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date: 30 March 2017

Calvinism in the United States

Summary and Keywords

The history of Calvinism in the United States is part of a much larger development, the globalization of western Christianity. American Calvinism owes its existence to the transplanting of European churches and religious institutions to North America, a process that began in the 16th century, first with Spanish and French Roman Catholics, and accelerated a century later when Dutch, English, Scottish, and German colonists and immigrants of diverse Protestant backgrounds settled in the New World. The initial variety of Calvinists in North America was the result of the different circumstances under which Protestantism emerged in Europe as a rival to the Roman Catholic Church, to the diverse civil governments that supported established Protestant churches, and to the various business sponsors that included the Christian ministry as part of imperial or colonial designs.

Once the British dominated the Eastern seaboard (roughly 1675), and after English colonists successfully fought for political independence (1783), Calvinism lost its variety. Beyond their separate denominations, English-speaking Protestants (whether English, Scottish, or Irish) created a plethora of interdenominational religious agencies for the purpose of establishing a Christian presence in an expanding American society. For these Calvinists, being Protestant went hand in hand with loyalty to the United States. Outside this pan-Protestant network of Anglo-American churches and religious institutions were ethnic-based Calvinist denominations caught between Old World ways of being Christian and American patterns of religious life. Over time, most Calvinist groups adapted to national norms, while some retained institutional autonomy for fear of compromising their faith.

Since 1970, when the United States entered an era sometimes called post-Protestant, Calvinist churches and institutions have either declined or become stagnant. But in certain academic, literary, and popular culture settings, Calvinism has for some Americans, whether connected or not to Calvinist churches, continued to be a source for sober reflection on human existence and earnest belief and religious practice.

Keywords: Calvinism, United States, Protestantism, Christianity, political independence, Reformation, Second Great Awakening

The history of Calvinism in the United States begins with the migration of Europeans to North America in the era of colonialism and imperialism. It continues from 1790 to 1960 with the organization of institutional churches as denominations and adjustments church leaders made to a society governed by secular political institutions and consisting of demographic diversity. That history concludes with the decline of Protestant influence after 1970 and the appeal of Calvinism as a set of ideas largely disembodied from the institutions that had sustained it for well over four centuries.

The Reformation and Calvinism

John Calvin (1509–1564) was eight years old when Martin Luther first dissented from the church in Europe overseen by the papacy. The Protestant reformer, who made his reputation in Geneva, did not convert to Protestantism until 1534, a time when the Reformed branch of the Reformation had already achieved success in the cities of Zurich, Bern, and Basel. Because the Reformed success predated Calvin’s own influence, calling the Reformed side of Protestantism “Calvinism” is anachronistic. Protestantism began with Martin Luther’s teaching about salvation and the particular doctrine of justification by faith alone. Along with an effort to overturn a system of sacramental grace that, for Luther, supplied more disquiet than comfort to troubled souls, Protestants also relied on biblical authority to defend their refusal to submit to the Roman hierarchy. Reformed Protestantism shared these convictions with Lutherans, namely justification and the primacy of Scripture, but differences became apparent when reforms extended to worship and the sacraments. Both Lutherans and Reformed Protestants attempted to shape liturgies that reflected Protestant sensibilities, such as reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two, and making expository preaching a central part of worship. But, in 1529, when Luther met with Ulrich Zwingli to draw up a mutual statement of Protestant convictions, partly out of a desire for political unity in the face of hostile European forces, they failed to agree on the Lord’s Supper. At that point Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism diverged. Seven years later, when John Calvin produced the first edition of his summary of Christian faith in The Institutes, Reformed Protestants discovered one of their most important voices.

Initially, Calvin was only one of Reformed Protestantism’s several leaders. Zwingli in Zurich, Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Italian who worked with Bucer, and Jan Laski, a Pole who ministered in Emden, played critical roles in guiding Reformed churches across the continent. But Calvin’s contribution was significant partly by accident and partly by intention. Geneva, Switzerland, was a city that attracted religious refugees from all over Europe, and their perceptions of the city’s churches functioned as models for ecclesiastical reform elsewhere; this was especially true for English Protestants exiled to Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558). Calvin also initiated a significant aspect of church reform in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), which became a blueprint for a form of church government seldom used in the history of the West, namely, Presbyterianism (or the rule by elders meeting in councils or assemblies). That form of church administration would further distinguish Reformed Protestantism from Lutheranism and become especially important for the forms of Calvinism transplanted to North America.

Although Swiss cities comprised the original strongholds of Reformed Protestantism, the movement also took root as far east as Poland and Lithuania, and in the north and west of Europe. Indeed, a second wave of reforms, in the 1560s, saw the emergence of struggles for national identity in Scotland (1560) and the Netherlands. By the end of the 16th century, the Protestant cantons of Switzerland, Scotland, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany constituted the principal centers of Reformed Protestant strength. The movement also flourished in parts of France, Calvin’s home, but determined monarchical opposition, especially from Louis XIV, ended Protestant privileges for worship in 1685, sending over 100,000 Protestant refugees to Germany, the Netherlands, and England.

