John Calvin, Founding Father

As we celebrate Independence Day, let us remember the 500-year legacy of liberty bequeathed to us by John Calvin,

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

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  • agapn9

    Doug you may be a very good lawyer but as a historian you leave a bit to be desired.John Calvin had studied to be a catholic priest but was never ordained. He was never a ardent catholic. His family got caught in the quarrel between the bishop and the cannons.Calvin’s father was threatened with excommunication because he had failed to surrender the full amount due the bishopric. The father’s old age was most likely the cause not dishonesty.Charles Calvin’s brother angry over his father’s situation became enraged and rejected the church’s teaching on the eucharist publicly and church burial was refused him.Calvin became a leader of the reformation movement and after a long battle with the catholic forces Calvin’s forces took control of Geneva – catholic priests were thrown into jail, catholic churches were destroyed, and Calvin’s new Gospel was established in both Geneva and Zurich.58 Executions of those who refused to follow his way took place over the first 5 years of his reign.Michael Servetus, a Unitarian, a skilled doctor/debator and one who had the courage to go toe to toe against Calvin, the so-called great theologican, was burnt alive at Calvin’s insistence.Calvin was a vindictive and sometimes cruel man and to associate our great nation with such a man in the light of modern scholarship shows a lack of good judgment or a failure to avail one’s self of modern scholarship.

  • ccnl1

    AGAPN9,My compliments on your analyses of the real John Calvin.In a more general view:Calvin, Luther, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of “pretty wingie thingie” aka angel visits and “prophecies” for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immaculate conceptions).Current crises: Adulterous preachers, “propheteering/ profiteering” evangelicals and atonement theology, all-male hierarchies and strange banking and funding.

  • hmaulden

    Here, here, AGAPN9. Great points. We Christians hold up our heroes at great risk. Reality-history is often very inconvenient. Neither Luther nor Calvin were, by standards today, advocates of true religious freedom. They simply reformed the Catholic church into a revised, slightly more benign version. But they were both defenders of their new institutions using the point of a sword adn torture against those who disagreed within their realms. This includes torturing and putting to death real christians who lived biblical principles by today’s standards.From my perspective, what Luther and Zwingli started, Calvin added to (Protestantism). But none of them completed a real reformation into what we know today as Protestantism in the American setting. That was left to the Anabaptists, perscuted by Catholics as well as by Luther and Calvin. The Biblical principles that Anabaptists lived and died for are the real foundation of American religious freedom. Remember, each new American colony/state had an official established religion. Even the darn Puritans were no advocates of religious freedom. Yikes.In this context, after the Anabaptist’s theological and practical foundation, true religious freedom in America received a great boost from Roger Williams and William Penn. Two real heroes of American religous freedom. Thanks, Rog and Bill, from an Anabaptist.Not that Rog, Bill and Anabaptists were flawless. They simply pushed the ball WAY beyond what Luther and Calvin started. Let’s give em the credit. And recognize the shortcomings that are often glossed over by worshippers in the traditions of Luther and Calvin.

  • SC54HI

    Thank you, AGAPN9. Excellent commentary and a much-needed truth check.It’s not surprising that Doug Phillips would worship John Calvin – he actually thinks, and would like to act, in much the same way as John Calvin really was! Doug’s brand of patriarchal “Christianity” advocates making the US into a theocratic state, in which rebellious family members or unbelievers can be put to death by stoning or other “Biblical” methods. He’s built up quite the profitable empire over the last few years through promoting it at homeschool conventions and the like. Unfortunately for him, any discerning person can see that a good part of his philosophy hinges on “reforming” history and twisting Scripture and the truth.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Personally, if I had to remember a particular Christian on July 4th, I would choose Samson Occom, Harriet Tubman, MLK, possibly Jonathan Edwards, or Roger Williams. (I would have included Frederick Douglass on my list, but in the end, he dispensed with Christianity altogether.) Below is Roger Williams’ most famous letter. That I should ever speak or write a tittle that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience is a mistake, which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes that Papists, Protestants, Jews, and Turks may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for turns upon these two hinges: that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ships prayers or worship, nor be compelled [restrained] from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.I further add that I never denied that, notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, yea, and also command that justice, peace, and sobriety be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help in person or purse, toward the common charges or defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny or rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there should be no commanders or officers because all are equal in Christ, therefore no master or officers, no laws nor orders, nor corrections nor punishments—I say I never denied that in such cases, the commander may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors according to their deserts and merits. This if seriously and honestly minded may, if it so please the Father of Lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.I remain studious of your common peace and liberty. Roger Williams

