was elected his successor on the 29th of May, 1564, as "modérateur" of the ecclesiastical affairs of Geneva, only for one year.1263  But he was annually re-elected till 1580, when he felt unequal to carrying any longer the heavy burden of duty. He was willing, however, to continue the correspondence with foreign Churches. He divided his untiring activity between Switzerland and France, and exercised a controlling influence on the progress of the Reformation in those two countries. He saw a Huguenot prince, Henry IV., ascend the throne of France; he lamented his abjuration of the evangelical faith, but rejoiced over the Edict of Nantes which gave legal existence to Protestantism; and he carried, as the last survivor of the noble race of the Reformers, the ideas of the Reformation to the beginning of the seventeenth century. His theology marks the transition from the broad Calvinism of Calvin to the narrow, scholastic, and supralapsarian Calvinism of the next generation, which produced the reaction of Arminianism not only in Holland and England, but also in France and Geneva.




It is painful to notice that sectarian hatred and malice followed the Reformers to their death-beds. Fanatical Romanists represented Zwingli’s heroic death as a judgment of God, and invented the myths that Oecolampadius committed suicide and was carried off by the devil; that Luther hung himself by his handkerchief on the bed-post and emitted a horrible stench; and that Calvin died in despair.

The myth of Luther’s suicide was soberly and malignantly repeated by an ultramontane priest (Majunke, editor of the "Germania" in Berlin), and gave rise to a lively controversy in 1890. It must be added, however, that learned and honest Catholics indignantly protested against the calumny. (Cf. my article, Did Luther commit Suicide?  in "Magazine of Christian Literature," New York, for December, 1890.)

As to Calvin, it is quite probable that his body, broken by so many diseases, soon showed signs of decay, which put a stop to the reception of strangers, and may have given rise to some "calumnies," of which Beza vaguely speaks. But it was not till fifteen years after his death, that Bolsec, the Apostate monk, fastened upon Calvin’s youth an odious vice (see above, p. 302), and spread the report that he died of a terrible malady,—that of being eaten by worms,—with which the just judgment of God destroys His enemies. He adds that Calvin even invoked the devils and cursed his studies and writings. ("Il mourut invoquant les diables … . Même il maudissait l’heure qu’il avait jamais étudié et écrit.") But he gives no authority, living or dead.

Audin (Life of Calvin, p. 632, Engl. transl.) repeats this infamous fabrication with some variations and dramatic embellishments, on the alleged testimony of an unknown student, who, as he says, sneaked into the death-chamber, lifted the black cloth from the face of Calvin and reported: "Calvinus in desperatione furiens vitam obiit turpissimo et faedissimo morbo quem Deus rebellibus et maledictis comminatus est, prius excruciatus et consumptus, quod ego verissime attestari audeo, qui funestum et tragicum illius exitum et exitium his meis oculis praesens aspexi. Joann. Harennius, apud Pet. Cutzenum!"

We regret to say that a Roman Catholic archbishop, Dr. Spalding, whose work on the Reformation gives no evidence of any acquaintance with the writings of Calvin or Beza, retails the slanders of Bolsec and Audin, and informs American readers that Calvin was "a very Nero" and "a monster of impurity and iniquity!" (See above, § 110, p. 520.)

Calvin’s whole life and writings, his testament, and dying words to the senators and ministers of Geneva, and the minute account of his death by his friend Beza, who was with him till his last moments, ought to be sufficient to convince even the most incredulous who is not incurably blinded by bigotry.


 § 165. Calvin’s Last Will, and Farewells.


Calvin’s Last Will and Testament, April 25, 1564.


In Beza’s Vita Calv., French and Latin; in Opera, XX. 298 and XXI. 162. Henry gives the French text, III., Beilage, 171 sqq. The English translation is by Henry Beveridge, Edinburgh, 1844.


"In the name of God, Amen. On the 25th day of April, in the year of our Lord 1564, I, Peter Chenalat, citizen and notary of Geneva, witness and declare that I was called upon by that admirable man, John Calvin, minister of the Word of God in this Church of Geneva, and a citizen of the same State, who, being sick in body, but of sound mind, told me that it was his intention to execute his testament, and explain the nature of his last will, and begged me to receive it, and to write it down as he should rehearse and dictate it with his tongue. This I declare that I immediately did, writing down word for word as he was pleased to dictate and rehearse; and that I have in no respect added to or subtracted from his words, but have followed the form dictated by himself.


