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Church History

John CalvinCalvin's Influence on the English Reformation

by Augustus Montague Toplady

This article is an extract from the massive book by Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778) called The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, chapter 15. In it he seeks to show that contrary to revisionist Arminian versions of history, Calvin was a highly influential figure in the English Reformation.

To what has been already observed, concerning our principal reformers, a word or two must be added, relative to that grand ornament of the Protestant world, Dr. John Calvin. It has been furiously affirmed, by more than one Arminian, that Calvin had not the least hand, directly or indirectly, in any part of our English reformation. Old Heylyn plays to this tune: "Our first reformers had no respect of Calvin."[1] And again: they "had no regard to Luther or Calvin, in the procedure of their work."[2]

To Heylyn's pipe, dances Mr. Samuel Downes; with the same reverential glee, as poor Wat Sellon squeaks to the quavers of Mr. John Wesley. Let us, however, examine for ourselves, and attend to facts. Mr. Rolt informs us, from Guthrie, that Bucer's "remonstrances, together with those of Martyr and Calvin, prevailed with archbishop Cranmer, and the other prelates of the reformation, to suffer it [i.e. to suffer the liturgy] to be revised and corrected."[3] Such an acknowledgment, from a historian of Guthrie's principles, must have decisive weight with every rational enquirer.

So must the testimony that follows. "Calvin advised Bucer how to conduct himself before king Edward VI. He [i.e. Calvin] corresponded with the duke of Somerset" (who was the king's uncle, protector of the realm, and, in concert with Cranmer, the main instrument in conducting the reformation) "and gave him his opinion how the reformation should be carried on. In one of his [i.e. of Calvin's] letters to the lord protector, he expressed his dislike of praying for the dead. Calvin, in his epistolary correspondence with the protector, was instrumental, not only in pushing some severity against the Papists, but in some advances towards bringing the Church of England to a nearer conformity with the Churches abroad, where the worship was more plain."[4]

The Church, therefore, stood indebted for part of her purity and simplicity, to the discreet and friendly offices of this most eminent divine, "whose decisions" (as an elegant modern historian truly observes) "were received among the Protestants of that age, with incredible submission."[5]

Even bishop Burnet takes some notice of Calvin's correspondence with Somerset.

"Calvin wrote to the protector, on the 29th of October (1548), encouraging him to go on, notwithstanding the wars, as Hezechias had done, in his reformation. He [i.e. Calvin] lamented the heats of some that professed the gospel: but complained, that he heard there were few lively sermons heard in England, and that the preachers recited their discourses coldly. He much approves a set form of prayers, whereby the consent of all the Churches did more manifestly appear. But he advises a more complete reformation. He taxed the prayers for the dead, the use of chrism, and extreme unction, since they were no where recommended in Scripture. He (Calvin) had heard, that the reason why they (the English reformers) went no further, was, because the times could not bear it: but this was to do the work of God by political maxims; which, though they ought to take place in other things, yet should not be followed in matters in which the salvation of souls was concerned. But, above all things, Calvin complained of the great impieties and vices that were so common in England; as swearing, drinking, and uncleanness: and prayed him (the lord protector) earnestly, that these things might be looked after."[6]

Calvin did not remonstrate in vain. The communion office underwent a farther reform, in 1550: as did the whole liturgy, in 1551; when among many other alterations, the chrism in baptism, the unction of the sick, and prayers for the dead, were totally expunged.[7]

Calvin had great influence on Protector Somerset

That the reasonings and representations of Calvin had great influence on the protector, and on the conduct of ecclesiastical affairs in England, is evident, amidst a multiplicity of additional proofs that might be offered, from what is observed by the candid and learned Mr. Hickman: than whom, no person, perhaps, was better acquainted with the religious history of this kingdom. "Bucer, at Cambridge," says that excellent writer, "understood that Calvin's letters prevailed much with Somerset: and therefore intreats Calvin, when he did write to the protector, to admonish him not to suffer the churches to be left void of preachers."[8]

