Category Archives: Church History

The Story Of Ramabai


Rowland S. Ward, 2001 updated 2016


Rowland Ward has been on the Australian Mukti Council since 1999, and Chairman since 2002. If you would like to sponsor a child or otherwise support the work Ramabai began, contact Mukti Australia Inc, 5 Court Street, Box Hill, Victoria 3124 [email:]


A bit of Hindu background

Hinduism, the religion of India, includes a family of religious beliefs dating back 5000 years to a time of simple animal sacrifice. At first the emphasis was on God ‘the heavenly one’ or supreme ruler. However, over time the religion of the people became polytheistic. In fact, the idea was that the one Spirit was manifested in all the varieties of life. Belief in reincarnation prevailed so that a long series of many millions of earthy existences was a person’s lot until he should at last be freed from the consequences of his actions by being absorbed in the Great Spirit. Society was divided into four castes depending on each person’s ability – the priestly/ruling or Brahmin class , the warrior class, the trading class and the rest. Intermarriage between these castes was originally lawful.

In the course of time the system became much more involved and traditional practices became enshrined as law even though contradicted in the sacred Sanskrit texts. Within the four principal castes, now a matter of birth not ability, are clans, each with their own rules. In addition there are mixed castes and other castes for each type of task in society. The social organisation by caste is basic and all prevailing. Transgression of caste rules brings punishment and excommunication, but even outcasts have their caste rules.

In the caste system as it has thus developed, the importance of purity in the line of descent is obvious, since otherwise one’s caste position is at risk. For unless one is a Brahmin he is not fit to be reabsorbed into the Spirit, so the rules to ensure he does not lose his position, and have to resume a long series of earthly existences to regain it, are powerful. The high castes in particular enforced a tight system of regulation of sexuality not unrelated to personal position and advantage for the men. To ensure legitimacy pre-puberty marriages were arranged, the typical age of marriage being ten. If a child bride was widowed while young, as frequently happened, she had no property rights but was dependent on her relatives and controlled by a close system of caste rules and kin ties.

A child widow or one without children was neither wife nor mother and had no status but the lowest. Her widowhood was regarded as the consequence of sin in previous lives. Her sexual existence ended with the death of her husband: remarriage was not allowed, particularly in the higher castes. She had to suffer the cutting off of her hair and a variety of social practices including drab clothing and no ornaments, that defeminised her reducing her to nothing more than a drudge. It is not surprising that young widows did voluntarily immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Life as a young widow in India was grim indeed, a fate worse than death, but sati, as it was called, was not always voluntary. The practice was banned by the British in 1829 although it still occurs to some extent even today.

Ramabai’s background

The story of one of the great Christian women of India begins with her father, Anant Shastri Donge, a Brahmin. He was trained as a Sanskrit scholar and was deeply impressed by the act of one of his teachers in instructing the wife of the last ruler of Poona before the British takeover. At the age of 44, and a widower, Anant Shastri married a 9 year old called Lakshmibai, and succeeded in teaching her Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu learning. This was quite out of the ordinary but he escaped excommunication by showing that the ancient texts in no way forbade the education of women. He spent the rest of his life in teaching, worship and living off gifts, existing on the edge of society and constantly travelling. This was traditional practice but by then was unusual given the more compact social organisation that had developed among Brahmins.

Pandita Ramabai

Anant Shastri’s wife taught her daughter Ramabai, who was born in 1858. At 16 Ramabai lost both her parents to famine and her sister to cholera, and she and her brother alone remained. So apt a student had Ramabai proved that at the age of 20 she was examined by the pandits (scholars) of Calcutta and they gave her the honour of pandita, the only woman to have received such a title. She was then, as earlier, an orthodox Hindu, and was feted by some reformers among the Hindu elite as an illustration of what they perceived was the ideal of a woman in ancient India. They had no thought that she would move from the general outline of Hinduism in her concern for the uplift of Indian women.


She was invited to lecture on the emancipation of women and in order to do so made a careful study of the ancient Hindu texts, the Dharma-shastras. She was disillusioned. The texts were contradictory on many things but it was clear that women of whatever caste were as a class able to obtain redemption only through complete worship of and subservience to their husbands. Her brother died of cholera in 1880 and she then, despite Brahmin suitors, married a non-Brahmin lawyer in a civil ceremony, as both had given up on traditional Hinduism. They lived in Assam, but her husband also died of cholera two years later leaving her with a baby girl Manorama.

Her life to this point had been hard but her high caste and attainments in Hindu thought made her a potentially important figure. She now was a widow but she refused to stay hidden. Her personal search for salvation had not over, and her concern for the women of India remained. She returned to Poona where some moderate Hindu reformers were prepared to support her. However, her lectures often had hostile audiences and her desire to provide a home for high-caste widows received minimal practical support. Nor did she fit in with the close-knit Hindu orthodoxy. She needed personal religious satisfaction for herself, and a solution which would allow her social concerns to be expressed and implemented.


Learning English, she resolved to go to England to gain a medical education. In the year of her husband’s death (1882) she issued a guide to the morality and conduct of women called Stri Dharma Niti [The Duties of Women] using examples drawn from Hindu mythology and written in a scholarly style using many Sanskrit words. In this book, which was much discussed, she criticises Indian women for being lazy and stupid, but at the same time urges relatively late marriage based on mutual choice rather than arrangement. She also attacked the anti-woman stance and double standards of Indian men. Through this means she raised money to go to England. She also had the support of an Anglican Order of Sisters who worked in Poona, the Community of St Mary the Virgin, and at first she stayed at their centre at Wantage, Berkshire after her arrival in June 1883.

