Presbyterians and Calvinism

The Presbyterians played a critical role in the American Revolution against the English tyrant King George. Driving their convictions was the belief that ultimately final authority rested in God as the King of the universe and that earthly kings were under God's authority - not their own. In reference to Romans 13 God lays out the parameters for how a king should rule. When the king acts like a tyrant and flagrantly ignores those parameters and abuses the people - he no longer has legitimate authority to rule. Much of their views regarding church and state were derived from a biblical worldview strongly influenced by Calvin's theology. The following article describes that historical link of Calvin's theology and its impact on Presbyterian leadership.


ThoseBlasted Presbyterians: Reflections on Independence Day

“We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only inthe Lord. If they command anything against him, let us not pay the least regardto it.” Book Four, Calvin’sInstitutes

“I fix all the blameof these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians.”  So onecolonist loyal to King George wrote to friends in England.

Around the same time,Horace Walpole spoke from the English House of Commons to report on these“extraordinary proceedings” in the colonies of the new world.  “There isno good crying about the matter,” he said.  “Cousin America has run offwith the Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

The parson of which hespoke, was  John Witherspoon—a Presbyterian minister, as well as adescendant of John Knox.  At the time, Witherspoon was president of theCollege of New Jersey (now Princeton).  He was also the only clergyman tosign the Declaration of Independence.

From the Englishperspective, the American revolution was often perceived as a “PresbyterianRebellion.”  And its supporters were often disdained as “those blastedPresbyterians.”

The PresbyterianRevolution
Most American Christians are unaware of the fact that the American Revolution,as well as the new American state, was greatly shaped by Presbyterians and theCalvinism that was at its root.  Some modern-day  Presbyterians havemoved light years away from the convictions of these early colonists.

An estimated threemillion people lived in the colonies at the time of the RevolutionaryWar.  Of that number, “900,00 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin,600,000 were Puritan English, while over 400,000 were of Dutch, German Reformedand Huguenot descent. That is to say, two thirds of our Revolutionaryforefathers were trained in the school of Calvin.”  (Carlson, p. 19)

As one historian putsit, “When Cornwallis was driven back to ultimate retreat and surrender atYorktown, all of the colonels of the Colonial Army but one were Presbyterianelders. It is estimated that more than one half of all the soldiersand officers of the American Army during the Revolution were Presbyterian.”(Carlson, p. 16)

To the man,Presbyterian clergy joined the Colonialist cause. It was said that many of themled the Revolution from the pulpit.  In doing so, they paid a heavy pricefor their support for independence.  Many lost family members or their ownlives.  Some had their churches burned to the ground.

The Presbyterian Drive
We forget that many of the early American colonists had left England preciselybecause Presbyterian Christianity was rejected.  After its brief reign asthe established church through the English Civil War and the work of theWestminster Assembly, Britain returned to Anglicanism.  Thousands ofnon-conforming Presbyterian ministers were then ejected from theirchurches.  Some, such as the Covenanters, were martyred in a period thatcame to be known as “the killing times.” Rigid laws of conformity drovemany to seek a better life somewhere else.  After 1660, many Presbyteriansbegan to make their way to the colonies in North America.  It wasthese individuals who brought a new strength to the colonies as they inchedtheir way forward towards independence.

They had littleloyalty, and often outright hostility, to the crown of England.  They werearmed with the theology of John Calvin, mediated through John Knox, andsolidified during the English Civil war. It was a theology which devalued thedivine right of human kings, and elevated the worth and dignity of theindividual under God.  This theology shaped the early Americanunderstanding of civil liberty.

It shaped our foundingfathers. The idea of human equality which influenced John Locke, who inturn,  influenced our founding fathers, was learned from the Puritans.Locke’s father had been on Cromwell’s side during the English Civil war.

It also shaped thegeneral population under the influence of the Great Awakening. The GreatAwakening was a massive 18th century religious revival that shook thecolonies. It was promoted by preachers such as Gilbert Tennent andGeorge Whitfield who travelled up and down the coast calling for a return to arobust Christian and Biblical faith.  Emphasizing the new birth and aCalvinist theology, the Great Awakening had an immense influence on colonialsentiments in the generation just preceding the American Revolution.

Consider then, some ofwhat was at work in the American consciousness preceding the revolution. Therewas the memory of their horrid experience in England. There was the worry thatAnglicans would establish this same kind of church in the colonies. There was apersistent fear of the imposition of bishops who were viewed as “holymonarchs,”  (monarchy in any form was considered bad)!  There was abelief in the absolute sovereignty of God. God alone is Lord of all andthe author of liberty. There was a corresponding belief in the absolute equalityof individuals (king and peasant, clergy and laity) under God’s law. There wasthe belief that no human should be entrusted with absolute power, given ourradically fallen human nature.  There was a belief that there should be aseparation of powers in any new government that is established.  Andbecause of their experience in England, there was the belief that religiousfreedom and freedom of conscience should be respected.

In other words, forthese Presbyterians, liberty is affirmed, but it is not an absolute liberty. Itis always to be lived out under the sovereign creator God. It was thistheology, a theology rooted, not just in Calvin, but in the Bible, whichultimately gave the colonialist the will to resist.

The Presbyterian Legacy
So this year, as we celebrate our independence once again, and as we think ofearly American courage, and the genius of our founding fathers, let us notforget those blasted Presbyterians who sought to understand liberty in light ofthe Bible.  A liberty which conceived of a nation and its entiregovernment under God.

By Don Sweeting

Sources:  Our Presbyterian Heritage, PaulCarlson (Elgin:  David C. Cook, 1973)Presbyterians: Their History andBeliefs, Walter L. Lingle and John W. Kuykendall, (Atlanta:  JohnKnox Press, 1988), The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, DouglasF. Kelly, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  P&R Publishing, 1992)