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1534 Conviction

For What Crime Was Calvin Imprisoned in 1534?

Calvin's conversion likely took place by May 1534 when he gave up his church benefices, as Calvin scholars concur. An imprisonment of Calvin, however, also took place in May 1534. It may very well explain Calvin's new direction in life away from Noyon and in the Protestant camp. It also may well explain why in 1534 he wrote the Institutes with its bizarre notion that God directs all evil thoughts and actions, and neither man nor Satan has a moment of free-will where they can choose good or evil without God directing them. This is the kind of idea that would be invented by someone whose acts were felt internally to be deeply shameful.

Schaff, a Calvin admirer, admits Calvin was "imprisoned" at Noyon in 1534 for "some reason." 1 McGrath says the records of Noyon reveal Calvin's name is listed as imprisoned on May 26, 1534. The same record notes a disturbance on Trinity Sunday in church. No other details are noted. 2 McGrath mentions the inconsistency between these records and Calvin's claim in a letter of 1545 to a colleague where Calvin is "praising God that he had never been imprisoned." 3

Why would Calvin speak contra-factually? Probably because he meant to deny ever being imprisoned for his beliefs. Which raises the inference that Calvin was not arrested in May 1534 and imprisoned due to causing a doctrinal disturbance on Trinity Sunday. This explains why Calvin later denied ever being imprisoned. Then what was the nature of the public crime involved in 1534?

Bolsec, a French physician from Paris residing in Geneva, made the claim that Calvin was convicted of sodomy at Noyon, France. Bolsec says he confirmed that a notary sent certification of this fact to Berthelier of the court's decree at Noyon. 4 Bolsec specifically said he saw a document by a public sworn notary of Noyon who had certified the criminal conviction to Berthelier as "Secretary to the Council of Geneva." In this, Bolsec affirmed he was not lying, and that "neither anger, nor envy, nor evil will that has made me speak or write any one thing against Truth, and my Conscience." 5

Berthelier, a lawyer in Geneva and initial prosecutor of Servetus in 1553, asserted in 1557 he had obtained in 1554 at Noyon "an act, signed by a notary, which certified the truth" that Calvin was convicted for sodomy. 6 As the Calvin-admirer, Francis Sibson, recounts in his introduction to Beza's Life of Calvin, Berthelier said:

the republic of Geneva had sent him to Noyon, with orders to make an exact inquiry into Calvin's life and character; and that he found Calvin had been convicted of sodomy; but that at the bishop's request, the punishment by fire was commuted into that of being branded with the Flower-de-luce [i.e., Fleurs-de-Lis, or a Lily.] He boasted to have an act, signed by a notary, which certified the truth of the process and the condemnation. 7

Calvin-admirers have said that neither Berthelier nor Bolsec were worthy of being credited because, if true, then `why did the Roman Catholics not expose their arch-enemy Calvin with the same evidence?' This is a fair question. But later the Roman Catholics did. Professor Thomas Stapleton (1535-1598), a contemporary of Calvin and an Oxford graduate as well as Doctor of Divinity (July 1571) gave similar testimony. Professor Stapleton had moved to France, residing near Noyon, since 1558. He had been appointed a public professor of divinity at St. Amatus. For a brief time he had been a Jesuit in 1584. He remained at Louvain to his death. 8 It was Professor Stapleton who came forward from the Catholic side and said the public records at Noyon do indeed testify to this fact about Calvin.

This was summarized in the work by J.F.M. Trevern, D.D., Bishop of Strasbourg. He detailed his investigation in his book Amicable Discussion of the Church of England and the Protestant Reformation in General (trans. Rev. William Richmond)(London: Booker, 1820). 9 This book by Trevern reviewed "the principal reformers" and was praised by Catholic sources as "an admirable work." 10 Dr. Trevern then refers to Professor Stapleton--"an eminent controversialist on the Catholic side and professor in a Catholic college in Calvin's own day"(Harper's Weekly) 11 --as follows:

And also that the grave and learned Dr. Stapleton, 12 (adds the same writer in the same place), who had every opportunity of gaining information on this subject, having spent his life in the neighbourhood of Noyon, speaks of this adventure of Calvin's in terms of one who was certain of the fact. The quotation is in Latin...[and] I shall translate it. "The public monuments and records," said he, "of the town of Noyon in Picardy, are to be seen even to this day: in them it is related, that John Calvin, convicted of sodomy, and branded on the back only with a mark of infamy, through the indulgence of the bishop and magistrate, fled from the town; nor could the most respecteble men of his family, hitherto obtain that the registration of this act, which throws a heavy slur upon the whole family, be removed from these public monuments and records." 13

The Harper's Weekly of 1875 similarly quotes Professor Stapleton as follows:

Search the records of the city of Noyon, in Picardy, and read again that John Calvin convicted of a crime (infamous and unmentionable) and by the very clement sentence of the bishop and magistrate was branded with an iron lilly on the shoulders. 14

However, without citation, Harper's Weekly says "the records have been searched; nothing of this kind is found in them." The fact is that in all the accounts by Calvin-admirers, not one says he or she went to Noyon and could not find the records. There are assertions but no proof.