Transplanting Calvinism

Of the strongest Calvinist ecclesiastical establishments, the English, Scots, Dutch, and Germans were the most active in creating churches and related institutions in North America. The Swiss, thanks in part to a national preference for autonomy and isolation, never replicated their churches in the New World; for Swiss immigrants, the closest church option was usually the German Reformed Protestants. Small numbers of French Protestants (i.e., Huguenots) found safety in England’s mainland American colonies, but they frequently assimilated to the dominant Protestantism of their new colonial homes; only two independent Huguenot congregations, in New York City and Charleston, existed by the American Revolution.

The first Calvinists to achieve a relatively colonial presence in North America were the Dutch. Thanks to the exploration of Henry Hudson under the patronage of the Dutch West India Company, in 1614, Dutch colonists began to settle in the territory between the English presence in Virginia and the French in Quebec. New Netherland established outposts and forts to allow for commercial enterprises to proceed. Religion was not an afterthought but it was also not the chief reason for establishing settlements. The directors of the trading company were conventionally devout and expected inhabitants to conform to Protestant norms. Not until 1628 did the Dutch colonists receive their first pastor, Jonas Michaelius (1577–1638?), a middle-aged pastor who had tried but was prevented by the Portuguese from serving in Brazil, and who came to North America from the West India Company’s colony on the west coast of Africa. The spiritual conditions of his congregation were so discouraging that Michaelius lasted only three years. Another two years lapsed before the colony’s directors could find a second pastor, Everardus Bogardus (1607–1647). He was another man so firm in his convictions that he challenged the authority of the colony’s governor. On a trip back to the Netherlands to resolve their dispute, pastor and magistrate died when the ship sank in stormy seas. Over the next few decades, as the Dutch settlers spread out along the Hudson River and on Long Island, congregations also were formed. But attracting pastors to the conditions of colonial society remained a tough sell.

Reformed churches had a monopoly on church life in New Netherland, even after 1673, when the English defeated the Dutch and renamed the colony New York. Prior to the English victory, Dutch ministers were successful in banning Lutherans and Anabaptists from establishing congregations. When the English took over, the new government decided not to upset the religious structures and continued to rely on the Dutch congregations for church life among the settlers. New York’s Charter of Liberties and Privileges technically opened the colony to all Protestants, even as the colonial government taxed settlers to pay for the support of local clergy. But because the Dutch Reformed pastors were already working throughout the colony, much of the government’s support for clergy continued to go to Calvinist congregations. Not until 1701, when the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts began to support Church of England clergy and parishes, did tensions emerge between the Dutch and English Protestants. Nevertheless, New York refused to make the Church of England the only legitimate ecclesiastical expression, and with the 1683 Charter still in place, the Dutch Reformed churches remained a firm part of church life in New York and New Jersey. Throughout the 18th century, those churches were still under the oversight of Old World ministers and elders in the Classis of Amsterdam. After independence for the United States in 1792, the Dutch churches organized as a separate denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church.

Soon after, the Dutch began to settle and organize churches in the Hudson River Valley, English Protestants of a decidedly Calvinistic persuasion began to migrate and form churches to the north, in the colonies later called Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. Here the motivation was as much religious as economic or political. Puritanism, an epithet first used in the 1560s against English church leaders thought to advocate a national church thoroughly cleansed of Catholicism, stood for those Protestants who wanted to reform the national church beyond what Queen Elizabeth would allow. Concerns varied, from reservations about vestments and set liturgies to objections to episcopacy and a heavy handed civil magistrate. When the Stuarts ascended to the throne in 1603, with James I, Puritan discontent became more pronounced.

Some committed Calvinists abandoned the state-church model and pursued independency. William Bradford (1590–1657) was one such church leader who fled, in 1607, along with others of similar convictions, to the Netherlands. For more than a decade these earnest Protestants lived as exiles. When concerns for children losing their English heritage emerged, these Protestants negotiated with one of England’s trading companies for land in the New World. These exiles, later known as Pilgrims, landed at New Plymouth in the fall of 1620, just north of Cape Cod. With Bradford as their original governor, the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Plantation became one of three different Puritan colonial enterprises in British North America.

The second group of Puritan settlers waited longer before leaving England. After 1625, Charles, son of James I, took a heavier hand in church life and prompted Puritan leaders to look for New World outlets. Led by John Winthrop (1588–1649), a lawyer and property owner, in 1630 roughly 1,000 Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay. Equally serious about church life and society, the Puritans sought to affect a comprehensive way of life consistent with Scripture and its implications. These ideals prompted a recognition of equality among the saints, who granted remarkable access to political and ecclesiastical power for those settlers who met the religious and economic requirements. The Puritan notion of a “city set upon a hill for all the world to see,” an idea to which Winthrop appealed, set a standard that not even the most earnest English Calvinists could meet. Not only sin, but also political and church dissension proved to be a stumbling block for the godly in Massachusetts. Colonial leaders, who had great autonomy thanks to loopholes in the trading company’s charter, implemented a variety of measures to try to bring Puritan society into line with Reformed vision. Among those reforms were the Cambridge Platform of 1648, which ratified a congregationalist polity, or rule by local church members (rather than a Presbyterian system), and the Half-Way Covenant of 1662, which allowed for children of baptized residents who had not made a profession of faith to be baptized. Puritan idealism also inspired a number of institutions (including Harvard College, founded in 1636), which would have significant influence beyond the region, time, and religion of the original settlers.