" ’In the name of the Lord, Amen. I, John Calvin, minister of the Word of God in this Church of Geneva, being afflicted and oppressed with various diseases, which easily induce me to believe that the Lord God has deter-mined shortly to call me away out of this world, have resolved to make my testament, and commit my last will to writing in the manner following: First of all, I give thanks to God, that taking mercy on me, whom He had created and placed in this world, He not only delivered me out of the deep darkness of idolatry in which I was plunged, that He might bring me into the light of His gospel, and make me a partaker in the doctrine of salvation, of which I was most unworthy; and not only, with the same mercy and benignity, kindly and graciously bore with my faults and my sins, for which, however, I deserved to be rejected by Him and exterminated, but also vouchsafed me such clemency and kindness that He has deigned to use my assistance in preaching and promulgating the truth of His gospel. And I testify and declare, that it is my intention to spend what yet remains of my life in the same faith and religion which He has delivered to me by His gospel; and that I have no other defence or refuge for salvation than His gratuitous adoption, on which alone my salva-tion depends. With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which He has exer-cised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of His death and passion, that in this way He might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from His remembrance. I testify also and declare, that I suppliantly beg of Him, that He may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under His shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment-seat. I likewise declare, that, according to the measure of grace and good-ness which the Lord hath employed towards me, I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach His Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures. I also testify and declare, that, in all the contentions and disputations in which I have been engaged with the enemies of the gospel, I have used no impos-tures, no wicked and sophistical devices, but have acted candidly and sin-cerely in defending the truth. But, woe is me! my ardor and zeal (if indeed worthy of the name) have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. Nay, I even acknowledge, that if the same goodness had not assisted me, those mental endowments which the Lord bestowed upon me would, at His judgment-seat, prove me more and more guilty of sin and sloth. For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust to no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz. that as God is the Father of mercy, He will show Himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner. As to what remains, I wish that, after my departure out of this life, my body be committed to the earth (after the form and manner which is used in this Church and city), till the day of a happy resurrection arrive. As to the slender patrimony which God has bestowed upon me, and of which I have determined to dispose in this will and testament, I appoint Anthony Calvin, my very dear brother, my heir, but in the way of honor only, giving to him for his own the silver cup which I received as a present from Varanius, and with which I desire he will be contented. Everything else belonging to my succession I give him in trust, begging he will at his death leave it to his children. To the Boys’ School I bequeath out of my succession ten gold pieces; as many to poor strangers; and as many to Joanna, the daughter of Charles Constans, and myself by affinity. To Samuel and John, the sons of my brother, I bequeath, to be paid by him at his death, each four hundred gold pieces; and to Anna, and Susanna, and Dorothy, his daughters, each three hundred gold pieces; to David, their brother, in reprehension of his juvenile levity and petulance, I leave only twenty-five gold pieces. This is the amount of the whole patrimony and goods which the Lord has bestowed on me, as far as I can estimate, setting a value both on my library and mova-bles, and all my domestic utensils, and, generally, my whole means and effects; but should they produce a larger sum, I wish the surplus to be divided proportionally among all the sons and daughters of my brother, not excluding David, if, through the goodness of God, he shall have returned to good behavior. But should the whole exceed the above-mentioned sum, I believe it will be no great matter, especially after my debts are paid, the doing of which I have carefully committed to my said brother, having confi-dence in his faith and good-will; for which reason I will and appoint him exe-cutor of this my testament, and along with him my distinguished friend, Lawrence Normand, giving power to them to make out an inventory of my effects, without being obliged to comply with the strict forms of law. I empower them also to sell my movables, that they may turn them into money, and execute my will above written, and explained and dictated by me, John Calvin, on this 25th day of April, in the year 1564.’1264

"After I, the aforesaid notary, had written the above testament, the afore-said John Calvin immediately confirmed it with his usual subscription and handwriting. On the following day, which was the 26th day of April of same year, the same distinguished man, Calvin, ordered me to be sent for, and along with me, Theodore Beza, Raymond Chauvet, Michael Cop, Lewis Enoch, Nicholas Colladon, and James Bordese, ministers and preachers of the Word of God in this Church of Geneva, and likewise the distinguished Henry Scrimger, Professor of Arts, all citizens of Geneva, and in presence of them all, testified and declared that he had dictated to me this his instrument in the form above written; and, at the same time, he ordered me to read it in their hearing, as having been called for that purpose. This I declare I did articulately, and with clear voice. And after it was so read, he testified and dec-lared that it was his last will, which he desired to be ratified. In testimony and confirmation whereof, he requested them all to subscribe said testament with their own hands. This was immediately done by them, month and year above written, at Geneva, in the street commonly called Canon Street, and at the dwelling-place of said testator. In faith and testimony of which I have written the foresaid testament, and subscribed it with my own hand, and sealed it with the common seal of our supreme magistracy.

"Peter Chenalat."


Calvin’s Farewell to the Syndics and Senators of Geneva, April 27, 1564.


From Beza’s Vita Calvini. The Latin text in Opera, XXI. 164 sqq. The French text in vol. IX. 887–890. Comp. Rég. du Conseil, fol. 38, in Annales, XXI. 815. Translated by Henry Beveridge, Esq., for "The Calvin Translation Society," 1844 (Calvin’s Tracts, vol. I. lxxxix-xciii).


