Calvin on the Church of England – Part 3

This post is Part 3 of a three-part series. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

It’s hard to get agreement on what constitutes “Anglicanism” in its essence. There were different answers given in the 17th century, and different answers continue to be given today. Indeed, scholars such as Anthony Milton argue that we should not even use that term until after the restoration. But one way to clarify the distinction between the established English church and its nonconforming English critics is to study Bishop Hooper’s dissent against certain elements of his ordination service and the later controversy over similar ceremonials and adiaphora which erupted among the English exiles in Frankfurt. John Calvin offers his perspective on each of these in his letters. While not comprehensive, what we see in his comments is consistent with Calvin’s larger theology and practical strategy. In short, he shares the preferences of Hooper and Knox, but he disagrees with their strategies. He shares some of their criticisms but disagrees about the significance of those criticisms when compared to the bigger picture.


John Hooper was the bishop of Gloucester and then Worcester but is very frequently thought of as a sort of proto-Puritan or even, in the words of Richard Watson Dixon, one of the “first authors of non-conformity.” Hooper enjoyed a close relationship with Heinrich Bullinger, and was affiliated with Reformed names like Martin Bucer, Jan Laski, and Peter Martyr Vermigli. With this sort of introduction, one would expect strong support for Hooper from John Calvin.

Calvin wrote to Bullinger in 1551, shortly after Hooper’s consecration (though Calvin was likely not yet aware that Hooper had submitted and thus been released from captivity). He discusses the nature of Hooper’s protest, writing:

Meanwhile, we have heard the sad news of Hooper’s imprisonment. I was somewhat apprehensive of this long ago. I am now afraid that the bishops, as if victorious, will become much more ferociously insolent. While, therefore, I admire his firmness in refusing the anointing, I had rather he had not carried his opposition so far with respect to the cap and the linen vestment, even although I do not approve of these: I recently recommended this. He has many and powerful adversaries, and I doubt not but they will set themselves violently to crush him. But I trust that the Lord will be with him, especially because, as I am informed, some treacherously oppose him, who in other respects pretend to be favourable to the Gospel.

Clearly, Calvin’s sympathies lie with Hooper. But notice the qualification. Calvin agrees that the anointing with oil in consecration is worth dissent, but he does not believe that “the cap and the linen vestment” rise to the same level. Calvin has decried the use of oil in some of his other comments on the English liturgy, but clerical clothing is not as significant. This position is essentially the same as that of Bullinger and Peter Martyr.

Calvin on the Troubles at Frankfurt

Frankfurt was a city of refuge for the Marian exiles, and it holds a place of significance in Anglican history because of the controversy over liturgy which broke out between two rival English parties. One party, associated with John Knox, argued for replacing the Book of Common Prayer with a newer liturgy, whereas the other party defended the BCP. Frankfurt was of interest to Calvin for several reasons, as it was the location of a French exile church as well as the English. Calvin wrote several letters to Frankfurt, most of which were concerned with the French situation. He did interact with the English concerns, however, and this gives us one more way to understand his point of view on “Anglican” matters.

(But first, Wesel)

The first relevant letter on this topic is actually a letter to the exiles in Wesel. Wesel is a city in northwestern Germany and the initial home of the French Protestants who had been meeting in exile in London but then fled to the continent. Many of them would later move on to Frankfurt. Just as would happen in Frankfurt, the Reformed Protestants in Wesel fell into controversy over liturgical ceremonies. The city was dominated by Lutherans, and the Reformed were unsure as to what extent they could submit to certain distinctives which they found offensive. Again, this anticipates some of the troubles at Frankfurt, and so Calvin’s instructions to Wesel are in consonance with what he will later say to Frankfurt. He gave them this advice:

With regard to the form to be observed in receiving the sacraments, it is not without reason that you entertain doubts and scruples, for nothing is better than to abide by that pure simplicity which we hold from the Son of God, whose ordinance ought to be our single rule, to which also the usage of the Apostles was perfectly conformable. And indeed the moment we deviate ever so little from it, our admixture of human invention cannot fail to be a corruption. But it seems to us that your condition is different from that of the pastors of the place and the great body of the people. If the pastors did their duty, they would employ all their endeavours to retrench those superfluities which do not tend to edification, or rather which serve to obscure the clearness of the gospel. The governors on their part would also do well to see to it. It is a vice to be condemned so far as they are concerned, that they keep up these unmeaning mummeries— which are, as it were, a residue of Popish superstitions, the recollection of which we should strive as much as in us lies to exterminate. But in your capacity of private individuals, not only you may lawfully, but what is more, you should support and suffer such abuses as it is not in your power to correct.

