AT the threshold of the sixteenth century, a man in lowly life, by trade a “tonnelier,” or cooper, lived in a village named Pont l’Eveque (Bishop’s Bridge in English), near Noyon, in Picardy, a province in the North of France. He had a son named Gerard Chauvin, or Cauvin, who was apostolic notary and secretary to the bishop, a position which brought no very great emolument to its holder. He lived at Noyon. Gerard Chauvin had married a young woman named Jeanne Lefranc. Their first child was a son, named Charles. The second was Jean, the subject of this history. A third son, who died in infancy, and two daughters, completed the family.
It may be convenient to state here that Jean Chauvin, in French, at a later date assumed the Latinized form “Johannes Calvinus,” of which the English form is JOHN CALVIN.
John Calvin as a youth is described as of rather small stature, with keen eyes and countenance, of a studious turn, and in appearance somewhat delicate. Moreover, he seems to have inherited something of the sternness of his father; though this was modified and sweetened by his after education. He himself tells us that he was “of a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful, which led me always to love the shade and retirement.” He adds to this: “I began to seek some secluded corner where I might be withdrawn from the public view; but so far from being able to accomplish the object of my desire, all my retreats were like public schools. In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me about through different turnings and changes, that He never permitted me to rest in any place until, in spite of my natural disposition, He brought me forth to public notice.”
He was thus born with a love of retirement, study, and the pursuit of learning; and, it need scarcely be added, most devotedly attached to the superstitions of the Church of Rome.
Gerard Chauvin was desirous that his children should receive the best possible education. In his position as bishop’s secretary he became familiar with the noble family of De Mommor, and the young Jean was brought up with Claude Mommor, receiving the same education. By this early training he not only acquired a good foundation of learning, but also received a higher degree of cultivation than was possible for him at home.
It is impossible here not to be reminded of the similar preparation for his lifework of Saul of Tarsus, afterwards the apostle Paul, of whose learning God had designed to make use, as well as of his capacity to labor and to suffer for the gospel. The hand of God is in all biography as well as in all history.
It is evident that from a very early age Calvin was filled with reverence for God, and worshipped Him, though yet in much darkness, yet with a devoutness almost beyond his years. One author, though not naming his authority, records that it was Jean’s custom, while very young, to worship God in the open air. But perhaps this was merely his interpretation of Calvin’s statement, just quoted, that he loved the shade and retirement. Yet it is quite likely; for God was about to grant to him larger mews than those of the Roman Church, and to lead him into the liberty of the gospel.
His education being somewhat beyond his father’s means, Gerard wished to have his son attached to the church, with the view of his advancement in its service. When Jean was twelve years of age, the chaplaincy of a small church, named La Gesine, became vacant; and the father sought from the bishop the benefit of his patronage and help on behalf of his son. It should be said in explanation that in those times it was quite a common practice to bestow ecclesiastical titles and offices upon mere children.
Thus we read of one who was made a cardinal at eight years of age, and of another at eleven, by Clement VII. This fact must account for the otherwise so remarkable an occurrence at so early a date in Jean’s life.
The bishop conferred the desired appointment on May 21, 1521; and Jean Chauvin was made the Chaplain of Gesine. We are bound to trace in this event certain links in the chain of God’s providence. His father was in favor with the bishop of Noyon, and with his vicar-general, and could thus present and press his petition; and God, having a favor to the lad, was leading him by a way that he knew not to a position far higher than his father could have pictured or would have desired.
For two years did the youthful chaplain live at Noyon, holding his benefice at La Gesine, but without fulfilling any of its duties, of which in the nature of things he was not capable.
Our artist having submitted an engraving that pictures the well in the cloisters at Noyon, we most gladly insert it for its significant value. In that little town was born a man in whose heart ( John 7:38) bubbled up “rivers of living water,” which in due time flowed forth to fertilize many a barren place, and to gladden many a thirsty soul. “In the last day” of the Feast of Tabernacles, when the boughs were withered, “that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” ( John 7:37-38) The youth had been for about two years in possession of his title when a terrible plague—in those days not uncommon—visited that part of France.
The “black pestilence” broke forth, and caused great alarm to the inhabitants of the towns and villages. The priests in terror fled from their duties; and Gerard Chauvin, feeling afraid for his son, sought and obtained permission for Jean to leave the district. He asked for “leave to go whither his mind should lead, without loss of his emoluments.” This permission was given in August, 1523, when the youth was fourteen years of age.
At this juncture the De Mommors were proceeding to Paris to continue their studies; and it was arranged that Jean Chauvin should go with them; thus securing his safety, and at the same time filling the heart of his father with pleasant visions of his advancement in learning and in the church. The canon of Noyon, in recording this event, says: “In flying from the pestilence here, he went to catch another infection elsewhere.”
The young students entered the college of La Marche, which at that time, as Beza tells us, had a very remarkable teacher named Mathurin Cordier, a man of refined taste and of considerable acquirements. In all this we still trace the unfolding of the Divine purpose towards Calvin.
A new world was thus opened to the young student. He saw spread before him the rich stores of Latin literature, which he made his own by diligent study with apparent ease. A mutual trust and regard grew between the great teacher and the greater scholar; and the scholar drank deeply from the streams which so refreshed his ardent mind. Cordier could not teach Calvin the truth of God, for himself, alas! was a stranger to its power; but God was watching over the working out of His own design, even in these preparatory exercises of learning the classics and of acquiring facility of speech and of argument. And thus what Gamaliel was to Saul of Tarsus at Jerusalem, Cordier was to Calvin of Noyon at Paris. Nor should we omit here to record that what Luther did for the German language, and what our own Reformers did for the English, that Calvin did for the French. The gospel ennobles everything it touches, exalts every nation that shelters it, and enriches every language that speaks and spreads it. The three languages, German, French and English, are richer to-day for the influences brought to bear upon them by Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers.
The young student fulfilled his term of study at La Marche, and entered college in 1526, at the age of seventeen. The college chosen was that of Montaigu, then high in reputation for the training of students intended for the “priesthood.” How the new student progressed at his new school may be expressed in the testimonies of more than one historian; Protestants and Romanists agreeing in the verdict.
Bossuet says: “Luther triumphed orally, but the pen of Calvin was more correct. Both excelled in speaking the language of their country.”
Etienne Pasquier testifies: “Calvin was a man who wrote well . . . to whom our tongue is greatly indebted.” “No one of those who preceded him,” says Florimond de Raemond, “excelled him in writing well; and few since have approached him in beauty and felicity of language.”
It was thus that Moses was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” ( Acts 7:22) before he chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God” ( Hebrews 11:25).
It was thus that Paul learned earthly wisdom in the school of Gamaliel, which, when sanctified and ennobled by grace, was to be of so great use to him, before he was taught the knowledge of salvation in the school of Christ. The man, in fact, was being fitted for the work to be given him to do, as will be seen in due course.