Although she had had no intention of converting to Christianity she found in the teaching of a personal, loving God and in the dedication of the Anglican sisters in their work with the marginalised, that which moved her to this step. The suicide of a young Indian woman friend must also have had its impact. Ramabai and her daughter were baptised on 29th September 1883. Yet it is very evident that this was not quite a normal conversion. The High Anglican sisters found Ramabai very independent, refusing to accept anything on the authority of the Church with its male authority structures. She would accept the authority of the Bible, but at this stage she scrupled various miracles, and the trinitarian creeds, believed Christ was raised from the dead but doubted its physicality. Clearly there was a lot of baggage to be sorted out. She was a humanist who came to Christianity in reaction to a system which brutalised and crushed women. There was much for her to learn.


It was not possible for Ramabai to secure the medical training she wanted because of increasing deafness. She resolved to go to America to seek support for her projected work in India. She was in the USA 1886-88, speaking at hundreds of meetings and receiving an enthusiastic welcome. In 1886 she wrote The High Caste Indian Woman in which she outlined the problems of women in India. This was very well received in the West. From the proceeds she repaid the Wantage sisters, and set up a fund for a widows’ home which she called Sharada Sadan, the House of Learning.

Bombay to Poona to Christ

The House of Learning was opened in Bombay in March 1889, and was set up on the basis there would be no religious teaching. It removed south to Poona for reasons of cost in November 1890, Here, however, there was a more close scrutiny by the orthodox Hindus. She was a professed Christian, keeping women away from the control of their male kin, and giving freedom of religion which meant she also practised her own faith. The orthodox did not like it. Controversy arose over several conversions to Christianity on the part of the inmates. The moderate Hindu reformers drew back.

It was in 1891 that Ramabai realised that she had found the Christian religion but had not found Christ, who is its life. She had accepted teachings like baptismal regeneration which fitted a Hindu mindset. Now, particularly through a book From Death to Life by William Haslam [Marshall, Morgan & Scott 1880] she came to personal faith in Christ, communion with him, and a joy and peace she had never previously known. She continued to grow in appreciation of the truth of the Christian faith.

Kedgaon and Mukti Mission

In 1896 she established Mukti Sadan, the House of Salvation, on 100 acres of land at Kedgaon, about 60 kms east of Poona. Later she acquired more land. By 1900 there were 2,000 women and children at Kedgaon. Many had been rescued from the terrible famine in 1896. They were not just fed and clothed and nursed back to health where that was possible, they were also educated and taught useful trades at the same time as they were taught the Christian gospel.

Ramabai was influenced by the prevailing trends in evangelicalism in the 1890s, including Keswick, although she consciously made Mukti a non-denominational institution. One influential helper was Miss Minnie Abrams from America, and through her and others there was a strain of American revivalism and a pre-millennial emphasis. In April 1902 R. A. Torrey and Charles Alexander conducted a successful month-long mission in Melbourne with 8,600 conversions reported. In India Pandita Ramabai  heard of the encouraging meetings and sent her daughter and Miss Minnie Adams (1859-1912) to Melbourne to assess and report. This was the beginning of the support group in Melbourne in 1903. Ramabai also heard of the Welsh revival which began in late 1904. There was a significant outbreak of spiritual blessing at Mukti in June 1905, which predates the movement that began in April 1906 in Asuza Street, Los Angeles under William J. Seymour. Minnie Adams  went on to be a significant Pentecostal leader. Ramabai however adopted the position that tongues were not the inevitable evidence of Holy Spirit blessing. Ramabai usually came back from her extremes quickly enough and she ended emphasising ‘seek not, forbid not’ in regard to spiritual manifestations, much as did the Christian and Missionary Alliance who had the care of Mukti after her death in 1922 until 1970, when it came under a more inter-denominational Board.

Translation of Scripture

Ramabai was only about 5 feet tall, but she was a woman of remarkable ability and faith. If her increasing deafness meant some restriction then it only helped her concentrate on her great desire to give the word of God to the people. There was a Bible in the Marathi language, as there was a German Bible before Luther, but it was not in the vernacular. She commenced the translation of the Bible into simple Marathi in 1904, learning Hebrew and Greek and publishing grammatical aids as she went. The Gospels were published in 1912, the New Testament in 1913 and the whole Bible, completed in 1920, in 1924. Overall she took about the same time as Luther, although he already had the languages. A revised edition was published in 1965. It stands certainly as the only example of a complete Bible translation by a woman to that time, and maybe even now. She also translated the Psalms for singing and employed an Indian musician to compose tunes for them. She did not Westernise her Christianity with inappropriate importations of cultural practice.

Ramabai is a woman whose like has not appeared in India since her death. God prepared for the work he had for her before she was born. Sadly, her work is still needed. Some 700 women and children are cared for today. The original centre at Kedgaon continues, but new smaller group homes are being established and the work is expanding with a model avoiding the dangers of institutionalisation. Hopefully there will be another in Gujarat, in the area affected by the recent earthquake.

A.B.Shah (ed), The Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai (Maharastra State Board for Literature & Culture, Bombay, 1977);
Meera Kosambi (ed), Pandita Ramabai, Through Her Own Words (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000);
Uma Chakravarti, Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1998).

