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The Spread of Calvinism

The Spread of Calvinism

Calvinism has had a genuinely metamorphic impact on our modern world, influencing religion, politics, and society. Unique among its fellow reformist groups, Calvinism was not limited by geographical boundaries or societal class. The faith found supporters in the peasantry and nobility across England, France, Scotland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.


The theology, doctrines, and practices developed by Protestant reformer John Calvin and his successors.

The Spread of Calvinism Timeline: Stage One

Contrary to what the name suggests, Calvinism originated from Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli founded the Reformed faith and was the father of Zwinglism. While sharing many similar beliefs, Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther disagreed over Holy Communion. Luther believed that the bread and wine were actually the body and blood of Christ. In contrast, Zwingli saw the bread and wine as symbolic.

After his death at the Second War of Kappel in 1531, Zwingli was succeeded as leader of the Reformed faith by his son-in-law Heinrich Bullinger. Bullinger was more moderate than his predecessor, opposing Zwingli's politicisation of Christianity and advocation of military action.

While nowhere near as famous as his reformist compatriots, Bullinger played an integral role in uniting the practices and teachings of Protestantism.

Date Event
1522The Affair of the Sausages.
1523Swiss canton city of Zurich broke from Rome and converted to Protestantism.
1524Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther disagreed over Holy Communion.
1529Philip of Hesse arranged the Marburg Colloquy to reconcile Zwingli and Luther's disagreement over Holy Communion; no compromise was found.
1531Zwingli was killed at the Second War of Kappel.
Heinrich Bullinger succeeded Zwingli as leader of the Reformed faith in Switzerland.

The Affair of the Sausages

In March 1522, printer Christoph Froschauer served his employees smoked sausage after work; this was highly controversial because eating meat was prohibited during Lent. A week later, Zwingli supported the workers' actions, giving a sermon entitled 'Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods'. This event is now seen as the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland.

The Spread of Calvinism Timeline: Stage Two

In 1536 Bullinger wrote the First Helvetic Confession. The piece of work sought to rectify the differences in opinion between Zwinglians and Lutherans regarding Holy Communion. 1536 was also the year in which John Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in Geneva. One of the most influential works in Protestantism, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion thrust Calvinism to the forefront of the Reformation.

Bullinger met with John Calvin in Zurich on 20 May, 1549. Here they reached an agreement with the Consensus of Zurich. The Consensus of Zurich united Protestant efforts in Geneva and Zurich under the Reformed Faith.

Calvin's influence extended from Geneva, and he promptly assumed leadership of the Reformed Faith from Bullinger. The Reformed Faith – or Calvinism as it was now known – reached Germany in 1538, the Netherlands in 1540, and Scotland in 1560. While Lutherism was predominantly confined to Germany, Calvinism spread exponentially worldwide.

Date Event
1533John Calvin fled persecution in Paris to Geneva.
1536Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Bullinger wrote the First Helvetic Confession.
1538Calvin travelled to Germany and disseminated his beliefs.
1540Calvinism arrived in the Netherlands.
1549The Consensus of Zurich.
1555Calvin established a religious government in Geneva.
1560Scotland broke with the papacy and became predominantly Calvinist.

Factors that helped the spread of Calvinism

Let's look at the range of factors that assisted the spread of Calvinism.


During the 1550s, Geneva became a hotbed for religious refugees from England, France, Italy, and Scotland. Once in Geneva, Calvin would welcome and train refugees before sending them back home. This helped spread Calvinism on a European level.


John Calvin's academy in Geneva, Switzerland, educated countless people in the teachings of Calvinism. According to John Knox, a Scottish reformer, the institution was:

The most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.1

The Spread of Calvinism College Calvin StudySmarterFig. 1 Calvin College.

Printing Press

The Gutenberg Printing Press was invented in 1450. This invention allowed Calvin to widely disseminate his teachings through books, catechisms, and pamphlets. While Geneva was the hub for printing Reformist literature, Paris, Strasbourg, Basel, and Lyon also became vital centres.


The singing of Psalms proved popular among the citizenry. By 1543, French poet Clement Marot had transcribed over 50 Psalms into musical form!

The Spread of Calvinism in Central Europe

While German and Scandinavian princes typically appropriated Lutheranism for political and economic gain, Calvinism's ability to express the disorders of society gave it widespread appeal. Its power to give citizens consolation through religious teaching, scripture, and activism meant that geography nor social class restricted its spread. In France and Germany, Calvinism was immensely popular among the upper classes. In contrast, it was favoured across all social types in England and the Netherlands.