The third Puritan colony emerged in 1636, when Thomas Hooker (1586–1647) led a group of Massachusetts Bay settlers south to form the Colony of Connecticut. Trained as a minister at Cambridge University and settled in North America in 1633, Hooker regarded Massachusetts as too restrictive. Hooker advocated greater access to civil and ecclesiastical structures among all the godly residents, but not to the point of breaking ties with Puritans in Massachusetts. Connecticut retained a separate status even after 1686 when political upheavals in England led the crown to reform the administration of its colonies in North America. Under the Dominion of New England, Puritans lost the independence that had given life to their attempt to establish a godly society. Not only did Massachusetts eventually lose its charter, but Plymouth Colony also became part of Massachusetts. However, Puritan belief and practice would remain in the established churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The ideal of setting an example for the old country did not.

Another group of English speaking Calvinists arrived later than either the Dutch or the English and with fewer resources. Scottish Presbyterians were not by any means victims in the political turmoil of 17th-century England and Scotland, but neither did they have the power that allowed control of their own fate. After 16th-century reforms of the Scottish church established Presbyterianism in the kingdom, James I’s (formerly James VI of Scotland) efforts to unify England and Scotland put Presbyterians into an almost century-long struggle with Episcopalians for control of the national church. Presbyterians were themselves partly to blame, because they chose sides in the English Civil War (1642–1651), which in turn had consequences for church life in Scotland. Only by 1690 did the rule of William and Mary grant Presbyterians favored status within the Kirk, or the Church of Scotland. By that time, some Scottish Presbyterians had migrated to the Ulster Plantation in Ireland as part of England’s plan to colonize Ireland, and some had migrated to British colonies in North America in hopes of escaping social uncertainty at home.

One of those migrants was Francis Makemie (1658–1707), a Presbyterian minister who grew up in Ireland, received his training in Scotland, and in 1683, left for North America. Although ordained by Ulster Presbyterians, Makemie started to plant churches almost entirely without support from the Old World. He worked among settlers in Maryland and Pennsylvania, two colonies that tolerated a diversity of Christians. Makemie also engaged in trade to support himself and his family. By 1706, he had established ties with a half-dozen other Presbyterian ministers in the vicinity to form the Presbytery of Philadelphia, a body with power to credential ministers and oversee congregational life. Thanks to the arrival of other settlers and the work of additional ministers, the colonial Presbyterian church grew throughout the region between the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay. In 1729, Presbyterians established the theological identity of their communion by adopting the Westminster Confession of Faith (though allowing for dissent on its teaching about the civil magistrate). Presbyterians experienced their version of growing pains when, in 1741, the First Great Awakening, led by the evangelist George Whitefield, split the communion into pro- (New Side) and anti-revival (Old Side). But the two sides reunited in 1758, against the backdrop of the French and Indian War, a conflict that had direct bearing on Scotch-Irish settlers in western Pennsylvania.

That merger signaled that Presbyterians might achieve even greater solidarity with the War for Independence and the creation of a new nation. John Witherspoon (1723–1794), a Scottish Presbyterian minister who settled in New Jersey to preside over the College of New Jersey, was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, and his support for the United States was indicative of Presbyterians who had long been suspicious of rulers in London. Furthermore, political independence prompted Presbyterians after the war to organize themselves into a communion with the capacity for national reach. The first General Assembly, which met in 1789, organized the church as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and established rules for connecting Presbyterians across the nation.

Less well-known German Protestants also exported Calvinism to North America. With notable reforms in parts of the Holy Roman Empire, such as Heidelberg whose name graces one of the most used catechetical devices (1563) from the Reformation, German Calvinism, thanks to politics and war, could not achieve the stability that other Reformed churches did. Depending on the prince, such German-speaking territories as the Palatinate, Nassau-Dillenburg, and Saxony turned Calvinist rather than Lutheran during the 16th century. But the sons of princes also switched ecclesiastical sides. By 1620, Reformed Protestants accounted for roughly one million of the empire’s total population of sixteen million, with two of the seven electors also confessing Calvinism. The Thirty Years War would change the landscape dramatically. After 1648, with the exception of the Palatinate, the best German Calvinists could manage was toleration.

