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Did Calvin Found America? What Were The Religious Scruples of the Founding Fathers?      

[MP3 Audio Version - 18 minutes]

Introduction

Those who believe that there is no free-will, such as Calvinists, can never claim they ever believe that there are God-given liberties that no human government can infringe. There are, however, many Calvinists who fantasize that they should be given the lion's share credit for the American Revolution which was fought on that premise. These claims are ridiculous.

In 1776, true Calvinists could not support any kind of revolt from the King of England's rule in the colonies. Calvin insisted that a Christian owed unjust rulers a duty of obedience unless the ruler sought to prevent the true worship of God. (Calvin's Institutes 4.20.30-1.) 1 Because in the colonies no such prohibition was present, true Calvinists could not support any kind of revolt.

John Zubly (1724-1781) was a Calvinist preacher and delegate from Georgia in the Continental Congress. Based upon Calvinist doctrine, he resisted any kind of independence from Britain. 2 This call was heeded by the majority of Calvinists. Despite the presence in the Colonies of significant numbers in the Calvinist denominations (e.g., Puritan, Presbyterian and Congregational), they are virtually invisible among the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Constitution of 1789, and the First Congress. See charts below.

Calvinist Fantasies About A Calvinist-Driven American Revolution

Despite the statistical evidence, Loraine Boettner in his Calvinism in History: Calvinism in America 4 wishes to give the lion's share of responsibility for the American Revolution to Calvinists. He, in fact, says it was a "Presbyterian" revolution. However, this is a clearly exaggerated analysis. Most of the `proof' is based on loose-statements by British enemies of the young colonies. The British liked to blame Calvinists precisely because of the sour-reputation of Calvinists in England as dissenters back in England to the Crown. By asserting the American Revolutionists were Calvinists, the British authorities could besmirch our Revolution with the then bad taint of Calvinism in England and make it also appear it was a seditious extension by domestic opponents of the Crown in England.

Boettner then relies upon historians who in turn rely upon these weak second-hand claims to weave a story that is wholly unrealistic. Yet, based upon such sketchy evidence, Boettner makes the following extraordinarily baseless claim: "History is eloquent in declaring that American democracy was born  of Christianity and that that Christianity was Calvinism." Then, Boettner quotes the most preposterous claim of all by Ranke, a scholar, who said: "John Calvin was the virtual founder of America." 5

Reality: Calvinism Inspires Tyrannical Behavior

One of the most important lessons of the Servetus Affair, and the aftermath at Geneva, is about the origin of tyrannical behavior. Those who believe in there being no free will, whether Calvinists or materialists, will have no reason to resist making themselves tyrants. Because Calvinism denies free will exists in man at all, true Calvinists can never imagine by tyrannical behavior that they are infringing on any God-given inalienable right to freedom of conscience or thought. This is precisely because without a belief in a free-will, then how could Calvinists believe that a right to free-expression exists? How can they believe there is a right to freedom of religion on the national level when Calvinists insisted upon a state church in the colonies Massachusetts, NH, and Connecticut? (Denial of such freedom explains Calvin's behavior at Geneva. It also explains Fisher Ames' doctrine in 1804 as well, as discussed below.)

As a result, it should not surprise us to find that except for a very small number, none of the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A. were known Calvinists.

A website eager to find Calvinists among the Founding Fathers concedes there is scant evidence of their presence:

"Despite the prevalence of Calvinism among Colonials, most Founding Fathers were apparently not identified primarily by the label `Calvinist.' Among all of the people who were signers of the Declaration of Independence, signers of the U.S. Constitution, and members of the very first U.S. Congress and Senate, there is only one man whose religious affiliation is identified as `Calvinist:' Fisher Ames." 6

We have a lot to say about Fisher Ames in a short while. 7 We will prove that as the lone open Calvinist in the early Congress, Ames made it clear that he did not share in any of the American values that shaped the United States Constitution. In 1804, Ames advocated repealing almost every fundamental liberty of the young nation. He felt it was an experiment that had run its course. Ames believed the republic was teetering upon collapse unless immediately the government put in effect measures identical to those employed in the Geneva Republic of the direct government establishment of religion -- the Christian religion. Hardly a voice in keeping with our First Amendment!

Statistical Studies of The Founders' Faith

If one examines those who signed the original Constitution, and judge among those whose religious affiliations are known, 8 only five were Presbyterian (Calvinist) and one was Congregationalist (Calvinist in that era). There was only one Lutheran. The remaining 80% all belonged to denominations that believed in free will, and hence the sanctity of the freedom of conscience.

If we move past the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the first elected congress, then the numbers improve to 48. This means 29% of the first congress belonged to Calvinist denominations. 9 Yet, this leaves a significant 71% belonging to Christian denominations which believed in free-will.

