The sections below are from historical works both old and new. The most recent source cited below is Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvinʼs Geneva (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995 [the same year my own work, Leaving the Fold was published]). At the end of each section appears the SOURCE. These particular quotations deal only with “the execution of a child” and “execution of adulterers” in Calvinʼs Geneva and Calvinʼs complicity.
One further note: Calling Luther and Calvin “men of their time” whenever it is shown how closely they followed the herdʼs intolerant views is merely to admit that even with the promise of the “Holy Spirit” to “lead them into all truth,” and an “inspired book” that they studied their whole lives, they remained but “men of their time.”
Moreover, Luther and Calvin were not simply “men of their time,” but outspoken leaders.
And Luther and Calvinʼs intolerance was — by their own admission — the fruit of their Bible study. They agreed for instance that the Bible portrayed Jesus as concerned with how individuals could “inherit eternal life.” Neither did Jesus deny that the laws of Moses remained in force, nor did he admit to his opponents that he had truly violated any of them. Neither did Jesusʼ command, “Give to all who ask, asking nothing in return,” constitute practical advice concerning the laws and activity of a nation. So Jesus directed his teachings at individuals, not toward the setting up of laws and the governance of a state. Meanwhile, Paul taught that all rulers (whether Christian or not) were instituted by God and “did not bear the sword in vain.” That left only the “laws of Moses” as a list of Godʼs most holy laws for governing a nation.
Luther and Calvinʼs Bible studies further compelled them to conclude that humanity lay in the depths of sin, blindness, stubbornness and ignorance. So, given a choice, Christians needed to choose and serve a godly ruler who would protect and care not just for the peopleʼs bodies but for their souls as well — a ruler who would enforce not just the laws on the second tablet of the “Laws of Moses” (governing interactions between men), but enforce the laws on the first tablet as well (governing interactions between man and God). That was also the view of Christian theologians ever since the first Roman Emperor converted to Christianity. The Emperorʼs conversion was taken as a sign that God wanted the state to protect and care for more than just the body. Indeed, examples in the Old Testament abound in which prophets from Moses onward claimed that nations were either blessed or cursed by God based on collective obedience to His holy laws, especially those concerning the extinguishing of “idolatry” and “blasphemy” in the nation as a whole.
Execution Of A Child And Adulterers In Calvinʼs Geneva
On the legislation of Geneva… he [Calvin] exercised a twofold, a direct and indirect, influence. Immediately after his return [to Geneva] he established the code of morals… The revision of the laws generally was committed to him, as well as the task of framing a code of morals… By his strenuous co-operation a collection of laws and ordinances [p. 354] was completed in the year 1543, and in the same year a new liturgy was given to the church. [p. 355]…
In the year 1555 [the year when the majority of Calvinʼs political opponents had been routed] he [Calvin] succeeded in limiting the freedom of the state, so that his opponents might not have it always in their power to summon the [greater, larger] council [of 200], which possessed so great, so almost irresistible an influence. His [Calvinʼs] name is not mentioned in the report of the proceedings, but nothing whatever was attempted at this period without his being consulted. [p. 357]…
It may appear strange that Calvin did not undertake the second revision of the laws [of Geneva]; but it seems that a certain degree of jealousy, on the part of the magistrates, prevented their entrusting him again with so important a matter, not only because he was a foreigner, but because of the religious power which he possessed. The task was therefore entrusted to Germain Colladon though he too was a stranger. But as Calvin was on very intimate terms with Colladon, who entertained the most devoted regard for him [they were not only neighbors but they were also the only two university-trained lawyers of repute in Geneva. — E.T.B.], he [Calvin] still continued to exercise an indirect influence on the legislation. If Calvin therefore considered a new law necessary, he appeared before the council and demanded it in the name of the Consistory; and this was granted whenever any of the members of the assembly were of his opinion or party. A great many remarkable documents show, that Calvin thoroughly examined not only the higher spheres of Genevese legislation, but penetrated even to its minutest peculiarities…
We recognize in Calvinʼs legislation the majesty, the earnestness [p. 358] and strictness of his mind, the qualities which God glorifies in his own holy severity as the judge of the wicked. He had the honor of God, and not merely the security of man, in view. The spirit that guided him, and the principle which lay nearest his heart, are found expressed in a letter to Somerset, the regent of England, to whom, in 1546, he tendered instructions, in the highest degree characteristic, respecting the Christian government of a kingdom. The right of punishment established by the old covenant, which everywhere threatened the stiff-necked people with death, proclaiming thereby the anger and righteousness of God, is constantly apparent in the statements of Calvin. With him, as with Moses, the spiritual members of the state were judges; both were zealous for the honor of God. As with Moses idolatry, so now was blasphemy punished with death. As the law of Moses recognizes no peculiar crime as treason against the state, which however must probably occur in the existence of a nation; so with Calvin, in the same way, it is marked as treason against God. To curse, to strike a parent, is punished in both systems with death; theft in both is punished with loss of freedom only; unchastity is treated severely in both, and the penalty of adultery is death. …
There is even reason to believe that Calvin, as soon as he obtained increased authority, endeavored to sharpen by degrees the severity of the earlier laws, which had been received by the state; that they retained their original form till about the year 1560, but were, after his death [in 1564], thoroughly imbued with his sterner principles. Several cases of punishment illustrate this statement. Edicts exist, drawn up by him [Calvin] in 1556, “Sur les paillardises, adulteres, blasphemes, juremens et despitemens de Dieu;” but the council of two hundred found them too severe, and decided (Nov. 15th) that, because they seemed too rude to some, they should be moderated and revised, and après entre presentes en general. [Audin gives a date of 1560 and a translation for the above edicts: “On the 15th of November, 1560, they [the Genevan council] decided that the new decrees, ‘regarding debauchery, adultery, blasphemy, and contempt of God,’ added to his [Calvinʼs] code, ‘seemed to some persons too severe, and ought to be revised and moderated, and afterwards be in general presented.’”
