John Calvin’s utopia

Last year there was a big news story about the Texas Board of Education changing the textbook curriculum standards to make them more “conservative.” Among the changes introduced were the removal of the idea of “separation of church and state,” an increased emphasis on the idea that Nixon wasn’t such a bad dude after all, the removal of Thomas Jefferson (who, after all, was a well-known anarchist), and the addition of John Calvin as one of the “inspirations” of the American Revolution.

Admittedly, these concerns may seem a bit esoteric. They might not seem like a big deal. After all, if one side says that history is skewed to be too conservative and the other wise says it is skewed to be too liberal, then who can really say if anyone is right or wrong? So now, almost a year after the big hubbub, nobody really talks about the gigantic re-write of American history by the Texas Board of Education any more. It’s academic, it’s a little boring, and most people don’t know why they should care whether “John Calvin” is now being taught as one of the inspirations of the American revolution. Can that really be such a bad thing?

Who was this John Calvin person, anyway?

The following description, and additional details and references if you are interested in finding out more, can be found in the book Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.

John Calvin was a religious and political reformer who gained control of Geneva on two separate occasions. The first time didn’t go so well for him; the second time, he got everything he wanted and transformed Geneva into a utopia: his own personal version of utopia.

In 1536, Geneva had recently ousted its Catholic clergy and officially had become a Protestant city. Guillaume Farel, a French preacher, had lead the charge, calling for an end of Mass and a destruction of relics and idols. But although the Genevan citizens had voted to “live by the Gospels” they were having some trouble with the details of law enforcement. So when John Calvin, a well-known Protestant theologian and writer, arrived in town, Farel reached out to Calvin and asked for help with running the city in a true and righteous way.

On January 6, 1537, Farel and Calvin jointly published “Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva.” It outlined standards for church services and church membership throughout the city. These articles contained a number of provisions, however, that also extended into the personal lives for worshipers in the city. The civil authorities were to give over the right of excommunication completely to church officials. The church was to appoint what essentially were spies to keep an eye on the members of the community, to make sure that everyone was behaving in an upright and austere fashion. If the spies noted anything deemed to be less-than-respectable, the citizens would be denied communion and denied even admission into the Church. Most controversial of all was that every citizen of Geneva was required to take a solemn pledge: a pledge that ran for twenty-one pages and affirmed that they agreed with Calvin’s interpretation of everything in the scriptures, ranging from prayer to salvation to behavior. If you refused to take the the oath, you would be expelled from the city.

[What is it with conservatives and oaths, anyway?]

This plan was brought before the civil government. The civil rulers (a collection of “syndics”, a “little council” and a “council of two hundred”) were all scared of the crime in the city and the difficulty that they were having maintaining peace in their new Protestant paradise. As a result, they quickly and easily agreed to sign on to anything that might engender order and authority. Initially, however, the citizens of Geneva simply ignored the new decrees. As Calvin and Farel pushed harder to enforce them, the populace pushed back.  The police rounded people up to compel them to take the oath, and still many refused. In the next set of elections, a new set of syndics were put into power who were more resistant to the pressures of Calvin and Farel. The general feeling of the population was that they had not fought for ten years to get rid of the authority of the Pope just to have it replaced with this. Finally, April 23 1538, the council of two hundred gave Farel and Calvin three days to get out of town.

That was Attempt #1.

Unfortunately, things got worse in Geneva. Church discipline disappeared, and unrest increased. There were brawls in the streets, and drunkenness was on the rise while church attendance was on the decline. The syndics in power suffered from political blunders, lost some land in a foreign affairs dispute, and ended up disgraced and fleeing for their lives. Within two years of the ouster of John Calvin, the government that had sent him packing had disintegrated.

Rome noticed, as well. The Pope had the archbishop of Carpentras write a letter to the city, pointing out the error of their ways and suggesting that if only they would come back under Catholic rule their problems would be alleviated. Genevans remembered, however, how much they disliked the control of the Catholic Church. As a result, this letter caused more fear than anything else. Suddenly, Geneva felt that, in addition to local law-enforcement troubles, they were in danger of coming once again under the control of the Pope. Nobody in Geneva had the strength of personality or scholarship to resist the Pope. Who could help them? Who could protect them?

So they turned to Calvin.  They effectively wooed Calvin. After the city had expelled him, Calvin had no great regard for the place. But the Genevans promised to conform to his ideas, they promised “to keep Calvin, always.” They bought him a big house on a nice street, threw in gifts of wheat and wine (although Calvin didn’t drink), and they offered to move him and his wife and children in free of charge.

Finally, Calvin agreed to come back–under a contract. A contract that he wrote himself. It was called the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Church of Geneva,” and it was one of the most comprehensive and oppressive sets of laws enacted in any community in history.  The Ordinances of 1541 and their subsequent companion laws were Calvin’s proscription for a perfect society. He intended Geneva to be utopia: a standard-bearer in the quest for godly life on earth.

It should be noted from the first that Calvin’s utopia worked, in a sense. Murder and prostitution shrank to almost nothing. Public education was mandatory and free, and there was a communal hospital available to all. Geneva acquired a reputation for piety, sobriety and hard work. To some, it symbolized the moral success of Protestantism over Catholicism.

It also involved spies and secret police. A group of laymen approved by Calvin were responsible for discovering the sins of the community and reporting it to the authorities. The police operated on a commission, as well, so there was plenty of incentive to find as much wrong-doing as possible.

One burgher smiled while attending a baptism: three day’s imprisonment.

Another, tired out on a hot summer’s day, went to sleep during a sermon: prison.

Some working men ate pastry at breakfast: three days on bread and water.

Two burghers played scuttles: prison.

A blind fiddler played a dance: expelled from the city.

A girl was caught skating, a widow threw herself on the grave of her husband, a burgher offered snuff to a neighbor: all were summoned before the Consistory and ordered to do penance.

A burger said “Monseieur” Calvin instead of “Maitre” Calvin: prison.

Two peasants were talking business coming out of church: prison.

Two boatmen had a brawl, in which nobody was hurt: executed.

A woman who was being threatened by her husband was told  that “if she finds that her husband is persecuting her to the death, then she may then avail herself of the liberty which our Savior grants to his followers for escaping from the fury of the wolves.”

Thus, I introduce to you John Calvin: hero of the conservatives and Texas board of education. No wonder they dislike the idea of “separation of church and state.” There has, after all, been no more perfect theocracy on this earth than the utopian paradise set up by the esteemed John Calvin.