The social conditions of the Holy Roman Empire were the backdrop for the migration of settlers to North America. Another was the religious freedom guaranteed by the colony established and run by Quakers, William Penn’s Pennsylvania. By the early18century, between two and three thousand German-speaking immigrants had relocated to the Delaware Valley and farmlands to the west. The heaviest period of migration, around 1750, saw approximately 30,000 Germans arrive at the port in Philadelphia before searching for land to cultivate. German immigrant communities included Reformed and Lutherans. The churches that emerged were not branches of Old World national churches, but congregations of people voluntarily forming New World congregations in hopes that a minister might follow. One such person was John Philip Boehm (1683–1749), a schoolteacher and son of a pastor in Europe. In 1720, he migrated to Pennsylvania to farm, but his learning set him apart as a potential pastor to German Reformed Protestants who lacked one. Boehm reluctantly assumed responsibilities for organizing congregations and conducting services, though he would not administer the sacraments. Other German Reformed pastors arrived with groups of settlers, and they objected to Boehm’s work because he lacked ordination credentials. For almost two decades Boehm labored to organize a German communion and defend his standing. Dutch Reformed bodies in New York and in Amsterdam played umpire in these disputes, an indication of how beleaguered the Reformed churches were in the Palatinate. In 1729, Dutch pastors in New York ordained Boehm, and his efforts finally gained a measure of credibility.

For the next two decades Boehm labored with meager assistance to establish a German Reformed communion in North America. The first coetus (federation) of German Calvinists met in 1747, in Philadelphia, and once again looked to Dutch Reformed for help by adopting the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619). Boehm was its first president. His death in 1749 was a blow to the small immigrant communion, but the evidence of his work persisted. After the creation of a new nation and the severance of ties between New and Old World churches, the German Reformed held their first synod in 1793 and took steps to become an independent American denomination. The German Reformed Church consisted of roughly 15,000 members, 178 congregations, and twenty-two pastors. It was a spread-out communion and understaffed, but the liberty afforded in a world of voluntary churches opened up possibilities that German Calvinists could not have imagined in the Old World.

Calvinism Nationalized

No matter their support for political independence, Reformed churches could not help but be affected by the revolutionary war and subsequent nation building. Congregations gathered together as denominations needed to adapt their ministries to social and political conditions in the new United States. Most obviously, this meant that communions with ties to national churches in Europe needed to sever those links and exist autonomously. The political settlement of the new nation also involved ecclesiastical disestablishment. This was most evident at the level of the federal government, which rejected religious tests for holding office and tax support for churches. The sort of religious freedom secured in the U.S. Constitution also had the effect of opening the nation to religious diversity that made ecclesiastical establishments at the state level onerous. By 1818, Connecticut, and by 1833, Massachusetts opted for disestablishment and set the Congregationalist heirs of the Puritans on an even footing (legally at least) with Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and other Protestants. The voluntary church was now the pattern for any Christian group. The nation also set the pace for the churches by increasingly expanding to the West with the establishment of new territories and states. Churches established in the colonial era needed to decide how to keep up with members who migrated westward or whether to try to evangelize in new communities. This new reality was precisely the circumstance that led the Presbyterian Church and the Congregationalist churches of New England, in 1801, to ratify a Plan of Union that established rules for cooperative efforts to plant new congregations in the Northwest Territory.

In addition to deciphering the mechanics of church life in an expanding and free society, Calvinists in the new nation collaborated beyond simple ecclesiastical measures to try to evangelize and civilize the United States. One mechanism that proved to be controversial (again) was the practice of revivalism. The appeal of mass conversions and itinerant preachers had never abated since the peak years of the First Great Awakening (1739–1745). Awakenings continued to occur throughout the colonies and later in the new states and territories, but not on the scale that characterized the efforts of Whitefield. Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) changed that. A schoolteacher and lawyer who became an evangelist after an adult conversion, Finney became the most celebrated national figure in a major wave of American revivals between 1800 and 1830. He started as a Presbyterian evangelist, but by the end of his career was a moral philosopher at Oberlin College. Finney’s appeal to the free will of converts, his recommendation of the moral law as something that sinners could obey, and his unusual methods (such as the Altar Call and the Anxious Bench) touched off a controversy among Presbyterians and Congregationalists that eventually split Presbyterians, in 1837, into Old School (strict Calvinist) and New School (moderate) denominations. Even so, the attraction of the revivals was to bring the influence of Christianity upon people whose lives were as unsettled as the reach of the denominations.

The antebellum Protestant revivals spawned a heightened spiritual earnestness that prompted American Protestants to create a broad range of voluntary associations with moral and religious purposes (also known as the Benevolent Empire). Some of these were almost exclusively social in nature though premised on Protestant morality, such as efforts to reform slavery or restrict the use of alcohol. Some were supplemental to the work of the churches, such as the publication and distribution of Bibles and Christian reading material or the establishment of Sunday schools. And some of these organizations were ecumenical by drawing churches into common enterprises of training pastors or sending missionaries overseas. In many cases, Congregationalists and Presbyterians in the Northeast played leading roles in creating and sustaining these voluntary associations. An important consequence of this religious cooperation was to cultivate a sense of Protestantism for which denominational differences were less important than a shared effort to spread a basic Christian message and promote a Christian society. Rare was the Protestant communion involved in this enterprise that raised questions about differences between the church and the nation.

