Father Chiniquy and Reverend Chiniquy

Charles Chiniquy is one of those individual characters in the history of the Christian church that allows historians to understand two aspects of the church: Protestantism and Catholicism. 19th Century French Canadian, Father Chiniquy of the Roman Catholic Church, would eventually become Reverend Chiniquy of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Chiniquy, in his one person, allows the historian to get a picture of both Anti-Protestantism and Anti-Catholicism. In at attempt to better understand Charles Chiniquy, this paper will seek to narrate his life surrounding four major events. First, it will examine his Anti-Protestantism. Second, it will explore his support of the Temperance Movement. Third, it will analyze the validity of his conversion to Protestantism. Finally, it will discuss his Anti-Catholicism.

Temperance Movement

Charles Chiniquy was born on July 30, 1809 in Kamouraska, Lower Canada. His father died at an early age and Chiniquy was put in the care of his uncle, Amable Dionne. Under the watchful eye of his uncle, Chiniquy studied at the Séminaire de Nicolet. His training here would eventually lead him to pursue ordination in the Roman Catholic Church for he was regarded as a very gifted and pious public speaker.[1]

Chiniquy was ordained in Quebec City in 1833 by Bishop Signay.[2] He was now Father Chiniquy. After being bounced around several parishes he eventually was able to settle down in the St. Roch parish where he served from 1834 – 1838. It was his time here, specifically his labours in the Quebec Marine Hospital, that encouraged him to take up the Temperance Movement.  A Protestant physician by the name of Dr. James Douglas laboured at this hospital and he gave Chiniquy numerous pamphlets on the subject of temperance.[3] Chiniquy eventually became convinced that “many of the ills he saw at the hospital could be traced to drink.”[4]

It is here that something quite surprising occurred. Jan Noel writes,

  • Between 1848 and 1851 thousands of French-speaking Catholics in the Province of Canada came forward in their parish churches to take the temperance pledge. . . . For several decades evangelical Protestants had laboured long and hard to eradicate drunkenness; and now a Catholic priest was securing more converts in a single day than these earlier works had won with years of steady efforts.[5]

Part of the reason that this radical change started happening in French Canada was due to the eloquence of Chiniquy. As already mentioned, he was regarded as exceptionally gifted speaker. Yet, as Jan Noel points out, this is not something that is just due to the charisma of Chiniquy.[6] Rather, during this time in French Canadian history there is a dramatic return on the part of the parishioners back to traditionalism and submission to the authority of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. This, of course, is the result of the ultramontane movement lead by Bishop Bourget.[7] The growing image of the Church as an institute of both social reform and social authority[8] gave its charismatic leaders (in this case, Chiniquy) much authority and persuasion. Chiniquy also reinforced this ultramontane nationalist spirit by preaching that temperance was the only way that French Canadians could retain their national identity[9] in the face of a rise of Irish immigrants in Quebec and a growing number of French Canadians moving to the United States.[10] His success and popularity is evidenced by some 200,000 adherents to temperance.[11]


Chiniquy, in his early years, was a strongly committed Catholic. This is evidenced by the multiple opportunities (which he seemingly gladly took up) to engage in Anti-Protestantism. This fiery preacher of reform engaged with a group of Protestant radicals who published a newspaper called the L’Avenir. In his letters to this newspaper “he defended the church, the papacy, and the clergy’s right to intervene in public affairs, condemned annexation to the United States, and examined the question of emigration to that country.”[12] These letters prompted a growth in anti-clerical violence and at Montreal he strongly preached against the French Protestants who were known as “The Swiss.”[13] With his fiery rhetoric he “incited laity to minor violence against his opponents.”[14]

This rather violent Anti-Protestantism was a result of Charles Chiniquy’s firm beliefs. He wrote in his autobiography that,

  • ‘Out of the Church of the Church of Rome there is no salvation,’ [and that it] is one of the doctrines which the priests of Rome have to believe and teach to the people. That dogma, once accepted, caused me to devote all my energies to the conversion of Protestants.[15]

It seems that Bishop Bourget tacitly supported Chiniquy’s behaviour, for there is no evidence that he condemned it.[16] However, Chiniquy was running into trouble due to other issues. In 1851 he was suspended from his clerical office due to a charge of sexual harassment.[17] The validity of the charge is difficult to establish. Chiniquy himself denied any guilt and would later argue that the woman made up the allegation.[18] However, it appears that Chiniquy was involved in other scandals than just this one. In 1846 he was “admitted by the Oblates at the request of the archbishop of Quebec to atone there for a transgression”[19]committed during his time at Saint-Pascal. He also needed to be cleared of a claim by a woman in Kamouraska in 1848.[20]

This suspension and the Chiniquy’s questionable reputation prompted Bishop Bourget to ask him to leave his diocese. Chiniquy, desirous to preserve the faith of the French Canadian community in Illinois requested appointment there from Bourget. Roby writes that this enabled Bourget to offer “Chiniquy the opportunity for a fresh start.”[21] Bourget also regarded as a solution to a difficult problem: that of finding somebody suitable to minister to the French Canadians in Illinois. Chiniquy was in many ways the right person for the job because he “was familiar with the problems of the Canadians who had emigrated to the United States, since his temperance crusade had taken him among them.”[22]

Thus, in 1851 Chiniquy moved to St. Anne, Illinois as a colonizing priest.[23] It was in Illinois that Chiniquy began to run into administration and doctrinal issues with the Roman Catholic Church. This is primarily due to his American, Irish and even French clerical colleagues becoming jealous of his massive success among the French Canadian emigrants.[24] They “censured him, and spoke ill of him to the bishops of Lower Canada and Chicago.”[25] The Bishop of Chicago eventually got involved and blamed Chiniquy for all the dissension and disunity that was being stirred among the clergy and even among the laity. Chiniquy, not one who took criticism lightly, went on the defensive and start criticizing and making accusations himself.

Yet amidst an almost constant string of argument and lawsuits, Chiniquy maintained his anti-Protestantism, again supporting armed resistance against Protestants. He wrote in an American Catholic newspaper,

  • The morning after, two corpses of well-known Orangemen were found lying on the broken columns [of the Catholic church, which they had been desecrating]. I do not [have] to tell you that since that day the Catholics of Kingston have been left in peace. I will then say bravo![26]

Chiniquy was eventually sued by a land speculator named Peter Spink for slander. Chiniquy had accused Spink of lying to his clients regarding land sales (even though Chiniquy had often bought land from Spink for use by the church). In this famous set of trials in which Abraham Lincoln defended Chiniquy, Chiniquy accused Bishop Anthony O’Regan of financial corruption.[27] Due both to this accusation and the fact that Chiniquy would not move away from the St. Anne parish after the Bishop ordered him to, he was once again suspended from the priesthood. Chiniquy, in his typical rebellious fashion, refused to move stating that “the bishop wanted to seize his church and appoint an Irish priest (prompting many of his parishioners to support him).”[28] This open rebellion and the fact that Chiniquy had “wickedly presumed to exercise the functions of the sacred ministry, to preach, administer sacraments and say mass”[29] prompted his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church on September 3, 1856.

Conversion to Protestantism

Chiniquy ignored the excommunication in much the same way he ignored the suspension. Many of his parishioners reacted in much the same way. They remained loyal to him even though that loyalty meant that they too would be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.[30]

Gradually Chiniquy’s church began to look different, giving the Roman Catholics all the more support for their excommunication of him. Lougheed writes that

  • among the gradual transformations were the disappearance of articular confession, statues, holy water, Latin masses, fast days and vestments. No longer did they believe in purgatory, indulgences, mediation of the saints including Mary, and papal infallibility. Bible studies became prominent in many worship gatherings. . . . Already in 1852 the precedents were present in St. Anne for group Bible study and critique.[31]

This all resulted in Chiniquy and 2,000 other converts joining the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1860[32] In February of that same year, Chiniquy was made a Presbyterian minister. He was now the Reverend Chiniquy.

As an unsurprising result of his conversion, Catholics distrusted and even hated him. They

  • could not endure the blasphemy and sacrilege of the apostate priest . . . . All Catholics were required to treat any contact with him or his productions as loathsome because of the abomination of his acts and words. His very name invoked the dreadful memories of an unparalleled rebellion against God.[33]

At first, some Protestants were not very impressed with him either. At the very least they were skeptical regarding whether or not he was a true Protestant and lamented the fact that the “ex-priest’s theological views were not clear and that the whole affair was about the trivial question of property.”[34] However, a lot of these concerns seemed to have went away when he joined the PCUSA. He preached a sermon in September of 1860 in which he directly affirmed Protestant doctrine. He stated,

  • I was surrounded by a light . . . and through that light I saw the way of salvation. Then for the first time I understood the mystery of the Cross of Christ . . . I felt that Christ had answered my prayer, that the mountains of my iniquity were gone, and I gave myself entirely and exclusively to Christ.[35]


His whole-hearted acceptance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone was enough to convince many Protestants of the sincerity of his conversion. Many more would rally behind him when they began to witness the fruits of his conversion: his bold anti-Catholicism. This anti-Catholicism prompted many to compare him to that of the Biblical Saul who once persecuted Christians.[36] He was given the title, “The Luther of Canada”[37] and he certainly lived up to that title. He began powerful speaking tours which “consisted of unrestrained attacks on the Catholic Church, its dogmas, sacraments, moral doctrine, and devotional practices. He made outrageous remarks about the pope, bishops, and priests.”[38] He went across Canada, the US, England, Scotland, and even Australia on his speaking trips.[39] The passionate anti-Protestant speaker, was now a very successful and powerful anti-Catholic preacher.

