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The Prism of Calvin’s Political Legacy in the United States

By June 1, 2009 No Comments

The writers of the American Constitution were guided by the theology of Calvin and the philosophy of Hobbes.

On the contrary, they were resolute secularists who cared neither for nor about the doctrine of predestination.

The American polity grew organically from roots planted by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621 and continued to manifest that Reformed original in spirit and shape at least until the 1960s.

On the contrary, the separation of church and state, mandated for the federal government in the First Amendment and fully realized on the state level fifty years later, was unthinkable in any Calvinist setting.

The spirit of the Puritans held sway across the American nineteenth century, as attested to by a score of foreign visitors and pioneer church historians.

On the contrary, Calvinism was unfit for the self-determining citizens of a free republic; appropriately, the youth of the United States is identified as the Methodist Age in American church history, and its industrial maturity with Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish immigration that instantiated in practice the pluralism that the founders had mandated in theory.

That all of these mutually contradictory statements are more or less true is one index of the paradoxical nature of American society. It also illustrates how challenging it can be to trace the influence of a religious tradition like Calvinism across the many twists and turns and new departures of so vast and variegated a land as the United States. Part of our response must be to take care in measurement, for sometimes the “less” in the characterization “more or less true”can be quite “less” indeed.

Even more important is careful definition of terms. If we narrow “Calvinism”to Reformed theology, and then Reformed theology to the propositions of the Westminster standards literally applied, we will have to conclude, as have some strict confessionalists in Presbyterian circles, that Calvinism is an “implausible” parent of American democracy. But if we are more expansive in tracing the trajectory of Reformed theology over time and pursue the cultural resonances and political implications of that complex, then the lines of ancestry and influence get less implausible. And if we act like historians instead of normative theologians and observe people of Reformed lineage taking deliberate and consistent stances on American politics, then we need to trace the connections, overt and covert, from the collective faith to the collective behavior. This essay will focus that search on the pre-Civil War era of American history, not evaluating the fit between republican ideology and Reformed theology, as has often been attempted, but tracing continuities in different regions of American Calvinists from the colonial era through the early republic.

Alas for lovers of consistency, we find not just one but three traditions of Reformed political engagement. That is, Calvinist theology did not imprint itself by uniform logic but was radiated through a prism onto the screen of early American politics. Each of these rays or traditions manifests one of the prime ends that Calvin and his immediate heirs hoped to achieve in their reformation. Each tradition reflects as well the particular locale of its European origin and/or the particular circumstances in which its roots were planted in North America. Crucial among those circumstances were the relative social homogeneity or heterogeneity in which a Reformed group found themselves, their distance or proximity to the levers of political power, and the geographical region across which their descendants spread in the course of American expansion. From these variables crystallized three types of Reformed political endeavor in early America:

The quest for a righteous society that was rooted in Puritan New England’s covenanted communalism and that registered between the Revolution and Civil War in intense reform activity among the New England diaspora across New York and the upper Midwest. The careful constitutionalism of Presbyterianism in the Mid-Atlantic and upper South that aimed at harmonizing human diversity and controlling the consequences of human depravity by means of structural constraints. The radical church-state separationism of Presbyterians in the Lower South that sought to maintain the church as pure and autonomous amidst the challenges of a slave society and libertarian ideology and so devised the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church.”

Greater New England’s Holy Commonwealth

It is well known that the Puritans who settled New England instituted an established religion with a longstanding monopoly on political power. It is less familiar that these immigrants came overwhelmingly from one region in England, East Anglia, or that (setting aside for a moment the native peoples) they populated the most ethnically homogeneous region in all of colonial America. In fact, New England was more English than was England itself. The religion planted there had already been altered from the Reformed standard on the Continent by the exigencies of England’s protracted process of church reformation. Neither outlawed nor in power, English Puritans had negotiated an indeterminate space by building congregations that were in part voluntary associations of the like-minded, a tendency that resonated with East Anglia’s strong communal traditions.

This pattern gave rise in New England to a localistic polity and standards of experiential piety, i.e., the expectation that full church membership be accorded only upon the applicant’s testimony of a convincing personal experience of conversion. In this manner New England’s Puritans aimed at making the visible and invisible churches as synonymous as possible. At the same time their churches were state-supported to the exclusion of all others with the aim of thoroughly reforming not only church but also state and society. This was to be a “Bible commonwealth” founded upon a social compact between people who were at once fellow citizens and fellow church members.