For Calvinist churches of Dutch or German extraction, the differences between religious and national life were sometimes easy to discern. The German Reformed Church, for instance, experienced a series of disputes between the 1840s and 1870s that reflected differences in understandings of Reformed Protestantism but also revealed divergence over the degree to which ethnic Protestants should assimilate Anglo-American Protestantism. John Williamson Nevin (1803–1886), who taught at the German Reformed, Mercersburg Seminary, wrote one of the most forceful critiques of Finney’s revivalistic methods in The Anxious Bench (1843). So too, Dutch Calvinists were wary of the Americanness of Protestant life in the United States. This was particularly the concern of Dutch immigrants who settled in the mid-West after 1840. After first trying to belong to the denomination that descended from the colonial Dutch churches, the Reformed Church in America, some immigrants thought the American communion had compromised in important ways by tolerating Masonry, singing hymns, and relying upon public schools for children’s education. These were the background to the 1857 founding of the Christian Reformed Church, a small conservative Dutch-American communion that would continue to be attractive to later waves of Dutch immigrants. Scottish Presbyterianism also added to the ethnic variety of American Calvinism in the form of various Covenanter and Seceder communions, which looked back to iterations of Scottish church life for denominational identity (the Covenanters continued to insist on the importance of the Scottish national covenants, and the Seceders took inspiration from the formation in 1733 of a dissenting Associate Presbytery in Scotland).

By 1850, Calvinism in its ecclesiastical form in the United States existed relatively comfortably in two different expressions. Congregationalists and New School Presbyterians from the Anglo-American side of Protestants participated actively in the wide variety of parachurch and ecumenical endeavors spawned by revivals that stretched from the 1790 into the 1850s. This effort was responsible for a host of institutions, from the American Bible Society and the American Sunday School Union to any number of liberal arts colleges and seminaries, such as Andover in Massachusetts and Union in New York City. Dissenting from this revivalist inspired collaboration were the Old School Presbyterians who ran Princeton Seminary and began to establish their own religious institutions. Outside the English-speaking world were the ethnic communions of Dutch, German, and Scottish backgrounds for whom maintaining Old World norms were of sufficient import to allow for significant warnings about participation in the broader Protestant world.

All the vigor of the Protestant evangelistic and civilizational enterprise could not prevent the division of the United States along sectional lines during debates about slavery. Again, the message of the Second Great Awakening’s promoters may have heightened expectations over the possibility of overcoming sin and living a life of perfection. Applied to the nation, those standards also contributed to a refusal on the part of some Protestants to cooperate or accommodate any evil, from a sense that the Bible required separation from all forms of sin, including slavery. From the other side came arguments, made especially prominent by Southern Presbyterians, that the church was a spiritual institution that should not meddle in civil matters. Usually accompanying such an emphasis on the church’s spiritual character, among Old School Presbyterians in both the North and the South, was a defense of slavery (and later of segregation) as a social arrangement not condemned by the Bible. Consequently, debates over theology and the mission of the church added to the growing sense of antagonism that led to war. Those Calvinists most supportive of the awakenings and social reform agencies—New School Presbyterians and Congregationalists—were also those most inclined to view the cause of preserving the Union and abolishing slavery as a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom. In contrast, those with the most reservations about the revivals—Old School Presbyterians, and the Dutch and German Reformed communions—were also willing to distinguish between the aims and limits of politics and the proper duties of the church. Although slavery was a background issue in the 1837 split between the Old and New School Presbyterians, the sectional crisis could not prevent those two branches from another separation. In 1857, the New School experienced the loss of its southern-most presbyteries, who formed the separate United Synod. Four years later, the Old School also split along regional lines when its southern members refused to support a proposal that endorsed the federal government against the Confederate States. Calvinists were not alone in splitting along regional lines—Methodists and Baptists had already done so. But Calvinists differed from communions with high-church sensibilities—Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans—who remained intact throughout the Civil War.

The sectional character of the crisis became all the more evident when Old and New School Presbyterians reunited during and after the war. In 1864, the United Synod buried the theological differences that had divided the Old and New Schools in order to join the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern). In 1869, northern Presbyterians followed suit and reunited the Old and New Schools in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Those sectional branches of mainstream American Presbyterianism would remain distinct all the way down to 1983. One plausible interpretation of Calvinism during the antebellum era was that the churches that most identified their mission with the new and developing nation also experienced the same upheavals that the United States endured.

Calvinism Modernized

Rather than raising caution about underwriting the cause of the nation, the North’s victory only increased a sense, at least among Anglo-American Calvinists, that the church had a crucial role to play in the life of the nation. The plan for reunion that brought the Northern New and Old School Presbyterians back together exemplified the sense of mission that Calvinists (and most Anglo-American Protestants) had in light of the union’s preservation. The reasons for reunion were obvious. The number of states had been doubled, the territory of the United States expanded, six million immigrants had arrived, and four million slaves had been “enfranchised.”

