The Consolidation And Expansion Of Calvinism In Europe

Calvin's growing influence led to Geneva becoming the epicenter of the Reformed world during the second phase of Protestant development.22 Zurich had once been that epicenter, on account of the major influence of the movement's original reformer, Zwingli. His successor, Heinrich Bullinger, did much to maintain Zurich's political and theological influence over the Reformed wing of Protestantism. However, political influence ebbed away from Zurich to the more powerful city of Berne in the early 1530s, before decisively relocating to Geneva in the 1550s.23

The term "Reformed" gradually became the preferred term for the form of Protestantism that emerged from this powerful crucible of ideas—partly to emphasize the movement's commitment to "reform itself according to the Word of God" and partly to distinguish itself from a rival vision of Protestantism now increasingly known as "Lu-theranism." Although the term "Calvinism" is often used to refer to this type of Protestantism, on account of Calvin's influence on its emergence and consolidation, the term "Reformed" is preferred by some scholars and is widely encountered within the learned literature.

Calvin's influence and reputation led to Geneva becoming a magnet for wealthy and once-powerful religious refugees, often from France, who were determined to use their skills and wealth to advance his ideas. Printers such as Robert Estienne, lawyers such as Germain Colladon, and businessmen such as Laurent de Normandie made their home in Geneva. Calvin's position at Geneva was somewhat ambiguous in the early 1550s, owing to hostility between him and some senior members of the city council. Following the elections of 1555, in which Calvin's supporters gained a clear majority, the city of Geneva became increasingly committed to advancing the programs associated with its most famous religious leader. A significant period of expansion resulted.

One of the most obvious results of this commitment was the surge of Calvin's influence in France.24 Calvin had been significant for French reforming movements since the appearance of the French translation of his Institutes in 1541. Initially, his impact was limited to his personal advice and support. Yet the burgeoning French evangelical communities needed more than this. The political and institutional support they craved was something that only the city of Geneva could offer. Prior to 1555, the city was decidedly cool about such ventures. It had no interest in becoming embroiled in Calvin's religious adventurism. Yet the city council elections of that year changed everything. In 1557 the council agreed to support Calvin's programs of reform abroad, including the infiltration of pastors into hostile parts of Europe, so long as such support could not be traced back to them.

That final clause proved to be a wise decision. In January 1561, a courier arrived in Geneva from the court of Charles IX, the new king of France, to report that the king had discovered that recent disturbances in France were linked to preachers sent from Geneva. He demanded that Geneva's agents be recalled and that no more be sent under any conditions. The council replied, truthfully, that it had sent no such individuals into France. (They saw no need to qualify this claim by adding that it was the Genevan Company of Pastors, a private ecclesiastical organization, that had done so.) A serious rupture between Geneva and France was thus averted through what was little more than a fiction.

Geneva now supplied Reformed pastors and preachers to cities and congregations throughout France. The entire operation was conducted in the greatest secrecy. Safe houses, complete with hiding places, were established in the deep valleys of Provence, set a day's journey apart. An underground network—similar to the one employed by the French Resistance during the Second World War—allowed pastors from Geneva to slip across the ill-defined frontier into France. By 1562 the number of fully established Reformed congregations in Calvin's native France had risen to 1,785.


By that time, Geneva's influence was being felt in other regions of Europe as well, including Germany. The Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) had recognized only two religious options within the German territories—Lutheranism and Catholicism. Yet this compromise was shattered when the region of Germany known as the Palatinate, which included the city of Heidelberg, became a center of Reformed church life in the 1560s.25 The area had originally converted to Lutheranism in the 1530s. However, Otto Henry, who held the office of elector from 1556 to 1559, died childless. As a result, the title passed to Frederick, Duke of Simmern. When a controversy broke out in 1559 over the real presence, Frederick decided to resolve it by holding a public dispute between representatives of Lutheranism and of the Reformed position. Frederick found himself persuaded by the latter, and in 1561 he set about enforcing the Reformed position in the region, assisted by theologians such as Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus. Images of the saints, vestments, baptismal fonts, and organs were removed from the churches.

To consolidate the Reformed faith in this region, Frederick requested that a public confession of faith be devised that could be used to instruct the people in the new version of Protestantism. The result was the "Heidelberg Catechism" (1563), widely regarded as one of the finest documents of its kind.26 Calvin's influence is everywhere apparent in this document, which did much to consolidate his influence beyond Geneva. Around this time, the term "Calvinism" was used by its opponents to refer to the Reformed type of Protestantism as a means of emphasizing that it originated from outside Germany. The term appears to have been introduced around 1552 by the Lutheran polemicist Joachim Westphal to refer to the theological, and particularly the sacramental, views of the Swiss reformers in general, and of John Calvin in particular.27 Once introduced, the term rapidly passed into general use in the Lutheran church. In an increasingly nationalist region of Europe, it conveniently emphasized that this religious movement was foreign—unlike Luther-anism, which possessed an impeccable German pedigree.28

The introduction of the Reformed variant of Protestantism in a region that had hitherto been Lutheran caused major repercussions throughout Germany. Lutherans had regarded their religion as territorially sacrosanct. Now it seemed that another form of Protestantism was competing for influence within the region. The Lutherans moved to have the intruder suppressed. The crisis abated to some extent with the death of Frederick in 1576. His elder son, who succeeded him to the title, was a devout Lutheran and undid most of his father's changes. However, by then, Calvinism—as the movement was now known—had made headway.

