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Dec. 2, 2003

Studying John Calvin

Being a Calvinist in the 16th or 17th century often meant being part of a persecuted faith. And that persecution had all kinds of ramifications - everything from seemingly trivial decisions about whether or not to eat fish during Lent to significant matters such as attending or not attending the marriage of a Catholic relative.

Those sorts of everyday struggles in the lives of early Calvinists will occupy the minds of visiting scholars for five weeks this summer, due to a sizeable National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to Calvin College's H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies.

The $82,000 grant from the NEH's Summer Seminars for College and University Teachers will enable 15 scholars to live and work on the Calvin campus as part of a Meeter Center seminar on "John Calvin and the Transformation of Religious Culture in Geneva, France and Beyond," to be held June 28 through July 30, 2004.

The seminar will hone in on tensions in the lives of early Calvinists as they sought to practice their faith in a society that didn't recognize - or openly persecuted- that faith. Only scattered areas in Europe afforded Calvinists legal rights, and day-to-day living tested these believers. The seminar will examine 16th and 17th-century societal infrastructure, offering segments devoted to liturgy and worship, education and training and social discipline.

Karin Maag (above), the director of the Meeter Center, will co-direct the seminar with Raymond Mentzer, a professor in Reformation Studies at the University of Iowa. Ideally, two schools of Calvin studies will converge at the seminar says Maag.

"There are people who study Calvin from a theological viewpoint," she says, "and there are those who study him from a socio-historical standpoint. What we aim to do is shuffle the two and get them to learn from each other."

Many scholars of the former group study Calvin's doctrines to apply them to today's theological debates. And while Maag says that has a purpose, it also can leave out any understanding of Calvin himself as a part of a wider tradition. And, she adds, it also leaves out any sense of the impact, or lack of impact, that Calvin's ideas may have had for his originally-intended audience.

Maag notes that Calvin's advice for people who held Protestant beliefs, but lived in Catholic areas, was for them to either go into exile to a Protestant area, so they could live their faith purely without compromise, or for them to openly confess their faith as a Protestant, thereby risking imprisonment and execution.

"The 16th century," she says dryly, "was not big on toleration."

Maag and Mentzer, a renowned expert on Calvinism in France, will choose the 15 scholars from a pool of applicants. The NEH grant will provide the visitors with stipends, allowing them to live in Calvin's Knollcrest East apartments for the duration of the event. While attending the seminar sessions, the scholars will pursue their own research thanks to the Meeter Center's extensive collection.

"This is one of the foremost collections on John Calvin and Calvinism in North America," says Maag of the center, which numbers nearly 500 original, 16th-century books among its resources. "We have a very compact and accessible collection. People can come here and they don't have to wait two hours for someone to bring them a book - unlike in larger research libraries, especially in Europe."

Calvin Provost Joel Carpenter affirms the Meeter Center's prominence as a place of research.

"With this grant from the NEH," he says, "the center can host a major national research seminar as well. It is highly unusual for a small college such as Calvin to be selected as the site for an NEH summer research seminar. We have much to offer, and I think that the NEH recognized that this would be a sound investment"

Maag, who wrote her Ph.D. on education in Geneva in the 16th century, is excited about next summer's discussions.

"I have always been fascinated by the whole question of how communities expressed their faith," she says, "particularly in times of tension and religious change, and how this tension then affected these communities. How do they shape themselves? Calvinism as a movement is an example of how complex it can be to go from the ideas of a leader to a feasible, practical system. Basically, I'd like participants to think about the jump from ideology to practicality."

~written by media relations staff writer Myrna Anderson

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Contact Phil de Haan
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