Heylin himself, in his History of the Reformation, virtually contradicts what he elsewhere delivers, concerning the "no-respect" which, he would have us believe, was shewn to Calvin. Speaking of king Edward's first liturgy, he says, "And here the business might have rested," [i.e. the liturgy would not have been reviewed and reformed] "if Calvin's pragmatical spirit had not interposed."[9] The concession is important, though maliciously expressed: for, what is this, but allowing, that the Church of England was obliged to "Calvin's interposition," for her deliverance from the alb, the cope, the introits, the exorcism, the trine immersion, the unction, prayers for souls departed, &c. which were all retained by the first liturgy?

Surely, if Heylyn's complaint be justly founded, that "if Calvin's pragmatical spirit had not interposed" the first liturgy might have stood as it did, it will follow,

1. That the Protestant religion in England is under the highest obligations to Calvin, for his successful zeal in occasioning all this rubbish to be wheeled away: and,

2. That Heylin himself, by whom this very circumstance is affirmed, was guilty of a most palpable deviation from truth, in asserting, elsewhere, that "Calvin offered his assistance to our reformers, and that his interposition was refused."[10]

'Tis not a little amusing to see such rank Arminians, as Heylyn, pressing themselves, whether they will or no, into the service of truth. Take, therefore, a farther taste of his testimony, occurring in another work of his. He observes, that "Cranmer, Ridley," and "the rest of the English bishops" concerned in the reformation, resolved that "they would give Calvin no offence."[11]

The Arminian found himself constrained even to add, that Calvin, "In his letters to the king and council, had excited them to proceed in the good work which they had begun: that is, that they should so proceed as he [i.e. as Calvin] had directed. With Cranmer he is more particular, and tells him, in plain terms, that, in the liturgy of this church [viz. the first liturgy], as it then stood, there remained a whole mass of Popery, which did not only blemish, but destroy, God's public worship."[12]

The Protestant religion in England is under the highest obligations to Calvin.

It appeared, by the subsequent revisal and reformation of that liturgy, that king Edward, his council, and archbishop Cranmer [or, as Heylyn himself there, for a wonder, vouchsafes to express it, "the godly king, assisted by so wise a council, and such learned prelates''] were entirely of Calvin's mind. Doubtless, those good and great men reformed the first liturgy, more from a conviction of the force of Calvin's arguments, than from a principle of mere deference to Calvin's authority.

Mr. Heylyn, however, inclines to the latter supposition: and, by a concession which places Calvin's authority with the reformers in the most exalted point of view, expressly declares, that "the first liturgy was discontinued, and the second superinduced upon it after this review, to give satisfaction unto Calvin's cavils; the curiosities of some, and the mistakes of others, of his friends and followers."[13]

In such esteem was Calvin held at the English court, that Bucer (though invited hither by the king himself, and the archbishop of Canterbury) would not, on his arrival here, wait on the lord protector, till he had obtained, from Calvin, letters of introduction and recommendation to that personage. "Of this," says Heylyn, viz. of the state of religion in England, "he (i.e. Bucer,) gives account to Calvin; and desires some letters from him to the lord protector, that he might find the greater favour, when he came before him: which was not till the tumults of the time were composed and quieted."[14]

What, moreover, shall we say, if it appear, that Calvin's interest was so considerable as to be a means of extricating Dr. Hooper from the Fleet-prison, to which he had been committed on account of his aforementioned objections to the episcopal habit? Let us, once more, attend to Heylyn. "In which condition of affairs Calvin addresseth his letters to the lord protector, whom he desireth to lend the man (viz. Hooper) a helping hand, and extricate him out of those perplexities into which he was cast. So that, at last, the differences," adds Heylyn, "were thus compromised, that is to say, that Hooper should receive his consecration, &c."[15]

