Reformation Month: Day 17

31 Days, 31 Books

A short review from a blog post of yesteryear of one of my favorite books.

Calvinistic America—An Abridged Review

Some scholars say that our Founding Fathers were Deists. We hear of their freethinking and skepticism. I have been catechized about the influence of the Enlightenment on our country. Such mantras as “pluralism”, “separation of church and state”, and “secularism” have all been drummed in my mind by the academic elite. Oh surely, the Founding Fathers were members of the established churches, but that was as irrelevant then as now.Thomas Paine, the infidel, molded the Revolutionary American mindset. Thomas Jefferson, the Deist, formulated the American ideal. John Locke, the secular thinker, fashioned the principles of the Revolution. The American Revolution seemingly sprang out of the soil even though the colonies had a long and rich history by 1776. But there is more to the story.Pastor and theologian David W. Hall’s The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding shows that America’s heritage is Christian and Calvinistic. Reformed and Calvinistic people largely colonized America. America did not invent a new order of the ages in 1776. It continued a process of refining a Biblical and Reformational theory of government that acknowledged the sovereignty of God and resisted the sovereignty of kings. Calvin of Geneva created the mindset that governed this country. More than the Greeks and Romans, more than the Enlightenment thinkers, more than the explorers and colonizers, Calvin established America. And Calvin was not alone. Such theologians, writers, and pastors as William Farel (Calvin’s co-pastor in Geneva), Peter Viret of Geneva, Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor), John Ponet of Strasbourg, the anonymous author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos in France, and Johannes Althusius (the author of Politica) all weighed in on the theological implications of governmental tyranny, persecution of the Christian faith, and the limits of obedience to ungodly rulers.

If these continental Reformers did not say enough, from the British Isles came another regiment of political and theological thinkers. John Knox, Andrew Melville, and other Scots put their theology in action during the turbulent reigns of such tyrants as Queen Mary Stuart and her worthless son James. Scotsmen George Buchanan and Samuel Rutherford penned great treatises on government to teach rulers how to rule and to admonish and remove them when they misruled. As this Calvinist political philosophy was being debated and thought out among the Puritans in England, some opted to pack the ideas for their trek across the Atlantic to the New World.

William Bradford, John Winthrop, John Cotton and others set the norms for Biblical and covenantal civil government in Colonial America. By the time of the American War for Independence, the war for the hearts and minds of the people, the true revolution, had been completed by scores of pastors who had faithfully preached election sermons for generations. The language of the colonial charters, the resolutions preceding the Declaration of Independence, the ongoing sermons and theological pamphlets all testify to the Reformed heritage in this country’s founding and the extent to which Calvinism sparked our independence. Presbyterian and Congregationalist pastors and laymen filled the ranks of both officers and soldiers in the Continental armies. The War for Independence was truly a Presbyterian Rebellion.

Dr. Hall’s first major witness to testify is a surprise: Thomas Jefferson, the ‘creator’ of the wall of separation of church and state, the arch-Deist and unbeliever among the Founding Fathers, the primary secular and Enlightenment thinker of his age. Jefferson’s motto was “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”, which was a Cliff’s Notes version of the political theology of the Reformers, the Covenanters, the Huguenots, and the Puritans.

As a further proof of Jefferson’s wonderful inconsistency, Hall cites the case of Jefferson’s efforts to move the entire faculty of Calvin’s Academy of Geneva to northern Virginia. Jefferson knew that this Calvinistic faculty would flourish in this land if transplanted.

Hall’s book is weighty, long, heavily documented, filled with analyses of theological and political tomes, devoid of anecdotes, plodding in its lining up the proofs of the thesis, scholarly, sober, and academic. In other words, it is the kind of book to make a Calvinist’s heart throb with excitement. This is certainly no easy read; it will not fit at your bedside or near your fattest easy chair. This book calls for a desk, a notepad, strong coffee, and quiet children.

Pastor and author, Dr. David W. Hall of Midway Presbyterian Church in Georgia.

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