CALVINISM IN AMERICA
When we come to study the influence
of Calvinism as a political force in the history of the United States we come to one of
the brightest pages of all Calvinistic history. Calvinism came to America in the
Mayflower, and Bancroft, the greatest of American historians, pronounces the Pilgrim
Fathers "Calvinists in their faith according to the straightest system."1
John Endicott, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; John Winthrop, the
second governor of that Colony; Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut; John Davenport,
the founder of the New Haven Colony; and Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island
Colony, were all Calvinists. William Penn was a disciple of the Huguenots. It is estimated
that of the 3,000,000 Americans at the time of the American Revolution, 900,000 were of
Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin, 600,000 were Puritan English, and 400,000 were German or
Dutch Reformed. In addition to this the Episcopalians had a Calvinistic confession in
their Thirty-nine Articles; and many French Huguenots also had come to this western world.
Thus we see that about two-thirds of the colonial population had been trained in the
school of Calvin. Never in the world's history had a nation been founded by such people as
these. Furthermore these people came to America not primarily for commercial gain or
advantage, but because of deep religious convictions. It seems that the religious
persecutions in various European countries had been providentially used to select out the
most progressive and enlightened people for the colonization of America. At any rate it is
quite generally admitted that the English, Scotch, Germans, and Dutch have been the most
masterful people of Europe. Let it be especially remembered that the Puritans, who formed
the great bulk of the settlers in New England, brought with them a Calvinistic
Protestantism, that they were truly devoted to the doctrines of the great Reformers, that
they had an aversion for formalism and oppression whether in the Church or in the State,
and that in New England Calvinism remained the ruling theology throughout the entire
With this background we shall not be
surprised to find that the Presbyterians took a very prominent part in the American
Revolution. Our own historian Bancroft says: "The Revolution of 1776, so far as it
was affected by religion, was a Presbyterian measure. It was the natural outgrowth of the
principles which the Presbyterianism of the Old World planted in her sons, the English
Puritans, the Scotch Covenanters, the French Huguenots, the Dutch Calvinists, and the
Presbyterians of Ulster." So intense, universal, and aggressive were the
Presbyterians in their zeal for liberty that the war was spoken of in England as "The
Presbyterian Rebellion." An ardent colonial supporter of King George III wrote home:
"I fix all the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. They
have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures. They always
do and ever will act against government from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchial
spirit which has always distinguished them everywhere."2 When the news of
"these extraordinary proceedings" reached England, Prime Minister Horace Walpole
said in Parliament, "Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson"
(John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, signer of Declaration of Independence).
History is eloquent in declaring that
American democracy was born of Christianity and that that Christianity was Calvinism. The
great Revolutionary conflict which resulted in the formation of the American nation, was
carried out mainly by Calvinists, many of whom had been trained in the rigidly
Presbyterian College at Princeton, and this nation is their gift to all liberty loving
J. R. Sizoo tells us: "When
Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate retreat and surrender at Yorktown, all of the
colonels of the Colonial Army but one were Presbyterian elders. More than one-half of all
the soldiers and officers of the American Army during the Revolution were
The testimony of Emilio Castelar, the
famous Spanish statesman, orator and scholar, is interesting and valuable. Castelar had
been professor of Philosophy in the University of Madrid before he entered politics, and
he was made president of the republic which was set up by the Liberals in 1873. As a Roman
Catholic he hated Calvin and Calvinism. Says he: "It was necessary for the republican
movement that there should come a morality more austere than Luther's, the morality of
Calvin, and a Church more democratic than the German, the Church of Geneva. The
Anglo-Saxon democracy has for its lineage a book of a primitive society the Bible.
It is the product of a severe theology learned by the few Christian fugitives in the
gloomy cities of Holland and Switzerland, where the morose shade of Calvin still wanders .
. . And it remains serenely in its grandeur, forming the most dignified, most moral and
most enlightened portion of the human race."4
Says Motley: "In England the seeds of
liberty, wrapped up in Calvinism and hoarded through many trying years, were at last
destined to float over land and sea, and to bear the largest harvests of temperate freedom
for great commonwealths that were still unborn.5 "The Calvinists founded
the commonwealths of England, of Holland, and America." And again, "To
Calvinists more than to any other class of men, the political liberties of England,
Holland and America are due."6
The testimony of another famous historian,
the Frenchman Taine, who himself held no religious faith, is worthy of consideration.
Concerning the Calvinists he said: "These men are the true heroes of England. They
founded England, in spite of the corruption of the Stuarts, by the exercise of duty, by
the practice of justice, by obstinate toil, by vindication of right, by resistance to
oppression, by the conquest of liberty, by the repression of vice. They founded Scotland;
they founded the United States; at this day they are, by their descendants, founding
Australia and colonizing the world."7
In his book, "The Creed of
Presbyterians," E. W. Smith asks concerning the American colonists, "Where
learned they those immortal principles of the rights of man, of human liberty, equality
and self-government, on which they based their Republic, and which form today the
distinctive glory of our American civilization ? In the school of Calvin they learned
them. There the modern world learned them. So history teaches," (p. 121).
