There Is No Evidence That Calvin Bowled On The Christian Sabbath

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…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…that when John Knox visited Calvin in Geneva he finally found him lawn bowling that Sunday afternoon.

…The earliest apparent reference to the tale may be in the Notes of Debates and Proceedings of The Assembly of Divines and Other Commissioners at Westminster, by George Gillespie…Recorded there are Gillespie’s notes of “Debates in the Sub-Committee Respecting the Directory” [of Worship]. Halfway under the notes for June 5, 1644, in a discussion of qualifications for admittance to the Lord’s Supper….

The subject of bowls on the Lord’s day and of Calvin’s view of Sabbath recreations came up during the trial of John Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. In the session of his trial that took place on June 11, 1644, Laud defends himself, and claims to have had a strict observance of the Lord’s day, though he also defended the recreations as authorized by the Second Book of Sports from the practice of Geneva…“In Geneva itself (as I have been credibly informed by travelers) they use shooting in pieces, longbows, crossbows, muskets, and throwing of bowls too, on the Lord’s day, as well as before as after sermons ended, and allow all honest recreations without reproof of their ministers…”.

…Assuming that he is stating the truth, Aylmer does not claim that Calvin bowled on the Lord’s day, but that many did. This is the significance of the statements of Alymer and Laud….

…The origin of the tale may well rest in an unwarranted assumption that because many in Geneva may have recreated and even bowled on the Lord’s day, that Calvin himself did likewise. However, as has been demonstrated, Calvin’s opinion is clearly incompatible with such an assumption. The truth of the tale is very doubtful. It is not mentioned in any of the Sabbatarian literature surveyed from 1583 till the year 1824 when Disraeli issued it forth, and his statement that this tale was a tradition might indicate that no firm evidence will be found to confirm the origin of the tale. Also, as useful as a direct appeal to the tale would have been, the story was not repeated by Laud or Aylmer, eager as they were to appeal to the general practice of Geneva in defense of their Sabbath recreations. The fact that the Puritans refuted this defense from the general practice of Geneva by referring to Calvin’s opposition to Sabbath recreations, would seem to be a natural set up for an objection using this tale if it had been circulating at that time. Also, the story is not mentioned in the seven volume life of Calvin by Doumerguer, nor in those by contemporaries such as Colladon (or Beza ((See Beza’s Life of Calvin in Selected Works of John Calvin. Tracts and Letters Edited by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (Baker Book House, 1983). Vol. 1. )) ). Even the seeming support from the comment by Goodwin raises more questions than answers. Read more»

Christopher Coldwell | “Calvin in the Hands of the Philistines: Or Did Calvin Bowl on the Sabbath?” | 1998, rev. 2007


    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. That’s not what I heard.

    I heard that right after church, Calvin was involved in a bowling league and his moniker was “Strikes for Servetus.”


Comments are closed.