After becoming the predominant religion in Geneva, Calvinism quickly spread to Northern Netherlands and Western Germany. Calvinism became the official religion in the German states of Anhalt, Brandenburg, Hesse, Nassau, and Palatine, with the Heidelberg Catechism becoming the primary theological authority in these areas. Calvinism in Northern Netherlands and Western Germany had definite anti-imperial undertones:

  • The Palatinate endorsed the Bohemian Revolt against the Hapsburgs.
  • The Netherlands revolted against the Spanish Crown in 1566.
  • The Meuse-Rhenish region established itself as one Europe's most ardent areas of Calvinism.

Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism was a piece of reformist literature written in 1562 which drew upon and adapted the ideas of John Calvin.

In France and Scotland, the spread of Calvinism set about a period of religious violence. In Scotland, Calvinist-Catholic hostilities were one of the causes of the Civil War. In France, the French Calvinists – known as Huguenots – fought eight civil wars of religion with the Roman Catholic Church. While Calvinism never became a major religion in France, Presbyterianism – which drew heavily from Calvinism – became the official religion of Scotland in 1689.

The Spread of Calvinism Stephen Bocskai StudySmarterFig. 2 Hungarian Calvinist Stephen Bocskai.

In Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, Calvinism garnered much favour from the nobility, who appropriated it for political gain. Calvinism became an outlet for those angry with the Holy Roman Emperor's pro-German policies. This is best exemplified in Poland, where many nobles chose Calvinism over Lutherism due to the latter movement's agenda to expand the Brandenburg frontier. 2

The Spread of Calvinism in North America

The origins of Calvinism in North America lie some 4000 miles east, with the English Reformation. Throughout the 16th century, the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church. Despite England's split from the authority of the Pope, many English Calvinists – known derogatorily as Puritans – believed that the Reformation hadn't gone far enough. In particular, they disagreed with the Church of England's tolerance of Catholics. Puritan attempts to purify the Church of England saw them denounced by Catholics and Anglicans. They faced vicious persecution during the reigns of King James I and King Charles I.

Fleeing persecution, the Puritans crossed the Atlantic and settled in North America. English Puritans established the settlements of New England, Plymouth, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. According to John Gerstner,

New England, from the founding of Plymouth in 1620 to the end of the 18th century, was predominantly Calvinistic.3

It wasn't just the English Puritans, however, who had a profound impact in spreading Calvinism in North America:

  • In the 1620s, Dutch Calvinists emigrated to North America, setting up New Netherlands; New Netherlands would later become New York.
  • Throughout the mid-late 17th century, French Huguenots settled in Virginia.
  • In 1718, five ships of Ulster-Scottish Presbyterians emigrated to New England.
  • By the late 18th century, 200,000 German Calvinists had settled in the middle colonies.

The Spread of Calvinism and Reformed Doctrine

It is essential to distinguish between the teachings of John Calvin and Calvinism as a whole. As the years went by, followers of John Calvin gradually modified his teachings to adapt to the times. The two primary theological developments in Calvinism were the Synod of Dort and the Institutes of Elenctic Theology.

Synod of Dort

The Synod of Dort was an assembly that met between 13 November 1618 and 9 May 1619. The synod aimed to settle the dispute between the Gomarists (Calvinists) and the Arminianists (followers of Jacobus Arminius). The synod had an enduring impact on Calvinism, establishing a summarised version of the teachings of John Calvin:

AcronymCalvinist TeachingMeaning
TTotal DepravityThe belief that human sin destroys humanity, thus making it incompatible with God.
UUnconditional ElectionThe acknowledgement that God elects Christians; only God has the power to decide who is part of the elect.
LLimited AtonementThe notion that Jesus' suffering was not for humanity as a whole but the chosen elect.
IIrresistible GraceThe belief that the elect will believe in God for the entirety of their lifetime. Such belief results in salvation and eternal life, but only for the elect.
PPerseverance of the SaintsThe idea that once God is present in one's life, that person will follow the path of righteousness.

The Spread of Calvinism Synod of Dort StudySmarterFig 3. The Synod of Dort.

There are some critical discrepancies between the teachings of John Calvin and these Five Points of Calvinism (TULIP). The notion of limited atonement contradicts the original teachings of John Calvin, and the acronym TULIP is ostensibly an English word. As the synod would have been conducted in Dutch or Latin, these ideas may have been adapted over time.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology

In the 17th century, Geneva pastor Francois Turretin published his Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (1688; Institutes of Elenctic Theology). While the work's title referenced John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), there were many discrepancies between the two pieces. Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology became one of the primary textbooks at the Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the most prominent educational institutions in New Jersey and the hub of American Calvinism until the 1800s.