We shall now pass on to consider the
influence which the Presbyterian Church as a Church exerted in the formation of the
Republic. "The Presbyterian Church," said Dr. W. H. Roberts in an address before
the General Assembly, "was for three-quarters of a century the sole representative
upon this continent of republican government as now organized in the nation." And
then he continues: "From 1706 to the opening of the revolutionary struggle the only
body in existence which stood for our present national political organization was the
General Synod of the American Presbyterian Church. It alone among ecclesiastical and
political colonial organizations exercised authority, derived from the colonists
themselves, over bodies of Americans scattered through all the colonies from New England
to Georgia. The colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is to be
remembered, while all dependent upon Great Britain, were independent of each other. Such a
body as the Continental Congress did not exist until 1774. The religious condition of the
country was similar to the political. The Congregational Churches of New England had no
connection with each other, and had no power apart from the civil government. The
Episcopal Church was without organization in the colonies, was dependent for support and a
ministry on the Established Church of England, and was filled with an intense loyalty to
the British monarchy. The Reformed Dutch Church did not become an efficient and
independent organization until 1771, and the German Reformed Church did not attain to that
condition until 1793. The Baptist Churches were separate organizations, the Methodists
were practically unknown, and the Quakers were non-combatants."
Delegates met every year in the
General Synod, and as Dr. Roberts tells us, the Church became "a bond of union and
correspondence between large elements in the population of the divided colonies."
"Is it any wonder," he continues, "that under its fostering influence the
sentiments of true liberty, as well as the tenets of a sound gospel, were preached
throughout the territory from Long Island to South Carolina, and that above all a feeling
of unity between the Colonies began slowly but surely to assert itself? Too much emphasis
cannot be laid, in connection with the origin of the nation, upon the influence of that
ecclesiastical republic, which from 1706 to 1774 was the only representative on this
continent of fully developed federal republican institutions. The United States of America
owes much to that oldest of American Republics, the Presbyterian Church."8
It is, of course, not claimed that the
Presbyterian Church was the only source from which sprang the principles upon which this
republic is founded, but it is claimed that the principles found in the Westminster
Standards were the chief basis for the republic, and that "The Presbyterian Church
taught, practiced, and maintained in fulness, first in this land that form of government
in accordance with which the Republic has been organized." (Roberts).
The opening of the Revolutionary struggle
found the Presbyterian ministers and churches lined up solidly on the side of the
colonists, and Bancroft accredits them with having made the first bold move toward
independence.9 The synod which assembled in Philadelphia in 1775 was the first
religious body to declare openly and publicly for a separation from England. It urged the
people under its jurisdiction to leave nothing undone that would promote the end in view,
and called upon them to pray for the Congress which was then in session.
The Episcopalian Church was then still
united with the Church of England, and it opposed the Revolution. A considerable number of
individuals within that Church, however, labored earnestly for independence and gave of
their wealth and influence to secure it. It is to be remembered also that the
Commander-in-Chief of the American armies, "the father of our country," was a
member of her household. Washington himself attended, and ordered all of his men to attend
the services of his chaplains, who were clergymen from the various churches. He gave forty
thousand dollars to establish a Presbyterian College in his native state, which took his
name in honor of the gift and became Washington College.
N. S. McFetridge has thrown light upon
another major development of the Revolutionary period. For the sake of accuracy and
completeness we shall take the privilege of quoting him rather extensively. "Another
important factor in the independent movement," says he, "was what is known as
the 'Mecklenburg Declaration,' proclaimed by the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of North
Carolina, May 20, 1775, more than a year before the Declaration (of Independence) of
Congress. It was the fresh, hearty greeting of the Scotch-Irish to their struggling
brethren in the North, and their bold challenge to the power of England. They had been
keenly watching the progress of the contest between the colonies and the Crown, and when
they heard of the address presented by the Congress to the King, declaring the colonies in
actual rebellion, they deemed it time for patriots to speak. Accordingly, they called a
representative body together in Charlotte, N. C., which by unanimous resolution declared
the people free and independent, and that all laws and commissions from the king were
henceforth null and void. In their Declaration were such resolutions as these: 'We do
hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us with the mother-country, and
hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British crown' .... 'We hereby declare
ourselves a free and independent people; are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and
self-governing association, under control of no power other than that of our God and the
general government of Congress; to the maintenance of which we solemnly pledge to each
other our mutual cooperation and our lives, our fortunes and our most sacred honor.' ...
That assembly was composed of twenty-seven staunch Calvinists, just one-third of whom were
ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church, including the president and secretary; and one
was a Presbyterian clergyman. The man who drew up that famous and important document was
the secretary, Ephraim Brevard, a ruling elder of the Presbyterian Church and a graduate
of Princeton College. Bancroft says of it that it was, 'in effect, a declaration as well
as a complete system of government.' (U.S. Hist. VIII, 40). It was sent by special
messenger to the Congress in Philadelphia, and was published in the Cape Fear Mercury, and
was widely distributed throughout the land. Of course it was speedily transmitted to
England, where it became the cause of intense excitement.
