Switzerland Marks 500 Years Since Calvin's Birth

Calvin-o-mania is sweeping Switzerland this weekend as people mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of theologian John Calvin. Professor Karin Maag of Calvin College — where the birthday was celebrated with cake, punch and singing psalms — talks to NPR's Guy Raz about whether the famously dour Protestant thinker would have appreciated these revels.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Calvin-o-mania is sweeping across Geneva this weekend, or at least that's the way one Swiss paper is describing it.

Geneva is the city John Calvin transformed into what was called the Protestant Rome back in the 16th century.

The reformist theologian was born 500 years ago this past week. His name has become shorthand, at least in this country, for a kind of joyless, frugal, fire-and-brimstone brand of Puritanism.

Philosophers have claimed Calvin is the source for everything from capitalism to democracy to American exceptionalism.

Well, with us is Professor Karin Maag. She teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Professor Maag, welcome.

Dr. KARIN MAAG (History, Calvin College; Director, Meeter Center for Calvin Studies): Thank you for having me.

RAZ: Now, I understand you had your own version of Calvin-o-mania this weekend, a birthday party with punch and cake and songs. Did you ever, you know, consider just sitting in silence and poring over Scripture instead?

Dr. MAAG: We found, in fact, that Calvin himself would have approved of the refreshments.

RAZ: Oh, he would have?

Dr. MAAG: He wasn't a big eater. He wasn't a big eater, but he did enjoy a glass of wine. We didn't have wine. We had non-alcoholic punch, and the singing we did, we sang a Genevan psalm, and he would have approved of that as well.

RAZ: Can you sing a bit of the psalm?

Dr. MAAG: Sure.

(Singing) I greet thee who my sure redeemer art, my only joy and comfort of my heart…

And it goes on from there.

RAZ: That's a wonderful song. So he probably would have approved of the song and the punch and the cakes and all those things. So this reputation for being sort of austere, is that unfair?

Dr. MAAG: Well, certainly he was a man with a strong sense of his vocation as a preacher, and he really saw himself somewhat in the line of the Old Testament prophets, and Old Testament prophets are not sort of sweet and cuddly people.

RAZ: Professor Maag, explain something to me. The earliest American settlers, the Puritans, the Huguenots, they were all, of course, Calvinists, and some people say without Calvin, America would never have been founded. Can you explain that?

Dr. MAAG: There were certainly emphases in Calvin's thought that came across with the Puritans, an emphasis on the idea of covenant between God and his people. That was one important one. The idea of everyone having a vocation or a calling. That was a very important part of Calvin's thought that I think came through the Puritans, as well.

RAZ: Some scholars and historians have talked about capitalism. Max Faber wrote a seminal piece on this in the early 20th century, drawing the connection between John Calvin and capitalism.

Dr. MAAG: Calvin did really see that commerce was a viable and valid way of living one's life. Calvin's very interested in questions of finance and how to live as a community in a world where commerce was becoming more and more important.

RAZ: Five hundred years on, what's his legacy here in the United States?

Dr. MAAG: I think that the continuing importance of the idea of having a calling, having a vocation. I think that's very important. I think also Calvin's sense that even though there may be rulers that are oppressive, there is a pathway to legitimate resistance. I think that's an idea that has perpetuated itself in the U.S. today.

RAZ: Dr. Karin Maag is the director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Professor Maag, thanks so much.

Dr. MAAG: Thank you.

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