Allan Anderson, Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism (Orbis Books, Maryknoll NY, 2007) Chapter 4 “Indian Beginnings”

Will Renshaw, Marvellous Melbourne and Spiritual Power (Moreland, Acorn Press, 2014)

Reproduced from The Presbyterian Banner, the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, April 2001, with revisions December 2016

Mutiny on the Bounty

Mutiny on the Bounty


The Pitcairn story by Rowland Ward who, with his wife, recently (August 2010) spent two weeks on Norfolk Island

BountyProbably most people have heard of the mutiny against William Bligh (1754-1817) which has featured in five films and numerous articles and books. Lieut. Bligh and his crew were on an expedition backed by Sir Joseph Banks to collect breadfruit plants in Tahiti and take them to the West Indies where it was thought they would provide a cheap food source for the slaves. After several months in Tahiti the 26 metre long Bounty set sail with her 44 crew for the West Indies. After sailing some 2,000 kms a bloodless mutiny occurred led by the first mate, Fletcher Christian who had left a native white on Tahiti. The date was 28 April 1792. Bligh was an enlightened man for his times and was not harsh. However, he was dictatorial, and humiliation of Christian in front of others may have been the last straw.   Picture: The Bounty

Set adrift with 18 men in a 7 metre launch with no charts, a broken sextant, a pocket watch and limited provisions Bligh managed the amazing feat of sailing 5500 km to Timor via Tofua Island near where the mutiny occurred. He lost no one on the voyage, which he calculated was 6700 kms altogether, except a man who was murdered by natives on Tofua. Several men died subsequently. Bligh returned to England and his report created a sensation.  Search was made in vain for the Bounty hence the saying ‘bounty hunters’.

Pitcairn Island

Meanwhile the mutineers and four loyal to Bligh returned to Tahiti where the majority remained. Nine men, led by Fletcher Christian, together with six Polynesian men and twelve Polynesian woman and a baby set off in the Bounty. On 15 January 1790 they chanced upon Pitcairn Island, which was not correctly marked on charts, and they felt safe on this tiny 4.5 sq km hideaway. They burnt the Bounty to prevent detection or desertion. Each of the sailors took a wife for himself and also divided the land into 9 parts. So there no land and only were three women for the six Polynesian men. They were treated as slaves. The sexual and racial situation was an explosive mix.  Two of the sailors’ wives died so they took two of the other women. Four mutineers were killed in one day, including Fletcher Christian. Soon there were only four mutineers, ten women and some children. More violence, a suicide and one death by natural causes and in 1800 John Adams was the only mutineer left, and he was constantly drunk.

Picture: The Pitcairners’ Bible & Prayerbook

Bounty_BibleHowever, Adams was converted through reading the Bible and the Church of England prayer book taken from the Bounty. In 1814 a British vessel arrived and found a quiet God-fearing community led by Adams. The news caused another great sensation in England, and much interest in the Pitcairners followed, and they were often viewed through rose-coloured spectacles. In 1856 the 193 inhabitants moved to the larger Norfolk Island which had previously been a convict settlement, and is now administered as an Australia external territory. The impressive convict ruins at Kingston, just a few weeks ago declared a World Heritage site, remind one of Port Arthur.


Move to Norfolk 1856

While some few returned to Pitcairn later, and about 50 people live on Pitcairn today, most Pitcairners remained on Norfolk where a large proportion of the permanant population of about 2,000 are descendants of the mutineers. By the 1870s the popular image of a God-fearing community was showing marks of strain. Formal adherence to Christianity could not conceal underlying problems. High Church tendencies in the Church of England of the time, and contacts through American trading vessels saw a strong Methodist movement after the death of the long-serving chaplain/leader of the community in 1884. A small Seventh-day Adventist Group soon followed. The Roman Catholic Church only came in 1957. Today the Church of England congregation is under the Diocese of Sydney. We enjoyed a good Biblical message, but the regular attendance is only 28 or 29 plus tourists. A third of the population describe themselves as C of E, but an equal number do not state or say they have no religion. Despite its  remarkable origins active religious practice in the community is modest – no more than about 7% of the population on the average day of worship plus such tourists as attend.

Norfolk is still an idyllic place in terms of climate and life style. There is no port, so goods are landed by longboat and are expensive. But the land is productive, meat and fish reasonable in price, and taxes modest (no income tax or council rates, but a 12% GST). It’s not a place for children really (just about everyone on the plane with us was older than we are!), but very interesting historically, and very restful.  The Gospel is preached but the people in general are content to be caring to each other but not committed to Jesus Christ. That’s not enough for them or for us.  Lord, wilt thou not us revive!

John Calvin – the Man




An address by Dr Rowland S. Ward given on 24 October 2009

at Creek Road Presbyterian Church, Brisbane

John Calvin – a Frenchman who lived from 1509-1564 and was one of a number of notable Reformers of the Church.


Assessments of Calvin’s character have varied widely. In 1577 Jerome Bolsec called him “John Calvin of Noyon, a man among all others who were ever in the world ambitious, presumptuous, arrogant, cruel, malicious, vengeful, and above all ignorant.” He had a few other scurrilous comments which I don’t care to repeat here. Bolsec had left the Catholic Church in 1545 and for about 20 years flirted with Protestantism but was doctrinally astray. In fact he was banished from Geneva in 1551 over his denial of predestination. He rejoined the Catholic Church in 1561 and died about 1584.


Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza, praised Calvin as a champion of the truths of God but insisted he did not want to make Calvin an angel. He was indeed “hot tempered and difficult” he writes in 1565, shortly after Calvin’s death.


Although Calvin and Geneva received praise on all sides for the execution of arch-heretic Michael Servetus in 1553, later history is less favourable. Calvin is picked out as a tyrant and an unrepentant murderer.


So who was John Calvin?


Early life

Jean Cauvin or John Calvin as we commonly know him from the Latin version of his name he adopted as a young man, was born in Noyon in Picardy on July 10, 1509. The family had lived in the area for a considerable time, and Noyon then had a population of about 10,000. The economy was based on the Oise valley and was a centre of the grain trade. His ancestors were boatmen, but his grandfather was a barrel-maker, while his father, Gérard (1454-1531), became a clerk who rose to preferment in the church administration of Noyon through the protection of the bishop. Ultimately Gérard became a secretary to the bishop and then procurator of the cathedral chapter, so he had a background in legal and financial matters.


