September 26: Calvinism and Self-Government
CALVINISM AND SELF-GOVERNMENT.
The Roman Catholic Church is Arminian; the Episcopal Church is Calvinistic in its creed and Arminian in its clergy; the Methodist Church is Arminian in its clergy and creed. The Episcopal Church has a formula, called the “Thirty-nine Articles,” which is Calvinistic, but the greater part of the Church has grown away from it, and Arminianism is preached from nearly all its pulpits. In churches organized on the monarchical or oligarchical principle the doctrines of Calvinism cannot live. In proportion as the rulers absorb power into themselves the Church becomes Arminian. The greater the authority of the clergy, the deeper the shade of this doctrine. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church is the most Arminian of all, because it is the most thoroughly monarchical. Albert Barnes, a great American writer, says, “There are no permanent Arminian Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies, on earth. There is no instance where this belief takes on the Presbyterian form. There are no Presbyterian forms of ecclesiastical administration where it would be long retained.” On the other hand, it is a conspicuous fact that the Churches in which the principle of self-government is maintained are all Calvinistic. It is also to be noted that those Churches which are most nearly approximating toward ecclesiastical republicanism are becoming more Calvinistic in their theology. The two great distinctive features of the Presbyterian or Reformed Church are Calvinism, and self-government. Wherever the Church is established, these are its peculiarities.
The connection of these two principles of government and theology is by no means accidental. There is a strong moral twinship between them. One cannot long exist without the other, and minds which are constructed to believe one almost uniformly accept both. After a man has contemplated the Calvinistic conception of God—a Being absolutely supreme over all creation, everywhere present and everywhere almighty, one who decrees alike the death of a sparrow and the downfall of an empire—he turns a wearied gaze on human grandeur. What are earthly potentates compared to his God! All human distinctions sink to a level before this awful majesty, and he feels “the rich and the poor meet together: the Lord is the Maker of them all” (Prov. xxii. 2).
The history of Calvinism is the history of self- government. Beginning with Geneva in the sixteenth century, trace the progress of this great institution of human liberty through the changes of three hundred years. Says Renan, the unbelieving French author, “Paul begat Augustine, and Augustine begat Calvin.” He meant it as sarcasm, but it is a splendid compliment to the last two names; and it is true. Calvin discovered in the Bible the great foundation of all theology—God’s absolute supremacy ; he found it where Augustine found it —where it had been since Paul by inspiration wrote it; and he built upon it the most powerful system of theology ever constructed. Froude, the historian, says, “Calvinism is the spirit which rises in revolt against all untruth. It is but the inflashing upon the conscience of the laws by which mankind are governed—laws which exist whether we acknowledge them or deny them, and will have their way to our own weal or woe according to the attitude in which we place ourselves toward them; inherent, like the laws of gravity, in the nature of things; not made by us, not to be altered by us, but to be discerned by us and obeyed by us at our everlasting peril.” Calvin felt the power of this colossal truth in his soul, and it became the inspiration of his life; he never flinched before tyranny, but continually waged war against it, and in Geneva developed a republic in Church and in State which has been the model of all similar institutions since.
Holland was liberated by Calvinism. Never until these doctrines took possession did that country prevail against Spain. William the Silent became a strong Calvinist. Then he conquered, because Calvinism allied him, as he believed, with the Almighty. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Motley writes: “It would certainly be unjust and futile to detract from the vast debt which the Dutch republic owed to the Genevan Church. The earliest and most eloquent preachers, the most impassioned converts, the sublimest martyrs, had lived, preached, fought, suffered and died with the precepts of Calvin in their hearts. The fire which had consumed the last vestige of royal and sacerdotal despotism throughout the independent republic had been lighted by the hands of Calvinists.
“Throughout the blood-stained soil of France, too,” writes this historian, “the men who were fighting the same great battles as were the Netherlanders against Philip II and the Inquisition, the valiant cavaliers of Dauphiny and Provence, knelt on the ground before the battle, smote their iron breasts with mailed hands, uttered a Calvinistic prayer, sang a song of Marot, and then charged upon Guise and upon Joyeuse under the white plume of the Bearnese. And it was upon the Calvinistic weavers and clothiers of Rochelle the great prince relied in the hour of danger, as much as on his mounted chivalry.