Not to mention that forces hostile to Christianity—“Romanism, Ecclesiasticism, Rationalism, Infidelity, Materialism, and Paganism itself”—were “struggling for the ascendency.” For all of these reasons, “The necessity of a closer union among Christians of a common faith and order” was needed, so much so that even the old antagonisms that had generated Protestant divisions—like the differences between Calvinists and other Protestants—were simply ancestral matters that the churches needed to leave in “the remote past.”1

The 1869 reunion of the Old and New School Presbyterians launched a surge of ecumenical initiatives that dominated the next five decades of American Protestantism. Impossible to miss was the leadership that Presbyterians and Congregationalists supplied to these efforts, which included the Evangelical Alliance (1867), a body that promoted family values and standards of decency in the work place, home, and broader society, the Federal Council of Churches (1908), a body that included the major Protestant denominations in a series of social initiatives, and the Plan for Organic Union (1919), a failed initiative designed to create a single national Protestant church (comparable to the United Church of Canada, formed in 1925). As much as new scientific knowledge about human origins and ancient peoples raised serious debates among Protestants about the accuracy of Scripture and received doctrinal teaching, the Progressive Era marked a time of great unanimity among the churches. The single greatest ideal that animated the churches was the older antebellum one of Christianizing the nation. In fact, the ecumenical imperative included the Social Gospel, a liberal Protestant effort to apply the personal categories of sin and salvation to social institutions. Indicative of this, the first action of the Federal Council of Churches was to affirm a Social Creed for the Churches that resembled the talking points for most Progressive politicians—minimum wage, restrictions of women’s and child labor, rights of workers, a six-day work week.

The effect of tailoring the teachings of the church to the needs of an educated and industrializing society produced minor forms of dissent in the 20th century among heirs of John Calvin. In the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called fundamentalist controversy created ripples among northern Presbyterians, such that J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), a conservative professor of the New Testament at Princeton Seminary, who argued that Protestant liberalism and historic Christianity were two different religions, formed a new institution in 1929, Westminster Seminary, and in 1936, led conservatives to start a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Machen was a popular writer during the 1920s whose book, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), received serious attention from most quarters. But Machen attracted only a trickle of followers to these institutions. Another and less strident warning about the perils of identifying church and nation came from Neo-Orthodox writers and pastors. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), a German-American pastor in the Evangelical Synod of North America (with ties to the German Reformed tradition in Europe) before teaching ethics at Union Seminary in New York City, wrote forcefully against Progressive and humanitarian optimism about social reform. He countered with a realist understanding of human nature and institutions that lowered expectations for the possibility of peace and justice, even as Christians strove to follow the New Testament ethic. Niebuhr’s ideas gained a loyal following among intellectuals and some church leaders during the 1940s and 1950s. But neo-orthodoxy did not fundamentally change the course of the Protestant mainline or its Calvinist constituents.

Indeed, the older trend of church unity and social reform persisted into the 1960s. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. absorbed English-speaking communions such as the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church (1920) and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (1957), even while trying to bridge the sectional divide with Southern Presbyterians. Meanwhile, the United Church of Christ (the denomination formed by New England Congregationalists) provided the vehicle for different ethnic communions to enter the Protestant mainstream. In 1921, a wing of the Hungarian Reformed Church in America joined the United Church of Christ as a separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the Calvin Synod. Furthermore, in 1958, a group of German-American churches, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, also merged with the United Church of Christ. Partly to justify the ongoing ecumenical efforts and to call the churches to respond prophetically to the social crises of the time, the Presbyterian Church revised its confessions and wrote a new one, the Confession of 1967, a statement that reformulated the Protestant understanding of special revelation and that conceived of the church’s role in society as one of opposing hierarchies, bigotry, and ethnocentrism.

By 1970, after almost 150 years of consolidation and nationalization, the Calvinist churches broke down along mainstream and sideline communions. The largest and most influential denominations, those with access to political, business, and academic leaders, were the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the United Church of Christ, the churches that had most vigorously supported American independence almost two centuries earlier. On the sidelines were conservative or ethnic communions like the Christian Reformed Church (Dutch), the Reformed Church in the U.S. (German), the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (Scottish), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (conservative). The larger churches were members of the National Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, while the smaller communions maintained their own schools and publications and fraternized in small ways in specific interdenominational organizations. Neither side fared well in a society that after 1965 entered what some have called its “Post-Protestant” phase, a period that marked the reduction of Protestant presence in public life (such as the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools). But the mainstream churches, because of a long identification with the goals of the United States, arguably suffered more than the sideline churches in the decades after 1970.