He was also a very provocative preacher. Lougheed tells the story that once Chiniquy “consecrated a wafer, using the Catholic liturgy and the irreversible power that, according to the Catholic Church, all those once-ordained still retained. After this he pierced the wafer with a knife, crumpled it and ground it under foot.”[40] He became such a controversial figure that the police failed to protect him, so the Orange Order offered him protection services.[41] These threats on his life helped him to gain more Protestant support and he was “honoured with a Doctor of Divinity degree from Presbyterian College in Montreal” in 1893.[42] In the end, it was not violent Catholics that killed Chiniquy, but rather he became deathly ill with bronchitis and died on January 17, 1899.[43]


As has been shown, all his life Chiniquy was a very controversial figure on both sides of the Christian camp. He was either hated by Protestants or hated by Catholics and sometimes even distrusted by both. However, his Protestant influence upon French Canada cannot be overlooked. Although the number is probably a bit high, Chiniquy claimed some 7000 converts to Protestantism after only four years in Montreal.[44] His autobiography was translated into many languages and by 1898 had gone through seventy editions.[45] Some 10,000 mourners, Protestant and Catholic, came to his funeral.[46] Paul Laverdure aptly points out that his enormous role in the Catholic-Protestant debates, was illustrated by a comment that one newspaper obituary states: “The thought that he never was even once killed in a religious riot must have embittered his last hours.”[47] Indeed, it must be remarked that one cannot understand the Protestant-Catholic divide in French Canada today apart from some understanding of Chiniquy. Nor can one be a Protestant or Catholic member of the clergy in Canada without understanding something of the role of Chiniquy in the history of religious controversy.


Carey, Patrick. “The Confessional and Ex-Catholic Priests in Nineteenth-Century Protestant America.” in U.S. Catholic Historian. 1 – 25

Chiniquy, Charles. Fifty Years in the Church of Rome. Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1886.

Laverdure, Paul. “Charles Chiniquy: The Making of an Anti-Catholic Crusader.” in Historical Studies, 54 (1987): 39 – 59

Lougheed, Richard. The Controversial Conversion of Charles Chiniquy. Toronto: Clements Academy, 2008.

MacRaild, Donald. “Transnationalising ‘Anti-Popery’: Militant Protestant Preachers in the Nineteenth-Century Anglo-World.” in Journal of Religious History Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 2015): 224 – 243.

Noel, Jan. “Dry Patriotism: The Chiniquy Crusade” in Canadian Historical Review, LXXI, 2, (1990): 189 – 207

Noll, Mark. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Michigan: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Roby, Yves. “Chiniquy, Charles.” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval (2003). http://biographi.ca/en/bio/chiniquy­_charles_12E.html (Accessed March 1, 2017).

Wade, Mason. The French Canadians: Volume I: 1760 – 1911. Toronto: Macmillian Company of Canada, 1968.

[1] Yves Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval (2003). http://biographi.ca/en/bio/chiniquy­_charles_12E.html (Accessed March 1, 2017)

[2] Richard Lougheed, The Controversial Conversion of Charles Chiniquy. (Toronto: Clements Academy, 2008), 34

[3] Jan Noel, “Dry Patriotism: The Chiniquy Crusade” in Canadian Historical Review, LXXI, 2, (1990), 196

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, 189

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, 193

[8] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. (Michigan: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 253

[9] Noel, “Dry Patriotism”, 200

[10] Ibid, 197

[11] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 46

[12] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[13] Ibid

[14] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 51

[15] Charles Chiniquy, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome. (Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1886), 283

[16] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 51

[17] Ibid, 53

[18] Ibid, 53

[19] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[20] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 53

[21] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[22] Ibid

[23] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 57

[24] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[25] Ibid

[26] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 70

[27] Ibid, 75

[28] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[29] Pastoral Letter of Bp. Anthony O’Regan, in Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 81

[30] Ibid, 109

[31] Ibid, 112

[32] Chiniquy, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, 820

[33] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 182

[34] Ibid, 228

[35] Quoted in ibid, 230

[36] Ibid, 185

[37] Ibid, 186

[38] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[39] Donald MacRaild, “Transnationalising ‘Anti-Popery’: Militant Protestant Preachers in the Nineteenth-Century Anglo-World.” in Journal of Religious History Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 2015), 225

[40] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 158

[41] Ibid, 160

[42] Ibid, 173

[43] Ibid, 176

[44] Chiniquy, Fifty Years, 822

[45] Roby, “Chiniquy, Charles”

[46] Lougheed, Controversial Conversion, 177

[47] Quoted in Paul Laverdure, “Charles Chiniquy: The Making of an Anti-Catholic Crusader” in Historical Studies, 54 (1987), 56

Thomas Chalmers and His Parish System

The Slums of Glasgow, Scotland. 1870s

The Slums of Glasgow, Scotland. 1870s

With the rise of industrialization (and the subsequent urbanization) of society in the British Isles in the 19th Century, the Christian church was faced with a new set of challenges. Suddenly there was a huge growth in disease, alcoholism, crime, and poverty in large industrial cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.[1] Welfare systems had to be established by the government to care for these paupers. Hospitals had to some how find the means to care for the increasing number of sick and diseased people. How was the church to respond to such a huge social crisis? In the twenty-first century it seems that the common reaction to social justice issues is to have the government pass legislation demanding more equality, more representation, and more money. However, the response of the church in the 19th Century, particularly that of one Scottish Evangelical pastor, Thomas Chalmers, was quite different. Rather than wanting to have the state claim more jurisdiction over areas of society, Chalmers wanted the church to have the sole purpose of dealing with the poor. It was Chalmers’ desire to develop a local parish system whereby the people in each individual parish could care for and support the needs of that particular parish. In this way, a greater sense of Christian community and compassion would be known and hopefully the poor could rise from their poverty, by the instruction and help of the Christian church.

This paper will be interested in examining Chalmers’ work in regard to his parish-system. It will seek not only to investigate what various factors in Chalmers’ life encouraged the development of such a system, but it will also examine how the system worked, and how successful it was.

Parish System

The parish-system was the historic division of the territory in Scotland, ascribing some 950 parishes to the Church of Scotland (the established church).[2] A parish system is a structure that is very important to state churches, as it provides a method of division that allows all the territory to be governed and controlled by the state church. It ensures that every territory of the state has some ecclesiastical structure in it. Thus, every parish in Scotland was assigned its own church building and a residence for the clergy.[3] The idea here was to assign each minister a certain group of people within a specific section of land. The minister would serve in that parish under the higher bodies of the Church of Scotland: the local presbytery, the provincial synod, and the General Assembly.[4]

Conversion to Evangelical Christianity

Thomas Chalmers’ evangelical conversion serves as a very important catalyst in the history of development of his parish system. It was Chalmers’ conversion from a dead academic Christianity to an evangelical and experiential Christianity that prompted him to begin an evangelical mission where he laboured: first at Kilmany and then later in Glasgow. Prior to Chalmers’ conversion he had actually already been an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland in the small country parish of Kilmany.[5] Yet he really had very little interest in the pastoral work at Kilmany and was much more interested in academic, mathematical, and philosophical pursuits. In fact, he condemned the

religious ‘enthusiasts’, who claimed a ‘mystical’ knowledge of God’s will and of the predestined fate of their souls which transcended both reason and Scriptural revelation . . . . For him, the value of Christianity lay in its moral code, through which men might live together in harmony.[6]

Thomas Chalmers, c. 1845

Thomas Chalmers, c. 1845

In 1809 Chalmers fell seriously ill with consumption and though he recovered he had to deal with other numerous personal difficulties during 1809 – 1810. These included the ending of his relationship with an Anne Rankine and the death of his sister, Lucy. These difficulties caused Chalmers to withdraw into solitude and study. It was in his studies that Chalmers read William Wilberforce’s pamphlet Practical View of Preaching Religious System of Professed Christians.[7] In this pamphlet Wilberforce criticized the “mores of fashionable society and called for a commitment to true Christianity.”[8] This tract had a dramatic affect upon Chalmers for “It offered a bulwark against ‘the vortex of earthly passions’, and the prospect of a new life.”[9] Thus, it was upon reading this pamphlet that Chalmers was converted to evangelical Christianity in December 1810.

After his conversion, Chalmers had a tremendous desire to begin a truly evangelical ministry in Kilmany. He took up his ministry in Kilmany with a renewed and reinvigorated passion. He began a rigorous process of visiting the members of his parish to understand their needs.[10] Chalmers began a ministry emphasising the importance of individual conversion with emphasis on the Biblical doctrines of total depravity and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Brown writes that “Chalmers powerfully conveyed his absolute belief in the ‘peculiar doctrines’ of man’s corruption, his duty to obey God’s laws, and his salvation by grace alone.”[11] It was the preaching of these doctrines, with the hope that it would lead to the personal conversion of his hearers, that would also drive Chalmers’ social ideas.

Development of the Parish-Ideal

The story of the development of Chalmers’ parish ideal cannot be separated from his evangelical desire to bring the gospel to the lost. Indeed, Chalmers believed that society could not be reformed apart from Christianity. He “considered Christianity decisive ‘to foster’ the principles implanted in the constitution of man.”[12] In fact, he would state later in his life that,

I assert, with the most unqualified earnestness, that Christianity is the religion of life, and will bear to be carried in the whole extent of her spirit and of her laws throughout all the haunts and varieties of human intercourse. . . that in her strictest and most essential character she may be introduced into the busiest walks of society and there uphold her disciples in the exercise of that simplicity and godly sincerity which she lays upon them.[13]

Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

Yet, Chalmers was also influenced by philosophy when it came to poverty and the growth of populations. In particular, he was heavily influenced by the social development theories of Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ theory argued that society could not have unlimited growth without devastating consequences such as shortages of food, growth of poverty, and ultimately war. This, he argued, was the recurring cycle of human history.[14] The only hope for society to get out of this vicious cycle was their moral reasoning. Society could limit population growth through moral restraint by practicing birth control (i.e. marrying later in life).[15] The way society could be taught to do this was through education, especially teaching “individuals . . . among the labouring orders, the benefits of supporting smaller families on their incomes and of increasing their wages by decreasing the labour supply. Another, more radical, expedient was to abolish legal poor relief.”[16] Abolishing poor relief was crucial to this system, for it was believed that this would force the poor to adopt moral restraint.

