John Calvin was born in Noyon, near Paris, on the 10th of July 1509. His father Gerhard, was an apostolic notary and secretary to the Bishop of Noyon. Calvin as a child was quiet, timid and unbelievably smart. He was soon enrolled in school but the cost of his education placed too much of a strain on the meager notary’s salary and Gerhard Calvin procured the position of chaplain of a small church for his 12-year-old son.
Two years after his appointment the plague swept through the small village taking with it many of the townsfolk. Gerhard Calvin trembled for the safety of his son and requested that he be allowed to complete his education in Paris while still being entitled to receive his chaplaincy allowance. The request was granted and John soon found himself at La Marche, in Paris where Mathurin Cordier, an eminent scholar, recognized Calvin’s intellectual abilities and took him under his wing, mentoring him for the duration of his time at La Marche. Cordier’s tutelage profoundly impacted Calvin’s skills as a communicator and a scholar, skills that would later make him a master of communicating the truth in the French language. Once he finished his training at La Marche he went on to Montaigu College, where he was steeped in the musty teachings of church dogma and doctrine, a far cry from his training at La Marche and an imperceptible influence that began transforming his worldview.
The arrival of his cousin Olivetan in Paris however, proved to be the breath of fresh air Calvin needed to recalibrate his thinking. Olivetan was a disciple of the great Protestant theologian and humanist Lefevre, believed by many to be the precursor of the French Reformation. Olivetan quickly began to spar with Calvin, challenging his concepts of Salvation and grace and the role that the church played in the administration of both. “There are but two religions in the world” Olivetan told Calvin, “the one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God” to which Calvin retorted “ I will have none of your new doctrines! Think you that I have lived in error all my days?” But for all his vehement defense of papal dogma by day, Calvin was a man who struggled fiercely by night. Olivetan’s words cut him to the heart, causing him to question his standing before God.
Up to that point Calvin’s entire belief system rested on the merit of his own good works but now faced with the awful realization that his good works might not be good enough, he wrestled to find peace with God. He tried everything the church had to offer, from confession to penance, but he could find no peace. Then one day he witnessed the death of a young Protestant martyr and what struck him most was how peacefully the young man faced death. Calvin realized that the man had a peace he did not have and he asked himself “If I were to face death as they do, with the sting of papal anathema, could I do it as bravely and as peacefully as they do?” Taking Olivetan’s advice Calvin began to study the Bible for himself, hoping to find this peace. What he found there was the gospel, and it irrevocably transformed his life.
After completing his doctorate in law he devoted himself fully to the preaching of the gospel. He first began in the provincial town of Bourges, where he went from house to house, quietly teaching the gospel to families around their fireplaces. While laboring at Bourges he received news that his father had died and returned at once to Noyon, later traveling to Paris where he continued to preach the gospel from house to house with a small band of Protestants stationed there. While in Paris he became friends with Nicholas Cop, underground Protestant and rector of the Sorbonne, which was a stronghold of Catholicism. In 1553 the academic year at the Sorbonne was set to open on the 1st of November and Cop was to give the inaugural oration. Calvin saw this as an opportunity to publicly preach the gospel and suggested to Cop that he use his speech to this end. Cop was hesitant at first but when Calvin proposed to write the speech he agreed to the idea. In the aftermath of the speech Cop fled to Basel, being warned of his imminent execution and Calvin fled to the outskirts of Paris being warned of the same. Calvin would later permanently leave France in the wake of the affaire des placards, settling in Geneva and helping to transform the city into a Protestant stronghold.