— J. M. V. Audin, History of the Life, Works, and Doctrines of John Calvin, trans. Rev. John McGill, (Louisville, R. J. Webb & Brother), p. 357]
The overthrow [in 1555] of the “Libertines” [which was the name Calvin had given his major political opponents, though they called themselves “The Children of Geneva” — E.T.B.] had given power to the Consistory, and offenders could now be punished with more success than formerly. Adultery, which, before Calvinʼs return [to Geneva], was [p. 359] punished only by an imprisonment of some days, or by a trifling fine, was now punished with death. An adulteress was drowned in the Rhone. Thus two citizens of the best families (Heinrich Philip and Jacques le Nevue) were beheaded. [p. 360]…
There is great beauty in the earnestness with which the authority of parents is defended. In the year 1563, a young girl who had insulted her mother was kept confined, fed on bread and water, and obliged to express her repentance publicly in the church. A peasant boy who had called his mother a devil, and flung a stone at her, was publicly whipped, and suspended by his arms to a gallows as a sign that he deserved death, and was only spared on account of his youth. Another child in 1568, for having struck his parents was beheaded. A lad of sixteen, for having only threatened to strike his mother, was condemned to death; on account of his youth the sentence was softened, and he was only banished, after being publicly whipped, with a halter about his neck. [p. 361]…
The military ordinance before alluded to declares that… the double crime of adultery should be punished with loss of life: simple adultery was to be punished with the iron-collar; witchcraft with only nineteen daysʼ imprisonment; but the states-register names a great number of individuals who were drowned for this species of crime…
The severity of the legislation thus established is evinced in some of the minutest points of discipline… The clergy showed themselves still more earnest in this matter than the council: they refused to tolerate many amusements [p. 362] which the council accounted innocent. In the year 1576 they excommunicated some young people, who on the day of the three holy kings were found playing at a game common to the festival, and one of the simplest among them was persuaded into the belief that his head would be cut off. The council considered that such a punishment would be too severe, and made their representations to the Consistory accordingly…
In respect to attendance at church, he [Calvin] acted with such determination, that he inflicted a regular penalty of some sous on those who were guilty of negligence. He admonished the people with great earnestness on this duty, as we see from the following letter: “Invaluable is the fruit of that holy institution, by means of which we assemble together in one place, to be instructed in common in the divine doctrines of Christ… to show ourselves before God and the angels as the soldiers of Christ. This is indispensably necessary, and Satan could not expose you to a more dangerous temptation than that of inducing you, under any pretence whatever, to treat so great a benefit with contempt. … Godʼs anger is openly revealed against those whose hearts are not made partakers of his Word.”
Much has been said respecting the violence which he [Calvin] employed in compelling men to perform the services of religion. Calvin may possibly have derived this compulsory mode of acting, in matters of pastoral duty, from his great master, Augustine, who, unlike Calvin, was somewhat inconsistent with himself [p. 445] in his adoption of compulsory principles, which he partly put in force and partly rejected, in his treatment of opponents [like the Donatists — E.T.B.]. Calvin, impressed with the idea that Christians need a spiritual education, and that ministers are answerable for souls, went further in his zeal for pastoral superintendence than his great exemplar…
All… regulations for the guidance of ministers were reviewed by the Consistory. The members of this evangelical, moral tribunal afforded regular reports of that which was brought before them. Every unbecoming word, even heard in the street, was made known to the Consistory. Judgment was pronounced without respect to persons: an officer brought the offenders before the tribunal [which met weekly]. Thus both men and women of the highest [and lowest] class, the daughters of the first families [and the last families], were obliged to appear, and questions were put to them on the tenderest points of conscience. We may easily imagine with what rage and indignation those proceedings would be regarded by the old families, who… delighted… in music and dancing, in theatrical and other public amusements. Under the Catholic bishops they had enjoyed themselves… and had struggled successfully for their political liberty. But now they were obliged to submit themselves to the power of the stern reformer [who was almost always in attendance at each meeting of the Consistory, as the Registers of the Consistory proceedings attest. — E.T.B.], who demanded a lofty earnestness, … chasteness and purity, both in word and action. The Consistory admonished offenders. Very frequently such offenders would not submit themselves, but appealed to the council, which in its turn desired them to seek reconciliation with the church, and to pray the Consistory to pardon the offences that they had committed. In obedience to this injunction, they were obliged to kneel before the tribunal, to listen to its severe rebukes, and in bad cases to remain separated from communion, which was considered the most humiliating of disgraces. [p. 446]…
Calvin, notwithstanding his vehemence, always conducted himself with great dignity in the Consistory… But it also appears that Calvin sometimes used very strong language towards those before him, calling them hypocrites, and that they returned the abuse, a conduct which he did not leave unpunished. On such occasions he would rise indignantly from his seat, command attention, and require the Consistory to give the matter over to the council, that the offence might be punished as it deserved. As soon as the Consistory entertained a suspicion against any one, it referred them to the council, who ordered the accused to prison.