In Scotland, Calvin's ideas were aggressively propagated by John Knox, who had fled to Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor. Although Knox had been converted to the cause of the Reformation in Scotland around 1545, it was during his time as pastor to the English congregation in Geneva that he developed his distinctive approach to Protestantism, one that was clearly grounded in the approach then prevalent in Geneva. Knox is perhaps most famous for his 1558 work First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which is by far his best-known work. (The word regiment here means "government.") In this work, he appeals to the Bible and the church fathers to argue that "to promote a Woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion, or empire above any Realme, Nation or Citie is repugnant to nature, contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will and approved ordinance."29

On his return to Scotland in 1559, Knox was instrumental in the production of the First Book of Discipline, which can be seen as an attempt to adapt the Protestant paradigm established at Geneva to the specifics of the Scottish situation.30 Yet Knox went further, transferring to the political sphere ideas that Calvin had limited to the sphere of church government. Taking the idea of representative government characteristic of Calvin's Reformed churches—that is, communities led by elected elders or "presbyters"—Knox applied this democratic principle at the political level—locally, regionally, and nationally.

This amounted to a virtual inversion of the traditional top-down, hierarchical model that had hitherto prevailed. Thus, the local councils ("presbyteries"), regional councils ("synods"), and national councils ("general assemblies") that presided over the faithful were made up of the people themselves, rather than representatives of the political rulers. This important transition reflected the broader impact of the ideas of the Republic of Geneva; some scholars suggest that those ideas underlay the English Civil War of the seventeenth century.

Calvin's form of Protestantism also became a significant movement in the Netherlands, at that time a Spanish province. Charles V regarded the Spanish Netherlands as an important ally in his struggle to contain Protestantism in Germany. However, Charles's abdication in 1555 began to create something of a power vacuum. The ending of the Habsburg-Valois conflict in 1559 allowed greater social mobility throughout the region, with the result that Reformed preachers were able to secure footholds in the region, most notably among the lower gentry who were angered at the state of the Catholic church. Yet at this stage, the religious views of most educated people in the region were closer to those of Erasmus of Rotterdam than those of Luther or Calvin.

Things changed when Philip II, the successor to Charles V, decided to take a strongly pro-Catholic stance in the region and enforce the decrees of the Council of Trent. His actions offended many, even the Catholic William of Orange. By 1566, Reformed Protestantism was gaining increasing support, partly as a protest against the perceived authoritarianism of Philip. Yet they needed more support. Critically, the Lutheran princes of Germany declined to become involved, having no interest in advancing the fortunes of the alternative form of Protestantism that was causing them such difficulties in their own part of the world following events in the Palatinate. Acting on Philip's instructions, the Duke of Alva marched nine thousand men from Milan to the Netherlands and set about enforcing Catholicism with a ruthless-ness that outraged even its supporters. By the 1580s, much of the north of the country had adopted the Reformed faith.31

The fine details of this conflict are important, not least to the Dutch. For our purposes, two points about the emerging shape of Protestantism are thrown into sharp relief by this development. First, the German Lutherans declined to support the Dutch Calvinists precisely because they saw them as a potential religious threat rather than as allies with a shared faith. At this time, "Protestantism" was simply not understood as something that transcended the national and religious differences between German Lutherans and Dutch Calvinists, who were seen as two separate religious groups in competition (as events in the Palatinate indicated), and possibly even in conflict.

Second, there was significant international involvement in the Dutch revolt. French Protestant—or "Huguenot"—militias were of no small significance in the Dutch revolt against the Duke of Alva. The rise of these militias was the direct outcome of growing Calvinist influence in France. Whereas Lutheranism remained landlocked in Germany, seemingly pursuing a policy of splendid isolation, those supporting Calvin's alternative vision of Protestantism perceived an international dimension to the conflict. Calvinists shared a sense of loyalty that was not limited by political frontiers. It is an important indication of the growing capacity of Calvin's vision of the reformed Christian faith to transcend national boundaries.

The importance of this point is reinforced when it is appreciated that there was another nation that gave significant covert support to the Dutch rebellion. In 1585 England provided a force of four thousand men under the Duke of Leicester to support the rebels. England was now no friend of Spain; three years later, the island nation would face invasion from the Spanish Armada. Troops would be transported from the Spanish Netherlands to invade England and force the removal of English troops from the Netherlands. Without their support, the revolt would collapse.

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