Sword Fight: The Courageous Character of John Calvin

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13

What kind of man was John Calvin (1509-1564), the Reformer of Geneva? Many people have very strong opinions about him, but few have ever read anything he actually wrote, or heard any of the fascinating stories from his life. Consider this compelling event from December 12, 1547: Calvin’s bold entry into theCouncil of the Two Hundred during the midst of a deadly sword fight! It is a fine example of his courageous character, positive reputation, and frank outspokenness. This challenging situation came about as Calvin and the other ministers of Geneva sought to advance spiritual and civil reform in that troubled city. The Company of Pastors was on its way to the Small Council to complain about the outcome of a trial against Ami Perrin, the leader of the Libertines, and against Laurent Maigret, a French refugee and personal friend of Calvin. What was the background of this explosive situation?

Ami Perrin and Laurent Maigret had been accused of treasonous activity for making a secret alliance with the French to house troops within the walls of Geneva. With the threat of invasion by the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V (1500-1558) a very real possibility, it only seemed natural for independent Geneva to align itself with its powerful neighbor, France. However, this arrangement became extremely awkward when it was pointed out that France also had imperialistic ambitions towards Geneva and all of western Switzerland. Thus, Ami Perrin and Laurent Maigret were widely suspected of high treason. It must be remembered that the Libertines (also known as the Enfants de Geneva) were clever and determined opponents of Calvin. They sought to gain an unfair advantage over the pastors of the Genevan church whenever and wherever possible. This political situation was no different, and the Libertines cunningly played the Genevan Nationalists against the “foreign” Reformers. Noted Reformation scholar, Brian G. Armstrong, remarks that essentially the Libertines were,

Genevan patriots and influential families (the Perrins, Favres, Vandels, Bertheliers, etc.) who led the republic to independence and the Reformation. They resented the dominant influence of Calvin and “foreigners” in Genevan affairs. A bitter struggle with Calvin ended in their complete disgrace in 1555. (Armstrong, “Libertines”, quoted in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, 595). 

Thus, upon his arrest Ami Perrin immediately lost his position as the Captain-General over Geneva’s militia. Both he and Maigret were imprisoned, and a public trial was conducted. Throughout this lengthy trial emotions ran high on both sides; with some clamoring for a guilty verdict and others for acquittal. The city was thrown into turmoil. In a short time, Ami Perrin was acquitted due to a lack of evidence and the Libertines celebrated his exoneration, while Maigret languished in prison. And once again, Geneva was seriously divided over this lop-sided outcome. The Council of Two Hundred was so sufficiently agitated that scuffles and sword fights broke out. It was just at that time (on Monday, December 12, 1547) that theCompany of Pastors was passing by the building. Hearing all of the commotion, Calvin ran for the doors and burst inside into the middle of a heated argument. He threw himself into the cauldron of swirling opponents and calmed the warring parties with bold words. The official entry in The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva reports the tumultuous event in this way,

On Monday 12 December 1547 it was decided by the brethren to present themselves before Messieurs for the purpose of objecting strongly to the insolence, debauchery, dissoluteness, and hostility which were leading the church and city to ruin; and this was done on the same day. It was further resolved that similar action should be taken by us at the next meeting of the Council of the Two Hundred which was held on the Friday following, namely the 16th day of the same month. On this day we left the Congregation sooner than was customary. This was not done without great blessing from God, for when we arrived at the public hall, where the Two Hundred were assembled, a variety of disputes had already arisen and the minds of nearly all were so inflamed that they were not far from insurrection. Indeed an atrocious shedding of blood would have followed had not the Lord intervened. When he heard the alarming clamor and uproar Calvin rushed ahead into the midst of the tumult which was now quite out of hand, and the others followed him. Nearly all were so agitated and enraged that it was impossible to hear anyone clearly. But after a little while calm was restored and the Two Hundred were brought to order. Presenting ourselves to them, we used the same exhortations as we had used before the Council previously, but on this occasion when insurrection threatened, everything was handled by Calvin much more forcefully. (The Register, from December 12, 1547, p. 70) 

