Calvinism is a set of theological and religious tenets developed and instituted by the sixteenth-century French Reformer John Calvin ( 1509–1564 ). His teachings and their practical realization exercised a profound influence on early modern European and colonial American religion and politics.

Calvin, like his contemporary Reformation pillar, Martin Luther ( 1483–1564 ), was interested in removing the papacy from Christian religion, but he was more insistent than Luther that the whole religious synthesis that formed the basis of medieval Christian civilization had to be rethought. He saw that the Mass and the other sacramental rites of the Catholic faith made priests the most indispensable persons in society, with the pope as the chief priest. Calvin sought to replace the sacramental ministry of priests with the oratorical ministry of preachers. In this way, he tried to maintain the freedom and supremacy of Christian religion over secular politics and civil authorities, which he feared would be forfeited by Luther's tactic of aligning with a princely patron.

John Calvin (1509–1564), French theologian and pastor, was a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe whose teachings emphasized scripture as the word of God.

John Calvin (1509–1564), French theologian and pastor, was a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe whose teachings emphasized scripture as the word of God.

Calvin envisioned a republic in which the religious congregation, governed in a presbyterian fashion with a forceful preacher as the minister chosen by members, would safeguard the piety of the people, and in which the civil magistrates would protect the physical safety of the community of these saints while deferring to the counsel of religious ministers in most important matters. In Geneva, where Calvin himself preached after he fled France, and in areas that later accepted Calvinist ideas, such as Huguenot France, the Reformed portions of the Netherlands, Presbyterian Scotland, and Puritan England and America, this unique religious and political practice was evident. An educated set of men, often like Calvin with some legal training, were the prominent rhetorical leaders of austerely pious polities. Purity of life was thought to demonstrate election by God ( Calvin's doctrine of God's method for predestining souls to salvation ), and only the elect were held fit for full citizenship.


Political authority among Calvinists tended toward republicanism, as seen in Calvin's Geneva and Puritan England and America, but it also operated in aristocratic Huguenot France and Holland and monarchical Scotland. However, Calvinism has a strong historical association with the deposition of monarchs. For Calvinists, any political authority that subverts the covenant of holiness, as overseen by its approved preaching ministers, renders itself tyrannical and worthy of removal. This theoretical affinity for republicanism deterred the French king, Francis, from embracing Calvinism when invited by Calvin himself in the dedicatory epistle of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The republican tendency further motivated the Puritan-supported parliamentary faction in the English Civil War, which briefly interrupted the British monarchy and Anglican religious establishment. In the end, the traditions of English kingship and official episcopal religion proved too culturally ingrained for a complete remake of that society even though parliamentary supremacy emerged victorious out of the Glorious Revolution ( 1688–1689 ). It was in America that Calvinist ideas were most fully realized among English-speaking people.

Calvinism in America was most evident in the areas settled by the Puritan expeditions led by William Bradford ( 1590–1657 ) and John Winthrop ( 1587–1649 ). When they had the opportunity to create their own political society, American Puritans erected something very similar to Calvin's Geneva: a religious republic in which civil magistrates took their cues from religious congregations led by prominent preachers like John Cotton ( 1584–1652 ) and Richard Mather ( 1596–1669 ). The idea that elected officials are responsible to the assembled people is an important legacy of Calvinist Puritans to the constitutional theory of the American Founders. The political sovereignty of the people in a constitutional compact is a civil analogue of the religious sanctity of the congregation in a covenant; in both cases, the assembled people chooses and enforces the terms of the agreement. The Puritans sought to establish a City on a Hill, or redeemer nation, that would serve as an example and beacon to other Christians; the spirit of this project also continued in the form of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is different from and better than other earthly nations.


Although the Puritans had fled persecution in England, initially they did not adopt among themselves any robust practice of religious toleration. Dissenters usually were expelled. Rhode Island Colony was formed by Puritan outcasts led by Roger Williams, who was banished in 1636 from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony along with Anne Hutchinson in 1637. The Antinomian Controversy, in which these two figures were embroiled, sheds light on a difficulty in the realization of Calvinist religious and political institutions: how can the secret, eternal, and divine election of individuals to salvation based on the unmerited grace of God be known now so that a temporal community of the saints can be formed? Calvin and his adherents were quite clear on the theological teaching that election is a divine mystery known only to God and based on His free gift. However, in historical Calvinist polities, citizenship was predicated on purity of life and adherence to the teachings of approved preachers. To dissenters like Williams and Hutchinson, this looked too much like the religious authority of priests and popes and the Catholic teaching that outward works are necessary evidence of inward grace. As ever more dissenters were expelled and as more non-Calvinist American settlements appeared in close proximity to American Puritan towns, a practical acceptance of toleration ended the prospects of establishing a totally pure society. However, the legacy of America as a shining City on a Hill remains to this day in the exceptionalist element of the American Dream and the aspirational call in various presidential speeches.

As the Constitution and its interpretation established the United States as an officially religiously tolerant nation, Calvinism was relegated to the private sphere. It continues to inspire occasional revivals of enthusiasm as Calvinist evangelicals and some members of the descendants of Reformed denominations seek to revive the project of instituting a covenant of sanctity, at least among like-minded Calvinist Christians.

SEE ALSO American Exceptionalism ; Compact and Covenant ; Constitution ; Puritanism ; Republic ; Republicanism ; Social Contract ; Williams, Roger ; Winthrop, John .


Belloc, Hilaire. How the Reformation Happened. (1928.) Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2003.

Calvin Institutes. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vols. 1–2. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Hancock, Ralph C. Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Lutz, Donald S. “From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought.” Publius 10, no. 4 (1980): 101–33.

Walzer, Michael. The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Jesse Chupp
Regent University