Calvin felt that he was especially elected to uphold the purity of doctrine… Many facts indeed tend to show that, at the first, any one who opposed the faith, or offended believers, or even ventured to take accused persons under his protection, exposed himself to great annoyances, complaints and processes. [p. 447]…
Heretical speeches against religions might even place the offenderʼs life in danger. Thus a woman, Copa of Ferrara, was sentenced in 1559 to ask mercy of God and of justice, and to be banished, with the order that she should depart within 24-hours, under pain of losing her head. This sentence was pronounced upon her because she had uttered certain heretical expressions against Calvin, and the directions of the Consistory… Some men who laughed while Calvin was preaching were put in prison for three days, and condemned to ask pardon before the Consistory. Numberless processes of this kind took place. In the two years 1558 and 1559 alone there were 414 such trials. [p. 448]
Paul Henry, D.D. [Protestant minister and seminary-inspector of Berlin], The Life and Times of John Calvin, The Great Reformer, Vol. I (Translated by Henry Stebbing, D.D., F.R.S., author of “The Church and Reformation” in Lardnerʼs Cyclopaedia; History of the Church of Christ From the Diet of Augusburg; Lives of the Italian Poets, etc.) (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849) [The “Translatorʼs Preface” in Vol. I states: “The present work affords ample details on the main points connected with Calvinʼs history, and with that of his age. They have been derived from sources now, in great part, for the first time made public… Dr. Henryʼs admiration of Calvin is almost unbounded. But devoted as is his veneration for the great reformer, he has been too candid to conceal either his faults or his errors. Though generally taking the part of an apologist, he never omits facts or documents; never garbles a letter, or weakens, by an imperfect abstract, a hostile argument… Twenty years, we understand, intervened between the commencement and the completion of Dr. Henryʼs work.” The “Authorʼs Preface” follows the “Translatorʼs Preface” and the translator has injected merely a paragraph where the author had originally listed the sources he consulted for his information. The sources are therefore listed in the original German publication, but not in the English translation, which contains only this paragraph: “Dr. Henry gives a detailed account of the sources of his information. The substance of this statement will be found in the notes and references. No author perhaps could ever lay claim to greater industry or honesty in the examination of original authorities than Dr. Henry.” So the original German edition of Dr. Henryʼs work must be consulted for the sources that he employed. — E.T.B.]
Calvin The Theocrat
In the year 1555, when some soldiers were on the point of starting from Geneva for the defense of their country, Calvin had these three letters, “I. H. I.,” engraved on their flags, to the end that they might understand, that above all things, they were children of the church. He had so skillfully combined the two elements, the religious and the political element, that the commune was as greatly troubled by the apparition of a heresy, as by the appearance of a standard of Savoy upon the Genevese territory. The people had to take part in every crusade set on foot, against a seditious or impious book; and whoever opened such book was punished, now by the prison, again by fines, and sometimes, if his curiosity assumed the form of revolt against the Calvinistic school, by death itself.
His [Calvinʼs] name is not inscribed at the head of the legislative code of 1543, which, however is entirely the product of his inspiration. At Strasbourg, from a prophetic anticipation of his recall [to Geneva], he had studied carefully the customs, and ancient edicts of the republic. He formed of them a collection, to which he added a great number of new edicts. … As long as Calvin lived, no one dared touch his Draconian work. To aid him in his labor, they had given him the syndic Roset, an apostate, who had become rich by [p. 353] purchasing at a trifling price, the confiscated property of Catholics, and, at a later period, the syndic la Rive, and some other councilmen, and also they exempted him Calvin from the duty of preaching on Sundays [so as to complete the code]. …
After the lapse of three centuries, a cry of reprobation burst forth from a Genevese breast, and in a writing, printed at Geneva, by a Protestant, we can read this energetic sentence: “Calvin overturned everything that was good or honorable to humanity [p. 354] in the reformation of Geneva, and established the reign of the most ferocious intolerance, of the most gross superstitions, of the most impious dogmas. He at first attained his end by cunning, then by force, menacing the council with an insurrection, and the vengeance of all the satellites by whom he was surrounded, when the magistrates wished to cause the laws to prevail over his usurped authority. Let them, then, admire him as an adroit, profound man, after the order of all those petty tyrants, who have enslaved republics in so many different countries; this must be allowed to feeble minds. Blood was necessary for that soul of mud.” [Galiffic, Notices genealogiques, t. III, p. 21.]…
At Geneva, they threw adulterous women into the Rhone; and the difference was, that in [ancient Christianized Rome] Constantinople the executioner sewed his victims in a sack, to hide them from the light. At Geneva, they threw them into the river with their eyes open [and for all to see the victim — E.T.B.].