The Puritans hoped to effect this harmony as much as possible by consent rather than coercion; cultivating a responsible public ethos was crucial to this end. Obviously, churches–which all inhabitants were required to attend–were key to the project, but so too were schools, which appeared in nearly every town. Though clergy were barred from civil office, they typically worked in close cooperation with the magistracy in setting policy. Thus literacy, piety, and social duty were each promulgated via the other. As to formal governance, New England Puritans were and were not democratic. They were not democratic in that Massachusetts restricted the franchise in colony-wide elections to full church members until King James II revoked its charter in 1686. They were democratic in that all along they granted the vote in local affairs to everyone who could meet a relatively accessible property qualification. Yet they were not democratic in that the famous New England town-meeting did not mean to poll between discordant opinions but to establish and enforce communal consensus. That effort met considerable success. For all their talk of judgment and punishment, New England’s social behavior was marked by remarkably low levels of violence; its laws singled out crimes of aggression over those involving property, sexuality, or libel.

Their sense of corporate calling also made colonial New England’s transgressions worse–or at least, more volubly rationalized. Externally, God’s “New Israel” had “Canaanites”near at hand to deal with. The grimmest annals in New England history recount the Pequot War (1637-38) and King Philip’s War (1675-76)–proportionate to population, some of the costliest episodes in American military history. The more familiar Salem witch craze (1692) turned the hunt for the Lord’s enemies inward, and its twenty victims count as the predictable sacrifice of an insular community trying to dam its tide of afflictions. The quiet anomaly of Salem is that such episodes did not occur more often in the region.

The maps of New England migration, intense revivalism, temperance crusading, and antislavery agitation across upstate New York and the Upper Midwest are overlays of each other.

For that New England’s learned ministry and magistrates are due credit, as they usually nipped the folk mania of witch-hunting in the bud. In good times and bad, however, the jeremiad–New England’s distinctive contribution to American letters–employed constant repetition to ingrain upon this culture’s consciousness a narrative cycle of election, transgression, and the dream of a renewed election made possible by that very transgression. The genre helped keep alive the early Calvinist dream of a righteous society as the range of what counted as God’s “chosen nation” gradually expanded from New England proper to include, first, those adjacent territories where her children spread in the search for land and opportunity and then later, in the 1820s, the United States as a whole. There, in the Yankee diaspora across upstate New York and the upper Midwest, the antebellum heirs of the Puritans launched their project anew, seeking now by the voluntary measures of revivalism and moral-reform associations to redeem the young republic of its collective sins.

Revival-style evangelism could wear hard on classic Calvinist theology. The “new measures” crusades of Charles Finney scored the doctrine of personal election as it had come to be understood by contemporaries, while the impresario of moral reform, Lyman Beecher, was brought up on heresy charges by traditionalist Presbyterians in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was in charge of a New England-planted seminary. It is worth noting, however, that Beecher and his daughter Harriet, who learned her literary craft in Cincinnati, deliberately raised the flag of the “Pilgrim” heritage there, and that Boston’s Unitarians spied in Finney not an Arminian but a hyper-Calvinist fixated on guilt and depravity, prone to all manner of legalism. In any case, Beecher and Finney’s revivalism launched a fleet of social reformers.

The maps of New England migration, intense revivalism, temperance crusading, and antislavery agitation across upstate New York and the Upper Midwest are overlays of each other. In politics, reform energies split along different paths. The largest followed the Whig flag within the ordinary channels of American politics, constituting that party’s irreducible moralist core. More radical souls took the more selective route of third-party politics, notably under the Liberty and Free-Soil banners. Arguably, the most radical followed Massachusetts Baptist-turned-ultra-abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison into the anti-party path of Christian anarchism. Tracing Garrison’s political journey back to its source, however, we see it born in the most severe form of High Federalism, which was set above the will of the polluted populace. In this light Garrison transmuted Federalist elitism into divine demands, setting himself forth as a chosen nation of one who–like Puritans two centuries before–had renounced the willfully impure mass of the nation for the pure circle of those who would not compromise the law of the Lord.

