On July 10, six days after our own Independence Day, the world will celebrate the birthday of John Calvin, the man most responsible for our American system of liberty based on Republican principles of representative government.
It was Founding Father and the second President of the United States, John Adams, who described Calvin as “a vast genius,” a man of “singular eloquence, vast erudition, and polished taste, [who] embraced the cause of Reformation,” adding: “Let not Geneva be forgotten or despised. Religious liberty owes it much respect.”
Calvin, a humble scholar and convert to Reformation Christianity from Noyon, France, is best known for his influence on the city of Geneva. It was there that his careful articulation of Christian theology as applied to familial, civil, and ecclesiastical authority modeled many of the principles of liberty later embraced by our own Founders, including anti-statism, the belief in transcendent principles of law as the foundation of an ethical legal system, free market economics, decentralized authority, an educated citizenry as a safeguard against tyranny, and republican representative government which was accountable to the people and a higher law.
In time, these ideas were imported to America. Certainly, the cause of American independence did not begin in 1776, but well over a century before as the first settlers arrived. These included the Huguenots of France, the Presbyterians of Scotland and Ireland, and the Puritans of New England. A common denominator of all these groups was their adherence to Reformed and Calvinistic confessions of faiths and a common heritage forged in the midst of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny. This is one reason why historians like Leopold von Ranke have observed that “Calvin was virtually the founder of America.”
King George once dismissed the American War for Independence as a mere “Presbyterian rebellion.” He did so because it was the colonial pulpit which most vociferously drew from Calvin’s legacy as the pretext for independence.
Preachers from New England to South Carolina invoked the Calvinistic doctrine of interposition as the biblical pretext for lower magistrates holding renegade and tyrannical higher magistrates accountable to the law. Principles of interposition had been vetted and defended by men like Calvin and Scotland’s John Knox and Samuel Rutherford, the latter of whom defended the doctrine in his seminal work, Lex Rex. These writings and others (like Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos written by another Calvin disciple) were widely read by our Founding Fathers and even presented to students at the College of New Jersey by Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon.
Despite the overwhelming influence of Calvinism on the founding of America, the last century has brought a backlash of anti-Calvinistic sentiment from modern and postmodern historians who have largely ignored Calvin’s or presented the scholar from Geneva as harsh and intolerant.
The execution of anti-Trinitarian agitator Michael Servetus by Genevan officials is often cited as proof of the religious intolerance of John Calvin. This analysis does not hold water. Servetus had a death sentence on his head in multiple European cities. Along with Geneva’s magistrates, dozens of important civil leaders outside this Swiss city called for the execution of Servetus. Calvin was not one of them. Calvin neither sat on the council which passed judgment on Servetus, nor was he even a citizen of Geneva at the time.
One need not be an adherent to Calvin’s theology to acknowledge his mammoth contribution. Even Jean Jacques Rousseau, a fellow Genevan who was no friend to Christianity, observed: “Those who consider Calvin only as a theologian fail to recognize the breadth of his genius. The editing of our wise laws, in which he had a large share, does him as much credit as his Institutes…. [S]o long as the love of country and liberty is not extinct amongst us, the memory of this great man will be held in reverence.”
As we celebrate Independence Day, let us remember the 500-year legacy of liberty bequeathed to us by John Calvin, even as we stand with Harvard historian George Bancroft who wisely stated: “He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”
Doug Phillips is a constitutional attorney and is spear-heading the Reformation 500 Celebration to be held in Boston on July 1-4.
Image by Thierry Ehrmann