IT would be difficult to estimate the value or measure the extent of the influence of the work and the teaching of John Calvin upon all the countries in Europe that had been visited by the Reformation. Naturally, France and Holland, and next Germany, would be the foremost to fall under that influence; but its vital power and fertilizing warmth were very fruitful in England and Scotland.
Thus Toplady quotes a sentence from Turretin: “John Calvin was a man whose memory will be blessed in every succeeding age. He instructed and enlightened, not only the church of Geneva, but also the whole Reformed world, by his immense labors; insomuch that all the Reformed churches are not seldom called by his name.”
It was very natural that a man with his talents should be looked upon as one of the principal Reformers; and that Geneva should be recognized as the center of the work. “He bore,” says Beza, “all these churches upon his shoulders.” Not only refugees who fled from persecution came to Geneva, but godly pastors from many cities came to see the work of God for themselves.
The “Catechism of Christian Doctrine” was dedicated by its author to the Protestant churches of Austria. In 1549 he dedicated his Commentary on Hebrews to the emperor of Poland, Sigismund Augustus. In 1552 he dedicated the first part of his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles to Christian I., king of Denmark and Sweden; and the second part, two years later, to his son, Frederick.
As his Commentaries issued from the press, he dedicated them to either exalted persons or to the friends of his youth.
A constant stream of correspondence flowed from Calvin’s pen to the Reformers of England. Upon the death of Henry VIII., in 1547, the Duke of Somerset was appointed Protector until Edward VI. should come of age.
Somerset earnestly desired the reformation of the Church of England; and this work was largely assisted by the letters from Geneva.
Edward was ten years of age at the death of his father. His talents, and above all, the grace of God which shone so brightly in him, excited the highest hopes of Calvin in regard to him and to England. In June, 1548, Calvin dedicated his Commentary on 1 Timothy to the Protector; and in October of that year he wrote the well-known letter in which he minutely details what was his mind with regard to completing the reformation which had been so well begun in England. “The people should be so taught as to be touched to the quick, and feel that the Word of God is a two-edged sword. I speak this, monseigneur, because it appears to me that there is very little preaching of a lively kind in the kingdom, but that the greater part deliver it by way of reading from a written discourse. This preaching ought not to be lifeless, but lively. Now you know, my lord, how Paul speaks of the liveliness which ought to be in the mouth of good ministers of God, who ought not to make a parade of rhetoric in order to show themselves off, but the Spirit of God must resound in their voice.”
The silver trumpet of the pure gospel, and a clear and certain sound in blowing that trumpet, were what Calvin urged upon the attention of the Protector.
There are several letters on record that were addressed to England’s Josiah, Edward the Sixth. When this promising young king was fourteen years of age, in January, 1551, Calvin sent the pastor Nicolas des Gallars to England, bearing copies of his Commentaries on Isaiah and the General Epistles. With the books, a letter was addressed to Edward, which is so honorable alike to the writer and to the royal receiver, and also so deserving of our attention to-day, that a few of its sentences must be inserted here. “Moreover, Sire, holding myself assured that my letter will have such a reception from you as I desire, I shall not hesitate to pray and beseech you, in the name of Him to whom you ascribe all authority and power, to take courage in following out what you have so well and happily begun, as well in your own person as in the state of your kingdom—namely, the consecration of all to God and to our blessed Savior, who has so dearly purchased us. For, as regards general Reformation, it is not yet so well established as that it should be wise to look on it as achieved. And, in fact, it would be very difficult to purge in a day such an abyss of superstition as there is in the Papacy. Its root is too deep, and has expanded itself too widely, to get so soon to the bottom of it. But, whatever difficulties or delays there may be, the excellence of the work is well worthy of unwearying pursuit. “I have no doubt, Sire, but Satan will put many hindrances in the way before you to slacken your pace, and to make your zeal grow cold. Your subjects, for the most part, do not know the blessing which you procure for them. The great, who are raised to honor, are sometimes too wise in their own conceits to make much account of such work, far less to look to God at all. New and unexpected conflicts arise daily. Now I hope, indeed, Sire, that God has stored you with such greatness and constancy of mind that you will