"This testament’ being executed, Calvin sent an intimation to the four syndics, and all the senators, that, before his departure out of life, he was desirous once more to address them all in the Senate house, to which he hoped he might be carried on the following day. The senators replied that they would rather come to him, and begged that he would consider the state of his health. On the following day, when the whole Senate had come to him in a body, after mutual salutations, and he had begged pardon for their having come to him when he ought rather to have gone to them, first premising that he had long desired this interview with them, but had put it off until he should have a surer presentiment of his decease, he proceeded thus:—

" ’Honored Lords,—I thank you exceedingly for having conferred so many honors on one who plainly deserved nothing of the kind, and for having so often borne patiently with my very numerous infirmities. This I have always regarded as the strongest proof of your singular good-will toward me. And though in the discharge of my duty I have had various battles to fight, and various insults to endure, because to these every man, even the most excellent, must be subjected, I know and acknowledge that none of these things happened through your fault; and I earnestly entreat you that if, in anything, I have not done as I ought, you will attribute it to the want of ability rather than of will; for I can truly declare that I have sincerely studied the interest of your Republic. Though I have not discharged my duty fully, I have always, to the best of my ability, consulted for the public good; and did I not acknowledge that the Lord, on His part, hath sometimes made my labors profitable, I should lay myself open to a charge of dissimulation. But this I beg of you, again and again, that you will be pleased to excuse me for having performed so little in public and in private, compared with what I ought to have done. I also certainly acknowledge, that on another account also I am highly indebted to you, viz. your having borne patiently with my vehemence, which was sometimes carried to excess; my sins, in this respect, I trust, have been pardoned by God also. But in regard to the doctrine which I have delivered in your hearing, I declare that the Word of God, intrusted to me, I have taught, not rashly nor uncertainly, but purely and sincerely; as well knowing that His wrath was otherwise impending on my head, as I am certain that my labors in teaching were not displeasing to Him. And this I testify the more willingly before God, and before you all, because I have no doubt whatever that Satan, according to his wont, will stir up wicked, fickle, and giddy men, to corrupt the pure doctrine which you have heard of me!

"Then referring to the great blessings with which the Lord had favored them, ’I,’ says he, I am the best witness from how many and how great dangers the hand of Almighty God hath delivered you. You see, moreover, what your present situation is. Therefore, whether in prosperity or adversity, have this, I pray you, always present before your eyes, that it is He alone who establishes kings and states, and on that account wishes men to worship Him. Remember how David declared that he had fallen when he was in the enjoyment of profound peace, and assuredly would never have risen again, had not God, in His singular goodness, stretched out His hand to help him. What, then, will be the case with such diminutive mortals as we are, if it was so with him who was so strong and powerful?  You have need of great humbleness of mind, that you may walk carefully, setting God always before you, and leaning only on His protection; assured, as you have often already experienced, that, by His assistance, you will stand strong, although your safety and security hang, as it were, by a slender thread. Therefore, if prosperity is given you, beware, I pray you, of being puffed up as the wicked are, and rather humbly give thanks to God. But if adversity befalls you, and death surrounds you on every side, still hope in Him who even raises the dead. Nay, consider that you are then especially tried by God, that you may learn more and more to have respect to Him only. But if you are desirous that this republic may be preserved in its strength, be particularly on your guard against allowing the sacred throne on which He hath placed you to be polluted. For He alone is the supreme God, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who will give honor to those by whom He is honored, but will cast down the despisers. Worship Him, therefore, according to His precepts; and study this more and more, for we are always very far from doing what it is our duty to do. I know the disposition and character of each of you, and I know that you need exhortation. Even among those who excel, there is not one who is not deficient in many things. Let every one examine himself, and wherein he sees himself to be defective, let him ask of the Lord. We see how much iniquity prevails in the counsels of this world. Some are cold; others, negligent of the public good, give their whole attention to their own affairs; others indulge their own private affections; others use not the excellent gifts of God as is meet; others ostentatiously display themselves, and, from overweening confidence, insist that all their opinions shall be approved of by others. I admonish the old not to envy their younger brethren, whom they may see adorned, by God’s goodness, with some superior gifts. The younger, again, I admonish to conduct themselves with modesty, keeping far aloof from all haughtiness of mind. Let no one give disturbance to his neighbor, but let every one shun deceit and all that bitterness of feeling which, in the administration of the Republic, has led many away from the right path. These things you will avoid if each keeps within his own sphere, and all conduct themselves with good faith in the department which has been intrusted to them. In the decision of civil causes let there be no place for partiality, or hatred; let no one pervert justice by oblique artifices; let no one, by his recommendations, prevent the laws from having full effect; let no one depart from what is just and good. Should any one feel tempted by some sinister affection, let him firmly resist it, having respect to Him from whom he received his station, and supplicating the assistance of His Holy Spirit.

" ’Finally, I again entreat you to pardon my infirmities, which I acknowledge and confess before God and His angels, and also before you, my much respected lords.’

"Having thus spoken, and prayed to Almighty God that He would crown them more and more with His gifts, and guide them by His Holy Spirit, for the safety of the whole Republic, giving his right hand to each, he left them in sorrow and tears, all feeling as if they were taking a last farewell of their common parent."


Calvin’s Farewell to the Ministers of Geneva, April 28, 1564.


From Beza’s Vita Calvini. The Latin text in Opera, XXI. 166 sq. Translation by Henry Beveridge for "The Calvin Translation Society," Edinburgh, 1844 (I. xciii), from the Latin text. There is another report, in French, by minister Jean Pinaut, dated May 1, which is fuller as regards Calvin’s persecutions, and the confession of his infirmities, which always displeased him and for which he asks forgiveness. It also makes grateful mention of Farel, Viret, and Beza, and an unpleasant allusion to Bern, which always more feared than loved Calvin. It is printed in Opera, vol. IX. 891, 892, and in the Letters of John Calvin by Jules Bonnet, transl. by Gilchrist, vol. IV. 372–377.


