May 27, 1564: Death of John Calvin

On the anniversary of the death of John Calvin, we look to two American Presbyterian biographies of the great French Reformer to get a glimpse of the closing scenes of his life. 

Thomas Cary Johnson, John Calvin and the Genevan Reformation, p. 87:

"He preached for the last time on the 6th of February, 1564; he was carried to church and partook of the communion for the last time on 2d of April, in which he acknowledged his own unworthiness and his trust in God's free election of grace and the abounding merits of Christ; he was visited by the four syndics and the whole Little Council of the republic on the 27th of April, and addressed them as a father, thanking them for their devotion, begging pardon for his gusts of temper, and exhorting them to preserve in Geneva the pure doctrine and government of the gospel; he made a similar address to all the ministers of Geneva on the 28th and took an affectionate leave of them; he had these ministers to dine in his house on the 19th of May, was himself carried to the table, ate a little with them and tried to converse, but growing weary had to be taken to his chamber, leaving with the words, 'This wall will not hinder my being present with you in spirit, though absent in the body.' [William] Farel (in his eightieth year) walked all the way to Geneva from Neuchatel to take leave of the man whom he had compelled to work in Geneva, and whose glorious career he had watched without the least shadow of envy.

With the precious word of God, which he had done so much to make plain to his own and all subsequent ages, in his heart and on his tongue, he died on the 27th of May, 1564."

Thomas SmythCalvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin, pp. 77-82:

"Let us, then, before we take our leave, draw near, and contemplate the last act in the drama of this great and good man's life. Methinks I see that emaciated frame, that sunken cheek, and that bright, ethereal eye, as Calvin lay upon his study-couch. He heeds not the agonies of his frame, his vigorous mind rising in its power as the outward man perished in decay. The nearer he approached his end, the more energetically did he ply his unremitted studies. In his severest pains he would raise his eyes to heaven and say, How long, Lord! and then resume his efforts. When urged to allow himself repose, he would say, 'What! would you that when the Lord comes he should surprise me in idleness?' Some of his most important and laboured commentaries were therefore finished during this last year.

On the 10th of March, his brother ministers coming to him, with a kind and cheerful countenance he warmly thanked them for all their kindness, and hoped to meet them at their regular Assembly for the last time, when he thought the Lord would probably take him to himself. On the 27th, he caused himself to be carried to the senate-house, and being supported by his friends, he walked into the hall, when, uncovering his head, he returned thanks for all the kindness they had shown him, especially during his sickness. With a faltering voice, he then added, 'I think I have entered this house for the last time,' and, mid flowing tears, took his leave. On the 2d of April, he was carried to the church, where he received the sacrament at the hands of [Theodore] Beza, joining in the hymn with such an expression of joy in his countenance, as attracted the notice of the congregation. Having made his will on the 27th of this month, he sent to inform the syndics and the members of the senate that he desired once more to address them in their hall, whither he wished to be carried the next day. They sent him word that they would wait on him, which they accordingly did, the next day, coming to him from the senate-house. After mutual salutations, he proceeded to address them very solemnly for some time, and having prayed for them, shook hands with each of them, who were bathed in tears, and parted from him as from a common parent. The following day, April 28th, according to his desire, all the ministers in the jurisdiction of Geneva came to him, whom he also addressed: 'I avow,'' he said, 'that I have lived united with you, brethren, in the strictest bonds of true and sincere affection, and I take my leave of you with the same feelings. If you have at any time found me harsh or peevish under my affliction, I entreat your forgiveness.'  Having shook hands with them, we took leave of him, says Beza, 'with sad hearts and by no means with dry eyes.'

'The remainder of his days,' as Beza informs us, 'Calvin passed in almost perpetual prayer. His voice was interrupted by the difficulty of his respiration; but his eyes (which to the last retained their brilliancy,) uplifted to heaven, and the expression of his countenance, showed the fervour of his supplications. His doors,' Beza proceeds to say, 'must have stood open day and night, if all had been admitted who, from sentiments of duty and affection, wished to see him, but as he could not speak to them, he requested they would testify their regard by praying for him, rather than by troubling themselves about seeing him. Often, also, though he ever showed himself glad to receive me, he intimated a scruple respecting the interruption thus given to my employments; so thrifty was he of time which ought to be spent in the service of the Church.'

On the 19th of May, being the day the ministers assembled, and when they were accustomed to take a meal together, Calvin requested that they should sup in the hall of his house. Being seated, he was with much difficulty carried into the hall. 'I have come, my brethren,' said he, 'to sit with you, for the last time, at this table.' But before long, he said, 'I must be carried to my bed;' adding, as he looked around upon them with a serene and pleasant countenance, 'these walls will not prevent my union with you in spirit, although my body be absent.' He never afterwards left his bed. On the 27th of May, about eight o'clock in the evening, the symptoms of dissolution came suddenly on. In the full possession of his reason, he continued to speak, until, without a struggle or a gasp, his lungs ceased to play, and this great luminary of the Reformation set, with the setting sun, to rise again in the firmament of heaven. The dark shadows of mourning settled upon the city. It was with the whole people a night of lamentation and tears. All could bewail their loss; the city her best citizen, the church her renovator and guide, the college her founder, the cause of reform its ablest champion, and every family a friend and comforter. It was necessary to exclude the crowds of visitors who came to behold his remains, lest the occasion might be misrepresented. At two o'clock in the afternoon of Sabbath, his body, enclosed in a wooden coffin, and followed by the syndics, senators, pastors, professors, together with almost the whole city, weeping as they went, was carried to the common burying ground, without pomp. According to his request, no monument was erected to his memory; a plain stone, without any inscription, being all that covered the remains of Calvin.

Such was Calvin in his life and in his death. The place of his burial is unknown, but where is his fame unheard?"

How did Presbyterians think about missions 100 and 200 years ago? Read these books.

The Presbyterian church has always been a missionary church, desiring to bring the gospel to the tribes, tongues, people and nations around the world. And over the past two hundred years, our leading scholars have thought hard and written well on this topic. Ashbel Green wrote Presbyterian Missions in 1838, and Thomas Cary Johnson wrote Introduction to Christian Missions in 1909. Even though you probably won't agree with everything you read in these books, I have no doubt that reading them will give you a fresh perspective on your own ministry. The discussion of first principles and missionary motivations, and the stories of God's work in America and around the globe, will strengthen your faith and spur you on to love and good deeds.

What Do Presbyterians Believe About Baptism?

As Baptists and Presbyterians spread throughout the growing United States in the 19th century, debates about baptism became more prevalent. Thus the century saw many books written on the subject of baptism: its meaning, its mode, its recipients. The subject has not lost its importance, and sometimes the writings of the 19th century can be more helpful than modern works. We'll put as many as we can find on our website eventually, but for now check out one from the early 19th century (John Holt Rice's Essay on Baptism), and one from a 19th century man in the early 20th century (Thomas Cary Johnson's Baptism in the Apostolic Age). 

Two key 19th century histories of the American Presbyterians Churches

In the late 1890s, Phillip Schaff led a team of editors in publishing the American Church History Series, "consisting of denominational histories published under the auspices of the American Society of Church History." Thomas Cary Johnson wrote the history of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and Robert Ellis Thompson wrote the history of the Northern Presbyterian Church. Both are foundational for understanding how the 19th century Presbyterian churches understood themselves and their past, present, and futures. One nice feature of these books is a detailed bibliography of sources used from the 18th and 19th centuries. These volumes are little known, but worth reading.