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Calvins seal clydesburnblogspotcomIn the last post, we saw how Calvinism eclipsed Zwingli and Bullinger’s Swiss Reformation.

This post looks at the spread of Calvinism from Europe to the rest of the world. 

John Calvin’s logical, legalistic mind helped his adopted home city of Geneva became the nerve centre of 16th century Protestantism:

  • Calvin systematised the Reformed Church through his Institutes of the Christian Religion, commentaries, sermons and leadership.
  • He transformed Geneva into a city where people adopted a structured way of life with the guidance of Scripture and enforced local ordinances.
  • Calvin instituted primary schools so that all the city’s residents could learn to read the Bible.
  • His seminary educated and trained Reformers who would be sent throughout Europe to preach and teach. 
  • Geneva became the printing capital of Europe with 30 companies churning out Protestant literature in various languages.  

The Reformed Church then expanded into:

  • Germany, specifically Heidelberg, where the Heidelberg Catechism originated.  Although much of the country remained Lutheran, a small but strong minority led by Philip Melanchthon found themselves estranged from the denomination and joined the Reformed Church.
  • France, where 20% of the population — 2m people — considered themselves Protestant.  This included half of the aristocracy and middle class at the time. France could have become a Protestant nation were it not for Roman Catholic persecution of Protestants and civil war.  French Protestants — Huguenots — quickly fled to other European countries. 
  • Hungary and Poland, with Hungary as an enduring stronghold; then Prussia where Huguenots would flee to escape persecution in France. 
  • The Netherlands, where the Reformed Church had spread throughout the country within a matter of 15 years.  However, its numbers were small.  It was not until the 17th century when it truly became influential.  That was when the Canons of Dort were written (1618-1619).  A period similar to Puritanism followed, which was called the Dutch Further Reformation, which lasted into the 18th century.
  • Scotland, where Calvin’s pupil John Knox became the country’s most notable Reformed spokesman.  In 1560, the Scottish Parliament voted to reject papal authority and reorganise the Scottish Reformed Kirk.
  • Ireland and Wales were strongly influenced by what had happened in Scotland and many people became Calvinists.
  • England, where Anglicans who thought that church reform should have gone further, became Puritans.  They were so called because they established what they believed was a purity in worship, church government and everyday life.       

By the end of the 16th century, Calvin’s Reformed Protestantism had evolved into the following groups:

  • German Reformed Church
  • Dutch Reformed Church
  • Huguenots
  • Presbyterians (Scotland)
  • Puritan Conformists who remained Anglicans (England)
  • Puritan Dissenters who became Congregationalists (England).

In the 17th century, Reformed Protestants settled the United States, making up two-thirds of the population:

  • Massachusetts Bay: Episcopalians, or Reformed Anglicans
  • Plymouth, Massachusetts: Congregationalists
  • New Netherlands/New Amsterdam (New York): Dutch Reformed, Huguenots, Presbyterians
  • New York, Virginia, the Carolinas: Episcopalians, Huguenots, Presbyterians
  • Pennsylvania: German Reformed, Presbyterians
  • Middle Colonies: German Reformed. 

With the Reformation and expansion into America, confessions of faith also changed.  The most notable of these are:

  • Continental Reformed with its Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort
  • British-American Presbyterianism: the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism. 

It’s worth noting that the British Puritans had a profound effect on the Dutch Further Reformation.  Likewise, the Italian-Swiss theologian, Francis Turretin, was influential in shaping American Presbyterianism, especially as it was taught at Princeton University in New Jersey. 

Today, one can find Reformed — Calvinist — churches around the world: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa as well as in many countries in Asia, Africa and South America.    

Joel Beeke, writing for Monergism, explains Calvinism’s appeal:

Calvinism has a bright future, for it offers much to people who seek to believe and practice the whole counsel of God. Calvinism aims to do so with both clearheaded faith and warm-hearted spirituality, which, when conjoined, produce vibrant living in the home, the church, and the marketplace to the glory of God. It confesses with Paul, ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever’ (Rom. 11:36). That, after all, is what Scripture, Calvinism, and life itself are all about.

For more information, see ‘The Origins of Calvinism’ by Joel Beeke.

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