"On the 28th of April, when all of us in the ministry of Geneva had gone to him at his request, he said:—

" ’Brethren, after I am dead, persist in this work, and be not dispirited; for the Lord will save this Republic and Church from the threats of the enemy. Let dissension be far away from you, and embrace each other with mutual love. Think again and again what you owe to this Church in which the Lord hath placed you, and let nothing induce you to quit it. It will, indeed, be easy for some who are weary of it to slink away, but they will find, to their experience, that the Lord cannot be deceived. When I first came to this city, the gospel was, indeed, preached, but matters were in the greatest confusion, as if Christianity had consisted in nothing else than the throwing down of images; and there were not a few wicked men from whom I suffered the greatest indignities; but the Lord our God so confirmed me, who am by no means naturally bold (I say what is true), that I succumbed to none of their attempts. I afterwards returned thither from Strassburg in obedience to my calling, but with an unwilling mind, because I thought I should prove unfruitful. For not knowing what the Lord had determined, I saw nothing before me but numbers of the greatest difficulties. But proceeding in this work, I at length perceived that the Lord had truly blessed my labors. Do you also persist in this vocation, and maintain the established order; at the same time, make it your endeavor to keep the people in obedience to the doctrine; for there are some wicked and contumacious persons. Matters, as you see, are tolerably settled. The more guilty, therefore, will you be before God, if they go to wreck through your indolence. But I declare, brethren, that I have lived with you in the closest bonds of true and sincere affection, and now, in like manner, part from you. But if, while under this disease, you have experienced any degree of peevishness from me, I beg your pardon, and heartily thank you, that when I was sick, you have borne the burden imposed upon you.’

"When he had thus spoken, he shook hands with each of us. We, with most sorrowful hearts, and certainly not unmoistened eyes, departed from him."

Beza modestly omits Calvin’s reference to himself which is as follows "Quant à nostre estat interieur, vous avez esleu Monsieur de Beze pour tenir ma place. Regardez de le soulager, car la charge est grande et a de la peine, en telle sorte qu’il faudroit qu’il fust accablé soubs le fardeau. Mais regardez à le supporter. De luy, ie sçay qu’il a bon vouloir et fera ce qu’il pourra."  Pinaut’s report, in Calv. Opera, IX. 894.


 § 166. Calvin’s Personal Character and Habits.


Calvin is one of those characters that command respect and admiration rather than affection, and forbid familiar approach, but gain upon closer acquaintance. The better he is known, the more he is admired and esteemed. Those who judge of his character from his conduct in the case of Servetus, and of his theology from the "decretum horribile," see the spots on the sun, but not the sun itself. Taking into account all his failings, he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best of men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.

He has been called by competent judges of different creeds and schools, "the theologian" par excellence, "the Aristotle of the Reformation," "the Thomas Aquinas of the Reformed Church," "the Lycurgus of a Christian democracy," "the Pope of Geneva."  He has been compared, as a church ruler, to Gregory VII. and to Innocent III. The sceptical Renan even, who entirely dissents from his theology, calls him the most Christian man of his age."  Such a combination of theoretic and practical pre-eminence is without a parallel in history. But he was also an intolerant inquisitor and persecutor, and his hands are stained with the blood of a heretic.1265  Take these characteristics together, and you have the whole Calvin; omit one or the other of them, and you do him injustice. He will ever command admiration and even reverence, but can never be popular among the masses. No pilgrimages will be made to his grave. The fourth centennial of his birth, in 1909, is not likely to be celebrated with such enthusiasm as Luther’s was in 1883, and Zwingli’s in 1884. But the impression he made on the Swiss, French, Dutch, and especially on the Anglo-Saxon race in Great Britain and America, can never be erased.1266

Calvin’s bodily presence, like that of St. Paul, was weak. His earthly tent scarcely covered his mighty spirit. He was of middle stature, dark complexion, thin, pale, emaciated, and in feeble health; but he had a finely chiseled face, a well-formed mouth, pointed beard, black hair, a prominent nose, a lofty forehead, and flaming eyes which kept their lustre to the last. He seemed to be all bone and nerve. He looked in death, Beza says, like one who was asleep. A commanding intellect and will shone through the frail body. There are several portraits of him; the best is the oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, which presents him in academic dress and in the attitude of teaching, with the mouth open, one hand laid upon the Bible, the other raised.1267

He calls himself timid and pusillanimous by nature; but his courage rose with danger, and his strength was perfected in weakness. He belonged to that class of persons who dread danger from a distance, but are fearless in its presence. In his conflict with the Libertines he did not yield an inch, and more than once exposed his life. He was plain, orderly and methodical in his habits and tastes, scrupulously neat in his dress, intemperately temperate, and unreasonably abstemious. For many years he took only one meal a day, and allowed himself too little sleep.