“In England, too,” continues Motley, “the seeds of liberty, wrapped up in Calvinism and hoarded through many trying years, were at last destined to float over land and sea, and to bear the largest harvests of temperate freedom for the great commonwealths that were still unborn.” Henry VIII did not reform the English Church: he merely cut it off from Rome. The Reformation of that Church was done by Calvinists. “The Lambeth Articles,” drawn up under the authority of Elizabeth, “affirm the Calvinistic doctrines with a distinctness which would shock many in our age who are reputed Calvinists.” But England was still under a despotism. With difficulty, a body of Calvinists called Puritans were preparing, in the providence of God, for the liberation of the people. Cromwell with the Puritans destroyed the despotism of centuries. True, after Cromwell passed away, the horrid spectre again made its appearance; but it was too late: the people had seen liberty, and under the guiding genius of William III, the Calvinist, the “divine right of kings” met its final overthrow, and the grand principle of self-government was for ever fixed in the British constitution.
Turning to Scotland, we discover a great personality towering above all others—John Knox, the greatest benefactor that country ever had. He had learned theology under Calvin in Geneva, and he had tasted Romanism as a galley-slave in France. Froude says of him, “No grander figure can be found in the entire history of the Reformation in this island than John Knox. The time has come when English history must do justice to one but for whom, the Reformation would have been overthrown among ourselves, for the spirit which Knox created saved Scotland; and if Scotland had been Catholic again, neither the wisdom of Elizabeth’s ministers, nor the teaching of her bishops, nor her own chicaneries, would have preserved England from revolution lie was the voice which taught the peasant of the Lothians that he was a free man—the equal, in the sight of God, of the proudest peer or prelate that had trampled on his forefathers.”
Thomas Carlyle writes: “This that John Knox did for his nation, I say, we may really call a resurrection as from death. . . . He is the one Scotchman to whom, of all others, his country and the world owe a debt.”
Thus it is seen by the testimony of men who were not Presbyterians that those who fought the great battles of human liberty were inspired by the doctrines of Calvinism.
These principles of self-government having been worked out in Geneva, France, Holland, England and Scotland, the time came for their establishment in other lands. There was a new world in the West to be colonized and developed. The Catholics took the southern part and the Calvinists the northern. South America, Central America and the West Indies have stagnated under Catholic influence, while the United States and Canada have continually gone forward in progress. The free institutions of this country have been an asylum for the oppressed of all nations. Coming to North America, they have found liberty to think and to act according to the dictates of their own consciences. Free from cramping influences, they have developed in all departments. No country on earth ever before made such progress as that which has been seen in the short history of the American republic. To what principles are we indebted for the conditions which made this wonderful advancement possible? To those of Calvinism.
The early settlers of North America were largely Calvinists. The Huguenots from France, the Dutch from Holland, the Scotch and the Scotch-Irish, the Puritans from England, were the real pioneers of Western civilization, and they were all disciples of Calvin. These distinguished colonists came to the New World because, being Calvinists, they were not tolerated at home. They sought for liberty to worship God. They had tasted the bitterness of royal and ecclesiastical tyranny in Europe, and the high Calvinism with which they were imbued inspired them with an unconquerable desire for self- government. When the great conflict arose between the colonies and England, the Episcopalians generally sided with the mother-country; the Calvinists were for independence. They had their Church established by law, and before the Revolution the Presbyterians were denied a charter in New York. They were not allowed “a legal title to a spot to bury their dead.”
But this was not to continue. They had left Europe to escape tyranny, and were not willing to submit to it in America. The feelings which inspired the break with England were as much religious as political, though a political act was the occasion of the rupture. A historian quotes an article published in a weekly journal of that day: “This country will shortly become a great and flourishing empire, independent of Great Britain, enjoying its civil and religious liberty uncontaminated, and deserted of all control of bishops, . . . and from the subjection of all earthly kings.” Monarchy and Episcopacy stood together. The clergymen of that faith belonged to a State-Church and had sworn to support the authority of England. The king was the head of the Church, and they were bound by their allegiance to him.
But the Puritans, the Scotch, the Scotch-Irish, the Huguenots and the Dutch rallied under the banner of revolution. They fought for the right of self-government in Church and in State; God was on their side, and they won it. They framed their government according to the principles for which they had so long contended. They were building for the future, and were divinely guided in laying the foundation of a structure which is still rising before the nations, the inspiration of freedom in other lands and the admiration of mankind. Who were the men that did this work? Calvinists—men who derived their principles, strong as granite, from the quarries of God’s eternal decree, “according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”
Ranke says, “John Calvin was virtually the founder of America,” and Renan said, “Paul begat Augustine, and Augustine begat Calvin.” But who, we ask, begat Paul? Who was the author of that system of truth which has been the mainspring of civilization and the bulwark of human liberty? We answer: It was born in heaven, and claims paternity from God.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage ” (Gal. v. 1).