May 27: Death of John Calvin

Today we are pleased to have as our guest author the Rev. Dr. David W. Hall, pastor of the Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Powder Springs, GA. It was Dr. Hall who so competently headed up the Calvin 500 celebration just a few years back, a celebration which included the publication of almost a shelf of new works on the life and ministry of John Calvin, with several of those works written by Dr. Hall himself. He has also been our guest author on most Saturdays this year, with a series on Election Day Sermons.

Calvin’s Death

calvinJohn02On April 25, 1564, sensing the nearness of death, Calvin filed his final will. In it he pled his unworthiness (“Woe is me; my ardor and zeal have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times”1) and thanked God for mercy. He appointed his brother, Anthony (whose reputation for divorcing an earlier wife due to adultery had been maliciously used to malign Calvin himself), to be his heir, and in his will he bequeathed equal amounts to the Boys’ School, the poor refugees, and his stepdaughters. He also left part of his meager estate to his nephews and their children. To vindicate Calvin against charges of greed, Beza reiterated what Calvin had stated earlier: “If some will not be persuaded while I am alive, my death, at all events will show that I have not been a money-making man.”2 When his will was notarized and brought to the attention of the Senate,3 members of that council visited the declining Calvin to hear his final farewell personally.

Calvin’s importance and relationship to the city leaders may be gleaned from his Farewell Address to the Members of the Little Council.4 The members of this council had gone to his home to hear his advice and to express their appreciation for the “services he has performed for the Seigneurie and for that of which he has faithfully acquitted himself in his duty.” A contemporary recorded his sentiments from April 27, 1564. In that chronicle, the dying Calvin first thanked these leaders for their support, cooperation, and friendship. Although they had engaged in numerous struggles, still their relationship was cordial. Even though he wished to accomplish more, Calvin humbly suggested that God might have “used him in the little he did.” He urged the senators to honor God and to keep “hidden under the wings of God in whom all our confidence must be. And as much as we are hanging by a thread, nevertheless he will continue, as in the past, to keep us as we have already experienced that he saved us in several ways.”

He concluded by encouraging each one to “walk according to his station and use faithfully that which God gave him in order to uphold this Republic. Regarding civil or criminal trials, one should reject all favor, hate, errors, commendations.” He also advised leaders not to aspire to privilege as if rank was a benefit for governors. “And if one is tempted to deviate from this,” Calvin added, “one should resist and be constant, considering the One who established us, asking him to conduct us by his Holy Spirit, and he will not desert us.”

Calvin’s farewell to these political leaders was followed by his Farewell Address to the Ministers on April 28, 1564. From his chamber, Calvin reminded them poignantly: “When I first came to this Church there was almost nothing. We preached and that was all. We searched out idols and burned them, but there was no reformation. Everything was in tumult. . . . I lived here through marvelous battles. I was welcomed with mockery one evening in front of my door by 50 or 60 rifle shots. Do you think that that could disturb a poor, timid student as I am, and as I have always been, I confess?” The farewell address continued to review his Strasbourg exile, the tensions he faced upon return, and some of his experiences with various councils. Calvin concluded by predicting that the battles would not lessen in the days ahead, warning, “You will be busy after God takes me, even though I am nothing, still I know I prevented three thousand uproars that there might have been in Geneva. But take courage and strengthen yourselves, for God will use this Church and will maintain her, and be sure that God will keep her.”

Calvin humbly confessed: “I say again that all that I did has no value, and that I am a miserable creature. But if I could say what I truly wanted to, that my vices always displeased me, and that the root of the fear of God was in my heart, and you can say that what I was subjected to was good, and I pray that you would forgive me of the bad, but if there is anything good, that you conform yourselves to it and follow it.”

He denied that he had written hateful things about others, and he confirmed that the pastors had elected Beza to be his successor. “Watch that you help him [Beza],” exhorted the dying Calvin, “for the duty is large and troublesome, of such a sort that he may be overwhelmed under the burden. . . . As for him, I know that he has a good will and will do what he can.” Further, he requested that senators not change anything in Geneva’s structures and urged them “not to innovate—we often ask for novelties—not that I desire for myself by ambition what mine remains, and that we retain it without wanting better, but because all change is hazardous, and sometimes harmful.” The advice from this leader is filled with layer upon layer of wisdom.

Always sensitive to the calling to lead in many sectors of public life, he concluded with a plea for his fellow ministers to recall how they would affect matters outside the walls of the church, too: “Let each one consider the obligation he has, not only to this Church, but to the city, which has promised to serve in adversity as well as in prosperity, and likewise each one should continue in his vocation and not try to leave it or not practice it. For when one hides to escape the duty, he will say that he has neither thought about it nor sought this or that. But one should consider the obligation he has here before God.”

calvin_deathbedWhen Calvin passed away almost a month after making these comments on May 27, 1564, “the whole State regretted” the death of “its wisest citizen . . . a common parent.” He was interred in a common cemetery at Plein Palais, finally finding the anonymity he craved. That, one historian wrote, was characteristic of Calvin in life as in death.5 The widespread notice and sadness at his death should serve to correct any faulty view that his contemporaries either despised him or underestimated his importance. He was mourned, and his large number of friends would keep his memory alive far more than some contemporaries would have predicted.

 

Source: David W. Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding(Lexington Books, 2003).

1 Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin (contained in John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Reformation of the Church [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958], vol. 1), cxxv.

2 Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, cxxxviii.

3 Beza refers to this Little Council as the “senate.” See Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, cxxii.

4 This translation is from an unpublished translation of Calvin’s “Farewell Address,” trans. Kim McMahan of Oak Ridge, TN; originally published in 1999 at: http://capo.org/premise/99/jan/p990110.html.

5 Emile Doumergue, The Character of Calvin (Neuilly, La Cause, 1931), 173.

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