Saturday, August 19, 2006

Was the American Revolution Consistent with Calvinism?

In a word, no. This is one of the points made in Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis on The Political Theology of the American Founding. Calvinism actually better fits with the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings. Frazer cites George Willis Cooke, who, in 1902, wrote:

The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.

Frazer goes so far as to assert that "Each of the so-called five points of Calvinism offended liberal democratic sensibilities." Calvin himself, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, apparently addressed the question of Revolution and, according to Frazer, "made it abundantly clear that rebellion was never justified. He declared 'whatever they are and however they govern,' magistrates derive their authority 'from [God] alone.' And:

If we keep firmly in mind that even the very worst kings are appointed by this same decree which establishes the authority of kings [in general], then we will never permit ourselves the seditious idea that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, or that we need not obey a king who does not conduct himself towards us like a king."

Also, "we must honour [even] the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him." And "if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid." Finally, "make no mistake: it is impossible to resist the magistrate without also resisting God."

All of these are direct quotations taken from John Calvin, "On Civil Government," Book IV, Chapter 20 of Institutes of the Christian Religion in Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, trans. & ed. Harro Hopfl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

No wonder Jefferson and Adams ridiculed, often viciously, the doctrines of Calvinism. Clearly Calvin could not be used to justify revolt or rebellion. So the Founders had to turn to Locke. Indeed, John Witherspoon, an orthodox Christian and a Presbyterian minister, explicitly spoke in Lockean, not Calvinist terms when arguing for the Revolution.

Locke and the Enlightenment had to be where the Founders -- whether they were orthodox Christians, Deists, or Theistic Rationalists -- turned to justify the Revolution because the Bible itself is insufficient for establishing the principles upon which we declared independence and constructed the Constitution.

Here is where we get to an interesting and under-appreciated nuance of Founding theory. Churches, very important social institutions during the Founding era, played an important role supporting the Revolution. Because Unitarianism swept through Massachusetts Congregational Churches during the Revolutionary era, such Churches could effectively integrate pro-revolutionary messages into their sermons, and were thus particularly influential. Like the Unitarians of today, the Founding era Unitarians had a penchant for novel and unorthodox readings of the Bible.

Indeed, this blog has noted how theological unitarianism dominated the minds of the key Founders, many of them Virginia Anglicans. But let me now stress that the Unitarian ministers of the Unitarian Congregational Church in Massachusetts played a vital role in making theological arguments from the pulpit in favor of the Revolution. And they did so by integrating anti-Calvinist Enlightenment principles, which justified revolt, into their interpretation of the Bible.

There is a myth circulating that very few Unitarians existed among the Massachusetts Congregational Churches until sometime in the 1800s, well after the Founding. Apparently, this misconception existed in John Adams's time as well, and Adams himself addressed the matter:

I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, "American Unitarianism." I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me.

In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers!

John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.

Calvin's anti-Revolutionary theology arguably was far more Biblical than the Unitarians' pro-Revolutionary theology. As Frazer comments on the Unitarian ministers:

When reading these sermons carefully, one is struck by the frequency with which passages of Scripture are interpreted in a manner convenient to the argument being made, but unrelated or opposed to their clear sense. Whether expounding upon a historical example or a statement of doctrine, the ministers were little concerned with standard rules of interpretation; such as adherence to context, comparison with similar passages, and fidelity to the clear sense of a passage when the terms are not ambiguous.

The controlling Biblical text on the right to revolt is Romans 13. Frazer notes Founding-era preacher Samuel West in one such sermon, "had to conclude that the apostle Paul meant the opposite of what he said." Frazer quotes Harry Jaffa's analysis, in A New Birth of Freedom, where Jaffa notes: "for more than a millennium and a half of the history of the Christian West, the prevailing opinion was that political authority descended from the top down, from God to kings and rulers, and that the obligation of the ruled was simply to obey." Another scholar noted:

Basing a revolutionary teaching on the scriptural authority of chapter 13 of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans must rank as one of the greatest ironies in the history of political thought. This passage...served as the touchstone for passive obedience and unconditional submission from Augustine and Gregory to Luther and Calvin....The medieval church fathers as well as the reformers and counter-reformers of the sixteenth century all invoked this doctrine in denouncing disobedience and resistance to civil authorities.

And of course, the ministers who remained loyal to Great Britain argued their case from a literal reading of Romans 13 and Peter 2.

The Lockean notion of a right to revolt was discovered by "man's reason." This is one reason why our Theistic Rationalists Founders, though they believed some revelation was legitimate, had to elevate man's reason over Biblical revelation, because if revelation were supreme, then the philosophical case for the American Revolution would be greatly weakened.

