Calvinism proved the most energetic of all Reformation efforts. It renewed the church's evangelistic fervor as trained preachers made their way from Geneva to the remainder of the world.

This material traces the spread of Calvinism in three major areas. We see the efforts at reform in France, Scotland and the Netherlands.

I. Reform in France

France was the location of tremendous reform activity. That was to be expected because Calvin was French and trained at the University of Paris. Geneva existed in the French-speaking segment of Switzerland and identified with the French.

When the Reformation began, the French monarchy held firm control. The French church acted somewhat independently because of an earlier agreement with the papacy (the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges). By 1516, the papacy and the king agreed to divide spoils. The papacy collected annates and other revenues and the king nominated appointments to various ecclesiastical offices and also collected some fees. The Pope confirmed the king's nominations. As a result, the king controlled the church. It assured the monarchy of financial income since many ecclesiastical nominations went for a good price.

The French Reformation met numerous obstacles once it began. The centralized government held a vested financial interest in the Catholic Church. Reform, which altered relationships and called for the reform of ecclesiastical offices, rocked the boat. French monarchs instigated policies to exterminate any Protestants and Protestantism. To become a Protestant invited death. In addition, Calvinism's stern and often oppressive nature did not appeal to peasants. At the same time, university intellectuals influenced the French middle class against Protestantism.

In spite of all this, factors promoted French Reform. The French clergy was extremely corrupt. Simony, immorality, and ignorance marked them. One French king, Francis I, promoted the "new learning" and this, in turn, added fuel to reforming fires. Even though the university opposed Protestantism, thinking people embraced the reformed faith rapidly. In addition, Geneva and France continually sent out well trained missionaries.

The spread of French Protestantism ultimately brought civil war. In 1562, the Edict of January guaranteed Huguenots, French Protestants, the right to worship in specified cities. In essence, the French monarchy tried to partition France. Both Catholics and Protestants violated the agreement. In March, 1562, a French nobleman attacked a Huguenot congregation claiming they were outside their boundaries. Confrontation and conflict followed. Over a nine year period the groups fought at least three different times.

In 1598, Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes officially recognizing French Protestantism. The edict provided for liberty of conscience and the freedom of worship where churches were already established. The monarchy guaranteed Protestants full civil rights and special courts, with Huguenot judges, to settle disputes raised by the edict. Furthermore, the crown gave control of 100 fortified cities to the Huguenots, each with their own semi-autonomous governments. These cities were a constant "burr" in the side of the government.

In the early 1600s, the monarchy renewed efforts to present a unified front. Cardinal Richelieu, acting as one of the king's ministers, saw the French Protestants as a state within a state and a menace to the crown. Richelieu determined to force the Protestants to complete royal submission. During the Third Huguenot War (1626-1629), French forces besieged the Huguenot city of La Rochelle. The fall of La Rochelle, the Protestant's strongest city, brought all of them into line. La Rochelle stood on a harbor where the English could supply the city as long as the harbor remained open. The king's forces sank ships in the harbor's mouth and then surrounded the city. When La Rochelle surrendered, the king and Richelieu entered with a show of force. Following them came food trains and other essential supplies. The king guaranteed the Edict of Nantes but ordered the destruction of all fortifications. For some time after that, Huguenot tolerance depended on royal good will.

In 1685, that good will ended. France experienced a revival of strict Roman Catholicism. The government determined it could survive and prosper only as a state united in one religion. As a result, the government revoked the Edict of Nantes and pressured the Huguenots to convert. Even before revoking the edict, the king permitted French troops to attack Protestants at will. Finally they delivered an ultimatum: convert or leave. Over 250,000 of France's best citizens left. Historians estimate that 9,000 sailors, 12,000 veteran soldiers, 600 top officers and thousands of the best craftsmen left the country. Many modern Bavarian craftsmen descended from French Huguenot stock. Thousands made their way to America and other sections of Europe.

II. Reform in Scotland

Calvinism spread naturally to Scotland because the two countries were military allies. It seems strange that the two should stand together given their differences in language and culture. Both France and Scotland, however, shared a common enemy: England! England claimed land in France, the French claimed rights to the English throne and England claimed Scotland. Relationships between the Scots and the English were always tense. The relationship between Scotland and French almost guaranteed that serious reform efforts would be of the French variety.

Any effort to effect Protestant Reform brought opposition from French Catholic loyalists. In fact, some Scots feared Reform, thinking it would hurt French-Scottish political relationships. The corrupt Scottish clergy also resisted Reform.

Some factors also helped Reform efforts. The powerful Scottish nobility had little interest in maintaining relationships with the papacy. Scottish commoners were an independent lot. They refused to accept Catholicism's ecclesiastical structures. Luther's writings circulated in Scotland from 1525 on. Many Scots had copies of the Tyndale version of the Bible which enabled them to read Scripture for themselves.

