Discipline in Calvin's Geneva

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Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Calvin succeeded after a fierce struggle in infusing the Church of Geneva with his views on discipline. The Consistory and the Council rivaled with each other, under his inspiration, in puritanic zeal for the correction of immorality; but their zeal sometimes transgressed the dictates of wisdom and moderation. The union of Church and State rests on the false assumption that all citizens are members of the Church and subject to discipline.

...The official acts of the [Geneva City] Council from 1541 to 1559 exhibit a dark chapter of censures, fines, imprisonments, and executions. During the ravages of the pestilence in 1545 more than twenty men and women were burnt alive for witchcraft, and a wicked conspiracy to spread the horrible disease. From 1542 to 1546 fifty-eight judgments of death and seventy-six decrees of banishments were passed. During the years 1558 and 1559 the cases of various punishments for all sorts of offenses amounted to four hundred and fourteen—a very large proportion for a population of 20,000.

(Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8: § 107. The Exercise of Discipline in Geneva)
One particular case that stood out to me was,

...A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment. (Ibid.)​

I imagine everyone here laments the breathtaking collapse of public morals all around us, but would you concur with Schaff's assessment of excess? Why or why not?
 

ZackF

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
What is strange is that Servetus is the one that Geneva's critics drum up? Scholars can document fairly well Calvin's hatred of Servetus and vice versa. That incident is still used by Calvin(ism)'s detractors as the example of his intolerance. So why is there nothing in the opponents literature (I'm not expert BTW). Wouldn't the examples above be better evidence of Calvin's tyranny?
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
Given that we in the UK and USA live in nations that have murdered millions upon millions of preborn infants, I think that we should be fairly slow when it comes to throwing stones at others on such matters.

For my part, I believe that most of the punishments listed in the judicial law are of common equity and thus still applicable at least as maximum punishments for these crimes. So, no, I am not losing any sleep about such things taking place in Geneva (assuming that the above history is accurate on this point).
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
What is Schaff's source for this?

That's an excellent question. I agree many historical accounts display prejudice against Calvin with respect to many of the city council's actions. On the other hand, it would be difficult to say he didn't have a significant hand in what went on. This tension is seen in the case of Servetus where Calvin advocates his death, but petitions for beheading vs. burning at the stake.

The link you gave does state this about historical documentation.

There is an admission though that the statistics in questions were compiled by Galiffe, using the Registers of the Council of Geneva from the period in question. The bones are finally gaining some meat: Galiffe goes on to provide actual data to back up his statistics. The data for the executions begins on page 100. He says thirty were men, twenty-eight were women. Of these, thirteen people were hanged, ten were decapitated, and thirty-five burned alive. Of these fifty-eight executions, twenty were for ordinary crimes: murder, robbery, counterfeit money, forgery, political offenses, etc. These twenty people were men. The other thirty-eight did involve women, and they were cases involving questioning through torture, most notably in regard to the spread of the plague. There were also some involving witchcraft and divination, but almost all of them were in regard to the spreading of the plague.​
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
What is strange is that Servetus is the one that Geneva's critics drum up? Scholars can document fairly well Calvin's hatred of Servetus and vice versa. That incident is still used by Calvin(ism)'s detractors as the example of his intolerance. So why is there nothing in the opponents literature (I'm not expert BTW). Wouldn't the examples above be better evidence of Calvin's tyranny?

Servetus certainly gets the lion's share of attention in this context, for whatever reason, but I have seen the overall statistics cited by his critics quite a few times as well.
 
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Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Given that we in the UK and USA live in nations that have murdered millions upon millions of preborn infants, I think that we should be fairly slow when it comes to throwing stones at others on such matters.

Point well-taken, although of course one wrong never justifies another.
For my part, I believe that most of the punishments listed in the judicial law are of common equity and thus still applicable at least as maximum punishments for these crimes.

So are you saying you wouldn't be opposed if a duly enacted law mandated beheading for children who strike their parents? And of course then the same could be done with regard to such things as Sabbath-breaking (Ex. 31:14) and blasphemy (Lev. 24:15-16).
 
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Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
Point well-taken, although of course one wrong never justifies another.

Justice demands that we focus more on the greater wrongs, especially those being perpetrated in our own day and age, rather than the lesser wrongs committed by others over which we have no control.

