The Forgotten Founding Father

In a nation that appears to be doing everything possible to expunge the remnants of its Christian foundation and heritage, it is no wonder that John Calvin has been forgotten as the virtual founder of our nation. John Adams, America’s second President; Leopold von Ranke, a nineteenth century leading German historian; and George Bancroft, a Harvard educated historian known as the “father of American history”, all testified to the significant influence Calvin had upon the foundation of America.

Unlike Locke or Montesquieu, however, Calvin did not write a political treatise on how to organize civil government. Instead, he wrote Biblical expositions that completely changed how people in western culture thought about their relation to God and, subsequently, how they thought about their relation to their civil government.

John Calvin

Although he did not write a political treatise, Calvin did popularize three Biblical principles and took one action that helped shape western culture and influenced the founding of America more than anything else he said or did. First, he explained that the civil magistrate and his work are a divinely established order. Second, he explained that although civil disobedience to the magistrate is forbidden, there is a limitation to the magistrate’s authority. Third, he explained that the lesser magistrate is a check on unlawful use of power by a higher magistrate, and fourth, his ecclesiastical organization heavily influenced the political structures of Scotland, England and, ultimately, the American colonies.

Ralph Hancock, author of Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, points out that, “Calvin’s political teaching is that civil government is a ‘divinely established order’. The magistrate therefore does not assert his power in his own name but has a ‘mandate from God’.”[1] This principle made it clear that monarchs, and other civil magistrates, were to uphold God’s Law instead of the law of their whimsical fancy. In an age of divine right of kings, Calvin’s revelation was revolutionary and instrumental in changing the relationship between people and their civil government in many European nations.

Calvin also explicitly denounced civil disobedience and preached the doctrine of allegiance to civil magistrates, but clarified that, “[W]e are subject to the men who rule over us, but only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him [the Lord] let us not pay the least regard to it.”[2] To drive this point home, Calvin reiterated this principle in his sermons and his Institutes, which was a foundational understanding of civil resistance movements during the Reformation era.

Calvin did not, however, advocate individual disobedience to civil magistrates, he only promoted righteous resistance to tyranny under lawful authority. Calvin, as quoted by Hancock said, “’[M]agistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings’ are not only permitted but in fact solemnly obligated to ‘withstand … the fierce licentiousness of kings’ and thus to protect ‘the freedom of the people’.”[3] In other words, individuals and groups of individuals had to appeal to a lesser magistrate to interpose on their behalf, which the founders of America did by forming the Continental Congress to interpose against King George III.

Another significant influence of Calvin on western culture was the way he organized his church in Geneva.  Calvin’s ecclesiastical government was unique during the Reformation in that authority was held by a council of elders instead of the traditional hierarchical system. Calvin stressed, “[T]he spiritual jurisdiction itself must not have a human head, that it must be administered ‘not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly.’”[4]

Calvin’s ecclesiastical structure became the model for Reformed churches throughout Europe at that time. “In the middle years of the sixteenth century, the structures and disciplines Calvin had successfully imposed in Geneva were exported to a number of countries, where this new church order became a hallmark of the church.”[5]

While many countries in Western Europe were changed through Calvin’s theology and ecclesiastical government, it was primarily through the countries of Scotland and England that a French Pastor in a Swiss canton was able to set the conditions for American independence and influence the unique form of civil government that ensued from it.

Most of the immigrants who went to the New World, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, came from Scotland and England and it was English law that prevailed when they established the colonies. In order to trace the trail of Calvin’s influence in America, one must see that, “[I]n Scotland – and later in England – Calvinism was associated with the struggle for civil and religious freedom.”[6]

Scotland, primarily due to the efforts of Knox, was the first of the two nations to apply the teachings of Calvin to their civil government. “In Scotland, Calvin’s ideas were aggressively propagated by John Knox.”[7] Thus, it was through Knox that the “Scottish Reformation both developed implicit teachings of Calvin on a national scene and went beyond them in a more radical direction.”[8]

The First Book of Discipline, which regulated the Scottish church’s ecclesiastical order, was fashioned upon the Geneva model by Knox. “Ecclesiastically the overturn in Scotland consisted in the abolition of the Episcopacy and the establishment of a Presbyterian form of church government on the lines which Knox had derived from Calvin.”[9] “Yet Knox went further, transferring to the political sphere ideas that Calvin had limited to the sphere of church government.”[10]

As Knox demonstrated, people tend to organize themselves in their civil government by the way they organize themselves in their religious government, so if a nation has one man in charge of their church, they most likely will have one man in charge of their civil government.

Accordingly, the Presbyterian form of ecclesiastical government in Scotland became the model for their civil government. “The rather different Presbyterian polity [of the Scot-Presbyterians] was to contribute in its own way to later state and national practice of government by representation, checks and balances.”[11]

Knox’s Calvinistic changes to church and state in Scotland was a stepping stone to the political system established in American after the colonists won their independence from England.