This framing is important for our larger study. Calvin clearly agrees with the objections. He would prefer that certain liturgical errors be done away with, and his preferred liturgy is simpler than the Lutheran order. But he also make an important point about authority. It is one thing to hold an office of authority and to be able to make appropriate changes in an orderly manner. It is another thing to be a private individual, or to be a temporary resident abiding in a foreign location. In such cases where one does not have the jurisdiction and responsibility, then they should “support and suffer such abuses.”

Before exploring more on how one is justified in submitting to and subjecting one’s self to certain liturgical error, we first need to understand the nature of that error. What are these abuses which Calvin has in mind? They are “a residue of Popish superstitions,” but what exactly are they?

Calvin goes on to list “lighted candles in the celebration of the eucharist,” “figured bread,” and “chasuble[s]” among those things which are not so indifferent as to which he could “approve of them,” but nevertheless still indifferent enough for the faithful to be able “to accomodate ourselves to the use of them, where they have already been established, when we have no authority to oppose them.” Calvin is clear that he would not adopt these things, “but should our lot be cast in some place where a different form prevails, there is not one of us who… would consent to separate himself from the body of the church, and so deprive himself of the use of the sacrament.” He adds that we should not “scandalize” those who currently employ such adiaphora. The basic fact that Calvin could allow for adiaphora is not surprising, but few readers would suppose that he would include the chasuble among such things indifferent. Depending on the local situation, however, that’s exactly what Calvin does.

Indeed, these errors “do not affect the substance of the faith.” They are error enough for Calvin to prefer that they be done away with, but since they are non-essential, he can say that “it is perfectly lawful for the children of God to submit to many things of which they do not approve.” He adds this rule for clarification: “we ought to make mutual concessions in all ceremonies, that do not involve any prejudice to the confession of our faith, and for this end that the unity of the church be not destroyed by our excessive rigour or moroseness.” When it comes to best practice, they “ought by all honest means to preserve the greatest sobriety possible,” but if other factors make this goal too difficult, or impossible, to achieve, the people should submit to the local customs and ceremonies so long as they “do not yield to a faulty pliancy in the confession of your faith,” nor make any “compromise as to doctrine.”

This distinction between “ceremony” and “doctrine” is one that Calvin regularly makes. He will also contrast ceremony with “worship.” When it comes to doctrine and worship, Calvin believes that we are wholly bound to the word of God. We cannot require others to go beyond the Scriptures, nor should we ourselves engage in man-made will-worship. However, particular ceremonies which are used as aids to worship must necessarily involve some human craft and custom, and here we can disagree and even submit to faulty practices, on the condition that we are not required to affirm these as doctrine or worship in themselves. This framework will be very important for the situation in Frankfurt.


Turning our focus to the more famous situation in Frankfurt, we should understand that there were actually three distinct controversies in that city. There was the larger context of Reformed exiles in a Lutheran city. This was always the most dangerous controversy. The city magistrates could, at any time, decide to expel the Reformed. Then there was a controversy within the French exiles, some of whom had come from Wesel. In Calvin’s letters to the French exiles, the dominant controversy surrounds ministerial succession. The French could not agree on a new pastor, and Calvin spends a good amount of time urging them to accept the results of the new election. And then the third controversy, which most interests us, is the troubles among the English.

A helpful survey of what happened in Frankfurt may be found here. Some of the important names associated with the controversy are John Knox on the one side, who was himself the pastor of this congregation for a season and a critic of the earlier liturgy used back in England, and Edmund Grindal and John Jewel, men who exerted important influence and would come away from the controversy more determined to preserve the Edwardian prayerbook tradition when they returned to England. Calvin writes several letters which are relevant to this controversy, some directly to the church at Frankfurt, a later one to Knox, and even a later one to Grindal.