So are you saying you wouldn't be opposed if a duly enacted law mandated beheading for children who strike their parents?

No, I would not in stiff-necked cases, though I may recommend a different form of execution than beheading.
 
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Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Justice demands that we focus more on the greater wrongs, especially those being perpetrated in our own day and age, rather than the lesser wrongs committed over which we have no control.

Of course. Yet as a church historian you surely consider and evaluate former cases to varying extents in that pursuit.
No, I would not in stiff-necked cases, though I may recommend a different form of execution than beheading.

Well, thank you for your candor.
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
Point well-taken, although of course one wrong never justifies another.


So are you saying you wouldn't be opposed if a duly enacted law mandated beheading for children who strike their parents? And of course then the same could be done with regard to such things as Sabbath-breaking (Ex. 31:14) and blasphemy (Lev. 24:15-16).
Would the punishment be same for all, or more severe for those claiming to be Christian's?
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
Of course. Yet as a church historian you surely consider and evaluate former cases to varying extents in that pursuit.

Oh, yes, of course, I do. What I object to, however, is the sanctimonious tone taken by some (not referring to anyone here) about people in the past when the very same people have little to say about evils in the present.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Would the punishment be same for all, or more severe for those claiming to be Christian's?

If you mean historically in Geneva (as in all Reformation era Christendom), then there was no apparent distinction. Schaff made an applicable comment in the OP, "The union of Church and State rests on the false assumption that all citizens are members of the Church and subject to discipline."
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
If you mean historically in Geneva (as in all Reformation era Christendom), then there was no apparent distinction. Schaff made an applicable comment in the OP, "The union of Church and State rests on the false assumption that all citizens are members of the Church and subject to discipline."
That would be the bane of having a modern day version of what Calvin attempted to do.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
What I object to, however, is the sanctimonious tone taken by some (not referring to anyone here) about people in the past when the very same people have little to say about evils in the present.

On that we are entirely agreed.

This gets at one thing I hoped would come out in the discussion. I believe much misunderstanding and sanctimony results from anachronistic readings of history. It is very easy to judge history through the lens of hindsight and modern sensibilities, while not adequately accounting for the prevailing norms and conventions of a given time and place.

Once understood to the extent possible, the next step is to explore how we can learn from history to our current benefit.
 
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smalltown_puritan

Puritan Board Freshman
If the crimes were truly committed, then I could not think that the aforementioned ensuing discipline was excessive: 'To [the people of Israel] also He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use' (BCF 1689, XIX.5).

Schaff seems to place the emphasis on the union of Church and State as it relates to all citizens being members of the Church. I think our issue of examining this historical record is more likely to be on the view of the Genevan council that the State is to uphold the first table of the Law and not just the second (which is an even weightier presupposition). I do not think the Council and Consistory were excessive in this, however, because, 'Justice exalteth a nation, but sin is a shame to the people' (Proverbs xiv.34).
 

Minh

Puritan Board Freshman
I have Schaff's two volumes of the History of the Reformation. His comments on the subject of discipline in Geneva shows that he was in favor of a more liberal approach in legislating morality in contrast to Calvin's strict order. In the same section of the book the OP mentions, Schaff wrote elsewhere:

It is impossible to deny that this kind of legislation savors more of the austerity of old heathen Rome and the Levitical code than of the gospel of Christ, and that the actual exercise of discipline was often petty, pedantic, and unnecessarily severe.

The most cruel of those laws - against witchcraft, heresy, and blasphemy - were inherited from the Catholic Middle Ages, and continued in force in all countries of Europe, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, down to the end of the seventeenth century.

While acknowledging Calvin's zealousness for God, it's obvious that Dr. Schaff considered these measures to be excessive.

As for me, I will admit that I am still infected by a liberal and modern style of moral legislations (e.g. free speech, etc..). Nevertheless, I would agree with Calvin's strict discipline as long his are consistent with the Word of God. I would add that such moral regulation should be implemented in a diplomatic manner - that is, don't trigger a rebellion!
 
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jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
After exile from other parts of Europe, people in Geneva likely found freedom in the law. That's difficult to discern when viewing history through the lens of the 20th-century academics.
 