In 1497 Gérard married Jeanne Le Franc, a wealthy hotel-keeper’s daughter. She died when John was young, probably in 1515, leaving four sons – Charles, who was older than John, and Antoine and François, who were younger. Another Antoine had not survived infancy and François died young. There were two daughters from a second marriage, Marie being the only one we know about. Both she and Antoine were to help Calvin in Geneva later on. John’s mother was pious and devoted to the Roman Church. In his popular 1543 little book, A Treatise on Relics, John recalled that his mother took him to view some saints’ relics at a nearby abbey.


John’s father was capable, ambitious and well-connected but rather secular in his spirit, and anxious for the advancement of his family. We know little of John’s childhood. He grew up with close connections with the family of the brother of the bishop. John received some education at the Collège de Capettes in Noyon. In 1521 at 12 years of age he received a quarter of the revenues of the chaplaincy established to attend one of the altars in the cathedral, and about that time or a little later – 1523 is the usual date – he left home to study in Paris with a view to the priesthood. The initial course included grammar, rhetoric and logic, with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music subsequently.


John Calvin grew up in a world that was changing. The question of reform in the church had been long mooted but Luther’s impact was very significant in France from 1519. In 1521 the theological faculty at the Sorbonne had banned Luther’s writings and the Parlement of Paris followed suit. The same year Jacques Lefèvre and his circle, which included Guillaume Farel and François Vatable, the Hebraist, had to leave Paris for Meaux, some 40 kms distant, where they enjoyed the protection of the King’s sister. But in 1523 the Sorbonne moved against them and the group dispersed. Jean Vallière was executed in Paris in the same year for his Lutheran ideas. It was a dangerous time. The religious choices you made could bring life or death.


The young Calvin was fortunate to have as one of his early teachers in the preliminary grammar studies the notable Latinist Maturin Cordier (c.1480-1564). He was a considerable influence on Calvin but was not then a Protestant as was the case later. His teaching method was simple and clear and focussed also on love for Christ. In 1550 Calvin was to dedicate his commentary on 1 Thessalonians to his old teacher who in fact taught in the Academy of Geneva in the last years of his life. Calvin also came to know the Cop family whose head, Guillaume Cop, was the physician to King Francis. So he was moving in reform-minded and influential circles.


Legal studies

Completing his Master of Arts in 1527 Calvin was entitled to proceed to one of the higher faculties – theology, law or medicine. However, at some point in 1527 Calvin’s father fell out with the church authorities in Noyon over the administration of the estate of two priests, and in fact he was excommunicated in November 1528. Gérard had had enough of theology and directed his son to study civil law instead, which also paid better, and so about the end of 1527 John proceeded to Orléans for his further studies. John had just received extra income from a further benefice. In Orléans his most influential teacher was Pierre de l’Estoile a master of French, and, like Cordier, a humanist scholar. He also met Pierre-Robert (alias Olivétan), a cousin, who was later (1535) to translate the Bible into French with a Latin preface by Calvin. Beza suggests that it was from Olivétan that Calvin learned the truth of the Gospel, but as yet there is no sign of change in Calvin’s Roman Catholic position.


In the middle of 1529 Calvin moved to Bourges to study under Andrea Alciati, the most eminent lawyer of the time. He exchanged one benefice for another at this time. Calvin seems to have gained development in language style from Alciati, but resented the Italian’s negative attitude towards the Frenchman l’Estoile. He also rapidly became proficient in Greek under Melchior Wolmar (1497-1561), a fine scholar with Lutheran leanings to whom Calvin dedicated his commentary on 2 Corinthians in 1546. The young Theodore Beza (1519-1605) was also a student of Wolmar at this time.


Gérard Calvin had been excommunicated late in 1528 and died in May 1531 aged 77, but Charles managed to negotiate a church burial for his father. Perhaps understandably Charles, who had become a priest, resented the treatment his father had received. He drew towards Protestant teaching after his father’s death, was excommunicated in 1534 and died in 1536. His body was buried under the town gallows.


After his father’s death John at age 22 was free of his constraints. He returned to Paris, studied Hebrew and moved in circles that were interested in reform. In April 1532 he published at his own expense a critical text of the classic work by the Roman philosoper Seneca On Clemency. This is the typical step of a man seeking to launch his career as a scholar. It was indeed a competent scholarly volume, but that was all, and it was not a success in the way John had hoped. It had no religious or political implications, although it was written while Calvin was staying at the house of a follower of Luther. In May 1532 he returned to Orléans, walking the 105kms, to complete his studies and graduate Doctor of Laws. Just two years later Calvin returned to Noyon and resigned the benefices he held, which effectively marks his abandonment of the Roman communion. We ask, what had happened?


The short answer is that we know very little because Calvin tells us very little. At some point in this 1532/33 period Calvin became a committed follower of Christ, but what had gone before had somewhat prepared the way. He had been simply a humanist interested in scholarly pursuits and moderate reform. However, in November 1533 Calvin’s friend Nicolas Cop, son of the King’s physician, gave an address in his capacity as the new rector of the University. Cop was perfectly capable of composing it himself and a complete copy in his writing exists. A partial copy of this address also exists in Calvin’s hand, and that he had some part in its composition seems clear. The address was hardly of an extreme character but the times were sensitive and it was regarded as Lutheran, and both men fled – Cop to Basel and Calvin to Angoulême in SW France and the du Tillet home where he made good use of the excellent library there.