Chalmers developed his own slight twist on this theory. Rather than completely eradicating poor relief, Chalmers began arguing that the state should have no jurisdiction over poor relief. He believed that it was the duty of the church and the family, not the state, to administer poor relief. This is crucial to understanding his parish system. His intent with the parish system was to make its citizens independent of state welfare. The parish citizens would all support each other, by caring for each other. Through the withdrawal of all outside support, people would be forced to look to their families for help.[17] Further, if the church was allowed the task of administering poor relief, they could give it alongside of Christian financial advice. They could administer instruction and education with the money. Thus, to paraphrase Chalmers, they could give money with judgment, time, and attention.[18] Brown summarizes the argument in this way

at the foundation of Chalmers’ argument was the concept of a Christian community, in which a shared missionary ideal strengthened both piety and benevolence. The parish community became united by the spontaneous spirit of charity, which improved the quality of life for all. . . . [Chalmers] then proceeded to contrast this Christian communal ideal to the legal system of poor relief, particularly as it functioned in England. Poor laws, he argued, created an artificial system of contractual relationships, emphasizing a legal right to relief on the part of the poor.[19]

So Chalmers had a great quarrel with benevolence administered by the state. He believed that the state’s function in poor relief resulted in the decline of the morality of the poor, encouraging them “to think more of their rights than of their responsibilities. As a result, they became morally degraded to a condition of ‘pauperism’, or a permanent legal dependence upon the labour or property of others, which compromised their real freedom, as well as making them less industrious.”[20]

The Application of the Parish System in Glasgow

So when Chalmers left Kilmany to take up labours in the Tron parish in Glasgow he did not come there simply to preach (for he was regarded as an exceptional preacher). Rather he came, as James Dodds writes, to “be a parish minister in Glasgow.”[21] His notion of being a parish minister was knowing and visiting the members of his congregation and also all the members of his parish territory (whether they were Dissenters or not). It was through this visitation that he could come to know the individual needs of his congregation, whether financial, spiritual, or both, and he could respond appropriately.

However, visiting each individual house in his parish posed a huge problem. He simply did not have the time to visit every single house and family in his parish and, more importantly, to deal with their problems in an appropriate manner.[22] So Chalmers began enlisting the help of his session. He appointed younger and more vigorous men to the eldership, who would have the strength and the energy to visit the members of their parish.[23] These men tended to be taken from the wealthier classes, as these men would have the time and the resources to help the less fortunate.

It was their job to look after the members of various sections of the parish by visiting them from house to house on a regular basis. In doing this they were to “communicate Christian knowledge and consolation.”[24] They were also to find the poor who truly needed assistance and get to them before they actually applied for poor relief.[25] Of particular interest is that these elders were to use their own private wealth and influence (in finding employment) to help the families in need. Only as a last resort were they to seek the financial help of the church institute.[26]

The notion of abolishing all state welfare was met with a fair amount of resistance from Chalmers’ contemporaries. Many accused him off being inhumane towards the poor in making their suffering all the worse.[27] Many also said that he was simply doing this to give the Church of Scotland more control, influence, and power through the use of its parish system.[28] Thus, they viewed his plan as a direct attack on religious plurality. Finally, he was also considered to be utopian in his vision and thus idealistic, not realistic.[29]

Partly in response to these accusations, Chalmers began petitioning for absolute control over St. John’s parish (a new parish inside of Chalmers’ growing Tron parish). He wanted to stop all state welfare and show how successful such a system of Christian principles, money management, charity, proper church leadership, and poor relief could be. After much controversy and difficulty Chalmers managed to get what he wished in September 1819.[30]

It was at St. John’s that Chalmers began to really use the office of the deaconate, instead of the eldership, to take care of the financial concerns of the parish. Once again, a deacon was assigned to a certain section of the parish. Part of their duty as deacons was to encourage a communal benevolence whereby the richer members of the parish would charitably give to the poor.[31] However, if there was no way for the deacon to relieve a poor member via his own funds or abilities (or that of another individual deacon), then that case would be brought for consideration at the deacons’ court. If the court deemed the situation of that particular pauper to be desperate enough, then they would grant funds from the collections of the church for his relief.[32]

Obviously then, the role of the deacons here was quite significant. They not only had to seek out those who were poor (specifically before they applied for financial help), but also had to judge on a case by case who truly needed monetary help and who needed simply needed good financial advice. Nor did their duties end there, for they were also to “endeavour to close public houses, remove health hazards, strengthen families, and encourage education.”[33] This service even extended to the alcoholics and other members of society considered immoral. Due to the nature of these people, they were not allowed to receive money. However, Chalmers ordered his deacons that they should receive instruction, and brotherly love, shown through good-will, friendly advice, and calmness.[34] Thus, Brown rightly states that the “most important feature of the St. John’s poor-relief system was . . . [the] trained order of deacons.”[35]

The Success of the System

The effectiveness of Chalmers’ parish system is cloaked in a lot of controversy. The number of sessional paupers and those applying for welfare certainly decreased during Chalmers’ time in the St. John’s parish. Indeed, the “other nine Glasgow parishes had sent a total of 353 paupers to the Town Hospital for permanent assessment relief, while St. John’s had sent none.”[36] Yet some of the ways the deacons achieved this are perhaps questionable. Some of the deacons were accused of callousness in not supporting the poor as fellow human beings. The deacons so discouraged and shamed the notion of being poor, that almost nobody applied for relief, even though they were in desperate need.[37]

christianandciv01chalgoog_0008Modern scholars such as R. A. Cage and R. Mitchison see Chalmers’ system as outdated, traditional, and thus, unable to truly meet the needs of the poor in industrialized cities.[38] Yet Betchaku argues that Chalmers’ plan really helped establish a system of public education that would greatly influence society in later years.[39] Indeed, Chalmers influence in this regard seems to be undeniable. He worked hard to spread his views and even published a pamphlet describing his work in St. John’s called, Christian and Civic Economy in Large Towns.[40] This would eventually lead to his help in the work to reform the poor-laws.[41] Brown also seems to agree that Chalmers’ system was ultimately successful when he argues that “Despite the conflicts and failures, his achievements had been significant. He had assimilated his rural parish community ideal to new urban conditions, [and] gained the participation of the considerable body of the Glasgow upper and middle classes in his parish ideal.”[42] So while there may have been some questionable behaviour on the part of the deacons in the implementation of Chalmers’ orders it seems his system was on the whole successful in reducing the number of paupers, educating the poor, creating a more benevolent community, and having a future impact on poor laws.

Therefore, in conclusion, Thomas Chalmers’ successful development of a financially independent parish in a heavily pauperised 19th century industrial city is quite an interesting story that should not be overlooked. Nor should the development of such a system ever be separated from his evangelical conversion. It was his evangelical zeal that really brought him out of an academic Christianity and into a proactive missionary zeal to see the poor educated and given relief from their distress. Chalmers’ parish system was his Christian response to the growing problems of an industrialized and urbanized 19th Century society and on the whole it seems to have been a successful system.


Betchaku, Atsuko. “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment: A Study in Educational Influence in Scotland and Beyond, 1819-c.1850.” in Journal Of Scottish Historical Studies 27, no. 2 (December 2007): 170-190.

Brown, Stewart J. Thomas Chalmers and the godly commonwealth in Scotland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brown, Stewart J.. “Chalmers, Thomas (1780–1847).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. edited by David Cannadine, October 2007.

Dodds, James. Thomas Chalmers: A Biographical Study. Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Co., 1879.

Enright, William G. “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Scotland” in Church History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1978): 400 – 407

Goodlad, Lauren. “‘Making the Working Man Like Me’: Charity, Pastorship, and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain; Thomas Chalmers and Dr. James Phillips Kay.” Victorian Studies 43, no. 4 (Summer, 2001): 591.

Noll, Mark. “Revolution and the Rise of Evangelical Social Influence in North Atlantic Societies” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond 1700 – 1990. Edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Rawlyk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Philip, Adam. Thomas Chalmers: Apostle of Union. London: James Clarke & Co., Limited, 1929.

Shaw, Ian. “Thomas Chalmers, David Nasmith, and the Origins of the City Mission Movement.” Evangelical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (January, 2004): 31 – 46

Wolffe, John. The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney. Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2007.


[1] William G. Enright, “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Scotland” in Church History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), 402

[2] Stewart J. Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the godly commonwealth in Scotland. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 43

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 43 – 44

[5] Stewart J. Brown, “Chalmers, Thomas (1780–1847)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. (Oxford, 2004). Edited by David Cannadine, October 2007. (http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.aekc.talonline.ca/view/articleHL/5033?docPos=1&anchor=match) February, 20, 2017

[6] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 49

[7] Ibid, 55

[8] John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, (Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2007), 55

[9] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 56

[10] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 77

[11] Ibid, 58

[12] Atsuko Betchaku, “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment: A Study in Educational Influence in Scotland and Beyond, 1819-c.1850.” in Journal Of Scottish Historical Studies 27, no. 2 (December 2007), 172

[13] Enright, “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit”, 404

[14] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 117

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid, 117

[17] Betchaku, “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment”, 172

[18] Lauren Goodlad, “’Making the Working Man like Me’: Charity, Pastorship, and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Thomas Chalmers and Dr. James Phillips Kay” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), 596

[19] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 67

[20] Ibid

[21] Emphasis his. James Dodds, Thomas Chalmers: A Biographical Study. (Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Co., 1879), 139

[22] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 101

[23] Ibid, 101

[24] Ibid, 102

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid, 120

[28] Ibid, 121

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid, 128

[31] Ibid, 132

[32] Ibid, 132

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid, 132 – 133

[35] Ibid, 132

[36] Ibid, 134

[37] Ibid, 135

[38] Betchaku, “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment”, 170

[39] Ibid

[40] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 151

[41] Ibid

[42] Ibid

Were Protestant Native Conversions Bona Fide?

Just read a very interesting article by historian James Axtell in his book After Columbus. The article seeks to address the question: “Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?”