  • Throughout his work, Turretin wholly ignores the teachings of John Calvin. Turretin cites 175 bodies of work in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology; he doesn't cite John Calvin once.
  • In Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Turretin elevates reason and scripture above that of faith. This marked a divergence from Calvin, who believed that reason and scripture were secondary to faith.
  • John Calvin taught that only the Holy Spirit could convince believers that the Scriptures were the word of God. Turretin diverged from this view, believing that the presence of the Holy Spirit was not necessary to persuade readers of the authority of Scripture.
  • John Calvin saw Biblical writings as a human product God had graciously gifted humanity. Turretin saw these writings as wholly supernatural and dictated by God alone.

The Spread of Calvinism: Significance

The spread of Calvinism had several lasting religious, political, and societal effects:


Calvinism emphasised that to be saved, one must lead a moral, disciplined, and faithful life. This had a lasting effect, particularly in America, where citizens worked hard, acted decently, and followed the laws of the land to gain salvation.


Calvinism taught that religious groups should elect their own leaders instead of being governed by appointed Bishops or political rulers. The idea that groups should democratically elect their leaders went some way in helping establish electoral democracy in England and America.


Calvinism taught its followers that humanity deserved eternal damnation and that humans were essentially powerless to save themselves. This notion propagated humility among Calvinist congregations.

Self-Examination and Reflection

Calvinism encouraged its followers to take stock. Emphasising Paul’s admonition: 'Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?' (2 Cor 13:5).


One essential facet of Calvinism was praying for the unconverted. As well as promoting a sense of selflessness in congregations, this also encouraged Calvinists to go and evangelise non-church members.

The Spread of Calvinism Statue of Calvin StudySmarterFig. 4 Statue of Calvin.

The Spread of Calvinism - Key takeaways

  • The origins of Calvinism lie in the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli.
  • After Zwingli's death, Bullinger and Calvin united their faiths under the Reformed Faith in 1549 with the Zurich Consensus.
  • After fleeing France, Calvin settled in Geneva; Geneva became a hotbed for religious refugees.
  • Educational institutions, refugees, music, and the printing press accelerated the spread of Calvinism.
  • As the years passed, the beliefs of John Calvin were adapted and modified.
  • Calvinism has considerably affected religion, politics, and society in Europe.


  1. John Knox in William Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (1974), p. 5.
  2. Stephen J. Lee, Aspects of European History 1494-1789 (2015), p. 4.
  3. John Gerstner, 'American Calvinism until the Twentieth Century', American Calvinism (1957), p.16.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Spread of Calvinism

The origins of Calvinism lie with Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. After his untimely death at the Second War of Kappel, Heinrich Bullinger succeeded Zwingli, negotiating an agreement with John Calvin and uniting Protestants efforts in Geneva and Zurich under the Reformed faith. After Calvin assumed leadership from Bullinger, the Reformed faith – or Calvinism as it became known – spread exponentially across Europe and later North America.

Whilst Lutherism garnered support from the German and Scandinavian nobility, Calvinism acquired supporters from all backgrounds, social classes, and locations. Such widespread support saw Protestantism spread across Europe and North America. 

Calvinism was a key factor to the emergence of capitalism in the 17th century. Calvinists favoured hard work, disagreed with idleness, and sought to save money; all of which became key principles in early capitalist thought.

Calvinism's ability to afford citizens consolation through religious literature, education, and activism meant that geography nor social class restricted its spread. 

John Calvin disagreed with music during church services, religious art, and with images of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Final The Spread of Calvinism Quiz


What issue did John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli disagree over?

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Holy Communion:  Luther believed that the bread and wine were actually the body and blood of Christ. In contrast, Zwingli saw the bread and wine as symbolic. 

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How succeeded Ulrich Zwingli as leader of the Reformed faith?

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Heinrich Bullinger

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What year did the Consensus of Zurich take place?

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What were French Calvinists known as?

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What were English Calvinists derogatorily known as?

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Why did English Puritans emigrate to North America?

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Because they were being persecuted by King James I and King Charles I 

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Aside from the English Puritans, name one other Calvinist group that settled in North America?

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Any of the following:

- Dutch Calvinists 

- French Huguenots 

- Ulster-Scottish Presbyterians 

- German Calvinists

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What was the Synod of Dort?

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An attempt to settle the dispute between the Gomarists (Calvinists) and the Arminianists (followers of Jacobus Arminius)

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When did Presbyterianism become the official religion of Scotland?

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How did the Gutenberg Printing Press aid the spread of Calvinism?

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It allowed Calvin to widely disseminate his teachings through books, catechisms, and pamphlets.

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