Calvinism Intellectualized

For all of the declension, assimilation, and fracturing that has transpired among those claiming a Reformed Protestant heritage, within contemporary intellectual and religious life, Calvinism has remained a compelling set of ideas for both sustained reflection and spiritual motivation. Novelists such as John Updike and Marilyn Robinson have created characters profoundly shaped by the sense of the distance between divine purposes and human frailty often attributed to Calvinism. Robinson has even written a collection of essays defending Calvinist understandings of human equality and dependence upon grace. At the same time, the study of specific Calvinist theologians in the academic disciplines of intellectual history and historical theology abounds. Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, and John Calvin himself continue to fascinate graduate students and scholars of Christian thought. Calvinism as mediated by Jonathan Edwards is even responsible for the recent claim by Time magazine that Calvinism is third on the top-ten list of ideas “changing the world.”2

As sustained as the appropriation of and reflection on Calvinism may be, either at popular or academic levels, the institutional outlets for Calvinist doctrine, worship, and church polity—the churches—have lost much of the resilience that originally spawned the Reformation and efforts to transplant Reformed churches to North America. John Calvin was responsible for arguments that were consequential for the development of economic and political life in the modern West. Many of his followers often used religious motivation to sell, buy, work, rule, legislate, and protest. Calvin’s work in Geneva included both church and social reform. The history of Calvinism has rarely kept both impulses—ecclesial and social—together. Instead, the more socially engaged Calvinists have been, the less particular about theology and worship, and vice versa—the more Calvinists have defended doctrine and worship, the more suspicious they have been about faith-based activism. That the economic and political effects of Calvinism have often undermined Calvin’s own teaching about salvation and understanding of church life is not necessarily the fault of the French Protestant who pastored reluctantly in Switzerland. But the history of Calvinism in the United States does reveal how difficult the balance that Calvin achieved in the context of expectations for a Christian society was to maintain in a society where the church was a voluntary institution and ecclesiastical officers had no status within a secular society’s formal political structures.

Discussion of the Literature

The history of Calvinism in the United States hardly reflects a coherent or uniform approach if only because the varieties of Calvinist belief and practice have sustained separate institutions and singular religious voices. Even so, the history of Puritanism has often stood as a kind of shorthand for Calvinism in America because historians have sometimes assumed that the English Protestants who migrated to North America in the early 17th century represented one of the most importance expressions of Reformed Protestantism.3

Adding to the appeal of Puritanism has been the projection of the effort to create a Puritan society onto questions of the American founding and national identity.4 In this case, those who study notions of American exceptionalism—either the religiously motivated idea that the United States has a special mission from divine providence or the secular version that America is unique among modern western societies for perpetuating traditional religion—often look to the Puritan ideal of creating a “city on a hill” for all the world to see as the basis for the nation’s exalted self-conception.5

Beyond the study of Puritanism and its influence on the American founding, two themes have dominated understandings of Calvinism in the United States. The first relies on a body of studies that locate modern political and economic developments in Calvinist ideas about rights to resist tyranny and duties to serve God in common activities. This approach is similar to efforts to trace connections between Puritanism and American exceptionalism, but it ascribes more generally to Calvinism the basic outlooks that have fostered economic and political liberty in the modern West, with the United States providing a blank canvas, as it were, to implement religious convictions. On this view, Calvinism has been an agent of modernization, an outlook responsible for the triumph of representative government and free markets.6 It culminated with a host of 19th-century intellectuals who attributed to Calvinism the engine of modernization and the success of the United States’ social order.7 This set of arguments proved handy during World War II and the Cold War, when Americans looked for ultimate meaning to sustain wars against fascist and communist governments that openly broke with Christian norms.8

The second theme that has resonated in the imagination of those who have told the history of Calvinism in the United States has been one of declension—that is, the drifting away of subsequent generations of Calvinists from the demanding ideals of founding generations. The liberalizing of Puritanism is one important strand of this stream of thought.9 But various scholars have extended the theme of declension to American character, national literature, and intellectual life.10 More confined to denominational history, the theme of decline is also bound up with those late 19th-century developments whereby Calvinist churches adapted theology and practices to modern learning and sensibilities—also known as theological liberalism.11 To be sure, 17th-century Puritans needed to sort through social and political circumstances that were markedly different from Calvin’s Geneva, and their version of Calvinism could be regarded as a form of declension from the original article. But the difference between early and modern sensibilities was responsible for changes far more sweeping than those that separated Calvin and the Puritans. After the Civil War, modern social and intellectual developments that challenged received notions about the Bible, human origins, and the uniqueness of Christianity among the world’s religions, forced on Calvinists decisions much more sweeping than those the Puritans confronted. Whether to adapt theology and institutions to keep up with these changing outlooks was at the core of differences between conservative and liberal Protestants.

The question that haunts the study of Calvinism in the United States is the degree to which Calvinism’s capacity to adapt to the early political and economic aspects of modernity was responsible as well for its decline in the form of intellectual revisions that compromised basic religious convictions. At what point did the social and economic consequences of Calvinism cultivate an outlook that made the religious teachings and practices of Reformed and Presbyterian churches look implausible? If the answer to that question suggests that Calvinism was inherently volatile, that the earthly success of Calvinists inevitably bred doubts about otherworldly realities, then Calvinism itself bears responsibility for planting the progressive seeds of its own declension.

