Calvin was born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509. He received formal instruction for the priesthood at the Collège de la Marche and the Collège de Montaigue, branches of the University of Paris. Encouraged by his father to study law instead of theology, Calvin also attended universities at Orléans and Bourges.
Along with several friends he grew to appreciate the humanistic and reforming movements, and he undertook studies in the Greek Bible. In 1532 he published a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, proving his skills as a humanist scholar. His association with Nicholas Cop, newly elected rector of the University of Paris, forced both to flee when Cop announced his support in 1535 of Martin Luther. Although he seldom spoke of it, Calvin underwent a personal religious experience about this time.
Calvin moved frequently during the next two years, avoiding church authorities while he studied, wrote, and formulated from the Bible and Christian tradition the primary tenets of his theology. In 1536 he published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a succinct and provocative work that thrust him into the forefront of Protestantism as a thinker and spokesman. During the same year, Calvin visited Geneva on his way to Strasbourg and was asked by Guillaume Farel to assist in the city’s reformation movement. Calvin remained in Geneva with Farel until 1538, when the town voted against Farel and asked both men to leave. Calvin completed his interrupted journey to Strasbourg and participated in that community’s religious life until September 1541. While in Strasbourg, Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow. The couple had one child, who died in infancy. At Strasbourg, Calvin also published his Commentary on Romans (1539), the first of his many commentaries on books of the Bible.
In 1541 Genevans prevailed upon Calvin to return and lead them again in reforming the church. He remained in that city for the rest of his life, except for brief journeys in the interest of church reform. His wife died in 1549, and he did not remarry. Although he received a house and stipend from the government, he did not hold office in the government, and he did not even become a citizen of Geneva until 1559. Until the defeat of the Perrin family in 1555, there was significant opposition to Calvin’s leadership in the city.
Calvin drafted the new ordinances that the government modified and adopted as a constitution for Geneva governing both secular and sacred matters. Calvin also supported development of a municipal school system for all children, with the Geneva Academy as the center of instruction for the very best students. In 1559 the academy was begun, with Theodore Beza as rector of what soon became a full university.
While Calvin served Geneva, the city was almost constantly threatened by Papist armies under Emanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy, and other leaders. Indeed, the city was a walled fortress, receiving little benefit from surrounding farmlands and nearby allies. Thus, the threat of conquest contributed to Geneva’s harsh quality of life and to its need for commerce. Dissenting Christians were frequently expelled, and one man was put to death as a heretic. Calvin approved the burning of Michael Servetus (although he recommended decapitation), when the Unitarian was captured in the city.
Calvin sought to improve the life of the city’s citizens in many ways. He supported good hospitals, a proper sewage system, protective rails on upper stories to keep children from falling from tall buildings, special care for the poor and infirm, and the introduction of new industries. He encouraged the use of French in churches, and he personally contributed to its formation as a modern language by his vernacular writings.
Calvin’s writings, however, have proven to be his most lasting contribution to the church. The famous Genevan Psalter, composed mostly by his colleague Louis Bourgeois, became the basis for much Protestant psalmody. He wrote an influential catechism, hundreds of letters to fellow reformers, and commentaries on almost all books of the Bible. His sermons and manuscripts have been collected, and most are available in English.
Calvin’s health was never robust; his illnesses included chronic asthma, indigestion, and catarrh. He became very frail with the onslaught of quartan fever in 1558. He died on May 27, 1564, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Geneva.