To the Women Facing Persecution (Calvin, 1557)

During the mid- to late-16th century there was much persecution of Protestant Christians in France. For one example, in 1572 between 5,000 and 10,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) were killed in Paris and other larger French cities on August 23-24. This mass persecution is called the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. There are other examples of such persecution in post-Reformation France.

Speaking of this persecution, in September 1557, John Calvin wrote two letters to the persecuted church in France. One of those letters was specifically addressed to Christian women who were in prison for their profession of faith. This letter was meant to encourage those battered women to stand firm in the faith despite persecution. This letter also shows that Calvin did not have a low view of women. In fact, he tells these women not to be discouraged if they are “lightly esteemed” by men because God has “no respect either of male or female.” This post is a bit longer than usual because the whole letter is quite edifying and worth reading. I’ve edited it slightly. Here it is:

I do not wonder, dearly beloved sisters, if you are astounded by these hard assaults, and feel the natural repugnance of the flesh which resists so much the more as God wills to work in you by his Holy Spirit. If men are frail and easily troubled, the frailty of your sex is yet greater by reason indeed of your natural constitution. But God who works in frail vessels, knows well how to display his strength in the infirmity of his followers. Wherefore it is to him it behoves you to have recourse, invoking him continually and praying him that the incorruptible seed, which he has sown in you, and by which he has adopted you to be in the number of his children, may bring forth its fruits in time of need, and that thereby you may be strengthened to bear up against all anguish and affliction.

You know the saying of St. Paul: God has chosen the foolish things of this word to confound the wise, and the weak things to cast down the strong; and those things which are despised and of no account to destroy the proud and the lofty. This it is which should give you great encouragement in order that the consideration of your sex cause you not to fail, though it is often lightly esteemed of men….

You see that the truth of God, wherever it is found, is the object of their hatred; and it is not less detested by them, in men than in women, in the learned than in the ignorant, in the rich than in the poor, in the great than in the little. If they avail themselves of sex or external condition to fall more furiously upon us, (as we see in what derision they hold women and poor artisans, as if these had no right to speak of God and learn the way of their salvation,) know that such conduct is a testimony against them and to their utter confusion.

But since it has pleased God to call you as well as men, (for he has no respect either of male or female,) it is needful that you do your duty to give him glory, according to the measure of grace he has dealt out to you as well as the greatest personages whom he has endowed with knowledge and courage. Since Jesus Christ has died for you, and through him you hope for salvation, having been baptized in his name, you must not shrink from rendering him the honor that belongs to him. Since we have a common salvation in him, it is necessary that all with one accord, men as well as women, should maintain his cause.

When he calls us to do battle, and puts us to the test before the enemy, it serves us nothing to allege our weakness as an excuse for abandoning or denying him….. For he who marshals us to battle, arms and shields us at the same time with the necessary weapons, and gives us dexterity in wielding them. Our sole task then is to accept them and allow ourselves to be governed by him. He has promised to give us a mouth and wisdom, which our enemies will not be able to gainsay. He has promised to give firmness and constancy to those who put their trust in him. He has shed his Spirit on all flesh, and caused to prophesy sons and daughters, as he had foretold by his prophet Joel; which is evidently a sign that he communicates in like manner his other necessary graces, and leaves neither sons nor daughters, men nor women, destitute of the gifts proper for maintaining his glory….

Consider what was the courage and constancy of women at the death of our Lord Jesus Christ; when the apostles had forsaken him, how they continued by him with marvellous constancy, and how a woman was the messenger to announce to the apostles his resurrection, which the latter could neither believe nor comprehend. If he then so honoured women, and endowed them with so much courage, think ye he has less power now, or that his purposes are changed? How many thousands of women have there been who have spared neither their blood nor their lives to maintain the name of Jesus Christ, and announce his reign! Has not God caused their martyrdom to fructify? Has their faith not obtained the glory of the world as well as that of martyrs? And without going so far, have we not still before our eyes, examples of how God works daily by their testimony, and confounds his enemies, in such a manner that there is no preaching of such efficacy as the fortitude and perseverance, which they possess in confessing the name of Christ? …Set before you, then, these noble exemplars, both ancient and recent, to strengthen your weakness, and teach you to repose on Him who has performed such great things by weak vessels; and recognize the honour which he has done you, in order that you may suffer yourselves to be led to him, being confident that he is powerful to preserve your life, if he wishes yet to make use of it, or if it is his will to exchange it for a better, you are most blessed in employing this perishable existence for his glory at so high a price, and with the as, sured hope of living eternally with him….

John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 6, p. 363-366.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015