James Swan

Puritan Board Freshman

Thanks for posting my link. Just some background: last year I was hired to "fact check" a writer who was putting forth a book of uncomfortable facts about a number of people from church history. Calvin of course, made the list. Based on this research, I put up a number of blog entries on Calvin's Geneva. I found a number of errors, and I was thankful the author retracted most of them from his finished volume. We did have a battle though over the Calvin chapter, and a number of my findings were not heeded. The author basically said he trusted the sources he relied on for the facts, even if the actual evidence those authors used was not readily apparent.

The majority of the Calvin facts came from Schaff and Durant (Durant being the worse of the two). My favorite blunder was the assertion that Calvin had a child beheaded for striking its parents. One would think that if Calvin actually did do such a thing, that would trump whatever happened to Servetus. Wouldn't the emotional outrage of Calvin "the dictator of Geneva" executing a child be the first thing a Calvin detractor would point to, rather than Servetus? After digging around a bit, it appears the child in question was executed in Geneva in 1568. What was John Calvin, the despotic tyrant doing in 1568? Was he staring down the child in Genevan court as a prosecutor, boldly proclaiming God's law was broken and the child must be punished with death? Was he watching the beheading of a child for breaking God's law? No, Calvin was at rest in his grave. He died May 27, 1564.
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
The Reformation was a war--fought not only by soldiers, but executioners all over Europe. The rules of war are different than the rules of church discipline. The use of torture and execution on both sides of that war should be judged accordingly. Even then, our judgment should be seasoned with humility since we have the benefit of centuries of hindsight.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
I agree with the OP. Calvin's Geneva was no haven for human freedom, but a spiritual tyranny.

One example is the practice of forced naming at baptism. Calvin and others thought that a baptized child must have a Christian name.

The new excellent book, "Controversies in Mission: Theology, People, and Practice of Mission in the 21st Century (Evangelical Missiological Society Series Book 24)" by Rochelle Cathcart Scheuermann, Edward L. Smither have a chapter written by the missionary anthropologist Robert J. Priest where he documents the forced giving of "Christian" names on newly baptized children.

"When a Genevan father brought his son for baptism to one of Calvin’s French ministers, desiring to name his son Claude after himself, the minister unilaterally baptized the child “Abraham.” This was experienced as a usurpation of a father’s right to name. Indeed so resentful, and on occasion violent, did Genevans become at this usurpation of parental naming prerogatives, that Calvin wondered if an armed guard would not need to be posted at every baptism (Naphy 1995, 89, 92)."

Really? Armed guards to force parents to endure having a minister name their kids? The police at your baptism to make sure you comply? I am sure this displayed the inviting love of God to the citizens of Geneva.

In other places you can read of banishments and imprisonments and torture of those who simply criticized Calvin. How convenient to reason that the government is given by God and subjects must obey the leaders or else disobey God.

He made laws from what should have been issues of individual conscience. He forbade sweets to be served at wedding banquets. He forbade all kinds of amusement – especially gambling, singing and dances – as inventions of the Devil. He forbade people to drink from a mountain spring that was famous for healing the fever and called it idolatry. Those who were healed were arrested and denounced in public. (J.B. Galiffe, Notices genealogiques sur les familles genévoises, vol. 3, p. 381.)


I cannot believe the amount of control that religious leaders have tried to exercise over even parents. If this happened today I'd be tempted to smack the minister and revolt against the State.

Robert J. Priest then applies this to mission settings where the Church forces the taking of "Christian" names"

"In mission settings when missionaries or church officials declare that the name given by a loving parent is bad, wrong, unchristian and needs to be replaced with one acceptable to them, this is an act of intrusive power. When a missionary school only admits students with “Christian names” (Aluko 1993, 28), this, too, is hegemonic.""

Nope, Calvin's Geneva is not a model for us today. All good Baptists would flee or take up arms to overthrow it, if it indeed existed and tried to forcibly rule over the souls of men with the power of the civil sword. When Church and State jump into bed, it is not a wonderful union, but a whoredom for both parties. We are to have no theocracies today.
 
