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24 July 2009

Calvin and the Constitution

History is eloquent in declaring that American democracy was born of Christianity and that Christianity was Calvinism.
Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (1932)
Had he lived, John Calvin would have been 500 years old this month. He died, but his ideas live on, perhaps even in the Constitution of the United States. A writer for the New York Times asked Calvin's most recent biographer whether it was "fanciful" to detect traces of Calvin's thought in the Constitution. “Absolutely not,” replied Bruce Gordon, author of Calvin (2009).
Calvin’s legacy has been traced in everything from modern marriage and modern science to modern liberal government and of course modern capitalism. By many accounts, he is a major source of modernity’s very understanding of the self.
Peter Steinfels, "Man of Contradictions, Shaper of Modernity. Age? 500 Next Week," New York Times 3 July 2009
Several bloggers celebrated Calvin's birthday by posting claims that he is the virtual author of our republican form of government; others mocked these assertions. Reed R. Heustis, Jr. found quite a few new readers for his "John Calvin and the American Founding" at Worldview Times. Heustis sees the world in clear dichotomies--one is either a Calvinist or a Marxist. Such logic gathers ridicule as a dog gathers fleas. Ed Brayton asserts that Heustis deserves ridicule, noting that Heustis "presents not a single quote from even a single founding father that supports that claim." But Heustis does cite an authority: John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (1987).

Many joined the chorus denouncing Heustis by posting comments at Dispatches from the Culture Wars (Brayton's blog), including yours truly. To support my initial claim that Calvin's influence was predominantly negative--an example to avoid, rather than emulate--I quickly found a quote from the pen of Thomas Jefferson in Edwin Gaustad's Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation (1987).
The Presbyterian clergy are loudest, the most intolerant of all sects, the most tyrannical and ambitious; ready at the word of a lawgiver, if such a word could be now obtained, to put the torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere, the flames in which their oracle Calvin consumed the poor Servetus.
Jefferson to William Short, 1820, as quoted in Gaustad (48)
My response nagged at me, in part because I knew that I had Eidsmoe's book someplace in an box yet to unpack. Although I had missed a slice the birthday cake baked for Calvin at the Presbyterian university here in Spokane because I had been busy moving my belongings to our new home, I now had time to consider the man's legacy. It takes me a few weeks to unpack a ton of books. Two hours of unpacking, sorting and repacking--it is a smaller house--was sufficient to locate Eidsmoe's Christianity and the Constitution.


Eidsmoe's Scholarship

John Eidsmoe blogs for the Foundation for Moral Law, where he posted "Celebrating John Calvin's Legacy--Not so much Charles Darwin's." His point in his blog entry is expressed in greater detail in his book: Calvin's emphasis on total depravity "led to the system of limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and reserved individual rights that characterize republican self-government." He also cites in the blog, and in more detail in the book, the authority of two prominent nineteenth century historians: Leopold von Ranke and George Bancroft.
John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.
Leopold von Ranke, as cited in Eidsmoe (18)
In Christianity and the Constitution, Eidsmoe reveals his sources for the idea that Calvinism "stands out above all others" (18) among the ideas that influence the founders. Five of the first six footnotes--documenting the assertions of Ranke, Bancroft, Jean Henri Merle d’Aubign√©, and Emilio Castelar--are to a single text: Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Boettner's book dates to 1932, but Eidsmoe cites a 1972 reprint. The remaining footnote for the first three pages of the chapter "Calvinism" is discursive. Eidmoe identifies himself as a minister of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, "lest [he] be accused of a Calvinistic bias" (19).

Boettner's text is a work of theology, not history. It does contain a brief section, "Calvinism in History" at the end. Eidsmoe's technique of citing authorities that declare the influence of Calvinism is readily aparent in Boettner's section on history, and he offers a longer list of authorities than Eidmoe. In Eidsmoe, the Ranke quote is attributed to E. W. Smith and cited from Boettner. Boettner gives us the source of Smith's statement.
In his book, "The Creed of Presbyterians," E. W. Smith asks concerning the American colonists, "Where learned they those immortal principles of the rights of man, of human liberty, equality and self-government, on which they based their Republic, and which form today the distinctive glory of our American civilization? In the school of Calvin they learned them. There the modern world learned them. So history teaches" (p. 121).
Boettner, 215
Egbert Watson Smith's The Creed of Presbyterians (1901) delves into history, as Boettner, at the end of a theological tract. Under the title "The Creed Tested by its Fruits" Smith strings together quotations from dozens of authorities, citing the source of many. Both Ranke and Bancroft are among his authorities, but for reasons not entirely clear to me, these two are omitted from the footnotes. I have failed to locate the source of Ranke's statement and failed as well to find the origin of Bancroft's frequently repeated line:
He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.
Eidsmoe, "Celebrating John Calvin's Legacy"
Eidsmoe presents hyperlinks. Ranke's line is referenced to Philip Vollmer, John Calvin: Theologian, Preacher, Educator, Statesman (1909) in which appears an essay, "Calvinism in America" by William Henry Roberts. Perhaps the work of Roberts is the Ur-text for arguments that "Calvinism is the chief source of modern republican government" (Vollmer, 202). Smith cites another text by Roberts, Proceedings Seventh General Council (1899). Eidsmoe's hyperlink for Bancroft's statement takes us to David W. Hall, Genevan Revolution and the American Founding (2005). Eidsmoe certainly deployed this quote in advance of the the publication of Hall's book (Boettner is cited in Christianity and the Constitution), but perhaps Hall documents it better. I'll add the book to my reading list.

