Essay / Theology

Who Demonized John Calvin? Blame the Textbooks.

Calvin is so evilJust how did John Calvin become the epitome of evil in the minds of so many?

I suppose the full story is too long to tell, but here is one interesting chapter. American history textbooks for nearly two centuries portrayed him as evil. Historian Thomas Davis got this idea and then did all the patient work of digging through the textbooks to see how they handled Calvin. He wrote up his findings in “Images of Intolerance: John Calvin in Nineteenth-Century History Textbooks ,” in the journal Church History, Vol. 65, 1996.

Textbook Calvin, it turns out, is a bad man. We textbook readers only know two things about him: He burned a heretic at the stake, and he was a fanatic about his pet doctrine, predestination. Textbook Calvin’s very name functions as a “rhetorical negative,” which is to say, a kind of cuss word.

Here are a few examples of American textbook teaching on Calvin, according to Davis.

Elements of General History, 1801: Praises Calvin’s rationality but condemns his “intolerance and… spirit of persecution.” The Reformation is great, but we must distinguish between that event and the actual Reformers, who were not so good.

Universal History in Perspective, 1850: In the main text, the only thing mentioned about Calvin is that he taught in Geneva. But in a side-bar, the author says “Calvin, about 1542, caused Servetus to be burned as a heretic.” So that’s what we know about Calvin: taught in Geneva, burned a guy.

Outlines of History Illustrated by Numerous Geographical and Historical Notes and Maps, 1873: Servetus was burned because “he had denied that Judea was a beautiful, rich, and fertile country; and affirmed, on the authority of travellers, that it was poor, barren, and disagreeable.”

The Story of Modern Progress: With a Preliminary Survey of Earlier Progress, 1920: Calvin as religious dogmatist suppressing Servetus the scientist. When he suppressed Servetus’ religious views, he also silenced Servetus’ discovery of the way blood circulates. Because of Calvin, “hundreds of thousands of lives” were lost. Davis paraphrases this textbook’s message: “Calvin committed the sin of bloodshed not only against Servetus but against the whole of Europe.”

Outlines of General History, 1899: Calvin stands out from the Reformers “because of certain stern doctrines on the subject oof God’s sovereignty.”

The Beginnings of New England: or the Puritan Theocracy in its Relation to Civil Liberty, 1889: Calvin was “the constitutional lawyer of the Reformation, with vision as clear, with head as cool, with soul as dry, as any old solicitor in rusty black that ever dwelt in chambers in Lincoln’s Inn. His sternness was that of the judge who dooms a criminal to the gallows.” What do we find in Calvin? Much of what we find is loathesome “as sheer diabolism.”

American textbooks were trying to tell the story of America as the land of the free. One of the convenient heroes of that story was Martin Luther: his story could be boiled down, in textbooks, to the triumph of personal religious freedom against repressive authority. While that doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of Luther, it does put him in the position to be a good American. In one of the textbooks, the defining moment of the Reformation is not Luther’s posting of the 95 theses (an invitation to theological argument), but his act of burning Pope Leo’s bull Exsurge Domine. Pressed into the secularized, Americanized outlook, Luther’s fight was for freedom of opinion, and the Reformation was “the great endeavour to emancipate human reason, the insurrection of the mind against the absolute power of the spiritual order.” Luther, with a little re-scripting and a lot of squinting, could be cast in the role of champion of the American cause (the casting of the Pope as the oppressor was obvious to the uniformly anti-Catholic authors of these textbooks).

Calvin, on the other hand, couldn’t be cast in the American Textbook version of the Reformation. After all, we only know two things about him: he burned heretics and taught predestination. So he was cast in the role of oppressor. In fact, Dr. Davis documents a bizarre turnabout wherein John Calvin (Servetus! Predestination!) no longer counted as Protestant (Star Spangled Luther! Freedom of opinion!), but really stood on the side of the oppressors, the Roman Catholics. John Calvin, “Protestant Pope,” whose “temper was as despotic as any pope,” wielded capricious authority absolutely. “Thus,” Davis concludes his textbook survey, “Calvin became the very image of intolerance, and he came to represent what it is that Americans, in their cultural attitudes, abhor.”

Thus was John Calvin, about whom there is so much to say, reduced to Johnny Two-Note: heretic-burner and predestination-inventor. I am defending Calvin precisely because I would love to have a serious engagement with the theology of John Calvin, to pick a helpful fight about a few things I think he’s wrong about. But first he has to be brought down from the impossible heights of venomous execration to which he has been consigned.

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