In the last few years, much has been published about John Calvin, the great reformer of Geneva. Even so, this fifty year-old biography by Van Halsema is still one of my favorites. It’s interesting, easy to read, full of information, and balanced. Calvin’s complex life is neither glorified nor romanticized, nor are his faults exaggerated. This book does not focus on Calvin’s theology, but it does show how his beliefs found expression in both his public life and his personal struggles.
Beginning with his childhood, and referring to world events, Van Halsema paints a story of Calvin’s privileged early years in the context of his times. She follows him through his studies for priest and later for lawyer, detailing how the brilliant student spent his days and discussing his many friends. For a while after his reluctant conversion, he lived as a hunted man in France while wishing for the quiet life of a scholar. Although Calvin did become a renowned scholar, he was never to have peace and quiet, either in Geneva or in Strasbourg, two cities that claimed much of his life. Van Halsema follows him through turbulent times in Geneva, the joys of marriage, the challenges of encouraging Christians to serve God, and the many other opportunities to help and support believers throughout the Europe.
This Was John Calvin, now reprinted for the fifth time in English, has been translated into at least six other languages. The book’s popularity is probably due to its lively writing as well as its detailed accuracy. The writing is clear enough that teens can understand and enjoy it, and informative enough to give adults new insights. I highly recommend this book as an engaging introduction to John Calvin and reformation times.
Caution: In a few instances, cruel tortures are briefly described.
Read Aloud, March 2013
I have just finished reading This was John Calvin out loud to four children, ages 10-17. Obviously, I skipped descriptions of torture, but even so it was not an easy read aloud. While it is written in a lively way for a biography, there is no escaping that it is indeed a biography, and that of a difficult life in difficult times. Calvin is neither romanticized nor vilified, and the troubles, cruelty, and deaths of those days are not white-washed either. On the other hand, even with his faults, Calvin is an inspiring man who loved the Lord with his whole heart, soul, and mind and his neighbor as himself, and it was good to read about that together.