  • ccnl1

    The “flip side” of Roger Williams:(from “Like his contemporaries, Williams believed that Christ’s second coming was imminent and that, in the time remaining, it was a Christian’s duty to help gather the most perfect church possible. Williams’s search for the spiritually pure congregation eventually led him to a conviction that the world was so deeply sinful that it would not be redeemed until Christ’s return. “2. “Williams taught that civil authorities could not punish transgressions against the first four commandments of the decalogue, that an oath of loyalty is a religious act, and that the English had no proper title to American land because the English king was in league with antichrist.”3. “Williams even refused to pray with his wife because he did not consider her fully regenerate. “4. “Believing all present societies, Indian and Puritan, to be unredeemable, Williams thought that men’s propensity for evil needed tight control. Consequently he helped pass strict laws for Providence. At the same time, he also believed that, since all men are naturally evil, they have the same natural rights and should share land equally.”5. and finally some trivia: “When his (Williams) remains were discovered for reburial, they were under an apple tree. The roots of the tree had grown into the spot where Williams’s skull rested and followed the path of his decomposing bones and grew roughly in the shape of his skeleton. Only a small amount of bone was found to be reburied. The “Williams Root” is now part of the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society, where it is mounted on a board in the basement of the John Brown House Museum.” (Apparently there was more than one body a-molding in the grave :)).

  • pastorred68

    AGAPN9,Where can I read more of the “modern scholarship” about what you have written about Calvin? I have not heard about his family background in this detail before.I hope that Calvin will not be equated with Doug Phillips, for I have great misgivings with Phillips’ views of history, theology and sociology (i.e., race). I am eager for your resource recommendations.

  • MGT2

    Here is my problem with the analysis: Calvin has supplanted Christ. You seem all too willing to regard Calvin’s view as more authoritative than even the scriptures. You seem to identify yourself first as a Calvinist followed by a Republican then a Christian. Your world seems to be: Life according to Calvin.Thank God, really, it is just your world.

  • edbyronadams

    “presented the scholar from Geneva as harsh and intolerant.”Anyone with a set of standards of behavior is considered harsh and intolerant by today’s standards. As far as Calvin goes, a culture of hard work and delayed gratification is something I attribute to Calvin that is being lost. I am reminded of the carving on a lintel of a very old Swiss Chalet, “Work and Pray”. It is sentiments like this that allowed the residents of a small, landlocked mountainous region of tumultuous Europe to become prosperous.It is so unlike today’s world in which an empowered, free electorate demand so many benefits from the state, treating the government as the source of an endless purse that is selling our children into penury.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Actually, given what Williams DID, as opposed to what he “believed,” even as it changed throughout the years, I don’t think, that within the frame of this discussion, there is a “flip side.”

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    On Roger Williams:By no means did or do I mean to imply that Roger Williams believed all religions were “created equal.” Quite the contrary. He was as certain as a Christian could be that his was the “true” path. That is far from the point. What counts is his conviction that where religion is concerned, conscience is primary. This did not require him to discount proselytizing, and, indeed he hoped for the conversion of the Native Americans, but not through force.What counts, too, along these lines, and it counts a great deal, is his conviction that “state” and “church” must not be joined together. Was he a twenty-first-century liberal thinker? The very fact that he was in the “New World” suggests not. But, then, that is not the point.That is also why I put Samson Occom on the list I posted below.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, “Williams even refused to pray with his wife because he did not consider her fully regenerate. “Now that is “knee-deep in flip”!!!And as punishment, he ended up as a root :))”When his (Williams) remains were discovered for reburial, they were under an apple tree. The roots of the tree had grown into the spot where Williams’s skull rested and followed the path of his decomposing bones and grew roughly in the shape of his skeleton. Only a small amount of bone was found to be reburied. The “Williams Root” is now part of the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society, where it is mounted on a board in the basement of the John Brown House Museum.” (Apparently there was more than one body a-molding in the grave :)).Hmmm, apparently Calvin and Williams were not visited by “pretty, wingie, talking thingies” making them second-rate in the list of religion founders.

  • Counterww

    The only crisis I can think of on this forum CCNL is that you continue the same old drivel,Every thing you say is the same when it comes to religion. Everything.What is your point to be here?

  • ccnl1

    Counterww,To remind everyone that there is hardly anything left to religion after you remove the myths, embellishments and pretty, wingie, talking thingies and demons of the demented!!!

  • ccnl1

    Persiflage noted: “Universal medical care will be a very hard nut to crack for Obama………”Not if we deny government health insurance to nicotine addicts and their families (second hand smoke).