Scottish Reform just needed a strong figure to ignite the fire. John Knox was the man. Knox was born between 1505 and 1515 near Haddington. He trained for the priesthood and the church ordained him about 1532 after study at schools in Glasgow. After his study he became a disciple of George Wishart, a staunch Calvinist. At one point, Knox participated in a brief rebellion and he spent some 19 months as a galley slave. Sometime after his release, or escape, we don't really know where he went. Around 1549, he became a Protestant minister in England. In 1554, Knox went to Geneva where he met Calvin. He returned to Scotland to organize reform churches in Edinburgh and elsewhere. He reached many influential nobles who helped spread reform. In the process, an ecclesiastical court condemned him and burned him in effigy, an act which only enhanced his standing with the lower classes.

As you might expect, then, Scottish reform followed Calvinistic lines. It is doctrinal reform rather than political. Each Kirk (church) could select its own minister. The churches established a presbyterian form of government on the local level. This presbyterian government foreshadowed modern American Presbyterianism. It also influenced later English Puritan ideas and the Puritans incorporated parts of it into their congregationalism. Scottish reformers emphasized education and the importance of a well-educated clergy. At the same time, Scottish reform became increasingly intolerant.

III. Netherlands Reform

It's easy to understand Calvinism's spread to France and Scotland, but why the Low Countries? The fact is, Spain controlled the Netherlands for years and Reform thinking in the Low Countries coincided with the region's struggle for political independence. When Reform erupted under Luther, Charles V consolidated his rule in the Low Countries. Dutch in the north, Flemings in the center and French-speaking Walloons occupied the south. Charles V tried to unite the region by creating territorial episcopal sees which he hoped would make discipline more efficient.

The region's inhabitants eagerly read Luther's writings as they circulated. Earlier thinkers prepared the soil for reform. Erasmus came from Rotterdam and represented growing Renaissance thought in the area. Between 1513 and 1531, the Netherlands saw perhaps a score of Bible translations. Lutheranism prospered and the Anabaptists grew rapidly as well.

By the late 1500s, Calvinism made strong inroads among the Dutch. In 1561, Guy de Bray, a Walloon who studied in Geneva, prepared the Belgic Confession based on Calvinism.

Spain's Philip II, the son of Charles V, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1555. He also attempted to consolidate the Low Countries. Philip left the Netherlands in 1559. His half-sister ruled during his absence.

During his absence, the people objected to the presence of Spanish troops and the repression of "heresy." Opposition grew steadily until the people demanded a policy change. In 1566, a young Lutheran, Catholic, and Calvinist cooperated to make these demands public. They called themselves "beggars" and took as their emblem a beggar's sack. Thousands adopted the emblem. Violence broke out and Philip sent in the troops. With that action open revolt broke out led by William of Orange, a Catholic with Protestant parents.

The most famous event in the war was the siege of Leiden. Dutch forces cut the dikes then sailed across the flooded fields to relieve the city. The University of Leiden, formed as a reward for resisting, became a center of Reformed thought.

William of Orange converted to Protestantism in 1573 and the Netherlands united behind him. They still did not enjoy independence until 1609. The Dutch Reformed Church took shape during the struggle. The new church adopted a Presbyterian government, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession. Because of the circumstances of Netherlands independence, the Dutch Reformed Church found it necessary to allow a degree of freedom to other groups. Both Anabaptists and Catholics lived and worked in the area but members of these groups could not hold office or publicly worship.

One of Calvinism's most serious threats arose in the Dutch Reformed Churches during the 1600s. Theologians divided over supralapsarianism or infralapsarianism. The issue revolved around the question of whether God elected the saved and lost before or after the creation. Some objected to both views. Those who did so became known as the Remonstrants. Jacob Arminius, the Remonstrant's major proponent, studied under Beza at the University of Leiden. Arminius originally set out to refute the Remonstrants but came to agree with them. The Remonstrant position ultimately became known as Arminianism.

Arminians objected to both of the two views regarding election. They also rejected limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the elect. They held that Christ died for all men, that salvation comes by faith alone, that those who believe are saved and that those who reject God's grace are lost. They also promoted the idea that God does not elect particular individuals at all.

In 1618 and 1619, the Dutch Reformed Church held a synod at Dordt to settle the argument with the Remonstrants. Representatives came from Switzerland, Bremen, Hesse, the Palatinate and England. The synod condemned Arminianism and reaffirmed the Belgic Confession. The synod saw to it that one leading Remonstrant lost his head a few days after its adjournment. Arminianism continued to infiltrate Holland and it spread elsewhere as well.

| Home | Where to Go |