“There was a rich burgher [in Geneva] named Henry Philip le Neveu, who, for fifteen years, kept a figure painted upon glass, which he called his familiar demon. Now, when he desired to know what his wife was doing, he approximated its ear, and the indiscreet image told him, in a whisper, something that it would have been much better for him not to have asked. The husband afterwards went to relate to any person who was willing to listen, how, at his lodgings, he had an image on glass which spoke, and a wife who would be very glad to make it keep silence. Le Neveu babbled so much that the council cause him to be arrested.” The image was silenced, and so was le Neveu: they cast one of them into the Rhone and hung the other.
Spon, that wise historian, says, very seriously: “In the year 1560, the Genevese made two examples of justice which savored of ancient [Christianized] Rome. A citizen having been condemned to the lash by the small council, for the crime of adultery, appealed from its sentence to the Two Hundred. His case was reconsidered, and the council, knowing that he had before committed the offense, and been against caught therein, condemned him to death, to the great astonishment of the criminal, who complained that they did him a wrong, to punish him with the highest degree of punishment. Some time after, for the same crime, a banker was executed who died with great repentance, blessing God that justice was so rigorously observed.” [Spon., History of Geneva, in 4 to., t. I, 305.]
There were children publicly scourged, and hung, for having called their mother she-devil and thief. When the child had not attained the age of reason, they hung him by the arm-pits, to manifest that he deserved death. [Picot, History of Geneva, in 8 vols., t. II, p. 264] [p. 355]
Calvin set to work to “brand the forehead” [a figure of speech — E.D.] of every intelligence sufficiently bold to question his mission, to discuss his theological doctrines, or to refuse his symbol of faith [communion]. Bolsec, who denied Calvinʼs predestination, was driven away from the republic; Gentilis, who rejected the Calvinistic quaternity, was condemned to take the rounds through the city [kneeling and crying repentance], with a halter on his neck; Castalion, who considered the Song of Songs [Song of Solomon] as apocryphal [was not allowed to become a minister, and had to leave town to find a better job — E.T.B.]; and Servetus, who had made sport of the Institutes, was burned alive.
Sometimes a wretch, worn out by sufferings, after having in vain cried for mercy to Colladon [a lawyer, and close friend and neighbor of Calvin] and his acolyte, the executioner, who, on the next day, were to resume their torturing, addressed himself to God, imploring Him to terminate his life; but soon he learned that God had not heard him; then he fell into despair, and requested to see Calvin. And Calvin entered the dungeon, and wrote to Bullinger: “I am able to assure you that they have acted very humanely towards the guilty; they hoist him up on the stake, and cause him to lose the earth by suspending him from the two arms.” [See chapter titled, “Servetus” in Audinʼs History of…Calvin]…
Most of the patients subjected to the torture, “on the recommendation of M. Colladon,” as we read in the registers of the city, acknowledged the real or false crimes, of which they were accused…
John Roset, under the violence of tortures, acknowledged the adultery [p. 356] of which he was accused; one of the judges experienced some remorse of conscience, and obtained a commutation of punishment. The decree ran: “John Roset has merited death with the halter; the council show him favor. He shall be scourged through the city, have his feet chained with an iron chain, and be put in prison for ten years; afterwards be perpetually banished from the city, under penalty of two hundred florins or crown fine, for which he shall give security.” [Registres de la ville.]…
Some verses were put into circulation [in Calvinʼs Geneva], in which the judges and executioner [of Geneva] were devoted to the wrath of God. The police seized them, and noted in them several infernal heresies. Three citizens, suspected of occupying themselves with the religious poetry, were cast into prison. Colladon, who had tortured them, according to his custom, concluded that they should suffer “the pain of death.” But the poets did not die; they were condemned to… cast [their own] heterodox inspirations into the flames.
Colladon… treated his prisoners as so many damned souls. If they refused to confess their crimes, he said, “The finger of Satan is here;” and he had the criminal shorn, and again subjected to the torture, persuaded that the devil was concealed in the hair of the sufferer.
Do not fear that Calvin will cry mercy, in behalf of the victim. If he descended into the lionʼs den, called the question chamber, it is not in order to say to the executioner, “Enough!” But coldly to write to Bullinger: “I should never have done, were I to refute all the idle stories which are circulated in my regard. … They say that unhappy persons have been forced to confess, under the torture, crimes, which afterwards they disavowed. There are four of them, it is true, who, at the moment of dying, changed some trifling things in their first avowals; but that torments constrained them to lie to God, this is not so.” Do you recognize here the [earlier Calvin], student of Noyon, who, by the dead body of his [newborn] child, wrote [unemotionally] to his friend, “Do come, we shall chat together?”
The whole study of the man, who calls himself minister of a God of mercy, is to invent new crimes, in order undoubtedly, to resemble the Being, whom he presents to us in his book of predestination, impelling his creatures to evil, and afterwards smiting them, in order to display his justice.
The Genevan councils themselves, the pliant instruments of Calvin, grew weary of beholding the blood flow; they dreaded lest it should cry to God; and, on the 15th of November, 1560, they decided that the new decrees, “regarding debauchery, adultery, blasphemy, and contempt of God,” added to his Draconian code, “seemed to some persons too severe, and ought to be revised and moderated, and afterwards be in general presented.” The civil power was visited by a good thought, of which it should be proud; but it dreaded to proclaim it, for fear of offending Calvin, and attributed it to “some persons,” as if it was afraid to accept the responsibility. [p. 357]
J. M. V. Audin [Member of the Academy and Literary Circle of Lyons, of the Tiberine Academy, and of the Academy of the Catholic Religion, of Rome], History of the Life, Works, and Doctrines of John Calvin, trans. Rev. John McGill, (Louisville, R. J. Webb & Brother, 1850)
Bible Verses Concerning The Necessity Of Executing Rebellious Children
He that strikes his father or his mother shall die the death.
