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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 164. Calvin’s Last Days and Death.


Calvin had labored in Geneva twenty-three years after his second arrival,—that is, from September, 1541, till May 27, 1564,12521252    In the same year (1564) Michelangelo died, and Shakespeare and Galileo were born. Adding the two years of his first sojourn, from 1536 to 1538, Calvin spent twenty-five years in Geneva. — when he was called to his rest in the prime of manhood and usefulness, and in full possession of his mental powers; leaving behind him an able and worthy successor, a model Reformed Church based on the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ; a flourishing Academy, which was a nursery of evangelical preachers for Switzerland and France, and survives to this day; and a library of works from his pen, which after more than three centuries are still a living and moulding power.12531253    He lived, says a Scotch divine, "somewhat less than fifty-five years, but into that period the work of centuries was compressed." Tweedie, l.c., p. 57.

He continued his labors till the last year, writing, preaching, lecturing, attending the sessions of the Consistory and the Venerable Company of pastors, entertaining and counselling strangers from all parts of the Protestant world, and corresponding in every direction. He did all this notwithstanding his accumulating physical maladies, as headaches, asthma, dyspepsia, fever, gravel, and gout, which wore out his delicate body, but could not break his mighty spirit.

When he was unable to walk he had himself transported to church in a chair. On the 6th of February, 1564, he preached his last sermon. On Easter day, the 2d of April, he was for the last time carried to church and received the sacrament from the hands of Beza.

On the 25th of April, he made his last will and testament. It is a characteristic document, full of humility and gratitude to God, acknowledging his own unworthiness, placing his whole confidence in the free election of grace, and the abounding merits of Christ, laying aside all controversy, and looking forward to the unity and peace in heaven.12541254    Beza’s Vita, in Opera, XXI. pp. 162 sqq. (in Latin); Henry, III. p. 171 (in French); translation in the next section.

Luther, defying all forms of law, begins his last will with the words:, I am well known in heaven, on earth, and in hell," and closes: "This wrote the notary of God and the witness of his gospel, Dr. Martin Luther."

On the 26th of April, Calvin wished to see once more the four Syndics and all the members of the Little Council in the Council Hall, but the Senators in consideration of his health offered to come to him. They proceeded to his house on the 27th in solemn silence. As they were assembled round him he gathered all his strength and addressed them without interruption, like a patriarch, thanking them for their kindness and devotion, asking their pardon for his occasional outbreaks of violence and wrath, and exhorting them to persevere in the pure doctrine and discipline of Christ. He moved them to tears.12551255    See, besides the account of Beza, the entry in the Rég. du Conseil, April 27, Annal. XXI. 815. In like manner, on the 28th of April, he addressed all the ministers of Geneva whom he had invited to his house, in words of solemn exhortation and affectionate regard. He asked their pardon for any failings, and thanked them for their faithful assistance. He grasped the hands of every one. "They parted," says Beza, "with heavy hearts and tearful eyes."12561256    See the Discours d’adieu aux membres du Petit Conseil, and the Discours d’adieu aux ministres, in his Opera, Tom. IX. 887-890, in Beza’s Vita, and in the appendix to Bonnet’s French Letters, Tom. II. 573. Comp. also Henry, III. 582 sqq.; Stähelin, II. 462-468. Translation in the next section.

These were sublime scenes worthily described by an eyewitness, and represented by the art of a painter.12571257    Hornung’s picture of Calvin on his death-bed, addressing the senators.

On the 19th of May, two days before the pentecostal communion, Calvin invited the ministers of Geneva to his house and caused himself to be carried from his bed-chamber into the adjoining dining-room. Here he said to the company: "This is the last time I shall meet you at table,"—words that made a sad impression on them. He then offered up a prayer, took a little food, and conversed as cheerfully as was possible under the circumstances. Before the repast was quite finished he had himself carried back to his bed-room, and on taking leave said, with a smiling countenance: "This wall will not hinder my being present with you in spirit, though absent in body."

From that time he never rose from his bed, but he continued to dictate to his secretary.