Often the claim is made that Christian missionary attempts in North America were all about numbers, economics, land, and politics, not about the sincere, godly desire to spread wondrous news of the gospel to the lost. As Axtell remarks:

  • “The Puritans, those favorite whipping boys of the enlightened, predictably fare the worst, particularly “Apostle” John Eliot of Massachusetts. According to Francis Jennings and Neal Salisbury, Eliot’s goals were so tainted by a barely hidden political agenda and his methods so “repressive” that his religious results must be drastically discounted. Only after the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been founded for sixteen years did Eliot decide to get into what Jennings calls the “missionary racket,” largely for the annuity offered by an English noblewoman to encourage American missions. He used an Indian “slave” (a war captive) as a language teacher, and in 1646 talked the colonial “oligarchy” into outlawing the practice of native religion under pain of death and into setting aside some land, purloined from the Indians, as bribes to converts seeking “secure habitation” in the chaos of the Puritan land-grab. These reservations or “praying towns” became the major Puritan institution of “cold war” against the natives.When surrounding tribes would not voluntarily submit to English dominion, Eliot sent faithful warriors from these towns, armed with guns and ammunition purchased with missionary funds, to “compel them to come in.” Moreover, in his published reports abroad, Eliot cooked his results and inflated his own role in converting native New England. Although Eliot claimed that some 1100 Indians had been “subjected to the gospel” by 1674, Jennings could find only seventy-four in full church communion and another forty-five who had been baptized, a total of 119 or just over 10 percent of those claimed for Christ’s battalions. Richard Bourne of Plymouth and especially the Thomas Mayhews, Junior and Senior, of Martha’s Vineyard “outperformed Eliot in almost every re-spect,” largely because of Eliot’s “authoritarian and repressive” methods and corrupting political ends.”

johneliotHowever, Axtell demonstrates quite effectively that these claims are simply not true. John Eliot and the New England puritans were extremely strict about who was considered a Christian and who could even become a member in a church. The amount of time and difficulty it took to become a member in a church, illustrates that the missionaries were not simply out there for numbers, economics, or politics. Rather, it illustrates a sincere interest on the part of the missionary to seek a true conversion and Biblical understanding of Christianity. Also, on the part of the native, it illustrates a sincerity of heart to the doctrines and practices of Christianity. The dedication that the natives had to learning the Scriptures and protestant theology shows a deep valuing of the gospel. The latter part of this long paragraph is especially illustrative of this.

Axtell demonstrates all this when he states:

  • “Puritan missionaries put their candidates to an equally hard test [contrasting the puritans to the Jesuit
    First Bible printed in New World, 1663 in the Massachusett language

    First Bible printed in New World, 1663 in the Massachusett language

    missionaries in New Frace]. Eliot’s flagship church at Natick was not formally gathered until nine years after the town was established and Eliot began to preach and catechize there regularly. In 1652, the second year of his ministry there, Eliot asked his most promising neophytes to make “preparatory confessions” to him, which he then read to the elders of neighboring English churches. A month or two later, the candidates made full “public confessions” before a panel of visiting clergymen.The following year Eliot and Thomas Mayhew published both sets of confessions in London in order to gather the opinion of English clergymen on the sincerity and suitability of the Indians as potential Christians. In 1654, after assurance from England had arrived, eight natives were given a final grilling before Eliot’s Roxbury congregation. Although their answers to 101 questions on Scripture, Protestant belief, and the conversion experience were entirely satisfactory, Eliot weighed their knowledge and behavior for another six years before allowing them to subscribe to a covenant of faith and to become a true church. The informed specificity and emotional depth of these early confessions simply cannot sustain Salisbury’s suspicions about their quality in comparison with those by colonial candidates.They are not only as probing of the inner “morphology of conversion” as English confessions, but they contain distinctively Indian elements that should allay fears that the minister was merely dictating, or that the Indians were merely parroting, a standard form of confession. As to the natives ‘knowledge of Scripture and Puritan theology, the better place to look is not in the confessions but in the searching questions the Indians asked during instruction or following sermons. Many of the questions drove right to the heart of Christianity’s historical and philosophical contradictions, pushing the missionaries to the walls of their knowledge. The Indians’ ready “faculty to frame hard and difficult questions” demonstrated their grasp of the intricacies of Christian theology and European arts and sciences. When they plunged into queries about biblical history, death, and the problem of evil, the missionaries often must have wished that they were dealing with English parishioners who took more for granted.”

Axtell, James. 1988. After Columbus : Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 20, 2017).

Martin Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian”

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

The treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian[1] written by Martin Luther is a very profound and, at the time of its publication, a very radical document on what it means to be a Christian. It was penned in roughly twelve days[2] in October of 1520 and published in the same year. This was the third of a group of treatises which Luther wrote in 1520 and which have collectively come to be known as The Reformation Writings.[3] Prior to this Luther had written, The Address to the German Nobility and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. While The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was published in Latin and meant primarily for theologians and scholars,[4] On the Freedom of a Christian was published in both Latin and German[5] and meant to be read by the common German people. That Luther was specifically interested in the common German people reading it, is brought out by the fact that the German translation was made free “for the benefit of the people.”[6] This treatise is extremely important for understanding Reformation theology and history and therefore it will be examined in this paper. In doing so, it will explore numerous questions that deal with it primarily as a historical source from the time of the Reformation.

To start with, On the Freedom of a Christian has some interesting contextual history. Part of its history is that it was prefaced with a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X. This letter was the product of Luther meeting up with Cardinal and Saxon nobleman[7] Charles von Miltitz on October 12, 1520.[8] Miltitz urged Luther to write a letter “disclaiming any intent to attack him [i.e. the pope] personally, and presenting temperately the case for reform.”[9] This meeting was probably urged on by the fact that the Pope Leo X had issued the bull of excommunication, the Exurge Domine, against Luther on June 15, 1520. So Luther wrote the letter in Latin for the express purpose of “presentation to the pope.”[10]

It is important to state (in order that one not get the wrong impression regarding the character of this letter) that this was by no means a letter of apology to the pope for any of Luther’s past actions. It was rather almost a letter of “paternal counsel to the forty-five-year-old heir of St. Peter and the Medici.”[11] Luther pities the pope stating that he is “a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of lions, and with Ezekiel, you dwell with scorpions.”[12]

Luther states over and over again in this letter, that he is not attacking Leo per se, but rather attacking the doctrine and the corrupt men of Rome. For example, he states, “I am so far from having felt any rage against your person, that I even hoped to gain favor with you, and to aid in your welfare, by striking actively and vigorously at that your prison, nay, your hell.”[13] Continuing with that, he seems almost to describe Leo as a victim of all the corruption of Rome, “For since I know that your Blessedness is driven and tossed by the waves at Rome, while the depths of the sea press on you with infinite perils, and that you are laboring under such a condition of misery that you need even the least help from any the least brother.”[14]

While Luther states all these kind words to the pope, it must be realized that Luther, even in addressing the pope in such gentle and kind terms, was disrespecting the authority of the pope. It would have virtually been unheard of for a lowly monk and Doctor of Theology to address the pope in such terms. As Atkinson writes, “he [i.e. Luther] addressed him as an equal and pitied him as a poor Daniel in a den of lions. He made the devastating remark that the Pope was called the vicar of Christ for a vicar was there because someone else was absent, and it was Christ who was absent from Rome.”[15] That being the case, unfortunately nobody knows what the pope actually thought of the letter or the book as nothing was ever recorded in that regard. Although, quite clearly the “the letter accompanying it destroyed all prospects of reconciliation.”[16]

This brings up the interesting question: why would Luther include On the Freedom of a Christian with such a letter? It would appear that Luther, in doing so, was making a defense of his faith. He was ensuring that nobody would be able to accuse him of wrong doing and heretical ideas.

freedom-of-a-christianSo how does Luther argue his theological position regarding Christianity? WeThe actual treatise On the Freedom of a Christian deals with a seeming paradox. Luther states it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[17] He argues this proposition solely on the basis of Scripture. He makes no reference to church councils or decrees at all. One of the very likely reasons for this is that since this treatise was also written for the common German people, heavy theological language and the arguments of councils are left out. As MacKinnon states “the language is that of religion rather than theology.” Luther is then, most likely realizing the importance of writing a treatise in the terminology of the common people and one that is free from theological councils and disputations. Without all these complications it can be a treatise from which the laity can benefit. However, going back to the content of the treatise, Luther defends his paradox on the basis of several arguments. His chief argument is that man is justified by faith alone. He states that no outward thing or work has any effect on a Christian’s justification: “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.”

However, going back to the content of the treatise, Luther defends his paradox on the basis of several arguments. His chief argument is that man is justified by faith alone. He states that no outward thing or work has any effect on a Christian’s justification: “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.”[18] He goes on to state that there is only one thing that is necessary for the Christian life and that is the gospel of Christ:

One thing, and only one thing is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.[19]

That Luther needs to state this and make arguments defending it gives the reader a glimpse into the fact that society at the time did not take justification by faith alone for granted. Rather, the whole of religious and Christian society was steeped in a justification by works. Therefore, that Luther argues for justification by faith demonstrates that he was breaking in a radical way with Roman Catholic theology.

After he makes an argument for the justification of the believer by faith alone through Christ alone, Luther goes on to contend that Christ, as the believer’s highpriest, imparts two things to the Christian. The first thing is that He grants all Christians kingship: He makes lords of all. By this, he does not mean that all Christians are given a corporeal power.[20] Rather, he means that “every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm. . . . The power of which we speak is spiritual . . . . I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty.”[21]

The second thing Christ grants the Christian is that he makes them priests forever. By this he means that “we [i.e. Christians] are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.”[22] In doing this, Luther removes the difference between clergy and laity. As MacKinnon writes, “he . . . rejects the distinction between clergy and laity and insists anew that the only distinction is that of specific function and of the ministry of the Word for the promotion of faith.”[23] In doing this Luther, is removing the hierarchical nature of the church. He is establishing a type of equality between the laity and clergy in this treatise.