On the following day Calvin wrote these revealing and descriptive lines in a personal letter to his friend and fellow-minister, Pierre Viret (1511-1571),

The Two Hundred had been summoned. I had publicly announced to my colleagues that I would go to the senate-house. We were there a little, indeed, before the hour of meeting. As many people were still walking about in the public street, we went out by the gate that is contiguous to the senate-house. Numerous confused shouts were heard from that quarter. These, meanwhile, increased to such a degree as to afford a sure sign of insurrection. I immediately ran up to the place. The appearance of matters was terrible. I cast myself into the thickest of the crowds, to the amazement of almost everyone. The whole people, however, made a rush towards me; they seized and dragged me hither and thither, lest I should suffer injury. I called God and men to witness that I had come for the purpose of presenting my body to their swords. I exhorted them, if they designed to shed blood, to begin with me. The worthless, but especially the respectable portion of the crowd, at once greatly relaxed in their fervor. I was at length dragged through the midst to the Senate. There fresh fights arose, into the midst of which I threw myself. All are of opinion that a great and disgraceful carnage was prevented from taking place by my interposition. My colleagues meanwhile were mixed up with the crowd. I succeeded in getting them to all sit down quietly. They say that all were exceedingly affected by a long and vehement speech, suitable to the occasion, which I delivered. The exceptions were at least few, and even they, not less than the respectable part of the people, praised my conduct in the circumstances. God, indeed, protects myself and colleagues to the extent of the privilege implied in the declaration of even the most abandoned, that they abhor the least injury done to us not less than they detest parricide. Their wickedness has, however, reached such a pitch, that I hardly hope to be able any longer to retain any kind of position for the Church, especially under my ministry. My influence is gone, believe me, unless God stretch forth his hand. Adieu, brother and most sincere friend. Salute your colleague and all the brethren. My wife and I wish yours every greeting. May the Lord be perpetually present with you.—Amen. (John Calvin, Selected Works, personal letter to Pierre Viret of Lausanne dated December 14, 1547). 

Calvin’s bleak prognosis for the demise of his ministry, however, simply did not come true. The Lord ‘stretched forth his hand’ and protected the fledgling church of Geneva. Calvin suffered through many other extraordinary difficulties, yet he persevered and prospered through them with the Lord’s blessing. In time, the Libertines were discredited and the reformers were rewarded with the appreciation of the entire city (1555).

It is also important to note that Calvin’s words were not those of a dictator or a tyrant, but those ofservant of the living God who was pressed by dangers on every side. Sadly, Calvin has been falsely accused of oppressive and self-serving behavior. Yet, the numerous facts stand as a stark testimony to his indefatigable service to God and to the citizens of Geneva. He certainly demonstrated the characteristics of bold courage, resolute determination, and self-sacrifice. It has often been said that you don’t really know the character of a man until you see how he acts in the midst of trouble. Here, then, is a window into the personal character of John Calvin that is wide-open for all to see. He was ready to lay down his own life for the sake of others. He presented himself before the swords of his enemies, so that if there was to be any shedding of blood it should begin with him. Moreover, he sincerely believed that the people of the city must be reformed in both doctrine and moral conduct before lasting spiritual fruit would come forth. This outcome, that of true spiritual reformation, was the object of all of his labors. And in time, by God’s grace, he realized his goal.

For Additional Reading:

Calvin, John. Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters. Volume 5. Edited by Jules Bonnet and translated by David Constable. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.

Douglas, J. D. ed. New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. rev. edit. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.

Calvin, John, W. S. Reid

Calvinism, W. S. Reid

Geneva Bible, Robert D. Linder

Genevan Academy, W. S. Reid

Genevan Catechism, W. S. Reid

Libertines, Brian G. Armstrong

Reformation, The, Robert D. Linder

Hughes, Philip E. ed. and trans. The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966.

Parker, T. H. L. John Calvin: A Biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Stickelberger, Emanuel. Calvin: A Life. London: James Clarke & Company, 1959.

Walker, Williston. John Calvin: Organizer of Reformed Protestantism. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Wendel, Francois. Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963.

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