Farel, then in his eightieth year, came all the way from Neuchâtel to bid him farewell, although Calvin had written to him not to put himself to that trouble. He desired to die in his place. Ten days after Calvin’s death, he wrote to Fabri (June 6, 1564): "Oh, why was not I taken away in his place, while he might have been spared for many years of health to the service of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ! Thanks be to Him who gave me the exceeding grace to meet this man and to hold him against his will in Geneva, where he has labored and accomplished more than tongue can tell. In the name of God, I then pressed him and pressed him again to take upon himself a burden which appeared to him harder than death, so that he at times asked me for God’s sake to have pity on him and to allow him to serve God in a manner which suited his nature. But when he recognized the will of God, he sacrificed his own will and accomplished more than was expected from him, and surpassed not only others, but even himself. Oh, what a glorious course has he happily finished!

Calvin spent his last days in almost continual prayer, and in ejaculating comforting sentences of Scripture, mostly from the Psalms. He suffered at times excruciating pains. He was often heard to exclaim: "I mourn as a dove" (Isa. 38:14); "I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it" (Ps. 39:9); "Thou bruisest me, O Lord, but it is enough for me that it is thy hand." His voice was broken by asthma, but his eyes remained bright, and his mind clear and strong to the last. He admitted all who wished to see him, but requested that they should rather pray for him than speak to him.

On the day of his death he spoke with less difficulty. He fell peacefully asleep with the setting sun towards eight o’clock, and entered into the rest of his Lord. "I had just left him," says Beza, "a little before, and on receiving intimation from the servants, immediately hastened to him with one of the brethren. We found that he had already died, and so very calmly, without any convulsion of his feet or hands, that he did not even fetch a deeper sigh. He had remained perfectly sensible, and was not entirely deprived of utterance to his very last breath. Indeed, he looked much more like one sleeping than dead."12581258    The original entry in the Register of the Council of Geneva under date "Samedi, Mai 27, 1564," relative to the death of Calvin, is this: "Ce iourd’huy environ huit heures du soir le sp. Ian Calvin est alléa Dieu, sain et entier, graces a Dieu, de sens et entendement." Under date of "Lundi, Mai 29," the succession of Beza to the place of Calvin is thus announced in the same Register: "De Bèze succède a la place de Calvin. Il aura la charge quil avoit oultre ce quil a faire les leçons. Arreste quon luy baille le gage quavoit M. Calvin. Et au reste quand se viendra ceans quon se contente quil soit assis au banc dabas et quon luy presente la maison dudit Sr. Calvin sil y veult aller." Calvin’s Opera, XXI. 815.

He had lived fifty-four years, ten months, and seventeen days.

"Thus," continues Beza, his pupil and friend, "withdrew into heaven, at the same time with the setting sun, that most brilliant luminary, which was the lamp of the Church. On the following night and day there was immense grief and lamentation in the whole city; for the Republic had lost its wisest citizen, the Church its faithful shepherd, the Academy an incomparable teacher—all lamented the departure of their common father and best comforter, next to God. A multitude of citizens streamed to the death-chamber and could scarcely be separated from the corpse. Among them were several foreigners, as the distinguished Ambassador of the Queen of England to France, who had come to Geneva to make the acquaintance of the celebrated man, and now wished to see his remains. At first all were admitted; but as the curiosity became excessive and might have given occasion to calumnies of the enemies,12591259    What these calumnies were, is not stated; they were first made public by Bolsec fifteen years later (see Note below). Francis Junius, in his animadversions upon Bellarmin, says that he was at Geneva when Calvin closed his life, but that he never saw, heard, knew, thought, or even dreamed of the blasphemies and curses which the papists said he uttered at his death. his friends deemed it best on the following morning, which was the Lord’s Day, to wrap his body in linen and to enclose it in a wooden coffin, according to custom. At two o’clock in the afternoon the remains were carried to the common cemetery on Plain Palais (Planum Palatium), followed by all the patricians, pastors, professors, and teachers, and nearly the whole city in sincere mourning."12601260    "Pomeridiana vero secundo, sequentibus funus patriciis, una cum pastoribus professoribusque scholae omnibus totaque paene civitate non sine uberibus lacrymis prosequente elatus est, communique coemiterio, quod Planum Palatium vocant, nulla penitus extraordinaria pompa nulloque addito cippo (sic enim mandarat) conditus, cui propterea, his versiculis parentavi." Then follow the Parentalia and a description of Calvin’s character and habits. In his French biography, which is dated Aug. 19, 1564, Beza says that Calvin was buried, comme il l’avait ordonné, au cemetiere commun appeléPlein palais sans pompe ni appareil quelconques-làoùil gist auiourd’huy attendant la resurrection qu’il nous a enseigée et a si constamment esperée," etc. He closes both biographies with a list of Calvin’s works. Opera, XXI. 47-50.