  • persiflage

    ‘Not if we deny government health insurance to nicotine addicts and their families (second hand smoke).’While I have no objection to building in penalties and smoking dis-incentives to a national healthcare plan, or even as an addendum in private insurance policies, this will not be easy or immediate. I’ve seen what smoking does up close and personal….and every day going forward since my own mother died of lung cancer. However, these provisos must include all US citizens – good luck implementing these rules in the VA system, as an example of a particularly hard nut to crack…..and exactly where heavy smoking among both patients and employees is readily found.We are legislating against smoking incrementally e.g. no smoking rules in public places now extant in many states – even in the Deep South! There is still much further to go – and much higher cigarette taxes yet to come. This is one habit that makes religious faith seem innocuous by comparison.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Persiflage,What impresses me about Williams is his stance against religious violence, forcible conversion, his call for a radical separation of church and state. Williams had not formalized his religion. We say now that he was an Anabaptist. Was he perfect from a twenty-first-century liberal perspective? Far from it.There are no Christian idols among the illustrious forebears.

  • ender2

    Calvinism and it’s associted myth of Anglo/Teutonic superiority contributed more than any other mindset that allowed the twin “sins” of Manifest Destiny and Slavery that still haunt us to this day. I don’t believe in “sin” but I do believe in Karma and the karma this nation has built up destoying millions of African lives and murdering 95% of the Native American population will probably guarantee our downfall as a nation. Us ‘liberals’ give lip service to the horrors of our past deeds, but don’t really look at what it would take to overcome the karma. This nation could kiss the arse of every Native American and Black person in this nation for the next hundred years and not make up for our past transgressions. Likewise, Calvinism, racism and unbridled greed still have us keeping humans in abject poverty or like in Iraq, dead by the millions, all over the world to support our empire and first place position in the world economy.We’ve learned nothing. Religions that support and even encourage this insane behavior will be the end of us. Calvinism is the worst thing about us, not the best.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Persiflage,Agreed on Penn, who was later, as you know. Yes, Nixon must have been perplexing to many Quakers, although I know one myself, a liberal, unsurprisingly, who ain’t the most ethical among us. “Oh, why should the shattermyth have to be a crumplehope and a dampenglee?” (Thurber). No suitable idol candidates, American or other, have yet emerged, and that sayeth your humble servant, is how it should be.Always, read Willis Elliot, btw.”Roger Williams was born in London, England in 1604. After being educated at Charterhouse School and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Williams was ordained as an Anglican priest. He gradually became an extreme Puritan and in 1631 joined the English colony led by John Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay. Williams objected to the royal charter of Massachusetts because it contained a lie when it claimed that England first discovered the region. Williams argued that the king had no right to grant the land to the settlers and that it should be purchased from the Native Americans. Although John Winthrop accepted the truth of this argument, he feared that if the king heard about what Williams was saying he might take back control of the colony and bring an end to this Puritan republic. Winthrop therefore decided to banish Williams from the colony. Williams and his followers moved to Rhode Island where they purchased land from the Narragansett Indians at Providence. Williams established a democratic society and a haven of religious toleration and admitted Jews and Quakers into the colony. Anne Hutchinson, who had been banished by John Winthrop from the Massachusetts colony, also joined Williams on Rhode Island. Williams, who was president of the Rode Island colony until 1658, wrote several books including Key to the Language of America (1643), The Bloody Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644), Christenings Make Not Christians (1645) and George Fox Digged Out of his Burrows (1676). Roger Williams died in 1683.”Source:

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Persiflage,I just quickly reread my last post to you, saw that I’d posted for you the Wikipedia link you had already posted for me! Sorry. Worse yet, I admit, I barely skimmed it before posting it. Still, it was just a courtesy–I doubt you need a list of sources on Williams.Btw., I don’t know if you saw, but I posted below his most famous letter to the homies of Providence.

  • ccnl1

    But the following about Roger Williams will always be “rooted” in our minds: ( a great question for Jeopardy fans)”When his (Williams) remains were discovered for reburial, they were under an apple tree. The roots of the tree had grown into the spot where Williams’s skull rested and followed the path of his decomposing bones and grew roughly in the shape of his skeleton. Only a small amount of bone was found to be reburied.Hmmm, apparently Calvin and Williams were not visited by any “pretty, wingie, talking thingies” making them second-rate in the list of religion founders.

  • melvin7

    Ender2, Calvin’s thought and practice are not racist. Some who later espoused Calvinism may have also been racist, but they did not learn that from Calvin.Farnaz, while there are many noble Christians that could be associated with the country’s founding, John Calvin is particularly noted since this month is his 500th birthday. Also, Calvin’s focus on returning to following scripture alone (‘Sola Scriptura’) was indeed very important in the nation’s founding. Protestants began to see men as subject to a higher authority, rather than merely the whims of an autocratic church bishop. This eventually expanded to civil authorities – no longer could kings rule by might alone, but only in accordance with the written principles of God.These of course have never been perfectly implemented, but were a startling break from the unchallengeable power of medieval kings. So we are to this day to be a nation governed by a Constitution, not the whims of men. John Calvin’s impact continues to the present. Calvin is not to be worshipped, but honor can be rightly shown to his legacy.