Founding Fathers of Denominations Believing in Free Will

Denomination

Number

Episcopalian

17

Quaker

3

Anglican

2

Methodist

2

Roman Catholic

1

Total

25/31 = 80%

This is not intended to deprecate the many Presbyterians/Calvinists who participated in valiant efforts as soldiers and even commanders in our Revolutionary War. But this evidence proves the spiritual leadership for the revolution came from Christians of a different stripe. Rather, what is more fair to say is that the Calvinists in America who desired to free the U.S. from Britain were numerous although a minority within the Calvinist churches. They joined the American Revolution because their motives aligned at significant points with other Christians.

For example, Calvinists in NH, Mass. and Conn. since the early 1600s had an official monopoly that only the Calvinist "Congregational" churches were legal in New Hampshire, Massachussets and Connecticut. (See link.) Thus, Calvinists had as much interest as anyone in states where freedom of religion reigned to prevent the Anglican church of England from becoming the official church of NH, Mass., or Connecticut. Yet, Calvinists, unlike other Christians, were enjoying their localized Genevas where religion was forced, mandatory, and rigorously enforced by the judiciary. [Fn 10 below.] See also examples of such laws at this link.

Thus, the Calvinists of America who supported the revolution did not aspire to a freedom of religion for all citizens. They did not share the spirit which animated the overwhelming majority of Christians who were leading the American Revolution. These other Christians wanted everyone to enjoy a freedom of religion even from an `enlightened' new Geneva in America.

Consequently, the predominating Christian spirit in the Revolution came from Christians who believed in human free will. They wanted freedom from Calvinist church-and-state marriages as much as from any other kind of marriage of church-and-state.

Proof From Madison Contrasted to Ames

The difference between Calvinist Christians and the type of Christian leading the American Revolution is demonstrable by comparing the views of the lone self-avowed Calvinist in the early Congress -- Fisher Ames -- to the views of James Madison. As you may know, Madison was the actual writer/drafter of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. He is sometimes called the Father of the Constitution.

Madison's Views on Church-and-State

First, we will start with Madison. He became President in 1809. He was of the stripe of man who regarded the Christian religion as having been debased when it ever had been entwined with the civil arm to persecute heretics.

In 1784, Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments his rationale for rejecting laws intended to establish the Christian religion over other religions. In this speech, he declaimed against the church-state bond that persecuted heretics in ages past which resulted in "spiritual tyranny":

"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."

"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; 11 in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not." 12

"Such a government will he best supported by protecting every citizen in the enjoyment of his religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property, -- by neither invading the equal rights of any sect, nor suffering any sect to invade those of another."

****

"Torrents of blood have spilled in the Old World in consequence of vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by prescribing all differences in religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease." 13

The original purpose of the Founding Fathers in the First Amendment is thus clear. Among other purposes, it was to guard the state from ever engaging in a Calvinist-scheme of controlling the religion of man by persecuting heresy using the civil or prosecutorial arm of the state. It is a lesson lost on some prominent Christian voices of today like Pat Robertson. 14

Instead, Madison wanted a religious liberty which was at total odds with Calvinist doctrine. It was this spirit at total odds with Calvinist doctrine which was the fundamental driving force of the Revolution. The American Revolution was thus not principally made by those who shared Calvin's values as Boettner claimed. It was made primarily by the followers of Christ who saw the crimes of Calvin and the church over centuries, and never wanted those kind of injustices to ever be repeated again on the face of this earth. They wanted religious liberty for everyone.

Ames' Calvinist Spirit At Odds With Madison's Constitution

Fisher Ames, the lone self-professed Calvinist in Congress, in 1804 was the first member of Congress who sought to undo the civil liberties against religious establishment. He grounded this on Calvinist doctrine. This demonstrates two spirits within Christian denominations which were at odds with each other. There was the Christian spirit of men like Madison who wanted religious toleration of all. And then there was the Calvinist spirit of men like Ames who lost patience very quickly with the experiment, and suggested its repeal.

This is set forth with subtlelty in Ames' 1804 The Dangers of American Liberty.

Ames began this piece, like Calvin would, by smearing the entire nation he lived in as populated by libertines. Ames argued that the country was suffering from a "licentiousness fatal to Liberty." As a result of such decline, Ames claimed there has arisen an "hostility to our religious institutions." 15 Then Ames says the cure is to reverse the course whereby our "religious institutions" have been "abandoned by our laws." But religion, he said, is the support of all governments. What should the government do now that it can see that religion institutions are teetering? Ames said with the government taking no proactive steps, the only basis to religious institutions is mere habit. Ames says the only reason why religious institutions have not yet collapsed was due to the "tenasciousness of ...even a degenerate people" to their "habits." 16

Hence, in point one, Ames is arguing in a round-a-bout manner for the state-establishment of religion, just as at Geneva. It is the only way the laws no longer abandon the cause of religion, and the force of law can restore the languishing, almost dead state of religion (as Ames saw it).

