Geneva is the city-state seen by many as the capital of the Calvinist Reformation in Europe; others have viewed its disciplinary program as the prototype for the surveillance systems in totalitarian societies.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle; John Calvin’s prominence as the leader of the reformed movement has tended to mask independent developments in the Calvinist Reformation that occurred elsewhere, and the focus on Geneva ignores the similar development of religious disciplinary institutions throughout all of Western Europe.
The emergence of the Reformation in Geneva is intimately related to the city’s attempt to establish its own autonomy over against its sovereign, a prince-bishop who was a puppet of the neighboring Duchy of Savoy.
Over the course of the later 15th and early 16th centuries, the most important governmental functions had been turned over to the city’s magistrates, an elected group of representatives led by magistrates called syndics.
In possession of the organization of taxation, coinage, diplomacy, and criminal jurisdiction as well as military defense, the syndics and their followers drove the bishop out in the late 1520s. Because Geneva did not control much of its food-supplying hinterlands, this rebellion was possible through alliances with the nearby city-states of Bern and Fribourg.
Bern sent Protestant preachers to the newly autonomous city, urging the population to cast out Catholicism just as they had exiled their bishop. In 1536, under the influence of the preaching of William Farel, the citizens of Geneva voted to renounce the Mass. Bern protected the vulnerable city from attempts by Savoy to reinstate its influence.
In 1536, Farel called a French visitor, Jean Calvin, to serve as a fellow reformer within the city. In 1538, when they and their fellow preachers tried to impose religious authority over the civil authority of the city council, they were expelled.
Calvin went to Strasbourg and undertook the rhetorical defense of the city when the Catholic reformist cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto attempted to call it back to the old church. Geneva recalled Calvin in 1541 to create a church for the community.
His ordinances for the city were the first attempt to create a reformed city constitution and a model for other communities throughout Europe. Though they may seem harsh from the modern perspective (mandating church attendance, for example, and forbidding dancing), they were not met with resistance and indeed spread to other European communities.
This model was particularly influential in the establishment of early North American colonies a century later. Immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe rapidly fled to Geneva, taking what they learned there along and instituting at later stations in their life (John Knox, the Scottish reformer, sojourned in Geneva in the 1550s and brought his experiences back to influence decisively the polity and doctrine of the Church of Scotland).
But the presence of the immigrants and their growing religious, political, and financial influence caused tension among the native Genevans and a faction in the city always challenged Calvin’s authority. This faction, led by the local notable Ami Perrin, was defeated in 1555 after a riot and its partisans were executed, exiled, or thrown out of the city government.
The Genevan reformers created a “Company of Pastors” as missionaries for the reformed cause into France, where their success caused severe controversy and bloodshed as the so-called Huguenot (French Protestant) movement spread.
Geneva was most famous for its institutions, such as the Company of Pastors. The organization of its church policy in a structure with preachers, doctors, elders, and deacons presaged later Presbyterian polities in Scotland. In 1559, it founded an academy for the purpose of educating future reformed leaders.
But its most notorious institution was the Geneva Consistory, a religious and morals court that met regularly to provide religious discipline for the local population. Its records have been edited by Robert M. Kingdon and are a fascinating source for the social history and everyday life of the period. Although its influence was widespread, its severity has been overstated.
Most people called before it for minor transgressions were asked to repeat the catechism, the vernacular prayers that had replaced prayers in Latin during the Reformation, or the content of sermons that all were required to attend. If they could not do so, they were generally warned to be more attentive and cited to return to the court to demonstrate that they had reformed their lives.
In fact, only one individual was executed for heresy during all of Calvin’s regime in Geneva—the antitrinitarian heretic Miguel Servetus, who had managed previously to escape the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition. Controversy over Calvin’s participation in the decision to burn Servetus at the stake produced the first sustained debate about the grounds for religious tolerance in Europe.
After Calvin’s death, the Genevan church was headed by Theodore Beza, who, as his mentor, refused to alter reformed theology for the sake of compromise. This insistence, along with the tendency to develop in a manner most useful for academic teaching rather than the care of souls, has caused historians to characterize the later Genevan reformation as doctrinaire and Scholastic. Geneva continued to be threatened by Savoy’s attempts to regain its territory well into the 16th century.
The Genevan academy continued in importance, but it was supplemented by theological centers at Heidelberg, Leiden, Herford, and other locations in the Low Countries and France. The success of the consistory model led to its implementation in other Calvinist cities such as Emden and even in nonreformed areas of Europe.