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Over the years, various theories have arisen concerning John Calvin’s political views. Some have viewed him as a virtual dictator, “the pope of Geneva.” Others have felt he was a master of dissimulation who always got his own dictatorial views across by subtle means. Yet others have suggested that he was one of the founders of modern democracy. Which view, if any, is correct?

To understand Calvin’s views on political government, one must understand the political context of his day. Democratic forms of government were on the decline. Even those countries which had tended towards more democratic forms of government (e.g., the Estates General in France, Parliament in England and Scotland, and the Imperial Diet in the Holy Roman Empire) were reversing that trend. Democratic institutions still existed, but any power which they possessed had been largely taken away by the absolute monarchs. These rulers sought to imitate and practice the ideas set forth in Niccolo Machiavelli’s (1469–1527) famous book, The Prince. Machiavelli advised princes on how to achieve absolute power.

The claims of the worldly princes were challenged by the popes, who viewed themselves as the spiritual rulers of the world. As the representatives of Christ, the popes asserted their right, not only to persecute those who disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church, but even to depose monarchs who refused to obey their orders. (Pius V asserted this right when he decreed that Elizabeth be deposed from the throne of England.) Democracy had few supporters in places of power in the early sixteenth century.

One must also take into account Calvin’s own background and training. The son of a Picard lawyer, he was at first destined for the priesthood. But his father, after ...

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