Was John Calvin Ordained?

A question that has often been asked of Presbyterians who believe that ordination that is required for the pastoral ministry runs like this: Was John Calvin ever ordained? Indeed, it is often assumed that he was not, in fact, ordained. If not, what does mean for the Presbyterian theory of ordination? If so, by who, when, and where? 

This historical question with ecclesiological ramifications is taken up in Vol. 3 of Thomas Smyth's Complete Works and in the individual volume titled Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. There is both a chapter titled "A Supplementary Vindication of the Ordination of Calvin" and further discussion of Calvin's ordination in Appendix V. These remarks affirm that Calvin was indeed ordained, and while specific records of this historical fact are lacking, the event itself cannot be denied based on the evidence given by Smyth. 

He begins his essay by affirming an important point: "The validity of Presbyterian ordination depends, IN NO MANNER OR DEGREE, upon the ordination of Calvin." The problems or challenges for Presbyterians that might result from a certain answer to the question above may equally present problems or challenges for those opposed to Presbyterian church government. As Smyth argues further on, the same lack of details that the historical record yields regarding the date, location and persons involved in Calvin's ordination might apply to the parallel case of Bishop Joseph Butler more than a century later, whose ordination is nevertheless disputed by no one (hence "they who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones"). However, in fact, this is an historical question that does not make or break the Presbyterian doctrine of ordination for the pastoral office, which stands upon Scripture.

Delving into the historical question, Smyth adduces the testimony of Calvin himself, Theodore Beza and Franciscus Junius the Elder to show that he was indeed an ordained presbyter. He also highlights the practice of the Presbytery of Geneva, and the fact that this point was not controverted within his lifetime by his Roman Catholic or other enemies who had reason to make his supposed lack of ordination a point of contention. 

Both the historical record and the implications of whether Calvin was unordained, ordained in the Roman Church, or ordained as Protestant minister of the gospel (or both) are addressed by Smyth head-on. He presents a solid argument to show that Calvin was indeed ordained by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbytery of Geneva. 

Take time to familiarize yourself with Smyth's remarks on this question because it has been raised for centuries and is still raised today, although the question, this writer believes, was clearly settled in the 19th century, if not earlier. In Smyth's separate biography of Calvin, see Chap. IX, pp. 84-101, and Appendix V, pp. 160-162; in Vol. 3 of Smyth's Complete Works, see Chap. IX, pp. 360-368, and Appendix V, pp. 390-391 (the biography is dated 1856, and Vol. 3 of Smyth's Complete Works was published in 1908; the latter discussion of Calvin's ordination is a slightly expanded edition of the earlier). This is a question with an answer to be had, and Smyth has answered well. 

Thomas Smyth on Affliction and the Comfort of God

"Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God," Paul declared to the saints in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:22). Thus for the Christian, as for Christ, the cross comes before the crown. Yet our heavenly Father sustains and comforts us in the midst of our suffering, and through our suffering He refines us for an eternity with Himself. These truths are the theme of several of Thomas Smyth's shorter writings, found in Volume 10 of his Complete Works

  • Council and Comfort for Afflicted Believers
  • God Comforts us to Make us Comforters
  • Solace for Bereaved Parents
  • God Glorified and Christian Obedience Perfected in the Prostration and Suffering of Believers
  • Heaven

Smyth, the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1834 until nearly his death in 1873, endured a life of tragedy - chronic illness, debilitating headaches, paralysis, shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina, the death of two infant children to scarlet fever, and the list could go on. Yet this shepherd knew the word of God, and sought to apply it to himself and to his sheep. Avail yourself of the experiential wisdom of this 19th-century American Presbyterian today. 

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?"

The Complete Works of Thomas Smyth

One of the goals of Log College Press is to collect as many of the writings of 18th and 19th century American Presbyterians as possible in digital form. Thanks to websites such as Archive.org and Google Books, and participating libraries, this job of collecting and arranging is much easier than it would have been ten years ago. Now, what one formerly could only access in a physical library, is available on any screen in your possession.

