Sunday, November 22, 2009

Death of John Calvin by Alister E. McGrath

By the early spring of 1564, it was obvious that Calvin was seriously ill. His attendance at the weekly Consistory meeting had become increasingly infrequent in the winter of 1563-4, reflecting the decline of his health. From the list of symptoms which he described to a group of physicians at Montpelier that year, it is possible to infer that Calvin suffered from the symptoms consistent with migraine, gout, pulmonary tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, thrombosed haemorrhoids and irritated bowel syndrome. He preached for the last time from the pulpit at Saint Pierre on the morning of Sunday 6 February. By April, it was clear that he had not much longer to live. He found breathing difficult, and was chronically short of breath. Despite this, he managed to bid farewell to the ministers of Geneva on Friday 28 April.

The Discours d'adieu aux ministres is a moving document, at times verging on the pathetic. Calvin confessed that he was, and always had been, little more than a poor and timid scholar, who had been pressed into the service of the Christian gospel. One section of the document is of especial interest; in what might at first seem little more than rambling digressions, he catalogued some of the various disasters which had befallen him during his period in Geneva. People had fired their arquebuses in front of his door, and set their dogs on him. The significance of this portion of Discours d'adieu has not been fully appreciated; Calvin is clearly influenced by the 'catalogues of hardships' found in the writings of the classical period. He would have known this literary genre through two sources; the Corinthian correspondence in the New Testament- Rudolf Bultmann characterized 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 and 2 Corinthians 4: 8-9, 6: 4-10 as Peristasenkatalogen (catalogues of difficult circumstances)- and the writings of classical moralists, such as Seneca. Hardship seems to have been a constitutive element in Calvin's concept of his calling.

Calvin died at eight o'clock on the evening of 27 May. At his own request, he was buried in a common grave, with no stone to mark his own. There was to be no personality cult based upon him at Geneva. In death, as in life, Calvin proved self-effacing. Yet with his death, his influence upon the world proved to have only begun.


  1. Calvin's Farewell to the Ministers of Geneva

    [On Friday, 28th April, 1564, taken down by (Pinant) and written as pronounced as nearly as the memory could preserve it word for word, though in a slightly different order with respect to some words and phrases]

    "It may be thought that I am too precipitate in concluding my end to be drawing near, and that I am not so ill as I persuade myself; but I assure you, that though I have often felt myself very ill, yet I have never found myself in such a state, nor so weak as I am.

    When they take me to put me in bed, my head fails me and I swoon away forthwith. There is also this shortness of breathing, which oppresses me more and more. I am altogether different from other sick persons, for when their end is approaching their senses fail them and they become delirious. With respect to myself, true it is that I feel stupefied, but it seems to me that God wills to concentrate all my senses within me, and I believe indeed that I shall have much difficulty and that it will cost me a great effort to die.

    I may perhaps lose the faculty of speech, and yet preserve my sound sense; but I have also advertised my friends of that and told them what I wished them to do for me, and it is for this very reason I have desired to speak with you before God call me away; not that God may not indeed do otherwise than I think; it would be temerity on my part to wish to enter into his counsel.

    When I first came to this church, I found almost nothing in it. There was preaching and that was all. They would look out for idols it is true,and they burned them. But there was no reformation. Everything was in disorder. There was no doubt the good man Master William, and then blind Courant. There was besides Master Antony Saulnier, and that fine preacher Froment, who having laid aside his apron got up into the pulpit, then went back to his shop where he prated, and thus gave a double sermon.

    I have lived here amid continual bickerings. I have been from derision saluted of an evening before my door with forty or fifty shots of an arquebuses. How think you must that have astonished a poor scholar timid as I am, and as I have always been, I confess?

    Then afterwards I was expelled from this town and went away to Strasbourg, and when I had lived there some time I was called back hither, but I had no less trouble when I wished to discharge my duty than heretofore. They set the dogs at my heels, crying, Here! Here! and these snapped at my gown and my legs.

    I went my way to the council of the two hundred when they were fighting, and I kept back the others who wanted to go, and who had nothing to do there; and though they boast that it was they who did everything, like M. de Saulx, yet I was there, and as I entered, people said to me, “Withdraw, sir, we have nothing to say to you.” I replied, “I will do no such thing — come, come, wicked men that you are; kill me, and my blood will rise up against you, and these very benches will require it.”

    Thus I have been amid combats, and you will experience that there will be others not less but greater. For you are a perverse and unhappy nation, and though there are good men in it the nation is perverse and wicked, and you will have troubles when God shall have called me away; for though I am nothing, yet know I well that I have prevented three thousand tumults that would have broken out in Geneva.

    But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that he will protect it....."

    It should also be recalled that Calvin's life as a preacher was not always easy. Citizens of Geneva were required by civil law to attend church services so at times hostile people in the congregation would interrupt his sermons with shouting or whistling or other rude noises.

    Ages Digital Library Services; The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection, 1998.

  2. "A life of John Calvin" by Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell, Malden, Ma, Oxford, U.K. 1990