Add to this, that, according to the said Heylyn, the order for removing altars, and placing communion tables in their room, was chiefly owing to the influence of Calvin. "The great business of this year (1550) was the taking down of altars in many places, by public authority: which, in some few, had formerly been pulled down by the irregular forwardness of the common people. The principal motive whereunto was, in the first place, the opinion of some dislikes which had been taken by Calvin against the (first) liturgy."[16]

A correspondence was also carried on, between Calvin and archbishop Cranmer. Nay, so high did Calvin stand in the regards of king Edward himself, and so thoroughly satisfied was Cranmer, of Calvin's abilities and integrity, that "Cranmer admonished Calvin, that he could not do any thing more profitable than to write often to the king.”[17]

Nor was Calvin unworthy (if the distinguished honours that were every where shewn him, by the learned and moderate of all denominations. "He was" (says Dr. Edwards,) "reputed a great man, not only at Geneva, but in England, and, accordingly, he had a great stroke here, and his judgment was much valued by our Church: as is evident from this, that, when some things in the first English liturgy were disliked by him, there was presently an alteration made in it, and another edition of it was put out, with amendments.[18]

That accomplished prelate, Bishop Andrews, said, that Calvin was an illustrious person, and never to he mentioned without a preface of the highest honour. (Determ. Theol. de Usur.) Bishop Bilson tells us (Dial. p. 509) that Mr. Calvin was so well known, to those that are learned and wise, for his great pains and good labours in the church of God, that a few snarling friars could not impeach his good name. Mr. Hooker gives him this short but full character: He was incomparably the wisest man that ever the French church enjoyed: and in the same place (Pref. to Eccles. Polity) he styles him, a worthy vessel of God's glory.

Bishop Morton speaks as honourably of him. For understanding the Scripture, he was endued with an admirable gift of judgment, saith Mr. Lively, the famous Hebrew professor. And the generality of our churchmen, in those times, were ready to bestow on him that brief encomium our Bishop Stillingfleet gives him, viz. that excellent servant of God."[19]

Now, as Dr. Edwards farther observes, "It is certain, that our churchmen did not admire and esteem Calvin and Beza, and their followers, for their ecclesiastical government, and some other things which were peculiar to their churches; therefore it must be their doctrines which they had a respect for."[20]

Calvin was the happiest of all the commentators in apprehending the sense of the prophets.

It would be almost endless to refer to the just praises with which Calvin's memory has been honoured. "Joseph Scaliger, who scarce thought any man worth his commending, could not forbear admiring Calvin: whom he owned for the happiest of all the commentators, in apprehending the sense of the prophets. And Pasquier says, Calvin was a good writer, both in Latin and French; and our French tongue is highly obliged to him, for enriching it with so great a number of fine expressions."[21]

The character given of him, by the immortal Monsieur de Thou, is, Johannes Calvinus, "acri vir ac vehementi ingenio, et admirabili facundia praeditas; inter Protestantes magni nominis theologus; a person endued with a quick and lively genius, and of admirable eloquence; a divine highly accounted of among Protestants."[22]

"Bishop Hooper so much valued Calvin, that he wrote to him, even when he [Hooper] was imprisoned; saluting him with the compellation of vir praestantissime, earnestly begging his church's prayers, and at last subscribing himself, Tuae pietatis studiosissimus, Johannes Hooperus."[23]

"Whenever he was quoted, in the press, or in the pulpit, it was done with epithets of, honour; as, the learned, the judicious, the pious Calvin. And I am more than confident, there cannot he produced one writer of credit, in the established Church of England, that ever fell foul on Calvin, 'till about 60 or 70 years after his death, when the tares of Arminius began to be sown and cherished among us. Dr. Featly styles him, that bright, burning taper of Geneva, as warm in his devotions, as clear and lightsome in his disputes (Ep. Ded. to Dippers Dipt). How respectfully do Jewel, Abbot, Usher, &c. mention him!"[24]

No-one in the Church of England attacked Calvin until 60-70 years after his death.

