Calvin And De Las Casas Essay, Research Paper
Calvin and De Las Casas
In the 16th century there was a general movement for reform in Europe. The reform obviously varied from culture to culture, religion playing a bigger part of the reform at the time. However cultures with widely differing practices often share certain fundamental values. They all shared in the interest to spread intense religious feelings among the people of Europe. This period in history is called the Reformation. The events of the Reformation, however, were closely tied in to political and social conflict. Two important figures of the time that had to deal with these political and social conflicts were John Calvin and Bartolom de Las Casas. Both of these figures were men of their hour who basically gave their lives in order to see that their goals for reform where met. This paper will take a look at both these men’s lives and show that despite the obvious differences in both of these reformers’ lives; they used politics in their strategy for reform, thus, sharing a single movement for reform in the 16th century.
John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France. In those days the most important man in Noyon was a bishop whom Calvin’s father was a secretary to. It was a factor that made his father decided that Calvin would get a religious education. At fourteen his father sent him to the University of Paris to be trained to be a priest by studying theology. He received a thorough conservative training in Catholic faith at this university. His fathers’ affairs with the bishop fell out, again playing a part in Calvin’s life. His father now felt that law would be more to his liking and he sent Calvin to the University of Orleans and Bourges.
Despite the education he received at both universities, Calvin was more interested in the study of the classics. So when his father passes away he seized the opportunity to follow his heart by returning to the University of Paris to study Greek, Hebrew, and
Latin classics. It seemed that Calvin had found a field of his own choice but, something happened that converted him and from that time on he gave his life to the service of God. Now a lover of the great Christian classic, the Bible, he became convinced that the Word of God, the holy Scripture, and not the things which the Church fathers said, was the real guide to follow in religious matters. His Protestant views forced him to flee Paris for his safety after his friend Nicholas Cop, who was giving his inaugural address as rector, made a strong plea for acceptance of the Reformation. But it was the case that many rectors have tried to do the same in Calvin’s defense failing and having to flee for their safety.
“Rector after rector neglected to insist that students declare in writing their subscription to the full version of confession of faith which seems quietly to have fallen into desuetude. The intention, at the outset, had been to deny entry to the unsound in doctrine lest they pollute the School with their presence, just as unregenerate offenders must be denied access to the Supper of the Lord.”1
Calvin was on his way to Italy but he ended up in Geneva. Intending to remain there for just one night he was persuaded by “William Farel, who had been laboring in Geneva in the interest of the Reformation for some years, insisted that Calvin stay and help him…assert[ing] that it was the will of God that Calvin do so. And Calvin, not daring to resist that will…agreed to stay” 2 The major part of Calvin’s important life was spent there in Geneva. Three publications in the first year there gave evidence that even though he was not teaching in Geneva just yet, his time there was not dormant. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva because they had a dispute with the government officials. Soon there after, the government and people of Geneva realized that this banishment was more of their lost than his and in 1541 sent an urgent plea for Calvin to return to lead the church and state. At this point he established what is known as the Consistory.
Calvin was already gained his status as a great minister, the Consistory marked his ministry from 1542 to the date of his death in 1564. The Consistory was an institution that “…penetrat[ed] every aspect of Genevan life…”3 It had strict control over church affairs, politics, education, amusement, and family life. This “…regulatory court, became his instrument of power…composed of the elders and pastors…” 4 This aided Calvin to teach that one’s work was actually part of one’s religious life. Christian’s virtues included hard work, moral living, and thrift. And, according to Calvin, the obligation to teach God’s word and laws. The Consistory had a church in which only members of Calvin’s church participated in the government. The people chose their own church ministers whom basically ran the state.
A few of Calvin’s ideas includes God being so remote and so powerful that human beings could never understand His purpose. He believed that all people deserved eternal punishment in hell because of how completely corrupt they were. Calvin still believed that a chosen few were to be saved, which is known as predestination. This is the core of his ideas about God and humanity. Since no one knew who was damned and who wasn’t, a person’s life was not to look for salvation but to honor God. Righteous behavior was to be a clue to who was among the select few. Behavior therefore was strongly emphasized. Calvin had managed to transform a whole city of “13,000 population” 5 with these ideas. This made it an even more remarkable accomplishment in his career as a minister.
