Thursday, May 21, 2020

Hall Responds to Frazer on the Calvinist Resisters

Mark David Hall sent along the following note reproduced below which responds to Gregg Frazer's latest post on the Calvinist resisters.


I continue to think Gregg is wrong in his interpretation of Calvin's view of active resistance (which is not a "codeword"; it is a term of art), but even if he convinced me it would make no difference to my argument which is that within the Reformed tradition of political reflection a very robust understanding of active resistance developed and was shared by virtually every Reformed thinker to address the issue.  These Calvinists were convinced that they were exegetting the Bible properly.  And many Reformed thinkers made these arguments well before Locke wrote his Second Treatise.  Sarah Morgan Smith and I discuss Calvin and other pre-Locke Calvinist writers in the following article.  Because it is available online at no cost, I am not going to reconstruct it here:

Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 1.” Co-authored with Sarah A. Morgan Smith.  Invited article for Unio cum Christo. 3 (October 2017): 169-184. 

I am thrilled beyond belief that Gregg concedes that the Reformed tradition does not begin and end with John Calvin.  I trust this will lead him to revise his writings where he acts as if it does.  So, for instance, in The Religious Beliefs of America’s Foundershe spends roughly two pages discussing Calvin and then concludes "One cannot legitimately employ Calvin to justify rebellion, which is why the patriotic preachers argued in terms of 'Mr. Locke's doctrine' rather than Calvin's."  (82-83)  Having read this, one might be excused for thinking that no Calvinist wrote or spoke on the subject between Calvin and Locke.  He makes a similar move in his article explaining why the War for Independence was not a just war (pp. 49-50).  

Alas, such analysis has been accepted by historians who get their political theory from unpublished doctoral dissertations rather than primary sources.  So, for instance, John Fea writes "John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer who had the most influence on the theology of the colonial clergy, taught that rebellion against civil government was never justified . . . as "political scientist Gregg Frazer has argued" [it was Locke not Calvin who influenced the patriotic preachers]. (Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, 1st, 118-119).  

In 1787, John Adams 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.  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.”

For additional discussion, see:

Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 2.” Co-authored with Sarah A. Morgan Smith.  Invited article for Unio cum Christo. 4 (April 2018): 171-188.


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


Tom Van Dyke said...

As Hall points out in this very interesting essay:

Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos: The Influence of the
Reformed Tradition in the American Founding

In addition to the Bible, books containing the essential
elements of Reformed political thought were accessible to
political and ecclesiastical elites from the colonies’ inception.
A thorough and systematic study of which Reformed books
were available at what time has yet to be attempted, but
Herbert D. Foster has documented the availability of classic
texts by John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza, Stephanus
Junius Brutus, Peter Martyr, and others. The respect Puritan
leaders had for their European predecessors is reflected well
by John Cotton’s statement that “I have read the
fathers and the school-men, and Calvin too; but I find that he
that has Calvin has them all.”

Yet, as Perry Miller pointed out,
“[i]f we were to measure by the number of times a writer is
cited and the degrees of familiarity shown with his works,
Beza exerted more influence than Calvin, and David Pareus
still more than Beza.” This is significant for our purposes
because the latter two thinkers expressed significantly more
radical theories of resistance than did John Calvin

Moving to the founding era, political leaders generally, but
particularly those from New England, often owned or referred
to Reformed literature. It is not surprising that Princeton
President John Witherspoon owned Calvin’s Institutes, Beza’s
Rights of Magistrates (1757) and Buchanan’s The Law of
Scottish Kingship (1579). More intriguing is that John Adams
declared that John Poynet’s Short Treatise on Politike Power
(1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which
were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.”


Unlike his cousin, Samuel Adams was a latter-day Puritan. In
1740, well before John Locke’s Second Treatise was popular in
America, he returned to Harvard to defend the thesis that “it
is lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the
Commonwealth cannot be otherwise preserved” in order to
receive his master’s degree. Twenty-eight years later he wrote
three essays for the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym of “a

The unitarian John and the hyper-Calvinist Samuel Adams were a cosmos apart in their doctrines about Jesus, yet they were of the same mind in political theology, what we have been calling Reformed Resistance Theory.

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