Friday, October 30, 2009

Political Roots: Protestantism & the West, Pt. 5

“He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”

George Bancroft, historian, founder of Annapolis

October 31st was a revolutionary day, the birth of Protestantism. This series has explored in summary fashion the Christian influence upon Western civilization and America in particular.


The freedoms we enjoy as Americans have their historical roots in Christianity.

This is not simply an assertion from a biased observer but the assertion of several respected historians. The Reformed doctrines are being explored once again as meaningful beliefs that shaped and formed the early modern period. From Gorski's The Disciplinary Revolution to the detailed legal and historical examination of Witte and Berman, the Christian worldview is being examined as a real historical source of society, policy and legal rationale. It is certainly the case that these historians do not necessarily agree with the major tenants of Reformed thought, only examining how they impacted the thoughts and laws of those time periods.

And yet if our society and legal code have any historical connection to the past (and any nation will claim continuity with its own past), it is certainly a deep connection with Christianity. Other influences were certainly there but Christianity overshadowed them all.

Political Freedom

John Adams bluntly acknowledged the wide-spread influences of both the French-Calvinist’s work Vindicus Contra Tyrannos and the English Calvinist work of Ponet (A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power), both which defended the right of the people to rise against tyrants (The Works of John Adams [1851] Vol. 6, p. 3-4.)

Certain elements in the Declaration of Independence echoed past religious thought such as “all men are created equal,” which was originally expressed in the Puritan work Lex, Rex in 1644. Even further back in time, a Dutch Calvinist, Johannes Althusius, wrote Politica (1603), a complete systematic presentation of a representative Republican government including political resistance theory. Pre-existing resistance theories existed, but were not as fully developed until the Reformation under the likes of Calvin, Bucer, Knox, and others.

Daniel Elazar, professor at Temple University, member of presidential committees and founding member of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, asserted:

“In all of the places where Reformed Protestantism was strong, there emerged a Protestant republicanism that opposed tyrants even as it demanded local religious conformity. Reformed Protestants in England became the Puritans, whose name indicated that they wanted to purify the Anglican Church as much as the Catholic, which they had rejected. In the seventeenth century they launched the first of the great modern revolutions, the English Civil War, against royal absolutism, opening the way for modern democracy.” (World History Curriculum, Article 2)

In fact, he edited a work of fourteen essays written by various scholars and professors exploring the religious connection between the political idea of federalism and the Reformed idea of covenant. The Covenant Connection is a must read for Christians and detractors alike. He further claimed:

“A majority of the delegates to the Convention were affiliated with covenant-based churches…The Presbyterians, however, were already moving toward full-scale federalism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., noted: 'More than either [the Congregationalists or Anglicans] the Presbyterians in their reliance on federalist and representative institutions anticipated the political makeup of the future United States.' Indeed, as the first government came into office under the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Presbyterians held their first nationwide General Assembly. In the Presbyterian system, congregations in a local area formed a presbytery; several presbyteries in a region formed a synod; and then came the General Assembly. As a result, the system of federal democracy established by the U.S. Constitution has often been referred to as Presbyterianism writ large for civil society..." (Covenant & the American Founding)

The War

The Revolutionary War was partially fueled by religious concerns. John Adams explained:

"Where is the man to be found at this day, when we see [various bishops]...who will believe that the apprehension of Episcopacy contributed fifty years ago, as much as any other cause, to arouse the attention, not only of the inquiring mind, but of the common people, and urge them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of parliament over the colonies? This, nevertheless, was a fact as certain as any in the history of North America." (Works of Adams, Letter to Morse, December 2, 1815)

If parliament could institute a spiritual lord (Bishop) then certainly they could institute political lords. One of the most well-known political cartoons of that time, "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America," shows a crowd of colonists harrying a Bishop back to England, throwing books titled "Locke," "Sydney on Government" and "Calvin's Works," shouting "no lords spiritual or temporal" (1768, see picture).

In fact, on May 20, 1775, the Presbyterian Synod was the first religious body to send a public letter to their churches reminding them to respect the Crown even while they encouraged their readers to obey the Continental Congress and to prepare their lives and souls for war. Most of the Continental army were Presbyterian laymen even as most of the New England minutemen were Congregationalists. These ministers--defending the Revolution or even fighting in it--were dubbed the "Black Regiment". Horace Walpole told Parliament that "there is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it."

(to be continued)

Part 1, October Revolution
Part 2, Education
Part 3, Birth of America
Part 4, Early America
Part 5, Political Roots
Part 6, October 31st

More info: October Revolution, Mathis.

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