John Calvin Was a Social Justice Warrior

John Calvin recalled his impression when he first arrived in Geneva. “When I first arrived in this church there was almost nothing. They were preaching and that’s all. They were good at seeking out idols and burning them, but there was no Reformation. Everything was in turmoil.” One of the objectives Geneva’s senators had in calling Calvin back was to improve the management of the city’s care for orphans, widows and other poor. This was something that Calvin was also zealous for. In his commentary on Psalm 82 he wrote “A just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Rulers are “accounted guilty before God of negligence if they do not, of their own accord, assist those who stand in need of their interference.”

1. Reforming Welfare

The primary institution for accomplishing this obligation was Geneva’s General Hospital. The Hospital was not principally an infirmary, but rather a place of hospital-ity. It provided public housing and care for widows, orphans and other poor and destitute. Since medieval cities were periodically ravaged by the plague, caring for orphans was the largest need. The hospital provided public schooling for both boys and girls. When the young men came of age the hospital would put up the apprenticeship fee. Likewise, the hospital payed the dowry for young women who desired to marry.

Hospital residents were expected to work as they were able. They farmed the garden, prepared meals, cooked and cleaned. They often raised a surplus of oats that were sold on the open market to help fund the hospital’s operation. Calvin was instrumental in implementing a fabric-weaving program as a way to reduce unemployment. As a result Genevan textiles soon became a major export and an economic boon for the city.

In addition to providing for the Hospital residents, the Hospital also distributed bread and wine on a weekly basis to poor families that were having trouble making ends meet. They gave out short-term, interest free loans to those who needed help purchasing essential items.

Due to these innovative measures the Hospital was not expensive to run, yet it provided far more social value than the hospital systems in other cities. Also, because Geneva was committed to a policy of full-employment, everyone who was able to work was able to find work to do.

2. Reforming Immigration

John Calvin was a French immigrant living in Geneva, and was not granted citizenship until shortly before his death. He had great compassion for his fellow exiles. He also regarded such compassion as a duty required in God’s Law. “Let us learn from this passage [Isa 16:3-4] to be kind and dutiful to fugitives and exiles.” “When God recommends guests and sojourners to them [Lev 19:33-34], just as if they had been their own kindred, they thence understand that equity is to be cultivated constantly and toward all men.”

The first major wave of French refugees arrived in Geneva in 1545. Geneva was neither large nor rich. Land was restrictive. Employment opportunities and food were limited. This influx was more than the General Hospital system could handle, and so the city councils ordered the caravan to make plans to leave town. In response, Calvin and twenty eight other individuals generously contributed to establish the French Refuge (Bourse) to extend the work of the hospital to the refugees.

The inflow of immigrants from France, Italy and elsewhere stoked nationalist and anti-immigrant feelings in Geneva. Ami Perrin led the anti-immigrant party, the “Children of Geneva.” Gangs of young people harassed and assaulted immigrants on the streets. They would bear their swords with shouts of “at the traitors!” “French devils!” and “kill them and their supporters!”

In spite of fierce opposition, refugees continued to arrive in Geneva from 1550-1560. By 1555 it became apparent to most that immigration would not spell the end for Geneva. Immigrants brought an entrepreneurial spirit, different skills, and new capital to the city. The new economy in Geneva focused on exports to France and the rest of Europe. Exports of books, textiles, pewter pots, jewelry, gold work, clock and watch-work became the new economic backbone of the city. Although Geneva was the principal city of refuge in Europe, it was not the only one and its corresponding benefits were not unique.

3. Reforming Capital

The practice of usury was widespread in sixteenth-century Europe. At the same time, church theologians condemned all interest taking. Calvin had a more keen understanding of economics than Scholastic theologians. He understood that industry demanded some sort of credit and interest in order to function. Capital is key to establishing new businesses and thus creating new jobs and new wealth. If capital is directed to the common good, then it cannot be contrary to God’s law, which is the law of love.

Lending to private individuals, however, opens the door for loan-sharking. Therefore Calvin made a sharp distinction between lending in business and lending to private individuals struggling to afford basic necessities (compare Ex 22:25, Ne 5:1-10; Pr 28:8, etc., with Matt 25:27, Lk 19:23). Calvin understood the Bible’s condemnation of usury to refer to those whose lending preys on the poor. For example, wealthy speculators might drive up the cost of wheat, and then turn around and lend money to the poor [at 16-18%] in order to buy bread. In his commentary on Amos, Calvin writes, “He [Amos] speaks here again of the greed for riches, which in times of scarcity is held like a foot on the throat of the poor, and makes them slaves to it.”

Geneva thus adopted a two-tiered interest rate: an annual 5% rate for businesses, while private loans were interest free and administered through the General Hospital. Economic conditions drove these rates up to 6 2/3% in 1557, but Geneva retained the two tiered system.

4. Reforming Consumer Protection

Geneva’s sumptuary laws were aimed at promoting equality, unity and the common good. The law (1549) required that both boys and girls receive a free primary school education; partially to create an educated labor supply and partially to promote informed Christians. Also, trade guilds were encouraged as an efficient way for industries to self-regulate. Businesses were regulated both for quality control and to prohibit profiteering on essential items. No merchant should be permitted to cheat in the marketplace. The city councils considered it their duty to shield the vulnerable from financial exploitation, especially where basic commodities were concerned.

Geneva did not have ample land for farming. Keeping Geneva in foodstuffs was always a difficult affair. The price of wheat was especially volatile and regularly subject to 500% price fluctuations. This required a comprehensive wheat policy. One aspect of this policy has been badly mis-represented. A sumptuary law against selling fancy pastries in time of grain shortage was not introduced because it was supposedly immoral to enjoy desserts. Instead, it was a means of protecting the poor during times of scarcity. Pastries provided bakers with a higher profit margin, which only the wealthy could afford. The misuse of scarce flour would have resulted in a lack of basic bread for the poor.

The Protestant Reformation was about more than reforming the preaching and worship of the Church. It was also about pursuing the ideal of a just society where Christians fulfill their individual callings in the world with excellence and for God’s glory. 

For further reading see: Social Concern in Calvin’s Geneva, by William C. Innes.