Nearly 25 years later Calvin describes the turning around of his life in his Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557) in this way:


“And first, since I was too obstinately addicted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily drawn out of that so deep mire, God, by a sudden conversion [or perhaps a better translation is ‘an unexpected conversion’, which also serves to emphasise where Calvin placed the initiative], subdued my heart (too hardened for my age) to docility. Thus, having acquired some taste of true piety, I burned with such great zeal to go forward that although I did not desist from other studies I yet pursued them more indifferently, nor had a year gone by when all who were desirous of this purer doctrine thronged to me, novice and beginner that I was, in order to learn.”


Calvin’s primary interest now is serving Christ wholeheartedly. Indeed, reminding us of Cordier, he calls himself a ‘lover of Jesus Christ’ but still he thinks his role will be that of a scholar not a public figure. He visits Noyon in May 1534 and resigns the benefices since he is not going on to the priesthood. He is clearly in the camp of the reformers and although never ordained as such he will be a teacher-pastor-scholar for the rest of his life.

Follower of Christ

The Preface of Calvin’s first book in the cause of Christ was written in Orléans in 1534 but the book was not published until 1542. Entitled Psychopannychia and dealing with the doctrine of soul-sleep advanced by the Anabaptists, it is logical to see it as reflecting Calvin’s own concerns as he contemplates leaving the Roman Church and joining the reformers. The reformers rejected purgatory and masses for the dead – how then is death to be understood? What is the place of Christ in time and eternity? How can the reform movement avoid degenerating into a sectarian position?


In October of 1534 there occurred the affair of the Placards instigated by Antoine Marcourt. Posters put up throughout France called the mass idolatry. It polarised the country, incensed the King, and resulted in persecution of the reformers. By January 1535 Calvin had retreated to Basel and provided a Latin Preface for his cousin’s translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into French published in June that year. This was the first Protestant Bible in French. Calvin was a master French linguist and worked on numerous subsequent editions to improve Olivétan’s style.

At Basel also Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion published in March 1536 when he was not yet 27. In Latin, the language of scholars, it was dedicated to King Francis I in a 8,500 word preface vindicating the reformers’ Gospel with a view to changing the King’s persecution policy. The title infers instruction or education in the principles of Christianity is the object. It was printed in a compact pocket-size format. It runs to 146,000 words in English translation, and thus was about 20% shorter than an English New Testament. The book was an immediate success, meeting a great need for the reforming movement. Rearranged and several times expanded the final edition (1559) is five times larger, and thus about the length of a complete English Bible. The first French edition, translated by Calvin himself, was in 1541.


Geneva 1536-38

A few months later Calvin was passing through Geneva, a town of about 10,000 people, where Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) and Pierre Viret (1511-71) had introduced the reformation. Farel pressured him to stay at Geneva and help the reform which was not settled and secure. He put the fear of God into Calvin and Calvin stayed. At first Calvin taught the Scriptures but he played an important role in Lausanne’s acceptance of the reform through an extempore speech there. Soon he was taking a major role in preaching and re-organisation of the church in Geneva. A French catechism was produced in 1537. In January 1537 proposals were put to the Little Council that would give power to the preachers to bar the immoral or heretical from the Lord’s Table, allow the singing of psalms, provide for the instruction of children and regulate marriage. The first was the sticking point, for excommunication belonged to the Little Council, and it was not going to give it up, and especially not to these newly arrived Frenchmen. There were other issues of church practice that were difficult given the military alliance with Bern, and the close connection of religious and civil matters. Opponents of Calvin were elected in 1538 and he and Farel were expelled from Geneva, along with the blind preacher Corault in April 1538.


Strasbourg 1538-41

Farel became pastor at Neuchâtel and Calvin, at the persistent urging of Martin Bucer, and after a short stay in Basel, soon became pastor to French refugees in Strasbourg where reformation had come 15 years before. Here he was to remain, poor but happy, for the next three years. He preached several times a week to a receptive congregation of 4 or 500, and he was writing. In August 1539 a fresh edition of the Institutes, three times longer than the first, was published, followed by his Commentary on Romans, and A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper. A further significant work was his 15,000 word Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto. Sadoleto had addressed a flattering letter to the people of Geneva in March 1539 calling them to return to the Roman fold. This reply was written at the request of Geneva, where the situation was very unsettled, and was produced at short notice in September 1539. It was a masterpiece which comprehensively refuted the Cardinal, and, with a major change in leadership in Geneva, led a year later to an invitation to Calvin to return.


Meanwhile, Calvin was thinking of marriage. Writing to Farel in May 1539 he says:


“…I am not one of those insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those with whom they are in love, where they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. This only is the beauty that allures me, if she is chaste, if not too fussy or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested about my health.”


In August 1540 Farel officiated at Calvin’s marriage to Idelette de Buren, the widow of Jean Stordier. The Stordiers had been converted from Anabaptism under Calvin’s preaching and became members of the congregation. Then the husband died of the plague leaving his wife and two young children. The marriage occurred a month later and became one of real love and companionship and spiritual support. It appears several children were born but all died at birth or shortly after. Idelette herself died in 1549.


Calvin had probably undermined his health by his intense study as a young man, and he was to suffer poor health all his life.

Recall to Geneva 1541

In 1540, the party that had banished Calvin from Geneva lost power and Calvin was eventually convinced against his will to return to Geneva on his own terms. He returned in September 1541 but far from becoming the master of the city, he had no civil judicial authority at all and was not even a citizen until 1559 when he was invited to become one. Until 1555 there was constant battle since all church decisions had to be approved by the Little Council. Many so-called ‘blue’ laws were operating long before Calvin came on the scene: dancing in the streets was prohibited in 1539, and card and dice playing was prohibited during preaching times and after 9pm before Calvin.