The peculiar approach of Reformed Scotland to God, church, and civil government was a major stage in the development of modern political systems in the West. Three concepts especially were realized in Scottish government: the concept of the church as a body equal in legal right and standing with the civil state; the implicitly “covenantal” idea of the direct rights of the people to hold political authorities responsible to carry out their functions under limitations prescribed by transcendent law and the general elevation of the common citizen through democratizing structures emulating Presbyterian polity (underlining added).[12]

Knox’s legacy lived on in the Scottish National Covenant of 1638, which the Presbyterians in Scotland signed to unite themselves in defense of true religion against innovations such as the rule of bishops and the Book of Common Prayer. The National Covenant also set an example for compacts, orders, and declarations made in the colonies. “The Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the Newport Declaration expressed without disguise or reservation the democratic principles that were only latent in the Scottish National Covenant of 1638.”[13]

Moving to Calvin’s influence in England, one can see that Calvin’s impact on English culture was equally as significant as it was in Scotland. Puritans, regardless how one chooses to define them, were Calvinists at heart. One can see evidence of this in, “Calvin’s disciplinary rules for Christian living, enforced by the Consistory, [which] embodied the most rigorous system of Puritanism.”[14]

One can also see evidence of Calvin’s influence in England by the volume of his writings that were published there. “More editions of Calvin’s writings were published in England during the second half of the sixteenth century than in any other part of Europe, including Geneva and his [Calvin’s] native France.”[15] Additionally, “The Institutes became standard theological reading for students of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge.” [16] As a result of this and other Calvinistic influences, “By 1600 both conformists and nonconformists, [E]piscopalians and [P]resbyterians, all had in common Calvinist ideas.”[17]

Consequently, the Puritans who immigrated to the New World took their Calvinist system of government with them. “The Puritans of Massachusetts had adopted a system which, in the adjustment of relation between secular and ecclesiastical authority, had much of the theocratic character of Calvin’s regime in Geneva.”[18]

By studying Puritan colonial charters, one can also see the connection between the Puritan’s and America’s constitutional tradition.

The idea of the colonial charter, which grants power (from London), and the Puritan Congregationalist civil covenant (allowed by the original charter), by which the people specify how they are to be ruled and thus grant power to their own officials, are combined in the colonial constitutional tradition of the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard. [19]

It was through immigration, therefore, that Calvin came to America. Historically, one can tell the nature of who was reigning in England by who was fleeing from it. Beginning in 1629 very large numbers of Puritans fled from England due to the Stuart dynasty. From 1629 to 1641 approximately twenty-thousand of them settled in what is now Massachusetts, which was only a fraction of the total number to flee England at that time.

The Puritan settlers were the first of four major migrations out of England that populated the colonies. The other migrations were: the Cavaliers and indentured servants (1642 -1675), the Quakers (1675-1725), and the Scotch-Irish and northern border English (1717-1775).

As noted before, most everyone living in England and Scotland during the early seventeenth century was influenced by Calvin and it was these people who, for the most part, immigrated to America in each of the four major migrations.

[T]he teachings of John Calvin of Geneva, so strongly imprinted upon the Congregational churches of New England, worked as well … upon the other American colonies. The Presbyterians – Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and English – who came to the middle and southern colonies also were disciples of Calvin; even the Anglican settlers, until the middle of the seventeenth century, often emphasized the Calvinistic element in the doctrines of the Church of England. The Baptists, too, were moved by Calvin.[20]

By the time of the War for Independence the majority of people living in the colonies were also influenced by Calvin. “There were around tree million persons in the thirteen original colonies by 1776, and perhaps as many as two-thirds of these came from some kind of Calvinist or Puritan connection.”[21]

Many colonists, through their Calvinist connection, were familiar with covenant theology like that found in the Scottish National Covenant of 1638. Covenant theology was, as one should expect, a major factor in resisting the King of England in America’s War of Independence. “[I]t is significant that the legal justification for the rebellion was largely couched in covenant terminology. This in turn harked back to the previous two centuries of Calvinist experience in North America.”[22]

Not only was covenant theology at the root of rebellion in America, but also a prevailing Calvinist worldview that was widespread among the population in the colonies aided Calvinistic ideas to be quickly adopted and applied.

The Calvinists exercised continuing influence over the prerevolutionary viewpoint, not only through sermons, congregational charters, and Presbyterian “Adopting Acts,” but also through higher education, as given by President Ezra Stiles (and later Timothy Dwight) of Yale and John Witherspoon of Princeton.[23]

The College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University, which was founded as the Presbyterian Seminary in America, became extremely influential in the formation of the American national civil government. Most of this influence came through the teachings of John Witherspoon, who was a Scottish Immigrant, an alleged descendent of John Knox, and a professor at the College of New Jersey.

