John Calvin’s theology, as well as his influence on the civil government of Geneva, significantly influenced the founding of the United States. The Founding Fathers understood well the wisdom of Calvin’s teaching that original sin sometimes necessitated resisting tyrants and limiting the power of civil government, and were thus prepared when the time came to resist British overreach.

Every year the United States celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain on the Fourth of July. This national holiday is to remember the sacrifice of those Founding Fathers in 1776 who risked all they had to break away from a tyrannical British government. After five years of fighting (1776-1781), the American War for Independence was successful. The thirteen American colonies became thirteen confederated states under the Articles of Confederation. This new government placed strict limitations on the power of the national Congress, and liberty flourished.

Because of their sacrifice and heroic status, those known as the Founding Fathers are marked for special appreciation. Men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even those from earlier eras like the Puritans are known for their unique contributions to the establishment of the United States. But one name is often left out when discussing important contributors to America’s founding. Although he lived centuries before the war, his ideas were foundational to the philosophy of resistance and the demand for a constitutionally limited government. That man is John Calvin.

Calvin presents a bleak view of human nature.[1] He views man as fallen and corrupted, incapable of good apart from the grace of God. Whether we agree with his perspective or not, Calvin’s heirs applied this view to many areas, including political philosophy. In their view, because civil officers are also inherently sinful, God has ordained lesser magistrates who can intervene when a ruler becomes despotic.[2] This teaching, commonly known as the “doctrine of the lesser magistrate,” gave the American colonists a theological basis for resistance to Great Britain.[3] When the American Revolution ended, the leaders of the new states established a new national government with strictly limited powers. Those leaders, knowing the nature of man to grab power, created a system of checks and balances, division of government among branches, and a federal system of government that would restrict the centralization of power.

Calvin and Original Sin

One of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith is that of original sin. The first Church Father to give detailed attention to original sin was Augustine of Hippo.[4] One emphasis of the Reformation was the Augustinian view of sin and God’s grace. John Calvin, from his study of Scripture and the Church Fathers (notably Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux), presented a dim view of the nature of man after Adam’s fall.

Calvin leaves no stone unturned in describing the depths of man’s sinfulness. His detailed treatment of the topic is found in his Institutes, book two, chapters one through five. The title of chapter one summarizes it well, “By the Fall and Revolt of Adam the Whole Human Race Was Delivered to the Curse and Degenerated from Its Original Condition.”[5] Calvin describes the issue this way: “It is the inherited corruption [from Adam], which the church fathers termed ‘original sin,’ meaning by the word ‘sin’ the depravation of a nature previously good and pure.”[6] He notes that there was some contention among the Church Fathers in this area.[7] Calvin then cites Augustine as the foremost champion of the doctrine of the fall of man, commending him for standing up to the Pelagians’ teaching that man was not tainted by original sin and that he only stood condemned for the sins he committed.[8]

Later Calvin gives an even clearer definition. “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls, ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19).”[9] The message is grim. Because of Adam’s sin, all his posterity comes into the world fallen. There is not one part of our being that is untouched by the corruption of sin. Hence the nature of the common phrase, “total depravity.” This term does not mean that man sins as much as he possibly can, but that every facet of his being is fallen and inclined to rebel against God.

One common misconception of the doctrine of the fall of man is to say that we are merely inclined to sin because of Adam’s fall, and that sin is not imparted to us until we actually sin. Another mistaken view of the doctrine is that we are judged solely because of the sins of another, i.e. Adam. Neither of these are accurate. For Calvin, the stain of Adam’s sin was passed on to all his posterity even before any of them commits actual sin. Man enters the world guilty before God because at conception sin is already on his account. “Yet not only has a punishment fallen upon us from Adam, but a contagion imparted by him resides in us, which justly deserves punishment.”[10]

One helpful metaphor Calvin uses is that of comparing man to a field. “For our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle.”[11] In his sinful state the field (man) is not only barren of good, nourishing fruit, but it yields an abundance of thorns, thistles, and poison plants that pollute all who come near. No one ever accused Calvin of raising man’s self-esteem.

Protestant Resistance Theory

The Reformed doctrine of original sin, far from being abstract and ethereal, can easily be seen in day-to-day life.[12] When the Reformation was in its early stages, significant conflicts arose between Roman Catholic civil magistrates and the Protestant people they governed. Original sin was on full display as Catholic princes ordered the Protestant “heretics” to be killed for their faith. What then were Protestants to do? Must they acquiesce to being persecuted merely for holding the faith? They faced a dilemma.