Calvin’s intellectual endowments were of the highest order and thoroughly disciplined: a retentive memory, quick perception, acute understanding, penetrating reason, sound judgment, complete command of language. He had the classical culture of the Renaissance, without its pedantry and moral weakness. He made it tributary to theology and piety. He was not equal to Augustin and Luther as a creative genius and originator of new ideas, but he surpassed them both and all his contemporaries as a scholar, as a polished and eloquent writer, as a systematic and logical thinker, and as an organizer and disciplinarian. His talents, we may say, rose to the full height of genius. His mind was cast in the mould of Paul, not in that of John. He had no mystic vein, and little imagination. He never forgot anything pertaining to his duty; he recognized persons whom he had but once seen many years previously. He spoke very much as he wrote, with clearness, precision, purity, and force, and equally well in Latin and French. He never wrote a dull line. His judgment was always clear and solid, and so exact, that, as Beza remarks, it often appeared like prophecy. His advice was always sound and useful. His eloquence was logic set on fire. But he lacked the power of illustration, which is often, before a popular audience, more effective in an orator than the closest argument.

His moral and religious character was grounded in the fear of God, which is "the beginning of wisdom."  Severe against others, he was most severe against himself. He resembled a Hebrew prophet  He may be called a Christian Elijah. His symbol was a hand offering the sacrifice of a burning heart to God. The Council of Geneva were impressed with "the great majesty" of his character.1268  This significant expression accounts for his overawing power over his many enemies in Geneva, who might easily have crushed him at any time. His constant and sole aim was the glory of God, and the reformation of the Church. In his eyes, God alone was great, man but a fleeting shadow. Man, he said, must be nothing, that God in Christ may be everything. He was always guided by a strict sense of duty, even in the punishment of Servetus. In the preface to the last edition of his Institutes (1559), he says: "I have the testimony of my own conscience, of angels, and of God himself, that since I undertook the office of a teacher in the Church, I have had no other object in view than to profit the Church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness; yet I suppose there is no man more slandered or calumniated than myself."1269

Riches and honors had no charms for him. He soared far above filthy lucre and worldly ambition. His only ambition was that pure and holy ambition to serve God to the best of his ability. He steadily refused an increase of salary, and frequently also presents of every description, except for the poor and the refugees, whom he always had at heart, and aided to the extent of his means. He left only two hundred and fifty gold crowns, or, if we include the value of his furniture and library, about three hundred crowns, which he bequeathed to his younger brother, Antoine, and his children, except ten crowns to the schools, ten to the hospital for poor refugees, and ten to the daughter of a cousin. When Cardinal Sadolet passed through Geneva in disguise (about 1547), he was surprised to find that the Reformer lived in a plain house instead of an episcopal palace with a retinue of servants, and himself opened the door.1270  When Pope Pius IV. heard of his death he paid him this tribute: "The strength of that heretic consisted in this,—that money never had the slightest charm for him. If I had such servants, my dominions would extend from sea to sea."  In this respect all the Reformers were true successors of the Apostles. They were poor, but made many rich.

Calvin had defects which were partly the shadow of his virtues. He was passionate, prone to anger, censorious, impatient of contradiction, intolerant towards Romanists and heretics, somewhat austere and morose, and not without a trace of vindictiveness. He confessed in a letter to Bucer, and on his death-bed, that he found it difficult to tame "the wild beast of his wrath," and he humbly asked forgiveness for his weakness. He thanked the senators for their patience with his often "excessive vehemence."  His intolerance sprang from the intensity of his convictions and his zeal for the truth. It unfortunately culminated in the tragedy of Servetus, which must be deplored and condemned, although justified by the laws and the public opinion in his age. Tolerance is a modern virtue.

Calvin used frequently contemptuous and uncharitable language against his opponents in his polemical writings, which cannot be defended, but he never condescended to coarse and vulgar abuse, like so many of his contemporaries.1271

He has often been charged with coldness and want of domestic and social affection, but very unjustly. The chapter on his marriage and home life, and his letters on the death of his wife and only child show the contrary.1272  The charge is a mistaken inference from his gloomy doctrine of eternal reprobation; but this was repulsive to his own feelings, else he would not have called it "a horrible decree."  Experience teaches that even at this day the severest Calvinism is not seldom found connected with a sweet and amiable Christian temper. He was grave, dignified, and reserved, and kept strangers at a respectful distance; but he was, as Beza observes, cheerful in society and tolerant of those vices which spring from the natural infirmity of men. He treated his friends as his equals, with courtesy and manly frankness, but also with affectionate kindness. And they all bear testimony to this fact, and were as true and devoted to him as he was to them. The French martyrs wrote to him letters of gratitude for having fortified them to endure prison and torture with patience and resignation.1273  "He obtained," says Guizot, "the devoted affection of the best men and the esteem of all, without ever seeking to please them."  "He possessed," says Tweedie, "the secret and inexplicable power of binding men to him by ties that nothing but sin or death could sever. They treasured up every word that dropped from his lips."

