Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy - Chapter 2 - Calvinism and American Identity

Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

The second chapter carries the title “Calvinism and American Identity.” The author is David Little, he has served as a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Little demonstrates that there is no consensus on Calvinism’s contribution to American national identity, showing readers that contemporary historical interpretation of Calvinism’s contribution to American identity are as variegated as the “division over religion and national identity” originating with the New England Puritans, an ambivalence which Little suggest is rooted in the thought of John Calvin himself.

Little’s thesis is tucked away five pages into the article, all that to say, it takes a bit of reading to get to his declared aim, which is, “that the deep division over religion and national identity did not originate with the New England Puritans . . . that ambivalence is at the root of the Calvinist tradition of which they were a part, going back to the founder, John Calvin himself” (47). In the remainder of the article, Little illustrates this division by examining the Puritans thought and then Calvin’s own thought.

Little sees in the Puritans ambivalence regarding whether or not a nation could be considered “Christian”—part of his case study is the Massachusetts Colony where renowned historical figures like Governor John Winthrop and Pastor John Cotton worked through the issues that arose as a society of faith organizes formal civic laws, which in that case led to codified civil rights, e.g. Bay Colony's Body of Liberties which gave "rights pertaining to religious belief and practice" (see pages 50-53 for key background). However, as these events unfolded one contemporary divine, Urian Oakes, noted that “church and commonwealth are twisted together.”

Although twisted together, this did not mean that there was uniformity of thought and ideals. There was great concern about the potential of church and state opposing one another, since men like John Winthrop wanted society to be “nursing fathers to the churches” (52). Therefore, he opposed the interpretation of "free religion" to permit elders of churches to freely consult "without the concurrence of civil authority" (see page 52-53), which some at that time were advocating. Clearly we see even within this “twisted together” view of Church and state that there is division of thought. This division, however, is mild compared to the position put into motion by Puritan Roger Williams, who spearheaded the Rhode Island charter, which most resembles our current secular, neutral view of government (Rhode Island was the first colony that did not require civil office holders to be Christian).

Little then goes on to examine similar tensions evident in John Calvin’s writings, demonstrating Calvin’s original teaching regarding over the division of religion and national identity, which Calvin later softened in the face of the Geneva council’s execution of heretic Michael Servetus.

In all of this, I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the detailed work laid out before us by Little, but I hope I have shown even with these few brief summarizing paragraphs why Little feels confident asserting in the last sentence of the article: “If Calvinism is as divided as I say, then it is no longer possible to speak unequivocally about its contribution to American national identity” (60).

My thoughts: recommended reading for those interested in or who are currently exposed to the "Two Kingdom" debates (again) being reignited in the Reformed world (e.g., I'm thinking of current buzz regarding Westminster Seminary California, Michael Horton, and John Frame's The Escondido Theology). 


  1. [This may be a second comment; I tried another one a minute ago].


    Sounds like an interesting book. Are you familiar with Mark Noll's 'America's God'? Does this book interact with it? The subject of Calvinism in the sociological history of America is fascinating.

    BTW, where do you live in Northern Indiana? What church do you go to?

    Your brother from another mother,

    David Schrock

  2. David,

    I have heard of Noll's 'America's God' but I have not read it. And Douglas A. Sweeney interacts with that book in the fifth chapter, but I haven't read that far yet

    I live in Warsaw, Indiana, and I attend Trinity Evangelical Church, Larwill, Indiana. www.trinity-evangelical.org Trinity is a member church in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), and I just completed theological and pastoral training at their in-house pastoral college.

    Also, hopefully in the next couple days I will post the review for the third chapter (written by D. G. Hart).

    Your brother from another mother,

    Christopher Schrock