November 22, 2008

Turning our hearts back to God

Colonists came from many lands and arrived at many different times to build what eventually became the United States of America. Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, and other now famous landing points were colonized over a period of many decades.

The colonists came from all levels of society—the spectrum ranging from slaves and indentured servants to the wealthiest members of society. They came from a variety of nations, each having it's own culture and traditions. And although many colonists did not own much more than the clothing they wore, they did not come empty-handed. They came bearing ideas, philosophies, heritage, tradition, and culture from their native lands.

When the delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention put pen to paper, they were not trying new and untested concepts. These founders of our nation were intelligent, well-educated, and widely read. And they combined the best ideas they had read about governments and citizens and used these to establish a government for the United States.

So, it would be reasonable to ask who influenced those founding fathers? What ideas had the most impact on the formation of our government? Which books did our founding fathers read and which philosophers and theologians did they respect? To which theological, philosophical, and political systems did they subscribe?

Dr. E. W. Smith wrote:

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....

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 creeds.

E.W. Smith, quoted by Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination

George Bancroft, one of the leading historians of the nineteenth century called John Calvin the "founder of America," and added, "He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty."

Many, if not the vast majority of colonial Americans came from Calvinistic backgrounds. John Calvin died just 50 years prior to the historic Mayflower voyage to the New World. And Calvin's unique two-pronged theology, encompassing both a world view and a view of human nature, had a strong impact on our founding fathers as they sought to establish an effective government.

Total Depravity

The Calvinistic concept of Total Depravity strongly influenced the checks and balances that our founders built into our governmental system. They knew quite well the evil that man is capable of, and they sought to limit the damage that any one man may do.

Priesthood of Believers

The biblical Reformed concept that each person is able to directly approach God without an earthly intermediary or priest impacted our founder's views of education. As Martin Luther had said just a century earlier, "every plowboy should be able to read and interpret the Scripture for himself rather than be bound to follow the interpretation given to him by his priest, for he himself is responsible to God for his own soul."

This idea gave rise to the belief that every plowboy must learn to read. as a result, Protestant (especially Reformed/Calvinistic) societies strongly encouraged universal education.

John Eidsmoe's Christianity and the Constitution describes one of Thomas Jefferson's commissioned studies into the value of education:

Around 1800 Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, founder of the famous Dupont lineage in America, conducted a study on education in America on behalf of Thomas Jefferson. He concluded: "Most young Americans ... can read, write and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly—even neatly." He compared the low rate of literacy throughout the world to the relatively high literacy rate in the United States, England, Holland, and the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland. He attributed the different to the fact that "in those countries the Bible is read; it is considered a duty to read it to the children; and in that form of religion the sermons and liturgies in the language of the people tend to increase and formulate ideas of responsibility." He went on to say that for the most part, education in America was accomplished in the home through reading Bibles and newspapers.

John Eidsmore, Christianity and the Constitution, p. 22

The Basis for our Law

The Calvinistic recognition of God's absolute sovereignty over all creation and of man's depravity had a direct and strong impact on the early formation of our judicial system and on our early laws. This was especially apparent in Puritan New England.

Covenant Theology

As laid out in Samuel Rutherford's famous Lex, Rex, all rulers derive their authority from God, whether they recognize that fact or not, and God gives this authority to rulers through the people they govern. The people are responsible for forming a government and for choosing the man who is to lead that government.

2 Samuel 16:18, "Hushai said to Absalom, Nay, but whom the Lord and the people, and all the men of Israel choose, his will I be, and with him will I abide"; Judges 8:22, "The men of Israel said to Gideon, rule thou over us"; Judges 9:6, "The men of Shechem made Abimelech king"; 2 Kings 14:21, "The people made Azariah king."

Limited Government

Limited government formed the basis for early America's resistance to the British government. Samuel Rutherford stressed the importance of a limited government. The people, acting under the will of God, gave the civil government only limited authority, and that authority was conditional—they reserved the right to terminate their covenant with the ruler if the ruler violated the covenant (republican) terms. Under this system the ruler is acting without legitimate authority if he violates the laws of God and nature by suppressing the basic liberties of the people. In such instances he is not to be obeyed. In fact, he is to be resisted. Our founding fathers believed that it is the Christian's duty to resist—by force, if necessary.

States Rights

The Calvinistic influence of Congregationalists, Baptists, and some Presbyterians, influenced the concept of local governance by the people most directly affected by the governance. So the States were granted far more local authority than the centralized federal government.

Voting for Change

Fast forward to today. Our nation has just pursued the platform of "Change," presented by President-elect Barack Obama. And it is quite clear that a change of course is needed in our nation. But a change back to the governance of Bill Clinton is not the change we need.

The change our nation needs is to return to a Calvinistic understanding of the role of government as provided by God for the protection of the people. We, the people, need to demand righteousness from our government. And recognizing God's supreme authority over all of creation, we Christians must pray for our nation and our nation's leaders. The God we are praying to has told us that "The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will" Proverbs 21:1.


  1. Calvin-admiring site;; visit/comment, please.

    John Lofton, Editor
    Recovering Republican

  2. Richard, I firmly believe the Reformers influenced our nation. Calvin was one. Martin Luther was another.

    This may be a point of controversy, however I also believe the establishment clause allowing for freedom of religion, that Congress ought to have a hands off policy in this matter may be traced to the Anabaptists. At the very least their views on freedom of conscience were closely paralleled by what happened in the formative years of our country.

  3. Lynn - Roger Williams, one of the focal figures of the early arguments for a separation of church and state, was banished from one of the early colonies because of his Baptist views. I believe he was banished from Massachusetts. He relocated in Rhode Island and established the very first Baptist church in the United States.

    His name always comes up in discussions of the history of the Separation of Church & State.

    The Baptist view of the priesthood of believers and individual soul liberty were strong influencing factors in the establishment clause. And those are both foundationally Calvinistic ideas as well. If God alone may bring a rebellious heart to belief, we cannot legislate religiosity. We may legislate behavior, but we cannot legislate morality, which involves a willing heart, not a heart that is submitting in order to avoid punishment.

    Sometimes I'm proud to be a Baptist.

  4. Well, many of the earliest Baptists were quite the Calvinists, if the London Confession of Faith is any indicator.


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