Calvin has been taxed with fierceness and bigotry. But his meekness and benevolence were as eminent as the malice of his traducers is shameless. I shall give one single instance of his modesty and gentleness. While he was a very young man, disputes ran high between Luther and some other reformers, concerning the manner of Christ's presence in the holy sacrament.

Luther, whose temper was naturally warm and rough, heaped many hard names on the divines who differed from him on the article of consubstantiation; and, among the rest, Calvin came in for his dividend of abuse. Being informed of the harsh appellations he received, he meekly replied, in a letter to Bullinger, "Saepe dicere solitus sum, etiamsi me diabolum vocaret, me tamen hoc illi honoris habiturum, ut insignem Dei servum agnoscam; qui tamen, ut pollet eximiis virtutibus, ita magnis vitiis laboret: i.e. 'Tis a frequent saying with me, that, if Luther should even call me a devil, my veneration for him is, notwithstanding, so great, that I shall ever acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God; who, tho' he abounds in extraordinary virtues, is yet not without considerable imperfections."[25]

The same learned historian, who relates this, has an observation, concerning Calvin, which deserves attention. "John Calvin," (says he,) "was a man whose memory will be blessed in every succeeding age. He instructed and enlightened, not only the church of Geneva, but also the whole reformed world, by his immense labours. Insomuch that all the reformed churches are, in the gross, frequently called by his name."[26] Thus wrote this candid Arminian, so lately as the year 1734.

I might here add some account of the consummate veneration in which the name and doctrines of Calvin were held, by our bishops and Universities, before the clergy of our establishment were debauched into Arminianism by Laud. But this shall, if providence permit, be the subject of some succeeding Section.

In the mean while, I should be equally unjust to the church of England, and to the moderation of Calvin, if I did not annex a passage or two, from Mr. Strype, relative to the remarkable candour with which Calvin expressed himself, concerning the ceremonies and discipline of our religious establishment.

He instructed and enlightened the whole reformed world by his immense labours.

"The mention of Calvin," (says this excellent historian,). "must bring in a very remarkable letter, which he wrote in the month of August this year [1561], concerning certain ecclesiastical rites, used in our office of private prayer an evident mistake for common-prayer] newly [re-] established [on the accession of queen Elizabeth]: which were scrupled by some of the English exiles, upon their return; chiefly, because not used by the reformed Church in Geneva: concerning which they had sent to Calvin, for his resolution and judgment. Wherein he gave his opinion generally in favour and approbation of them;"[27] i.e. in favour of the "ecclesiastical rites": which the historian particularizes in several instances: and then adds:

"To this judgment of this great divine, concerning rites used in this Church, I will briefly subjoin his approbation of the episcopal government of the Church: which is alledged out of his institutions, by Dr. Whitgift:

'That every province [saith Calvin] had among their bishops, an archbishop; and that the council of Nice did appoint patriarchs, who should be, in order and dignity, above archbishops; was for the preservation of discipline. Therefore for this cause especially were those degrees appointed, that if any thing should happen, in any particular Church, which could not be decided, it might be removed to a provincial synod. This kind of government some called Hierarchia: an improper name. But if, omitting the name, we consider the thing itself, we shall find, that these old bishops did not frame any other kind of government in the Church, from that which the Lord bath prescribed in his word.' And so much concerning Calvin's sense of our Church's liturgy and government."[28]

Nor did Calvin's learned colleague and successor, the illustrious Beza, entertain a less respectful idea of our national establishment. Towards the decline of queen Elizabeth's reign, when puritanic opposition ran high against the outworks of the Church, the opposers affected to give out, that their objections were authorized, and their measures countenanced, by the most learned foreign Protestants: and, especially, by Beza. This being soon known at Geneva, that great man thought it his duty to exculpate himself from a charge so ungenerous and unjust: which he took care to do, in a letter to Whitgift, then Archbishop of Canterbury.