Primary Sources

Those interested in further study of Calvinism do not have far to go since so many of the major proponents (theologians and ministers) are still in print. Arguably, the most important Calvinist theologian for Americans (though he died before the nation’s founding) was Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a prolific and philosophically inclined Congregationalist pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. A portion of his works is available through a collected works edition published by Yale University Press.12 In addition to the twenty-six volumes in this series, the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has a wide selection of digitized primary material along with supplemental resources.13 The works of other important Reformed Protestant theologians and writers still readily available are those of Charles Hodge (1797–1878),14 a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937),15 the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, and Reinhold Niebuhr,16 professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary (New York). Beyond works by individual authors, a number of anthologies also make available a wider set of Calvinist authors.17

As accessible as published works are, the life and struggles of Calvinists within churches, educational institutions, or privately are seldom available in print. Here students should be aware of several types of materials that academic libraries and archives collect. The minutes of church assemblies are a remarkably good source for understanding the nature and scope of Calvinism. The annual records of ecclesiastical bodies are available at a number of libraries, but those with the oldest and most complete holdings are Harvard University, Yale University (for Congregationalists); Princeton Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia (for Presbyterians); Lancaster Theological Seminary (for German Reformed); and Calvin College, Hope College, and New Brunswick Theological Seminary (for Dutch Reformed). Calvinists in the 19th century also produced a number of theological journals that reflect a surprising variety of interests and commentary. Among the most important were Bibliotheca Sacra, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, Mercersburg Review, and New Englander and Yale Review.18 The archival holdings at seminary libraries and historical societies are also valuable for exploring Calvinism in even greater depth. Among the most important collections of materials are those at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, the Sage Library at New Brunswick Seminary (New Jersey), the Special Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society at Lancaster Theological Seminary (Pennsylvania), and Heritage Hall at Calvin College (Michigan).19

Further Reading

Balmer, Randall. A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Berkovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Bratt, James. Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.Find this resource:

Bremer, Francis. John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Butler, Jon. The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in a New World Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Conkin, Paul. The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.Find this resource:

Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.Find this resource:

Guelzo, Allen C. Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Gutjahr, Paul C. Charles Hodge, Guardian of American Orthodoxy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Hall, David D. The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.Find this resource:

Hart, D. G. Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Kuklick, Bruce. Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Marsden, George M. The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.Find this resource:

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.Find this resource:

Moorhead, James H. Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.Find this resource:

Noll, Mark A. Princeton and the Republic, 1768–1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Tait, L. Gordon. The Piety of John Witherspoon: Pew, Pulpit, and Public Forum. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School). General Assembly. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1868), 671.

(2.) David Van Biema, “The New Calvinism,” Time (March 12, 2009).

(3.) See Michael P. Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996).

(4.) See, for instance, Samuel P. Huntington, Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

(5.) See Richard M. Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (New York: Continuum, 2012).

(6.) For a useful summary of older arguments about Calvinism’s influence on modernity, such as those advanced by Tocqueville and Weber, see Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 533–546. For other assessments, see Ralph Barton Perry, Puritanism and Democracy (New York: Vanguard, 1944), chap. 5; and David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (New York: Free Press, 1998), 261.

(7.) See, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed., J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), v. 1; James Anthony Froude, Calvinism: An Address Delivered at St. Andrews, March 17, 1871 (New York: Scribner’s, 1871); and Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York: Baker & Taylor), 1885).

(8.) See William Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 2012).

(9.) See Joseph Haroutunian, From Piety to Moralism: The Passing of the New England Theology (New York: Henry Holt, 1932).

(10.) See, for instance, Sacvan Berkovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977); and Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).

(11.) See William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976); and Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(12.) The Works of Jonathan Edwards Series (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957–2008).

(13.) The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University contains published works and original manuscripts.

(14.) Hodge’s three-volume Systematic Theology, published between 1872 and 1873, is available on-line.

(15.) Machen’s most important books are Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), and The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper, 1930). Additional materials are available online at the site of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

(16.) Niebuhr’s most widely cited books are Moral Man, Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1932), and The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1952). The Library of America has recently added Niebuhr to its distinguished series of American author’s definitive texts, with Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (New York: Library of America, 2015).

(17.) Andrew Delbanco and Alan Heimert, eds., The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, eds., The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006); Mark A. Noll, ed., The Princeton Theology: Scripture, Science, Theological Method from Archibald Alexander to Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001); James Hastings Nichols, ed., The Mercersburg Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004); and James D. Bratt and Ronald A. Wells, eds., The Best of the Reformed Journal (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).

(18.) These journals are accessible on-line at Princeton Theological Seminary Journals; and at the Cornell University Library, Making of America Journal Collection; see also the digitized copy of B. B. Edwards and E. A. Park, Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845).