Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2006, p. 249.

In our last article we argued from Scripture and church history that the care of sick, aged, widowed, or otherwise afflicted saints, even when such are not poor, is properly the work of the deacons. This is because the care of such saints is a work of mercy; because Christ shows mercy to afflicted saints through His church; and because the diaconate is the God-appointed means officially to administer Christ’s mercies on the church’s behalf.

In noting examples from church history, our glance fell on the church in Geneva at the time of John Calvin. We saw that Calvin understood the early church to have two kinds of deacons—one that distributed alms, and the other that gave practical, hands-on care to the poor and sick. In scriptural support of this twofold diaconate, Calvin appealed to Romans 12:8.

Especially two institutions were established in Geneva to care for the needy: the first was the hospital, and the second was the various funds that were established. Because each of these institutions deserves a more careful examination, we devote a full article to each.

Geneva’s General Hospital predated John Calvin.

During the Middle Ages various institutions arose that were devoted to the care of the poor, sick, widows, orphans, travelers, and the like. Many of these institutions were run by monasteries or other church authorities. Others were established by the wealthy of the land, motivated in part by Rome’s teaching that almsgiving and the care of the poor were meritorious works.

By the early 1500s Geneva had numerous such institutions, with the two oldest dating back to the 1200s. Seven of these were called “hospitals,” although they were not hospitals as we think of them today. They served no medicinal purpose; rather, they provided hospitality:

They were private foundations, created by the gifts of wealthy individuals or families, to provide for the repose of their souls and the care of the poor. They maintained buildings in which were provided free food and lodging for widows, the crippled, the sick of non-contagious diseases, poor pilgrims passing through the city, and others.¹

In 1473 another hospital was built specifically for victims of the Black Plague. While the plague hospital was run by the city, the other hospitals were governed by private organizations. The church (Rome) established none of these institutions, and played little, if any, role in maintaining them.

In 1535, one year before Calvin came to the city, Geneva declared itself Protestant. As part of the reorganization of the city, the seven hospitals were combined into one, called the General Hospital. The Plague Hospital remained a separate institution.

When Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he drew up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which constituted the church order of the Genevan Reformed Church. In this document are found regulations for the General Hospital. Some of the pertinent paragraphs are worth quoting.

It will be necessary to take every care that the communal hospital is well maintained and that its amenities are available both for the sick and for the aged who are unable to work. The same applies to widows, orphaned children, and other poor persons. These, however, are to be placed in a wing of the building apart and separate from the others. 

Again, the succour of the poor who are scattered through the city shall be derived from this source, according as the stewards shall order it…. 

It will be necessary also, both for the poor in the hospital and for those in the city who have not the means for assisting themselves, that a physician and a surgeon should be specially appointed at the city’s expense, who, while practicing in the city, shall be charged with the care of the hospital and with the visitation of other poor persons. 

As for the plague-hospital, it is to be kept entirely separate, and especially in the event of the city being visited by this scourge of God.²

It goes without saying that the poor, aged, sick, widows, orphans, and abandoned and illegitimate children of Geneva and its immediate environs needed the services provided by the General Hospital and the Plague Hospital. This need was increased in years of crop failure, and in the spring and summer months, during which the Plague usually visited the city.

But word soon spread that Geneva was both a haven for Reformed believers and a city well equipped to help those in need. As a result, refugees came to Geneva in droves, from France, Italy, and even as far away as England. Alexander M. Zeidman, who did detailed research into the care of the poor in Geneva in the sixteenth century, writes:

It is probable that the reputation of the quality of care given by Geneva to those in need played a great part in the large numbers of needy that were attracted to her. Her central position in Europe, her proximity to those fleeing the angry mobs in France, no doubt accounted for many of those who found a new home in Geneva. It is certain that the Genevan reputation for hospitality spread far and wide among the struggling groups of adherents to the reformation and when they fled their homes they found their way along the underground railway to Geneva.³

Although these refugees were arriving in Geneva continually, the numbers swelled after events such as the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France and the wars with Savoy beginning in 1589. Many of these refugees were also poor young adults coming to study at the Genevan Academy. From original documents, including the hospital’s archives, Zeidman gives evidence that the Hospital did a vast amount of work, and often did it well.

Calvin and the Genevan church considered not only the oversight but also the daily administration of the General Hospital to be the work of the deacons. This is immediately evident from the fact that the section of theEcclesiastical Ordinances that regulated the hospital was actually a sub-section of the regulations pertaining to the office of deacon.

At first this was not so. We have already mentioned that, prior to 1535, each individual institution was overseen and administered by a private organization, not by the church. Even when the institutions were first consolidated in 1535, it was the city government that appointed four or five men to serve on what we would call the first board of directors. These were called “procureurs.” Another man, called the “hospitaller,” supervised the day-to-day running of the institution. Kingdon says that these men “are really the first deacons of the Reformed Church in Geneva, even though they never bore that title, even though they were selected before Calvin arrived.”4

In 1541, by virtue of the adoption of theEcclesiastical Ordinances, the oversight and administration of the hospital was designated to be the work of the deacons, and the positions of procureur and hospitaller were filled with new men who were supporters of Calvin.