Obedience to the civil magistrate was taught by the early church since the Apostle Paul commanded it (Romans 13:1-7). John Calvin taught the need for resistance in certain circumstances, i.e. when disobedience is commanded by the civil ruler, from early in his ministry.[13] However, as he saw more and more what was happening in Switzerland, France, Germany, and the surrounding countries, the wisdom of biblically based resistance to tyranny asserted itself. He says in the Institutes:

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings [here he gives extra-biblical examples from ancient times], I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people by which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.[14]

H.A. Lloyd summarizes Calvin’s words this way: “Magistrates, says Calvin, are duty-bound to intervene (pro officio intercedere) to protect the commons against the tyrannical ruler.”[15] One distinction must be made here between anarchical resistance and biblical resistance as Calvin saw it. It is not the responsibility of normal citizens to forcefully resist their authorities. “But we must, in the meantime, be very careful not to despise or violate that authority of magistrates… For if the correction of unbridled despotism is the Lord’s to avenge, let us not at once think that it is entrusted to us, to whom no command has been given except to obey and suffer. I am speaking all the while of private individuals.”[16]

This doctrine of resistance to tyranny was embraced by many Protestant Reformers in addition to Calvin, most notably Heinrich Bullinger.[17] Bullinger’s regular correspondence with Protestants in England and Scotland, in addition to the Marian exiles going to Geneva [18], ensured transmission of Protestant resistance theory to Britain.[19] Some of the Puritans in England and Scotland adopted a more aggressive form of resistance theory, saying that resistance to tyrannical authority was a duty to God, not just a right.[20] Works like Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex and Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos called for a robust resistance to despotic rulers, even calling for a republican element to the government that would protect the people from monarchical overreach.[21] While not exactly the same as what Calvin taught, resistance theory was alive and well in Britain.

Over time the stronger form of Protestant resistance theory came to be associated with the Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. As many Puritans, Separatists (aka Pilgrims), and Scottish settlers left the British Isles and came to the North American colonies, they maintained the doctrines of the Protestant Reformers. They pursued freedom from persecution and a desire to evangelize the new world.[22]

Over time, new political theories as new political theories and radicalization spread throughout Europe, American colonists remained stable, religious, and communal. The First Great Awakening, led by George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennant, and Jonathan Edwards, stirred the fires of religious revival and gave greater strength to the religious bonds of many low-church Protestants. Calvinism as a whole was the overwhelming theological position of the American colonists. Loraine Boettner in his essay, “Calvinism in History,” says, “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… Thus we see that about two-thirds of the colonial population had been trained in the school of Calvin.”[23] There was a unity among these colonists which had rarely existed in other places. This unity would be crucial in the coming years, as the British Parliament began tightening the strings that bound the American colonies to her mother country.

As the British taxes mounted and King George III refused to intervene before Parliament on behalf of his colonies, the Declaration of Independence was signed. This action cemented the hostilities between British and colonial troops into a full-fledged war. The British believed the blame should be assigned to the Presbyterians. Loraine Boettner summarizes it well in saying, “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.”[24] The Presbyterians in reference weren’t only Presbyterian in soteriology. They were children of Reformed Protestant political theory. John Adams noted that Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos was quite a popular book at the time of the revolution.[25] The singing-school teacher William Billings wrote a poem and song about the war in 1778 that was popular throughout New England:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.[26]

While further evidence could be produced, it is safe to say that Reformed Protestant resistance theory found a strong home in colonial North America.[27]

Limited Government

Another political application of the doctrine of original sin is demonstrated in insistence on limited government. Calvin’s pessimistic view of human nature made him distrustful of both monarchs and mobs. He neither believed in absolute democracy nor absolute monarchy. Because individuals are fallen, they need proper limitations on their passions. On one hand, kings often have no one to prevent them from making foolish choices, aside from councilors they may or may not follow. On the other hand, absolute democracy (where the majority makes all governing decisions) casts no limitations on the passions of the majority. Where there are no limits, man’s sinful nature has free reign.

Calvin specifies his preferred form of government this way: “If the three forms of government which the philosophers discuss [democracy, aristocracy, monarchy] be considered in themselves, I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others: not indeed of itself, but because it is very rare for kings so to control themselves…”[28] He then gives his reasoning: “Therefore men’s faults or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another, and if one asserts himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness.”[29] He goes on to cite the example from Exodus 18 of Moses choosing judges, calling it a combination of democracy and aristocracy.

The necessity of limited government did not escape the American colonists. Being steeped in the doctrine of man’s depravity, they understood that political leaders could easily become tyrannical. Once they escaped the tether of British rule, they knew they must put as many limitations on the government as possible. The one significant influence in this tradition came from an unsurprising source: a Presbyterian pastor named John Witherspoon.