Therefore, in conclusion, this treatise on the theology of Martin Luther, is an integral one to the history of the Reformation. It states clearly and logically the key Reformation ideas of justification by faith alone and the priesthood and kingship of all believers. This has had a profound effect on Christianity to this day as the division it created in Christian theology still exists. If one may use the term, it is a revolutionary document.


Atkinson, James. Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981

Smith, Preserved. The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968

MacKinnon, James. Luther and the Reformation. New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985

Luther, Martin. “Dedicatory Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X” on Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp (Accessed February 4, 2016)

Luther, Martin. Christian Liberty. Edited by Harold J. Grimm. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957


[1] Also referred to as Christian Liberty, Concerning Christian Liberty and The Liberty of a Christian Man

[2] James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981), 192

[3] Ibid, 187

[4] Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of M

artin Luther. (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968), 88

[5] Ibid, 93

[6] James MacKinnon, Luther and the Reformation. (New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962), 263

[7] Atkinson, Martin Luther, 174

[8] MacKinnon, Luther, 263

[9] Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 355

[10] MacKinnon, Luther, 263

[11] Durant, The Reformation, 355

[12] Martin Luther, “Dedicatory Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X” on Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York (http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp) Accessed February 4, 2016

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Atkinson, Martin Luther,  193

[16] Ibid

[17] Martin Luther, Christian Liberty ed. by Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 7

[18] Ibid, 8

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, 17

[21] Ibid, 17 – 18

[22] Ibid, 18

[23] MacKinnon, Luther, 266

Martin Luther’s Marriage and Family Life as a School of Character for the Christian

Martin Luther is an exceedingly interesting, humorous, warming, and comforting character to study. He is a man who had an immense personality. Anybody who reads him can be as quickly sobered by his statements as they are brought to laughter by what he writes. Martin Luther is so often able to describe the human condition in a remarkably well manner. One sees this especially in Luther when it comes to his marriage and family life. Luther was a very caring and compassionate father to his children and a loving and devoted husband in the way that he treats his wife, Katherina von Bora. He would remark in the early years of his marriage, “I am rich, God has given me my nun and three children.” Luther very much viewed marriage as a School of Character for the Christian.

It is both Luther’s strong convictions and his tenderness which lutherhelped him shape German family life for centuries. Numerous historians attest to his influence on the family. Bainton writes that Luther shaped the Protestant parsonage: “If he could not reform all Christendom, at any rate he could and he did establish the Protestant parsonage.”[1] He further states that “The Luther who got married in order to testify his faith actually found a home and did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries.”[2] Grimm also writes that, “this marriage proved to be a blessing for Luther and did much to further the traditions of a new institution, the Protestant parsonage. Luther did more than any other person to hallow the Christian home in Germany.”[3]

This post, in honour of the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, will demonstrate Luther’s great influence upon Protestant family life.

Why Did Luther Get Married? 

That seems like a bit of an odd question to ask, but it is a very important one considering the time in which Luther lived. Luther, for many years before he himself got married, had actively encouraged other clergy to get married.[4] This was a very radical thing for Luther to do, especially as he himself was a monk. Clerical marriage had been forbidden by the Church for centuries. Marriage was deemed to be something that the less godly people partook of. Witte writes this regarding the Roman Catholic view of marriage during the Medieval Ages,

After the Fall, marriage remains a duty, but only for those tempted by sexual sin. For those not so tempted, marriage is only an inferior option. It is far better and far more virtuous to remain celibate and to contemplate. For marriage is an institution of the natural sphere, not the supernatural sphere.[5]

So one sees that those who remained celibate would be viewed as the higher and more perfect Christians, while those who married were the more carnal and sinful Christians. Thus, marriage was normally looked down upon as being both vulgar and unspiritual.

However, in opposition to this, Luther had quite strong words regarding those parents who encouraged their children to be celibate. Indeed, he actively supported marriage. He stated:

They [i.e. the parents] deter their children from marriage and entice them into priesthood and nunnery, citing the trials and troubles of married life. Thus do they bring their own children home to the devil, as we daily observe; they provide them with ease for the body and hell for the soul.[6]

Yet, while Luther promoted marriage for the clergy and condemned those who encouraged celibacy, he himself had no intentions of marrying. Luther’s reasons for not doing so are explained in his own words. He writes, “I am disinclined to it, because I am every day expecting death as inflicted upon a heretic. I do not wish to obstruct God’s work in me, nor rely upon my own heart for comfort. It is my hope that I shall not be permitted to live long.”[7]

So when Luther finally decided to get married there seem to be several primary reasons for him doing such.

1. The Practicality of Getting Married

The first reason was very much just the practicality of it. Luther had been involved in freeing twelve nuns from a cloister. While he had succeeded in finding husbands for all of them he failed to find one for Catherina von Bora (he appears to have been a bit of a matchmaker). After an attempt to marry her off to a man called Nurnberger had failed, Luther tried to have her married to a Dr. Glatz. She stated that she would either marry Amsdorf of Magdeburg or Luther, not Glatz.[8]

2. To Please His Parents

Luther does not seem to have thought much about what Catherina had stated until he talked about it with his parents. Bainton writes that his father took it as a “realistic proposal. His desire was that his son should pass on the name.”[9] This is perhaps the second reason that Luther decided to get married: he wanted to please his parents. Luther wrote,

I married to gratify my father, who asked me to marry and leave him descendants. . . . I was not carried away by passion, for I do not love my wife that way, but esteem her as a friend.[10]

3. To Display the Sincerity of His Faith 

Perhaps the reason that was most influential in Luther’s decision to get married was to display his faith. It was to show that he practiced what he preached: that he was not afraid of getting married. It was his hope that in doing so he not only would prove his enemies wrong, but also strengthen the faith of other men (including Bishop Albert Mainz[11]). This is evidenced quite strongly in the first announcement Luther wrote regarding his upcoming marriage. Apparently Luther wrote that “he will take ‘his Katie’ to wife ‘to spite the devil.’”[12] So as one can see, Luther did not marry first and foremost for love. Indeed, he wrote, “I am not infatuated . . . though I cherish my wife.”[13] Sears also writes that “at first, Luther was not particularly pleased with Catharine, because he ‘supposed she was proud and haughty.’”[14]

Luther Found Much Joy in Marriage:

That being said, marriage really seems to be something that Luther enjoyed. Smith writes that “the marriage did indeed turn out happily. After his hard experiences in the monastery, Luther’s whole nature blossomed out in response to the warm sun of domestic life. A true instinct for the best side of the man has made artists love to portray him surrounded by wife and children.”[15] Luther would come to write, “I would not change my Katie for France and Venice, because God has given her to me, and other women have much worse faults, and she is true to me and a good mother to my children.”[16] So while love was not an immediate concern for Luther when it came to marriage, he did come to love his wife very much. Luther writes “Katie, you have a husband who loves you; many an empress is not so well off.”[17] Bainton further writes that Luther “paid her the highest tribute when he called St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians ‘my Katherina von Bora.’”[18] As the story goes, Luther began to get worried about the amount of devotion he was giving to his wife. He stated, ‘”I give more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.’”[19]

The Luther Household: 

It is certain that Katie had a lot to do in her responsibilities as a wife for Luther. Besides having the massive household and grounds of the Augustinian Cloister (Lutherhaus) to take care of, she had to ensure that her family was fed. This was no small task, especially considering Luther’s extreme generosity. Bainton writes this concerning his liberality,

His giving was so prodigal that Lucas Cranach, the artist and banker, refused to honor his draft. Luther’s comment was, ‘I do not believe I can be accused of niggardliness.’ He was irritatingly blithe. ‘I do not worry about debts,’ he said, ‘because when Katie pays one, another comes.’ She watched him, and she needed to watch him.[20]

So, in order to provide for the needs of the residents of Lutherhaus, the Luther family practically had a small farm. They had numerous animals, a fish pond, a large garden (which Luther took care of), and a large orchard.[21] Katie even brewed her own beer, much to the delight of Luther.[22]

So it certainly seems that Katie was equal to the task of caring for the Luther household. One gets a sense of Katie’s devotion and her dedication from a time during the winter of 1539 – 40. She had suffered a miscarriage which resulted in her falling gravely ill. But Smith recounts that when the crisis was past her energy returned faster than her strength, and one of the most realistic accounts of her tells how she crawled around the house with the aids of her hands before she was able to walk upright.”

when the crisis was past her energy returned faster than her strength, and one of the most realistic accounts of her tells how she crawled around the house with the aids of her hands before she was able to walk upright.[23]

While the business of taking care of the agricultural side of things certainly made the household busy enough, the Luther household was also quite often full of children and guests. On June 8, 1526 Katie and Luther had their first child born into the world.[24] They named him Hans and he was the first of six children. They also had “Elizabeth (1527), Magdalena (1529), Martin (1531), Paul (1533), [and] Margaret (1534).”[25] On top of that they brought up “eleven of his orphaned nephews and nieces”[26] and boarded relatives, student boarders, visitors, and servants.[27] This then was most certainly a very busy and noisy household.