Such is particularly the case of the ten-volume set of The Complete Works of Thomas Smyth, since only a limited number of copies of this set were published, and most went to libraries. Smyth, a native of Belfast, Ireland, came to America to study at Princeton Seminary in 1829. Upon graduating, he filled the pulpit of Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, SC. In 1834, he was installed as the pastor of the church, remaining in that charge until his death in 1873. His works were published nearly forty years later, which speaks to the lingering impact of his ministry - yet he is all but forgotten today. A prolific author (and buyer of books - at one point his library numbered approximately 20,000 volumes!), he wrote on all manner of topics. You can peruse the contents of each volume under the titles pages here. I especially recommend the articles in Volume 7 on Missions, a primary focus of Smyth's ministry at Second Presbyterian Church. (Also interesting is Smyth's 1850 introduction to Ebenezer Platt Rogers' The Doctrine of Election Stated, Defended and Applied, recently found and posted.) 

Note that Dr. Barry Waugh has produced a valuable guide to understanding the contents of the full 10-volume set of Thomas Smyth's Works, which can be accessed here

May the Lord use the easy access and increased knowledge of the writings of early American Presbyterians to build up His church in our own day! 

Duelling in America Comes to An End

On July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury, died after a duel of honor with Aaron Burr, Jr. (the son of a President of the College of New Jersey), the sitting Vice-President of the United States. These were two notables, one of whom was reckoned among the Founding Fathers of the United States of America.  

Eliphalet Nott (1773-1866) preached a sermon occasioned by the death of Alexander Hamilton that is widely credited with bringing disrepute to the traditional practice of duelling to avenge one's honor. 

It is true that the last duel in the United States officially took place in 1859. But it is also true that the sermons of Nott, and Lyman Beecher, two highly respected Presbyterian ministers, significantly eroded support for the practice of duelling. 

Take a look at these sermons, as well as the articles written by Thomas Smyth (Works, Vol. 7), and consider how American Presbyterians opposed the practice, and how it came to an ignominious end. 

Thomas Smyth's Charge to the People at the Installation of Pastors Thornwell and Mullally

In 1860, James Henley Thornwell and Francis P. Mullally were installed as co-pastors of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC. John Lafayette Girardeau preached the sermon and Thomas Smyth gave the charges to the pastors and to the people. You can find these addresses in Volume 6 of Smyth's Complete Works here. The following is Smyth's charge to the congregation:

The very first thing I would impress upon you is, that in this eventful scene you are not spectators merely, but participants — not merely eye-witnesses to an interesting pageant, but partners to a solemn compact. The relations and responsibilities now constituted are mutual, and cannot be separated. Have these Brethren now become your pastors? — you have become their people. Are they under obligation to preach, to reprove, to rebuke, to make known God's will and your duty? — you are bound to hear, to obey, and to perform. Are they, in conscious impotence, to undertake a work

Which well might fill an angel’s heart,
And filled a Saviour's hands? —

they are to be strengthened with all might, obtained through your prayers on their behalf. Are they to give themselves wholly to the things which pertain to your spiritual welfare? — you are to provide all things needful for their temporal comforts; to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake; to count them worthy of an adequate and honorable maintenance; and to consider it a small thing to impart freely of your carnal things in return for their spiritual gifts.

You perceive, therefore, Brethren, that the solemnities of this occasion involve you not less than those who are set over you in the Lord. For weal or for woe you are now joined together. The relations and the responsibilities are mutual. You must be helpers or hinderers of each other’s prosperity and progress. Like priest like people, is not more true than like people like priest. It is in the power of any people to paralyze or to put life and energy into their pastor, and to make him not only a lovely song and as one that playeth well on an instrument, but the power of God and the wisdom of God, to the salvation of souls. And for all that they might do and ought to do, they must give account when they shall stand confronted at the bar of Him who judgeth righteous judgment.

May you so live and labour together as that this account shall be given with joy, and not with grief. Yours, I have said, is a model pulpit. May you be a model people. Model preaching will demand model practice, model piety, liberality and zealous devotion to every good cause. I congratulate you. Brethren, upon the present occasion and your future prospects. I rejoice with you in your joy. I remember your kindness to my youth, and your appreciation of my early ministrations, when you so cordially invited me to live and labour among you. Allow me, with all my heart, to pray that peace may be within your walls, and prosperity within your borders. May you go forward prospering and to prosper — a city set on a hill, a burning and a shining light, provoking all around you to love and liberality. May strength go out of this Zion, and may you arise and shine the glory of the Lord having arisen upon you.

This occasion must now close, but we who are now assembled must meet in review all the issues of this rehearsal. Oh, my friends, realize and lay to heart that hastening hour. Pray, oh, pray earnestly, that when pastors and people shall meet face to face, at that awful tribunal, instead of mutual upbraidings and reproaches — you accusing them of unfaithfulness or negligence, and they accusing you of coldness, formality, and refusal to come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty — you may be able to congratulate each other; you blessing God for them as helpers of your faith, and they presenting you to God as their joy and crown of rejoicing.

