Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

8. The School Of Christ

THE increasingly matrist character of the government of the Church produced its reaction in Protestantism. The comparative severity of the Protestant attitude to sexual matters — especially in its extreme forms of Calvinism and Puritanism — is well known. But it also displays a number of unexpected features of some psychological interest.

The Protestant movement started on the Continent, and before discussing English Puritanism, it will be desirable to consider Calvinism — for though it was Luther who set the schismatic movement in train, and though the Church which he set up still endures, yet it was Calvin who provided the most clear-cut exemplification of the extreme patriarch character of the movement. Furthermore, it was Calvin who most closely influenced Britain — perhaps by a sympathetic attraction. Luther’s movement, though conservative in nature, was not so fanatic or so guilt ridden as Calvin’s, and it was to the latter that the British divines, fleeing from the Catholic Mary, gravitated.

The basis of Calvinism in father-identification needs little stressing. We find it in the marked authoritarianism of the movement, in its depression of the status of women, and even in such characteristic details as a fervent belief in witchcraft: extreme Protestants persisted in this belief long after the rest of Europe had abandoned it: Wesley, for instance, was a firm believer in witchcraft. The stress placed by Calvinism on authority is quite striking. Not only did Calvin stress divine authority, but all paternal authority was sacrosanct. In Geneva a child was beheaded for striking its father: in Scotland, too, severe penalties were prescribed for any child who defied its father. If there was anything worse than to defy a father’s authority, it was to defy Calvin’s. Special penalties were prescribed for addressing Calvin as Calvin, and not as Mr. Calvin. Citizens who commented unfavourably on his sermons were punished by three days on bread and water. Gruet, who criticized Calvin’s doctrine and who had written “nonsense” in the margin of one of his books, was beheaded for treason and blasphemy. Berthelieu, who challenged the right of the Consistory to excommunicate, was beheaded, with several of his supporters. Calvin betrayed the tolerant Servetus to the Inquisition in France, and covered his part in so doing by a lie. Servetus, having escaped, came to Geneva hoping to discuss his differences with Calvin, only to be seized, tried without benefit of legal aid and burnt, on Calvin’s express instructions. (113) (Before ever the trial opened, he gave orders that Servetus was not to leave Geneva alive.) As Castellio commented:

“If thou, Christ, dost these things or commandest them to be done, what is left for the Devil?”