Calvinism and American Independence

Professor Allen writes: “Dr. Hall points out that 50-75% of Americans during the founding era were Calvinists … [b]ut once again, ‘the founders’ and ‘the American people’ are not at all the same thing.” It is certainly true that not all founders were Calvinists, but many of them were, and they drew from a tradition of political reflection that encouraged them to actively resist tyrants.

Let’s begin by considering just one Reformed founder, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman. Sherman was the only statesman to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the Constitution (1787). He served longer in the Continental and Confederation Congresses than all but four men, and he was regularly appointed to key committees, including those charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, Sherman often outmaneuvered Madison and, according to David Brian Robertson, the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman … may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.”[i] He was also a representative and senator in the new republic where he played a major role in drafting the Bill of Rights. And unlike many of the more “Enlightened” founders favored by Professor Allen, Sherman never owned a slave, and he co-authored a law that put slavery in Connecticut on the path to extinction.[ii]

American patriots drew from a rich and deep tradition of Calvinist thought concerning when tyrants may be justly resisted. Traditionally, many Christians understood Romans 13 to prohibit active resistance to tyrants. Reformers rejected this approach and developed a resistance ideology unlike anything ever seen on a widespread level in Christendom. John Calvin (1509–1564), one of the most politically conservative of the Reformers, contended that in some cases inferior magistrates may resist a tyrant. However, contemporary and later Calvinists including John Knox (1505–72), George Buchanan (1506–82), Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661), Theodore Beza (1519–1605), David Pareus (1548–1622), Christopher Goodman (1520–1603), John Ponet (1516–1556), and the author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos argued that inferior magistrates must resist unjust rulers and even permitted or required privatecitizens to do so.[iii] Note that all of these men were advocating active resistance to tyrants well before John Locke published hisSecond Treatise on Government.

John Adams was raised in the Reformed tradition, but as an adult he was neither a Calvinist nor an orthodox Christian. But he acknowled the influence of the Reformed tradition. In 1787, he wrote that John Ponet’s Short Treatise on Politike Power (1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.” He also noted the significance of Stephanus Junius Brutus’ Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.[iv] Later in life, Adams wrote: “I love and revere the memories of Huss, Wickliff, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melancton, and all the other Reformers, how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.”[v]

The patriots received almost universal support from Calvinist ministers. This support was noted by the other side, including the loyalist Peter Oliver who railed against the “black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a part in the Rebellion.”[vi] King George himself reportedly referred to the War for Independence as “a Presbyterian Rebellion.”[vii] From the English perspective, British Major Harry Rooke was basically correct when he confiscated a presumably Calvinist book from an American prisoner and remarked that “[i]t is your G-d Damned Religion of this Country that ruins the Country; Damn your religion.”[viii]

The Reformed tradition is not well represented among the handful of founders considered by those who deny that America had a Christian founding. But it is very well represented among the men who served in the Continental, Confederation, and first federal Congresses, the state ratifying conventions, and the state legislatures that approved the Bill of Rights. Moreover, if we consider individuals who contributed to debates over American independence and the formation of our constitutional republic who did not hold political office, we can expand the definition of “founder” to include women such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren.[ix] Anyone who desires an accurate account of the founding era cannot afford to simply dismiss the influence of the Calvinism and the Reformed tradition of political reflection.


[i] David Brian Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review, 99 (May 2005): 225–243, 242.

[ii] Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[iii] Sarah Morgan Smith and I provide an overview of these developments in “Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 2,” Unio cum Christo 4 (April 2018), 171-188 and “Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 1,” Unio cum Christo 3 (October 2017), 169-184.

[iv] Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 6: 4.

[v] John Adams to F. C. Schaeffer, November 25, 1821, in James Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 15–16.

[vi] Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, eds.,Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), 41.

[vii] Paul Johnson,A History of the American People(New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 173.

[viii] John Leach, “A Journal Kept by John Leach, During His Confinement by the British, In Boston Gaol, in 1775,”The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 19 (1865), 256.

[ix] See essays on these two fascinating founders by Edith B. Gelles and Rosemarie Zagarri in The

Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall,

And Jeffry H. Morrison (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Brooke Allen argues that while the American founders thought virtue was essential to good government, there were other ideals of virtue besides those of religion. She suggests that the idea of civic virtue did much of the work, in the founders’ minds, that was supposed to preserve the republic. She adds that while a large majority of Americans were Calvinists at the time of the founding, the founders owed more of their political thought to Montesquieu than they ever did to Calvin.

  • Faith played a strong role in the American founding, says Prof. Thomas Kidd. But it may not be the role we expect. “Deism” meant several different things at the time, and it’s not always clear what the founders meant when they used the term to describe themselves. And even religious freethinkers in the 18th century would be thoroughly versed in the Bible; this was a mark of education, but not necessarily of orthodoxy.

  • Prof. Steven Green argues that the founders were trying to create a government based on consent, and not on any theory of divine right. The document was not “godless,” because the founders were not godless men themselves. They were concerned, however, that consent remain at the forefront, and so they avoided the language—common at the time—that would have asserted a divine institution.