The works of Thomas Smyth on missions are a hidden gem

One goal of Log College Press is to collect in one place all of the works of 18th and 19th century American Presbyterians that are accessible in digital format. Some of these works are nearly unavailable in actual book form, unless you are near one of the few libraries that hold copies. The Works of Thomas Smyth fall into this category. A Southern Presbyterian from Ireland, and the brother-in-law of John Bailey Adger, he was a stalwart of the Presbyterian church in South Carolina, though he was also something of a thorn in the side of James Henley Thornwell, opposing him on the question of church boards and ruling elders. Yet one of the things that Thornwell and Smyth agreed on was the importance of gospel missions. Volume 7 of Smyth's works (found here) contains his works on missions. They are a rich encouragement to the church today, though are little known. His article on "The Duty of Interesting Children in the Missionary Cause" is particularly helpful. A taste:

"A missionary is one who is sent to preach the gospel to those that are “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,” whether abroad, or in our own country. To have a missionary spirit, is to be anxiously desirous that such missionaries should be sent, and the gospel made known to all that are “perishing for lack of knowledge.” And a missionary practice or habit, is the habit of carrying out this desire, first, by praying that such missionaries may be raised up and sent forth by the Lord of the harvest, into every part of his vineyard; secondly, by contributing as far as we can towards meeting the necessary expense of sending and supporting these missionaries, and supplying what is necessary to establish schools and print bibles, and other needful books; and, thirdly, by uniting with zeal in such efforts as will promote this spirit, and secure this habit…"

We're almost finished uploading all the volumes of Smyth's works, so check back frequently for more! 

The Ecclesiastical Catechisms of Alexander McLeod and Thomas Smyth

Most Presbyterians are familiar with the Westminster Shorter/Larger Catechisms, or the Heidelberg Catechism. But have you heard of Ecclesiastical Catechisms? At least two were written by Presbyterians in America in the 19th century: one by Alexander McLeod (1806) and one by Thomas Smyth (1843). These books present the doctrine of the church in question and answer format, so that God's people might more easily understand what the Scriptures teach about the institution that Jesus is building. McLeod and Smyth won't agree on everything (for instance, the number of offices Jesus has appointed in His church), so comparing and contrasting these two documents, written 40 years apart, will undoubtedly be an edifying and rewarding use of your time. 

12 Rules for Promoting Harmony Among Church Members, by Thomas Smyth

Thomas Smyth, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., from 1832-1873, gave several practical directions in a Manual for the members of his congregation (found in Volume 5 of his Complete Works). The following are twelve rules for promoting harmony among church members (that he appears to have taken out ofWilliam Plumer's Manual for Church Members) - something every church needs to hear:

1. To remember that we are all subject to failings and infirmities, of one kind or another. (Matt. 7:1—5. Rom. 2:21—23.

2. To bear with and not magnify each other's infirmities. (Gal. 6:1)

3. To pray one for another in our social meetings, and particularly in private. (James, 5:16)

4. To avoid going from house to house, for the purpose of hearing news, and interfering with other people's business. (Lev. 19:16)

5. Always to turn a deaf ear to any slanderous report, and to allow no charge to be brought against any person until well founded and proved. (Prov. 25:23)

6. If a member be in fault, to tell him of it in private, before it is mentioned to others. (Matt. 18:15)

7. To watch against shyness of each other, and put the best construction on any action that has the appearance of opposition or resentment. (Prov. 10:12)

8. To observe the just rule of Solomon, that is, to leave off contention before it he meddled with. (Prov. 17:14)

9. If a member has offended, to consider how glorious, how God-like it is to forgive, and how unlike a Christian it is to revenge. (Eph. 4:2)

10. To remember that it is always a grand artifice of the Devil, to promote distance and animosity among members of Churches, and we should, therefore, watch against every thing
that furthers his end. (James 3:16)

11. To consider how much more good we can do in the world at large, and in the Church in particular, when we are all united in love, than we could do when acting alone, and indulging a contrary spirit. (John 13:35)

12. Lastly, to consider the express injunction of Scripture, and the beautiful example of Christ, as to these important things. (Eph. 4:32; 1 Peter 2:21; John13:5, 35)