By Mark David Hall
In Original Meanings, Jack Rakove observes that the “larger intellectual world within which the Constitution is often located—the Enlightened world of Locke and Montesquieu, Hume and Blackstone, plain whigs and real whigs, common lawyers and Continental jurists—has been the subject of extensive analysis.” It is noteworthy that he does not mention religion in this context. Historians are better than political scientists and law professors at recognizing that faith mattered to many Americans in the founding era, but even they have a tendency to treat America’s founders as deists who embraced a rationalist approach to politics and who produced secular documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the First Amendment. In doing so they neglect the significant influence of Christianity, generally, and the Reformed tradition, more specifically, on many of America’s founders. “Reformed” in this context means “Calvinist” and refers to the intellectual tradition developed by John Calvin (1509-64) and his followers.
One reason Calvinism is neglected is that students of the founding often view the era through the eyes of Southern Anglican gentlemen: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, men born outside America: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine, and the cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin who lived most of the last thirty five years of his life in Europe. The only member of a Congregational or Presbyterian church among the famous founders is John Adams, but like a few of his fellow Congregationalists (primarily in and around Boston) he was moving rapidly toward Unitarianism. These men were brilliant and influential, but they are not representative of the many American leaders who were firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition.
Sydney Ahlstrom, in his magisterial history of religion in America, estimates that the Reformed tradition was “the religious heritage of three-fourths of the American people in 1776.” Similarly, Yale historian Harry Stout states that prior to the War for Independence “three out of four colonists were connected with Reformed denominations (mostly Congregational and Presbyterian).” These figures may be high—neither scholar explains or defends them—but a plethora of studies make it clear that Calvinist churches dominated New England and were well represented throughout the rest of the nation. Although some scholars have argued that few Americans attended these or other churches in the founding era, as we shall see this was not the case.
Not only were well over a majority of all Americans in the founding era associated with Calvinist churches, adherents to the tradition exercised significant influence through a variety of venues. New England was the intellectual and cultural center of America until well into the nineteenth century, and many pedagogues throughout the nation were members of Reformed faiths. For instance, James Madison was educated by the Scottish Presbyterian minister Donald Robertson (about whom he later said “all that I have been in life I owe largely to that man”) the Anglican rector Thomas Martin (a graduate of the College of New Jersey), and the Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon. Under President Witherspoon, the College of New Jersey produced “five delegates to the Constitutional Convention; one U.S. President (Madison); a vice president (the notorious Aaron Burr), forty-nine U.S. representatives; twenty-eight U.S. senators; three Supreme Court Justices; eight U.S. district judges; one secretary of state; three attorneys general; and two foreign ministers.” It is noteworthy that only two of the 178 students who studied under Witherspoon between 1769 and 1775 became Loyalists.
The primary purpose of this essay is to introduce readers to Reformed political tradition, show how the tradition manifested itself in colonial America (especially New England), and demonstrate that Calvinism was still a vibrant and influential force in late-eighteenth century America. I address the common view that the founders were heavily influenced by a secularized version of Lockean liberalism, and I conclude by suggesting ways that shifting our eyes from a handful of elites to a broader range of founders (emphasizing for the purposes of this essay members of Reformed congregations) might help us better understand key founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the First Amendment.
1. Essays of this nature are often written by partisans of a particular tradition. Although I am sympathetic to the Reformed tradition, I do not consider myself to be a Calvinist nor am I am member of a Reformed church.
2. Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 7, 18. The preface to Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds., The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), xiii-xxi, provides numerous examples of scholars who describe the founders as deists dedicated to creating a secular commonwealth. Examples of books that recognize that religion mattered in the founding era include Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966); Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); J.C.D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). Yet even many of these books limit religion’s influence to the masses and portray “the founders” as being influenced by secular ideologies. I provide an extensive discussion of the relevant secondary literature in my book manuscript The Old Puritan and a New Nation: Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (under review). For reasons of space I keep this discussion to an absolute minimum in this essay.
3. Like Franklin, Jefferson and Adams lived for extended periods of time in Europe. Franklin was raised in the Reformed tradition but rejected it at an early age. For details on the religious views of these founders see Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) (containing essays on Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) and Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (containing essays on Paine and Hamilton)
4. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975), 1: 426; Harry S. Stout, “Preaching the Insurrection,” Christian History 15 (1996), 17. Presumably both figures are for white Americans. See also William Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 21. According to Charles O. Paullin, 56% of churches in America in 1776 were in the Reformed tradition. Paullin, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1932), 50. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark rely heavily on his study when they discuss denominations in the era in The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 25. According to Edwin Gaustad and Philip Barlow, 63% of the churches in 1780 were in the Reformed tradition. Gaustad and Barlow, New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 8. The two estimates for 1776 (56% and 75%) are not necessarily contradictory if Reformed churches had larger congregations than non-Reformed churches. If one counts Anglicans as being in the Reformed tradition (a disputable but plausible assessment), then 75% of America’s churches in 1776 were Reformed. Although Lutherans are closely related to Calvinists on many theological matters, they are not usually considered to be a part of the Reformed tradition. Virtually all Baptists in this era adhered to Reformed theology.
5. Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971), 17-50; Jeffry H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 4; Joseph S. Tiedemann, “Presbyterianism and the American Revolution in the Middle Colonies,” Church History 74 (June 2005), 339.