Posted by: davidwhall | July 30, 2008

Calvin and Wealth- Part Two

The Initial Calvinistic Business Spirit

Within days of Calvin’s death in 1564, his mantle of leadership passed to Theodore Beza (1520-1605). Geneva found itself on the world’s stage as various groups, such as Catholics and Anabaptists, hoped to overturn the newfound Calvinist establishment. The crucial 40-year period between the death of Calvin (1564) and the death of Beza (1605) determined whether or not Calvinism would be a lasting force in Geneva and elsewhere. William Monter attributes much of Geneva’s growth and stability during this period to the intellectual magnetism of Calvinism.[1]

In addition, support for Calvinism in Geneva was in part dependent on the city’s prosperity. Prior to Calvin’s time, Geneva had experienced economic hard times. The neighboring Duke of Savoy extorted “free gifts”[2] of massive amounts—taxation by another name—from the 1450s until 1526. In the early sixteenth century Geneva also owed her Bernese benefactors large debts. Moreover, taxation on wine and rising property taxes in the late fifteenth century only served royalty while robbing the citizens. With Calvin, however, the patterns of taxation and income were altered. The prosperity ethic that followed his time in Geneva is one of the wide-ranging effects of his thought and practice.

At least four large sources of income fueled Geneva’s new economic engine. First, revenue for Geneva increased dramatically from 1550 to 1570 primarily due to the large number of new citizens (refugees).[3] In two years (1555-1556), Calvinist refugees who were flocking to Geneva contributed approximately 20% of the total revenue to the city coffers.[4] The popularity of Calvin’s Academy[5] further boosted revenues in periods of need, and the influx of wealth continued for decades. By the 1580s many of the donors in times of crisis were people who had been refugees of the previous generation.[6] Growth in the population enhanced prosperity.

Second, after Calvin’s arrival in 1536 Geneva retained many of the revenues formerly raised by the Catholic diocese. Parish tithes were still contributed and, as an earlier historian wryly noted, “The last thing which a Reformed state wished to do was to abolish any Papist tax; and Messieurs knew that a preacher, even Calvin, was less expensive to maintain than a well-bred cathedral canon. . . . All in all, the Republic took in perceptibly more revenue from traditional ecclesiastical sources than it spent on Reformed ecclesiastical institutions.”[7] Thus, the conversion and redeployment of pre-existing assets helped the local economy.
Third, Geneva surged ahead in the development of new information industries. The printing businesses of Protestant immigrants made significant fiscal contributions to the local economy. Calvin’s thought and action impelled this to new heights.

Fourth, Geneva was successful in soliciting funds from other sympathetic Calvinistic countries. During one very difficult period (1593), Germans and other Calvinistic sympathizers gave up to 25% of Geneva’s budget to the city as a result of solicitations by Beza.[8] Historian Alain Dufour summarized the sources of income: “Geneva survived principally on loans from her citizens in 1589, on foreign loans in 1590, and on collections from foreign churches in 1591.”[9]

Beza also continued the political model of his mentor, favoring close interaction between the separate jurisdictions of church and state. The types and frequency of interactions between Beza and the various Councils testify to the strength and longevity of Calvin’s impact. Examples from the late sixteenth century[10] illustrate how this cooperative Reformation worked.[11] Beza spoke out against a 10% interest rate as usurious as early as 1580.[12] In 1581 city fathers consulted him about an appropriate sentence for a notorious criminal.[13] By 1588 Beza and other pastors again protested excessive usury to the Small Council.[14] In January 1596 Beza and the pastors urged the Council to compensate the teachers of the Academy.[15] Beza and the pastors were frequent consultants of the Council. Moreover, the types of discussions also indicate that the city governors wished to support the Reformation while not usurping the role of the ministers. Throughout 1596 the Council minutes indicate close consultation between the pastors and Council members on the appointment of pastors, disciplinary measures, the regulation of printing, and the search for Beza’s eventual successor. On April 7, 1596, the Council heard a complaint by Beza about poor church attendance, and the Council agreed to encourage citizens to attend. Specific pastors were approved for transfer or ordered to remain in their pulpits by the Council. Geneva’s separation of jurisdictions by no means erected an iron curtain separating church and state. None of this limited her growth and prosperity.

Rather, the historical record is clear: where Calvinism became thoroughly rooted, citizens saw economic growth. With the delicate combination of enhanced freedom and with opening economies, Calvin’s prosperity ethic would outlive him.

[1] Arthur David Ainsworth examined “The Relations between Church and State in the City and Canton of Geneva,” in his 1964 dissertation at the University of Lausanne (rpr. Atlanta: The Stein Printing Company, 1965). See especially pp. 30-45 for his discussion of Beza’s tenure.
[2] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964), 11.
[3] Estimations of French Huguenot sympathy in the period range from 10 to 25% of the entire French population. Doug Kelly sets the range at 5 to 25%. Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992), 38. Other projections estimate that up to 2 million of France’s 20 million population at the time were Huguenot.
[4] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964), 25. William G. Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994), 24, 216, charts the revenue to Geneva from Bourgeois admissions during the period from 1536 to 1556.
[5] Monter notes that the cost of the Academy was borne by selling off the estates of exiled enemies. E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 25.
[6] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 40. Monter thinks it “an interesting commentary on the Calvinist conscience” to note that Beza, Calvin’s nephew, and theology professor Antoine de la Faye were also able to contribute during times of need. Monter, op. cit., 43.
[7] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 20.
[8] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 48.
[9] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 42.
[10] Beza’s role was viewed as so important by Jesuits from Germany and France that they called for his assassination in October of 1597.
[11] Lest these Calvinists be seen as overly ascetic, a June 5, 1598, act should be considered: “M. de Bèze having received from l’Hôpital a barrel of light red wine that was too young, Syndic Favre is asked to deliver to him a half-barrel of older wine.” Calvinists were not easily cheated out of good wine.
[12] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 37.
[13] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 37.
[14] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605, 109.
[15] References to the Registry of the Company of Pastors, 1596 are taken from Kim McMahan’s translation published at:


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