Calvin Meets Voltaire – An Interview with Jennifer Powell McNutt

Editor’s note: Since we are not the first Christians or congregational leaders in the Reformed tradition to swim against strong cultural and intellectual currents, what can we learn from those who have tried to do so in the past? Jennifer Powell McNutt, Professor of Theology and the History of Christianity, has written an important book that provides helpful insight into one group of congregational leaders who sought to do so faithfully and, in retrospect, not without some success, it appears. The book is entitled, Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685–1798 (London: Routledge, 2016), and Randy Working, the President of Theology Matters, recently interviewed Professor McNutt to find out what motivated her to write this book and how it might be of help and encouragement to congregational leaders today.

TM: How did you come to this topic?

McNutt: The topic emerged from my time working on my M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was able to take some advanced courses because of my undergraduate work, and I took a fabulous class on European Christianity with Professor James Deming, an expert on 19th century France. He talked about European history in a way that I had never learned before. The history of the church and of the world were interconnected, and it was as if a lightbulb went on for me. I took every class I could from him after that, including an independent study on the Enlightenment. I learned that Voltaire moved to Geneva, and that intrigued me. I wondered why he would move to Calvin’s city, and what that meant for Calvin’s theological legacy. As I discovered there was not a lot of writing on Calvin’s ongoing legacy in that time, I felt it was an area where I could contribute.

TM: What surprised you in the course of your research? 

McNutt: I had been shaped in my studies of the Enlightenment by the classic texts: Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment and Paul Hazards’ The Crisis of the European Mind, for example. So, I really expected to find that Geneva turned its back on the Reformation and Calvin, and that I would be writing the story of the decline of the church there. Instead I found a much more complicated picture that challenged my own assumptions about the historical basis for secularization theory––the idea that the rise of modernity led to the inevitable decline of religion in its authority and presence in society and in the beliefs of individuals. It has helped me to think more critically about growth and decline in religion and how we quantify and evaluate the health of the church whether I’m thinking about the past or today

TM: Where did you conduct most of your research?

McNutt: The majority of my research took place at the Archive d’État de Geneve, and at the special collections at the University of Geneva. The city archives contain the Registers of the Company of Pastors, which are a key part of the church records of Geneva. Nearly every waking moment in Geneva meant sitting in the archives except Sunday when I enjoyed worship in French at St. Pierre Cathedral and in English at the Auditoire. Thankfully, they allowed me to use a digital camera, which I had bought for the first time after I graduated from Princeton. Digital cameras were brand new so it was very clunky, but I could not have done my project without it. The digital databases available today are amazing, but there is nothing like holding the document in your hands. Extended time in Geneva also meant connecting with the people at the University of Geneva, who treated me like a colleague, mentored me and even funded my research. I could not have done this project without the support of the Institut d’Histoire de la Reformation, and I am forever grateful!

TM: Why have you paired these two different personalities—Calvin who died in Geneva in 1564, and Voltaire who moved to Geneva in 1755?

McNutt: For those who don’t know when these two lived, the title has caused some confusion (“Did they really meet?”), but the pairing is meant to personify the convergence of two eras: the Reformation era––as represented by Calvin––and the Enlightenment era––as represented by Voltaire. Through the title, I am raising the question of what took place when Calvin’s clerical legacy encountered the Enlightenment not merely through the ideas of philosophers but through their presence. Did Geneva remain Calvin’s so to speak or did it become Voltaire’s? I chose the idea of “meeting” in order to emphasize that an exchange took place, and that the encounter was complex. So much of what is said about Christianity during the Enlightenment is stated in a very stark way between two extremes. The reality is that some things changed, and some things did not. It was not always just one way or the other.

TM: The Encyclopédie d’Alembert (1757) was a formative work of Enlightenment thinking; in its article on Geneva, it claimed that some Geneva pastors no longer believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ; that some rejected parts of Scripture as contrary to humanity and reason; and that some pastors preached only morality in their sermons––in sum, that Geneva’s pastors were more Socinian that Calvinist. What did they mean by that charge?

McNutt: There are many plausible explanations for what the French philosophers intended by labeling Geneva’s clergy in that way. I have found it helpful to explore what proponents of the Enlightenment meant by that term in different contexts. Frankly, the term can be difficult to pin down. At times in the period of 17th century Reformed Orthodoxy the term was used to slander Arminian thought, the counter view regarding predestination. The Encyclopedie also has an article entitled “Unitaire” where it claimed that the Protestant rejection of Roman Catholicism is a slippery slope leading to atheism. Socinianism is the last stop on the way. Normally this would not be taken as a compliment, and that’s why Jean-Jacques Rousseau came to the defense of the clergy. At the time, Rousseau was seeking to return to the good graces of Geneva, his native home. He was, in fact, briefly restored to the church and to his citizenship before it was lost again for his controversial writings.

