urgency that he should be put to death, and at their last interview he told Servetus that he never had avenged private injuries, and assured him that if he would repent it would not be his fault if all the pious did not give him their hands. There is the fact also that Calvin used his endeavour to have the sentence which had been pronounced against Servetus mitigated, death by burning being regarded by him as an “atrocity,” for which he sought to substitute death by the sword. It can be justly charged against Calvin in this matter that he took the initiative in bringing on the trial of Servetus, that as his accuser he prosecuted the suit against him with undue severity, and that he approved the sentence which condemned Servetus to death. When, however, it is remembered that the unanimous decision of the Swiss churches and of the Swiss state governments was that Servetus deserved to die; that the general voice of Christendom was in favour of this; that even such a man as Melanchthon affirmed the justice of the sentence; that an eminent English divine of the next age should declare the process against him “just and honourable,” and that only a few voices here and there were at the time raised against it, many will be ready to accept the judgment of Coleridge, that the death of Servetus was not “Calvin’s guilt especially, but the common opprobrium of all European Christendom.”
Calvin was also involved in a protracted and somewhat vexing dispute with the Lutherans respecting the Lord’s Supper, which ended in the separation of the evangelical party into the two great sections of Lutherans and Reformed,—the former holding that in the eucharist the body and blood of Christ are objectively and consubstantially present, and so are actually partaken of by the communicants, and the latter that there is only a virtual presence of the body and blood of Christ, and consequently only a spiritual participation thereof through faith. In addition to these controversies on points of faith, he was for many years greatly disquieted, and sometimes even endangered, by the opposition offered by the libertine party in Geneva to the ecclesiastical discipline which he had established there. His system of church polity was essentially theocratic; it assumed that every member of the state was also under the discipline of the church; and he asserted that the right of exercising this discipline was vested exclusively in the consistory or body of preachers and elders. His attempts to carry out these views brought him into collision both with the authorities and with the populace,—the latter being not unnaturally restive under the restraints imposed upon their liberty by the vigorous system of church discipline, and the former being inclined to retain in their own hands a portion of that power in things spiritual which Calvin was bent on placing exclusively in the hands of the church rulers. His dauntless courage, his perseverance, and his earnestness at length prevailed, and he had the satisfaction, before he died, of seeing his favourite system of church polity firmly established, not only at Geneva, but in other parts of Switzerland, and of knowing that it had been adopted substantially by the Reformers in France and Scotland. The men whom he trained at Geneva carried his principles into almost every country in Europe, and in varying degree these principles did much for the cause of civil liberty. Nor was it only in religious matters that Calvin busied himself; nothing was indifferent to him that concerned the welfare and good order of the state or the advantage of its citizens. His work embraced everything; he was consulted on every affair, great and small, that came before the council,—on questions of law, police, economy, trade, and manufactures, no less than on questions of doctrine and church polity. To him the city owed her trade in cloths and velvets, from which so much wealth accrued to her citizens; sanitary regulations were introduced by him which made Geneva the admiration of all visitors; and in him she reverences the founder of her university. This institution was in a sense Calvin’s crowning work. It added religious education to the evangelical preaching and the thorough discipline already established, and so completed the reformer’s ideal of a Christian commonwealth.
Amidst these multitudinous cares and occupations, Calvin found time to write a number of works besides those provoked by the various controversies in which he was engaged. The most numerous of these were of an exegetical character. Including discourses taken down from his lips by faithful auditors, we have from him expository comments or homilies on nearly all the books of Scripture, written partly in Latin and partly in French. Though naturally knowing nothing of the modern idea of a progressive revelation, his judiciousness, penetration, and tact in eliciting his author’s meaning, his precision, condensation, and concinnity as an expositor, the accuracy of his learning, the closeness of his reasoning, and the elegance of his style, all unite to confer a high value on his exegetical works. The series began with Romans in 1540 and ended with Joshua in 1564. In 1558-1559 also, though in very ill health, he finally perfected the Institutes.
The incessant and exhausting labours to which Calvin gave himself could not but tell on his fragile constitution. Amid many sufferings, however, and frequent attacks of sickness, he manfully pursued his course; nor was it till his frail body, torn by many and painful diseases—fever, asthma, stone, and gout, the fruits for the most part of his sedentary habits and unceasing activity—had, as it were, fallen to pieces around him, that his indomitable spirit relinquished the conflict. In the early part of the year 1564 his sufferings became so severe that it was manifest his earthly career was rapidly drawing to a close. On the 6th of February of that year he preached his last sermon, having with great difficulty found breath enough to carry him through it. He was several times after this carried to church, but never again was able to take any part in the service. With his usual disinterestedness he refused to receive his stipend, now that he was no longer able to discharge the duties of his office. In the midst of his sufferings, however, his zeal and energy kept him in continual occupation; when expostulated with for such unseasonable toil, he replied, “Would you that the Lord should find me idle when He comes?” After he had retired from public labours he lingered for some months, enduring the severest agony without a murmur, and cheerfully attending to all the duties of a private kind which his diseases left him strength to discharge. On the 25th of April he made his will, on the 27th he received the Little Council, and on the 28th the Genevan ministers, in his sick-room; on the 2nd of May he wrote his last letter—to his old comrade Farel, who hastened from Neuchâtel to see him once again. He spent much time in prayer and died quietly, in the arms of his faithful friend Theodore Beza, on the evening of the 27th of May, in the fifty-fifth year of his age. The next day he was buried without pomp “in the common cemetery called Plain-palais” in a spot not now to be identified.
Calvin was of middle stature; his complexion was somewhat pallid and dark; his eyes, to the latest clear and lustrous, bespoke the acumen of his genius. He was sparing in his food and simple in his dress; he took but little sleep, and was capable of extraordinary efforts of intellectual toil. He had a most retentive memory and a very keen power of observation. He spoke without rhetoric, simply, directly, but with great weight. He had many acquaintances but few close friends. His private character was in harmony with his public reputation and position. If somewhat severe and irritable, he was at the same time scrupulously just, truthful, and steadfast; he never deserted a friend or took an unfair advantage of an antagonist; and on befitting occasions he could be cheerful and even facetious among his intimates. “God gave him,” said the Little Council after his death, “a character of great majesty.” “I have been a witness of him for sixteen years,” says Beza, “and I think I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an
- Fidelis Expositio Errorum Serveti, sub init. Calvini, Opp. t. ix.
- Calvin to Farel, 20th Aug. 1553.
- Tuo judicio prorsus assentior. Affirmo etiam vestros magistratus juste fecisse quod hominem blasphemum, re ordine judicata, interfecerunt.—Melanchthon to Calvin, 14th Oct. 1554.
- Field On the Church, bk. iii. c. 27, vol. i. p. 288 (ed. Cambridge, 1847).
- Notes on English Divines, vol. i. p. 49. See also Table Talk, vol. ii. p. 282 (ed. 1835).
- W. Walker, John Calvin, pp. 403-8.