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How the Rumors Started

A Brief History of Calvin's Bad Press

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Myths about Calvin survive in high school history textbooks, collegiate lectures on "Intro to Western Civilization," and, even worse, untold areas of divinity school curricula. Even with careful, reproving scholarship rolling off the presses, Marilynne Robinson has sarcastically written,

Many of us know that Calvinism was a very important tradition among us. Yet all we know about John Calvin was that he was an eighteenth-century Scotsman, a prude and obscurantist with a buckle on his hat, possibly a burner of witches, certainly the very spirit of capitalism....We want to return to the past, and we have made our past a demonology and not a human narrative.
Such is the case even in the year of the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth. It is never fun to ruin a punch line, but for those not in on the joke: Calvin was a sixteenth-century Frenchman living in exile in Geneva, the eighteenth-century Puritans wore the buckles, the prudes were the Victorians, and the rest belong to other unseemly episodes several degrees removed from Calvin himself.

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1 [ Back ] The quotations from this column are taken from Irena Backus, "Roman Catholic Lives of Calvin from Bolsec to Richelieu, Why the Interest?" in Randall C. Zachman, ed., John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critiques and Engagements, Then and Now (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

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Ryan Glomsrud (D.Phil., University of Oxford) is Executive Editor for Modern Reformation and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Harvard University. He earned his M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California and B.A. from Wheaton College, Illinois.

Issue: "Calvin at 500: Does He Still Matter?" Special Issue 2009 Vol. 18 No. 7 Page number(s): 7, 28

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