Worship in Calvin’s Geneva

This paper was written during Westminster Term A.D. 2019 for the graduate Reformed Systematics course at New St Andrews College.


The purpose of this paper is to explore Reformed liturgy by way of the work of John Calvin and the practices of the Protestant church in Geneva during his tenure. Topics considered will include the role and significance of liturgy, the Sabbath, the regulative principle of worship, and Calvin’s Order of Service found in The Form of Church Prayers and Hymns with the Manner of Administering the Sacraments and Consecrating Marriages According to the Custom of the Ancient Church.

Role and Significance of Liturgy

For many today, the topic of ‘liturgy’ brings about conversations largely regarding preference. Some prefer ‘smells and bells’, chanting, and robes; some prefer concert-like atmospheres, ‘relevant’ preaching, and ‘intimacy with God’; and some prefer simplicity, order, and reverence. These are obviously caricatures and generalizations – but they ring true, especially in the religious landscape of the United States, where in most cities and towns there are many options to choose from when considering a local church to join. One’s preference may be defended with an appeal to tradition, Scripture, or experience – but at the end of the day the topic of liturgy today is often one approached as individuals.

For John Calvin and the Reformers in Geneva, the role and significance of liturgy was much larger than individual preferences – it permeated all of civil and family life. It was a political act. This is because prior to the reformation in Geneva, the city was under the power of the Papacy and the citizens worshiped in Roman Catholic churches. Abolishing the Roman Mass and ceremonies was not merely a change of preference, but a change of allegiance.

In May 1536, Geneva officially adopted the Reformation during a public gathering of the general council, which brought together all the men of the city able to vote. These men raised their hands and swore “that all of us, unanimously, and with the help of God, want to live in this holy evangelical law and Word of God, as it is declared to us, wanting to leave aside all masses and other papal ceremonies and abuses, all images and idols, and live in unity and obedience to the law.”[1] While this was certainly a bold and monumental statement, the Protestant ministers were now faced with the task of not only reforming Geneva’s worship, but teaching its formerly Roman Catholic population to abandon their Romish practices and “superstitions” in favor of worship according to Scripture. As Karin Maag notes, “Formal liturgies and ordinances aside, the Genevan pastors led by Calvin clearly realized that the faithful needed more direct instruction on how to worship as Reformed Christians and on what true worship really was. This instruction was conveyed through biblical commentaries and sermons and through catechetical teachings.”[2]

It is important to note that worship was not confined to the Lord’s Day services in Geneva. In 1549 the civil government ordered the Genevan ministers to provide sermons every day of the week within the limits of the city, citizens were able to attend cultes ordinaires at three locations Monday through Saturday mornings, and Wednesday was designated as a special ‘Day of Prayer’ with a full liturgical service. Genevan citizens were expected by both magistrates and ministers to attend morning and afternoon worship services on Sundays and the prayer service on Wednesday. Additionally, a member of each household was required to attend the daily morning services.[3] These expectations placed on the Genevan parishioners and their participation in the church’s worship “was a public statement that Geneva’s townspeople share the same Christian faith and were members together of the same Christian republic.”[4]

Keep the Sabbath?

Foundational to right worship and liturgical practices is an undergirding conviction regarding when to gather for worship and what this day looks like. The fourth commandment in the Decalogue reads, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8-11). This commandant of the Jewish Sabbath under the Old Covenant is fairly clear and straightforward. But how does it relate to the New Covenant and what Christians refer to as ‘the Lord’s Day’?

Calvin identifies three purposes of the Jewish Sabbath: “First… the divine Lawgiver meant to furnish the people of Israel with a type of spiritual rest by which believers were to cease from their own works, and allow God to work in them. Secondly, he meant that there should be a stated day on which they should assemble to hear the Law, and perform religious rites… Thirdly, he meant that servants, and those who lived under the authority of others, should be indulged with a day of rest…”[5] At the advent of Christ, however, “the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished. He is the truth, at whose presence all the emblems vanish; the body, at the sight of which the shadows disappear.”[6] For Calvin, Christ is the “true completion of the Sabbath” and he refers to Romans 6:4[7] and Colossians 2:16-17[8] in support of this position.[9]

That said, Calvin believes that “there is still room” for Christians to assemble on “stated days for the hearing of the word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and public prayer” as well as to themselves and their workers rest from their labors.[10] The reason for there still “being room” for such a practice is that both of the aforementioned reasons for the Sabbath (worship and rest) “are equally applicable to us as the Jews”—gathering is commanded by Scripture, and we are to do all things decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). Calvin believed that it would be impossible to maintain decency and order without stated days, and the dissolution of them “would instantly lead to the disturbance and ruin of the church.”[11] Therefore in summary of Calvin’s position, “the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, order, and peace in the church, another day was appointed for that purpose.”[12]

