Calvin fell deathly ill in the winter of 1558 at age 49. He thought he was at death’s doorstep and so turned his few remaining energies to the final revision of his Institutes. Until this time, he hadn’t been fully pleased with the shape and content of his often-revised magnum opus. Wanting to leave the church with a definitive edition, he worked feverishly, despite the fever, to finish.
His health returned in the Spring of 1559, and he soon returned to the pulpit. It was at this time that Denis Raguenier began taking extended shorthand notes on Calvin’s sermons, since he didn’t use manuscripts but preached extemporaneously. The sermon manuscripts of Calvin we have today are largely owing to Raguenier’s unflagging and far-sighted labors.
Also in 1559, Calvin and his sidekick Theodore Beza founded the Academy of Geneva. Under Beza's day-in, day-out leadership, this school would become famous across Europe and produce lasting effects long after Calvin’s death.
In his final five years, he translated the final edition of the Institutes into French, wrote a large commentary on the Pentateuch, and preached almost tirelessly. Almost. At barely fifty years old he was battling increasing illness and frailty, but his labors continued unceasing. There were seasons of sickness followed by renewed strength.
The great reformer began slowing for the final time in February of 1564. Soon it was too draining to preach and lecture. He spent his final months bedridden and died May 27, 1564, just two weeks shy of his fifty-fifth birthday.
Calvin could tell in his lifetime that he’d likely be remembered long after his death. So he took pains to fade as namelessly from this world as he could. He requested burial in an unmarked grave hoping to prevent pilgrims from coming to see his resting place and engaging in the kind of idolatry he’d spent his lifetime standing against.
In death he completed his life’s labors, not seeking to make much of Calvin, but striving with all his might to point beyond himself to the one who saved him—the one infinitely worthy of being made much of.
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This is part 9 of our 9-part series tracing some key contours of the story of Calvin’s life.
- Part 1: Born to Gerard (1509-1523)
- Part 2: Off to Paris (1523–1532)
- Part 3: De Clementia, Conversion, and Cop (1532–33)
- Part 4: Institutes (1535–1536)
- Part 5: A Night’s Stay in Geneva (1536–1538)
- Part 6: The Golden Years (1538–1541)
- Part 7: Return to Geneva (1541–1553)
- Part 8: The Fateful Years (1553–1554)