However, Martin Luther greatly loved and cherished his children. This is evidenced best by Luther’s own words. He writes, “The youngest children are always the most loved by the parents. My little Martin is my dearest treasure. Hans and Lena can now speak and do not need so much care, therefore it is that parents always love the little infants who need their love the most.”[28] Though Luther, unsurprisingly, does have a few comments regarding screaming children, in one of them he states,

What cause have you given me to love you so? How have you deserved to be my heir? By making yourself a general nuisance. And why aren’t you thankful instead of filling the house with your howls.[29]

Speaking of noise, mealtimes could especially be clamarous affairs. The students, eager to keep learning from Martin Luther, would gather around the table with pen and paper and write down the words of their teacher. These writings were compiled after the death of Luther and published into a book known as Table Talk. Table Talk is a wonderful picture into the life of Luther. The frankness and coarseness of Luther’s saying  in his Table Talk, tells the reader a lot about his personality. However, Luther would often get so caught up in talking and answering questions, that he would forget to eat, much to chagrin of his wife. As the story goes,

While he was talking in an inspired way during dinner, his wife said: ‘Why do you keep talking all the time instead of eating?’ He replied: ‘I must against wish that women would pray before they preach. Say the Lord’s prayer before you speak.’[30]

Luther on Family Worship: 

Prayer and worship were indeed key aspects to Luther’s idea of family life. Luther himself began each day with his own private prayers.[31]  In fact, Veit Dietrich wrote these words concerning Luther’s prayer life, “No day passes that he does not give three hours to prayer, and those the fittest for study.”[32] After Luther’s own private prayers he “joined the family to say the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a Psalm.”[33] As part of this family worship, Luther also encouraged the celebration of a family Christmas with much making of music and song.[34]

Luther’s Theological Views on Marriage and Family:

Much can also be said about Luther’s view on marriage and the family from a theological standpoint. It is important to remember that Luther married out of principle: to prove that he certainly believed himself that marriage was right and proper for a member of the clergy. The rather comical thing is that this was a marriage between an ex-monk and an ex-nun. One can just imagine the outrage this would have caused and indeed did cause. For example, Erasmus wrote, “When a monk marrieth a nun, we may expect antichrist will be born.”[35]

When it came to the institution of marriage itself, Luther viewed as one of highest blessings from God. He writes, “Next to God’s Word there is no more precious treasure than holy matrimony. God’s highest gifts on earth is a pious, cheerful, God-fearing, home-keeping wife, with whom you may live peacefully, to whom you may entrust your goods and body and life.”[36] This very much gave a positive aspect to marriage that greatly contrasted the Roman Catholic Church’s negative view of marriage.

While being liberal in regard to who could marry, Luther was very conservative, traditional, and Biblical when it came to the structure of the family. For Luther the man was the head of the household and the woman was subject to his rule.[37] He argued this on the basis that Adam was created first then Eve (I Timothy 2:13).[38] While there is only one mention of Luther using corporeal punishment on his wife (a boxing on the ears[39]) one must not get the impression that Luther was a tyrant. As Smith argues, “it is probable that Luther gave in as often as not: – ‘As we were sitting in the garden, Jonas remarked that the women were becoming our masters . . . . Luther said: ‘But we have to give in, otherwise we would have no peace.’”[40] Furthermore, Luther once remarked to Katie, “in household affairs I give you the entire control, my authority being unabated.”[41]

Furthermore, the family is supposed to be very much a single independent unit according to Luther. Witte writes that “the family was seen as an indispensable social unit alongside the church and state, with its own sphere of authority and responsibility and its own moral and pedagogical task within society.”[42] This would fit very well with Luther’s condemnation of the Roman Catholic teaching that matrimony was a sacrament. In rejecting marriage as a sacrament[43], Luther was reasserting the independence of the family from the church: it is a separate unit from the church and must operate within its own sphere. This does not mean that the family was to act contrary to the wishes of the church. Rather the family was to work alongside of the church. It was the family’s duty to “teach all persons, particularly children, Christian values, morals, and mores.”[44]

Furthermore the family was supposed to be devoid of individualism. This is especially true when it came to the marriage of the children of the family. Bainton writes that “there was no room left for the exercise of unbridled individualism. Matings should be made by families; and whereas parents should not force children to repulsive unions, children in turn should not, because of infatuations, resist reasonable choices on the part of their elders.”[45] Furthermore, in a reaction against individualism, the family was to be together. Luther disliked being away from his home on trips, he “preferred to be more in his own family circle.”[46] Even when he absolutely had to travel he would take his wife with him, who was “often his companion in his study.”[47]

Bainton further argues that Luther saw marriage primarily as a school for character.[48] Family life, in all its trials, in all its squabbles, in all its difficulties, was to strengthen the Christian and draw him closer to God. Marriage taught the Christian to exercise “fortitude, patience, charity, and humility.”[49] As Luther stated, “I must have patience with the Pope, ranters, insolent nobles, my household and Katie von Bora, so that my whole life is nothing else but mere patience.”[50] In viewing family in this way, Luther destroys the notion that married Christians are somehow less Christian. Luther instead shows that in married life the Christian is brought to a greater understanding of Christian virtue. Hence, Luther is able to remark this regarding one of his children,

Hans is cutting his teeth and beginning to make a joyous nuisance of himself. These are the joys of marriage of which the pope is not worthy.[51]

Luther also influenced marriage from a law aspect. He took the responsibility of marriage away from the church and gave it over to the state. This resulted in the formation of state run marriage courts and thus also the formation of marriage laws. This is especially the argument of Witte who demonstrates that with the advent of Protestant views regarding marriage law courts to deal with the issue marriage start springing up[52], as well as Protestant law schools.[53]


Luther greatly influenced German views of marriage and family life in numerous ways. By arguing that marriage is not a sacrament he brought marriage outside of the confines and control of the church. In many ways this established the family as a separate unit outside of the church. Furthermore, Luther’s belief and practice that marriage is a blessing from the Lord greatly encouraged people to get married, as it made marriage a positive thing, and not something negative for a Christian to do. Thus, it was because of Luther’s views on marriage and family life he was able to say, “I am rich, God has given me my nun and three children.”[54]


 Atkinson, James. Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon Press, 1950

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985

Luther, Martin. The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Edited by Thomas S. Kepler. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1979.

MacKinnon, James. Luther and the Reformation. New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962

Sears, Barnas. Life of Luther. Green Forest, Arizona: Attic Books, 2010

Smith, Preserved. The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968

The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978.

Witte, John. “The Reformation of Marriage Law in Martin Luther’s Germany: Its Significance Then and Now” in Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1986): 293 – 351

Spangenberg, G.A. “Martin Luther and music.” Image, 1866. Available from Virtual Museum of Protestantism.http://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/martin-luther-and-music/ Accessed April 4, 2016


[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950), 286

[2] Ibid, 298

[3] Harold Grimm, The Reformation Era: 1500 – 1650 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963), 177

[4] Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968), 172

[5] John Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law in Martin Luther’s Germany: Its Significance Then and Now” in Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1986), 301

[6] Quoted in ibid, 293

[7] Quoted in Barnas Sears, Life of Luther. (Green Forest, Arizona: Attic Books, 2010), 380

[8] Bainton, Here I Stand, 288

[9] Ibid, 288

[10] Quoted in Smith, The Life and Letters, 176

[11] It was Luther’s hope that in him getting married, Mainz would also get married as well. Bainton, Here I Stand, 288

[12] Smith, The Life and Letters, 174

[13] Quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, 288

[14] Sears, Life of Luther, 382

[15] Smith, The Life and Letters, 178 – 179

[16] Ibid, 179

[17] Quoted in Smith 179

[18] Bainton, Here I Stand, 293

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, 292

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid, 293

[23] Smith, The Life and Letters, 181

[24] Bainton, Here I Stand,  293

[25]  James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981), 248

[26] Smith, The Life and Letters, 355

[27] Bainton, Here I Stand, 294

[28] Smith, The Life and Letters, 352

[29] Ibid, 353

[30] Ibid, 180

[31] Atkinson, Martin Luther, 250

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Sears, The Life of Luther, 395

[35] Quoted in ibid, 384

[36] Quoted in Atkinson 247 – 248

[37] Bainton, Here I Stand,  299

[38] Ibid

[39] Smith, The Life and Letters180

[40] Ibid, 181

[41] Quoted in Sears, The Life of Luther390

[42] Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law”, 296

[43] Luther first argued that this had no basis in Scripture [James MacKinnon, Luther and the Reformation. (New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962), 260] and second argued that marriage is an earthly institution and no grace is conferred by God when a person is married (Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law”, 312). Therefore, marriage cannot be a sacrament.

[44] Ibid, 308

[45] Bainton, Here I Stand, 299

[46] Sears, The Life of Luther, 394

[47] Ibid

[48] Bainton, Here I Stand, 300

[49] Ibid

[50] Quoted in Smith, The Life and Letters, 181

[51] Quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, 293

[52] Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law”, 315

[53] Ibid, 318

[54] Smith, The Life and Letters, 179

John Calvin’s Views on Medicine and the Work of the Physician

Below is a paper I recently wrote for a history of medicine class. I found the subject matter to be quite interesting and thus the length of the paper  (I believe it is some 4300 words, which is actually not above the word count! An odd occurrence for me. The prof. said it had to be at least 3000 words). Due to what I deem to be the fascinating nature of this subject I thought I would share it with you.

“Show your wounds to the Lord, the best of physicians; and seek medicine from him”: A Look into Calvin’s Health and How Views on Medicine and the Work of the Physician Actively Encouraged the Advancement of Medicine

It is hard to underestimate John Calvin’s influence when it comes to the Reformation and Christianity today. Calvin not only produced a library of influential works on Christian doctrine and living, but he also established Geneva as a center for the Reformation. Men from Scotland, France, Germany, the Low Countries, England, and Scotland all studied in Geneva and then left it to spread the teachings of the Reformation all over Europe and, eventually, the rest of the world. Today, various Presbyterian and Reformed Churches share a set of doctrinal beliefs that have come be known as Calvinism. A key focus of Calvinism is an emphasis on the sovereignty of God over all the affairs of the universe. Tied to that idea of sovereignty is also the belief that one must pray to God alone and not to the saints. After all, since the saints have no power over what happens in this life, it is superfluous to pray to them.

But it would be improper to state that Calvin was only influential when it came to mere outward doctrine and mere academic theological teaching. Calvin’s theology was very practical and one especially sees this when it comes to how Calvin influenced medical thought and practice. This paper will demonstrate that Calvin influenced medicine with his belief in God’s sovereignty and that intercession can be made only to God. This paper will prove this thesis by examining what Calvin’s own personal words were on these issues. In order to do this, this paper has been divided into three major sections. The first section deals with Calvin’s own personal health and view of physicians. The second section deals with Calvin’s belief in God’s sovereignty and providence. The final section examines Calvin’s belief that intercession can only be made to God and that the Christian ought not to pray to saints or make pilgrimages to shrines.

