Calvin's Fawning Over a 13-Year-Old Head of the Church of England

John Calvin condemned Catholic boy bishops, but he engaged in ludicrous fawning over King Edward VI of England, who was then all of 13 years old.

Unknown Artist, ‘Edward VI of England’, ca. 1546
Unknown Artist, ‘Edward VI of England’, ca. 1546 (photo: Register Files)

Early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564) rightly condemned Catholic boy bishops:

But the most absurd thing of all is, that even boys scarcely ten years of age are, by the permission of the Pope, made bishops. Such is the effrontery and stupidity to which they have arrived, that they have no dread even of that last and monstrous iniquity, which is altogether abhorrent even from natural feeling.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 5, section 1)

Despite that, in his Commentary on Isaiah (1550), he engaged in ludicrous flowery, flattering, fawning language with regard to King Edward VI of England, who was then all of 13 years old. It’s fascinating to examine, then, what Calvin expressed about a mere boy being the head of the “Church of England” (one often compared by hopeful Protestants -- including Calvin -- to King Josiah of ancient Israel, who ascended to the throne at age eight):

God has raised you up and endowed you with such excellent abilities and dispositions for defending the cause of godliness,  . . .

Not only are you celebrated for possessing a noble disposition, and some seeds of virtues, (which at so early an age is usually thought to be remarkable,) but for a maturity of those virtues far beyond your years, which would be singularly admired, as well as praised, at a very advanced age. Your piety especially is so highly applauded, that the Prophet Isaiah, I am fully convinced, will have one that will regard him with as much reverence, now that he is dead, as Hezekiah did when he was alive. . . .

And here I expressly call upon you, most excellent King, or rather, God himself addresses you by the mouth of his servant Isaiah, charging you to proceed, to the utmost of your ability and power, in carrying forward the restoration of the Church, which has been so successfully begun in your kingdom. . . .

It is of high importance, most noble King, that you should be stimulated to activity by the consideration of the duty enjoined on you; for Isaiah exhorts all kings and magistrates, in the person of Cyrus, to stretch forth their hand to the Church, when in distress, to restore her to her former condition. Yet there is this difference between your condition and that of Cyrus, that he who was a stranger to the Lord’s flock never was expressly taught freely and willingly to come forward and undertake to be a defender of the Church; but to you, to whom the Lord has not only given adoption, but has likewise assigned a distinguished place among his sons, the Prophet may be said to stretch out his hand and call you to this office. So much the more boldly and resolutely ought you, noble King, to proceed in this course.

Less than a month later, on 24 January 1551, Calvin also dedicated his Commentary on the General Epistles to the boy-king, with the following absurd sentiments:

And as interpreters of Scripture, according to their opportunity, are to supply weapons to fight against Antichrist, so also you must bear in mind that it is a duty which belongs to your Majesty, to vindicate from unworthy calumnies the true and genuine interpretation of Scripture, so that pure religion may flourish. . . . the heroic greatness of your mind far surpasses the measure of your age, . . .

See also his fawning accompanying letter of January 1551.

Despite his derision of the notion of young boys running a diocese, Calvin had no problem at all with a nine-year-old king (Edward VI) ascending to the throne of England and assuming the headship of the “church” in that entire country. Thus, when an “absurd” thing like this served his ends of so-called “reform” Calvin was all for it, while he mocked boy-bishops in the Catholic Church.

A Catholic need not fall into either error. We oppose kings as head of the Church, in any way, shape, or form, no matter how young (or old) they are, and we think boy-bishops are a ridiculous state of affairs as well. But we don't mock one thing as a corruption while praising an even more extreme instance of the same thing to the skies, and pretending that such a boy-king has a special charism of the Holy Spirit.

Calvin would utterly condemn it if a Catholic made a similar argument regarding popes being specially led by the Holy Spirit. One can only stand so much rank hypocrisy. It was, sadly, typical of many early Protestant leaders, to hold one standard for Catholics, and another for themselves.

Another such letter followed, on the 4th of July, 1552:

It is therefore an invaluable privilege that God has vouchsafed you, Sire, to be a Christian king, to serve as his lieutenant in ordering and maintaining the kingdom of Jesus Christ in England . . .

Sire, after having very humbly commended me to your kind favour, I pray our Lord to fill you with the gifts of his Holy Spirit, to guide you in all prudence and virtue, to make you prosper and flourish to the glory of his name.

Your very humble and obedient servant,

John Calvin

(Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, editors, David Constable, translator, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Volume 5: Letters, Part 2: 1545-1553; originally published in Philadelphia by Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983, p. 355)

As we would expect, Calvin continued his strange mix of surreal, wishful hero-worship of a scarcely pubescent lad, upon hearing the news of the young king's death:

. . . that land has been deprived of an incomparable treasure of which it was unworthy. Indeed, I consider that, by the death of one youth, the whole nation has been bereaved of the best of fathers.

(Letter to Farrell, 7 August 1553)