What do ghosts and goblins have in common with Luther and Calvin? Both are celebrated on October 31st. Yet only one group had historical significance. The Reformation of Luther and Calvin changed the West, leading to the formation of America. That is something to celebrate. But many today cannot celebrate it because so little is known—many children know more about the origins of blood-sucking vampires than the cultural life-force known as the Reformation. Yet many historians acknowledge the predominate influence of the Reformation on the formation of America (just google the quotes below). George Bancroft, founder of Annapolis Academy and one of the first American historians, asserted, “He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”
Historically, conscience-anguished Martin Luther found peace through faith in the person and work of Christ. Having nailed the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31st, he blazed a path which John Calvin and others followed and expanded. Calvin’s theological system encompassed all of life, and his worldview was carried to the new world (for good or ill): the French Huguenots of the Southern colonies, the Dutch colonists of Manhattan and the English Puritans of New England. Many historical forces influenced America, but three key foundation-stones of early American culture were especially formed by the ideas of Calvin and others: church liberty, universal education and the right to resistance. Let the historians speak for themselves.
Yale historian George Fisher wrote: “How is it, then, that Calvinism is acknowledged, even by foes, to have promoted powerfully the cause of civil liberty? The reason lies in the boundary line which it drew between church and State. Calvinism would not surrender the peculiar notions of the Church to the civil authority. Whether the church, or the Government, should regulate the administration of the Sacrament, and admit or reject the communicants, was the question which Calvin fought out with the authorities at Geneva…” This idea was institutionalized in the Puritans of the Presbyterian Church and Congregationalist settlers on the shores of America.
Dedication to education was the hallmark of the Reformers and the settlers in America. A mixture of local schooling initiatives and laissez-faire education formed the basis of American education. Historian Bancroft again asserts (during a time with better schools): “We boast of our common schools; Calvin was the father of popular education, the inventor of the system of free schools.”
The right to resist unlawful government was furthered by the Reformers. Dave Kopel (of the Independence Institute) wrote in Liberty magazine, October 2008, “The [Reformed] Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers played an indispensable role in inciting the American Revolution.” The great statesman John Adams bluntly acknowledged the influences of both the 16-century French-Calvinist’s work Vindicus Contra Tyrannus and the English Calvinist work of Ponet (A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power); both books defended the right of the people to rise against tyrants. Modern historians such as Daniel Elazar (of Temple University) have made similar claims: “In all of the places where Reformed Protestantism was strong, there emerged a Protestant republicanism that opposed tyrants even as it demanded local religious conformity.” In fact, much of the early American culture was Reformed or tied strongly to it (just read the New England Primer). Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a Roman Catholic intellectual and National Review contributor, asserts: “If we call the American statesmen of the late eighteenth century the Founding Fathers of the United States, then the Pilgrims and Puritans were the grandfathers and Calvin the great-grandfather…”
“So what?” you ask. Well if we are to avoid the errors of the past, are we not also to learn from the victories of history. Many conservatives clamor for the glorious ol' days of early America. They are certainly using rose-colored glasses. But at the same time they need to know that what true good they see through those glasses was from God—a God who was pleased to use the fruit of the Reformation in the formation of America. If God is pleased, perhaps He will bless the church with another Reformation, that may in turn bring this nation to a different kind of glory: repentance and faith in Jesus.