The Calvinist Connection

By Dave Kopel

Liberty magazine, October 2008, pp. 27-31. More by Kopel on Protestantism.

Many modern libertarians assume that religion and liberty are necessarily in opposition. Many modern people in general assume that religion and revolution are opposed. At times, of course, they are, but the history of the American Revolution indicates that more care is required in making this kind of judgment.

In the American colonies, the hotbed of revolution was New England, where the people were mainly Congregationalists--descendants of the Calvinist English Puritans. The Presbyterians, a Calvinist sect which originated in Scotland, were spread all of the colonies, and the network of Presbyterian ministers provided links among them. The Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers played an indispensible role in inciting the American Revolution.

To understand why they were so comfortable with revolution, it helps to look at the origins of Calvinist resistance theory, from its tentative beginnings with Calvin himself, to its full development a few decades later.

Born in 1509, John Calvin was a small child in France when the Reformation began. By 1541, he had been invited to take permanent refuge in Geneva, which provided a safe haven for the rest of his life. Geneva was a walled city, and constantly threatened by the Catholic Duke of Savoy and others. Pacifism was never a realistic option for Calvin, or any of the Swiss Protestants.

Calvin always believed that governments should be chosen by the people. He described the Hebrews as extremely foolish for jettisoning their free government and replacing it with a hereditary monarchy. He also came to believe that kings and princes were bound to their people by covenant, such as those that one sees in the Old Testament.

In Calvin's view, which was based on Romans 13, the governmental duties of "inferior magistrates" (government officials, such as mayor or governors, in an intermediate level between the king and the people) required them to protect the people against oppression from above. Calvinism readily adopted the Lutheran theory of resistance by such magistrates.

In a commentary on the Book of Daniel, Calvin observed that contemporary monarchs pretend to reign "by the grace of God," but the pretense was "a mere cheat" so that they could "reign without control." He believed that "Earthly princes depose themselves while they rise up against God," so "it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them."

The "Institutes of the Christian Religion" was Calvin's masterpiece. It was first published in 1536, and revised editions appeared until 1560. In this work, he argued that legitimate governments ruled with the consent of the governed and in covenant with God and the people. Therefore a soldier's service on behalf of a just government "doth not offend God in going to the wars, but is a holy vocation, which cannot be reproved without blaspheming of God."

When ordinary citizens are confronted with tyranny, he wrote, ordinary citizens have to suffer it. But magistrates have the duty to "curb the tyranny of kings," as had the Tribunes in ancient Rome, the Ephori in Sparta, and the Demarchs in ancient Athens.

That Calvin could support a right of resistance in theory did not mean that he thought such resistance prudent in all circumstances. At least publicly, he disagreed with the Scottish Calvinist John Knox's call for revolution against the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor of England.

Some Reformation leaders went further. Among them was John Poynet, an Englishman who had been Bishop of Winchester during the reign of Edward VI, Mary's Anglican predecessor. When Mary came in, he fled into exile, where in 1556, he published "A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power, and of the true obedience which subjects owe to kynges and over civil governours." He asked "Whether it be lawful to depose an evil governor and kill a tyrant?" The answer was definitely "yes."

But who is a tyrant? According to Poynet, one of the characteristics of a tyrant is "He spoileth and taketh awaye from them [the people] their armour and harnesse, that they shall not be hable to use any force to defende their right." Tyrannical disarmament had happened in England, where William the Conqueror, "toke fro the people their weapons ad harnesse…"

Poynet's ideas thus like in the background of the Constitution's second Amendment. In his "Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America," John Adams pointed to three periods of English history when intellectuals confronted tyranny and analyzed the issue of how governments should be constituted. According to Adams, the English reformation was the first period, when John Poynet set forth "all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke."

Several other refugees from Queen Mary are important in the history of liberty. The Italian preacher Peter Martyr Vermigli brought Calvinism to England in the middle of sixteenth century, during the reign of Edward VI, but after Mary ascended the English throne, Vermigli's position in England became untenable, and he fled to Zurich. In a commentary on Romans (1558) and another on Judges (1561), he argued that inferior magistrates, though not the people themselves, have a duty to overthrow a ruler who violates his covenants. The key part of the Judges commentary was reprinted in Common Places, a collection of Vermigli's works that Calvinist preachers used as a teaching resource in following decades.

Christopher Goodman was another of the English Marian refugees. He fled to Geneva. In 1558, he wrote "How Superior Powers Ought to Be Obeyed by Their Subjects: And Wherein They May Lawfully By God's Word Be Disobeyed And Resisted." The subtitle was the point of the book.

