Friday, September 11, 2009

Life in Calvin's Geneva: the Protestant Panacea and City on a Hill?

Modern Geneva. St. Pierre: the church where Calvin preached, is prominent

[ source ]

From five Church historians: the last two, non-Catholics:

    Geneva at this period experienced a moral dictatorship such as has scarcely a parallel in history. It had begun at the time of Calvin's return in 1541, but it went on perfecting itself all the time. The police or 'guardians' watched everything, even the most intimate details of men's private lives. Anyone thinking evil thoughts or doing evil things was punished with brotherly ferocity.There was prison for those who liked dancing . . . enjoyed drinking . . . cardplayers . . . Barbers were forbidden to tonsure priests passing through the city, and jewellers prevented from fashioning chalices. Both these offences were punishable by hanging. It was regarded as a confession of blasphemy and heresy to murmur 'rest in peace' over the grave of a dear departed . . . Two small children were beaten with rods for having eaten two rounds of cake on leaving Church, and another young ragamuffin was nearly beheaded because he returned a box on the ears given him by his mother . . .
    It is common knowledge that dictatorships inevitably end by seeking to regulate every single thing.
    (Henri Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation, vol. II, translated by Audrey Butler, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1961,180,194-196)

    There were, of course, the five weekly sermons which all must attend . . . The fashion of dress and of shoes . . . was regulated, and the women's hair styles also . . . Needless to say, every least sign of the old religion was most rigorously forbidden . . . Anabaptists were banished, with death as the penalty should they return. The rare atheist . . . was put to death, tortured and beheaded. The heretic was burned . . . Few crimes were more swiftly and decisively punished than that of contradicting the master's teaching. Intellectual give-and-take had no place in Geneva . . . Even to say that Calvin was not a good preacher could mean prison . . .Naturally there was a censorship of books -- even Bullinger, Against the Anabaptists, was forbidden . . . Real sins, of course, were dealt with mercilessly . . . And the inquisition dreamed of from the beginning became a reality. Twice a year a commission of ministers and elders descended on every house in the town to see that all was well and godly . . . All this was entered in a huge register, with notes against the name, 'pious,' 'lukewarm,' 'corrupt.' . . . Add to this the immense body of the pious who voluntarily spied on their neighbours and even drew them on in talk until they tripped.

(Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1957, 234-235)

Early in 1543 Calvin recodified the temporal law of the city; by then it was clear that he was aiming at full fusion of the spiritual and temporal order in Geneva. By 1545 he had extended the jurisdiction of the Consistory to wholly private acts. When in January 1546 Pierre Ameaux, a member of the Little Council of Geneva, criticized Calvin at a supper party in his own home, Calvin demanded that he be punished by the government. On March 2 the Council of Two Hundred ordered Ameaux to appear before it in Calvin's presence and ask pardon on his knees "of God, the government, and Calvin" -- a punishment which Calvin condemned as insufficient. Obediently the Council reconsidered its sentence, and ordered Ameaux to walk all around the city carrying a lighted torch, bareheaded and dressed only in his shirt, three times falling on his knees and begging for mercy. A gallows was set up in front of his home to remind him of his likely fate if he continued to be contumacious. On March 21 Ami Perrin, who had been a leading supporter of Calvin, and his vivacious and outspoken wife Franchequine were imprisoned for dancing at a wedding. . . . Franchequine Perrin defied Calvin to his face, causing him to declare her "in contempt of God." In July Calvin and his ministers prohibited all theatrical productions in Geneva, a decree which remained in effect for decades. In November Calvin drew up a list of acceptable Christian names for children and prohibited children whose names were not on his list from receiving baptism.

(Warren H. Carroll, The Cleaving of Christendom, Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 2000, 211-212)

The Consistory began its work promptly. No age or distinction exempted one from its censures. Men and women were examined as to their religious knowledge, their criticisms of ministers, their absences from sermons . . . their family quarrels, as well as to more serious offences . . . against a goldsmith for making a chalice . . . against a barber for tonsuring a priest; for declaring the pope to be a good man; making a noise during the sermon; laughing during preaching; criticising Geneva for putting a man to death on account of differences in religion . . or singing a song defamatory to Calvin. Of course these instances are illustrative of only the more curious part of the work. It had to do, much of the time, with offences which any age would deem serious; but they exhibit its minute and inquisitorial interference with the lives of the people of Geneva.

(Williston Walker, John Calvin, New York, Schocken Books, 1969; originally 1906, 281-282, citing primary sources: Registres du Consistoire, 1542, in Opera, xxi. 292-305; 1550-1551, ibid., pp. 466, 489, 506; 1556, 1557, ibid., 653, 657, 664, 669; 1558, 1559, ibid., pp. 700-701, 712, 723. See also Walker, pp. 276-277, 283, 295-297, 301-304, 306, 309-310; Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963, pp. 81-101. All five of these books are in my possession)


Adomnan said...

And this is the same Calvin who excoriated the papacy and bishops for allegedly interfering with secular governance?

Hypocrisy, thy name is Calvin.

BillyHW said...

Sounds like a fun guy.

The Koopmans said...

What a joke! Anyone who reads reputable sources knows that this is a farcical rewriting of history.

The Koopmans said...

What a joke! Anyone who reads reputable sources knows that this is a farcical rewriting of history.

Dave Armstrong said...

Show us how it is wrong, then, with documentation. I would appreciate any corrections you can offer.