"The identity of sentiment and
similarity of expression in this Declaration and the great Declaration written by
Jefferson could not escape the eye of the historian; hence Tucker, in his Life of
Jefferson, says: 'Everyone must be persuaded that one of these papers must have been
borrowed from the other.' But it is certain that Brevard could not have 'borrowed' from
Jefferson, for he wrote more than a year before Jefferson; hence Jefferson, according to
his biographer, must have 'borrowed' from Brevard. But it was a happy plagiarism, for
which the world will freely forgive him. In correcting his first draft of the Declaration
it can be seen, in at least a few places, that Jefferson has erased the original words and
inserted those which are first found in the Mecklenberg Declaration. No one can doubt that
Jefferson had Brevard's resolutions before him when he was writing his immortal
This striking similarity between the
principles set forth in the Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church and those set
forth in the Constitution of the United States has caused much comment. "When the
fathers of our Republic sat down to frame a system of representative and popular
government," says Dr. E. W. Smith, "their task was not so difficult as some have
imagined. They had a model to work by."11
"If the average American citizen were
asked, who was the founder of America, the true author of our great Republic, he might be
puzzled to answer. We can imagine his amazement at hearing the answer given to this
question by the famous German historian, Ranke, one of the profoundest scholars of modern
times. Says Ranke, 'John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.'"12
D'Aubigne, whose history of the
Reformation is a classic, writes: "Calvin was the founder of the greatest of
republics. The Pilgrims who left their country in the reign of James I, and landing on the
barren soil of New England, founded populous and mighty colonies, were his sons, his
direct and legitimate sons; and that American nation which we have seen growing so rapidly
boasts as its father the humble Reformer on the shore of Lake Leman."13
Dr. E. W. Smith says, "These
revolutionary principles of republican liberty and self-government, taught and embodied in
the system of Calvin, were brought to America, and in this new land where they have borne
so mighty a harvest were planted, by whose hands? the hands of the Calvinists. The
vital relation of Calvin and Calvinism to the founding of the free institutions of
America, however strange in some ears the statement of Ranke may have sounded, is
recognized and affirmed by historians of all lands and creeds."14
All this has been thoroughly understood
and candidly acknowledged by such penetrating and philosophic historians as Bancroft, who
far though he was from being Calvinistic in his own personal convictions, simply calls
Calvin "the father of America," and adds: "He who will not honor the memory
and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American
When we remember that two-thirds of the
population at the time of the Revolution had been trained in the school of Calvin, and
when we remember how unitedly and enthusiastically the Calvinists labored for the cause of
independence, we readily see how true are the above testimonies.
There were practically no Methodists in
America at the time of the Revolution; and, in fact, the Methodist Church was not
officially organized as such in England until the year 1784, which was three years after
the American Revolution closed. John Wesley, great and good man though he was, was a Tory
and a believer in political non-resistance. He wrote against the American
"rebellion," but accepted the providential result. McFetridge tells us:
"The Methodists had hardly a foothold in the colonies when the war began. In 1773
they claimed about one hundred and sixty members. Their ministers were almost all, if not
all, from England, and were staunch supporters of the Crown against American Independence.
Hence, when the war broke out they were compelled to fly from the country. Their political
views were naturally in accord with those of their great leader, John Wesley, who wielded
all the power of his eloquence and influence against the independence of the colonies.
(Bancroft, Hist. U.S., Vol. VII, p. 261.) He did not foresee that independent America was
to be the field on which his noble Church was to reap her largest harvests, and that in
that Declaration which he so earnestly opposed lay the security of the liberties of his
In England and America the great struggles
for civil and religious liberty were nursed in Calvinism, inspired by Calvinism, and
carried out largely by men who were Calvinists. And because the majority of historians
have never made a serious study of Calvinism they have never been able to give us a
truthful and complete account of what it has done in these countries. Only the light of
historical investigation is needed to show us how our forefathers believed in it and were
controlled by it. We live in a day when the services of the Calvinists in the founding of
this country have been largely forgotten, and one can hardly treat of this subject without
appearing to be a mere eulogizer of Calvinism. We may well do honor to that Creed which
has borne such sweet fruits and to which America owes so much.
1Hist. U. S., I, p. 463.
2Presbyterians and the Revolution, p. 49.
3They Seek a Country, J. G. Slosser, editor, p. 155.
4Harper's Monthly. June and July, 1872.
5The'United Netherlands, III., p. 121.
6The United Netherlands, IV., pp. 548, 547.
7English Literature, II., p. 472.
8Address on, "The Westminster Standards and the Formation of the American
9Hist. U.S., X., p. 77.
10Calvinism in History, pp. 85-88.
11The Creed of Presbyterians, p. 142.
12Id. p. 119.
13Reformation in the Time of Calvin, I., p. 5.
14The Creed of Presbyterians, p. 132.
15Calvinism in History, p. 74.