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John Calvin's
Economic Reformation

Keith Tankard
15 January 2014


Once it was clear that Martin Luther's reformation was to succeed unscathed, new interpretations began to pop up in the city states of Switzerland. While Luther had attacked only peripheries in the Catholic Church, the urban reformation would excise fundamental doctrine. In essence, John Calvin's reorganisation would create a religion which was suitable to the urban bourgeoisie and their business ethic.


Luther's reform movement had been essentially a German affair and took root because of an age-old conflict between the princes and the Emperor. Lutheranism therefore became a religion in those states where feudalism was still strong and which clung primarily to a conservative, traditional approach. Politics, and not religion, was therefore really the driving force behind this German sect.


The larger market towns and cities of Europe had different needs to feudal Germany. In such towns as Geneva, which had in fact become city-states, the bourgeoisie had long established their political independence from the feudal princes. A revolution was taking place in these towns and encompassed almost every facet of social life: the economy, modes of dress, manner of living, philosophy of life.

The bourgeoisie had evolved a lifestyle different to traditional feudalism. Their economy was based on money and not on land. They became wealthy through hard work rather than through inheritance. The majority wore the traditional, conservative clothing of the townspeople rather than the flamboyant style of the country aristocracy. Their philosophy was moulded by the need for thrift, hard work and austerity.

These people were at odds not only with the traditional feudal aristocracy but also with the traditional Church. The Catholic Church based much of its philosophy on the feudal dimension. The clergy were ranked as feudal aristocracy, with a definite hierarchy and an aristocratic manner of address: Your Holiness (the Pope), Your Eminence (the Cardinal), Your Grace (the Archbishop).

Clerical garb and vestments also followed the style of the aristocracy. Theology was complicated and was based on medieval philosophy, while celebration of feast days followed the leisurely pattern of the agricultural aristocracy, with more than 100 days a year set aside as "holy days of obligation" to be celebrated in true religious style.

Such practices tended to disconcert many of the bourgeoisie because they were regarded as economically questionable. There was therefore a ground-swell of discontent in many of the towns, especially those in Switzerland, as well as in parts of France and Holland, where trade was increasing during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The bourgeoisie also found themselves at odds with the traditional Catholic position on usury. The Church banned the practice but, since the bourgeoisie depended on money as a source of their livelihood, the need to borrow and lend money at interest became important. This latter point might not look like religion but it was definitely a philosophy of life.

Any Church reformer, therefore, who proclaimed a religion which encompassed the overall philosophy of the bourgeoisie would find instant followers amongst the townspeople. John Calvin did this. Initially he went along with Luther in his revolt against the Catholic Church but then produced a completely new reform which incorporated much of the philosophy of the bourgeoisie.


Ulrich Zwingli took Luther's reforms a step further in Switzerland, a territory which, although nominally a part of the Holy Roman Empire, was in reality a confederation of thirteen small but virtually autonomous cantons. Zwingli was the vicar of the Cathedral in Zurich, the leading city in Switzerland.

He began tentatively by ridiculing the idea of indulgences. In 1519 (two years after Luther's historic display of his 95 theses) he forced a seller of indulgences out of the city. He then became influenced by Luther's writings and began a reform movement of his own, culminating in 1523 when he drew up 67 theses which went far beyond Luther's attack on the Catholic Church.

While Luther had initially attacked only the peripherals of the Church, Zwingli rejected many of the doctrines at the heart of Catholicism, especially the position of the pope, the Mass, invocation of the saints, fasting, festivals, pilgrimages, monastic orders, the priesthood, confession and absolution, indulgences and purgatory.

He then won the sympathy of the Zurich Church Council and brought in reforms which abolished the Mass, removed icons, candles and other forms of decoration from the church, buried relics, abolished holy water and painted over frescoes. This "Reformed Protestantism" then spread rapidly through five of the cantons and by 1529 two leagues were formed, a Catholic and a Protestant, which went to war in 1531, leading to Zwingli's death.