— Exodus 21:15
He that curses his father or his mother shall die the death.
— Exodus 21:17
If any man has a son that is stubborn and disobedient, which will not hearken unto the voice of his father, nor the voice of his mother, and they have chastened him [The Hebrew word for “chasten” means literally “chasten with blows.”], and he would not obey them, Then shall his father and his mother take him, and bring him out unto the Elders of his city, and unto the gate of the place where he dwells, And shall say unto the Elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and disobedient, and he will not obey our admonition; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. Then all the men of the city shall stone him with stones unto death: so thou shalt take away evil from among you, that all Israel may hear and fear.
— Deuteronomy 21:18-21
How Children Were Treated At The Height Of Calvinism In Geneva
In 1563, a girl named Genon Bougy, who had insulted her mother by calling her “japa,” was condemned to three days in prison on bread and water, and she had to make a public apology after worship services. In 1566, Damian Mesnier, a child from the village of Genthod, for insulting his mother by calling her “diablesse, hérège, larronne” and by throwing stones at her, was whipped in public and then hanged from the gallows with the rope passed under his arms, as a sign of the death he had deserved, but which was spared him because of his youth. Philippe Deville was beheaded in1568 for having beaten his father and step-mother. Four years later, a 16-year-old child tried to strike his mother, and was also condemned to death; but the sentence was reduced in light of his young age, and he was only banished, after being whipped in public with a rope around his neck.
Jean Picot [Professeur dʼhistoire dans la faculte des lettres de lʼAcademie de cette ville] Histoire de Geneve, Tome Second (Published in Geneva, i.e., A Geneve, Chez Manget et Cherbuliez, Impreimeurs-Libr. 1811) p. 264
“Girl” (?) Beheaded
A child was whipped for calling his mother a thief and a she-devil (diabless). A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment.
Philip Schaff [Professor of Church History in the Union Theological Seminary, New York] Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation = Vol. VIII of History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, third edition revised, 1910) [FU - BR 145 .S6 1967 v.8 ] This particular citation is even available online at http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/8_ch13.htm
[Schaff does not footnote the “beheading” incident, though he does provide on that page and the next a few footnotes regarding other incidents of prohibitions and their penalties in Geneva. He also lists the sources he consulted when writing his book (sources are listed at the beginning of each section). In this case, judging by nearby footnotes and by his source list for that particular section, he most likely obtained his information from either the Registers of the Council of Geneva, or, “Amedee Roget: Lʼeglise et lʼetat a Geneve du vivant de Calvin. Etude dʼhistoire politico-ecclesiastique, published in Geneve, 1867 (pp. 92). Compare also his Histoire du people de Geneve depuis la reforme jusquʼa lʼescalade (1536-1602), 1870-1883, 7 vols.
Picot and Schaff do not agree on the gender of the beheaded child, and my first source, Dr. Henry, only mentions that it was a “child,” not specifying its gender. Picotʼs History of Geneva provides the most complete information concerning the incident, including the childʼs name and the date of the beheading. The archives of Geneva are vast and include not only the Registers of the Council and the Registers of the Consistory, but many other records as well (that the Calvin scholar, Robert Kingdon, lists by category in Vol. 1 of his English translation of the Registers of the Consistory). Though massive, the Genevan archives could probably be searched by focusing on the year of the beheading and the childʼs name that Picot has given, and they could probably supply more information, such as the childʼs age when s/he was beheaded. — E.T.B.]
Calvinʼs Teaching On The Execution Of Rebellious Children From Calvinʼs Day To Our Own
The same year that the Libertines were overthrown (1555) and pro-Calvinists ruled Geneva, Calvin preached on the execution of rebellious children in a sermon that advocated it (in order to “remove the evil from among you” as it stated in Deuteronomy). The sermon was recorded (by a secretary in shorthand) and later published and is even available today in English on the internet at a site run by Theonomist Evangelical Christians who are some of Calvinʼs biggest modern day admirers. In his sermon Calvin cited verses from the Bible that taught that parents should both love and discipline their children, advice that you would normally hear in any sermon or read in a Parenting magazine today, with one crucial difference of course, the added Biblical necessity of having some disobedient, parent-dishonoring, rebellious children executed “to remove the evil from among you.”
Also during the1550s many editions of French Bibles were printed in Geneva that contained notes based on Calvinʼs teachings. In1560 an English translation of the Bible was published in Geneva, the famous “Geneva Bible.” Like the earlier French Bibles it featured notes that reflected the teachings of Calvin and Calvinism. Each book in the Geneva Bible was preceded by an opening “argument” — for instance the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy were preceded by “arguments” that said the laws revealed to Moses were “temporal and civil ordinances,” “necessary for a commonweal,” and to “govern” His “Church.” And a note in the Geneva Bible, concerning the command in Deuteronomy to execute rebellious children, added: “Which death was also appointed for blasphemers and idolaters: so that to disobey the parents is most horrible.”