Going beyond the theory of resistance under the leadership of inferior magistrates, Goodman argued that "It appertains not only to the magistrates and all other inferior officers to see that their princes are subject to God's laws, but to the common people also." While it would be better for magistrates to lead the revolution, "if it is not done by the consent and aid of the superiors, it is lawful for the people, yea, it is their duty to do it themselves." St. Paul's command in Romans 13 for Christians to be obedient to government applied only to those that "are orderly and lawfully instituted by God." Tyrannical government came from Satan, not from God. To obey a tyrant was to rebel against God--"to forsake the Laws of our God, and to continue in our wonted rebellion, by yielding to the ungodly commandments of wicked men."

Goodman (who said that Calvin had read Goodman's book and approved its contents)  was the first mainstream Protestant writer to go beyond the doctrine of inferior magistrates. His book was popular with later resistance theorists such as John Knox, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson.

French Calvinists were also important to the theory of liberty. Calvin had been very reluctant to propose the shedding of blood in resistance to tyranny, fearing the awful consequences would flow from exercising that right under current conditions in France. But fear of violence from Catholic extremists led the French Protestants, the Huguenots, to start posting armed guards during church meetings, and organizing church-based militias. Some of these groups vandalized or took over Catholic churches. The typical pattern of Protestant reformers was to suppress Catholic worship wherever the Protestants attained sufficient local power.

That course was far from libertarian. Their self-arming was more to to the point. In Edict of St. Germain (January 1562), Catherine de Medici (head of the regency that was ruling France) granted toleration to Calvinist worship, except within walled towns. Many Catholics were outraged, and some Parisian priests warned that a government which tolerated Protestants would lose its claim to obedience from Catholics.

In March 1562, a Calvinist congregation at Vassy, France, was massacred by Catholic extremists under the leadership of the Duke of Guise. When the Duke was praised rather than admonished by the monarchy, even more Huguenots took up arms. The Presbyterian church structure was used to organize the formation of armed groups, under the supervision of Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza. Despite some initial successes, the Huguenots lost the ensuing civil war, settling for a peace which allowed Calvinist worship only in the religion's historic regions. Despite having previously opposed resistance in France, Calvin denounced the compromisers who accepted the peace terms.

More Catholic versus Protestant civil wars took place in France. The most horrific incident came in August 1572, when thousands of Huguenots in Paris and elsewhere were slaughtered in the government-approved St. Bartholomew's Eve massacre. The massacre was ordered by the king, and perpetrated by Catholic mobs who used edged weapons to hack thousands of people to death. "Huguenot-hunting" became a national sport--not unlike the genocidal human-hunting in Rwanda in 1994.

The massacre radicalized many Huguenots. After fleeing to Calvinist Geneva, François Hotman, a professor of law, wrote "Francogallia" (1573). The book drew on French history to argue that France's ancient constitutional law, which was still valid according to Hotman, recognized the separation of powers, and the right of the people to overthrow a bad dynasty. Like other Calvinists, Hotman was less inclined than the Catholics to rely on natural law, preferring instead to focus on the contractual relationship between the ruler and the people. His argument for the importance of the long-ignored Three Estates of France was consistent with Calvinist theory that sovereignty did not reside exclusively in the supreme magistrate. The king might be the ruler, but he did not possess all the sovereignty.

Like some English works which sought to revive ancient Anglo-Saxon liberties and deploy them against modern despots, "Francogallia" does not always hold up well as history, but it did inspire Calvinists all over the world about the legitimacy of resistance, and of the people's right to restore the ancient social contracts.

In 1574, Theodore Beza, one of the most influential Calvinists, published "On the Right of Magistrates over Their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects Towards their Rulers," to advance Calvin's doctrine on the rights of intermediate magistrates. His book begins by examining the nature of government. Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27.) Beza echoed this language: "peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd."

Turning to 1 Samuel 8, in which the Israelites decided to establish a monarchy, Beza found that the people and king were bound to each other by covenant. Therefore, he surmised, the people (acting through "estates"--that is, intermediate magistrates) have the right to remove the crown which they have awarded, if the king does not obey his part of the covenant.

Calvinists were much more favorable to contract theory than were the more authoritarian and submissive Lutherans, and parts of Beza's book applied pure contract law. Like many other Calvinist writers, Beza also admired the ancient Romans. He cited a famous remark of the Roman Emperor Trajan, which had been recorded by the historian Dio Cassius:

[W]hen he [Trajan] was appointing Sura as military tribune and handing him the customary unsheathed dagger, he remarked: "Take this weapon which you shall draw on my behalf only if I have given a just command; but if you should learn that anything wrong is being done by me, I would have you use it for my destruction."

Beza agreed with St. Augustine that evil governors are simply a type of robbers. Just as people had an obvious right to resist highway robbers, people likewise had a right to resist the tyranny of the state:

Hence it comes about that the man who meets with highway robbers, by whom no one is murdered without the consent of the will of God, has the power in accordance with the authority of the laws to resist them in just self-defense which incurs no blame because no one forsooth has (received) a special command from God that he meekly allow himself to be slain by robbers. Our conviction is entirely the same about that regular defense against tyrants which we are discussing.

