Calvin advised
and “guided the souls”
of “faithful believers in France”

Calvin wrote letters to several Protestant communities and encouraged them to be steadfast – he called them “the faithful believers of France”. He wanted to give them advice and guidance.

He encouraged those who were suffering for their faith, helped them in the organisation of their Churches and to adhere to the rules of Church discipline which had been drawn up at the Synod of Paris (1559). But most of all, he showed compassion.

Calvin had words of comfort and support for the emerging Protestant Church

  • Lyon (69), the inside of the Paradis Temple (1564) © S.H.P.F.
  • Reformed churches in the 16th century © Musée du Désert

When writing to the Church of Paris, on the 15th March 1577, he encouraged them to persevere, in spite of the difficulties they encountered day by day. Calvin wrote that he deeply regretted he could not offer them any real help or relieve their pain.

“Truly, when I give you advice, I am ashamed that we cannot offer you any real help, as is our duty and as the situation requires.” (vol. II, p. 123)

To the Church in Paris in June 1550 he wrote : “we have no means of helping you – all that remains is to share your suffering in our hearts.” (vol. II, p. 282)

Although Calvin was bold, he was also cautious. He encouraged his readers to be brave but not to take unnecessary risks, to have a spirit of solidarity and become strong in their faith.

To the Church in Paris on 28th January 1555, he wrote : You must, with the greatest urgency, take up the armour of faith and be prepared – hold yourselves ready at all times. Then, when it pleases God to bring you to the test, nothing will surprise you or distress you. So find your strength, my brothers, in Him who gives us peace… not be distracted by that which could lead to the destruction of your faith.” (II, p.2)

To the Protestants in Poitou he wrote : Between fear and temerity there lies a middle way which calls on the power given to us by the Holy Spirit – thus we can make full use of God’s help. (vol. I, p. 434)

Calvin had no illusions about the fact that those belonging to the Reformed Church risked their lives every day in a world full of danger and violence. He knew that it was necessary to fight.

He wrote : Your enemies are continually planning your downfall or Your enemies have such a terrible hatred of the Protestants that even the strongest man would tremble before them.” (II, p.2) Elsewhere, he spoke of “the pollution and filth of papal idolatry.” (II, p.280)

But Calvin was against any act of violence – he utterly condemned the assassination plot at Amboise and the vandalising of churches (which he called temples) – this could only lead to unnecessary and terrible repression. On 26th February 1561, he wrote to the Church in Paris : We never advised you to become unruly or to seize control of the temples,” and on 16th September 1557, he wrote : God will always make the ashes of His servants bear the fruit of peace but acts of violence will lead to nothing but emptiness and destruction.”

Fighting against the spirit of compromise

  • Jean Calvin, Treatise of relics, followed by Excuses to the Nicomedite Gentlemen

Calvin advised people not to take unnecessary risks but he warned them against the dangers of nicodemism which he considered a form of disloyalty to the Reformed faith. (The term “nicodemism” was used by Calvin to describe those who had formerly belonged to the Reform movement but later would not publicly declare their protestant faith because they were afraid of being persecuted – indeed, they still appeared to be Catholics to all who knew them.)

It was important to fight against such a spirit of compromise as it might prevent the Reform movement from developing any further. One had to choose – a compromise over Catholic rites was not possible. He wrote the following words to the Church in Angers on 19th April 1556 :I quite understand your fear when people are plotting against you, although I hope that you are not so afraid that this leads to the abandonment of your Reformed faith altogether. Rather, I implore you to pray to God for help and to rekindle in your hearts the love of His truth : this is indeed our duty, when God calls us to do His will.” (II, p. 92)

He wrote the following to French Protestants in June 1559 : We do not want you to be indiscriminately thrown to the lions, but be on your guard. Do not let yourselves be rejected by the Lord Jesus : it may be that you will no longer be part of His flock, because you flee from the cross. Do not fear death in any form, but rather fear the real danger to your soul which is to accept without a word the corruption of the Church. Otherwise what excuse will you give when our Lord Jesus Christ, His Father and all the angels of heaven ask you why you have not kept your promise after having confessed His name in both life and death ? How shameful it would be, how abominable and false before God to return to your wallowing in the filth of papal idolatry when previously you would have truck with it !” (II, p.279)

Calvin knew how dangerous it was for every Protestant in France, but he tried to encourage them with words of hope

  • Storm
  • Sentences incurred by the Protestants © S.H.P.F.

He encouraged those who were suffering for their faith and urged them to persevere, trusting in God and supporting each other.

He wrote the following words to the Church in Paris on the 16th September 1557 : “And do not consider it too hard a task to suffer for your faith ; be calm, gentle as lambs before the wolves, because I promise you that the good, faithful Shepherd who cares for us will never abandon His sheep, whatever the enormity and fury of their enemies cruelty. God is so powerful that He can overcome the enemy by any means He desires, or with no means at all.” (II, p.139 – 144)

Calvin insisted on the importance of helping each other. The idea of “union” had to be cultivated and strengthened. He wrote the following to the Church in Paris on 28th January 1555 : The best remedy against weakness is for you to encourage each other and to build up the strength of all those who are with you.” (II, p.2)

In his letter of June 1559 to the French Protestants, Calvin urged them to be patient and to continue trusting in God. He compared the present situation to a storm : “The storm is so terrible that it rages everywhere. But they had to maintain their hope : Let this utter darkness pass ; we must wait for God to bring His light which will gladden our souls – we know that He will never abandon us in our afflictions. If we search in His word, we will find His light, which is given to us and which will never ever cease from shining.” (II, p. 274 – 281)

He wrote the following to the Church in Corbigny : “Let us listen to these wise words of advice from the apostle ; that before we were in darkness but now in God’s light, and He leads us aschildren of light ; before, we were of the flesh but now we are washed by the blood of Jesus Christ so that we may persevere in purity ; before we were slaves to sin, but now Jesus Christ has redeemed us so that from now on we may live to His honour and glory.” (II, p.326)

Progress in the exhibition

Associated notes

  • Jean Calvin (1509-1564)

    A generation after Luther, the Frenchman Jean Calvin became the organiser of the Reformation : he organised the Church, shaped the doctrine and defined the role of the Church in state government.