neither be weakened nor wearied by all that; but the thing itself is of so great importance that it well deserves that one should apply to it far more than human strength and energy. Then, after all, when we shall have striven to the very uttermost, there will always remain more waiting to be done. “Meanwhile, Sire, all honest hearts praise God and feel themselves greatly obliged to you that it has pleased you of your favor to grant churches to your subjects who use the French and German languages. In so far as regards the use of the sacraments and spiritual order, I hope that the permission which you have been pleased to confer upon them will bear fruit. “Howbeit, Sire, I cannot help beseeching once more, feeling so deeply how needful it is, not only that you would secure the rest and contentment of the godly who desire to serve God and to live peacefully in obedience to you, but also that you would restrain vagabond and dissolute people, should such withdraw into your kingdom. I know well, Sire, that you have people of distinguished learning at hand, who can make known to you these things by word of mouth far better than myself by writing; also, that in your council you have men of prudence and zeal to suggest all that is expedient. Among the others, I have no doubt that Monsieur the Duke of Somerset spares no trouble to follow out that wherein he has employed himself so faithfully hitherto. But I believe, Sire, that all that shall be no hindrance to prevent your kind reception of what you will recognize as proceeding from a like source. “To conclude, Sire. Forasmuch as I fear to have already wearied you with my tediousness, I pray you in respect of that, as in everything else, that you would please excuse and pardon me of your kind favor, to which very humbly I beg to be commended, having besought our gracious God and Father to maintain and uphold you in His holy protection, to guide you by His Spirit, and to cause His name to be more and more glorified by you. “John Calvin. “Geneva, January, 1551.” Many of his letters were also addressed to Thomas Cranmer, archbishop, reformer, and afterwards martyr. In one of his epistles to Geneva, Cranmer proposed that godly men, well taught in the school of Christ, and able to teach others, should unite to set forth a common Confession of Christian doctrine. To this proposal Calvin replied: “As far as I am concerned, I will readily pass over ten seas to effect the object in view. If the welfare of England alone were concerned, I should think it a sufficient reason to act thus. But at present, when our purpose is to unite the sentiments of all good and learned men, and so, according to the rule of Scripture, to bring the separated churches into one, neither labor nor trouble of any kind ought to be spared.”
This was indeed a laudable desire, and prompted by kindly feelings towards England. But the early death of Edward, and the martyrdom of Cranmer, prevented the fulfillment of the desire. And then the black and fiery reign of Mary did all it could to restore the papacy.
But God had mercy on England, and shortened the days of persecution.
The accession of Elizabeth was like the rising of the sun after a black night of tempest, to the great joy of the godly both here and in Switzerland.
Perceiving his opportunity, Calvin re-opened his correspondence, and dedicated another of his Commentaries to the new queen. He wrote to her, urging that the faith of the gospel, taught and followed by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Cranmer, might be revived and encouraged by her bishops; and that the goodly church order set up by Cranmer, but interrupted by the fires, might be restored.
The author of the immortal Rock of Ages, Augustus Montague Toplady, conclusively proves that the Reformers and martyrs of England, and the translators of our Bible, were Calvinistic; and that the Church of England herself is Calvinistic. Her Articles and Homilies are clearly modeled after the doctrines of grace. In fact, it was not until the days of Laud, at the opening of the seventeenth century, that Arminian teaching began to prevail to any great extent in England. All this is most ably and lucidly presented by Toplady in his “Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England,” in the second volume of his works (6 volumes, 1825). This able and impartial writer shows conclusively, quoting a large number of authors to prove his point, that the Church of England, her bishops, her Articles, her Universities, her martyrs, loyally held those views of Divine truth commonly called Calvinistic, until the defection introduced by Laud.
The Romanist writer, Stapleton, confirms this fact when he states: “The Institutions of Calvin are so greatly esteemed in England that the book has been most accurately translated into English, and is even fixed in the parish churches for the people to read. Moreover, in each of the two Universities, after the students have finished their circuit in philosophy, as many of them as are designed for the ministry are lectured first of all in that book.”