It is also important to keep in mind that the French philosophers, or philosophes (several thinkers that included Voltaire and Rousseau) were a part of the moderate Enlightenment. My work is using categories developed by Jonathan Israel’s work including, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and The Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, and David Sorkin’s work, The Religious Enlightenment. The moderates did not want to abolish religion, but they did want to water down orthodoxy.

When Voltaire settled in Geneva in 1755, he was trying to make it his own. He regarded John Calvin as intolerant for his role in the execution of Servetus, and he used criticism of Calvin to drive a wedge between the eighteenth-century clergy and their heritage. Some have interpreted his actions as part of a plan to establish a theater in Geneva, which was very controversial at the time. Perhaps with this agenda in mind, Voltaire guided d’Alembert around Geneva to project an image that was desirable to him. Certainly, some clergy were starstruck by his presence since he was both famous and infamous at the time. It is telling that the clergy reacted very negatively to the article that was produced and published their own piece refuting his assessment of their theology, which I found to confirm what I was reading in their sermons (see below)

TM: Chapter three discusses ministerial renunciations during the Enlightenment. What moved certain clergy to leave the ministry, and was that an indication of the church’s decline?

McNutt: The reason I studied this group of clergy was because they were cited as evidence of the decline of the clergy in the 18th century, so I wanted to explore further. Why were they leaving their positions? Were they rejecting their faith as was implied by “renunciation”? I studied their group within my complete study, which tracked every ordained clergyman from 1685 to 1798. By developing a prosopography––a statistical analysis of groups by way of biographical details, I was able to determine different dynamics at work within the group and better understand their familial and social connections to each other within the community.

And, of course, there were a few that did leave their ministries, but for various reasons. In the end, I identified that more pastors had resigned rather than renounced their ministries, which meant they were in effect “honorably retired” with a type of pension and available for pulpit supply. In Geneva’s mind, your ordination was something that stayed with you.

There were some colorful stories too: during a popular festival in 1773, one clergyman, Pastor Gasc, put on a dragon costume and paraded through Geneva, which earned the reprimand of the Company of Pastors for behavior unbecoming of a Genevan pastor. Or the story of Robert Dunant who spent eighteen years ministering to the congregation of the Reformed French church in St. Petersburg, Russia, raising funds and building a church, which Empress Anna subsequently tore down! Some of the problems these clergy faced were similar to the problems clergy still face today including low salaries and ill health.

TM: What convinced you of the substantial continuity between the Reformation and the 18th-century faith of Geneva? How was John Calvin’s theological perspective carried on by his pastoral descendants? In your study of Genevan preaching, what did you discover about pastoral piety and witness?

McNutt: I had the opportunity to present my work at the 500th anniversary gathering of the Calvin Congress in Geneva during a breakaway session. I had just finished my dissertation and was a very junior scholar, but I learned there that it was widely believed that the 18th century clergy did not defend Calvin’s reputation against the philosophes. Voltaire had said on more than one occasion that Calvin had an “atrocious soul.” So, there was this view circulating that the clergy of 18th century Geneva just turned their back on Calvin. My research required me to study every volume of the Registers of the Company of Pastors from 1685 to 1789 so it was eye opening to discover how the clergy did, in fact, rally to defend Calvin’s reputation (though not without critique), and that their many efforts to censor and respond were largely not known or appreciated. They were holding on to him, but to what extent?

The Reformation anniversary sermons from the 18th century were also important examples of how the clergy described their generation as the recipients of the Reformation and as passing on that legacy. So, it was still important to them to maintain that link with their Reformation heritage, and that was eye opening for me.

I also noticed this line of thinking at work when they removed a key theological document called the Helvetic Consensus Formula, which had been developed during the 17th century during the debates over the doctrine of predestination and dealt with other issues relating to doctrine and the biblical text and required the clergy’s signature. The Company of Pastors described the removal of the consensus as a way to return to the original documents of the Reformation including the Ecclesiastical Ordinances. There was more to the story it seemed.

Finally, evaluating the sermons that the clergy preached in the pulpit, some of which were also published, was the most helpful in exploring continuity between 18th century Geneva and Calvin. It was especially interesting to see how they emphasized important theological themes that Calvin emphasized and how they even followed the logic of his exegesis, at points echoing his Institutes. Some elements reflected Enlightenment conversations over matters of morality (i.e., piety), reason, and happiness while other elements were reflective of Reformation era concerns regarding general and special revelation as well as the distinction between creature and the Creator.

