A remarkably durable anecdote about John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer of Geneva, is often related by those critical of the Puritan view of the Sabbath.2 The goal seems to be to demonstrate that the Reformers were not tainted with that ‘pharisaical’ of strictness in observance of the Lord’s day – particularly respecting abstinence from otherwise lawful sports and recreations on that day. One Lord’s Day, it is said, the Scottish Reformer John Knox, paid a visit to his friend Calvin in Geneva. The grave Scot found, to his surprise, as the telling would seem to indicate,3 the austere Reformer of Geneva engaged in a game of bowls.4
There appears to be no good reason for the tale’s durability.5 It has been repeated and used uncritically by Seventh-day Adventist apologists,6 Calvin scholars who should know better, as well as by anti-Sabbatarian writers. Even when the tenuous origin of the tale is clearly evident to some of these authors, they still have boldly gone on to draw conclusions from it as if it were factual. Much of this no doubt is due to partisan bias against Calvin, or against strict views of Sabbath keeping, or both. However, surely those who hold to the Reformed faith, and hold the Reformer in esteem, would hesitate to assume as true a tale which runs counter to Calvin’s published opinion? If the Reformer believed that sports and recreations on the Lord’s day were permissible, then this tale would be merely a curiosity. Since that was not his belief, giving countenance to the tale leaves him vulnerable to the charge of inconsistency if not hypocrisy…
- Mr. Coldwell is the editor of The Confessional Presbyterian journal, and through Naphtali Press has published critical editions of 17th Century Presbyterian and Reformed books. Some of the more important works are: James Durham, A Treatise Concerning Scandal (1990); Lectures on Job (1995); Sermons on Isaiah 53 (2001); The Ten Commandments (2002); George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (1993); and the London Provincial Assembly, Divine Right of Church Government (1995). From 1988 to 1992 he edited and published An Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature. In recent years he has been working on a critical text of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and a critical text of the Larger Catechism is appearing serially in The Confessional Presbyterian. A transcription with notes of the two surviving manuscripts of the catechism is under preparation for publication. The author first read of this story in a copy of David Hay Fleming’s Critical Reviews, purchased from David C. Lachman on January 30, 1984, and within a year heard it used by a fresh from seminary licentiate, who had obtained the story from his professor, and in like manner used it to argue against strict confessional Sabbatarianism. He has had an abiding interest in the tale ever since.
- This article is not a study of Sabbath views per se. See the following works for analysis of the Puritan and of Calvin’s view. James T. Dennison, The Market Day of the Soul: the Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath in England 1532-1700 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983). James Gilfillan, The Sabbath viewed in the light of Reason, Revelation, and History, with Sketches of its Literature (New York, ). Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Calvin and the Sabbath (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1962). See also the works by John Primus in note 9
- Whether Knox is portrayed as surprised seems to depend on whether the author repeating the tale is intent on not only casting Calvin as holding to much ‘looser’ Sabbath views than the Puritans, but the Scottish Reformer as well. The tale varies. One version relates that a chance visitor reported it. Others add that it was a Lord’s day afternoon. One of the most recent and more cautious references to the tale is by Tom Schwanda in his article, “The Unforced Rhythms of Grace, A Reformed Perspective on Sabbath,” Perspectives, vol. 11, no. 3 (March 1996), pp. 14-17. He writes: “While Calvin appears to see recreation as inappropriate for Sundays, a strong oral tradition often repeated insists his actual practice was less severe. I have endeavored to trace the authenticity of this reference to no avail. However, the most frequent references indicate that when John Knox visited Calvin in Geneva he finally found him lawn bowling that Sunday afternoon. Once again it must be acknowledged there are no footnotes to substantiate this possibility.”
- Bowls is an old game played on a smooth green lawn with a ball of wood (now made of a composite material). It is rolled with the attempt to make it stop as near as possible to another ball. Hence the term ‘bowling on the green.’ The point is not that the game was an immoral pastime, but unlawful on the Lord’s day. The consensus of Puritan thinking on Sabbath recreations is represented by John Wells. Recreations on a Sabbath day “are impediments to duty…. Now how this should be otherwise, is not easily discernible; so do not recreations posses the mind, divert the intention, withdraw from spiritual duties, hinder the service of Christ, and fill the heart with froth and vanity?” John Wells, The Practical Sabbatarian (London, 1668), p. 28. Calvin’s view is similar.
- This is not the only Sabbath related tale that has persisted. Unfortunately, the bowling anecdote is not as easily dismissed as the false accusation that Calvin once had a consultation about changing the Lord’s Day to Thursday. However, even the fact that Calvin’s own words disprove this myth has not stopped it from being repeated as frequently as the bowling tale. See below.
- J. N. Andrews, History of the Sabbath and First Day of the Week (Steam Press of The Seventh Day Adventist Publishing Association, 1873).