Calvin and the Reformed Tradition

The Swiss Reformations

At the same time that Martin Luther was teaching and preaching in Wittenberg, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was serving as priest in rural Switzerland. Zwingli, like Luther, had learned the Greek language, and his study of the New Testament led him to conclusions similar to those of Luther. When Zwingli became priest in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1518, he preached against what he considered unbiblical practices: the selling of indulgences, fasting during Lent, and priestly celibacy.

The most famous of the Swiss reformers was John Calvin (1509-1564). While working on a law degree in France, Calvin apparently studied the writings of religious reformers like Luther and came to agree with their core beliefs, including the idea that Christians are reconciled to God by faith, not works. As soon as Calvin published his own understanding of the Christian faith in a book entitled The Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, the pastors of the churches in Geneva persuaded him to become a teacher and pastor in their city. One of Calvin's most famous students was John Knox (d. 1572), who after his studies in Geneva returned home to organize the Reformed Church of Scotland and thereby became the founder of what today are known as the Presbyterian churches.

Arrival of Presbyterians in the Ozarks

Following the frontier, Cumberland Presbyterian missionaries visited the Missouri Ozarks as early as the 1820s. The Center Creek Presbyterian Church was founded in Jasper County (1834), followed by Greene County's Kickapoo Cumberland Presbyterian congregation the same year. The latter constructed a log building in 1837, adopting the name Mount Comfort in 1847. Beginning in 1833, Springfield's Cumberland Presbyterians shared a log cabin meeting house with the Methodists. The First Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Springfield was organized in 1844. Other Presbyterian groups were soon to follow, including Calvary Presbyterian Church (founded in 1849 by the New School Presbyterians).

John Calvin

Portrait of John Calvin (1509-1564)

John Calvin is perhaps best known for his doctrine of predestination. He taught that God determined before all time who would be eternally saved and who would be condemned to hell. Christians, he said, should not question God's plan, but rather trust in God's good intentions for their personal life and destiny.

Credit: Portrait of John Calvin, formerly attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Calvin's Insitutes

Title page of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559)

John Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion to explain the basics of the Christian faith, as he understood them, to educated laypersons who could read Latin. The first edition, published in 1536, followed Martin Luther's Catechism, and explained the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Calvin revised and added to the Institutes throughout his life; the last edition was published in 1559.

Credit: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Calvinist Psalter

Title page of the 1551 edition of the 83 Psalms (Octante trois Pseaumes) published in Geneva

In Calvin's churches in Strasbourg and Geneva, worship services were conducted in French. Biblical Psalms, rather than hymns, were sung; this meant that each of the 150 Psalms first had to be paraphrased or "versified" to fit musical tunes. The psalters published in Geneva included psalms versified by the French poet Clement Marot, and music written by the composer Guillaume Franc. In Calvin's church in Geneva, children, led by the choir director, led the congregation in singing memorized psalms in unison.

Credit: Marot Beze (Psalms (Geneva, Crespin, 1551)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion

Latin edition 1654.

The Institutes was Calvin's most important work. He meant the book to be a guidebook on how to read the Bible. The first edition was published in 1536 in Latin. Calvin continued to revise and work on it throughout this life, and translated it into French as well.

Property of Meyer Library

Beer bottle

Calvinus Beer Bottle

Calvinus Beer is brewed by the Papinot Brothers Brewery in Geneva, Switzerland.

The label on the back of the bottle features a purely apocryphal story connecting Calvin with this beer: In beer you will be predestined.

"A short time before he disappeared in 1564, Calvin enclosed himself for long hours in his house on Rue des Chanoines Street in Geneva. Strange odors emanating from his laboratory spread all the way to the base of the city ramparts. He was thus suspected of devoting himself to alchemy, a practice condemned by the Inquisition. In reality, he was devoting himself to the art of brewing beer! He was hoping to recover his health, which had been compromised by his abuse of a communion wine of doubtful quality imbibed during the daily worship services.

Unfortunately, on a beautiful day in the month of May, a dreadful obstruction of his bile duct led to a premature end of his life and work. In memory of Calvin, we, the Papinot Brothers, microbrewers in Geneva, resumed Calvin's precious research. After many efforts, we finally succeeded and the beer Calvinus was born. A highly fermented beer, unfiltered, made from traditional ingredients: water, wheat, barley, hops, yeast, perfumed with coriander and lemon rind." (Keep in mind – this delightful story is pure fantasy!)

Lent by Dr. Austra Reinis

History of First and Calvary

A Brief History of First and Calvary Presbyterian Church, Springfield, Missouri

By Duane Meyer and V. Marie Arnold (First and Calvary Presbyterian, 1987)

Lent by John Schmalzbauer

Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible

A facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)

This English translation of the Bible was made by Protestant scholars who fled to Geneva, Switzerland during the reign of Queen Mary I England (1553-58). It reached many readers because it was mass-produced and included various study guides.

Property of Meyer Library

Stereoscope card

Stereoscope Card of Dutch Reformed Church at Delfthaven, Netherlands

The caption on the back reads: "That picturesque old Dutch Reformed Church stood as you see it today when members of the famous Pilgrim company of English families, in July, 1620, left Delfthaven for Southampton, beginning their epoch-making voyage to America. Tradition says they joined with their neighbors in a farewell service of worship in this very church just before they entered boats in this canal and went down to the river where the Speedwell lay waiting. It is not absolutely certain that such a service was held here at the last moment, but the Pilgrims certainly did know the church well and at least passed it on their way, while their hearts were full of mingled home-sickness and exultant hope for the unknown future."

Lent by Dr. Mitzi Kirkland-Ives

Mount Comfort Church

Mount Comfort Church

Founded in 1834 by Cumberland Presbyterians in rural Greene County, Mount Comfort Church is now an independent congregation.

Photo by John Schmalzbauer