Sermons are valuable because Enlightenment scholars tend to focus on the radical and philosophical side of the Enlightenment rather than the history of the church and the worship life of the church. Meanwhile, many Reformation scholars are not examining the legacy of the Reformation in the 18th century, so it is instructive to listen to what the church of that time had to say theologically through the mode of preaching.

TM: If Voltaire was not an atheist, he was certainly anti-institutional church. Were the eighteenth-century clergy able to incorporate some Enlightenment values while retaining orthodox faith? If so, what were those values?

McNutt: Yes, they were able to incorporate Enlightenment values! Toleration was practiced at the end of the 17th century toward other Protestants that enabled an ecumenical or pan-Protestantism to develop. This was in many ways a reaction to the aggressive politics of Louis XIV, King of France. For example, though Geneva had rejected the Gregorian Calendar during the 16th century due to its links to the pope and the Council of Trent, they were interested in revising the calendar by the start of the 18th century in order to maintain their Protestant alliances with Germany. I have a separate article just about that story. 

Many scholars have observed, in fact, that there was an increasing desire to build bridges between Protestants, and that could be seen in Jean-Alphonse Turrettini’s sermon on the very first day of the 18th century. This is another reason why Geneva softened its clerical subscription to the doctrine of predestination in order to form connections with Lutherans. In addition to a revision of the calendar, Geneva welcomed the establishment of a Lutheran church in the city for the first time. It is important to keep in mind that this toleration had limits, and it did not lead to a watering down of the views that distinguished the Reformed from Catholicism.

TM: How did Geneva pastors understand the limits of reason and the need for divine revelation?

McNutt: The Genevan pastors emphasized the importance of reason, but not without the need for divine revelation. They differed from the radical Enlightenment figures who emphasized rationalism and materialism with little to no regard for divine truths. Radical figures believed that faith and reason were incompatible because faith was superstitious. Meanwhile, moderate Enlighten-ment figures believed that faith and reason could be compatible if faith were evaluated according to human reason. The working assumption here was that an individual’s reason could determine what was right and wrong about faith. For the Genevan clergy, there was still a qualitative difference between human reason and divine reason, and this is an important way in which they connected to Calvin as well as Cartesian thought. Faith and reason are compatible, they affirmed, but God’s reason is still always above human reason. Geneva’s 18th century clergy believed that reason could be misled because of their affirmation of the doctrine of sin, and they denied that humans could ever reach perfection (which Calvin denied on countless occasions). So, even though we cannot have a perfect understanding of our faith, that did not make faith unreasonable. It simply meant that we are not as rational as God.

I found it helpful to see the clergy believed in the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and that special revelation was still necessary. These are some ways they sharply disagreed with the moderate and radical Enlightenment. And yet there was also an increased openness on the part of orthodox clergy to the value of general revelation (which they described as natural revelation) through scientific investigation while at the same time they maintained that special revelation was essential (which is how they indicated general revelation). The book unpacks the specifics of these dynamics further.

They had a positive regard for the rapidly developing field of science, as seen by the establishment of the chair of mathematics at Geneva’s academy in the early part of the 18th century (the first chair was held by a Reformed pastor and refugee from France) while the educational curriculum was updated. By the end of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson would refer to the academy as one of the “two eyes” of Europe along with the University of Edinburgh. From the perspective of the American Enlightenment, then, Geneva and Edinburgh were the two places to go to be educated.

The clergy were enthusiastic about engaging in conversation with the Enlightenment, asking questions and reading the same literature. Yet, they maintained the tradition in important ways. They discussed “morality,” for example, but their use of the term connected still to the doctrine of sanctification. In the cases I studied, I saw how their church was accommodating to the language of their time, while still retaining the legacy of the tradition.

TM: You have contributed to the growing literature that calls into question the secularization thesis––that the rise of modernity entailed the decline of Christianity––and suggested a greater place for religion in the Enlighten-ment. Was the Enlightenment a source of renewal and reform within the churches? Did it help the church see the value of reason and toleration?

McNutt: I did not set out to question that theory, but in the end, I began to see that the classic story of Geneva’s decline––as had been advanced by the historical narrative––was more reflective of the larger narrative of the Enlightenment as a context for religious decline than of the history of Geneva’s church directly. If you define secularization as the decline of religious involvement in the social, cultural, and political life of the city, then Geneva’s church and clergy do not fit the model. If you define secularization as religious disenchantment (in reference to adopting a mental worldview that denies divine presence and intervention) then, again, Geneva’s story does not fit the model. There were points of renewal and reform within the church, and the church always valued reason and toleration, though it also maintained its theological commitments.

TM: How was the Genevan church able to adapt to changes in the relationship between church and state?

