John Calvin: Father of America

I have been interested in the early American history since my mother encouraged me to go hear Peter Marshall speak at a local church twenty eight years ago. I then read Marshall’s book, “The Light and the Glory.” Being a product of the government school system, I had never before heard anything about the influence of Christianity on the founding of America. When I saw the hand of Providence was clearly and unmistakably involved in the founding of this nation, the whole subject became incredibly exciting.

From there I found out about a fellow named Marshall Foster and bought a big set of his tape-recorded lectures on American history. Those recordings were awesome. I still have them and occasionally listen to them. Other great speakers and teachers have come along since then. David Barton and Little Bear Wheeler come to mind.

Then, a couple years ago, I bought the book, “Christianity and the Constitution,” by John Eidsmoe. It is a good book that opened my eyes to something new. It had probably been communicated by the other speakers and writers, but I had not really picked up on it until I read Eidsmoe’s book. That something new was the influence of John Calvin on the founding of America. I am going to quote from Chapter One of the book:

“Colonists came from many lands and arrived at many different times to build a new nation. Some landed at Jamestown in 1607; others landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620….. In 1630 the Arabella arrived at Salem with a group of settlers. Throughout the 1600s shiploads of eager settlers arrived at various ports to begin a new life.

Some colonists were wealthy; some were slaves or indentured servants. Other colonists owned nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Although many colonists came empty-handed, they did not come empty-minded. They brought with them the heritage, culture, and ideas from the land of their birth.

In forming a new nation and developing its Constitution the following century, the delegates at the 1787 Convention did not intend to put into practice new and untried ideas. The framers of the American Constitution based their political concepts on the tried and tested ideas of the past. These men were intelligent, well-educated, and widely read. They combined the best ideas they read about to establish a government for the United States.

Therefore, it is appropriate to ask: What influenced the founders of this nation? Which books did they read? Which thinkers did they respect? To which theological, philosophical, and political systems did they subscribe?

Their ideas came from a variety of sources but one source stands out above all others. Dr. E. W. Smith says it well:

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 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.’'

Dr. Smith continues:

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.

Dr. Smith is not alone in his assessment. Bancroft, probably the leading American historian of the nineteenth century, simply called Calvin the “father of Ameriaca.” Bancroft, far from being a Calvinist himself, added, He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.'

Eidsmoe’s book goes on to provide more support for the claim that the teachings of John Calvin were the undeniable and primary influence on the founding of America. Then he explains how Biblical principles as espoused by Calvin were incorporated into our government system.

Knowing that John Calvin (a man who died in 1564) was used by God to impact so many lives, and even to the founding of a nation, I decided to learn more about him. What I found is that modern-day evangelical Christianity doesn’t think much of Calvin. That’s because for one thing, he believed the Bible taught predestination, and evangelical Christianity does not.

Well, I’m not going to go into a discussion of predestination here. I’ll leave that to people like R. C. Sproul, who has a taped lecture on the subject.

Suffice it to say that John Calvin was a deep thinker and a remarkable man. His exposition of Biblical theology, applied to individual lives and the culture of a people, birthed the concept of freedom from oppressive government and eventually grew an independent republic founded on Biblical law.That republic being the United States of America.

In my next blog entry I’ll tell you something else that I believe John Calvin’s teaching’s birthed. It is something that few people would associate with Calvin. I think you'll be surprised,


Zach said...

G. K. Chesterton identified Calvinism as America's creed also (as well as saying that "America is the only nation founded on a creed").

On the other hand, knowing what I know of Calvin's Geneva, I have to wonder a bit about just how much we should credit liberty to John Calvin - unless "liberty" means "liberty to be a Calvinist".


Heather said...

Thanks for writing about this strange connection. I'm currently blogging about this same topic since I heard a similar remark made by Dr. Michael Haykin, church history professor in Toronto. Not sure if I'll get it posted today, but I might need to link to your post since it provided such good resources.
As your above commentor confirmed, most evangelical Christians have been purposely misinformed about John Calvin's role in Geneva.
But alas, that's another topic.