To begin, we will look at Calvin’s letters to the English church at Frankfurt. He first writes to them on January 13, 1555 (a document listed as Letter 380). He opens his letter with a lecture over his disappointment that they have allowed a dispute over ceremonies to divide them. He says, “This indeed grievously afflicts me and is highly absurd, that discord is springing up among brethren who are for the same faith exiles and fugitives from their country; and for a cause indeed which in your dispersion should like a sacred bond have held you closely united.” This is a dispute which, in Calvin’s opinion, should never have happened. He adds, “this is really too unreasonable.”

As Calvin continues, it becomes clear that he places most of the blame with the prayerbook party. He speaks dismissively of certain elements of the older English liturgy, and he wishes that the English would use their new opportunity of exile to move beyond the earlier compromised settlement. He continues to believe the issues are technically “indifferent matters,” but precisely because of this, he thinks people should be willing to both give and take. “Though in indifferent matters, such as are external rites, I shew myself indulgent and pliable,” Calvin writes, “at the same time, I do not deem it expedient always to comply with the foolish captiousness of those who will not give up a single point of their usual routine.” He will return to this point later, counselling Knox’s party not to be too rigorous towards the “weak,” but also arguing that those weak ought not to be too complacent, ignorant, or stubborn.

With not a little irony, at least for modern readers, Calvin places himself in the middle position of moderation, and he criticizes the “Anglicans” for being too intransigent. From here, he launches into what certainly appears to be a direct attack on the prayerbook liturgy:

In the Anglican liturgy, such as you describe it to me, I see that there were many silly things that might be tolerated. By this phrase I mean that it did not possess that purity which was to be desired. The faults, however, which could not straightway be corrected on the first day, if there lurked under them no manifest impiety, were to be endured for a time. Thus then it was lawful to begin from such rudiments, but still, so that it might be proper for learned grave and virtuous ministers of Christ to proceed farther and prune away unsightly excrescences, and aim at something purer. If undefiled religion had flourished up to this moment in England, there would have been a necessity for having many things corrected for the better and many others lopped off. Now, that these first beginnings having been destroyed, a church is to be built up by you elsewhere, and you are at liberty to compose anew the form which will seem best adapted for the use and edification of that church.

Calvin’s principles are here the same. The errors he sees were tolerable up to a point. They did not damage the essence of religion. Still, they were “rudiments” which should have been perfected in due time. Since the English exiles now find themselves in another setting, with new liberties, they should feel free to move beyond the limitations of the earlier English settlement.

Calvin’s comments on the “Anglican liturgy,” an expression which here simply means the established English worship at the time, are quite critical. He has already called it “silly,” and then he says its strictest defenders “take such delight in the scum and dregs of Papistry.” This language shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value, however. First, Calvin has mentioned that his comments are aimed at the Anglican liturgy “such as you describe it to me.” This means he is responding to the report he has received from Knox, that is, from the critical point of view. A second reason to treat Calvin’s comments with a measure of skepticism is that he follows them up with a qualification that Knox’s proposed replacement “differs greatly from a total change.” So, if pressed strictly, we would have Calvin saying that the proper liturgy to use is one that is not a total change from the “scum and dregs of Papistry.” This is polemical rhetoric, and it appears mainly addressed to Knox’s party. Finally, this isn’t the last word from Calvin on the matter.

Calvin writes another letter concerning the English situation in Frankfurt on June 12, 1555 (Letter 404). This letter is more than a little surprising—confusing, even. The English translation has it addressed to John Knox, but in it Calvin describes Knox in a manner entirely inconsistent with what else we know about the Frankfurt dispute. Calvin has Knox as the one who “insisted so peremptorily on the Anglican ceremonies” that it showed him “more wedded to the usages of [his] country than is fitting.” Indeed, Calvin claims that Knox would not deviate from “a received form.” A second problem is that Calvin’s letter to Knox is actually dated after Knox has been expelled from Frankfurt. It’s possible that Calvin simply hasn’t heard the news yet, but his letter also speaks as if the controversy has been settled. Something is off here.