"While the archbishop," says Strype, "was endeavouring to suppress the male-contents against episcopacy and the Church of England in its present establishment, he receiveth, March 8th [1591], a letter from Theodore Beza, the chief minister of Geneva, wherein he by owning, with all respect, the archbishop, and the rest of the English bishops, and their government of this Church, gave a notable check to these new reformers, who bore out themselves much with his authority. It seemed to have been written by him, in answer to one from the archbishop, blaming him for his (supposed) meddling with the Church and state of England, without any lawful commission.

In defence of himself, he (Beza) returned an answer; part whereof was as followeth: That whereas his lordship thought it meet, in his letters, to move them (i.e. to move the Geneva divines) to think well of this kingdom, and of the Church here, and the government thereof: it indeed troubled both him and Sadeel (another of the ministers of Geneva), in some sort: as being greatly afraid, lest some sinister rumours were brought to him (to the archbishop) concerning; them; or lest what they had written, concerning Church-government properly against the antichristian tyranny [of the Roman church], as necessity required, might be taken, by some, in that sense, as tho' they ever meant to compel to their order those churches that thought otherwise. That such arrogancy was far from them: for [added Beza] who gave us authority over any church? And that they by no means thought, so substantial matters were kept, that there ought nothing to he granted to antiquity, nothing to custom, nothing to the circumstances of places, times, and persons."

So wrote Beza: or, to use Mr. Strype's own wards, on the occasion, "Thus did Beza and Sadeel, in the name of their church, profess to the archbishop their respect, honour, and approbation of the Church of England."[29]

About two years afterwards, Dr. Bancroft (who at length became archbishop of Canterbury), in a treatise, which he published against the obstinacy of some restless Puritans, "produced divers letters of Zanchius, in approbation of episcopacy; and of Bullinger and Gualter, to several English bishops, in disallowance altogether of those innovators."[30]

As to Beza, if he was afterwards so far wrought upon, by dint of misrepresentation, as to countenance, in any measure, the forwardness of the more rigid disciplinarians; it ought, in justice, to be imputed, neither to any levity, nor duplicity, in him (for he was equally incapable of both); but to the wrong informations that were sent him: by which, a foreigner, who resided at so great a distance from England, might, easily enough, be liable to undue impression.


[1] Peter Heylyn's Historic. & Miscell. Tracts, p. 548.

[2] Heylyn's Life of Laud, Introd. p. 3.

[3] Rolt's Lives of the Reformers, p. 116.

[4] Rolt, Ibid. p. 134.

[5] Robertson's Hist. of Scotland, vol. . p. 249. Octavo.

[6] Burnet's Reform. vol. ii. p. 83. - Dr. Fuller gives a much more satisfactory abstract from Calvin's letter, than does his lordship of Sarum. "Master Calvin," says Fuller, "is thereing very positive for a set of form: whose words deserve our translation and observation. Formulam precum [saith Calvin] et rituum ecclesiasticorum, valde probo, ut certa illa existet; a qua ne pastoribus disedere in functione sua liceat: 1. Ut consulatur quorundam simplicitati et imperitiae. 2. Ut certius constet omnium inter se ecclesiarum consensus. 3. Ut obvium ineatur desultoriae quorundam levitati, qui novationes quasdam affectant. Sic igitur statum esse catechismum oportet, statam sacramentorum administrationem, publicam item precum formulam. That is: I do highly approve that there should be a certain form of prayer, and ecclesiastical rites; from which it should not be lawful for the pastors themselves to descede. 1. That provision may be made for some people's ignorance and unskilfulness. 2. That the consent of all the churches among themselves may the more plainly appear. 3. That order may be taken against the unsettled levity of such as delight in innovations. Thus there ought to be an established catechism, and established administration of sacraments, as also a public form of prayer." Fuller's Church Hist. book vii. p. 426.

[7] See Strype, Burnet, Downes, &c. sub annis 1550 et 1551.

[8] Hickman's Animadvers. on Heylyn, p. 149.

