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Monday, August 17, 2009

John Eidsmore on John Calvin and the Founding

John Eidsmore, Pastor, Assn. of Free Lutheran Congregations, and Professor at Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy has written a post on Firm Foundation about John Calvin's legacy to our Founding.

Calvin was no doubt the Greatest of Reformers during the Protestant Reformation, being the only person to give a succinct Christian Theology. Calvin greatly influenced the Founding Fathers in their understanding of Law and Government, as Eidsmore explains:

"But if, as Calvin taught, every plowboy should be able to read and interpret the Scriptures for himself, then every plowboy must be taught to read. This led to widespread literacy, which made republican self-government possible."

It is true, the framers wanted literacy to be a great part of Republican Government. Benjamin Rush was among the many who labored hard for literacy to any and everyone, not to mention, nearly all the framers affirmed Calvin's Human Depravity which leads to Republican Representative Government:

"Calvin’s emphasis on Sola Gratia led to a recognition of the total depravity of human nature. Because of man’s sinful nature, we cannot live in a state of anarchy; we need government to maintain law and order. But because those in authority have the same sinful nature as the rest of us, we cannot trust government with too much power. This led to the system of limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and reserved individual rights that characterize republican self-government."

The framers employed Calvin's Human Depravity into Representative Government, which led to consent of the governed, separation of powers, etc. Representative government derives from the Calvinist concept of solidarity; the Biblical notion of persons (The King) representing the group, and the group judged by actions of the one (King). This Calvinist (Biblical) idea, being "In Adam" because of the imputation of sin, and "In Christ" by the imputation of Christ's Righteousness, is based on solidarity. In fact, Calvin's espousal of Original Sin is an air-tight case, quoting James 3:9 as scriptural support. If man is to deny Original Sin, he must deny man is made in the image of God as well.

Other historians have claimed Calvin's great influence on our Founding:

"But Leopold von Ranke, founder of the modern school of history in Germany, stated flatly, “John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.” And George Bancroft, the leading American historian of the first half of the 1800s, though not a Calvinist himself, called Calvin the “father 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.”

Calvin on Romans 13, and the responsibility of civil rulers:

'Magistrates may hence learn what their vocation is, for they are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, but what is restricted to the well-being of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power. For as they are deputed by God and do his business, they must give an account to him: and then the ministration which God has committed to them has a regard to the subjects; they are therefore debtors to them."
-Calvin, Commentary on Romans, 481.

And in some cases it appears Calvin allowed lower magistrates to overthrow a wicked ruler:

"For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (as in ancient times the ephors . . .), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dis-simulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance."
- Calvin, Institutes 4. 20. 30


J said...

Calvinists certainly were not all supportive of democracy (or of the American Rev.). I am not sure of the exact demographics of religious affiliation in early US, yet I suspect the calvinist/puritan/presbyterian sorts were confined to New England .

The American Revolution's emphasis on human liberty--if not Locke's point on the right to petition the govt. for grievances---indeed seems rather ANTI-Calvinist, and affirms the rights of individual citizens, even those not counted among the "Elect."

I'm pretty sure that's what the key Framers thought (e.g. Jeff, Mad, Franklin, Paine, Adams). I think you're overlooking the impact of Locke's 2nd Treatise (not exactly a ditto of Calvin), not to say Enlightenment rationality (including those perfidious Frenchmen such as Voltaire and Rousseau)

Our Founding Truth said...

The Calvinists/puritans were everywhere, and I presume the majority in every state. The Great Awakening went to New England and the Hugenout Calvinists in the Carolinas.

If I'm understanding Calvin correctly, only lower magistrates could lead a rebellion.

The key framers theory isn't reliable at all, having neglected the vast majority, being more important than five guys.

This is why the Philosophers have it all wrong. Jefferson and Madison said the most important framers were the ratifiers, which takes Jefferson out of the equation.

He had nothing to do with framing or ratifying the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

J said...

It's an exaggeration to say Jefferson had no influence. Madison was Jeff.'s protege, and they were neighbors, and both Virginians. Mad.'s Remonstrance is close in content to Jeff's Bill for Religious Freedom, for that matter, and both influenced the Const. (the Remonstrance actually sounds like an early draft of Con. in places). By the time of the writing of the Constitution, Madison sided with the Jeffersonians over the Federalists as well, and there were Jeffersonians ratifying the Const (though some like Clinton did not until the BoR was attached).

And really, the Federalists themselves were hardly fire and brimstone types. Aaron Burr nearly defeated TJ for pres.,and was as republican--in classical sense--and Federalist as any.

Our Founding Truth said...

I should clarify what I meant by my last post. I agree TJ was an important framer, however there were many others, such as Rufus King, that were more valuable.

Our Founding Truth said...

Madison had to change his views, or his career may have been jeopardized(sp), being a Virginian and all.

The Memorial exalts Christianity and attacks the other "false religions"

It wasn't until Jefferson got his hooks into him, after the Constitution was ratified, that he most likely departed from Orthodox Christianity.