What seems more likely is that Calvin’s Letter 404 is mistitled. It is more likely about John Knox. This can be seen in this section from Calvin’s letter:

This indeed I do not dissemble, that in my opinion N. was neither piously nor fraternally dealt with, if it is true, that at the clandestine suggestions of certain persons, he had criminal charges brought against him. For it was better to remain in one’s country than to carry into distant regions the brands of unjust cruelty, to inflame even those who were averse to discord. But as I am loth to allude even slightly to faults of which I would have the recollection buried in perpetual forgetfulness, I shall only exhort you venerable brethren, if you shall find the minds of any still sore from rankling feelings, that you will do your best to appease their resentment.

This description can only make sense if “N.” is Knox and Calvin is writing to the remaining faction– the prayerbook party. Viewed in that light, Calvin is criticizing them for the way they handled Knox, and it is they who were too insistent on the received forms of the Anglican liturgy. This fits. How to explain the error in the title must be left to those with some knowledge of the original manuscript and its text-criticism.

And so Calvin is still sympathetic to Knox and feels like the “Anglican” party gave him a raw deal. But this letter provides key detail as to the nature of the offensive elements. Calvin writes:

Certainly no one I think who is possessed of a sound judgment, will deny that lighted tapers, and crucifixes, and other trumpery of the same description, flow from superstition. Whence I lay it down for certain, that those who from free choice retain these things, are but too eager to drink from polluted dregs. Nor do I see for what reason a church should be burdened with these frivolous and useless, not to call them by their real name, pernicious ceremonies, when a pure and simple order of worship is in our power.

So these are the dregs of Papistry to which Calvin is opposed. They are very much in line with the things that he has criticized in some of his earlier correspondences: candles, crucifixes, and “other trumpery.”

It’s also worth noting that even with the criticism, Calvin nonetheless speaks of this English faction as “respected brethren.” He is sorry for Knox, but he also implores the English at Frankfurt to carry on. He still views them as a true Reformed church, even if they did not make the same choice he would have.

Later Letters to Knox and Grindal

Calvin continued to write to men from both of the parties from Frankfurt. We have two other letters to Knox, this time accurately addressed, and we also have a letter from Calvin to Edmund Grindal. These are interesting in that they show how Calvin continued to have a relationship with both men. They also continue to demonstrate his attitude towards certain “Anglican” concerns.

First, to Knox. Calvin wrote to Knox on Nov. 7, 1559. The letter is actually a reply questions Knox has sent to him. Some of these questions have to do with baptism. Calvin affirms that children of “idolaters” and of those who have been excommunicated should be baptized. He says that the broader family heritage still warrants the baptism of these children. “To us then it is by no means doubtful that an offspring descended from holy and pious ancestors, belong to the body of the church, though their fathers and grandfathers may have been apostates.” In the process of explaining this, Calvin maintains that the child must have some relative “pledge his faith to the church that he will undertake the task of instructing the infant.” Thus we have a case of a “sponsor.” The child’s parents are not fit candidates to pledge their faith, and so some other relative may do so for the sake of the child. “[W]e see no reason for rejecting any child for whom a due pledge has been given.” He adds that the parents should be the “first sponsors” and that such a state ought to be the long-term goal. But in the meanwhile, Calvin is willing to accept other sponsors for the child. He concludes, “In the mean time, therefore, waiting till greater progress have been made, and discipline have gained strength, let children be admitted to baptism on the condition we have mentioned, viz: that their sponsors engage that they will make it their business to have them brought up in the principles of a pious and uncorrupted religion.”

Calvin’s next letter to Knox comes in April of 1561. There is evidently another controversy, as Calvin mentions certain Scotsmen who have taken issue with Knox’s approach to reform. His sympathy is still with Knox, but Calvin also alludes to a regrettable fear that Knox may have taken issue with certain comments from Calvin. “It grieves me that anything which has fallen from my lips should have made such an impression on your mind, as to lead you to suppose that you were taxed with craft or bad faith, things which I judge the most alien to your character.” One wonders what exactly Calvin said about Knox.