Calvin had expressly forbidden all pomp at his funeral and the erection of any monument over his grave. He wished to be buried, like Moses, out of the reach of idolatry. This was consistent with his theology, which humbles man and exalts God.

Beza, however, wrote a suitable epitaph in Latin and French, which he calls "Parentalia" (i.e. offering at the funeral of a father):—


"Shall honored Calvin to the dust return,

From whom e’en Virtue’s self might learn;

Shall he—of falling Rome the greatest dread,

By all the good bewailed, and now (tho’ dead)

The terror of the vile—lie in so mean,

So small a tomb, where not his name is seen?

Sweet Modesty, who still by Calvin’s side

Walked while he lived, here laid him when he died.

O happy tomb with such a tenant graced!

O envied marble o’er his ashes placed!"12611261    In his Latin Vita:—
   "Romae ruentis terror ille maximus,

   Quem mortuum lugent boni, horrescunt mali,

   Ipsa a quo potuit virtutem discere virtus,

   Cur adeo exiguo ignotoque in cespite clausus

   Calvinus lateat, rogas?

   Calvinum adsidue comitata modestia vivum,

   Hoc tumulo manibus condidit ipsa suis.

   O te beatum cespitem tanto hospite !

   O cui invidere cuncta possint marmora !"

   There are besides one Hebrew, ten Greek, two Latin, and three French "Epitaphia in Calvinum scripta," in Beza’s Poemata, 1597, and in Calvin’s Opera, vol. XXI. 169, 173-178. The three French sonnets are from Chandieu, a pupil of Calvin.


On the third centennial of the Reformation of Geneva, in 1835, a splendid memorial medal was struck, which on the one side shows Calvin’s likeness, with his name and dates of birth and death; on the other, Calvin’s pulpit with the verse: "He held fast to the invisible as if he saw Him" (Heb. 11:27), and the circular inscription: "Broken in body; Mighty in spirit; Victor by faith; the Reformer of the Church; the Pastor and Protector of Geneva."12621262    On the obverse: Johannes Calvinus Natus Novioduni, 1509. Mortuus Genevae, 1564. On the reverse: "Il tint ferme comme s’il eust veu celuy qui est invisible" (Heb. 11:27). Genev. Jubil Ann., 1835. And the inscription: "Corpore fractus: Animo potens: Fide victor: Ecclesiae Reformator: Geneva Pastor et Tutamen." See Henry, III. 592.

At the third centenary of his death (1864), his friends in Geneva, aided by gifts from foreign lands, erected to his memory the "Salle de la Reformation," a noble building, founded on the principles of the Evangelical Alliance, and dedicated to the preaching of the pure gospel and the advocacy of every good cause.

The Reformed Churches of both hemispheres are the monument of Calvin, more enduring than marble.

Zwingli, of all the Reformers, died first (1531), in the prime of life, on the battlefield, with the words trembling on his lips: "They can destroy the body, but not the soul." The star of the Swiss Reformation went down with him, but only to rise again.

Next followed Luther (1546). He, too, died away from home, at Eisleben, his birthplace, disgusted with the disorders of the times, weary of the world and of life, but holding fast to the faith of the gospel, repeating the precious words: "God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son," and, in the language of the 31st Psalm, committing his spirit into the hands of his faithful God, who had redeemed him.

Melanchthon left this world at his own home (1560), like Calvin; his last and greatest sorrow was the dissensions in the Church for which he could shed tears as copious as the waters of the Elbe. He desired to die that he might be delivered first of all from sin, and also from "the fury of theologians." He found great comfort in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and the first, and seventeenth chapters of John; and when asked by his son-in-law (Peucer), whether he desired anything, he replied: "Nothing but heaven."

