Home > posts > Calvin: my success was due to my teacher as a teenager, Mathurin Cordier (1550)

Calvin: my success was due to my teacher as a teenager, Mathurin Cordier (1550)

December 30, 2020


Bernard Cottret. Calvin: A Biography (translated from the French by W.W. McDonald). Cambridge, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.


John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Protestant reformer of the 16th century, had a rough start in his studies, but he was fortunate in his early teenage years to find himself in the classroom of Mathurin Cordier (1479-1564), one of the foremost educators in France’s illustrious academic history. They met in 1523 in Paris at the Collège de la Marche. Calvin was 14, and his genius needed someone like Cordier to nurture it.

Calvin never forgot the unequaled influence that Cordier had in his intellectual formation, not only in learning Latin but also in learning how to learn. So few knew how to do that back then, since imitation of the Greek and Latin ancients was the highest form of erudition among the elites at that time. Cordier even used French in his classroom. This was considered quite gauche since French was considered a brutish language among the elites at that time. Latin was the only language a scholar should publish in. Calvin would later translate his master work, Institution de la Religion Chrestienne (1541), into the French vernacular of the day, perhaps being inspired by the example of his teacher.

Years later, Cordier and Calvin reunited in Geneva, which was a safe haven for the reformists. This time Calvin was the master. Their respect for each other remained strong. They both died in the same year, 1564 — Calvin in May, Cordier a few months later in September. Cordier and Calvin are both buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Cimetière de Plainpalais now) in Geneva.

We know Calvin’s feelings of gratitude for Cordier from the dedication to his old teacher at the beginning of Calvin’s Commentary on The Book of Thessalonians. The extract below is from that dedication


It is with good reason that you also have a place in my labors, since having first begun the process of study under your conduct and skill, I have advanced at least to this point of being able in some degree to benefit the church of God. When my father sent me as a young boy to Paris, having only some small beginnings in the Latin language, God wished me to have you for a short time as my preceptor, so that by you I might be so directed to the true road and right manner of learning that I could profit somewhat from it afterwards. Since, when you had taken the first class and taught there with great honor; nevertheless, because you saw that the children formed by the other masters through ambition and boasting were not grounded in good understanding and grasped nothing firmly, but could only make an appearance with gusts of words, so that you had to start over and form them anew; being disgusted with such a burden, that year you descended to the fourth class. It was for me a singular favor of God to encounter such a beginning of instruction. And although it was not permitted me to enjoy it for long, since a thoughtless man, without judgment, who disposed of our studies at his own will, or rather according to his foolish whims, made us immediately move higher, nevertheless the instruction and skill you had given me served me so well afterwards that in truth I confess and recognize that such profit and advancement as followed was due to you.


Imagine Cordier watching the great Calvin preach to the masses at St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, recalling back to that awkward young boy struggling through his Latin exercises, and knowing how instrumental he was in building the scholarly abilities of the young Calvin who later would change the world so profoundly.

A great teacher that can launch a youngster that reached such great heights indeed should be celebrated. So here’s to Mathurin Cordier, and all the other dedicated and fantastic teachers out there like him.

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