[9] Heylyn Hist. of the Reform. Pref. p. 3. - Mr. Whiston, likewise, honestly confesses, that king Edward's first liturgy was then [i.e. in the year 1551.] "plainly altered out of human prudence, and out of compliance with Calvin and other foreigners." Whiston's Memoirs, vol. ii. p. 423.

[10] See Heylyn's Quinquart. Hist. Ch. viii. s. 2. Misc. Tr. p. 548. And yet this very Heylyn, in the very next page but one, says, that the first liturgy, "being disliked by Calvin, was brought under a review." Ibid. p. 550.

[11] Heylyn's Hist. of the Presbyterians p. 204.

[12] Hist. Presb. p. 206.

[13] Hist. Presb. p. 207.

[14] His. Ref. p. 79.

[15] Heylyn, Ibid. p. 91.

[16] Heylyn, Ibid. p. 95. See also his Hist. of the Presbyterians, p. 206.

[17] Hickman, ubi prius. p. 149.

[18] Veritas Redux, p. 529.

[19] Verit. Red. p. 550.

[20] Ibid. p. 551.

[21] Rolt's Lives, p. 145.

[22] See Leigh's Relig. and Learned men, p. 149.

[23] Hickman, u. pr. p. 149.

[24] Hist. of Popery, vol. ii. p. 349, 350.

[25] Turretini (Job. Alph.) Histor. Eccles. p. 352.

[26] "Vir benefictae in omne aevum memoriae, Johannes Calvinus; - immensique laboribus, non Geneviensem modo ecclesiam, sed et totum reformatum orbem, erudiit atque illustravit: adeo ut, de ejus nomine reformati, quanti quanti sunt, non raro apellentur." Joh. Turretin. u. s. p. 253.

[27] Strype's Hist. Ref. under Qu. Eliz. chap. xxi. p. 246.

[28] Strype, Ibid. p. 248.

[29] Strype's Life of Whitgift, p. 378, 379.

[30] Ibid. p. 404. - In another work of Mr. Strype, that useful and laborious collector gives a large account of Zanchius's attachment to church-government by archbishops and bishops. "We do not disavow the fathers," said Zanchy, "in that, after a diverse way of dispensing the word, and governing the church, they multiplied divers orders of ministers. It was lawful so to do: seeing they did it for honest causes, appertaining, at that time, to the order, decency and edification of the church. - For this reason, viz. that the nurseries of dissentions and schism might be taken away, we think that hose things which were ordained before the council of Nice, concerning archbishops, nay, as touching the four patriarchs, may be excused and defended." Some others of the reasons assigned by Zanchy, for his approbation of the hierarchy, were, 1. The practice of the primitive church, presently after the apostles' time. 2. Because he thought it his duty to have regard to those reformed churches [the churches of England and Ireland, for instance] which retained both bishops and archbishops. And, 3. Because all the reformed churches generally, although they had changed the names, yet, in effect, they kept the authority: as were they had superintendents, &c. "And what," added Zanchius, "can be shewed more certainly, out of histories, out of the councils, and out of the writings of all the ancient fathers, than that those orders of ministers, of which we have spoken, have been ordained and received in the church, by the general consent of all Christian commonwealths? And who then am I, that I should presume to reprove that which the whole church hath approved!" See Strype's Annals, vol. ii. p. 653, 654.
      On the whole, it appears, that the learned, the modest, the judicious Zanchy, was a fast friend, not only to the doctrines, but also (a circumstance not very usual with the foreign Protestants of that age) to the hierarchy, of the church of England. Nor was the church mindful of his worth and affection: for, by the voice of the University of Cambridge, in the year 1595, this great man was, expressly, and by name, numbered among "the lights and ornaments" of our established church. - See my account of Zanchy, prefixed to my Translation of his Treatise on Predestination.


Augustus Montague TopladyAbout the Author

Revd. Augustus Montague Toplady the eighteenth century Reformed Evangelical Anglican writer was educated at Westminster school in London and Trinity College, Dublin, and was the Vicar of Broad Hembury in Devon during the Evangelical Revival.