Yet, even if there were no record as of 1875 when Harper's Weekly declaimed, it is possible someone could have destroyed the public records themselves by simple use of a pen. In those days, that is all it took. Calvin was imprisoned for "some reason" in 1534 as Schaff admits. If they show no reason now, then the testimonial evidence supports that someone has tampered by removing or obliterating the records.

The modern Catholic Encyclopedia is certainly gracious now on this point. In an apparent reference to this charge, it says: "but the stories of his ill-regulated conduct have no foundation." ("John Calvin," Catholic Encyclopedia (Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1913) Vol. 3 at 196.)

Despite this modern graciousness, if one is scrupulous to ask unpleasant questions, the evidence is not so barren. For unless Dr. Bolsec (a professional doctor), Berthelier (a professional attorney) and Dr. Stapleton (a college professor, Oxford graduate, and doctor of divinity prior to his Catholicism)--all contemporaries of Calvin--are all disbelieved about the records they claimed to have observed proving this conviction, then Calvin was found guilty of sodomy in 1534 by a non-church court. This was at the very time Calvin was writing in the Institutes that God directs all evil thoughts and all evil actions, and that neither man nor Satan have a free-will to resist either. As stated earlier, this principle was a hole in Calvin's conscience in the Servetus' case. It may have been the same hole in Calvin's conscience which explains the much earlier episode at Noyon.

The Calvin defenders respond by heaping abuse, insults, and even misinformation about Bolsec and Berthelier. However, it is not necessary to push so hard to discount these two. The fact is both men were personal enemies of Calvin as a result of Calvin's persecution of both men. Hence, they may have both lied despite their backgrounds as serious professionals (a doctor and a lawyer). But what about Professor Stapleton? True, he was a Roman Catholic. Would he lie too? Would an Oxford man, and doctor of divinity who devoted his life to Christ, albeit a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, resort to lies? Instead, it seems dubious to think Stapleton is also lying. The corroborated evidence, from both Protestants and Catholics, was that Calvin was found guilty of sodomy. This does not prove it is true. Yet, it is the only concrete evidence available to explain the imprisonment of Calvin in 1534.

1. Philip Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1908) at 355.

2. Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Blackwell Publishing, 1990) at 73.

3. Id., at 74.

4. Introduction to Théodore de Bèze [Calvin's successor], The Life of John Calvin (J. Whetham, 1836) at 153. Sibson explains on page 154 that Berthelier said he obtained this in 1554, and disclosed this fact in 1557. Bethelier had to flee for his life from Geneva in 1555, and Sibson says it is impossible to believe that Berthelier did not take this certification with him if it truly existed. However, this means of casting doubt is unfounded. For it would be more unlikely that pressed with survival that Berthelier would take the time to go home for this paper.

5. Nicholas French, The doleful fall of Andrew Sall ... from the Roman Catholick ... faith (1749) at 95.

6. Théodore de Bèze [Calvin's successor], The Life of John Calvin (introduction and translated by Francis Sibson)(J. Whetham, 1836) at 153, 154.

7. Théodore de Bèze [Calvin's successor], The Life of John Calvin (introduction and translated by Francis Sibson)(J. Whetham, 1836) at 153, 154.

8. "Thomas Stapleton," Catholic Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14249b.htm.

9. It first appeared in French in 1817. A second French edition appeared in 1824. A response appeared from Rev. G.S. Faber entitled The Difficulties of Romanism.

10. Martin John Spalding, The History of the Protestant Reformation, in Germany and Switzerland, and and in England, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, and Northern Europe: In a Series of Essays, Reviewing D'Aubigné, Menzel, Hallam, Bishop Short, Prescott, Ranké, Fryxell, and Others (John Murphy & Co., 1870) at 463.

11. "Caricatures of the Reformation," Harper's Weekly Vol .50 1874-1875 Dec-May at 649.

12. This is a reference to Thomas Stapleton who was a stern critic of Calvin.

13. Quoted in B. Whack, Esq., Mystery of Iniquity Revealed; or a Contrast Between the Lives of Some Anti-Christian Popes and the Godly Reformers with the Essence of Protestantism (London: 1849) at 216.

14. "Caricatures of the Reformation," Harper's Weekly Vol .50 1874-1875 Dec-May at 649

Standford Rives,
Jul 25, 2010, 11:23 AM