The Ordinances explicitly identify the procureurs and hospitallers as deacons. They were to be elected as deacons: “The election of both stewards and hospitallers shall be conducted as for the elders and delegates to the Consistory; and in electing them the rule which St. Paul lays down for deacons (I Tim. 3Titus 1) shall be followed.” Another statement reiterates that they were to be held to the same standard that I Timothy 3 requires of deacons. “Furthermore, the hospitallers must control their own families in an honourable and godly manner, seeing that they have to govern a house dedicated to God.”

The work of both procureurs and hospitallers was certainly diaconal in nature. The procureurs were men who worked other jobs in order to support themselves. Yet the demands of their work as procureurs of the hospital were heavy. They met with the hospitaller twice a week to oversee the hospital and its staff. One of the procureurs was the treasurer of the hospital; another was in charge of purchasing all necessary food and supplies and keeping inventory. The hospitaller, with his wife and family, were lodged in the hospital itself. He was paid a small salary and given living expenses. As to his work, he

not only had to account for all the orphans, the poor, old, ill, and over-night guests who were housed, fed, taught, and tended at city expense, but also had to oversee vineyards, hemp, grain and turnip fields, keep an eye out for the dozen cows, horses, pigs and other livestock, be foreman for the weaving and jug-making industries at the hospital….5

And, just as today in Reformed churches the elders are charged with the oversight of the deacons, so then the ministers and elders, as well as the city’s councils, were charged with the oversight of the procureurs and hospitaller. TheEcclesiastical Ordinances require that “for this purpose every three months several from their Company shall, together with the stewards, carry out a visitation to the hospital in order to ascertain whether everything is well regulated.”

Controversial is the question whether Calvin’s idea of a twofold diaconate, and the concrete expression of this idea in Geneva’s General Hospital, is valid. Was the hospital truly an ecclesiastical organization? That it was regulated by the Ecclesiastical Ordinances and overseen by the clergy supports the contention that it was. Or was it really a civil welfare organization? That it predated the Reformed faith in Geneva, and that it was regulated by the civil government, seem to indicate so.

I find it impossible to argue either that the hospital was exclusively an ecclesiastical institution of mercy, or that it was exclusively a civil welfare organization. Too much evidence supports both sides. But what is the problem with acknowledging that it was both? Even today, a church-supported institution of mercy will be subject to many regulations by and inspections of civil government. Though the church alone can rightly be said to manifest the mercies of Christ, yet both church and civil government work to relieve the poor, sick, and needy. This is the very reason why Article 26 of our Church Order requires that in “places where others are devoting themselves to the care of the poor, the deacons shall seek a mutual understanding with them, to the end that the alms may all the better be distributed among those who have the greatest need.”

It is questionable whether Scripture truly means to teach that the church should have two kinds of deacons, with one devoted exclusively to the practical and hands-on care of the sick, widows, etc. The classic text that Calvin uses in support of this, Romans 12:8, does not speak explicitly of deacons, let alone two sorts of deacons. It is because of the silence of Scripture on this question that Reformed churches generally, with Geneva being the notable exception, have had only one body of men called deacons. A more detailed analysis of this question we hope to give in a future article.

Nevertheless, the point for now is that the one body of men called deacons, which must be found in every church, must devote themselves not only to the care of the poor, but also to the care of the sick, aged, and otherwise needy saints. In this connection, the work of the procureurs and hospitaller of Geneva’s General Hospital is instructive for us. First, it shows that Reformed deacons from the beginning understood the care of the needy to be their duty. Second, it is one concrete example of how deacons in the past have carried out this task. Perhaps today deacons will implement this part of their work in another way. But they do well to know how deacons in the past have done so. The diligent, hard work of deacons in the past ought to inspire deacons today to the same degree of commitment to their work—the care of the needy in the church of Christ.

¹ Robert M. Kingdon, “The Deacons of the Reformed Church in Calvin’s Geneva,” Calvin’s Ecclesiology: Sacraments and Deacons, ed. Richard C. Gamble (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc, 1992), p. 256.

² Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, editor and translator, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), pp. 43-44. All subsequent quotes from the Ecclesiastical Ordinances are from pages 42-44 of this same source.

³ Alexander M. Zeidman, The Care of the Poor and Indigent in Geneva in the Latter Half of the Sixteenth Century (Master’s thesis, Knox College of Toronto, 1965), pp. 20-21.

4. Kingdon, p. 257.

5. William Fred Graham, Jr., The Permeation of Calvin’s Social and Economic Thought Into Genevan Life: 1536- 1564 (Doctorate thesis, State University of Iowa, 1965), p. 162.