John Knox, the Calvin of Scotland, "who never feared the face of man," survived his friend eight years (till 1572), and found his last comfort likewise in the Psalms, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and the sacerdotal prayer of our Saviour.

The providence of God, which rules and overrules the movements of history, raised up worthy successors for the Reformers, who faithfully preserved and carried forward their work: Bullinger for Zwingli, Melanchthon for Luther, Beza for Calvin, Melville for Knox.

The extraordinary episcopal power which Calvin, owing to his extraordinary talents and commanding character, had exercised without interruption, ceased with his death. Beza was elected his successor on the 29th of May, 1564, as "modérateur" of the ecclesiastical affairs of Geneva, only for one year.12631263    He himself suggested a similar change in an address before the Venerable Company of Pastors and Professors, June 2, 1604. Annales, in Opera, XXI. 816. But he was annually re-elected till 1580, when he felt unequal to carrying any longer the heavy burden of duty. He was willing, however, to continue the correspondence with foreign Churches. He divided his untiring activity between Switzerland and France, and exercised a controlling influence on the progress of the Reformation in those two countries. He saw a Huguenot prince, Henry IV., ascend the throne of France; he lamented his abjuration of the evangelical faith, but rejoiced over the Edict of Nantes which gave legal existence to Protestantism; and he carried, as the last survivor of the noble race of the Reformers, the ideas of the Reformation to the beginning of the seventeenth century. His theology marks the transition from the broad Calvinism of Calvin to the narrow, scholastic, and supralapsarian Calvinism of the next generation, which produced the reaction of Arminianism not only in Holland and England, but also in France and Geneva.


NOTE. A CALUMNY.


It is painful to notice that sectarian hatred and malice followed the Reformers to their death-beds. Fanatical Romanists represented Zwingli’s heroic death as a judgment of God, and invented the myths that Oecolampadius committed suicide and was carried off by the devil; that Luther hung himself by his handkerchief on the bed-post and emitted a horrible stench; and that Calvin died in despair.

The myth of Luther’s suicide was soberly and malignantly repeated by an ultramontane priest (Majunke, editor of the "Germania" in Berlin), and gave rise to a lively controversy in 1890. It must be added, however, that learned and honest Catholics indignantly protested against the calumny. (Cf. my article, Did Luther commit Suicide? in "Magazine of Christian Literature," New York, for December, 1890.)

As to Calvin, it is quite probable that his body, broken by so many diseases, soon showed signs of decay, which put a stop to the reception of strangers, and may have given rise to some "calumnies," of which Beza vaguely speaks. But it was not till fifteen years after his death, that Bolsec, the Apostate monk, fastened upon Calvin’s youth an odious vice (see above, p. 302), and spread the report that he died of a terrible malady,—that of being eaten by worms,—with which the just judgment of God destroys His enemies. He adds that Calvin even invoked the devils and cursed his studies and writings. ("Il mourut invoquant les diables … . Même il maudissait l’heure qu’il avait jamais étudié et écrit.") But he gives no authority, living or dead.

Audin (Life of Calvin, p. 632, Engl. transl.) repeats this infamous fabrication with some variations and dramatic embellishments, on the alleged testimony of an unknown student, who, as he says, sneaked into the death-chamber, lifted the black cloth from the face of Calvin and reported: "Calvinus in desperatione furiens vitam obiit turpissimo et faedissimo morbo quem Deus rebellibus et maledictis comminatus est, prius excruciatus et consumptus, quod ego verissime attestari audeo, qui funestum et tragicum illius exitum et exitium his meis oculis praesens aspexi. Joann. Harennius, apud Pet. Cutzenum!"

We regret to say that a Roman Catholic archbishop, Dr. Spalding, whose work on the Reformation gives no evidence of any acquaintance with the writings of Calvin or Beza, retails the slanders of Bolsec and Audin, and informs American readers that Calvin was "a very Nero" and "a monster of impurity and iniquity!" (See above, § 110, p. 520.)

Calvin’s whole life and writings, his testament, and dying words to the senators and ministers of Geneva, and the minute account of his death by his friend Beza, who was with him till his last moments, ought to be sufficient to convince even the most incredulous who is not incurably blinded by bigotry.



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