Among his most faithful friends were many of the best men and women of his age, of different character and disposition, such as Farel, Viret, Beza, Bucer, Grynaeus, Bullinger, Knox, Melanchthon, Queen Marguerite, and the Duchess Renée. His large correspondence is a noble monument to his heart as well as his intellect, and is a sufficient refutation of all calumnies. How tender is his reference to his departed friend Melanchthon, notwithstanding their difference of opinion on predestination and free-will: "It is to thee, I appeal, who now livest with Christ in the bosom of God, where thou waitest for us till we be gathered with thee to a holy rest. A hundred times hast thou said, when, wearied with thy labors and oppressed by thy troubles, thou reposedst thy head familiarly on my breast, ’Would that I could die in this bosom!’ Since then I have a thousand times wished that it had happened to us to be together."  How noble is his admonition to Bullinger, when Luther made his last furious attack upon the Zwinglians and the Zürichers (1544), not to forget "how great a man Luther is and by what extraordinary gifts he excels."  And how touching is his farewell letter to his old friend Farel (May 2, 1564): "Farewell, my best and truest brother!  And since it is God’s will that you should survive me in this world, live mindful of our friendship, of which, as it was useful to the Church of God, the fruits await us in heaven. Pray, do not fatigue yourself on my account. It is with difficulty that I draw my breath, and I expect that every moment will be my last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is the reward of his followers both in life and in death. Again, farewell, with the brethren."

Calvin has also unjustly been charged with insensibility to the beauties of nature and art. It is true we seek in vain for specific allusions to the earthly paradise in which he lived, the lovely shores of Lake Leman, the murmur of the Rhone, the snowy grandeur of the monarch of mountains in Chamounix. But the writings of the other Reformers are equally bare of such allusions, and the beauties of Switzerland were not properly appreciated till towards the close of the eighteenth century, when Haller, Goethe, and Schiller directed attention to them. Calvin, however, had a lively sense of the wonders of creation and expressed it more than once. "Let us not disdain," he says, "to receive a pious delight from the works of God, which everywhere present themselves to view in this very beautiful theatre of the world"; and he points out that "God has wonderfully adorned heaven and earth with the utmost possible abundance, variety, and beauty, like a large and splendid mansion, most exquisitely and copiously furnished, and exhibited in man the masterpiece of his works by distinguishing him with such splendid beauty and such numerous and great privileges."1274

He had a taste for music and poetry, like Luther and Zwingli. He introduced, in Strassburg and Geneva, congregational singing, which he described as "an excellent method of kindling the heart and making it burn with great ardor in prayer," and which has ever since been a most important part of worship in the Reformed Churches. He composed also a few poetic versifications of Psalms, and a sweet hymn to the Saviour, to whose service and glory his whole life was consecrated.




Calvin’s "Salutation à Iésus Christ" was discovered by Felix Bovet of Neuchâtel in an old Genevese prayer-book of 1545 (Calvin’s Liturgy), and published, together with eleven other poems (mostly translations of Psalms), by the Strassburg editors of Calvin’s works in 1867. (See vol. VI. 223 and Prolegg. XVIII. sq.)  It reveals a poetic vein and a devotional fervor and tenderness which one could hardly expect from so severe a logician and polemic. A German translation was made by Dr. E. Stähelin of Basel, and an English translation by Mrs. Henry B. Smith of New York, and published in Schaff’s Christ in Song, 1868. ("I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art."  New York ed. p. 678; London ed. p. 549.) We give it here in the original old French: —


"Ie te salue, mon certain Redempteur,

 Ma vraye franc’ et mon seul Salvateur,

 Qui tant de labeur,

 D’ennuys et de douleur

 As enduré pour moy:

 Oste de noz cueurs

 Toutes vaines langueurs,

 Fol soucy et esmoy.


"Tu es le Roy misericordieux;

 Puissant par tout et regnant en tous lieux;

 Vueille donc regner

 En nous, et dominer

 Sur nous entierement,

 Nous illuminer,

 Ravyr et nous mener

 A ton haut Firmament.


"Tu es la vie par laquelle vivons,

 Toute sustanc’ et toute forc’ avons:

 Donne nous confort

 Contre la dure mort,

 Que ne la craignons point,

 Et sans desconfort

 La passons d’un cueur fort

 Quand ce viendra au point.


"Tu es la vraye et parfaite douceur,

 Sans amertume, despit ne rigueur:

 Fay nous savourer,

 Aymer et adorer,

 Ta tresdouce bonté;

 Fay nous desirer,

 Et tousiours demeurer

 En ta douce unité.


"Nostre esperanc’ en autre n’est qu’en toy,

 Sur ta promesse est fondée nostre foy:

 Vueilles augmenter,

 Ayder et conforter

 Nostre espoir tellement,

 Que bien surmonter

 Nous puissions, et Porter

 Tout mal patiemment.


"A toy cryons comme povres banys,

 Enfans d’Eve pleins de maux infinis:

 A toy souspirons,

 Gemissons et plorons,

 En la vallée de plours;

 Pardon requerons

 Et salut desirons,

 Nous confessans pecheurs.


"Or avant donq, nostre Mediateur,

 Nostre advocat et propiciateur,

 Tourne tes doux yeux

 Icy en ces bas lieux,

 Et nous vueille monstrer

 Le haut Dieu des Dieux,

 Et aveq toy ’és cieux

 Nous faire tous entrer.


