Did John Calvin Bowl on the Sabbath?
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Reformed Practice - Sabbath Observation

Among those who desire a Lord’s day occupied with a broader range of activities than ones focused on the Lord, some appeal to Calvin’s practice. They claim that one Lord’s day, John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, visited his Genevan friend, John Calvin, and found him bowling. However, some years ago Chris Coldwell researched this account and concluded this account lacks a historical basis.

First, Calvin’s teaching on the Sabbath would contradict with him bowling on the Sabbath. As John Primus writes, “Calvin calls for a literal, physical cessation of daily labour on the Lord’s Day, not as an end in itself, but to provide time for worship of God. Recreational activity should also be suspended, for such activity interferes with worship as certainly as daily labor does.” Not only are people to attend worship services, but also to devote “the rest of the time” to the Lord. If he preached against gaming, it is highly unlikely he would have engaged in it.

 

Second, this specific story does not appear to be published until Isaac Disraeli’s Life of Charles the First in the 19th century. As Caldwell says, Disraeli’s book is “firmly anti-Puritan, anti-Calvin, anti-Presbyterian, and outspokenly anti-Sabbatarian” and therefore such an account would fit with his purposes in writing. Yet, even he only notes: “At Geneva a tradition exists, that when John Knox visited Calvin on a Sunday, he found his austere coadjutor bowling on a green.” A “tradition” of something that happened almost 300 years previous is a most questionable historical source, at best.

If this tradition was true and known, we would expect it to be raised in the lengthy debates about the Sabbath during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England, however, it does not appear to be mentioned. That these debates also concerned the practice of sports on the Lord’s day and that the debaters appealed to Calvin, makes the absence of this account raise the question whether it existed at the time.

Caldwell concludes that the tale arises from a desire to discredit Sabbatarianism and the “unwarranted assumption that because many in Geneva may have recreated and even bowled on the Lord’s day, that Calvin himself did likewise.”

Instead of appealing to tales about Calvin’s practice that lack firm evidence, we should let Calvin’s own words sound still today: we should "dedicate that day wholly unto him so as we may be utterly withdrawn from the world." "If we spend the Lord’s day in making good cheer, and in playing and gaming, is that a good honouring of God? Nay, is it not a mockery, yea and a very unhallowing of his name?"

 

Source: Chris Coldwell, “Calvin in the Hands of the Philistines: Or, Did Calvin Bowl on the Sabbath?” (1998).

 

Rev. David Kranendonk is pastor of Bornholm Free Reformed Church.