The Prism of Calvin’s Political Legacy in the United States

The writers of the American Constitution
were guided by the theology
of Calvin and the philosophy of

On the contrary, they were resolute
secularists who cared neither for nor about
the doctrine of predestination.

The American polity grew organically
from roots planted by the Pilgrim Fathers
in 1621 and continued to manifest that
Reformed original in spirit and shape at
least until the 1960s.

On the contrary, the separation of
church and state, mandated for the federal
government in the First Amendment
and fully realized on the state level fifty
years later, was unthinkable in any Calvinist

The spirit of the Puritans held sway
across the American nineteenth century,
as attested to by a score of foreign visitors
and pioneer church historians.

On the contrary, Calvinism was unfit
for the self-determining citizens of a free
republic; appropriately, the youth of the
United States is identified as the Methodist
Age in American church history,
and its industrial maturity with Orthodox,
Catholic, and Jewish immigration
that instantiated in practice the pluralism
that the founders had mandated in

That all of these mutually contradictory
statements are more or less true is
one index of the paradoxical nature of
American society. It also illustrates how
challenging it can be to trace the influence
of a religious tradition like Calvinism
across the many twists and turns
and new departures of so vast and variegated
a land as the United States. Part
of our response must be to take care in
measurement, for sometimes the “less” in
the characterization “more or less true”
can be quite “less” indeed.

Even more important is careful definition
of terms. If we narrow “Calvinism”
to Reformed theology, and then Reformed
theology to the propositions of the Westminster
standards literally applied, we
will have to conclude, as have some strict
confessionalists in Presbyterian circles,
that Calvinism is an “implausible” parent
of American democracy. But if we are
more expansive in tracing the trajectory
of Reformed theology over time and pursue
the cultural resonances and political
implications of that complex, then the
lines of ancestry and influence get less
implausible. And if we act like historians
instead of normative theologians and
observe people of Reformed lineage taking
deliberate and consistent stances on
American politics, then we need to trace
the connections, overt and covert, from
the collective faith to the collective behavior.
This essay will focus that search
on the pre-Civil War era of American
history, not evaluating the fit between republican ideology and Reformed theology,
as has often been attempted, but
tracing continuities in different regions of
American Calvinists from the colonial era
through the early republic.

Alas for lovers of consistency, we find
not just one but three traditions of Reformed
political engagement. That is, Calvinist
theology did not imprint itself by uniform
logic but was radiated through a prism
onto the screen of early American politics.
Each of these rays or traditions manifests
one of the prime ends that Calvin and his
immediate heirs hoped to achieve in their
reformation. Each tradition reflects as well
the particular locale of its European origin
and/or the particular circumstances
in which its roots were planted in North
America. Crucial among those circumstances
were the relative social homogeneity
or heterogeneity in which a Reformed
group found themselves, their distance or
proximity to the levers of political power,
and the geographical region across which
their descendants spread in the course of
American expansion. From these variables
crystallized three types of Reformed political
endeavor in early America:

  • The quest for a righteous society
    that was rooted in Puritan New
    England’s covenanted communalism
    and that registered between
    the Revolution and Civil
    War in intense reform activity
    among the New England diaspora
    across New York and the
    upper Midwest.
  • The careful constitutionalism
    of Presbyterianism in the Mid-Atlantic and upper South that
    aimed at harmonizing human
    diversity and controlling the
    consequences of human depravity
    by means of structural constraints.
  • The radical church-state separationism
    of Presbyterians in
    the Lower South that sought to
    maintain the church as pure
    and autonomous amidst the
    challenges of a slave society and
    libertarian ideology and so devised
    the doctrine of the “spirituality
    of the church.”