"O debonnair’, o pitoyabl’ et doux,

 Des ames saintes amyabl’ espoux,

 Seigneur Iesus Christ,

 Encontre L’antechrist

 Remply de cruauté,

 Donne nous L’esprit

 De suyvir ton escript

 En vraye verité."



* Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997. This material has been carefully compared, corrected¸ and emended (according to the 1910 edition of Charles Scribner's Sons) by The Electronic Bible Society, Dallas, TX, 1998.

1252  In the same year (1564) Michelangelo died, and Shakespeare and Galileo were born. Adding the two years of his first sojourn, from 1536 to 1538, Calvin spent twenty-five years in Geneva.

1253  He lived, says a Scotch divine, "somewhat less than fifty-five years, but into that period the work of centuries was compressed." Tweedie, l.c., p. 57.

1254  Beza’s Vita, in Opera, XXI. pp. 162 sqq. (in Latin); Henry, III. p. 171 (in French); translation in the next section.

1255  See, besides the account of Beza, the entry in the Rég. du Conseil, April 27, Annal. XXI. 815.

1256  See the Discours d’adieu aux membres du Petit Conseil, and the Discours d’adieu aux ministres, in his Opera, Tom. IX. 887-890, in Beza’s Vita, and in the appendix to Bonnet’s French Letters, Tom. II. 573. Comp. also Henry, III. 582 sqq.; Stähelin, II. 462-468. Translation in the next section.

1257  Hornung’s picture of Calvin on his death-bed, addressing the senators.

1258  The original entry in the Register of the Council of Geneva under date "Samedi, Mai 27, 1564," relative to the death of Calvin, is this: "Ce iourd’huy environ huit heures du soir le sp. Ian Calvin est alléa Dieu, sain et entier, graces a Dieu, de sens et entendement." Under date of "Lundi, Mai 29," the succession of Beza to the place of Calvin is thus announced in the same Register: "De Bèze succède a la place de Calvin. Il aura la charge quil avoit oultre ce quil a faire les leçons. Arreste quon luy baille le gage quavoit M. Calvin. Et au reste quand se viendra ceans quon se contente quil soit assis au banc dabas et quon luy presente la maison dudit Sr. Calvin sil y veult aller." Calvin’s Opera, XXI. 815.

1259  What these calumnies were, is not stated; they were first made public by Bolsec fifteen years later (see Note below). Francis Junius, in his animadversions upon Bellarmin, says that he was at Geneva when Calvin closed his life, but that he never saw, heard, knew, thought, or even dreamed of the blasphemies and curses which the papists said he uttered at his death.

1260  "Pomeridiana vero secundo, sequentibus funus patriciis, una cum pastoribus professoribusque scholae omnibus totaque paene civitate non sine uberibus lacrymis prosequente elatus est, communique coemiterio, quod Planum Palatium vocant, nulla penitus extraordinaria pompa nulloque addito cippo (sic enim mandarat) conditus, cui propterea, his versiculis parentavi." Then follow the Parentalia and a description of Calvin’s character and habits. In his French biography, which is dated Aug. 19, 1564, Beza says that Calvin was buried, comme il l’avait ordonné, au cemetiere commun appeléPlein palais sans pompe ni appareil quelconques-làoùil gist auiourd’huy attendant la resurrection qu’il nous a enseigée et a si constamment esperée," etc. He closes both biographies with a list of Calvin’s works. Opera, XXI. 47-50.

1261  In his Latin Vita:—

"Romae ruentis terror ille maximus,

 Quem mortuum lugent boni, horrescunt mali,

 Ipsa a quo potuit virtutem discere virtus,

 Cur adeo exiguo ignotoque in cespite clausus

 Calvinus lateat, rogas?

 Calvinum adsidue comitata modestia vivum,

 Hoc tumulo manibus condidit ipsa suis.

 O te beatum cespitem tanto hospite !

 O cui invidere cuncta possint marmora !"

There are besides one Hebrew, ten Greek, two Latin, and three French "Epitaphia in Calvinum scripta," in Beza’s Poemata, 1597, and in Calvin’s Opera, vol. XXI. 169, 173-178. The three French sonnets are from Chandieu, a pupil of Calvin.

1262  On the obverse: Johannes Calvinus Natus Novioduni, 1509. Mortuus Genevae, 1564. On the reverse: "Il tint ferme comme s’il eust veu celuy qui est invisible" (Heb. 11:27). Genev. Jubil Ann., 1835. And the inscription: "Corpore fractus: Animo potens: Fide victor: Ecclesiae Reformator: Geneva Pastor et Tutamen." See Henry, III. 592.

1263  He himself suggested a similar change in an address before the Venerable Company of Pastors and Professors, June 2, 1604. Annales, in Opera, XXI. 816.

1264  A part of Calvin’s furniture belonged to the Republic of Geneva, as is proved by the inventory preserved in the archives. His books were purchased after his death by the Council. In spite of his poverty he could not escape the charge of avarice. See below, p. 838.

1265  His enemies in Geneva even started the proverb, if we are to believe the untrustworthy Baudouin: "Better with Beza in hell than with Calvin in heaven."