Robert Kingdon [a modern day Calvin scholar who not only edited the Registers of the Consistory of Geneva, but also wrote a book about Adultery in Calvinʼs Geneva], noted that during the early 1560s: “We find in the surviving dossiers of Genevan criminal trials a cluster of several cases of adultery punished with the death penalty in 1560 and 1561. That was when the Calvinist Reformation was at its peak… Calvin too, was at the peak of his career, with a new and definitive edition of his masterwork, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, just off the [Genevan] press.”
In 1563, Calvinʼs Commentary on the Five Books of Moses was also published in Geneva and it reiterated what he had previously taught in his sermons in 1555 concerning the necessity of following Godʼs rules of discipline and the necessity of magistrates to obey and enforce Biblical laws, including the execution of rebellious children. It was soon after that when the harsh public disciplinary actions toward children took place. Moreover, during those same years, a string of witches were killed (not a one was banished, all executed, one right on the spot), several adulterers were executed, and a few people even committed suicide rather than face the Consistory. It was Calvinism in its most heightened state of belief and triumph.
In January of1998 the Rev. William Einwechter composed an article titled, “Stoning Disobedient Children,” that was published in Chalcedon Report. The Reverendʼs article raised some eyebrows in the world of “church and state news” since it advocated the execution of rebellious children who were “in their middle teens [15-17?] or older.” The Reverend responded to his critics in a second article. Both of his articles can be googled easily since they are posted at various websites. I emailed the Reverend, asking him why he chose the “mid-teens” as a cut off point for execution when Exodus mentions executing children twice, once for “cursing” their parents, and once for “striking” their parents, but in neither case does it specify the “age” of “executable” children. In fact in some places the Bible says God himself killed, or commanded his people to execute, infants and pregnant women. Therefore, the “ age” of a child does not appear to have played a very large factor when it came to the necessity of removing “evil” from the sight of God:
Their fruit shalt Thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.
- Psalm 21:10
The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born… let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
- Psalm 58:3,8
As for Israel, their glory shall fly away like a bird, and from the womb, and from the conception… Give them, O Lord: what will Thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts… they shall bear no fruit…
- Hosea 9:11-16
Every living thing on the earth was drowned [which no doubt included pregnant women and babies]… Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
- Genesis 7:23
Thus saith the LORD… Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.
- 1 Samuel 15:3
Joshua destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD commanded.
- Joshua 10:40
The LORD delivered them before us; and we destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones.
- Deuteronomy 2:33-34
Kill every male among the little ones.
- Numbers 31:17
The wind of the LORD shall come up from the wilderness, and his spring shall become dry, and… Samaria shall become desolate… they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.
- Hosea 13:15-16
With thee will I [the LORD] break in pieces the young man and the maid.
- Jeremiah 51:22
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
- Psalm 137:9
I added in my email to Rev. Einwechter that Calvinist Christians whose “fear of God” ran deep could cite scriptures like those above and argue for executing rebellious children of a far younger age than he suggested in his article. Apparently the Reverend did not wish to argue the question of “age” any further with me, since he never replied to the second email I sent him.
This subject also brings to mind the related question of the Bibleʼs rules for the disciplining of children:
Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.
- Proverbs 19:18 (The Hebrew word for “chasten” means literally “chasten with blows.”)
The blueness of a wound cleanses away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly.
- Proverbs 20:30 (The Hebrew word translated “stripes” means “beating.”)
Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beats him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from Sheol.
- Proverbs 23:13-14
As a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee (with blows).
- Deuteronomy 8:5
For whom the Lord loves he chasteneth, and scourges every son whom he receives.
- Hebrews 12:6 (The Greek word translated “chasteneth,” also means “beating.”)
The Consistory Of Geneva, John Calvin, And Executions For Adultery
The Consistory of Geneva met once every week … for sessions that …cross-examined a number of local residents of Geneva who had been summoned before it [i.e., people accused of various charges]. … The registers of the Consistory make it clear that in the beginning the syndic was always in charge [as the] presiding officer. … In point of fact, however, [p. 16] John Calvin often dominated the proceedings. … The other members of the Consistory, and the members of the governing Small Council when considering appeals from the Consistory, tended to defer to Calvin. They would often explicitly solicit his opinion on a particular point. This was in good part due no doubt to his forceful personality. But it was also due to his formidable skills, the product of an unusually high powered education. Calvin was, of course, a theologian of international reputation, respected all over Europe for the cogency and persuasiveness of his interpretations of Holy Scripture, the Word of God, the sacred text from which all of his societyʼs most fundamental beliefs and values were held to have been derived. And Scripture was believed to be of relevance in resolving many of the ethical problems considered by the Consistory.…
The Consistory [p. 17] … normally concluded a case by administering “remonstrances” or “admonitions,” ritualized scoldings formulated by one of its members, most commonly by one of the ministers, often Calvin himself. If those who had been summoned before the Consistory accepted these scoldings without protest or complaint, that usually ended their case.
