The influence of the 16th century Protestant reformer John Calvin has probably not been felt as mush in any single country as South Africa.

“In South Africa, the reception of Calvin has been deeply ambiguous and controversial, and it remains so until today, Dirk Smit, professor of systematic theology and ethics at the University of Stellenbosch in that country, told students at the Protestant Theological University in Kampen, The Netherlands, as Protestants worldwide mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth.

South Africans are remembering how the followers of the Protestant reformer were counted among the most strident supporters of apartheid and eventually also among its most vociferous opponents.

The major Dutch Reformed churches in South Africa did for a time use theology as a justification for apartheid and one of the smaller white-dominated churches still refuses to recant its racist ideology as heresy.

The roots of Calvinism in South Africa go back to 1685, when many French Huguenots fled to The Netherlands after the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing religious freedom was revoked. The Huguenots were strict followers of Calvin and came from strongholds all over France.

The Huguenot immigrants received farms and implements, and were mostly well-educated. Doctors, teachers, pastors and lawyers were among the progenitors of many of the Cape Afrikaner families. To this day, the French spelling of many of their surnames survives in names such as Du Plessis, De Villiers and Roux.

In his teachings, Calvin propagated a sense of duty and purpose often described as the Protestant work ethic. The strictly religious Huguenots played an important part in church and economic life in South Africa and influenced the country’s future both religiously and economically. Not least, they created some fine vineyards at the Cape.

Yet, as progressive as the Huguenots were in their first years at the Cape, they became removed from European thought and some historians say that the whole age of enlightenment passed them by.

The Reformed churches begun by Afrikaners descended from the Huguenots were by the end of the 19th century divided along color lines: black, colored (mixed race), Indian and white. Four separate churches, each with its own structure, emerged in the 20th century. In 1948, under the leadership of Daniel Malan, a former Reformed pastor who had become prime minister of South Africa, traditional racist practices were transformed into the apartheid ideology of the ruling party. Mixed services were no longer possible.

In the latter part of the 20th century, some South African theologians, such as the Rev. Beyers Naude, himself an Afrikaner who studied at the same university as the 1948 prime minister, questioned the justification of apartheid theology.

In 1963, Naude left the white Dutch Reformed Church, where he was a regional moderator and minister. He later joined the black branch of his church: the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa, and went on to become general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. Progressive whites and black Reformed theologians cheered Naude’s vociferous opposition to apartheid but government leaders condemned it.

Addressing the general synod of the Reformed Church in America in 2009, Russel Botman, today the mixed-race rector of the University of Stellenbosch, once a bastion of apartheid, described how, as theology students, he and others broke with apartheid theology that a Calvinist doctrine justified.

Botman told the synod, “One day in the spring of 1978, we arrived at a conclusion: apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups. It was thus against the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which takes its point of departure in the doctrine of reconciliation.”

He also told the American synod of another historical landmark. In 1982, the general council of the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), meeting in Ottawa, Canada, elected Allen Boesak, then moderator of a branch of the Dutch Reformed Church serving South Africa’s mixed-race people, as president of WARC. Boesak laid out before the WARC assembly his theological understanding based on the doctrines of Calvin and Karl Barth.

“It was no longer merely the biblical understanding of a black, Reformed church on the southernmost tip of Good Hope. The theological understanding that Christians are witnesses to reconciliation as the heart of the Gospel of Christ became an ecumenical matter throughout the Reformed tradition and churches,” Botman said about the occasion.

Recalling the role of the black Reformed churches in the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s, Smit told his Dutch audience. “There were many debates at the time over the legitimacy of the apartheid government: over ways for the church to be the voice of the voiceless; over limits of getting actively involved in the public sphere; over the right of civil disobedience, including conscientious objection; over possible forms of non-violent resistance; even over the legitimacy of violence and armed struggle for freedom,” he said.

“In many of these instances, Calvin’s convictions concerning the responsibility of the magistrates to defend the weak and to resist tyrannical rule often played a major role,” he said.

Smit concludes that remembering Calvin in South Africa today does not mean a blind praising of him, “but rather standing in his living legacy and tradition.”