As I mentioned to the author of the blog, Samuel at Gilgal (another list of quotes from Boettner), it would be helpful if someone could locate the source of Ranke's statement instead of joining the ranks of those that repeat it endlessly.


From Theology to History

The arguments that appear at the end of several theological treatises from a century ago are deployed at the beginning of Eidsmoe's Christianity and the Constitution. Where others end, he begins. The publisher (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan) makes a strong claim for Eidsmoe's scholarship on the dust jacket: "He meticulously documents his position, using the writings of the founders themselves." Eidsmoe does not rest on the authority of prior historians, but delves into the primary sources--writings of the founders--to elucidate their influences and support a thesis that that not begin with him. The core of Christianity and the Constitution is thirteen chapters, each one concerned with one of the so-called Founding Fathers. Twelve of these chapters concern men that were present in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Eidsmoe begins with John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). He was not at the convention, but is "the man who shaped the men who shaped America" (81). Eidsmoe accesses Witherspoon's writing and influence through two biographies and one master's thesis. Citations to the writing of this "founder" are all "as quoted in" Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon (1969 [1925]); Martha Lou Lemmon Stohlman, John Witherspoon: Parson, Politician, Patriot (1897); and Roger Schultz, "Covenanting in America: The Political Theology of John Witherspoon," MA Thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1985. No where does Eidsmoe cite Witherspoon's writings directly.

It may be a fine point, but I would not call extracts of primary sources from secondary works meticulous documentation from "the writings of the founders themselves." Perhaps he does better with James Madison. Indeed, The Papers of James Madison (1962), ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M. Rachel appear as the source for a long extract of Madison's Bible study notes. Eidsmoe also cites several letters from this scholarly resource. With respect to Madison, the publisher's claim has merit.

Eidsmoe's argument for the influence of Calvin on Madison begins with Madison's decision to attend the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian college, even though Madison's family was Episcopal. Noting its pro-independence sentiment, he also claims "by 1769 the Episcopal church had become largely Calvinistic and not much different from Presbyterianism in basic doctrine" (95). Eidsmoe draws on Madison's letters to show the influence of Witherspoon, and Madison's attitudes toward Christian ministry, a career he considered for several years.

Unfortunately for the argument that Calvinism was a decisive influence on "the father of the Constitution," Madison spoke and wrote very little about religion after he entered politics. Eidsmoe addresses this problem, but departs from Madison's own writings, except for Federalist 51, and instead relies upon the analysis in James H. Smylie, "Madison and Witherspoon: Theological Roots of American Political Thought," The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Spring 1961, and a few extracts selected by Smylie. Smylie asserts, "man's innate depravity, of which Presbyterians are keenly aware, must be checked by counteracting forces" (Eidsmoe, 101).

Smylie extended his arguments through other articles, and studies of the influence of Witherspoon upon Madison and others has proceeded since his day. Perhaps because it is less less typical of historical scholarship, Terence S. Morrow's thesis in "Common Sense Deliberative Practice: John Witherspoon, James Madison, and the U.S. Constitution," Rhetoric Society Quarterly (Winter 1999), 25-47 is worth noting: "Madison's views on representation, this article contends, drew upon the teachings in rhetoric and moral philosophy that he received from John Witherspoon" (26).

Perhaps there is something of merit in assertions of Calvin's influence on our system of government beyond what is evident in Heustis's shoddy logic and convoluted argument. At first glance, Eidsmoe seems little better, and his "research" leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, he does offer leads to other scholarship. His argument leaves me far from convinced that Calvin was "the virtual founder of America," but his case suggests Calvinist churches, colleges, ministers, and ideas were not without influence.

3 comments:

Joyful Alternative said...

Thanks! My mother has been complaining that there's been nothing in the news about John Calvin's 500th birthday. Now I can present her with this post and reiterate that she should be reading blogs instead of watching TV.

Masters Thesis said...

this kind of blog always useful for blog readers, it helps people during research. your post is one of the same for blog readers.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the compliments. I have not posted much lately, but this blog remains important to me and I plan to post more soon.

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