Greater New England’s Holy Commonwealth

It is well known that the Puritans who
settled New England instituted an established
religion with a longstanding monopoly
on political power. It is less familiar
that these immigrants came overwhelmingly
from one region in England, East Anglia,
or that (setting aside for a moment the
native peoples) they populated the most
ethnically homogeneous region in all of colonial
America. In fact, New England was
more English than was England itself. The
religion planted there had already been altered
from the Reformed standard on the
Continent by the exigencies of England’s
protracted process of church reformation.
Neither outlawed nor in power, English
Puritans had negotiated an indeterminate
space by building congregations that were
in part voluntary associations of the like-minded,
a tendency that resonated with
East Anglia’s strong communal traditions.

This pattern gave rise in New England
to a localistic polity and standards of experiential
piety, i.e., the expectation that full
church membership be accorded only upon
the applicant’s testimony of a convincing
personal experience of conversion. In this
manner New England’s Puritans aimed at
making the visible and invisible churches
as synonymous as possible. At the same
time their churches were state-supported
to the exclusion of all others with the aim
of thoroughly reforming not only church
but also state and society. This was to be
a “Bible commonwealth” founded upon a
social compact between people who were
at once fellow citizens and fellow church

The Puritans hoped to effect this harmony
as much as possible by consent rather
than coercion; cultivating a responsible
public ethos was crucial to this end. Obviously,
churches–which all inhabitants
were required to attend–were key to the
project, but so too were schools, which appeared
in nearly every town. Though clergy
were barred from civil office, they typically
worked in close cooperation with the magistracy
in setting policy. Thus literacy, piety,
and social duty were each promulgated
via the other. As to formal governance, New
England Puritans were and were not democratic. They were not democratic in that
Massachusetts restricted the franchise in
colony-wide elections to full church members
until King James II revoked its charter
in 1686. They were democratic in that all
along they granted the vote in local affairs
to everyone who could meet a relatively accessible
property qualification. Yet they
were not democratic in that the famous
New England town-meeting did not mean
to poll between discordant opinions but to
establish and enforce communal consensus.
That effort met considerable success.
For all their talk of judgment and punishment,
New England’s social behavior was
marked by remarkably low levels of violence;
its laws singled out crimes of aggression
over those involving property, sexuality,
or libel.

Their sense of corporate
calling also made colonial
New England’s transgressions
worse–or at least, more volubly
rationalized. Externally,
God’s “New Israel” had “Canaanites”
near at hand to deal
with. The grimmest annals in
New England history recount
the Pequot War (1637-38) and
King Philip’s War (1675-76)–proportionate
to population, some of the costliest episodes
in American military history. The more familiar
Salem witch craze (1692) turned the
hunt for the Lord’s enemies inward, and
its twenty victims count as the predictable
sacrifice of an insular community trying
to dam its tide of afflictions. The quiet
anomaly of Salem is that such episodes
did not occur more often in the region.
The maps of New England migration,
intense revivalism, temperance
crusading, and antislavery agitation
across upstate New York and the Upper
Midwest are overlays of each other.

For that New England’s learned ministry and
magistrates are due credit, as they usually
nipped the folk mania of witch-hunting in
the bud. In good times and bad, however,
the jeremiad–New England’s distinctive
contribution to American letters–employed
constant repetition to ingrain upon
this culture’s consciousness a narrative
cycle of election, transgression, and the
dream of a renewed election made possible
by that very transgression. The genre
helped keep alive the early Calvinist dream
of a righteous society as the range of what
counted as God’s “chosen nation” gradually
expanded from New England proper
to include, first, those adjacent territories
where her children spread in the search for
land and opportunity and then later, in the
1820s, the United States as a whole. There,
in the Yankee diaspora across upstate New
York and the upper Midwest, the antebellum
heirs of the Puritans launched their
project anew, seeking now by the voluntary
measures of revivalism and moral-reform
associations to redeem the young republic
of its collective sins.