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Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
One example is the practice of forced naming at baptism. Calvin and others thought that a baptized child must have a Christian name.
This is inaccurate.
"When a Genevan father brought his son for baptism to one of Calvin’s French ministers, desiring to name his son Claude after himself, the minister unilaterally baptized the child “Abraham.” This was experienced as a usurpation of a father’s right to name. Indeed so resentful, and on occasion violent, did Genevans become at this usurpation of parental naming prerogatives, that Calvin wondered if an armed guard would not need to be posted at every baptism (Naphy 1995, 89, 92).
This is inaccurate as well, if my memory serves. What does Naphy cite as his source?
In other places you can read of banishments and imprisonments and torture of those who simply criticized Calvin.
Sources, please.
He made laws from what should have been issues of individual conscience. He forbade sweets to be served at wedding banquets. He forbade all kinds of amusement – especially gambling, singing and dances – as inventions of the Devil. He forbade people to drink from a mountain spring that was famous for healing the fever and called it idolatry. Those who were healed were arrested and denounced in public. (J.B. Galiffe, Notices genealogiques sur les familles genévoises, vol. 3, p. 381.)
Who made laws? Calvin? That is false, and obviously so to anyone who knows anything at all about the state of Geneva.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
This is inaccurate.

This is inaccurate as well, if my memory serves. What does Naphy cite as his source?

Sources, please.

Who made laws? Calvin? That is false, and obviously so to anyone who knows anything at all about the state of Geneva.

I gave you the sources. Writing "inaccurate" doesn't make it so. I think many folks only believe what they want to believe.
 

smalltown_puritan

Puritan Board Freshman
All good Baptists would flee or take up arms to overthrow it, if it indeed existed and tried to forcibly rule over the souls of men with the power of the civil sword.

As a confessional Baptist, I would disagree with this assessment and call to arms, brother. Could the Lord not bless His elect in such a way that the nations bow to Christ the King? Is this not the promise of Psalm lxxii.8 - 'His dominion shall be also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the land'?

As it relates to the original post, would you view that it is permissible for confessional Baptists to view the Genevan model (albeit with some exceptions) as an acceptable, if not exceptional, model of seeking to guard both tables of the Law and seeking that God's name be hallowed as in the first petition?
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
As a confessional Baptist, I would disagree with this assessment and call to arms, brother. Could the Lord not bless His elect in such a way that the nations bow to Christ the King? Is this not the promise of Psalm lxxii.8 - 'His dominion shall be also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the land'?

As it relates to the original post, would you view that it is permissible for confessional Baptists to view the Genevan model (albeit with some exceptions) as an acceptable, if not exceptional, model of seeking to guard both tables of the Law and seeking that God's name be hallowed as in the first petition?

I don't believe the Genevan model was biblical. The persecution of the Baptists in the American colonies is the logical outcome of such practices. The promise is that Christ's Dominion, not Calvin's, will spread over the whole earth. The two are not the same. Thus far all of man's attempts have been cheap imitations with severe flaws which have harmed great segments of Christ's Sheep, even those efforts from true Christians. We need not support all that Calvin did; he was a child of his own times. And he was not even as bad as Zwingli, who drowned Baptists.

Power corrupts; even (and "especially" I have come to believe) religious power.
 
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smalltown_puritan

Puritan Board Freshman
We need not support all that Calvin did; he was a child of his own times.
I certainly agree with such a statement. Though I wonder if the ubiquitous sentiment of one being ‘a child of the times’ negates the reality of universal truth and biblical practice, regardless of modern sensibilities. It seems that this is Schaff’s issue as well - either the Council was out of accord with biblical principles, or the Genevan model is a biblically permissive form of government.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
I certainly agree with such a statement. Though I wonder if the ubiquitous sentiment of one being ‘a child of the times’ negates the reality of universal truth and biblical practice, regardless of modern sensibilities. It seems that this is Schaff’s issue as well - either the Council was out of accord with biblical principles, or the Genevan model is a biblically permissive form of government.

Calvin definitely held to the universal and eternal truths of Scripture. But in practice, the culture of the time and place also impacted how he ruled over the Church. Nobody gets it perfect. And we, too, are children of our own tolerant age and its benefits and curses.

I don't support civil fines for missing church, for example, but many of our forefathers in the faith took this as common sense and godly government.

I agree with Schaff here.
 
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