John’s Calvin’s Own Personal Health and His View on Physicians in General

Perhaps the most amazing part of Calvin’s influence on medicine is he suffered with numerous diseases and sicknesses throughout his life. He by no means had an easy life when it came to the health of his body. His works are scattered with references to illness and disease. He even uses examples from medicine as illustrations for his doctrine and the practice of that doctrine. From this one gets the impression that this subject was one he quite often had on his mind.

That he would quite often have issues of health on his mind is made very clear when one understand what he all suffered from. To start with, he suffered from indigestion throughout his life. Beza recounts that this was a product of the long hours he spent studying during his law student days: “By these prolonged vigils he no doubt acquired solid learning, and an excellent memory; but it is probable he also contracted that weakness of stomach which afterwards brought on various diseases, and ultimately led to his untimely death.”[1] Due to Calvin’s unsettled stomach, he ate very sparingly and Beza remarks that for about ten years he never dined and left off eating till supper time.[2]

Calvin also suffered from numerous ailments with his lungs and it would appear that he


Figure 1 William Wileman, “Calvin Preaching His Farewell Sermon in Expectation of Banishment” in John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence. (London: Robert Bank & Son, c. 1900: 96.) Taken from Reformation Church.org.uk (http://www.reformationchurch.org.uk/gallery-c.php) Accessed March 29, 2016

suffered from some type of asthma.[3] Calvin, in a letter to Bullinger, makes a brief mention of the problem: “my lungs are so full of phlegm that my breathing is difficult and short.”[4] A lot of the problems with his lungs were only compounded by the fact that he had to speak so often. He was often preaching, giving lectures, teaching, dictating books and pamphlets[5], and entering into hearty conversations with fellow reformers and citizens of Geneva.

Perhaps Calvin’s most troublesome and painful ailments were the bladder stones and gout he continually had to deal with. It is these two issues that Calvin spends the most time writing about. Indeed, he writes quite a lengthy letter to the Physicians of Montpellier talking about his gout and bladder stones. To get an idea of what it was like for Calvin, it seems most fitting to quote most of his letter here:

at that time I was not attacked by gout, knew nothing of the stone or the gravel, was not tormented with the grippings of colic nor afflicted with piles nor threatened with haemorrhages. At present all these enemies charge me like troops. As soon as I recovered from a quartan fever, I was taken with severe and acute pains in my calves, which, after being partly relieved, returned a second and then a third time. At last they turned into a disease of the joints, which spread from my feet to my knees. An ulcer in the haemorrhoid veins long tortured me . . . . Last summer I had an attack of nephritis. As I could not endure the jolting of horseback, I was carried into the country in a litter. Coming home I wanted to walk some of the way. I had hardly gone a mile when I was forced to stop, because of a feeling of lassitude in the loins, for I wanted to make water. And then to my surprise blood flowed instead of urine. As soon as I got home I went to bed. The nephritis was very painful and remedies gave me only a partial relief. At last, with the most painful strainings I ejected a stone, and this lessened the evil. But it was so big that it tore the urinary canal and the flow of blood could be arrested only by an injection of woman’s milk through a syringe. Since then I have ejected several others, and the heaviness of my loins is sufficient symptom that there is still some stone there. It is a good thing, however, that mixture or at least moderately small particles continue to be ejected. The sedentary war of life to which I am condemned by the gout in my feet prevents all hopes of a cure. I am also prevented from taking exercise by the trouble in my seat. For although no ulcer appears, yet the veins are very swollen . . . . But I am thoughtlessly taxing your patience, giving you double labour as the reward for your kindness, not indeed in consulting you but in giving you the trouble of reading over my trifles.[6]

It will be noticed with this letter that Calvin has a very gracious attitude towards physicians. This letter is a response to the Physicians of Montpellier asking if they could help with anything. The beginning of the letter expresses Calvin’s great gratitude towards them, “I have no way of showing my gratitude other than recommending you to draw from my writings what may afford you spiritual medicine. Twenty years ago I experienced the same courteous services from the distinguished physicians of Paris, Acatus, Tagant, and Gallois.”[7] It is also equally evident that Calvin believes that the work of a physician is very important to human life. This is seen in how he describes the Lord as the best of physicians: “Show your wounds to the Lord, the best of physicians; and seek medicine from him”[8] and “He is the physician, therefore let us show our wounds to him.”[9]

This is in contrast to a widespread criticism of physicians, even among other reformers. Harley writes that Thomas Becon (a 14th century English pastor) condemned physicians for their greed.[10] Martin Luther himself is suspicious of doctors as is evidenced by a quote from The Table Talks,

When I was ill at Schmalcalden, the physicians made me take as much medicine as though I had been a great bull. Alack for him that depends upon the aid of physic. I do not deny that medicine is a gift of God, nor do I refuse to acknowledge science in the skill of many physicians; but, take the best of them, how far are they from perfection?[11]

 John Calvin’s View on God’s Sovereignty and Providence in Relation to Sickness, Medicine, and the Work of Physicians

John_Calvin_on_his_deathbed,_with_members_of_the_Church_in_a_Wellcome_V0006910 (1)

Figure 1 William Wileman, “Calvin Preaching His Farewell Sermon in Expectation of Banishment” in John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence. (London: Robert Bank & Son, c. 1900: 96.) Taken from Reformation Church.org.uk (http://www.reformationchurch.org.uk/gallery-c.php) Accessed March 29, 2016

That background information is very important to understand that Calvin is not unaware of what he is talking about when it comes to practical theological advice on issues of health and medicine. He suffered a lot more than many could imagine to suffer today. It is no wonder then that his theology is so very practical when it comes to issues of health. The rest of this paper will proceed to examine his doctrinal beliefs when it comes to health and medicine.

As has already been briefly mentioned, one of the significant features to Calvin’s thought is his strong belief in the complete sovereignty of God. Calvin believed that the Scriptures clearly taught that God is in control of every aspect of life on earth.[12] This belief in the sovereignty of God in relation to life on this earth is commonly referred to as providence. Calvin speaks of several different aspects of providence. One of these aspects, known as General Providence, is the manner in which God guides the creation. He sends rains, storms, drought, famine, and prosperity.[13] Another aspect is Special Providence. This is God’s dealings with humanity in general.[14] Finally, there is what can be termed “Particular Providence.”[15] This is God’s special care of His elect believers so that everything works towards their benefit.[16]

For Calvin, God’s sovereignty meant that He is in control of health and sickness, life and death, diseases and cures. This meant that there was no such thing as accidents or events happening by chance. In the same way cures do not just happen, a cure has to be blessed by God. Therefore, the work of physician is useless unless God so determined that a cure could be produced.

Martin Luther seems to take a slightly different view. While Calvin emphasises the sovereignty of God in all aspects of human life, Luther directly attributes certain diseases and trials to the work of the devil. This is evidenced by numerous accounts in The Table Talks. For instance, Luther states, “A woman at Eisenach lay very sick, having endured horrible paroxysms, which no physician was able to cure, for it was directly a work of the devil.”[17] He also states elsewhere that,

the physicians in sickness consider only of what natural causes the malady proceeds, and this they cure, or not, with their physic. But they see not that often the devil casts a sickness upon one without natural causes. A higher physic must be required to resist the devil’s diseases; namely, faith and prayer, which physic may be fetched out of God’s Word.[18]

Luther further seems to have a much more superstitious view regarding disease. Luther seems to have a belief in astrology and remarks that the planets can impact the years of one’s life and sickness and disease. He remarks, “One’s thirty-eighth year is an evil and dangerous year, bringing many heavy and great sicknesses; naturally, by reason, perhaps, of the comets and conjunctions of Saturn and of Mars, but spiritually, by reason of the innumerable sins of the people.”[19]

That being said regarding Luther, it is important to demonstrate that Calvin avoids the extreme of those who say that if all things are controlled by the providence of God, then is it useless to seek the help of a physician or to take precaution. Calvin says quite a bit regarding those who hold to this careless belief regarding the sovereignty of God. Part of what he states is quoted below, but the sarcasm he uses must be understood in order to comprehend the quote. It must be observed that Calvin is speaking as one who contends that the work of a physician is useless for a good part of the quote and so he writes,

If the Lord has marked the moment of our death, it cannot be escaped – it is vain to toil and use precaution. Therefore, when one ventures not to travel on a road which he hears is infested by robbers; when another calls in the physicians, and annoys himself with drugs, for the sake of his health; a third abstains from coarser food, that he may not injure a sickly constitution; and a fourth fears to dwell in a ruinous house; when all, in short, devise, and, with great eagerness of mind, strike out paths by which they may attain the objects of their desire; either these are all vain remedies, laid hold of to correct the will of God, or his certain decree does not fix the limits of life and death, health and sickness, peace and war, and other matters which men, according as they desire and hate, study by their own industry to secure and avoid. No, these trifles even infer, that the prayers of the faithful must be perverse, not to say superfluous, since they entreat the Lord to make a provision for things which he has decreed from eternity. . . . Has a son waited with indifference for the death of his parent, without trying any remedy? He could not oppose God, who had so predetermined from eternity.[20]

Notice that Calvin does not deny that the work of a physician is useless, or that it is wrong to use drugs to remedy the ailments of the body. This is not a subversion of the providence and sovereignty of God; it is not rebellion to God’s sovereignty (to think such would be to posit that it is even possible to rebel against God’s sovereignty: an inconceivability). Rather, Calvin appears to believe that God so uses the drugs and the physicians as a means to perform His sovereign decrees. He writes, “Now our duty is clear, namely, since the Lord has committed to us the defense of our life – to defend it; since he offers assistance – to use it; since he forewarns us of danger – not to rush on heedless; since he supplies remedies – not to neglect them.”[21] This is further enforced by what David Harley writes,