Revival-style evangelism could wear
hard on classic Calvinist theology. The
“new measures” crusades of Charles Finney
scored the doctrine of personal election as
it had come to be understood by contemporaries,
while the impresario of moral reform,
Lyman Beecher, was brought up on heresy
charges by traditionalist Presbyterians in
Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was in charge
of a New England-planted seminary. It is
worth noting, however, that Beecher and
his daughter Harriet, who learned her literary
craft in Cincinnati, deliberately raised
the flag of the “Pilgrim” heritage there, and
that Boston’s Unitarians spied in Finney
not an Arminian but a hyper-Calvinist fixated
on guilt and depravity, prone to all
manner of legalism. In any case, Beecher
and Finney’s revivalism launched a fleet of
social reformers.

The maps of New England migration,
intense revivalism, temperance crusading,
and antislavery agitation across upstate
New York and the Upper Midwest are overlays
of each other. In politics, reform energies
split along different paths. The largest
followed the Whig flag within the ordinary
channels of American politics, constituting
that party’s irreducible moralist core.
More radical souls took the more selective route
of third-party politics, notably under the
Liberty and Free-Soil banners. Arguably,
the most radical followed Massachusetts
Baptist-turned-ultra-abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison into the anti-party path of
Christian anarchism. Tracing Garrison’s
political journey back to its source, however,
we see it born in the most severe form of
High Federalism, which was set above the
will of the polluted populace. In this light
Garrison transmuted Federalist elitism
into divine demands, setting himself forth
as a chosen nation of one who–like Puritans
two centuries before–had renounced
the willfully impure mass of the nation for
the pure circle of those who would not compromise
the law of the Lord.

Presbyterian Constitutionalism
in the Middle States

The second congeries of Calvinists in
colonial America lived in radically different
circumstances and so faced radically
different prospects. The Dutch Reformed,
Huguenots, Scots, and Irish Presbyterians
who settled in New York, New Jersey, and
Pennsylvania were part of the most ethnically
and religiously pluralistic society in
North America. Not accidentally, it was in
this mid-Atlantic region that the religious
denomination and the political party as we
know them were invented. That is to say,
here any claim of religious establishment
was a pipedream (if not abjured by charter),
and civil politics reached the peaks
of factionalism and blatant self-interest.
No Reformed group in this matrix either
could or likely wished to become an ecclesiastical
or political establishment. The
same held for their descendants and kin
who spread up and down the backcountry
of eighteenth-century Appalachia. Sometimes
German Reformed but more typically
Scots and Ulster Presbyterians, these
immigrants evolved into an often prickly
minority on the western fringe of colonies
that were controlled by seaboard elites.

In the backcountry, conflict–economic,
political, ethnic, and religious–was endemic and a tenacious defense of
rights well indicated. Within their own religious
assemblies, especially those of Ulster
derivation, stout Westminster orthodoxy
coursed alongside vivid folk religion,
and the prickly individualism of the frontier
environment jostled with the claims
of church assemblies. Leaders of these
churches and the backwoods academies that spelled the advance guard of “civilization”
dreamed of a more orderly future
but had to seek it via measures that rose
above the initiatives or interests of any
particular group. The solution on all these
fronts was the Calvinian strain of constitutionalism:
strong church order that contained
and resolved conflict in the house
of the Lord, and the civil counterpart that
kept order while guarding liberty in the
city of man.

America’s Revolutionary era was made
for this approach, and the Presbyterians
rose to it in remarkable fashion. We need
not trace here the alterations in ecclesiastical
polity by which the churches (also
the Dutch and German Reformed) adapted
to the republican environment of the
newly independent nation. Of more interest
here are contributions to civil politics,
led off by John Witherspoon, a Scots Presbyterian
pastor brought to New Jersey in
1768 to preside over the college founded
at Princeton, and thereby to help reconcile
enduring New Side-Old Side tensions
in the church that stemmed from the
Great Awakening. Witherspoon did so,
his evangelical past notwithstanding, by
installing a new curriculum based in the
moral-sense ethics and common-sense
epistemology of the Scots Enlightenment.
If this conciliation of rationalism with revivalism
muted Calvinist doctrine of sin,
it served admirably to pump political leadership
into the American Revolution. In
fact, Princeton produced more office-holders
on all levels of the infant nation than
did any other American college. Witherspoon’s
political Calvinism emphasized
the responsibilities of public service and
the centrality of law both in legitimating
the revolutionary process and in stabilizing
the post-revolutionary settlement. His
most distinguished student was James
Madison, principal architect of the U.S.
Constitution. With its separation of powers,
checks and balances, disbursement
of sovereignty between federal and state
levels, and underlying strategy of multiplying
factions and interests over a large
republic (see Federalist Papers #10 & 51),
the document is a mirror of middle-colony
and backcountry experience. It is also
registers the naturalized Calvinism that
Madison took away from Princeton: utterly secular, trusting in no redemptions, arraying
structural mechanisms to channel
and control indelible self-interest.