Bartolom de Las Casas was born at Seville in 1474 into a rich merchant’s family. He was sent to learn Latin in the academy of the cathedral of Seville in 1497. He did not receive as much education in different areas of studies as John Calvin did. Regardless of that he was a very active humanitarian. In the course of De Las Casas 92 years of life “…he was successively reformer at the court of Spain, unsuccessful colonizer in Venezuela, friar in Hispaniola, obstructer of wars…in Nicaragua, fighter on behalf of justice for the Indians…promoter of the plan to conquer and Christianize the Indians…by peaceful means alone…” 6 Of all of his things that he did in his life, he was one of the foremost humanist in one of the greatest evils of human society. Like Calvin’s approach for reform, De Las Casas looked toward the politics to address the issue. He publicly spoke out against the Spanish’s’ mistreatment of the Indians on August 15, 1514. After this sermon, he devotes his entire life in the defense of the Indians. Using politics, De Las Casas presented a defense of the Indian to King Charles I. After arguing that the time of military conquest of the Indians had passed and more peaceful means of conversion would be more effective. The king sides with De Las Casas by supporting his plan to build a colony of farm communities in Venezuela. “Disappointed in the results of his political activities, Las Casas joins the Dominicans in Santo Domingo and focused his energy on writing…’Concerning the Only Way of Drawing All People to the True Religion”7
Las Casas political ambitions did not stop there. He them returned to Spain to get a decree prohibiting the enforcement of slavery in Peru in 1530. At around 1537, he received support from Pope Paul III in Sublimis Deus declaring “…the American Indians as rational beings with soul and that their lives and property should be protected.”8 In 1542, he returned to Spain and convinced Charles I once more to support him by signing “New Laws” that prohibited Indian slavery and tried to put an end to the endomienda system by limiting ownership of serfs. Las Casas receive opposition when he declared that any Spaniards that refused to release his Indians would be denied absolution. The clergy absolutely refused to follow this order and later that year the king revoked the inheritance limitation. In 1547, Las Casas once again returns to Spain and becomes an influential figure in court in defense of the Indies. He at this time challenges Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who basically defense the Spain’s treatment of the Indians on Aristotelian principles. His political attempts to convince the theologians at the court failed once again. He then published a book called The Destruction of the Indies. He still continued his political career in the courts defending the Indians, wearing the title “Protector of the Indians” given to him by Charles V.
Looking at both these men’s lives, they’re basically obvious differences: One being a French Protestant man, the other a Spanish Catholic missionary. At any rate, both choose to use politics as a legal strategy to change practices to increase effectiveness of their churches in society. In Calvin’s case, he was asked to come back to Geneva, succeed because he had so many supporters unlike Las Casas, where he went back and forth between the New World and Spain, fighting to even get his own king to support him. Calvin is considered victorious in his time; and although Las Casas was considered a failure in his lifetime, both left something behind when they left. Las Casas left a legacy of humanitarian thinking behind him that would inspire Indian emancipation movements, and Calvin’s ideas would spread rapidly throughout the world giving Protestantism a strong base of Calvinistic thinking. What’s important here is that both, dealing with different issues realized that there was a fundamental need for change in the new age that they were in.
T. Walter Wallbank, Arnold Schrier, Donna Maier, Patricia Guetierrez-Smith. History and Life. Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1993.
Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, Frank M. Turner. The Western Heritage: Volume B: 1300 to 1815. New Jersey: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Calvinism in Europe, 1540-1620. Edited by Andrew Pettegree, Alastair Duke, Gillian Lewis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Lewis Hanke. Bartolom De Las Casas: Historian. Florida: University of Florida Press, 1952.
1. Calvinism in Europe, 1540-1620, ed. by Andrew Pettegree, Alastair Duke, Gillian Lewis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 53.
2. T. Walter Wallbank, Arnold Schrier, Donna Maier, Patricia Guetierrez-Smith, History and Life (Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1993), 391.
3. Calvinism in Europe, 1540-1620, ed. by Andrew Pettegree, Alastair Duke, Gillian Lewis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 22.
4. Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage: Volume B: 1300 to 1815 (New Jersey: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 385.
5. T. Walter Wallbank, Arnold Schrier, Donna Maier, Patricia Guetierrez-Smith, History and Life (Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1993), 391.
6. Lewis Hanke, Bartolom De Las Casas Historian (Florida: University of Florida Press, 1952), 2.
7. T. Walter Wallbank, Arnold Schrier, Donna Maier, Patricia Guetierrez-Smith, History and Life (Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1993), 460.
8. Ibid, 460.