Fire and brimstone has nothing to do with the Orthodoxy of that period. Orthodoxy is adhereing to fundamental Biblical principles, nothing more. John Witherspoon wasn't a fire and brimstone preacher.

J said...

Your pals at "American Creation" have started moderating comments--could that be due to one commenter (i.e., me) who dared to question the veracity of Joseph Smith, and his visions of the Golden plates, or his "anthropology"? Must be a coincidence.

Note the links to the LDS site as well--and those "mainstream christians" who think the LDS has purged Smith's influence should note that the reports of the supposed Golden Plates (and all the other details of Smith's strange visions---) are still accepted as legitimate by the LDS "elders."

Our Founding Truth said...

Yeah, Brad Hart is a Mormon, and there may be others on there. There are other blogs besides AC that talk about religion of the framers that aren't so intolerant to the facts of Mormonism.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Our moderating comments is due solely to the recent spam attack that blogger has become vulnerable to.

J said...

Perhaps, but I find it amusing that my comments don't appear for hours (and one or two didn't appear at all).

And Mr Von Dyke, apart from his noisy posts, sounds rather supportive of the LDS (if not a Mormon himself). Whatever, but as Christians, aren't you expected to value truth-telling? (or transparency as they say). That is, except for "dispensationalists" who have an exemption clause for that.

Our Founding Truth said...


Most of AC are not Christians; Jon Rowe is not a Christian. Why TVD defends the LDS you'll have to ask him.

It appears TVD could care less about the testimony of Joseph Smith's mom and dad.

J said...


At times the AC gang seems a bit Objectivist-like, as in.....The church of Ayn Rand--sort of Aristotle-xtra lite. Existence exists!

I'm not real big on Lit., but Ezra Pound had studied the American revolution in some depth and penned some interesting (and germane) things about the Framers. He acknowledges the role of the Puritans, but also claims that early on (pre-Rev.), the settlers and "leading lights" valued latin and greek classics. See his Jefferson vs. Mussolini.

Having re-read a good chunk of the Federalist papers over the summer, I tend to think the Federalists were quite more drawn to classical models (ie roman republicanism) than to, say, Lockean or protestant ideals. Hamilton's not some dreamy philosopher, however, but generally quoting historians--Thucydides, Herodotus, Plutarch, etc not too much Plato, or Aristotle (tho. the Stagirite appears at times).

I'm not blessing Hamilton, but when considering the Federalists as the architects of the AR, I cannot agree to the Christian Nation thesis. Of course some of the ratifiers were orthodox Christian, but the main impetus from Hamilton, Madison and the leading Feds was more in line with classical models (loosely Aristotelian, perhaps). Many of the anti-Federalists (say Clinton, Lee, even Jefferson) were not exactly Jonathan Edwards types either.

Our Founding Truth said...

I'm working on a post about Calvin and the framers. You may be surprised the influence Calvin had on the framers, especially with human depravity, separation of powers, etc.

The main support behind the Christian Nation Thesis is the State Constitutions, the rest is window dressing.

Read Bishop Meade on RHLee. Lee was Orthodox as anyone.

Our Founding Truth said...

Here is the link to Bishop Meade's recollections of the Church in Virginia.

Meade is an excellent source for understanding the condition of the Church in the Colonial period. Many of the Church leaders, predominantly monarchist anglicans, were hypocrites to say the least, however Meade goes on to say the elites, such as Mason, and Lee, kept their Orthodox Christian beliefs.

Our Founding Truth said...

Here's the second volume of Meade's Churches.

Going through this work will take a bit.

J said...

RH Lee (great uncle of RE Lee) was educated in England , and aligned with the Whigs. He was consistently anti-monarchical (as most whigs were, following their mentor Locke).

I don't doubt Lee attended church, but the bios don't really stress his religious aspects--he sounds like one of the democratic anti-Federalists, with Clinton, P. Henry, etc. (Henry was a biblethumper, but there was dissention even in the ranks of the anti-Feds--PH didn't care for Jefferson, for one).

Lee opposed the Constitution (at least until BoR). He actually spoke in favor of abolition on a few occasions (not likely to have won him admirers in old virginia).

Some American historians (especially religious ones) have over-emphasized the religious aspects of some of the FFs--that may be the case with Lee.

Our Founding Truth said...

Meade's quote below about Patrick Henry is almost humorous.

"It is stated, in an article which I saw some time ago, from the 'Protestant Episcopalian,' and, I presume, from one of you, that Patrick Henry was once an infidel, &c. His widow and some of his descendants are residing in this county, and I am authorized by one of them to say that the anecdote related is not true. He ever had, I am informed, a very great abhorrence of infidelity, and actually wrote an answer to 'Paiue's Age of Keason,' but destroyed it before his death. His widow has informed me that he received the Communion as often as an opportunity was offered, and on such occasions always fasted until after he had communicated, and spent the day in the greatest retirement. This he did both while Governor and afterward. Had he lived a few years longer, he would have probably done much to check the immoral influence of one of his compatriots, whose works are now diffusing the poison of infidelity throughout our land."