Witherspoon’s accomplishments clearly establish him as a Founding Father of the United States. He represented New Jersey at the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and voted to support the Constitution of 1787. He was also the president of the College of New Jersey, which today is Princeton University, where he tutored many future leaders, not the least of whom was James Madison.[30]

A staunch Federalist, Witherspoon lauded the necessity of limiting the government’s power. His lectures on moral philosophy deeply influenced Madison, who voluntarily returned to the College of New Jersey to study further with Witherspoon even after graduation. When arguing for a new Constitution in The Federalist, Number 51, Madison famously says, “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”[31] One can easily detect Witherspoon’s Calvinist influence on Madison here.

Obviously men are not angels; the responsibility of government then is to limit the baser passions of men while also remaining limited itself. That is no small task, but the Founders pursued it nonetheless. A few examples of limitations on centralized power in the United States include the following: dividing power federally to both state and national governments, dividing power by separating the three branches—executive, legislative, and judicial, and allowing lower governments the ability to interpose itself on national government overreach. These are just a few examples of how the Founders limited central government power.

Conclusion

When John Calvin wrote his Institutes, he likely had little idea that his teaching on the sinful nature of man and the application thereof would impact the founding of a country. Yet his theology, as well as his influence on the civil government of Geneva, would make him a significant influence on the founding of the United States. Historian David W. Hall says that John Adams viewed Calvin’s Geneva as a model for the American republic to emulate.[32]

While it is not the most endearing doctrine, the Reformed doctrine of the fall of man presents the most realistic perspective possible. James Madison was right in contrasting men with angels, for the power of man to harm his fellows has no limit if his sinful nature is not checked, either internally or externally. The wisdom of men like John Calvin, who taught that original sin sometimes necessitated resisting tyrants and limiting the power of civil government, was understood by the Founders of the United States. Drawing on the wisdom of Calvin and others, they were prepared when the time came to resist British overreach. In time they founded a new government that would limit sinful men from arbitrarily exercising power at will. For this John Calvin and our Founding Fathers deserve our gratitude.

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Notes:

[1] Johannes Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion: In Two Volumes (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986), 241-316.

[2] H.A. Lloyd, “Calvin and the Duty of Guardians to Resist,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 32, no. 1 (January 1981): 65–67.

[3] Glenn A. Moots, Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology, Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010).

[4] Augustine and R. S Pine-Coffin, Confessions (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992), 157-178; Augustine, John A Mourant, and William J Collinge, Four Anti-Pelagian Writings (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001).

[5] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 241.

[6] Ibid., 246.

[7] Ibid., 246.

[8] Ibid., 247.

[9] Ibid., 251.

[10] Ibid., 251.

[11] Ibid., 252.

[12] G.K. Chesterton called it the only doctrine that can be proven. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, The Wheaton Literary Series (Wheaton, Ill: H. Shaw Publishers, 1994), 11.

[13] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1520; Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 2: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 193.

[14] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1519.

[15] Lloyd, “Calvin and the Duty of Guardians to Resist,” 66.

[16] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1518-1519.

[17] Moots, Politics Reformed, 60-67.

[18] These were Protestant men and women forced from their homes during the persecution of Queen Mary I of England, aka “Bloody Mary.” They fled to Protestant cities on the European continent where they were sheltered from persecution.

[19] George M. Ella and Peter L. Meney, The Troublemakers at Frankfurt: A Vindication of the English Reformation (Durham, U.K.: Go Publications, 2003); George M Ella, Henry Bullinger: Shepherd of the Churches (Eggleston, U.K.: Go Publications, 2007), 50.

[20] Moots, Politics Reformed, 64.

[21] Samuel Rutherford and Williams Adamo Thomas, Lex Rex: The Law, the King: A Biblical Primer on the Purpose, Place, and Power of Civil Government (Lakehurst, NJ: Woodbine Cottage Publications, 2010); Hubert Languet, George Garnett, and Phillipe Du Plessis Mornay, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, or, Concerning the Legitimate Power of a Prince Over the People, and of the People Over a Prince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). This strong resistance theory contributed to the English Civil War between the Puritans and Cavaliers (1642-1651).

[22] Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, N.J: Revell, 1977), 154.

[23] Loraine Boettner, “Calvinism in History” (Grace Online Library, n.d.), accessed July 17, 2020.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Kathleen W. MacArthur, “The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos: A Chapter in the Struggle for Religious Freedom in France,” Church History 9, no. 4 (December 1940): 285. This book, written by a French Huguenot, supported a strong form of Reformed resistance theory.

[26] James Murray Barbour, The Church Music of William Billings (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972).

[27] An excellent further summary of the Protestant Reformed theology of resistance in the North American colonies can be found in Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 109-135.

[28] Calvin, McNeill, and Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1493.

[29] Ibid., 1494.

[30] Ian Speir, “The Calvinist Roots of American Social Order: Calvin, Witherspoon, and Madison,” The Public Discourse, last modified April 13, 2017.

[31] Alexander Hamilton et al., The Federalist Papers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 251.

[32] David W Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2005), 10.

The featured image is a portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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