John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. His father, Gerard, was a lawyer and registrar and notary to the bishop of Noyon. He married Jeanne LeFranc, the daughter of an innkeeper, who gave birth to three or four sons of which only two survived – Charles and John. Sadly John lost his mother at an early age, after which his father remarried.
Calvin’s childhood would have been typical for the Medieval period. Corporal punishment was the norm, and children were expected to shoulder responsibility at an early age. Serious childhood diseases were facts of life including the plague, which swept through Noyon more than once. Life was also overshadowed by the ever present Roman Catholic Church. Calvin recalled going on pilgrimages with his mother and participating in regular church feasts. Given this pervasive influence, it is natural that Gerard desired his sons to become priests and used his connection with the bishop to those ends. With John’s excellent academic reputation and ecclesiastical patronage, his future profession seemed secure.
In 1520/1521, John left Noyon at age 11 or 12 to begin formal education at the University of Paris. The three major disciplines at the time were Theology, Medicine, and the Law, but he was enrolled first at the Montaigu College for a solid grounding in Latin, “the doorkeeper to all the other sciences.” A typical day would begin at 4 AM and end at 8 PM in the winter and 9 PM in the summer. The students followed a strict schedule of daily mass, three classes throughout the day, prayers, and Bible reading with an hour for rest in the afternoon. The living conditions left much to be desired. Discipline was strict. Food was inadequate, and the surrounding neighborhood was known for its criminal element and open sewers. Yet despite this, Calvin went on to study the Greek classics and logic and eventually receive a Bachelor of Arts at age 16 or 17.
A turning point then occurred in Calvin’s life in 1525/1526. His father had intended him for a career in the church, but now he wanted him to study civil law. Maybe the law more lucrative or perhaps it was the growing tension between Gerard and the bishop of Noyon, which eventually led to Gerard’s excommunication. Regardless, John was sent to the University of Orleans and then to Bourges in 1529 to study law and Greek.
But an even greater turning point occurred, Calvin’s conversion around 1530. It began as “a mere taste of true godliness.” He did not suddenly grasp all the doctrines summed up in his Institutes. Neither did he realize how this conversion would sever his relationship to the official church. But this taste led to an increasing desire to love and know God. Perhaps it was through reading Luther and Zwingli or Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, but his eyes were beginning to open, and Calvin found himself moving away from the papacy toward the Reformers.
With Gerard Calvin’s death in 1531, John intended to return to Orleans and then Paris to study the classics again. But the plague drove him from the city. There are very few records after this until his publication of a commentary on the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. He hoped this book would pave the way to a quiet academic career, but God had other plans.
Luther’s influence was spreading through France much to the chagrin of the powers that be. Many theologians began to call for reform within the church, but this was met with swift opposition. One reformer was Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris and Calvin’s friend. His 1535 sermon likely drew from Erasmus’ New Testament and a work by Luther. But even a modest call for reform branded Cop a heretic and implicated Calvin as its author. Cop fled to Basel, and Calvin fled from Paris where he remained in hiding under various pseudonyms.
Calvin did return to Paris prior to the affaire de placards. On October 17-18, 1534, Protestants hung placards around city protesting the mass. One sign was even found on the king’s bedroom door. The authorities cracked down on this bold dissent. Many were arrested and executed as heretics including some of Calvin’s friends. At this point, he had no choice but to flee for his life yet again.
Although Calvin’s father and even Calvin himself made plans for his life as a priest and an academic, God had something else in mind, and his story doesn’t end here.
John Calvin, A Biography,T.H.L. Parker, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. pgs. 17-52.
Who Was John Calvin? by Derek W.H. Thomas in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology, Burk Parsons, ed., Reformation Trust Publishers, 2008, pgs. 19-42.
Persis Lorenti is member of Grace Baptist Chapel in Hampton, VA where she serves as bookkeeper and deacon of library/resources. She has a M.S. in computer science from Virginia Commonwealth University. She blogs at triedbyfire.blogspot.com and out-of-theordinary.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @triedwfire.