Therefore, once a year the Small Council of Geneva dispatched a town crier to remind all citizens that they were required by law to attend the Wednesday and Sunday worship services. Additionally, all workers (except those who provided essential services) were required to cease from their labors for spiritual and physical rest.[13]

Regulative Principle of Worship

For Calvin, “The fundamental starting point in Christianity is to adore God rightly,”[14]  and this consists of acknowledging God to be the only source of “all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life and salvation” and to ascribe to him “the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in him alone, and in every want have recourse to him alone.”[15]

Christians learn how to “adore God rightly” from God himself, for “the Word of God is the standard by which we discern true worship from that which is false and defective” and “God disapproves of all forms of worship not established in his Word.”[16] It was by this standard, known as the ‘regulative principle of worship,’ that Calvin reformed the practices of the church in Geneva. 

We can glean from Calvin’s convictions and understanding regarding this approach to worship in his commentary on John 4, in which Jesus met the Samaritan woman. Commenting on verse 22, “You worship what you do not know…” Calvin says that unless one has true knowledge, “it is not God that we worship but a specter or ghost…”[17] He continues on, declaring that God is only worshiped properly in the “certainty of faith… born of the Word of God.”[18] Commenting on the next verse, “…true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…”, Calvin notes how under the Law there were veils by which “the Spirit and truth” was in a sense “concealed under coverings.”[19] But with the coming of Christ, the veil of the temple has been torn, and there is now nothing hidden. However, the Papacy has overturned this distinction between the Old and New Covenant, adding shadows that “are no less dense than they used to be under Judaism” burdening the church with “an excessive host of ceremonies [that] despoil her of the presence of Christ.”[20] While the shadow of the Law hid the Spirit for a time, Calvin argues that the “masks of the Papacy disfigure him altogether.”[21]

It is important to note that Calvin’s convictions do not lead to mere biblicism. While the Word of God is the absolute authority, Calvin was sure to attend to tradition and the early church Fathers as well, which we can see in the title of his service book, The Form of Church Prayers… According to the Custom of the Ancient Church. As Daniel Hyde notes, 

“The Reformation was just that: a re-formation. It was an attempt to take the church that existed in the sixteenth century and reform it into its early form in the days of the church’s fathers. When it came to liturgy, our Protestant forefathers did not get rid of the existing liturgies in their regions by radically starting over, although this is asserted in popular literature. Instead, the many Reformers took what existed and followed the dictum of the Renaissance: “[back] to the sources” (ad fontes). To be Protestant, then, was not to be novel, as Rome accused, but to be truly catholic by protesting the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church as a means of aligning with the historic Catholic church.”[22]

In responding to a Roman cardinal’s claims that the Reformers in Geneva had turned the people away from “the way of their fathers,” Calvin forcefully argues that not only is the Reformers’ “agreement with antiquity far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church…”[23] As we turn to consider Calvin’s liturgy for the Genevan church, one could compare the practice of the Genevan worshipers to the descriptions we find of Christian worship in the writings of Pliny the Younger (ca. 112), the Didache (ca. 120), Justin Martyr’s First Apology (ca. 155), and Tertullian’s Apology (ca. 197) and see that Calvin was not wrong.[24]  

Calvin’s Genevan Liturgy

Below is Calvin’s Genevan liturgy for a Service of the Word (1545), adapted from his Strasburg liturgy which was influenced by the work of Martin Bucer. 

Votum (Ps. 124:8)
Prayer for Forgiveness
Words of Comfort
Decalogue (with Kyrie)
Prayer for Illumination
Lord’s Prayer
Lord’s Prayer Paraphrase

For worship services that included the Lord’s Supper (four times a year), the following are added to the liturgy following the Lord’s Prayer Paraphrase: Apostles’ Creed, Prayer of Preparation, Lord’s Prayer (again), Words of Institution, Long Exhortation, Distribution, Psalm, Prayer of Thanksgiving, and the Nunc Dimittis followed by the Benediction. Additionally, any baptisms would take place immediately following the sermon. 