In cases in which the misconduct was judged to be particularly reprehensible or the people summoned seemed stubborn and unwilling to mend their ways, the Consistory could also proceed to excommunicate them, to bar them from participation in at least the next quarterly communion. This was a penalty that was much feared at the time. It was not only a source of religious anxiety that one was being kept from a ritual necessary for oneʼs eternal salvation. It was also a social penalty that kept one from participating in other community rituals and could separate a person from family, friends, and business associates. In later years, an individual who made no effort to reinstate himself before the Consistory following a sentence of excommunication could be banished from the city for a full year. Excommunication could and did drive some people completely out of Geneva.
Calvin and his fellow ministers … had to fight for the right [to excommunicate]. For more than a decade there was rising opposition within the Genevan community to the use [p. 18] of excommunication by the Consistory. … Consistorial excommunication was strenuously defended by Calvin and his fellow ministers. … They were supported politically by the rapidly growing number of [pro-Calvinist] refugees [from France]. These newcomers entered the Genevan political arena in increasing numbers by seeking and gaining membership in the select company of the “bourgeoisie,” often on payment of very substantial amounts of money. This entitled them to vote in the annual elections and to hold offices in much of the government of Geneva. [p. 19] … The complete and smashing victory of Calvinʼs lay friends [in 1555] had the effect of giving him nearly complete control of the church within the city of Geneva. Among other things, that meant that the Consistoryʼs right to excommunicate was fully recognized, without any effective challenge.
[The armies of the city of Bern protected Genevaʼs independence against Catholic prince-bishops who might try to reconquer it.] [p. 20] Yet Bern found Genevaʼs consistorial excommunication, and the preaching of predestination, to be subversive of the Zwinglian version of Protestantism that it favored. … Bern grew so irritated with advocacy of these corollaries of Calvinism within its own territories, that in 1558 it summarily dismissed most of the faculty of the Lausanne Academy and many of the pastors ministering to French-speaking communities under its control.
As long as Calvin lived, however, and for several decades thereafter, these pressures from Genevaʼs ousted “Libertines” and from Bern were resisted. It became established policy that the Consistory of Geneva could and would excommunicate those sinners it judged deserving of this punishment.
In yet other cases, the Consistory could go beyond remonstrances and excommunication to decide that the misconduct for which a person had been summoned before it apparently involved a crime, a violation of laws then on the books of Geneva, that merited some form of secular punishment. The Consistory would refer cases of this sort to the Small Council for further action. … Among the acts deemed to be a crime meriting secular punishment was adultery. [p. 21]…
The bridges over the river Rhone that divided the city into two parts were sometimes used for executions. … The method of execution varied according to the crime. … Drowning was used for the punishment of a notorious female adulterer. … There is some reason to believe … that in many communities of the period an execution also served as a gruesome form of public entertainment. [p. 30] …
[Whether or not executions (and letʼs not forget public beatings, and people held in restraints outside churches so they could be jeered at) served as a form of “entertainment” is a moot point. They probably did serve, however, as severe object lessons to anyone watching who thought about resisting the city council or the new religion of Calvinism.
The city of Geneva was indeed void of anything in the way of modern public entertainment except reading the Bible or attending sermons several times a week. Things prohibited in Geneva included:
1) Viewing unapproved plays (all plays eventually were forbidden),
2) Reading unapproved literature (Bible reading was de rigueur, the Consistory sometimes commanded people brought before them to buy one and read it, and Geneva became a center for Bible publishing, in several languages, and in many editions, in Calvinʼs day),
4) Singing secular songs,
5) Instrumental music,
6) Singing in harmony (which was not even permitted in church).
In contrast with the above, there was a game that Calvin and the ministers agreed was perfectly O.K. The game consisted of shoving keys across a table to see how far they could be pushed without them falling off the tableʼs edge, a game that Calvin was known to indulge in. Freud would probably have observed the similarity between pushing things close to the edge and Calvinʼs attempts to push the Genevans. — E.T.B.]
…An inevitable consequence of [Genevan] service society was that it denied to almost everyone the sort of privacy that people of the twentieth century take for granted. This denial of privacy was aggravated by the extreme crowding of almost every house in Geneva, a crowding even greater than in most cities of the time… The flood of religious refugees [from France]… made crowding even worse… This lack of privacy would necessarily include oneʼs social and sexual life. [p. 96]…
There was substantial support… in Geneva for the use of the death penalty against people convicted of adultery. That support came in part from ministers such as John Calvin, who kept reminding the local population of the biblical condemnation of adultery and of the Old Testament prescription of death by stoning for anyone found guilty of this crime.… Genevan municipal ordinances, however, made no provision for the death penalty in cases of adultery… Only in a law adopted in 1566, two years after Calvinʼs death, do we find explicit evidence of a provision for a death penalty for adultery… An examination of Genevan criminal records reveals that the death penalty was in fact inflicted in adultery cases for a number of years before the adoption of this law. We have here a case in which divine law as revealed in the Bible, reinforced by Roman law [p. 117] … after a period of hesitation, was allowed to override local ordinances in guiding actual court decisions. … We find in the surviving dossiers of Genevan criminal trials a cluster of several cases of adultery punished with the death penalty in 1560 and 1561. This was a time when the Calvinist Reformation was at its peak, not only in Geneva… Within Geneva itself, Calvin too, was at the peak of his career, with a new and definitive edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, just off the [Genevan] press. [p. 118]…
Theodore Beza, who was to become Calvinʼs successor… and Calvin … held a power that was now without any effective local challenge. It may be that it was the enthusiasm and optimism of these climactic years that led the Genevan community to take this last fateful step, to begin using the death penalty in order to complete the work of moral reformation, to wipe out all traces of the pollution introduced into their community by this abominable crime, to escape for good the threat of divine retribution hovering over any community lax enough to tolerate such vice. If this crackdown on adultery was an expression of a triumphalist hope in impending victory for the Reformed cause, however, we cannot hold Calvin himself responsible. [p. 119] [We canʼt? Does the author also not hold Calvin “responsible” for preaching so long and hard to the Genevans concerning the God-given necessity of executing adulterers during all those years previous? — E.T.B.]…
The convictions and punishments for adultery in these cases were the work of secular authorities, perhaps inspired by religious zeal. [p. 140] [“Perhaps?!” This appears to be a denial of the obvious. Calvinʼs religious zeal was contagious and the author admits that Calvin had no real opposition to his views after 1555, all of his major political and theological opponents having been banished or executed by that time. The author himself admits on a latter page, p. 179, “In Geneva the death penalty [for adultery] was quietly dropped in later centuries as the exaltation created by religious fervor faded away.” Thus, the authorʼs former phrase, “perhaps inspired by religious zeal,” is replaced with a certainty. — E.T.B.]
