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 Colonial
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 people.
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 Presbyterians."3
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
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 Declaration."10
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
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
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 liberty."
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 followers."15
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 Republic.
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.