Worship in Calvin's Geneva

This year I have enjoyed participating in events celebrating John Calvin’s five hundredth birthday in Pittsburgh, Toronto, Grand Rapids, and Montreat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the keen interest in Calvin’s approach to worship. Here are brief answers to some of the most commonly asked questions I’ve received during these celebrations.

Q What are some of the biggest differences between being a Christian in Geneva in the sixteenth century and being a Christian in North America today?

A One big difference is that belief in God was then nearly universal, whereas today it is seen as an option. Another was that an ordinary Christian then had little choice about what denomination to join. While a few voluntary groups sprang up, including some notable Anabaptist communities, most cities and towns were exclusively Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed, and the place of one’s birth determined one’s affiliation.

Q Was Calvin a good preacher?

A Calvin was so respected as a preacher that the Genevans hired someone to write down his sermons as he preached them. Many were published during his time, others have only recently been edited and published. But Genevan consistory records reveal that some parishioners couldn’t remember a word Calvin said in the sermons they’d recently heard—a good reminder that ministry was as complicated then as it is today.

Q Did Calvin preach from a pulpit?

A Yes. It was a brand-new pulpit located about two-thirds of the way toward the front of St. Peter’s Church, positioned prominently on a large column. The town placed benches around the pulpit in such a way that Genevans may have sat facing each other in worship—a rather remarkable innovation for the time.

Q Did they use pipe organs?

A No. All music was sung in unison without accompaniment. The medieval organ in Geneva was kept but not repaired. After a few generations, the pipe organ was revived, and has been used in worship by Genevan Protestants ever since.

Q How did Calvin choose music?

A He did not pick music to fit the theme of the sermon, nor did he choose congregational favorites more frequently than others. Rather, song choice was dictated by a chart that hung in the rear of Genevan churches. It prescribed a disciplined pattern for singing through the entire Psalter over a period of several weeks, a practice rather like that of the medieval monastic communities.

Q Were children involved in worship?

A Yes. Children sat near the front, sometimes with their schoolmates. They learned psalms in school, where they were also asked about whether they understood the sermon.
Children were also required to attend Sunday afternoon catechism services to learn basic lessons in Christian theology by memorizing answers to catechism questions. Children helped teach the congregation new musical settings of the psalms, which they also sang at school.

Q How did Genevans cope with having the Lord’s Supper celebrated less often after the Reformation?

A Contrary to what many think, the Reformation actually increased the frequency of the Lord’s Supper for most people. In the Middle Ages, most people received communion once a year, though priests may have celebrated the mass daily. After the Reformation, the supper was celebrated four times a year, with the congregation participating fully, though Calvin wanted it celebrated once a week.

Q Did people take communion from little trays like we have in our church?

A No, people came forward to receive the bread and cup. Trays came much later in Reformed worship: after 1900, and then only in some places.

Q What were Genevan weddings like?

A They were attached to the Sunday morning service—the most prominent time for the entire community to witness them.

Q Did all Genevans agree with the Reformation?

A By no means. Some people with Catholic preferences complained that Reformation worship services were too much “like going to school.” They were offended that the Protestants sang their church songs (psalms) in their homes and streets. They were displeased that they couldn’t speak their devotional prayers in church. Some left Geneva; others reluctantly converted over time.

Q Weren’t Calvinist worship spaces dull and remote?

A That’s one interpretation. But consider another view: that Calvinist spaces featured an intensification of visual communication through the bread, cup, pulpit, and font. Calvin clearly thought that these symbols were significant not only because of the gestures and actions associated with them, but also because they communicated visually. These central symbols became more dramatic and vivid without anything to distract attention away from them. Further, while some see the whitewashed walls of Calvinist spaces as “empty,” others describe them as featuring a kind of luminous simplicity.

Q Wasn’t Calvin’s worship overly intellectual?

A Surprisingly to some, much of Calvin’s language about worship was geared to the heart. Calvin spoke about being “incited to praise,” about worshiping with “ardent zeal,” and being “ravished with wonder.” The motto associated with his reform is the phrase “I offer you my heart promptly and sincerely.” This affinity for heart language relied on a medieval tradition known as voluntarism that emphasized human will and desire as especially important. For Calvin this heart language was not set over against language of the mind. He was a brilliant scholar and teacher who transcended the tension between heart and mind that plagues so many churches today.

Q What is the greatest lesson you have learned from Calvin?

A Pour your energy into helping ordinary people engage in worship in a deep and profound way. While Calvin made many changes to what pastors and musicians did in worship (texts, tunes, gestures, and actions), he poured a hundred times more energy into helping form the congregation for deep participation: developing a comprehensive program of catechism classes, encouraging prayer in the home, encouraging congregational singing, and teaching and preaching about the meaning and purpose of worship.


Consistory Notes from Geneva

Thanks to an English translation of the consistory meeting notes from Geneva at the time of Calvin, we have a window into the significance placed on the formation of faith and the education of the citizens of Geneva in the Word of God. Take this entry concerning Pernete, widow of Jehan Du Nant, boatman:

not know what words he said then. And that she does not hear because she is a little deaf and does not understand what the preacher says. Said very little of the prayer and cannot say the confession. The Consistory advises that she frequent the sermons and come to give an account of her gains and appear here [in] a month, and go to the catechism.
Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, V.I., 1542-1544. Ed. Robert M. Kingdon, Thomas A. Lambert, Isabella W. Watt. Trans., M. Wallace Mc Donald. Eerdmans, 2000, p. 138

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 94 © December 2009, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.