More so than any previous resistance writer, Beza looked not only to ancient Israel and Rome, but also to more recent polities. Examining Denmark, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Poland, Venice, Spain, England, and the Holy Roman Empire, Beza found many examples of intermediate magistrates enforcing their contract with the king, representing the people as a whole, and leading armed revolution against tyranny when necessary. Beza lauded the Lutheran resistance at Magdeburg (against the Holy Roman Emperor, who was trying to wipe out the Reformation) as a perfect example of intermediate magistrates restraining an evil prince. Government, wrote Beza, was not created by God so that people were born into servitude. Instead, "man's fundamental condition must be one of natural liberty."

Beza's anonymously written "Right of Magistrates" was reprinted in French ten times and in Latin seventeen times over the following several decades. Because Beza wrote in broad general terms, rather than discussing only the rights of Calvinists or only about the situation in France, the book was especially influential, and was used by people of different religions in a wide variety of situations.

Another notable resistance writer was Pierre Viret, the leading Calvinist preacher in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Viret endorsed resistance by intermediate magistrates in his 1574 book "Remonstances aux Fideles qui Converssent entre les Papistes." In cases when "a people have an honest means of resisting the tyranny of such a tyrant by means of their legitimate magistrates," then they should follow the advice of St. Paul in Corinthians: "if you can gain your freedom and enjoy liberty, then avail yourself the opportunity." (1 Corinthians 7:21.)

The Huguenots went to great lengths to make the case they were acting lawfully, which is one reason why they paid such attention to contract theory. One of their major sources of for the legal right of resistance was the Corpus Juris, the 6th-century compilation of Roman law which was still a major source of legal authority a millennium later.

The provisions of Corpus Juris about the proper authority of the king were analyzed to show that he was granted his authority by the people, and that a king who broke his agreement with the people--by exercising ungranted powers, or by using his powers tyrannically--was a traitor, and could be resisted with force.

Roman law stated that "A person lawfully in possession has the right to use a moderate degree of force to repel any violence exerted for the purpose of depriving him of possession, if he holds it under a title which is not defective. (Code Just. 8.4.1.) This text was cited by the Huguenots in the sixteenth century as justification for armed resistance to France's central government. The argument was that that the undisputed right of self-defense in "the case of a Christian assaulted by brigands in the forest" could be applied to national self-defense against an invader or a domestic tyrant. (Pierre Fabre, "Traitte Du Quel on peut apprendre en quel cas il est permis à l'homme Chrestien de porter les armes et par lequel est respondu à Peirre Charpentier, tendant à la fine d'empescher la paix, & nous laisser la guerre"--"Treatise by which one can learn in what case it is permitted for a Christian man to carry arms").

A Huguenot using the pen-name Marcus Junius Brutus (the Roman Senator who assassinated Julius Caesar) went further with the 1579 book "Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos" ("Vindication Against Tyrants"). "Vindiciae" was organized like a Catholic Scholastic treatise. Like the other Geneva writers, Brutus owed a great debt to Catholic thought on the subject of Just Revolution.

Brutus praised the heavenly merit of the Crusaders, and then turned the lesson of the Crusades on its head, by arguing that the oppressive Catholic kings in France were even worse than the Muslims who had been the target of the Crusades. The Muslims did not deny Christian subjects liberty of religion, but the French government did. Accordingly, resisting the French government was even more meritorious than crusading, which was even more meritorious than martyrdom.

Vindiciae presented four basic questions, along with objections and responses to the objections.

The first question was whether subjects must obey a ruler who commands an act which is contrary to God's law. The easy answer was "no," for Calvinists were part of a long Christian tradition against carrying out blasphemous government commands. But since disobedience could include passive resistance, the answer did not necessarily imply a right to revolution.

Question two raised the issue of forceful resistance, in the context of a king breaking God's law and trying to destroy the church. "Vindiciae" argued that resistance was required. However, individuals without the leadership of intermediate magistrates were not supposed to fight against government. Individuals should fight against tyrants without title--such as a mere conqueror who had no claim to legitimacy.

Brutus acknowledged that there were cases where private individuals had fought tyrants who had legitimate title--such as Ehud in the Book of Judges. But these were special cases of direct orders from God. A person who thinks that he may be the recipient of such orders "should certainly make sure that he is not puffed up with pride, that he is not God to himself, that he does not derive the great spirit for himself from within himself." The failed Bar Kochba rebellion in Roman-ruled Israel, and the failed Peasants War led by Thomas Muntzer "not long ago in Germany" were cited as examples of unwise rebellion led by individuals.