One only knows how Henry would have attacked Jefferson, and what the public would have thought, but know this, Henry had many more friends in Virginia than Jefferson, and in high places.

Furthermore, if Henry hadn't left to take the Governor's seat, his Assessment Bill would have passed, having: Washington, Marshall, Lee, and Pendleton behind him. He most likely would have convinced Mason as well. Jefferson or Madison could not last in a debate with Henry or Lee.

Our Founding Truth said...

I don't doubt Lee attended church, but the bios don't really stress his religious aspects--he sounds like one of the democratic anti-Federalists, with Clinton, P. Henry, etc. (Henry was a biblethumper,>

Read Meade's second volume. Lee went to church every sunday, and Henry was not a biblethumper. Some in the public thought he was a Deist.

J said...

Really, the religious beliefs of the signers of the DoI, or the ratifiers of the Con. and BoR don't count for much, in the long run. The ratifiers agree to the terms of the contract, more or less, and obviously Madison and Jefferson are sort of calling the shots.

I find it interesting that the early abolitionist sentiment mostly derived from the Federalists Hamilton and Adams
(Madison owned slaves). There were a few anti-Federalists who made some comments against slavery (Henry, and Jeff. himself at times), but on the whole the anti-Fed and states rights factions were pro-slavery (as with Mason), and that continued until the civil war.

Our Founding Truth said...

Jefferson is important, but there are others more important, like Samuel Adams, Rufus King, and Richard Henry Lee.

Both Jeff, and Madison said the most important was the ratifiers, not drafters of instruments, for the ratifying tells us the true intent of the people, and legally makes it law, drafting the Constitution cannot make it Law.

J said...

American Creation's Tom Von Dyke, Mr. Piety, now suggests the Founding Fathers were following Thomas Aquinas's thoughts on "natural law"--and that Locke just updated Aquinas as well.

Heh heh. Rather unlikely. TVD, Mr Piety, forgets that, one, Locke was opposed to the church of Rome. Calvin, and Luther, especially, detested the "Angelic Doctor (I think Luther called Aquinas.......something unprintable). The central Framers had little respect for orthodox calvinism, but certainly not papists.

Locke's ideas on the state of nature--where he does, contra-Hobbes, claim there is a sort of "natural law" whereby people must respect other's rights--have little relation to Aquinas. Aquinas follows Aristotle in regards to ethics and politics--for the most part (a difficult issue in itself).

Aristotle does, I believe, suggest "Good" exists, and that reasonable men will seek it--all debatable points; at the same time, Aristotle certainly is not an advocate of rights. Nicomachean ethics more or less anticipates Caesar--and, say, Machiavelli, or Il Duce-- and "might makes right" (though laws exist in Ari's politics--at least for the nobility and the military).

Locke, and the Framers rarely theorize in that matter--ie "what is the Good." They are practical men--not theologians or philosophers. And I do not think they were machiavellians (though Hamilton at times waxed a bit Aristotelian-strongman like).

In other words, Mr Piety, aka TVD doesn't know what he is talking about.

Our Founding Truth said...

Previously, I had been unaware of the influence of Calvin and the forming of our Republic, so I will do a post on his influence.

I'll start by saying our foremost historian of the founding, George Bancroft in the 19th century, said, "Calvin was the virtual founder of America."

I would have never believed it until recently. It is a fact Locke's influence in the DOI, for RHLee, and Samuel Adams quoted him, however Calvin was espousing separation of powers, consent of the governed, Representative Republican Government, etc. years before Locke.

It is important to note, Aquinas was talking state of nature(consent of the governed) by quoting Exodus 18, years before Calvin.

My question is, while Locke says the state of nature had God to govern it, does Locke believe God divinely called government as the Reformers did?

J said...

I haven't read much Calvin (except for a few excerpts on pre-destination--the "horrible doctrine," or whatever--which it is).

Locke I have read. His points on pre-social rights are in 2nd Treatise, and I suspect that was the essential political doctrine for the Jeffersonians and anti-Federalists--not so much for the Hamilton/Adams gang, though Adams quotes Locke as well.

Locke sounds like he's echoing Matthew/Sermon on the Mount in the section in 2nd T. where he insists on his innate rights, which even hold pre-society. It's rather moving rhetoric, but I don't think Locke at all proves some objective, rational ethics--just sort of, you value your own "rights" (ie property rights, mainly), so, you should respect mine. Hobbes' was not that optimistic, and realizes without laws, contracts, cops, society itself, those rights are moot if not absurd .

I re-read a few passages from the Summa on "lex naturalis" after perusing some of the wit and wisdom of AC, and was reminded of all the reasons I don't care for Aquinas's dialectic.

The Angelic Doctor may have known Ari's metaphysics up and down, but he realized he was verging into dangerous territory in regards to ethics (I think the Pope had banned Aristotle for a while), and so he phones it in, merely with a few bon mots on the Good,and so forth. Aristotle spends pages on virtue, valor, "eudemonia" .etc. Either way, Aristotle's the aristocrat's code (or strong-man philosophy as Bertrand Russell called it), and I suspect even St. Thom (not Tom) had to be somewhat careful.

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