McNutt: Chapter 6 of my book was a completely new chapter that I wrote and published for the book after expanding my research focus. There I traced the ways in which church and state intersected. There were many periods of civil unrest within the city, and it was fascinating to see how the clergy acted and were treated in those moments. Most often, they seemed to act as mediators and peacemakers. They were front and center in the negotiations and yet sought a level of neutrality. They celebrated the Reformation’s relationship between church and state and believed in the importance of maintaining that dynamic. They regarded civil unrest as the result of sin rather than systems in need of revision (though some clergy became more politically involved at the very end of the century). Consequently, they acted ultimately as state builders, but still not in a way that alienated the people. The most telling point of what I mean is when the French Revolution began to bleed into Genevan affairs, the city never took out their political resentment on the clergy. There was no residual anger there to ignite between the people and the clergy. They were still the pastors of the city no matter the political situation. Very striking and unexpected for the period and for a francophone context!

TM: Did the influx of French refugees after 1685 shape the church and its clergy in Geneva? If so, how?

McNutt: Yes, it did! In fact, as I was working on my dissertation, I quickly came to realize I needed to broaden the parameters of the 18th century to understand the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 as the starting point for the Enlightenment in Geneva. With the influx of refugees in Geneva, which continued in waves throughout the 18th century, the city reprised its role as the mother church and the city of refuge. Once again, Geneva was facing social issues of housing, work, and social services, as well as the reemergence of xenophobia. They needed another church to create room for the increasing numbers of worshippers. French clergy fleeing to Geneva were then taking up the pulpit or positions at the Academy, which followed a dynamic from the 16th century. The clergy continued to find ways to provide funding support for refugees especially through the selling of Bibles. These dynamics and more served to extend Calvin’s legacy in the city, which was known as the “Protestant Rome” for three centuries.

TM: You detail the high standards expected of the Genevan pastor in his roles and responsibilities. Which of these do you think may be instructive for pastoral formation today?

McNutt: Probably the greatest benefit the Genevan clergy experienced was that they met regularly with each other––at least every Friday for encouragement and for censure––to pray, to preach to each other, and to grapple with the situation of the church. They worked as a group. Although Geneva was a very special place which can never be quite replicated elsewhere, nevertheless, a sense of fellowship among clergy is always important to clerical wellbeing. It is too easy in our world today for clergy to feel overloaded and isolated from support and friendship. There must be a safe place for clergy to talk with other clergy in these difficult days. We need covenant relationships.

TM: What was the role of the Academy and church of Geneva in training pastors for service in France?

McNutt: There was a continuation from the 16th century in terms of the Academy’s role in training pastors and sending them to France, but it was also more and more difficult for the Academy to train and send them back to France because a French diplomat was permanently placed in the city by the King of France to keep an eye on matters. The clergy found ways to get around this, and I have benefited from Otto Selles’ work on this topic. Nevertheless, it shows how the Republic of Geneva was vulnerable to the larger powers that surrounded it. Geneva becomes very good at diplomacy while also secretly helping the “church of the desert” in France, a reference to illegal underground Protestant churches. According to the records––especially the official correspondence of the Company of Pastors––there were still churches in France requesting that Geneva send trained pastors and they also refused pastors that were not trained in Geneva. So, the Academy continued its role of training pastors for service in France.

TM: Why is it important for the church today to know something of the story of the post-Reformation church in Geneva?

McNutt: For those of us whose tradition traces back to the Protestant Reformation and even Geneva, we must know the story of what transpired then and after the Reformation. The links between then and now are there waiting to be known, valued, and appreciated. The post-Reformation story is also an important part of our journey as Christians in the Reformed tradition today.

Moreover, according to the latest research, the Enlightenment was not a period where the church and theological orthodoxy were lost. Faithful Christians––in the Reformed tradition––continued to minister to the church and to grapple with the complexities of a changing context. There are so many helpful parallels for us today when we think about what it means to address our current situation faithfully and to be part of a tradition of the church. Every good pastor seeks to communicate God’s Word to people today in ways that they can understand while also preserving the historic faith and the markers of their tradition. There is always a translation that needs to take place as we preach and minister since we are products of our historical moments. The clergy of the Enlightenment in Geneva also reflect the complexity of that mission.

TM: Jennifer, I appreciate you and your contribution to the church of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your time today, and God bless you.


Jennifer Powell McNutt, Ph.D., is the Franklin S. Dyrness Associate Professor in Biblical and Theological Studies, Wheaton College. Theology Matters is delighted to feature her as one of the speakers at our next theology conference on Hilton Head Island, SC, March 2–4, 2021. 

Randal Working
Randal Working
Randal Working (Ph.D) is the President of Theology Matters and Pastor at Lompoc Presbyterian Church, Lompoc, California.

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