Pragmatism and Principle: John Calvin and Female Government
By David Talcott
This is an article from the fifth issue of our journal Ad Fontes.
Calvin’s views on women in government are not as notorious as John Knox’s. This is perhaps surprising given his strong, principled opposition to female rulers. In a letter to Sir William Cecil, a chief political adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Calvin said female rulers were “a deviation from the primitive and established order of nature” and “ought to be held as a judgment on man.” Likewise, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians he wrote “unquestionably, wherever even natural propriety has been maintained, women have in all ages been excluded from the public management of affairs. It is the dictate of common sense, that female government is improper and unseemly.”
John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, made a similar argument. But he drew the further conclusion that female government is inherently illegitimate and therefore a justification in itself for revolution. Here Calvin differed from Knox: he thought female government ill-advised, not illegitimate. Simply by being female a queen does not forfeit her power. Female power is still legitimate power, and hence revolution is not justified.
We can see this at work in Calvin’s letters. Calvin’s international correspondence is large and includes many letters to noblewomen across Europe. In some cases, these women faced persecution for their Protestant faith, in others, they had political power that Calvin hoped to turn to the benefit of the church. The overwhelming tone of these letters is pastoral – Calvin was a shepherd of souls, and this shepherding in on full display as he encourages, consoles, and exhorts these women. He shows real familiarity and genuine concern for their spiritual well-being. In some cases, he exhorts them to be resolute, remaining in difficult situations despite persecution, willingly suffering for the Kingdom just as Christ suffered in His redemptive work. In other cases, Calvin encouraged women to leave their homelands and come to protestant Geneva, where their faith could be freely expressed. In still other cases, Calvin emphasized the good which their positions could permit them to do; to Renée of France, Duchess of Ferrara through her marriage to the grandson of Pope Alexander VI , for example, Calvin wrote that that because of her “high rank which he has vouchsafed you among men,” she had many valuable opportunities to serve God’s kingdom.
Calvin’s correspondence includes several letters addressed indirectly to Queen Elizabeth I, through her close advisor Sir William Cecil. These letters were not, as was the case with some others, warm and intimate, but rather were occasioned first by Elizabeth’s succession to the throne after “Bloody” Mary, and then later by Elizabeth’s response to John Knox’s notorious First Blast of the Trumpet. When Elizabeth ascended and began re-establishing the protestant church, Calvin wrote to encourage her to continue the reformation. He wrote to Cecil that he should encourage her “to scatter the superstitions of popery which have overshadowed your land for the last four years, and to cause the uncorrupted doctrine of the gospel and the pure worship of God again to flourish among you” and “having once entered upon the right path, she should unflinchingly persevere therein.”
Only a few months later Calvin wrote again, this time to defend his reputation. His association with Knox meant that his own works were receiving an icy reception by the Queen. Elizabeth was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not favorably disposed toward John Knox’s arguments against women in civil government, and particularly unhappy with his arguments for rebellion.
Thus Calvin, concerned for the peace and survival of the church, wrote to clarify his opposition to revolution. Mary had been a terrible persecutor of protestants. But Elizabeth was helping, not hindering, the church. Calvin therefore strongly advocated submission to Elizabeth’s reign, for the peace and protection of the protestant churches.
Here is Calvin at his most pragmatic: Civil governments are not to be overthrown for light reasons, or even weighty ones, if that revolution would bring still greater danger to the church. Many imperfections in existing regimes should be suffered so long as the gospel is permitted to be preached and the sacraments rightly observed. Calvin recognized that Elizabeth “has been raised to the throne in a wonderful manner by the hand of God.” He did not doubt the legitimacy of her reign.
Of course, this does not change Calvin’s opposition to female government in principle. As we have seen above, Calvin agreed with Knox that it was improper and unwise. Still, he thought Knox’s position intemperate, because of the political dangers facing the church. He admitted all this openly to Queen Elizabeth within a few years of the publication of Knox’s book. He wrote in a letter to Cecil:
“Two years ago John Knox, in a private conversation, asked my opinion respecting female government. I frankly answered that because it was a deviation from the primitive and established order of nature, it ought to be held as a judgment on man for his dereliction of his rights…”
Years earlier he had recounted the same conversation in a letter to Bullinger. There he wrote:
“About the government of women I expressed myself [in response to Knox] thus: Since it is utterly at variance with the legitimate order of nature, it ought to be counted among the judgments with which God visits us….But though a government of this kind seems to me nothing else than a mere abuse, yet I gave it as my solemn opinion, that private persons have no right to do any thing but to deplore it. For a gynaecocracy or female rule badly organized is like a tyranny, as is to be tolerated till God sees fit to overthrow it.”
Pastoral and pragmatic commitments prevented this strong opposition to female government from leading Calvin to the revolutionary conclusions of John Knox. Rather than seek to overthrow the government, we ought rather to “ask God for a spirit of moderation and prudence, to stand us in aid in the critical moment, than to agitate idle enquiries.”
Calvin continually keeps his eye on the ultimate goal: God’s glory. God will be glorified as his kingdom is spread throughout the earth. Many imperfections must be suffered within that process. Where reform is possible, we must reform. Where it is impossible, we must suffer. Where the church is endangered, we must be wise as serpents and survive, always being faithful to our King, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Holy One of Israel, the Lamb who was slain.
David Talcott is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The King’s College in New York City. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Indiana University — Bloomington after majoring in philosophy at Hillsdale College. David resides in Plainfield, New Jersey with his wife, Anna, and six children. He is an Elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Millburn and Short Hills, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America.