Presbyterian Constitutionalism in the Middle States

The second congeries of Calvinists in colonial America lived in radically different circumstances and so faced radically different prospects. The Dutch Reformed, Huguenots, Scots, and Irish Presbyterians who settled in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were part of the most ethnically and religiously pluralistic society in North America. Not accidentally, it was in this mid-Atlantic region that the religious denomination and the political party as we know them were invented. That is to say, here any claim of religious establishment was a pipedream (if not abjured by charter), and civil politics reached the peaks of factionalism and blatant self-interest. No Reformed group in this matrix either could or likely wished to become an ecclesiastical or political establishment. The same held for their descendants and kin who spread up and down the backcountry of eighteenth-century Appalachia. Sometimes German Reformed but more typically Scots and Ulster Presbyterians, these immigrants evolved into an often prickly minority on the western fringe of colonies that were controlled by seaboard elites.

In the backcountry, conflict–economic, political, ethnic, and religious–was endemic and a tenacious defense of rights well indicated. Within their own religious assemblies, especially those of Ulster derivation, stout Westminster orthodoxy coursed alongside vivid folk religion, and the prickly individualism of the frontier environment jostled with the claims of church assemblies. Leaders of these churches and the backwoods academies that spelled the advance guard of “civilization”dreamed of a more orderly future but had to seek it via measures that rose above the initiatives or interests of any particular group. The solution on all these fronts was the Calvinian strain of constitutionalism: strong church order that contained and resolved conflict in the house of the Lord, and the civil counterpart that kept order while guarding liberty in the city of man.

America’s Revolutionary era was made for this approach, and the Presbyterians rose to it in remarkable fashion. We need not trace here the alterations in ecclesiastical polity by which the churches (also the Dutch and German Reformed) adapted to the republican environment of the newly independent nation. Of more interest here are contributions to civil politics, led off by John Witherspoon, a Scots Presbyterian pastor brought to New Jersey in 1768 to preside over the college founded at Princeton, and thereby to help reconcile enduring New Side-Old Side tensions in the church that stemmed from the Great Awakening. Witherspoon did so, his evangelical past notwithstanding, by installing a new curriculum based in the moral-sense ethics and common-sense epistemology of the Scots Enlightenment. If this conciliation of rationalism with revivalism muted Calvinist doctrine of sin, it served admirably to pump political leadership into the American Revolution. In fact, Princeton produced more office-holders 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 both in legitimating the revolutionary process and in stabilizing the post-revolutionary settlement. His most distinguished student was James Madison, principal architect of the U.S. Constitution. With its separation of powers, checks and balances, disbursement of sovereignty between federal and state levels, and underlying strategy of multiplying factions and interests over a large republic (see Federalist Papers #10 & 51), the document is a mirror of middle-colony and backcountry experience. It is also registers the naturalized Calvinism that Madison took away from Princeton: utterly secular, trusting in no redemptions, arraying structural mechanisms to channel and control indelible self-interest.

Once national independence had been definitively secured at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Princeton returned to its original intent of producing ministers, founding a separate theological seminary that became a font of undiluted Calvinist orthodoxy. Leading the enterprise for half a century from his arrival on the faculty in 1822 was Charles Hodge: professor of systematic theology, the vastly learned editor of perhaps the foremost academic journal in the nation, a force for moderation in denominational councils, but an unbending advocate of what he took to be the timeless faith of the church. His system famously combined François Turretin’s Reformed dogmatics, Francis Bacon’s inductive method, Common Sense Realism as philosophical frame, and earnest polemics against any deviation from this profile. Yet long before he published this theology, he produced a church history, tellingly titled The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1840/1851), and during his long teaching career Princeton minted more ministers–and thus more professional leaders in local communities across the United States–than did any other school in the land. Hodge always hesitated to sacralize civic causes in the New England manner. Yet the resonance of his instruction was to promulgate in society as well as in church a respect for learning, a culture of sober realism and civil respect, and a model of piety fulfilled in institutional service. His counterpart in civic affairs was Stephen Colwell, a lawyer and iron manufacturer who gained fame in the years before the Civil War as one of the country’s leading economists. Opposed to the free-trade, laissez-faire orthodoxy of the day, Colwell sought government sponsorship for commercial, industrial, and educational enterprises that would make the national economy more balanced and sound, and thus also more propitious, he hoped, for social morality. His politics favored the Whig party ethos of ordered development and culminated in his co-founding, despite his Virginia birth, of the Union League of Philadelphia during the Civil War.