The Protestant League was ultimately defeated but a truce was reached which gave each canton the right to choose its own "state religion". Into that atmosphere came John Calvin. He was French by birth but went into exile in Switzerland after his conversion to Protestantism in 1534. He resided in Basel where he wrote The Institutes of the Christian Church that was to establish his reputation as a reformer.

His work was based largely on Luther's writings but, where Luther allowed anything which he believed was not directly banned by the Bible, Calvin banned everything that was not directly allowed by the Bible. At the core of his teaching was his belief in predestination. While Calvin agreed with Luther that salvation was by faith alone, he nevertheless insisted that not everyone could be saved.

Calvin argued that only those whom God had predestined from all eternity would be saved. These people, he said, were chosen not because God saw good in them but because it was God's will to bestow on them the gift of salvation. On the other hand, God has left the rest of mankind to suffer the penalty which they justly deserved because of their sins.

Nevertheless, Calvin added the rider that those who are predestined to salvation will also perform good works as a reminder of their elect state. It behoves them to strive towards perfection, endeavouring to fulfil the divine law to the ultimate degree. It is also their duty to make other men moral so as to re-fashion their community and the world in accordance with God's will.

Calvin was then invited to Geneva to supervise the reformation there and succeeded in establishing a theocracy, i.e. a state that is run according to the edicts of the Church. The Church controlled every facet of the citizen's life, from church attendance, dress, behaviour, amusements and luxuries. Within this theocracy, certain rules were imperative lest God be offended.

Dancing was prohibited, women would be imprisoned if they wore ostentatious clothing, plays were tolerated only if they dealt with religious subjects, parents were limited in the names they could give to their children. Laughing during a sermon, wearing jewellery if one was a spinster, playing cards, singing frivolous songs, betrothing one's daughter to a Catholic and being ill for more than three days without calling in the minister were punishable by flogging.


Calvin's historical importance lies in the influence he had on Protestantism throughout Europe. His writings were translated into many languages. His fame attracted Protestants to Geneva who then returned home to spread the message. His views were therefore rapidly accepted by the bourgeoisie in other parts of Switzerland, France (the Huguenots), Holland (the Dutch Reformed Church) and Scotland (the Presbyterian Church).

Many of his ideas were translated into the Church of England's doctrines and did much to change British attitudes during the late-19th Century, the so-called Victorian Age. Moreover, the Calvinists proclaimed that the Church was above the State which meant that those states dominated by Calvinism (e.g. South Africa) would be subjected to a full onslaught of the 16th century Calvinist philosophy.

Read the left column, then think about
the following questions:

  1. In what way were the urban bourgeoisie so very different to the country aristocracy?
  2. [Need help?]

  3. Explain the term "Protestant work ethic". How did it arise?
  4. [Need help?]

  5. Why did the Calvinist reformation create a particularly unsmiling face of religion?
  6. [Need help?]

  7. The Calvinist Churches went out of their way to strip their places of worship of any icons. Why was this so?
  8. [Need help?]

Extract from Time Travellers:

"Let's get this clear," said Bronnie. "Martin Luther's reforms were caused by a few glaring abuses in the Catholic Church? And he succeeded because the German princes rallied behind him, came to his defence because it suited their political objectives?"

"Perfectly correct," Uncle Bertie agreed, nodding.

"But John Calvin's reform was to accept the way the townspeople thought about money, how they could profit by it?" she continued. "His was not so much a religious reformation as it was an economic statement?"

Uncle Bertie nodded again. "Wealth became the yardstick to measure the blessing of God," he said. "The greater the wealth, the more the people were reflecting how much they had been blessed."

"And so it made perfect sense to have boodles of money, and to exploit the workers," Bronnie added.

From: Keith Tankard's Time Travellers
Book 5: The Madness of Europe

Read the whole story!