Princeton produced more officeholders on all levels of the infant nation than did any other American college. Witherspoon’s political Calvinism emphasized the responsibilities of public service, and the centrality of law to both legitimate and stabilize the revolutionary process. … The document [the US Constitution] reflects the naturalized Calvinism that Madison took away from Princeton.[24]

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States who was trained by John Witherspoon and who later co-authored the Federalist Papers, is commonly referred to as the father of the Constitution. It was through him, therefore, that some of the Calvinistic influence made it into the Constitution.

[I]t remains unarguable that underlying Calvinist themes permeate the founding documents. We see the two-powers theory of church and state and the covenantal-conciliar thesis of limitation of governmental powers in terms of divine-law. Moreover, throughout the carefully ordered separation of powers with checks and balances, deliberately restraining a more unified operation of government, we see a reflection of the Calvinist doctrine of the fallenness of human nature, with its inevitable tendency of any ascendant arm of government to abuse power in a tyrannical direction. James Smylie, in a discussion of the The Federalist number Ten and number Fifty-One, has pointed out this relationship between the Calvinist distrust of human nature and the American attempt to limit civil powers.[25]

Madison, however, is not solely responsible for the Calvinistic influence found in the Constitution, but he is a prime example of it. Presbyterian churches, especially around 1775, were Reformed churches based on Calvin’s theology and were organized around the principles Calvin interpreted from the Bible. In fact, the word “presbyterian” is a description of its ecclesiastical government by representative assemblies of elders. A clear cause and effect relationship, therefore, seems to exist between the Presbyterian population in America and America’s form of civil government. “With respect to the Constitution of 1787, ‘It is no accident that the birth of the Republic coincided with the appearance of the national Presbyterian Church.’”[26]

In the US Constitution, one can see a reflection of the three main Christian denominations that were prevalent in America in 1787. Over ninety-seven percent of the approximate three million people living in America, around its founding, were Protestant Christians. Of that ninety-seven percent, the three most common denominations were Anglican (Episcopal), Presbyterian, and Congregationalist. The Episcopal Church government was hierarchal, or the rule of the one; the Presbyterian Church government was representative, or rule by the few; and the Congregational Church government was democratic, or rule by the many.

The Executive Branch of the United States national government is a reflection of Episcopal Church government; rule by the one. The Senate, which prior to the Seventeenth Amendment, was a reflection of Presbyterian Church government; rule by the few. The House of Representatives, the only entity in the United States national government that was intended to be elected by the majority of the electorate, is a reflection of the Congregational Church government; rule by the many. In this, one can see the United States national government is a reflection of the different forms of church governments most prevalent in America in 1787. Two-thirds of the United States national government reflects the two-thirds of the Calvinist population living in America at that time and their form of ecclesiastical government.

Without John Calvin, the western world would be a very different place. His theology influenced changes to ecclesiastical government in Scotland, which led to its application in their civil government. Additionally, Calvin’s principle of resistance to civil authority, which exceeds or abuses their God granted power, provided a legal foundation to the English civil war and the American War of Independence.

John Calvin’s influence on the foundation of United States of America was, therefore, not only significant, it was vital. Had John Calvin not laid out his theological doctrines and his ecclesiastical organization, much of the immigration to America most likely would not have happened and even if it had, the immigrants would not have had Calvin’s Biblical principles as a foundation for their resistance to the King of England. Additionally, the government that eventually came out of America’s independence would not have become what it did if it had not been for Calvin’s influence among the population at that time. For all these reasons, one must recognize that Calvin was just as influential upon the establishment and organization of America as a nation as were any of the Founding Fathers during the founding era.

[1] Ralph C. Hancock, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 84.

[2] Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.32.

[3] Hancock, 72.

[4] Hancock, 72.

[5] Martine Ernst Hirzel and Martin Sallmann, eds., John Calvin’s Impact on Church and Society, 1509-2009 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 35.

[6] Kelly, 99.

[7] Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 99.

[8] Kelly, 51.

[9] William Archibald Dunning, A History of Political Theories: From Luther to Montesquieu (New York: Macmillan, 1905), 224.

[10] McGrath, 99.

[11] Kelly, 122.

[12] Kelly, 52.

[13] Dunning, 231.

[14] Dunning, 32.

[15] Hirzel, 40.

[16] R.T. Kendall, The Influence of Calvin and Calvinism upon the American Heritage (Rushden, Northants: Stanley L. Hunt, 1976), 3-4.

[17] Kendall, 3-4.

[18] Dunning, 232.

[19] Kelly, 123.

[20] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991), 46.

[21] Kelly, 120.

[22] Kelly, 133.

[23] Kelly, 132.

[24] Hirzel, 55.

[25] Kelly, 135.

[26] Mark J. Larson, Calvin’s Doctrine of the State: A Reformed Doctrine and Its American Trajectory, The Revolutionary War, and the Founding of the Republic (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 98.


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