In the 1550’s Geneva witnessed an influx of French refugees into the city. William Naphy has argued that this influx, and the growing influence of these French religious refugees was the single most common complaint in Geneva during this period. (Naphy, 121) Prior to the influx of politically powerful French refugees, there was an influx of poor refugees. For example, in October 1538-1539 Geneva’s city hospital assisted 10,657 poor strangers as they passed through the city. Naphy notes that this number does not even include Genevans who would have been attended to by the hospital. (Naphy, 122)
Regularly the hospital would have been charged with the city’s poor. The hospital would be expected to take care of the sick in the hospital, deal with outpatients as well as people who were housed in the hospital, including orphans. In addition to these ministrations , the hospital had a bread baking ministry in which bread cooked in the hospital ovens was weekly distributed to the poor at their homes. (Olson, 164)
Naphy also notes that by the close of 1543 a clear pattern began to emerge between the city and these refugees. Geneva was willing to help strangers when able to do so, but when resources were strained the city itself pulled back on giving direct help. It seems as though this lack of resources, which were provided by the city hospital, were filled by several Bourses or funds specifically created by the foreign residents of Geneva in order to take care of the poorer refugees entering the city. These funds were formed by French, Italian, and German ethnic groups and — as Olson writes with respect to the French Fund — it seems as though Calvin “had a direct hand in its formation (the French Bourse)….[being] regularly involved through his contributions and recommendations to poor people to seek out the fund for help.” (Olson 165)
Calvin’s work with the French Bourse reveals something about the role that the church ought to play in social concerns. It has been said that for Calvin, care for the poor was practically the fourth mark of the church. This claim especially comes to light when Calvin and the company of pastors make the administrators of the French Bourse deacons. The fact that these administrators were made deacons is important because it reveals Calvin’s dissatisfaction with the current diaconate. According to Calvin, deacons are those whom the church has appointed to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor. (Tuininga, 239) Prior to the growth of the Bourse system the term deacon primarily applied to the procureurs and hospitalliers of the city hospital, however applying the term deacon to these roles was fairly complicated because the hospital was responsible to the city council. In the 1543 edition of the Institutes Calvin argues that the work of deacons is not to be understood as a part of civil government: ‘it was not secular management that they were undertaking but a spiritual function dedicated to God’” (Tuininga, 242). The Hospital, in the 1540’s, was run by “deacons” but reported to the city councils, and leadership was designated by the councils. This arrangement was not in line with Calvin’s vision of the diaconate. On the other hand, the Bourses were operated solely by the deacons under the oversight of the church without any involvement from the civil magistrates, and were considered ministers of the church. (Tuininga, 243)
How exactly did these deacons address social concerns? They provided hospitality to travelers, medical care for the sick, temporary support for the unemployed, long term support for widows, and job training for orphans. The work of the Bourse “presents a clear example of the type of work that Calvin believed the church was called to do for the needy, without any cooperation with civil government.” (Tuininga, 244)
What exactly does Calvin’s preference for working alongside of the Bourse as opposed to the procureurs and hospitalliers reveal about his understanding of “care for the poor as a fourth mark of the church?” It shows that Calvin believed that the ministry of the diaconate, which was to care for the poor, properly belonged to the church as opposed to being “outsourced” to some other entity. Care for the poor was a responsibility that the church itself had, and could not and should not simply and over to some other body. Although other entities ought to be commended for taking care of the poor, the church has failed if it does not do something to relieve the plight of the poor. This is why Calvin says “we must begin at the end, that is to say, there must be ministers to preach the doctrine of salvation purely, there must be deacons to have care for the poor.” Does this mean that Calvin saw care for the poor as a fourth mark of the church? Probably not, however what it does mean is that the church is somehow deficient (as opposed to not the church at all) if it lacks a means for taking care of the poor.
Calvin’s understanding of how the poor ought to be cared for extends beyond discussion of the city hospital or even the distribution of the Bourse funds in Geneva. Calvin was under the impression that care for the poor is actually a requirement of natural law. Tuininga argues that Calvin interprets relief for the poor as a requirement of nature’s law of equity in other words, this law of equity is not grounded in the gospel but in the order of creation. (Tuininga, 227-8) Thus Calvin can say “this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right, if their hunger is not relieved.” How does Calvin believe that this law of equity is enforced? It is enforced by rulers and authorities. Thus he argues that “a just and well regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” (Tuininga, 230) Governments are charged with taking care of the poor and needy. They ought to build poorhouses, hospitals, and schools, they ought to prohibit laws that harm the poor and hinder them from making their way out of their condition. If a government fails to perform their obligations to the poor they are liable to God’s judgement. Not only this, but they are worthy of criticism from the church, in fact Calvin was known for harshly criticizing specific governments for failing to perform their obligations to the poor.
The fact that Calvin was willing to criticize not only local magistrates but also kings and foreign governments illustrates Heiko Oberman’s thesis in Europa Afflicta. There Oberman shows that Calvin’s reformation moves beyond merely city reformation, aiming at a larger reformation that takes all of Europe into account. According to Oberman Calvin did not serve a parish, a territory, or a country. (Oberman, 103) He saw himself as being called to minister by God, and not by any city council or King. Thus he had the authority and responsibility to seek the welfare of all Christians even if that brought him into conflict with those in power. This international awareness is why Calvin can warn against the territorial hunger of the German emperor and the expansionism of the French King. (Oberman, 105) Calvin explicitly warned that as kings become more powerful, the poor would suffer more. However, kings are not above the law, “If a king wants to be regarded as legitimate and as a servant of God he has to show that he is a true father for his people.” (Oberman quoting Calvin, 107) Calvin was concerned for the welfare of the poor, especially poor Christians, not only in Geneva, but in Europe as a whole.
From what we have seen above — namely, Calvin’s concern that the church fulfills its role in taking care of the poor and that civil governments fulfill natural law in taking care of the poor — we see that for Calvin social concern is a topic that the church not only involves itself in but also speaks up about. Contemporary evangelicals, especially in the United States, ought to take notice that John Calvin himself (not a mainline liberal) believes that the church is not fully the church when it is not taking care of the poor. It ought to take notice that Calvin himself believed that the church had the responsibility of speaking truth to power, because the church lives as refugees in this world. Thus if evangelical churches are going to be true to their reformation heritage they would do well to reexamine how Calvin approached social concerns.
 Tuininga notes that in the earlier years Calvin was the most generous single contributor the the French Bourse.
One thought on “How John Calvin Dealt with Refugees and the Poor”
Reblogged this on A Man from Issachar and commented:
In response to the messages and panel discussions of the TGC/ERLC MLK50 Conference, some might be tempted to think that the organizers and speakers were promoting a “social gospel.” Of course, a “social gospel” would not be the Gospel, but a false gospel. I did not hear a false gospel at the conference. Rather, what I heard is that those redeemed by the work of Christ in his death and resurrection live out the Gospel, including its implications for affecting racial tensions and unity in American society and the evangelical church in America.
Rather than making a Gospel vs. “social” dichotomy, John Calvin saw addressing social concerns in Geneva as an outworking of the Gospel. I think Calvin set an example to be followed both in his practice (e.g., concern for the poor), and his theology—that the church – those transformed by the Gospel – should care about ills in the society around them. To that end, I am glad to reblog, “How John Calvin Dealt with Refugees and The Poor,” by @CWoznicki.