High-Church Quiescence in the Lower-South

Presbyterian and Reformed settlers who moved farther South in the colonial backcountry or who came into the Carolinas from the coast both encountered and helped build a different environment still. This was one predicated on slavery from the beginning. South Carolina was founded by Barbadian transplants whose slave-labor plantation complex was built in part on the proceeds of a lucrative trade in Indian captives from Carolina back to the West Indies. Theirs being the only mainland colony with a white minority, Carolina’s planter elite fashioned the most centralized regime and consolidated leadership on the British North American mainland. Likewise, the slave code they instituted after the Stono Rebellion (1739) was the most severe. Perennial fears of slave insurrection marked all Carolina policy, the religious included. Thus, evangelizing efforts in the slave quarters were finally accepted once the evangelists had made it clear that conversion did not bring manumission. Likewise, evangelicalism among white commoners had to buck elite resistance that disparaged its ‘unmanliness’as contrary to the regnant culture of honor. And so the most slavery-dependent region of colonial America bequeathed to the new nation the purest libertarian ideology–an ethic of elite self-determination that resisted the threats of an alien government and the carping of the church. Evangelical religion made its advances in this region by accepting this implicit contract; Presbyterians, as evangelicalism’s intellectual leadership, worked to give it warrant.

The result was their discovery of “the spirituality of the church,” Southern Presbyterianism’s chief contribution to the Reformed tradition. Best articulated by James Henley Thornwell, long a pastor and professor of theology at Columbia, South Carolina, the notion sharply demarcated the civil from the ecclesiastical sphere and limited the church’s corporate authority to the latter. The principle evoked Calvin’s quest for a disciplined, pure church amid a potentially chaotic and libertarian environment. It was also premised upon a stark bifurcation of the material from the spiritual which limited the range of that discipline and the aspirations of its purity. It conceded to the Jeffersonian-Baptist hegemony in the South, which projected American church-state separation upon the heavens as the eternal counsel of God, mandated for all times and places. It paralleled contemporaneous high-church efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to protect the church’s purity from political subservience. At the same time it accepted that subservience, for the spirituality of the church not accidentally served to insulate the dominant socioeconomic institution of the South from the church’s moral critique. Presbyterians would agree with the South Carolina Episcopalians’ declaration in 1859: “The State has deemed it wise and expedient to vest in the master absolute authority over the slave,”–including the authority to forbid in the slave quarters both literacy and legally binding marriage, two otherwise non-negotiable behavioral markers of the Reformation. These were not “moral” or “spiritual” concerns for black people and so lay outside the church’s proper jurisdiction.

Such quietism availed little in the final analysis, however, for when the Confederacy declared independence from the United States, it was Thornwell himself who wrote the “Address to All the Churches of Jesus Christ throughout the Earth”(1861) by which Southern Presbyterians warranted ecclesiastical separation from their Northern brethren–and gave fulsome support to their region’s thoroughly political cause. Their war became as sacred as anything New England ever fought. Although Thornwell himself came to think that the South’s reverses in that war reflected divine punishment upon some abuses of the system, his denomination never doubted that their slave regime had biblical warrant as a means of maintaining order in a social environment not of their own choosing, and as bringing some redemption for black people and white alike out of a fallen human estate. That is, it mixed perennial Calvinist themes with resolute racial hierarchy, adorning the lot with scriptural warrant, and shepherding it with careful ecclesiology.


It has been often remarked that the American Civil War was also a Christian civil war. We can cast it more specifically still as a Calvinist civil war. That is, in the most epochal conflict in United States history the fiercest and most accomplished rhetoric on the Northern front come from New England ministers who consciously styled themselves as “sons of the Puritans.”Their equals in the South were self-consciously Calvinistic Presbyterians devoted to the purity of Reformed churches. Lost in between–and leaving Charles Hodge, quite literally, in tears–was the constitutionalism that middle-state Presbyterians had endorsed as the best means of maintaining ordered liberty in a mixed society. When in 1861 the Constitution no longer availed, this group and their border-state neighbors decided the issue by submerging ordered liberty in Union, their nuances dying, with so much else, upon the altar of the nation.


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Conforti, Joseph A. Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Farmer, James Oscar, Jr. The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hood, Fred J. Reformed America: the Middle and Southern States, 1783-1837. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1980.

Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

_____. Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Sassi, Jonathan D. A Republic of Righteousness: The Public Christianity of the Post-Revolutionary New England Clergy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is co-editor of Perspectives. This essay was presented to the conference on “Calvin and His Influence” held at Geneva, 24-27 May 2009, with the assistance of a grant from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin University, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. He is the author of several books including Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, widely considered the definitive Kuyper biography.