Bodily healing, like that of the soul, lay with God although the sick should use all legitimate means . . . Medicine was the means ordained for use in sickness by God who usually acted through second causes. . . . No medical means were forbidden by Calvinist theology, apart from sorcery.[22]

Furthermore, Calvin argues that the believer must be content with the will of God when it comes to trials, diseases, pains, and injuries. He states that the believer must trust in the providence of God and must be patient with His will:

When afflicted with disease, we shall groan and be disquieted, and long for health; pressed with poverty, we shall feel the stings of anxiety and sadness, feel the pain of ignominy, contempt, and injury, and pay the tears due to nature at the death of our friends; but our conclusion will always be, The Lord so willed it, therefore let us follow his will.[23]

This is a very important point and one that has had a very important effect on pastoral counseling throughout the history of the church.[24] When it comes to disease and the sufferings of this life, the sufferer is often reminded (by both the laity and the clergy alike) that God is in control and that he is to be content with the will of God. Yet the crucial part of this, for the believer, is the Particular Providence of God. This means that all problems in the life of the elect are for their own benefit and God sends hardship as a loving Father. As Calvin states, “Hence, our Savior, after declaring that even a sparrow falls not to the ground without the will of his Father, immediately makes the application, that being more valuable than many sparrows, we ought to consider that God provides more carefully for us.”[25]

With this special care to the believers and followers of Christ, one may wonder how Calvin explains why adversity and hardship fall upon the believer. Part of the answer to that is that in God doing so, He chastises the believer for their sins, urging them to repent. So physical hardship draws the believer closer to God.[26] Furthermore, hardship (including sickness and infirmities of the body) causes the believer to trust evermore in God; the believer puts his trust in God and is thus comforted. The believer’s comfort in providence is that:

his heavenly Father so embraces things under his power – so governs them at will by his nod – so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favor, and entrusted to the care of his angels, neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except insofar as God their master is pleased to permit.[27]

All these teachings regarding the providence of God had a profound impact among Calvinist communities throughout the world. One sees this especially in Scotland, England, and the Netherlands with the adoption of Calvinistic confessions and catechisms as the statement of faith for their respective churches. These confessions and catechisms include: The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and The Canons of Dordrecht.

Christians in the Dutch, English, and Scottish churches were taught that since God is in control of all things, health and sickness come by His hand. Since disease comes by His hand, the cures for those diseases must also come by His hand and so physicians have a very important calling to find the cures for those diseases. Perhaps this is just one of the reasons that “both the physical and the biological sciences were dominated by Calvinists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[28] For example, in England, the Puritans (quite often strong Calvinists) dominated the “early membership of the Royal Society of London.”[29] This society was created for the purpose of promoting the study of the natural sciences, included in which would, of course, be the study of medicine. Therefore, the belief in the sovereignty of God actively encouraged physicians to seek cures for diseases and it also provided a theological understanding for why God sends diseases to Christians and humanity in general.

John Calvin’s View on Relics and Praying to the Saints and Its Effect on Medicine 

That all being said about the providence and sovereignty of God in relation to medicine and the work of the physician it is now time to see how Calvin’s views on the saints and relics helped the development of medicine.

During the years of widespread Roman Catholicism throughout Europe it was common for people to go on pilgrimages to what were deemed holy sites where religious relics quite often were stored. Indeed, towns and countries would collect vast arrays of relics. One of the numerous purposes of going to these sites and seeing these relics was to be healed of diseases. For the exact same reason people would pray to saints. Calvin recounts such a practice in his Treatise on Relics:

It is said that during his [i.e. Francis Xavier’s] residence in Japan a woman of his acquaintance lost her daughter, after having sought in vain during her illness for St. Francis, who was absent on some journey. At his return the bereaved mother fell at his feet, and said, weeping, like Martha to our Saviour, ‘Lord, if thou hadst been here, my daughter had not died.’[30]

Further, Calvin remarks in The Institutes, “Then individuals adopted particular saints, and put their faith in them, just as if they had been tutelar deities. And thus not only were gods set up according to the number of the cities . . ., but according to the number of individuals.”[31]

It was Calvin’s firm belief that going on pilgrimages, making oblation to relics, and praying to saints was not only a waste of time, but absolute idolatry. He writes, “can there be any thing more heathenish than the custom of burning lights before images or relics, which is nothing else than sacrifices which the Pagans offered to their idols?”[32] He also quotes Vigilantius (a leader of the church in the 5th Century A.D.), who stated, “That the honours paid to the rotten bones and dust of the saints and martyrs, by adoring, kissing, wrapping them in silver, and enclosing them in vessels of gold, placing them in churches, and lighting wax candles before them, was idolatry.”[33]

As with many of Calvin’s theological beliefs, this was not simply a doctrinal position with no direct impact on life. His arguments against the use of relics and praying to the saints were a great benefit to the development of medicine. It removed a lot of superstition regarding healing, which pushed physicians and scientists to find natural reasons for disease. As Harley explains, “Rejecting the miraculous efficacy of the sacraments and relics, Calvinists saw God as operating almost exclusively through second causes, a view that was very favourable to the advance of medical knowledge and the medical professions.”[35]

Further, Calvin writes that prayer ought to only be made to Jesus Christ: “Christ . . . is the only Mediator by whose intercession the Father is rendered propitious and exorable . . . . As there is nothing in the intercession of Christ to prevent the different members of the church from offering up prayers for each other, so let it be held as a fixed principle, that all the intercessions thus used in the church must have reference to that one intercession.”[34] Thus, to pray to saints was to deny Christ as the mediator between God and mankind. It was to deny the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Ultimately, then, it was a denial of justification by faith alone and was idolatry.

Therefore, in conclusion, John Calvin was influential in a number of ways when it comes to medicine and the work of the physicians. His views on God’s sovereignty and providence allowed for the development of medical cures, since he viewed God as using means to accomplish His divine decrees. Furthermore, the condemnation and abolition of praying to saints and making oblation to relics encouraged the medical profession to seek cures inside of nature and not superstitiously to trust in relics. Thus, Calvin’s legacy ought not to be regarded as simply an academic theological one, but also a very practical one. His legacy is one that very much encouraged the development of science and medicine.


Calvin, John. A Treatise on Relics. The Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2010. https://archive.org/details/atreatiseonrelic32136gut Accessed March 29, 2016

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVII: Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John 1 – 11. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 2003.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.

Harley, David. “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640” in Medicine and the Reformation. Edited by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham. New York: Routledge, 2001: 101 – 117

Hogenberg, Frans. “The Calvinistic Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566.” Image, 1588. Available from Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/html_m/h/hogenber/frans/iconocla.html Accessed March 29, 1016

Luther, Martin. The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Edited by Thomas S. Kepler. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1979.

MacKinnon, James. Calvin and the Reformation. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1962

McGrath, Alister. A Life of John Calvin. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991

Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language Third Edition. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008

Steinmetz, David C. “The Theology of Calvin and Calvinism” in Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research. Editted by Steven Ozment. St. Louis: Center for Reformation Research, 1982: 211 – 232

The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. United States of America: Protestant Reformed Churches of America, 2005

The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978.

Walton, W.L. John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant Reformed in Geneva. Image, c. 1865. Available from: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Calvin_on_his_deathbed,_with_members_of_the_Church_in_a_Wellcome_V0006910.jpg Accessed March 29, 2016.

Westminster Assembly. “The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines, Now by Authority of Parliament Sitting at Westminster, Concerning a Confession of Faith.” Image, 1647. Available from: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Westminster_Confession_of_Faith_title_page.jpg Accessed March 29, 2016

Wileman, William. “Calvin Preaching His Farewell Sermon in Expectation of Banishment” in John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence. London: Robert Bank & Son, Image, c. 1900: 96. Taken from Reformation Church.org.uk  http://www.reformationchurch.org.uk/gallery-c.php Accessed March 29, 2016

[1] Quoted in The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Ed. by Hans J. Hillerbrand. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), 174

[2] Ibid, 207, 209

[3] Ibid, 206

[4] Quoted in ibid, 108

[5] Ibid, 206

[6] Quoted in ibid, 179 – 180

[7] Quoted in ibid, 179

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 412

[9] Ibid

[10] David Harley, “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640” in Medicine and the Reformation. Ed. by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham. (New York: Routledge, 2001), 105

[11] Martin Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Ed. by Thomas S. Kepler. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1979), 318

[12] Calvin, Institutes, 118

[13] Ibid, 118

[14] Ibid, 119

[15] Although Calvin never appears to use this term, David Harley terms it such in his article “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640”, 101

[16] Calvin, Institutes, 128

[17] Luther, Table Talk, 292

[18] Ibid, 317

[19] Ibid, 321

[20] Calvin, Institutes, 126

[21] Ibid

[22] Harley, “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640”, 101, 102

[23] Calvin, Institutes, 462 – 463

[24] This is evidenced in part by the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10 (a Calvinistic Catechism published in 1563) and the Belgic Confession (a Calvinistic Confession written in 1561) Article 13. The very personal nature of the Heidelberg Catechism allowed it to be quite readily used for pastoral counselling. See The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. (United States of America: Protestant Reformed Churches of America, 2005), 35 – 37, 93 – 94

[25] Ibid, 128

[26] Ibid, 129 – 130

[27] Ibid, 131

[28] Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991), 254

[29] Ibid

[30] John Calvin, A Treatise on Relics (The Project Guteberg Ebook, 2010),  https://archive.org/stream/atreatiseonrelic32136gut/32136-pdf#page/n87/mode/2up/search/84 (Accessed March 29, 2016)

[31] Calvin, Institutes, 581

[32] Calvin, A Treatise on Relics, https://archive.org/stream/atreatiseonrelic32136gut/32136-pdf#page/n115/mode/2up

[33] Ibid, https://archive.org/stream/atreatiseonrelic32136gut/32136-pdf#page/n59/mode/2up

[34] Calvin, Institutes, 579

[35] Harley, “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640”, 112