Second, Ames will give us a further step to stop this decline. Speaking just like Calvin, Ames says we must prefer in the appointment of judges men who "profess the best moral and religious principles...." (Id. at 356.) In other words, legal acumen is not vital. Instead, because if point one is established (i.e., state support for religious institutions), now the judge himself must play a role in enforcing morals and religious values. Hence, Ames says we need judges so trained in religious principles and morals to end the "licentiousness" all about us. Thus, Ames argued, just like Calvin would, that everyone around them is a Libertine, and the only solution is to empower judges to enforce morals and religion. To this end, the church would act as watchdogs of religious and moral principles to feed fresh charges to the judges on a regular basis.

Third, the paralell to Calvin's doctrine continues as Ames takes aim at the press writers. Ames clearly expresses that such men deserve to die for the words they utter. Rather than the Press serving as a tool to fight tyrrany, Ames says the "press has been the base and venal instrument of the very men whom it ought to gibbet [i.e., hang] to universal abhorrhence." (Id., at 357.) Ames means the press writers should be hanged for the things they say as they are co-conspirators with those degrading morals in our land. Ames would bring back Calvin's persecution of Servetus-like writers as an everyday occurence had he the chance.

Fourth and finally, Ames would adopt Calvin's view on democracy. Calvin said history proves that a combined aristocracy with democracy is the best form of government. (Institutes 4.8.) 17 What would Ames say about that?

Ames said the right to vote improperly belongs now to immoral corrupt hands who cannot fathom the information necessary to make any informed decision. "It is in vain, it is indeed childish to say, that an enlightened people will understand their own affairs." (Works of Fisher Ames, supra, at 364.) "How are these millions of students to have access to the means of information?" (Id., at 364.)

Hence, Ames leaves us to imply only one solution: the right to vote should be restricted so only an informed elite can vote and elect representatives from within their own elite members, i.e., an aristocracy.

Conclusion

Thus, Ames, as the lone open Calvinist in the early Congress, reminds us what Calvinists truly believed back then. They shared no agenda in common with the majority on issues of free-will, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the broad right of suffrage based on minimal qualifications. Ames shows us what the heart of the Calvinists would have been, had they been the leaders of the Revolution. They would have restored the tyrannical regime at Geneva under Calvin. In fact, it can be truly said that no principles of liberty in any government was more antithetical to Calvinist political values than the original United States of America and its Constitution.


1. This flows logically from Calvin's belief that God is sovereign over evil, and directs it. Thus, in Calvin's thinking, to seek to overthrow an unjust ruler is to contravene the sovereign will of God.

2. "John Joachim Zubly," Wikipedia.

5. Quoted without citation in Egbert Watson Smith, The Creed of Presbyterians (Baker & Taylor Co., 1901) at 119.

6. "Famous Calvinists," http://www.adherents.com/largecom/fam_calvin.html (accessed 6/5/08).

8. http://www.bizforum.org/FFR.htm (accessed 6/8/08).

10. "John Calvin's system was the archetype of Winthrop's. In youth, Winthrop studied carefully the works of John Calvin." John A. Taylor, British Monarchy, English Church Establishment, and Civil Liberty (Greenwood Publishing, 1993) at 34.

11. It seems most likely that Madison here is specifically referring to Calvin's role in the Servetus Affair.

12. William Cabell Rives, History of the Life and Times of James Madison (1859) at 637, top para. and bottom para. However, Calvinists persist in seeing in Madison "echoes of Calvin." But the idea of checks-and-balances because of human proclivity to evil is based on history, and not a religious doctrine of human depravity.

13. William Cabell Rives, History of the Life and Times of James Madison (1859) at 638.

14. While I strongly admire the spiritual work of Pat Robertson, I find it troubling he says the "separation of church and state" is a "lie of the left," and Christians must "work together .... [to win] back control of the institutions that have been taken from them over the past 70 years." (Pat Roberston, Pat Robertson Perspective (Fall 1991).) Since 70 years ago, there has been no official religion in the USA. I therefore doubt Pat means what this quote sounds like. But Pat is wrong factually. Our founders did understand the First Amendment to create a wall of separation. How that was originally meant and how it is often today defined has diverged, and therein lies the problem. See accompanying text above to this footnote.

15. Ames, "Fisher Ames 1758-1808: The Dangers of American Liberty," in Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805 (1983) vol. 2; Works of Fisher Ames (Little Brown, 1854) at 345, 356.

Ames is an excellent writer, filled with brilliant wit. When Fisher Ames talks about the dangers of democracy, as distinct from a republican form of government, he is excellent. Yet, he saw the USA as overcome by "democratic licentiousness" (id., at 348), and that some of the experiment had to be reversed.

16. Works of Fisher Ames (Little Brown, 1854) at 356.

17. However, Calvin said that Scripture supports that obedience should only be given "one man" to "whose will all others are subjected." (Institutes 4.7.)