Finally, a word on civil liberty and the Bible. As Frazer notes, "the Bible never discusses political freedom. Tory minister Jonathan Boucher correctly noted: 'The word liberty, as meaning civil liberty, does not, I believe, occur in all the Scriptures.'" What the Founding era preachers did was use the passages in the Bible which extol spiritual liberty meaning "freedom from sin" and substitute that with the notion of political liberty. Frazer writes, "God's purposes were to free His people to worship Him (e.g. Exodus 4:23; 5:1 & 3; 7:16) and to force Egypt to recognize Him as the true God (Exodus 5:2; 7:5 & 17; 10:2)." Indeed, as Robert Kraynak observed, "the Bible shows that God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and supports national liberation, not for the purpose of enjoying their political and economic rights, but for the purpose of putting on the yoke of the law in the polity of Moses...the content of the divine law revealed to Moses consists, in the first place, of the Ten Commandments rather that the Ten Bill of Rights, commanding duties to God, family, and neighbors, rather than establishing protections for personal freedom" and such laws "regulate all aspects of religious, personal and social life."

In order to find "political liberty" in the story of the Israelites, their history had to be "radically rewritten." Frazer's point, drawing from various scholars, was that the Unitarian ministers, who were more likely to throw out orthodoxy and adopt a more cafeteria like approach to Biblical interpretation, were better suited to argue that the Bible supports political liberty than the orthodox preachers.

But whether the interpretations were sound, the Bible was used to support the Revolution. Thus, Frazer's analysis might shed light on the "study" put forth by Donald Lutz, which I often see bandied about by the "Christian Nation" crowd. Here is a description of Lutz study:

Dr. Donald S. Lutz, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Houston, conducted a massive groundbreaking study in which he examined some 15,000 documents written during America's founding era. He and his research associate, Dr. Charles Hyneman, found that a third of the quotations in these documents were from the Bible. 'Deuteronomy is cited more than John Locke or anyone else,'

From this, the "Christian Nation" crowd concludes that we were founded on Biblical principles and the Declaration and the Constitution are "Christian" documents. Now, the odd thing is neither the Declaration nor the Constitution cite the Bible, Scripture, or Jesus (except in the Constitution as the customary way of stating the date, In the Year of Our Lord). Indeed, the Constitution doesn't even mention God, and the Declaration speaks of a generic "Nature's God" and doesn't otherwise cite Scripture. One might argue, though, because of the brevity of those documents, there wasn't room to explain the connection between the ideas contained therein and Scripture. But the Federalist Papers, which explicate in detail the principles behind our Founding, would seem the perfect place to explain the connection between the Bible and Founding ideas. But the Federalist Papers similarly ignore the God of the Bible and Scripture.

So, the context behind Lutz's study, which I believe argues that "sermons" comprise most Founding era documents, may be the attempt of ministers to take the Revolution and Founding principles, which came predominantly from Enlightenment thought, and argue in their sermons that such were consistent with the Bible and Christian principles. Indeed, this supports the theory I've posited, similar to Bernard Bailyn's, that our Founders drew from a variety of intellectual sources including 1) Christian/Biblical, 2) Pagan/Greco-Roman, 3) Traditional Rights of Englishmen/Common Law, and 4) Natural Rights/Enlightenment. But it was the last one, the Enlightenment, which dominated and was the lens through which all sources were to be viewed.


Jim Babka said...

Jon, you know I appreciate your work. I think you're quite fair and generally accurate. But there's a lot that appears to be very wrong with this piece.

First, I think your first assertion is awkward. You move from a quote about Arminianism to Unitarianism with no transition. One could even say you leapt. These two points of view are very different and have little to do with each other. Novel interpretations of scripture were going on all over the place in America and I think you overlook the role Methodists (Arminians) and Baptists, in particular and amongst others, played in the Revolution.

And while Witherspoon may have been Lockean in his views, he was also clearly identified as Trinitarian. Today, most Christians, even Calvinists, are more Lockean in their views than were Calvinists of an ancient generation.

Second, via Frazer, you assert that political liberty is nowhere spoken of in the Bible. There are many words that aren't in the Bible. That doesn't mean the concepts aren't there. Here are but two counter-examples to illustrate my point: I Samuel 8 and Acts 5:29.

Third, while interesting, the Adams quote is a solitary and unspecific piece of evidence that Unitarianism was wide-spread for 60 years. It is possible to appreciate reason as a method of scriptural interpretation without becoming a Unitarian. And it is also quite possible to find Calvinism to be appallingly awful, while still being a Trinitarian and believer in Jesus Christ.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, why Calvin's view of the Bible is more "biblical" than others completely mystifies not only me, but anyone who is Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Anglican (Trinitarian), Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, and even some Baptists and Lutherans.

Perhaps you would say, well these groups evolved and didn't necessarily comport with the views of their respective denominations in the 17th and 18th centuries. This wouldn't necessarily be true.

For example, the ideas you identify as Lockean are more properly the innovations of Samuel Rutherford, author of Lex Rex (he was a direct influence on Locke). The King believed he had the right to control the church and Rutherford supported independent presybteries. That's the fight that really started the break from the Divine Right of Kings. Isn't it ironic, that it was a Presbyterian who launched this important historical battle?

Jonathan Rowe said...


You raise very important points. And I am going to respond to them and to the comments made at Positive Liberty, in more depth when I have time.

Alex said...

Great article. I've been reading John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus and that's what got me thinking about these issues and a search came up with your website. Check out the book if you haven't already.