The Great Reformer turning 500

Geneva, Switzerland - John Calvin, the Great Reformer, used dictatorial means in making Geneva a "Protestant Rome," but he also planted the seeds of modern democracy.

He enforced rigid morality and stressed the importance of helping others, while he also had a share in developing capitalism. He supported the destruction of religious statues and other images, but described the arts as gifts from God.

This is how Calvin's role in history is being assessed by theologians and historians in countless lectures, studies and biographies 500 years after he was born on July 10, 1509. The quincentenary is being observed around the globe with the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches acting as a central organizer of "Calvin '09."

Although he remains a controversial figure, Calvin's teachings are still profoundly influential. Events marking the Calvin year range from congresses and exhibitions to concerts and theater performances. His portrait is on a special Swiss postage stamp and souvenirs are for sale.

"John Calvin Superstar, Geneva celebrates its saint," the Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung headlined an article on the "Calvinomania."

The anniversary festivities contrast with Calvin's very modest life.

Born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in the little French town of Noyon, north of Paris, Calvin became a lawyer, but soon came to sympathize with the anti-papal theses of Martin Luther that had rapidly spread to France.

Calvin broke with his Catholic past. His great rhetorical talents earned him quick prominence as an evangelical teacher, but religious turmoil forced him to go into exile in Basel, Switzerland.

He was 26 when he began writing the "Institutes of the Christian Religion," the first compendium of Reformed doctrines, much more profound than Luther's theses of 1517. They won him an invitation from newly Protestant Geneva. But Calvin was soon banished again because authorities found his ideas were too radical.

He returned in 1541 after receiving assurances of official support for his plans to complete a Reformation based on his teachings. He introduced a revolutionary church constitution based on the democratic principles of division of powers. But he retained the ultimate say.

Calvin drew up an extensive catalog of austere rules of morality. These ranged from bans on swearing, gambling and fornication to a strict no to dancing, even at weddings. Unexcused absence from worship service was penalized.

Adultery and homosexuality could draw severe sentences, even death.

But it took more than 10 years before the Reformation consolidated its position against native discontent. Calvin also had to cope with social conflicts between the Genevans and the thousands of French and other refugees seeking exile in the city.

Karl Barth, one of the most influential Reformed 20th century theologians, once criticized Calvin's rigor in controlling Geneva as being near to tyranny and Pharisaism and said, "None of us would have liked to live there".

In contrast, John Knox, the enthusiastic Scottish follower of Calvin, spoke of "the most godly city since the day of the apostles." Knox was minister of a growing congregation of English exiles before he was able to return and become founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

According to Dutch church historian Herman J. Selderhuis, a negative image of Calvin has remained prevalent at least in Western Europe. That image is based on the execution of Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian whose non-orthodox views were judged by Calvin as heretical.

When he sought refuge in Geneva, Servetus was imprisoned and burned at the stake. Selderhuis says Calvin thus "acted against his own conviction that an opinion cannot be forcefully imposed on anyone."

Geneva was then already a flourishing European trading center and the influx of wealthy refugees and craftsmen caused a further boost in the economy from banking to watch making.

To Calvin, patient labor and diligence through the six-day work week was equal to worship service and the wealth thus obtained was justified. But he stood for social solidarity with the poor, refugees and others and rigid morality in economic affairs.

Calvin was a vociferous foe of usury. Still, he granted legitimacy to raising moderate interest in business contacts, although not for loans to the poor. His move is widely seen as a first step toward modern economics and a responsible form of capitalism.

Calvin's ban on religious art in Reformed churches had a welcome effect, especially among Dutch and Flemish artists who shifted to landscapes, still lifes, and portraits that found a large market among prosperous middle classes.

In the late 18th century Calvinist-descended churches began to take root in wide parts of the United States, among Presbyterians and others. Gradually, the movement spread to other parts in the world but the Reformed church became deeply divided. The World Alliance of Reform Churches says its fellowship now includes 75 million Reformed Christians in more than 100 countries. But in Geneva, Reformed Christians have long since shrunk to a small minority.

Yet the Calvinist impact remains evident in the city. The Geneva-based International Red Cross was founded by a devout Calvinist, Henry Dunant. And the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, was set up in Geneva because U.S President Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, preferred the city to Catholic Brussels.

Before Calvin died in 1564, he had stipulated that his body be buried without a gravestone in Geneva's common cemetery. It was the end of a life in modesty of a man for whom, as he once wrote, describing his theology as "Calvinism" was an "insult."