The Rome of the Reformation

Geneva was originally a Catholic city, ruled by a count under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire. Geneva received its first Bishop in the 5th century. In the 14th Century the city was granted a large degree of autonomy and became self governing. During this period the House of Savoy dominated Geneva and later featured prominently in the oligarchic republican government that was formed in the city. The city was governed by a handful of men who formed the Grand Council

The Protestant Reformation caused a shift in power leading the city to throw off the Catholic Savoy rule in favour of aligning itself with the Protestant Swiss Confederacy. In 1536 Geneva identified itself as a Protestant city. The same year John Calvin passed through the city and was recruited by William Farel, who by this time was a permanent Protestant fixture in the city, to help establish the Reformation on a more firm footing in Geneva. 

Calvin was reluctant to oblige Farel. He was bookish and quiet, desiring the comfort of a well stocked library in which to think and write. According to the historian Wylie, Farel, ever the firebrand, cursed Calvin’s scholarly pursuits and charged him to stay and preach in Geneva. Taken aback and deeply convicted, Calvin complied and began to work with Farel to implement Spiritual and moral reform within the city. 

Calvin’s first attempts at social and moral reform were met with resistance. Many citizens chafed under the restraints imposed upon their daily lives and complained loudly to the city council. The council exiled Calvin in 1538 and he went to live with the Reformer Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. However by 1541 the city council relented and, recognising the value of Calvin’s work in the city, invited him to return. Calvin agreed but only on the condition that the city council accept his new constitution for church organisation which they were only too happy to do. The Church Ordinance of 1541 was adopted and Calvin returned to Geneva to continue the work he had begun there. 

Under Calvin Geneva became a model city, displaying a vibrant moral uprightness that had not been seen up to that point. Geneva was both a social experiment and a fertile breeding ground for the Reformation. Before long it became the Rome of the Reformation, a hub for training and deploying countless Protestant missionaries across Europe.

A City of Refuge

Perhaps the most important thing about Geneva was its status as a city of refuge for the thousands of protestant refugees fleeing persecution in France, Germany and other places in Europe. 

It was to Geneva that Farel and others fled when the first wave of persecution hit France in the early 1500s, it was to Geneva that the Protestants fled en masse in the wake of the debacle with the Placards and it was from Geneva that the article that composed the placards was despatched. Calvin founded the University of Geneva in 1559 which became a missionary training center that deployed thousands of Huguenot missionaries to France via a series of secret underground tunnels.

It was to Geneva that John Knox fled when he faced persecution at the hands of Mary Tudor in 1553. And not Knox alone but many of the persecuted Protestant subjects of Queen Mary fled to Geneva for refuge. It was here that they expereinced genuine spiritual revival and those who returned to England when Queen Elizabeth I took the throne formed the core of a movement that was later known as Puritanism. 

 It was to Geneva that thousands of French Huguenots fled in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre in 1572. After the affair of the Placards, this was probably the largest influx of Protestant refugees that Geneva hosted. Many of them fled to the city with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Young Protestants like Louise De Coligny who had lost everything, her father, her husband, her fortune came to Geneva alone, separated from her family in the wake of the terrible persecution. Geneva was a safe place to regroup and grieve before moving on. 

The first wave of Jesuit counter reformers that were deployed to England in 1580 passed through Geneva and, as an act of provocation, tried to pick a fight with the reformer Theodore Beza, who refused to give them the time of day. It was also in Geneva that the first English translation of the bible to have numbered verses was published, later known as the Geneva bible. 

Calvin’s most significant contribution to the Reformation came in the form of his book “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” which was a demonstration of the fact that the bible could support a coherent, cohesive, systematic theological structure. More than any single doctrinal point this understanding was Calvin’s gift to Protestantism. Calvin was a firm believer in the union of Church and State which was a belief that he brought with him when he left Catholicism. 

From the University of Geneva, then known as the Academy of Geneva Calvin deployed missionaries not only to France but to The Netherlands and Scotland as well. Interestingly enough many of the German rulers who had embraced Luther’s teachings went on to embrace Calvinism. 

The motto of the Reformation in Geneva was post tenebras lux which means After darkness, light and is a fitting tribute to its foundational pillar; the word of God. Psalms 119:130 describes it best; “the entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding to the simple”. May we experience the illuminating power of the word of God in our hearts and minds today. 

Further Reading

  • D’Aubigne. J.H.M. (1800) – The History of The Reformation
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism
  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Gregory, B.A (2001) – The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era (Course Guidebook)
  • Fix, A.C. (2005) – The Renaissance, The Reformation and the Rise of Nations (Course Guidebook)