Not only in England, but also in Scotland, was the light kindled from Geneva. John Knox, driven by opposition and intolerance from his native shores, found a refuge in Geneva, and lived there from 1556 to 1559.
Calvin perceived the sterling value of this noble man; and in fact there was very much in common between them. Bold and fearless, yet strong in a majestic wisdom, Knox was the most suitable helper the Genevan Reformer could have had during those three years of his exile.
An intimate friendship was formed between these two men, which continued until the death of Calvin. They were nearly of the same age; and there was a striking similarity between not only their sentiments but also the features of their character. Their esteem was mutual, and the result of it was very fruitful.
On his return to Scotland, Knox was instrumental in establishing the Reformation by the treaty of Leith, in July, 1560; and also of establishing the Presbyterian form of church government, after the Geneva pattern, which has continued to the present day.
The first Confession of Faith was drawn up by Knox; and it is eminently Calvinistic. Eighty-seven years later, in 1647, the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was built up by the Independents in 1643.
While living in Geneva, John Knox wrote to his friend Locke: “In my heart I could have wished, yea, and cannot cease to wish, that it might please God to guide and conduct you to this place, where I neither fear nor eshame to say is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so sincerely reformed I have not yet seen in any other place beside.”
Farel, also, who was well qualified to judge of the state of Geneva, thus writes of its prosperity at this period: “I was lately at Geneva, and so delighted was I that I could scarce tear myself away. I would rather be last in Geneva than first in any other place. Were I not prevented by the Lord, and by my love for my congregation, nothing would hinder me from ending my days there.”
The estimate formed by Dr. Thomas M’Crie, not only of the character of John Knox, but also of his relative excellence, is so apt and so valuable that I must make room for it here, as quite within the scope of this chapter: “Knox bore a striking resemblance to Luther in personal intrepidity and in popular eloquence. He approached nearest to Calvin in his religious sentiments, in the severity of his manners, and in a certain impressive air of melancholy which pervaded his character. And he resembled Zwinglius in his ardent attachments to the principles of religious liberty, and in combining his exertions for the reformation of the church with uniform endeavors to improve the political state of the people. Not that I would place our Reformer on a level with this illustrious triumvirate. There is a splendor which surrounds the great German Reformer, partly arising from the intrinsic heroism of his character, and partly reflected from the interesting situation in which his long and doubtful struggle with the court of Rome has placed him in the eyes of Europe, which removes him at a distance from all who started in the same glorious career. The Genevan Reformer surpassed Knox in the extent of his theological learning, and in the unrivalled solidity and clearness of his judgment. And the Reformer of Switzerland, though inferior to him in masculine elocution and in daring courage, excelled him in selfcommand, in prudence, and in that species of eloquence which steals into the heart, which persuades without irritating, and governs without assuming the tone of authority. “But, although ‘he attained not to the first three,’ I know not, among all the eminent men who appeared at that period, any name which is so well entitled to be placed next to theirs as that of Knox, whether we consider the talents with which he was endowed, or the important services which he performed.”
It has thus been shown that the many godly men who were gathered together at Geneva in the providence of God were largely influenced by the teaching of the chief pastor of that city; and that they, like so many streams, conveyed its fertilizing energy to many distant lands. In his Memorials of Archbishop Cranmer, Strype quotes several letters written by that Reformer to Calvin, and the replies of the latter to England, from which, did space permit, many extracts might be made.
Nor must we omit to notice here the immense influence exerted in England by the “Genevan” Bible. After the editions of the Bible known as “Cranmer’s,” “the Bishops’ Bible,” and some others, an edition in a smaller (quarto) and more convenient size became extremely popular. This was known, and still is known, as the “Breeches” Bible, from its rendering of the last word in Genesis 3:7; the “Genevan,” because translated there; and “Beza’s,” because of the marginal notes ascribed to him.
This translation became a great favorite here in England, and was only superseded by the “Authorized” Version of 1611. My own copy bears the date 1608. The reader will be pleased to see how Romans 8:28 reads in the “Genevan” Bible: “Also we know that all things worke together for the best unto them that love God, even to them that are called of His purpose.”