We know that in Calvinʼs native France, the Parlement de Paris, the kingdomʼs greatest court, occasionally applied the death penalty for adultery, beginning only a few years after it was first levied in Geneva. [So Calvinʼs Geneva was ahead of the curve. — E.T.B.] Perhaps the vicious competition between Catholics and Protestants in France, which erupted into religious war in these very same years, spilled over into attempts to prove that they were both equally stern in obeying the order of the God of the Old Testament to punish adultery with the greatest severity. But in Basel, where the law explicitly provided for the death by drowning of a chronic adulterer, the penalty was never applied. Even in [Catholic] Rome [during Calvinʼs day] there was no use of the death penalty for adultery, although the possibility was seriously considered. During a drive against prostitution in 1570, Pope Pius V thought of issuing an order that all the many married prostitutes in the city be put to death for adultery. He was finally persuaded, however, to use milder penalties. In Geneva the death penalty was quietly dropped in later centuries as the exaltation created by religious fervor faded away. [p. 179]…
Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvinʼs Geneva (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)
Calvin And Adultery
It is clear that Calvin did not approve of the mildness [of the laws of Geneva regarding adultery]. In his sermon on Deuteronomy 22:13-24 [Opera xxviii, 41 f.] which enjoins the stoning of those taken in adultery , he holds up to ridicule and scorn the idea of merely putting adulterers in prison for a few days, “as if one had carried off a glass of wine to say, ‘Taste which is the better.’” When a person is accused of robbery he is tried and hung. But when one steals the bed of another, which is the worst kind of robbery, he merely gets put in [p. 130] jail where he has as much freedom as one would have in a public tavern, while everybody comes to pay court to him and pity the poor prisoner! Adulterers might better not be punished at all, Calvin says, than by such procedure. “It is to expose justice to scorn and mock God and all his commandments.” [Opera xxviii, 52] In the same sermon Calvin strongly suggests, though he apparently hesitates to say flatly, that adultery ought to be punished by death. He delivers a fierce invective against the adulteress:
“She injures her husband, exposes him to shame, despoils also the name of her family, despoils her unborn children, despoils those whom she has already borne in lawful wedlock. When a woman is thus in the hands of the devil, what remedy is there except that all this be exterminated?” [Opera xxviii, 51]
Then he adds with reference to the stoning commanded in Deuteronomy 22:21:
“And so it must be, in such a great extremity when the punishment is so severe, that the Lord wishes this to serve as an example to us, that those who have lived in such scandal in their lives may teach us by their death to keep ourselves chaste.” [Opera xxviii, 52]
Later, after saying that this is a worst offense than robbery which is punishable by death, he exclaims: “Do you not see that it is an insufferable crime, and one which ought to be punished to the limit?” [Opera xxviii, 53] A literal reading of this injunction to punish “jusquʼau bout” can scarcely mean anything else than the death penalty… [p. 131]
Calvin was well aware of what Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery. But he staunchly refused to admit that this meant that any mercy was to be shown. What Jesus meant, he says, is merely that he did not wish to be the judge in the case, as he refused to divide an inheritance between two brothers. Jesus did not come “to abolish the law of God, his Father, annihilate all order, and make his church into a pig-sty.” We are enjoined to live in chastity to the end of the world, and when marriages are thus maintained we may expect the blessing of the Lord to prosper us. [Opera xxviii, 53] [Todayʼs conservative Christians add that the story of the “woman taken in adultery” does not appear in the earliest Gospel manuscripts, only in later ones, and hence is a later addition. — E.T.B.]
If the Puritan was stern to the point of unfeeling cruelty in his denunciation of the sin of unchastity, it is not surprising. [p. 132]…
Georgia Harkness, John Calvin: The Man And His Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1931) [The authorʼs research was made possible through the generosity of the Sterling Foundation of Yale University. Roland H. Bainton of the Dept. of Church History of Yale Divinity School (author of the adulatory biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand) assisted in directing Harknessʼ research and criticizing the manuscript with added criticisms by religion professors from other universities.]