He resumed his pulpit ministry at the passage he had reached before his banishment, but otherwise made no reference to the past. Calvin managed to have some measure of reform for the church passed by the Little Council in November 1541. He established the consistory of elders and a plan of church discipline, but he could not secure the right of the church to operate it; this the Little Council retained. The records show a very significant effort at reconciliation and restoration by the consistory. It was supposed to be a place of confession not a court of law. However, the Little Council wanted control and made the elders quasi-public officials representing the Little Council and effectively criminalized offences, which was not at all Calvin’s desire. There was resentment by the well-to-do and the old Genevese families to the even-handed approach to discipline Calvin aimed at, and this resentment carried over to dislike of the French refugees who came to the city and eventually formed a majority. The independence of the consistory was only secured in January 1555.


Plague broke out in Geneva in 1543. The Little Council forbade Calvin to minister to the sick and dying and only one other of the pastors was willing to do so. Calvin gradually replaced the pastors who were serving when he returned with more suitable men. The pastors (commonly 9 to 12 men) met each Friday with their assistants for spiritual conference/Bible study to aid in guarding sound teaching, and then the Company of Pastors met by themselves afterwards for mutual admonition. Calvin published A Short Treatise on the Holy Supper late in 1541 to help people understand the Supper. Developing work he had produced in Strasbourg, in 1542 Calvin published The Form of Prayers and Church Songs, which included a number of metrical psalms principally by Clément Marot. The following year more psalms to the total of 49 were published, and the versification was ultimately completed by Theodore Beza over the next 18 years. Early in the same year of 1542 he also published a catechism in 373 questions and answers.


Calvin had begun his exposition of the Bible in Strasbourg where his Commentary on Romans was published in March 1540. A steady stream of commentaries on the rest of the New Testament except Revelation came from his pen between 1546 and 1555, usually in both Latin and French. The Old Testament commentaries were published between 1551 and 1563 beginning with Isaiah and cover also Genesis to Joshua and the Psalms. The commentaries are characterised by lucid brevity. The Institutes was intended to expound particular theological questions in depth. Lectures delivered between 1556-1564 without notes other than the Biblical text were taken down in shorthand and revised by Calvin and cover Hosea, the Minor Prophets, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel and part of Ezekiel.


Calvin was engaged in a number of controversies as well as the struggle with the Little Council. In February 1555 supporters of Calvin were elected and the party who had opposed him were defeated. Their leader Ami Perrin fled the city in May following a riot that looked as if it were part of a coup d’état, and four others were executed for sedition.


Servetus 1553

One particular famous or infamous controversy may be noted, the execution of Michael Servetus in October 1553 for his denial of the Trinity and infant baptism. The law of the Empire considered he who denied the Trinity was acting to kill men’s souls and deserved death. Thus Thomas Aquinas advocated the death penalty for gross heresy not just denial of the Trinity.


On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but “after the first and second admonition,” as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death. (Summa, Part 2 of the 2nd part, Qu. 11 Answer to Obj 3).


The Roman Church acted on this teaching in regard to Protestants, over 300 being burned to death during bloody Queen Mary’s five year reign in England (1553-58) for example. No Roman Catholic was ever put to death for his beliefs in Geneva, and few were the executions by Protestants of Roman Catholics for their faith in any case.


Servetus was a Spaniard influenced by Jewish and Islamic theology. He was a strange genius credited with discovering the pulmonary circulation of the blood but erratic and unstable. Servetus was a long-standing agitator of heresy, and in January 1553 had published his provocatively named Christianismi Restitutio (Restitution of Christianity). Calvin had had some acrimonious correspondence with Servetus some years earlier and knew where Servetus lived under an assumed name in SE France at Vienne, south of Lyons. Yet he had not acted against him although warning him against coming to Geneva or he would not leave alive. If Servetus had not been so outrageous in his language, and if the situation in Geneva had not been so perilous, I think the outcome may have been different. Certainly, if Calvin really had been the dictator of Geneva of popular mythology, Servetus would have been beheaded not burned.


A friend of Calvin in Geneva had written to a Roman Catholic cousin to the effect that in Geneva the Protestants were orthodox whereas it was not the same in Vienne where Servetus was working for the archbishop under an assumed name. Pressed for proof the friend in turn pressed Calvin, and with some reluctance, Calvin supplied evidence from Servetus’ handwriting of who Michael Servetus was, as Servetus himself denied that he was the man. Servetus escaped his prison in April, and in June was condemned and burned in effigy indicative of what would happen in reality if he was captured. The very next month five Geneva-trained Reformed preachers were burned at the stake in Lyons singing the 9th Psalm and reciting the Apostles’ Creed to attest their orthodoxy as the flames consumed them.


On 13 August Servetus was recognised in Geneva and arrested after a church service. While it was usual in Geneva to banish heretics, and, as Servetus was not a citizen, this would seem to have been the appropriate sentence, Geneva refused Vienne’s request that he be extradited. Perhaps the Spanish genius was under the delusion that he would find support from the old Genevan opponents of Calvin for he was now outspoken with no sign of the hypocrisy he had displayed in Vienne. Indeed, one of his printers in Vienne had formerly been an opponent of Calvin in Geneva, and a section of the Little Council of Geneva did support Servetus, including Philibert Berthelier.


Berthelier had been involved in a drunken brawl with threats against one of the preachers, yet the Little Council refused to prohibit him from receiving the Lord’s Supper. Calvin affirmed before the Little Council he would refuse to serve Berthelier, and the next day, 3 September, preached to that effect in defiance of the Little Council. However, Berthelier absented himself on the secret advice of some of the Little Council. Calvin felt this was a crisis point and that he would be expelled. His afternoon sermon on Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders, sounded like his last. It did not come to that because a middle group on the Little Council could see the difficulty they would be in if they did so.


