Brandon Davies

Provo…The New Geneva

Forum paper from Church History on John Calvin’s Geneva and the rules by which the city was run…

Describe Calvin’s Geneva. Could you conceive of such a society today? Why or why not?

Upon his return to Geneva (1541) until his death in 1563, John Calvin sought to institute social and moral reforms within the city. Calvin worked with city officials to pass a series of laws called the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which established the Consistory, a court of sorts that would oversee these moral and social reforms. Some forms of punishment for breaking the moral code included a public repentance, attending religious services, receiving additional religious education, and even excommunication (if only for a short period).

The Consistory was comprised of Calvin himself, the pastors, and twelve “lay” elders. According to Gonzalez, Calvin held sway with his personal authority over most matters even though he and the pastors would be out-numbered 2-1. (González 1984, 82-83)
The Consistory heard a broad range of cases and summoned many citizens from both the city and rural areas to appear before the group. Such issues as domestic quarrels, fornication, public drunkenness, fraud, gambling, and superstition (among many others) were brought before the Consistory. In the first two years of the Consistory, half of the 800 people who were summoned to appear were questioned about their church attendance and knowledge of their prayers.

Nearly that same percentage of people who were called for reasons other than orthodoxy was asked the same questions. (Watt 1993, 430) In 1542, one official mandated that all women, children and servants in his district would attend catechism so that they could be well instructed in religion and orthodoxy. (Ibid, 432)

Interestingly, in the first fifteen years of the Consistory, the primary focus was on religious orthodoxy, but following those years the Consistory moved more toward strictly enforcing the moral codes of the Ordinances. (Monter 1976, 479) Of the total number of urban excommunications between 1564 and 1569 (the years following Calvin’s death), a full 47.3% of them were for one of three offences, over 75% deal with the top seven offences none of which were religion-based. (Ibid) It is not until you get to number eight on the list do you see the entry of “superstition,” which deals with orthodoxy, etc.

Rural excommunications in Geneva 1564-1569
Rank Offnece Excommunications Percentage of Total
1 ”Scandals” 347 18%
2 Domestic quarrels 302 15.8%
3 Quarrels with others 258 13.5%
4 Fornication 160 8.4%
5 Rebellion to elders 151 7.9%
6 Quarrels with kin 126 6.6%
7 Drunkenness 102 5.3%
8 ”Superstition” 69

Source: Monter 1976

In addition to moral codes, the Consistory also seemed intent to make marriages work. In some cases to force the wedding ceremony of betrothed couples, other times to slow down the process. Mostly, however, the Consistory was called upon to resolve domestic quarrelling and stave-off divorce or separation. The occasional divorce was granted though, as in the following cases from Monter’s article:

“…to a peasant woman whose husband had deserted her to fight in Flanders; to a city woman whose husband finally admitted he was impotent; and to a peasant whose wife had run off with a mule-driver.” (Ibid, 473)

It would seem that Calvin’s Geneva is not a place where the modern person would want to live, but we do see places with similar practices even in the United States today.
On 3 March 2011, the sporting world was rocked with the announcement that BYU basketball player Brandon Davies had been suspended from the team for violating the school’s Honor Code, a week before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Brandon Davies had premarital sex with his girlfriend. Part of BYU’s Honor Code states:

“Students must abstain from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal substances and from the intentional misuse or abuse of any substance. Sexual misconduct; obscene or indecent conduct or expressions; disorderly or disruptive conduct; participation in gambling activities; involvement with pornographic, erotic, indecent, or offensive material; and any other conduct or action inconsistent with the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Honor Code is not permitted.” (BYU 2011)

The BYU Honor Code governs how students must conduct themselves both on campus and off. BYU’s Honor Code is meant to be an advertisement of counter-cultural piety with which other institutions struggle as well. (Cosh 2011) This is a very similar situation to the moral and social ordinances of Calvin’s Geneva. BYU’s Honor Code goes further than just conduct, it governs how students must dress, groom, keep their apartment/dorm, and speak (polite, please). Keeping in good standing with the Honor Code is a requirement for enrollment and graduation from BYU. Furthermore, students attending BYU do so voluntarily. In Calvin’s Geneva,
excommunications were given primarily for limited periods of time, so too with Honor Code suspensions. Many other religious universities and colleges have similar codes of conduct to which students must submit, again, voluntarily. Could Calvin’s Geneva exist in today’s world? Yes, it already does.


BYU. 2011. Cosh, Colby. 2011. “WHERE SEX IS A FLAGRANT FOUL.” Maclean’s no. 124 (10):28-28.

González, Justo L. 1984. The Reformation to the present day. 1st ed, The Story of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Monter, E. William. 1976. “THE CONSISTORY OF GENEVA, 1559-1569.” Biblioth®que d’Humanisme et Renaissance no. 38 (3):467-484.

Watt, Jeffrey R. 1993. “Women and the Consistory in Calvin’s Geneva.” The Sixteenth Century Journal no. 24 (2):429-439.