1266  See the collection of remarkable tributes in § 68, pp. 270 sqq. I will only add two more from Dr. Baur and Dr. Möhler, the great historians who were colleagues and antagonists, the champions, indeed, of opposite creeds in one of the most important theological controversies of the nineteenth century. The Protestant Baur, in his Kirchengeschichte (IV. 374), calls Calvin a man "von seltener Gelehrsamkeit, feiner, vielseitiger Bildung, scharfem, durchdringendem Geiste, kräftigem, aber strengem Charakter, vollkommen würdig, den übrigen Häuptern der Reformation zur Seite zu stehen, an Schärfe des Geistes zum Theil ihnen noch überlegen." The Roman Catholic Möhler, the author of the Symbolik, which caused a great sensation in its day, says in his posthumous Kirchengeschichte (III. 189): "Calvin besass sehr viel Scharfsinn und eine ausnehmende Beredtsamkeit, und war weit gelehrter als alle übrigen Reformatoren, so dass Lehren, die bei einem andern abscheulich gewesen wären, aus seinem Munde wohl klingen;" but he adds: "Zu bedauern aber ist, dass eine so grosse geistige Kraft im Dienste des Irrthums war."

1267  It is reproduced on p. 256. Mr. Theophile Dufour, the librarian, assured me in 1886 that it is the most authentic portrait. Professor Diodati, a former librarian, wrote to Dr. Henry (III. P. I. Preface, p. vii): "Quant au portrait que l’on voit ànotre bibliothèque, il atoujours passépour authentique et fidèle. Nos peintres s’accordent àreconnaître qu’il est bien de l’époque de Calvin et qu’il est peint d’une manière remarquable. On l’a souvent attribuéa Holbein; mais cette opinion n’est pas constatée. Ce que l’on peut dire c’est qu’on y retrouve sa manière. En l’étudiant attentivement on lui trouve un air de véritéfrappant."

1268  Dieu lui avait impriméun charactère d’une si grande majesté." Registres, June 8, 1564. Grenus, Fragments Biographiques.

1269  He meets these calumnies in a letter to Christopher Piperin, Oct. 18, 1555 (Opera, XV. 825 sq.), from which I quote the following passage: "When I hear that I am everywhere so foully defamed, I have not such iron nerves as not to be stung with pain. But it is no slight consolation to me that yourself and many other servants of Christ and pious worshippers of God sympathize with me in my injuries … . Why should I worry honest people with my zeal for vindicating my own reputation? Did there exist a greater necessity for it, having entreated their indulgence, I might lay my defence before them. But the scurrilous calumnies with which malignant men bespatter me are too unfounded and too silly to require any labored refutation on my part. The authors of them would tax me with self-importance, and laugh at me as being too anxiously concerned for my character. One example of these falsehoods is that immense sum of money which you mention. Everybody knows how frugally I live in my own house. Every one sees that I am at no expense for the splendor of my dress. It is well known everywhere that my only brother is far from being rich, and that the little which he has, he acquired without any influence of mine. Where, then, was that hidden treasure dug up? But they openly give out that I have robbed the poor. Well, this charge also, these most slanderous of men will be compelled to confess, was falsely got up without any grounds. I have never had the handling of one farthing of the money which charitable people have bestowed on the poor. About eight years ago, a man of rank [David de Busanton, a refugee; see Calvin’s letter to Viret, Aug. 17, 1545, Opera, XII. 139] died in my house who had deposited upwards of two thousand crowns with me, and without demanding one scrap of writing to prove the deposit. When I perceived that his life was in danger, though he wished to intrust that sum to my management, I refused to undertake so responsible a charge. I contrived, however, that eight hundred crowns should be sent to Strassburg to relieve the wants of the exiles. By my advice he chose men above suspicion to distribute the remainder of the sum. When he wished to appoint me one of their number, to which the others made no objections, I refused; but I see what nettles my enemies. As they form an estimate of my character from their own, they feel convinced that I must amass wherever I find a good opportunity. But if during my lifetime I do not escape the reputation of being rich, death will at last vindicate my character from this imputation." See his testament, p. 829. Nevertheless Bolsec (ch. XI.) unscrupulously repeated and exaggerated the calumny about the misappropriation of the legacy of two thousand crowns. Comp. the editorial notes in Opera, XV. 825 and 826.

1270  This incident is related by Drelincourt, Bungener, and others, and believed in Geneva.

1271  Comp. above, § 118, p. 595.

1272  · See above, § 92, pp. 413-424.

1273  Michelet (XI. 95): "Les martyrs, àleur dernier jour, se faisaient une consolation, un devoir d’écrire àCalvin. Ils n’auraient pas quittéla vie sans remercier celui dont la parole les avait menés àla mort. Leurs lettres, respectueuses, nobles et douces, arrachant les larmes."

1274  Institutes, bk. I. ch. XIV. 20. This whole chapter on Creation is replete with admiration for the beauty and order of God’s universe. "Were I desirous," he says (21), "of pursuing the subject to its full extent, there would be no end; since there are as many miracles of divine power, as many monuments of divine goodness, as many proofs of divine wisdom as there are species of things in the world, and even as there are individual things either great or small."