On 22 September Servetus demanded Calvin be also put on trial and that either Calvin or Servetus be executed or otherwise punished. Hoping for a moderate reaction from other Protestant cantons, their opinion was sought by the Little Council but all were unfavourable to Servetus, and supported strong action without specifically indicating the penalty. Given Roman and Protestant opinion it was thus impossible for the Little Council to ignore acting against Servetus. On 26 October twenty of the 25 members of the Little Council were present. The first syndic, Ami Perrin, the leader of opposition to Calvin, argued for the release of Servetus but failed. The fear of disunity in the city and civil war swayed the Little Council and Servetus was condemned despite the majority not being supporters of Calvin. They showed their resentment of Calvin by refusing his plea that beheading be the form of the death penalty rather than burning. Perrin did not visit Servetus before his execution on 27 October. Calvin and Farel did, but to no avail in changing Servetus’ mind.


It is hard to avoid seeing the involvement by Calvin as in part motivated by a desire to clear the Reformed from the suspicion of heresy. Calvin’s was the lone voice arguing for the more merciful death by beheading. Farel thought that would be too lenient. Calvin subsequently defended the execution in writing against the criticism of a former friend and theologian, Sebastian Castellio. If anything, Calvin’s reputation advanced significantly following the action. Even Castellio, who is often quoted as advocating religious liberty and tolerance, after admitting he had not read Servetus’ writings, said that if he were indeed a blasphemer he deserved to die. The idea of toleration as we understand it was not something that existed for another century. While we do not endorse the action taken, which belonged to the times, – so says the memorial erected in 1903 by latter-day Calvinists – before we are too critical we might consider Roland Bainton’s comment in 1951: “We are today horrified that Geneva should have burned a man for the glory of God, yet we incinerate whole cities for the saving of democracy.”


[In England a Baptist turned Unitarian, Edward Wightman, was burned in 1612 for denial of the Trinity. The law against burning of heretics was passed in England in 1677. In Scotland the young and foolish Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in 1697. This was the last execution for blasphemy in Britain, but burning was the punishment for certain other crimes until abolished in 1790.]


The final years 1555-64

As already noted, in January 1555 Calvin’s supporters finally gained control of the Little Council, and when the insurrection was put down by the Little Council in May, a period of peace and prosperity followed. Calvin preached on average five times a week and gave three biblical lectures each week as well as writing numerous letters to churches and individuals throughout Europe. A plot to assassinate him hatched by the Duke of Savoy came to nothing, and the city experienced a much better public life. John Knox in 1556 stated of Geneva: ‘Here exists the most perfect school of Christ which has been since the days of the Apostles on earth.’


The Academy of Geneva was opened in June 1559 with Beza as the first rector for the hundreds of students from many countries. Geneva’s population was then at its peak of about 20,000. Calvin was able to secure excellent teachers including a number who had formerly taught in Lausanne. Through the academy many were instructed in the Christian faith and sent as missionaries to France and other places, others were prepared for public service. At the time of Calvin’s death there were about 1,500 students, the majority from abroad, and studies in theology and law were available.


Calvin was a pre-eminent preacher and about 1500 of his 5000 sermons survive since in 1549 a stenographer, Denis Reguenier, was appointed to take them down. He transcribed over 2000 in the next 10 or 11 years. The sermons are in expository form and full of good application. They, along with his many letters, give a much better picture of Calvin the man than some of his more scholarly publications. The final edition of the Institutes was completed also in 1559.


Calvin had never sought citizenship, which was normally purchased by foreigners, but at the end of 1559 he was asked to accept it, and graciously did so. The same day he suffered a serious outbreak of tuberculosis, and the next four years of his life were one of constant labour amidst gradual decline so that he became quite emaciated.


On 2 February 1564, he held his last lecture in the Academy and on the 6 February his last sermon. On 27 May 1564, Calvin died in Geneva. He was buried on 28 May without pomp, and at his wish his grave received no gravestone. So no-one knows anymore exactly where Calvin is buried. In his farewell speech of 28 February 1564, Calvin says in retrospect:


“I have had many weaknesses, which you had to bear, and all that I have done is itself at base worth nothing. Wicked men will no doubt exploit this statement. Thus I repeat once more that all my activity is worth nothing and that I am a wretched creature. I can, to be sure, say of myself that I have intended good, that my mistakes have always displeased me and the fear of God has taken root in my heart. You can confirm that my efforts have been good. Therefore I ask you to forgive me my wickedness. However, if there has been anything good, keep to it and follow it!”


He had accumulated virtually nothing in worldly goods and had declined to receive a higher salary than the other pastors. His will dictated a month before he died left 225 French Crowns and includes these words:


I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in Geneva, weakened by many illnesses … thank God that he has shown not only mercy toward me, his poor creature, and … has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses but what is much more that he has made me a partaker of his grace to serve him through my work … I confess to live and die in this faith which he has give me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than his predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which he has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of his suffering and dying that through them all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great Redeemer, as it was shed for poor sinners so that I, when I shall appear before his face, may bear his likeness.


“Moreover, I declare that I endeavoured to teach his Word undefiled and to expound Holy Scripture faithfully according to the measure of grace which he has given me. In all the disputations which I led against the enemies of the truth, I employed no cunning or any sophistry, but have fought his cause honestly. But, oh, my will, my zeal were so cold and sluggish that I know myself guilty in every respect; without his infinite goodness, all my passionate striving would only be smoke, indeed the grace itself which he gave me would make me even more guilty; thus my only confidence is that he is the Father of mercy who as such desires to reveal himself to such a miserable sinner.


“As for the rest, I desire that after my passing my body be buried according to the customary form in expectancy of the day of the blessed resurrection.”


