Can an Authoritarian Tree Produce Good Fruit? Thinking about John Calvin’s Geneva

After Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth? Here’s the historian Will Durant, from his book The Reformation (1957, pp. 473-474), on what John Calvin’s Geneva was like in the 16th century:

Calvin himself, austere and severe, dreamed of a community so well regulated that its virtue would prove his theology, and would shame the Catholicism that had produced or tolerated the luxury and laxity of Rome. Discipline should be the backbone of personality, enabling it to rise out of the baseness of human nature to the erect stature of the self-conquered man. The clergy must lead by example as well as by precept; they may marry and beget, but they must abstain from hunting, gambling, feasting, commerce, and secular amusements, and accept annual visitation and moral scrutiny by their ecclesiastical superiors. To regulate lay conduct a system of domiciliary visits was established: one or another of the elders visited, yearly, each house in the quarter assigned to him, and questioned the occupants on all phases of their lives. Consistory and Council joined in the prohibition of gambling, card-playing, profanity, drunkenness, the frequenting of taverns, dancing (which was then enhanced by kisses and embraces), indecent or irreligious songs, excess in entertainment, extravagance in living, immodesty in dress. The allowable color and quantity of clothing, and the number of dishes permissable at a meal, were specified by law. Jewelry and lace were frowned upon. A woman was jailed for arranging her hair to an immoral height. Theatrical performances were limited to religious plays, and then these too were forbidden. Children were to be named not after saints in the Catholic calendar but preferably after Old Testament characters; an obstinate father served four days in prison for insisting on naming his son Claude instead of Abraham. Censorship of the press was taken over from Catholic and secular precedents, and enlarged (1560): books of erroneous religious doctrine, or of immoral tendency, were banned; Montaigne’s Essays  and Rousseau’s Emile  were later to fall under this proscription. To speak disrespectfully of Calvin or the clergy was a crime. A first violation of these ordinances was punished with a reprimand, further violation with fines, persistent violation with imprisonment or banishment. Fornication was to be punished with exile or drowning; adultery, blasphemy, or idolatry, with death. In one extraordinary instance a child was beheaded for striking its parents. In the years 1558-59 there were 414 prosecutions for moral offenses; between 1542 and 1564 there were seventy-six banishments and fifty-eight executions; the total population of Geneva was then about 20,000. As everywhere in the sixteenth century, torture was often used to obtain confessions or evidence.

Ah, the good old days! I’ll take Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia over John Calvin’s Geneva any day, thank you very much. But still, I bet that if you asked the average resident of Geneva at that time whether or not they were happy, my bet is that they would say: “On balance, I’m happy.” Membership has its privileges. And there’s no fathoming the human heart and its willingness to exchange freedom for certainty and security. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor reminds us of that, as does John Calvin (and as does the Taliban).

Here’s the Taliban:


And here’s a 16th century depiction of Calvinists engaged in an iconoclastic “cleansing” of a Catholic cathedral:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Can an Authoritarian Tree Produce Good Fruit? Thinking about John Calvin’s Geneva

  1. Pingback: John Calvin: Jesus’s Bulldog? « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: The God of the Philosophers vs. The God of Revelation | Prometheus Unbound

  3. Jason says:

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