Question three went beyond the traditional Lutheran-Calvinist focus on resisting kings who suppressed Protestantism, and asked the broader question of the lawfulness of resisting a king who oppressed the people. The general rightfulness of self-defense was obvious: "natural law teaches us to preserve and protect our life and liberty--without which life is scarcely life at all--against all force and injustice. Nature implants this in dogs against wolves…the more so in man against himself, if he has become a wolf to himself. So he who disputes whether it is lawful to fight back seems to be fighting nature itself."

Among differences between good and evil rulers were their treatment of weapons and self-defense. A good prince ruled according to law. "He will punish a bandit with death, but should acquit someone who killed a bandit while repelling force with force"--while a tyrant used foreign armies to protect himself from his subjects. Then, "He disarms the people, and expels it from fortifications." In contrast, a lawful king relied on the nation's armed people for defense. Thus, the Old Testament kings of Canaan were "truly tyrants" because "they forbade free passage and arms."

Looking at the Old Testament, "Vindiciae" argued, in a now familiar way, that kingly rule was based on a covenant with the people. A king who ruled badly violated the covenant, and lost his right to rule. While the intermediate magistrates who embodied the people are "below the king as individuals," they "are above him when taken when taken as a body." Therefore, they had the right "to use force against a king." If the tyrant could not be otherwise expelled, it would be lawful for the magistrates "to call the people to arms, to conscript an army, and to move against him [the tyrant] with force.…"

Finally, Question Four inquired whether neighboring kings could rescue the subjects of a tyrant. "Vindiciae" answered "yes." Brutus used the Roman lawyer Cicero and the parable of the Good Samaritan to prove that failure to come to the aid of an innocent victim was contrary to natural law.

The question has important contemporary implications, as when some 21st Christian theologians argue that it is immoral for one nation to use force for humanitarian intervention in another country. Brutus would have disagreed. He would also have disagreed that the king of France had no right to help the American colonies extricate themselves from British rule.

"Vindiciae" gained extremely wide influence. It was printed twelve times in Latin, and translated into English in 1581, 1648, and 1689 (the latter two being revolutionary years in England). In 1683,  the despotic Stuart monarchy in England order the book burned.

That the Calvinists could be revolutionaries does not mean, of course, that they were anarchists. The Confessions of the various Reformed Churches continued to emphasize submission to government. (Gallican Confession [1559], article 39; Belgic Confession [1561], art. 36; Second Helvitic Confession [1566], art. 30.) Significantly, the Huguenot writers (who were collectively known as the "Tractarians") still focused on the necessity of intermediate magistrates to legitimate a revolution. The Calvinists had not yet advanced as far as the Catholics in recognizing a right of the people themselves to overthrow the government.

Still, it was the liberation theology of the Tractarians that would carry the day in reformed thought in the coming centuries. While the early Protestant resistance writers had been mainly concerned with governments which violated religious laws, the Tractarians broadened the purely religious focus to a more inclusive vision of just government.

When the Dutch people rose up in 1580 against Spanish domination, they drew inspiration from the Tractarians. The English who twice overthrew a dictatorial monarchy in the next century also looked to them. The Calvinists drew on Catholic sources, and the Catholics returned the favor. Catholic scholars such as Juan de Mariana and Jean Boucher adopted Tractarian principles of liberty--when French Catholics after 1584 began to worry that the Protestant Henry of Navarre was next in line for the throne.

John Adams called "Vindiciae" one of leading books by which England's and America's "present liberties have been established." For the Americans in 1776, and the Glorious Revolution in England in 1689, there was no need for the revolutionaries to worry about popular revolution not led by intermediate magistrates. The Glorious Revolution was led by many elements of the aristocracy and the two houses of Parliament. The American Revolution was led by the most legitimate intermediate state magistrates of all, the state governments.

Like John Adams, we should to realize that the ideas enacted in our Revolution, and passed down to us, were complex and full of intellectual precedents. Just in the Calvinist branch of these precedents we see a mobilization of powerful concepts derived from many sources--biblically based covenant theory, natural law theory, Roman law, Catholic scholasticism, and a wealth of experience with the tyrannical state. These precedents, and these concepts, have been extended in the later libertarian tradition, but their significance remains.

Further reading:

Philip Benedict, Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism(New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 2002).

Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments form the 16th Through 18th Centuries(Philipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1992).

Robert M. Kingdon, "Calvinism and Resistance Theory, 1550-1580," in The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, ed., J.H. Burns (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr. 1996).

Kathleen A. Parrow, From Defense to Resistance: Justification of Violence During the French Wars of Religion, 83 Transactions 18 (part 6, 1993).

Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origins and Development(N.Y.: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1979).

David Mark Whitford, Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition (Saint Louis: Concordia, 2001).

Almost all of the primary sources discussed in the article are available in modern editions, or on the Internet.

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