Once national independence had been
definitively secured at the end of the Napoleonic
wars, Princeton returned to its
original intent of producing ministers,
founding a separate theological seminary
that became a font of undiluted Calvinist
orthodoxy. Leading the enterprise for half
a century from his arrival on the faculty in
1822 was Charles Hodge: professor of systematic
theology, the vastly learned editor
of perhaps the foremost academic journal
in the nation, a force for moderation in denominational
councils, but an unbending
advocate of what he took to be the timeless
faith of the church. His system famously
combined François Turretin’s Reformed
dogmatics, Francis Bacon’s inductive
method, Common Sense Realism as
philosophical frame, and earnest polemics
against any deviation from this profile. Yet
long before he published this theology, he
produced a church history, tellingly titled
The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian
Church in the United States of America
(1840/1851), and during his long teaching
career Princeton minted more ministers–and thus more professional leaders
in local communities across the United
States–than did any other school in the
land. Hodge always hesitated to sacralize
civic causes in the New England manner.
Yet the resonance of his instruction was to
promulgate in society as well as in church
a respect for learning, a culture of sober
realism and civil respect, and a model of
piety fulfilled in institutional service. His
counterpart in civic affairs was Stephen
Colwell, a lawyer and iron manufacturer
who gained fame in the years before the
Civil War as one of the country’s leading
economists. Opposed to the free-trade,
laissez-faire orthodoxy of the day, Colwell
sought government sponsorship for commercial,
industrial, and educational enterprises
that would make the national
economy more balanced and sound, and
thus also more propitious, he hoped, for
social morality. His politics favored the
Whig party ethos of ordered development
and culminated in his co-founding, despite
his Virginia birth, of the Union League of
Philadelphia during the Civil War.

High-Church Quiescence
in the Lower-South

Presbyterian and Reformed settlers
who moved farther South in the colonial
backcountry or who came into the Carolinas
from the coast both encountered
and helped build a different environment
still. This was one predicated on slavery
from the beginning. South Carolina
was founded by Barbadian transplants
whose slave-labor plantation complex was
built in part on the proceeds of a lucrative
trade in Indian captives from Carolina
back to the West Indies. Theirs being the
only mainland colony with a white minority,
Carolina’s planter elite fashioned the
most centralized regime and consolidated
leadership on the British North American
mainland. Likewise, the slave code they
instituted after the Stono Rebellion (1739)
was the most severe. Perennial fears of
slave insurrection marked all Carolina
policy, the religious included. Thus, evangelizing
efforts in the slave quarters were
finally accepted once the evangelists had
made it clear that conversion did not bring
manumission. Likewise, evangelicalism
among white commoners had to buck elite
resistance that disparaged its ‘unmanliness’
as contrary to the regnant culture of
honor. And so the most slavery-dependent
region of colonial America bequeathed to
the new nation the purest libertarian ideology–an ethic of elite self-determination
that resisted the threats of an alien government
and the carping of the church.
Evangelical religion made its advances in
this region by accepting this implicit contract;
Presbyterians, as evangelicalism’s
intellectual leadership, worked to give it

