Subscribe to Christianity Today
The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism
Cambridge University Press, 2008
406 pp., $37.99
Michael W. McConnell
Calvinism and Liberty
King George III blamed the American Revolution on Calvinist clergymen, whom he called "the black regiment"—a reference to the austere clerical robes worn by New England preachers. He was not far wrong. But few educated Americans now are aware of the Calvinist contribution to founding-generation ideals of republicanism, equality, and resistance to tyranny. If asked, most modern Americans would attribute 18th-century political liberalism to the secular Enlightenment, and thus to the decline in religious belief among people of the West. Most think the idea of the social contract, along with the right of the people to rebel against tyranny, originated with John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, published in 1790. Some, whose knowledge of Puritanism extends no farther than the Salem witch trials, imagine that Calvinist theology must have opposed democracy and liberty.
John Witte's new book, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, will therefore come as an eye-opener to many. According to Witte, Reformed Protestants developed a biblically based theory of social contract (or "covenant"), together with ideas of popular sovereignty, fundamental rights, and the legitimacy of revolution, more than 100 years before Locke. Witte offers the essential scholarly caveats—Calvinism was not the only source of ideas of political freedom; when Calvinists were in power they did not always extend the benefits of freedom to others—but fundamentally, he presents the claim that Reformed Protestantism was the "seedbed" of American constitutionalism: "American religious, ecclesiastical, associational, and political liberty were grounded in fundamental Puritan ideas of conscience, confession, community, and commonwealth." In fact, as he points out, "every one of the guarantees in the 1791 Bill of Rights had already been formulated in the prior two centuries," along with "a number of the core ideas of American constitutionalism—popular ...