John Calvin and Newfoundland

Hans Rollmann
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July 10, 1509, 500 years ago this month, John Calvin, a theological giant and one of the shapers of the modern world, was born in Noyon, France. Early destined to become a Roman Catholic priest, Calvin instead aligned himself with the Protestant Reformation and became one of the most important continental Reformers, along with Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Calvin's Reform remains deeply influential in Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and North America.

Experiment in theocracy
To his interpretation of the Bible Calvin brought the scholarship of his humanist teachers, and in his voluminous "Institutes of the Christian Religion" he furnished a biblically grounded, systematic theology of extensive scope and commanding depth. There he also expressed a doctrine that evoked strenuous opposition - the notion of an absolutely sovereign God who grants or refuses salvation to whom he chooses, by predestination and election.
Calvin's Geneva became the laboratory in which he sought to realize a divinely ordered society. His experiment in theocracy offended not a few free-spirited contemporaries as well as the subsequent intellectual Enlightenment so that Geneva became a symbol for religious orthodoxy, rigidly enforced.

Originator of capitalism?
The reformer of Geneva has sometimes been caricatured as an originator and advocate of unbridled capitalism. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Reverend Ian Wishart, a life-long student of Calvin. "His emphasis on self-denial," states Wishart, "is a direct contradiction of greed." For Calvin, " the distribution of profits must be determined by the law of love. What does link Calvin to good business practice," Wishart continues, "is that he believed in accountability. We are accountable to God for the life we live."

A graduate of Geneva
Calvin also championed intellectual life and education, establishing the famous Geneva Academy, an educational institution that trained many ecclesiastical leaders. One of its graduates - the Church of England missionary Lewis Amadeus Anspach - later moved to England, and from there to Newfoundland. The man after whom a street in St. John's is named published in 1819 the stylistically remarkable and content rich "History of the Island of Newfoundland."

Varieties of Calvinism in Newfoundland
Calvin's influence in Newfoundland expressed itself in the 18th and 19th centuries in three churches: the early Methodists, the Congregationalists, and the Presbyterians.
Methodism is usually associated with the opposite of Calvin's theology, namely the free availability of grace to everyone who chooses to respond to God's initiative. Yet Laurence Coughlan, the founder of Newfoundland Methodism, separated from John Wesley in England and associated with a religious movement known as Calvinistic Methodism. Here, he fraternized with the great American revivalist George Whitefield and their aristocratic patron Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, both leading figures among Calvinistic Methodists. Coughlan dedicated his book, "An Account of the Work of God in Newfoundland," North America (1776), to Lady Huntingdon at the height of the Calvinistic controversy within Methodism and ended his ministerial career in her Connexion after leaving Newfoundland.
A former paymaster in the fort, the Rev. John Jones, founded in St. John's in 1775 the Dissenting Church of Christ, theologically an even more decisively Calvinistic church. These 18th-century Congregationalists required of their members a strictly regulated moral life, eschewing all public entertainment. In 1810, explicit articles of faith dealing with "election" and "Man's inability to do that which is good" sought to safeguard the church's theological heritage in the face of Methodist influences. Reverend Edmund Violet felt he needed to chasten church members who had "palpably abused their privileges and acted against the Calvinistic causes."
Presbyterian Scots brought their Calvinist heritage to the growing colony during the 19th century, becoming the most institutionally significant Christian presence with a Calvinist pedigree and forming in 1842 the first congregation in St. John's. The Kirk, an imposing church building in downtown St. John's, still conveys some sense of its former importance. Prime Minister Robert Thorburn was an active member of St. Andrew's Church. The Rev. Moses Harvey, one of its more famous ministers, not only wrote a history of Newfoundland, but also became a prolific writer and lecturer on Newfoundland and other topics. Church plantings in Harbour Grace and missions on Newfoundland's west coast and in other developing regions of the island, including a congregation in Grand Falls, widened the Presbyterian presence. Neither the Presbyterians nor the Congregationalists in Newfoundland joined the United Church in 1925. Instead, the Queen's Road Congregational Church was received in 1938 into the Presbyterian Church and continues today as Saint David's Presbyterian Church.

Enduring influence
I asked Rev. Ian Wishart, the former minister of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, what he wanted people in the 21st century to remember about Calvin on his 500th birthday.
Rev. Wishart: "One of the keys to Calvin's enduring influence is his practical advice on Christian living. He understood ordinary people in the midst of ordinary life. 'If we live, we must use the necessary instruments for life. We cannot avoid those matters which serve our pleasures rather than our needs. But that we should use them with a pure conscience, we should observe moderation.' Calvin did not advocate withdrawal from the world. He built no monasteries - no wandering the highways with a begging bowl. He was a city man, and projected a way of life for urban men and women. As a devotional writer he can speak to a modern world."

Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Geneva Academy, Church of England, Presbyterian Church Dissenting Church of Christ Calvinistic church United Church Queen's Road Congregational Church

Geographic location: Island of Newfoundland, Geneva, France North America Noyon St. John's Switzerland Germany Netherlands Scotland England Andrew Grand Falls Saint David

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