While some Reformers removed singing entirely from their liturgies, Calvin was committed to retaining unaccompanied Psalms and other passages of Scripture (such as the Ten Commandments). Psalm singing was very important to Calvin, and he worked to versify all 150 psalms with fellow reformer Theodore Beza, French poet Clément Marot, and composers Louis Bourgeois and Pierre Davantès. Genevan worshipers were able to purchase individual Psalters and the Psalter was also included in Bibles. In formal worship, every Psalm was sung at least once over the course of seventeen weeks.[26]

Another area of interest regarding the worship in Geneva is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. While the Genevan churches only observed the Supper four times a year at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the first Sunday of September, Calvin expressed his wish in a letter that the congregation were “invited [to take Communion] every month than only four times a year.”[27] He even went so far as to say “I took care to have it recorded in the public records that our way was wrong, so that correcting it might be easier for future generations.”[28] In his Institutes, Calvin goes further than once a month and states, “Each week, at least, the table of the Lord ought to have been spread for the company of Christians…”[29] Yet because “the frailty of the people [was] still so great,” Calvin did not press this matter against the magistrates in Geneva, understanding that the “sacred and so excellent mystery” that is the Lord’s Supper could be misunderstood by the people if celebrated too often.[30]


It is fitting to conclude this paper on this note of Calvin’s willingness to bear with his parishioners’ “frailty.” Calvin was a gifted man who was used by God to powerfully reform his church not only in sixteenth-century Geneva, but around the world up to today. As one reads the primary sources, especially Calvin’s letters, however, we do not find a despotic, all-or-nothing man. Instead we find a wise pastor seeking to lead his people in the true worship of God. Writing to a group of Reformed brothers in Lutheran Wesel who were concerned with certain practices of the church there surrounding the Lord’s Supper, Calvin and the Company of Pastors wrote, 

“If the pastors were doing their duty, they would work to remove the excesses that fail to edify, and even in fact obscure the lucidity of Scripture… But because you are only private individuals, you not only can but must bear with and endure weakness of this kind that you have no authority to fix… If we were to go somewhere where different forms held sway, none of us would separate ourselves from the body of the church over an abhorrence for candles or chasubles… We have to avoid creating stumbling-blocks for those still enmeshed in such weaknesses… And we would be very unhappy if the French church that could be established there was broken apart because of our unwillingness to go along with a few ceremonies that do not impinge on the essence of the faith.”[31]

Likewise, when discussing irregular baptisms that may have occurred, Calvin wrote that, “God condones many things in a fragmented church that it would be wrong to allow in a well-ordered church… It is not necessary, therefore… to investigate all the circumstances anxiously; this would produce countless worries. What God forgave under the papacy we should also lay to rest.”[32] Lastly on this same note, Calvin once wrote to the Scottish firebrand, John Knox, and said  “moderate your rigor,” acknowledging that “Of course it is your duty to see that the church be purged of all defilements… But… you are well aware that certain things should be tolerated even if you do not quite approve of them.”[33] Calvin was clearly a great Reformer and a great pastor, which made him a patient Reformer. 

In conclusion, a study of Calvin’s liturgy and the practices of the Genevan church in the sixteenth-century would certainly benefit many today. While Calvin is well known for his systematics, he was also clearly a liturgist worth emulating. Modern pastors and laymen who have embraced Reformed theology would do well to consider that the reformation was not solely about right doctrine, but also about right worship. 

[1] Karin Maag. Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 4.
[2] Ibid. 28.
[3] Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 148-149.
[4] Ibid. 130.
[5] John Calvin (trans. Henry Beveridge). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers), 2.8.28.
[6] John Calvin (trans. Henry Beveridge). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers), 2.8.31.
[7] “We are buried with him by baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life.”
[8] “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
[9] John Calvin (trans. Henry Beveridge). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers), 2.8.31.
[10] Ibid. 2.8.32.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. 2.8.33.
[13] Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 130.
[14] Karin Maag. Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 28.
[15] John Calvin. The Necessity of Reforming the Church. monergism.com (accessed May 8, 2019).
[16] Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 34.
[17] Karin Maag. Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 122.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid. 123.
[20] Karin Maag. Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 123.
[21] Ibid. 124.
[22] Daniel R. Hyde. “According to the Custom of the Ancient Church? Examining the Roots of John Calvin’s Liturgy” Puritan Reformed Journal, 2 (2009), 190. 
[23] Ibid. 192. 
[24] Ibid., 203-211.
[25] Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press), 305.
[26] Karin Maag. Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 29. 
[27] Ibid. 49.
[28] Ibid.
[29] John Calvin (trans. Henry Beveridge). Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers), 4.17.46, 930.
[30] Calvin’s Articles concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva proposed by the Ministers at the Council quoted in the notes of: John Calvin (trans. Ford Lewis Battles). Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co). 
[31] Karin Maag. Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 56.
[32] Ibid. 108.
[33] John Calvin (ed. Dr. Jules Bonnet). Letters of John Calvin Vol. IV (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication), 184.

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