Calvinian, not Jeffersonian, Democray

Loraine Boettner notes the connection between Calvinism and republican (representative) government:

Politically, Calvinism has been the chief source of modern republican government. Calvinism and republicanism are related to each other as cause and effect; and where a people are possessed of the former, the later will soon be developed. Calvin himself held that the Church, under God, was a spiritual republic; and certainly he was a republican in theory. James I was well aware of the effects of Calvinism when he said; “Presbytery agreeth as well with monarchy as God with the Devil.” Bankcroft speaks of “the political character of Calvinism, which with one consent and with instinctive judgment the monarchs of that day feared as republicanism.” Another American historian, John Fiske, has written, “It would be hard to overrate the debt which mankind owes to Calvin. The spiritual father of Coligny, of William the Silent, and of Cromwell, must occupy a foremost rank among the champions of modern democracy . . .  The promulgation of this theology was one of the longest steps that mankind has ever taken toward personal freedom.”

We don’t ever hear of Calvinism’s influence on political freedom. If we did we might enjoy some. But if Calvin is right that the church is a spiritual republic (of course beneath the ultimately monarchy of Jesus), where rulers are representative and expected to be humble servants, not in it for the money, then faithful churches ought to be models for civil government. Power is used for service, giving is personal and cheerful, and individuals and families are held accountable and responsible. A church that functions this way serves as both an example for how rulers ought to serve and an antidote for when they don’t. People used to excellence and faithfulness won’t settle for less.

6 Comments Calvinian, not Jeffersonian, Democray

  1. Rachel

    I am not so sure you can make this link between republicanism and calvinism. It is funny how one of the countries with still a very strong calvinist heritage, Netherlands, is still a monarcy!

    You are right: the idea that power should be used for service is very calvinistic. At the same time calvinists also believe power is given by God. Therefore, one is not allowed to rebel against those who are given this power. One of the sentences in the dutch national anthem that dates out the late 16th century and was written for Willem the Silent is: “the king of Spain, I have always honoured” meaning Philips II.

    Interesting ideas though..

  2. Kaitiaki

    Please note: While it is true that Calvinism lends itself to the idea of a republican form of government – if free to express itself unhindered – another element of Calvinism is that those who bear the rule over us are appointed by God.

    It is instructive to consider what happened in England after the English Civil War. Charles I was executed in 1649 and until 1660 there was a republic (called the Commonwealth) where, under the Puritans, Parliament was the chief power in the land. Cromwell was elected as Lord High Protector but, because there was no one who could keep the various Puritan groups together, after his death the country recalled Charles II to take up rule as Monarch.

    Because Calvinism supports the “rule of those in authority over us” it does not attempt to overthrow governments in order to set up a more perfect system. As the declaration of independence stipulates it is an extreme measure and should not be undertaken except under extreme provocation.

  3. jwowen

    Hey Rachel,

    I think Calvinism breeds representational government because of its biblicism (e.g. Jethro’s advice in Ex. 18). Of course, I wouldn’t argue monarchy is necessarily inferior, it’s all about the accountability, checks and balances, and fidelity required. Modern US Presidents enjoy a near fiat power greater most kings in history, and British monarchy is a museum piece. So we have to talk about the principles of the governmental structure and not certain corrupt examples of those forms. I was just reading about Abraham Kuyper this morning and his disdain for the state church and spineless clergymen.

    Wouldn’t you agree that Calvinism lends itself to limit the power of men, make them chosen based on merit and held accountable? American (formerly limited!) was founded by people with these Presbyterian convictions.

  4. jwowen


    I agree if you mean in the French Revolutionary sense of overthrowing those who rule over us. But I think it was Walpole who said of the American Revolution that cousin America has run off with the a Presbyterian parson, referring to Witherspoon. Another name for that revolution was the Presbyterian revolt, a Calvinist stand against tyranny if there ever was one.

  5. Kaitiaki

    The Declaration of Independence states: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.” This is what I was referring to above … respect for those that have the rule over us should constrain us to follow the dictates of prudence rather than change governmental systems as we might change the car we drive.

    I do not think that the framers of the Declaration were invariably Presbyterian – at least one of the northern states was Congregational, PA was, under the influence of Penn, tolerant of many of the non-Presbyterian groups and there at least some Episcopalians in the mix as well. What made them choose a system of check and balances was not Presbyterian polity, therefore, but an awareness of the influences of sin and a determination to limit its effects in Government. (at least that’s how I read the Southern Presbyterian writers I am acquainted with – I have not read much in Hodge or Warfield on this matter, I must admit).

  6. jwowen

    I agree, lots of others besides Presbyterians. The writers of the Declaration, whatever their preferred ecclesiastical polity, were predominately Calvinists and overthrew the English not because they were hoping to setup a more perfect system (although they did hope to do that) but because of the unlawful and tyrannical rule of the English. I think a Calvinistic understanding of sin provides the desire for checks and balances, and the plurality of accountable representatives, as Israel and the Church have elders, is common with presbyterian government.

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