Beza said: ‘It has pleased God to show us in the life of a single man of our time how to live and how to die.’ Who was Calvin? A man of great gifts who offered his heart to God promptly and sincerely. Yes, that, but more. A man who knew he was a sinner saved by grace alone, and who in consequence unreservedly served his Saviour.




Suggested Introductory Literature



E.M.Johnston, Man of Geneva (Banner of Truth, 1977)



Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP, 2009)



Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide

(Westminster/John Knox, 2008)

Book Review: Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions – The Mind of Samuel Rutherford

POLITICS, RELIGION AND THE BRITISH REVOLUTIONS – The Mind of Samuel Rutherford by John Coffey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xii + 304pp., £40.
also now in paperback.

This review originally appeared in the Reformed Theological Review, April 1998.


Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) was a complex character known chiefly to later generations through his much-admired Letters still in print in several languages. These evince a piety that has enriched the devotional life of evangelicals ever since. Yet this Scottish Presbyterian minister and commissioner to the Westminster Assembly was also a writer of polemical treatises which seem worlds apart from the Letters. To dip into the 618 pages of his book about the sectaries, A Survey of Spiritual Antichrist (1648), is to appear to enter another world. And if one thinks that his most famous book Lex, Rex lays the basis for individual civil rights and modern democracy, his A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649) looks in another direction.

Rutherford has been misunderstood because he lived at the end of the era of respublica christiania which the modern period was soon to supplant. Later ages took over what they liked in his work and created something of a caricature of the real Rutherford. It is the great service of Dr Coffey’s book that he puts Rutherford in his historical setting and lucidly discusses the main themes of the man and his work. The page header gives the title ‘Politics, theology and the British revolutions’. The cover title is apt enough but the page header reminds us that we will find theology in these pages, and the discussion is excellent.

After a useful introduction Coffey provides a 31 page biography of Rutherford. In this he does not dismiss or extenuate Rutherford’s pre-nuptial fornication with Euphame Hamilton in 1625. Indeed, he sees Rutherford’s recognition of the power of and struggle with sin as shaping his own high Calvinist theology. He next treats of Rutherford as a scholar, showing the influence of Aristotelian scholasticism, humanism and Ramism. Ramism was not particularly influential on Rutherford but Coffey is right to emphasise that scholasticism and humanism, which were major features, are not to be polarised but could and did happily co-exist. In discussing Rutherford’s approach to Scripture he rejects as ‘hardly credible’ the claim of J.B.Rogers and D.K.McKim that Rutherford was a kind of Barthian before Barth (p. 78).

Next we have a chapter on Rutherford as a Puritan pastor which helpfully illustrates his deep spirituality, especially as seen in his use of richly metaphorical language and his effective relationship with Christian women, numbers of whom were his correspondents. This chapter easily shows that Rutherford is not the austere cleric some might suppose.

Chapter 5 considers his eight theological works amounting to 4,000 printed pages. Apart from The Trial and Triumph of Faith, few have had more than one edition although some were translated into Dutch. Coffey again interacts very expertly with current discussions concerning the relationship between Calvin’s Christocentric theology and the alleged preoccupation with predestination among the later Reformed theologians. Coffey agrees with Richard Muller that the differences have been greatly exaggerated. Certainly Rutherford was a supralapsarian, but so was Beza, as Calvin was aware. The question of covenant theology and definite atonement is then taken up and the allegation of discontinuity with Calvin alleged by such as R.T.Kendall, J.B.Torrance and Charles Bell is considered and rejected. ‘Like the Reformer, Rutherford was concerned to do justice to both God’s grace and God’s law, to divine sovereignty and human responsibility.’ (p.138)

Rutherford was agnostic about monarchy as the best form of government. His book on political theory was published in 1644. Lex, Rex or The Law and the Prince has a complex structure and blends secular and religious arguments so that Coffey can say that ‘although written by a Calvinist, it was in some ways a deeply Thomistic book.’ (p.152) The discussion of about 40 pages provides a very helpful overview of the content of the book in the context of the times. It brings out the tension between Rutherford as a natural-law constitutionalist in favour of popular sovereignty and resistance to tyrants, and Rutherford as the proponent of a godly nation in covenant with God. This tension leads readily into a consideration of Rutherford as the ecclesiastical statesman, concerned for a pure church – pure in the sense of doctrinal and ecclesiastical order so that he defends a strict view of the regulative principle, and yet rejecting schism and accepting all the community as members by baptism through his distinction between the outer and inner covenant. Yet with the division between Resolutioners and Protesters, after 1650 Rutherford was in the minority Protester group and in effect in revolt against the system of government he advocated.

In the final chapter before the Conclusion, Coffey writes of Rutherford as ‘The national prophet’. Rutherford had an optimistic vision which was qualified by realism concerning human sin. For one who believed in the possibility of reading the mind of God through providence, Rutherford was deeply affected by the rejection of his vision after 1650. As he was dying in 1661, Parliament was sweeping away the acts of the Covenanters. He expressed regret at aspects of the policy of his party and thought that the nation had been divided when ‘We might have driven gently, as our Master Christ, who loves not to overdrive but carries the Lambs in his Bosom.’ It was a valid point although if it had been applied we cannot be certain what the outcome would have been.

Dr Coffey has given us an honest, sympathetic and lucid account of one of the leading figures of the Civil War period. He handles the issues expertly so that it is an intellectual treat to read, and provides a detailed Rutherford Bibliography. Only a few small errors have been noted: The reference to Origen (p.85) should be to the 3rd century not the 4th; Rutherford wrote of the covenant of redemption before David Dickson’s Therapeutica Sacra was published not afterwards (pp.137-8); the acceptance of the Westminster Form of Church Government was in terms which (a) did not prejudice further consideration of the one point on which the Scots had not secured agreement and (b) maintained the Second Book of Discipline (p.211).