The result was their discovery of
“the spirituality of the church,” Southern
Presbyterianism’s chief contribution to
the Reformed tradition. Best articulated
by James Henley Thornwell, long a pastor
and professor of theology at Columbia,
South Carolina, the notion sharply
demarcated the civil from the ecclesiastical
sphere and limited the church’s corporate
authority to the latter. The principle
evoked Calvin’s quest for a disciplined,
pure church amid a potentially chaotic
and libertarian environment. It was also premised upon a stark bifurcation of the
material from the spiritual which limited
the range of that discipline and the aspirations
of its purity. It conceded to the Jeffersonian-Baptist hegemony in the South,
which projected American church-state
separation upon the heavens as the eternal
counsel of God, mandated for all times
and places. It paralleled contemporaneous
high-church efforts on both sides of
the Atlantic to protect the church’s purity
from political subservience. At the same
time it accepted that subservience, for the
spirituality of the church not accidentally
served to insulate the dominant socioeconomic
institution of the South from
the church’s moral critique. Presbyterians
would agree with the South Carolina
Episcopalians’ declaration in 1859: “The
State has deemed it wise and expedient to
vest in the master absolute authority over
the slave,”–including the authority to forbid
in the slave quarters both literacy and
legally binding marriage, two otherwise
non-negotiable behavioral markers of the
Reformation. These were not “moral” or
“spiritual” concerns for black people and
so lay outside the church’s proper jurisdiction.

Such quietism availed little in the final
analysis, however, for when the Confederacy
declared independence from the
United States, it was Thornwell himself
who wrote the “Address to All the Churches
of Jesus Christ throughout the Earth”
(1861) by which Southern Presbyterians
warranted ecclesiastical separation from
their Northern brethren–and gave fulsome
support to their region’s thoroughly
political cause. Their war became as sacred
as anything New England ever fought.
Although Thornwell himself came to think
that the South’s reverses in that war reflected
divine punishment upon some
abuses of the system, his denomination
never doubted that their slave regime had
biblical warrant as a means of maintaining
order in a social environment not of
their own choosing, and as bringing some
redemption for black people and white
alike out of a fallen human estate. That is,
it mixed perennial Calvinist themes with
resolute racial hierarchy, adorning the lot
with scriptural warrant, and shepherding
it with careful ecclesiology.


It has been often remarked that the
American Civil War was also a Christian
civil war. We can cast it more specifically
still as a Calvinist civil war. That is, in the
most epochal conflict in United States history
the fiercest and most accomplished
rhetoric on the Northern front come from
New England ministers who consciously
styled themselves as “sons of the Puritans.”
Their equals in the South were
self-consciously Calvinistic Presbyterians
devoted to the purity of Reformed churches.
Lost in between–and leaving Charles
Hodge, quite literally, in tears–was the
constitutionalism that middle-state Presbyterians
had endorsed as the best means
of maintaining ordered liberty in a mixed
society. When in 1861 the Constitution no
longer availed, this group and their border-state neighbors decided the issue by
submerging ordered liberty in Union, their
nuances dying, with so much else, upon
the altar of the nation.


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Reform and the Religious Imagination
. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Conforti, Joseph A. Saints and Strangers: New
England in British North America
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Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Farmer, James Oscar, Jr. The Metaphysical
Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and
the Synthesis of Southern Values
. Macon, GA:
Mercer University Press, 1986.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British
Folkways in America
. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989.

Hood, Fred J. Reformed America: the Middle and
Southern States, 1783-1837
. University, AL:
University of Alabama Press, 1980.

Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards
to Abraham Lincoln
. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002.

_____. Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822:
The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in
the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith
. Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Sassi, Jonathan D. A Republic of Righteousness:
The Public Christianity of the Post-Revolutionary
New England Clergy
. Oxford; New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001.

James D. Bratt is professor of
history at Calvin College in
Grand Rapids, Michigan and
is co-editor of Perspectives.
This essay was presented
to the conference on “Calvin
and His Influence” held at
Geneva, 24-27 May 2009,
with the assistance of a grant
from the Calvin Center for
Christian Scholarship.