After this reassurance, Calvin goes on to celebrate the successes Knox has had in Scotland. “I rejoice exceedingly, as you may easily suppose, that the gospel has made such rapid and happy progress among you.” Still, Calvin also advises Knox towards greater moderation in his reforming campaign. Calvin writes, “With regard to ceremonies, I trust, even should you displease many, that you will moderate your rigour.” This is certainly interesting. After issuing a soft apology for potential past criticisms, Calvin is here asking Knox to tone things down. He goes on to say that “of course,” it is Knox’s duty “to see that the church be purged of all defilements which flow from error and superstition,” but Calvin also gives this qualification: “But with this exception, you are well aware that certain things should be tolerated even if you do not quite approve of them.” In Calvin’s opinion, Knox would do well to take a middle way.

We also have a letter from Calvin to “the bishop of London” in May of 1560. The bishop at that time was Edmund Grindal, the future archbishop of Canterbury and the man who had opposed Knox in Frankfurt. The main topic of that letter involves the appointment of a minister for the French strangers church in London. Grindal has secured this church’s ability to seek a minister for itself and he has asked Calvin to suggest a candidate. Calvin offered Nicholas des Gallars, who went on to become the pastor of the French congregation in London.

Towards the end of this letter Calvin again issues a criticism of the state of the church in England. He writes, “It is a matter of deep regret that the churches of your whole kingdom have not yet been organized as all good men could wish, and as in the beginning they had hoped.” But before we react too strongly, a footnote alerts us to the fact that it was Grindal himself who had initiated this line of conversation. In his letter to Calvin, in March of 1560, Grindal had written, “I commend to your prayers, and those of the other brethren, the state of our churches, not yet settled sufficiently according to our mind.” Thus Calvin is agreeing with the bishop. He goes on to encourage both the bishop and Queen Elizabeth to continue with the work of reformation. He says that if the Queen does not use earthly domination but rather supports the church, then she will have true “supremacy and preeminence.” Calvin then concludes with this encomium to Grindal and benediction, “But as neither your wisdom stands in need of counsel, nor your magnanimity of incitements, I shall only have recourse to prayers and supplicate God, my most excellent and honoured sir…” Even with criticisms of the English church, Calvin respects the bishop of London and views him as a brother and partner in the ministry.


We must now bring our survey of Calvin and the Church of England to a close. We have covered a span of time from the early days of King Edward VI to the reign of Elizabeth I. Throughout, Calvin has demonstrated a fairly consistent attitude. He believes the Church of England is a true Reformed church but one which needs to continue reforming to reach a purer state. He says this to Cranmer. He says this to various English magistrates. He says this to the English at Frankfurt. He says this to Bishop Grindal.

But when Calvin specifies the errors he sees in the Anglican church, he does not name the essential markers of the 1662 Anglican settlement. Calvin does not tell them to reject episcopacy. He does not say that the Book of Common Prayer is illegitimate. He does not talk about the liturgical calendar, nor kneeling at Communion. And when it comes to certain vestments, he clearly says they are adiaphora. What Calvin believes are intolerable are the liturgical use of candles, crucifixes, oils for ordination, and prayers for the saints. He also believes that the church must promote the preaching of the word and thus an educated clergy.

When it comes to ceremonial matters which are of an indifferent nature, Calvin is clear about his preference. He personally believes that many of these items should be done away with in favor of simplicity. However, he believes that this process must be done in an orderly fashion. Those who do not possess the authority or jurisdiction should continue to submit even when they disagree. They ought not break the unity of the church over outward forms. To those in authority, Calvin believes that they should follow a moderate course of reform, not risking the larger good of the church through too much rigor in either direction.

Though it might be too sweeping a summary, we could say that Calvin is “Puritan” in personal tastes and eventual goals but that he is “Anglican” in basic principles and ecclesiastical polity. And while perhaps not every instance of his preferred further reformation was accomplished, a good amount was. For instance, Cranmer himself began educating the laity and teaching them to preach. This continued even more so during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. The 1662 BCP has no prayers for the saints. Neither does it have candles in its rubrics. The Ordinal prescribes no anointing with oil. Had he lived another century, Calvin would have gotten most of what he asked for.

But even quite apart from that long-term evaluation, Calvin’s argument about authority and moderation is entirely consistent with the principles espoused by Cranmer, Hooker, and, yes, Durel. When read carefully, Calvin is a friend to classical Anglicans.


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