John Calvin & The Puritan Founders of New England

Historians of generations past and journalists and government school ma’ams today, tend to dismiss the seventeenth century American Puritans as somber cranks and kill-joys who, thankfully, evolved into practical and realistic Unitarian Yankees (“people who believe in one god, at most”). Dressed in black, the Puddleglum snoops peered in their neighbors’ windows to ensure compliance with the rigid and ridiculous ethical pruderies of the Calvinist theology imposed on them by their inquisitional, witchcraft-obsessed ministers. The obdurate cynic H.L. Mencken described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”[1]

The single phrase above that is accurate concerning the Puritans themselves is that they were believers in Calvinist theology. David Hall in The Legacy of John Calvin: His Influence in the Modern World rightly stated that “citizens on both sides of the Atlantic believed that the intellectual descendents of Calvin were the founders of colonial America.”[2] Historian John T. McNeill wrote more than fifty years ago, “when Calvinism in early America is mentioned, thought turns naturally to the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. Different as they were, both were definitely Calvinist.”[3] Because of the explosion in Puritan studies over the last thirty years, quotes could be multiplied many times regarding the influence of Calvin on the Puritans. Before explaining what the influence of Calvin actually means, it’s helpful to understand some background concerning the origins of those folk known as the Puritans.

John Calvin, the great Reformed scholar from France, became the pastor of the church in Geneva, Switzerland in 1536. He had established an international reputation as a scholar and biblical exegete through the publication of his best-known theological treatise The Institutes of the Christian Religion. His pastoral skills were less known, but his loving and skillful pastoral ministry soon brought exiled Protestants from many countries to Geneva for training.

Among the English-speaking students was John Knox who took the principles of worship and biblical theology back to Scotland and England. His own powerful preaching and teaching dramatically affected the churchs, especially in Scotland. Reform impulses had percolated below the formal ecclesiastical surfaces in England for many years. The Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe, carried the Gospel around England and probably Scotland before the Reformation; they brought a renewed interest in reading and studying the Holy Scriptures. With King Henry VIII’s break from the pope and the systematic destruction of the monastic institutions accountable only to the pontiff, Roman Catholic influences receded long enough to establish Protestants in positions of influence in church and state. Reformed literature flooded into the country, even though it was still much opposed and circumscribed by the monarch.

Martin Luther’s writings, and, eventually, John Calvin’s predominated and found powerful advocates in the universities, especially Cambridge. After the death of Henry VIII his son Edward VI a few years later, the English Protestants who pursued continued reformation and purification of the Anglican Church were derisively called Puritans. The name stuck. Queen Elizabeth called a halt to continued change in the church and cleverly kept up a successful balancing act between the Anglican conservatives and the Puritan “party.” Puritan pastors in England were profoundly influenced by the writings and ministry of Calvin, and any mention of the beliefs of the Puritans must include the importance of the sovereignty of God in salvation, the ordering of one’s life by biblical precept and the need for the church to worship God only as He had commanded in Scripture — all primary concerns of the Genevan reformer.

Calvinistic influence affected Englishmen at every social level. Among intellectuals, a “spiritual brotherhood” evolved among pastors zealous for continued reformation of church and society. In East Anglia, influential pastors maintained continuity of solid, Reformed preaching over several generations. It would take the Synod of Dordt in the Netherlands in 1619 and the Westminster Assembly in London in 1649 to codify and systematize many of the doctrines best articulated by John Calvin, but the underlying truths were well known from his Institutes and Commentaries. William Haller has put it this way: “The Puritans were Calvinists . . . Calvinism supplied a current formulation of historic doctrine in lucid, trenchant terms, strikingly supported by the success of the state which Calvin’s genius has called into being in Geneva.”[4]

At the heart of Puritanism was their fountain of knowledge, the Geneva Bible, which “became the Bible of the Elizabethan populace, of the Scottish Reformation, and of the New England Puritans.”[5] Once it was translated into English, every family of Puritan convictions tried to obtain a copy. In the Stour Valley, from where the great New England Puritan governor John Winthrop would come, the church warden, William Winthrop sold the old organs of the church “and used the proceeds to order copies of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and a copy of Calvin’s Institutes to be kept in the church.”[6] He also purchased eight Geneva Books (Psalters) to begin the singing of the Psalms (also a practice of Calvin).

With the rising tide of the anti-Calvinist Arminian theology in the Anglican Church and the accession of proto-Catholic William Laud to Archbishop of Canterbury, many Puritan congregations considered the option of immigration to the New World. Some of the Puritan financial backers of the joint-stock Virginia Company also saw further possibilities of financing further English settlement, though the Jamestown Colony of 1607 faced terrible problems and almost failed several times. It brought little profit and plenty of heartache yet it did survive and was secure by 1620. A decade later a massive immigration effort was launched.

The 1630s was the decade of “The Great Migration” of English Puritans to North America. In that decade, some 20,000 Puritans came to American, most of them to New England. Charles I had inherited the throne of England in 1625 and, in a pique of anger, dissolved Parliament. He and his archbishops threatened to do to the Puritans what James I had so famously declared some years earlier: to “harry them out of the land.” Further reformation in England seemed at a standstill. With their keen desire to extend the kingdom of God to all people and with opportunity to establish a godly commonwealth a real possibility, entire congregations took ship and planted the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop reminded the people that they must become as a “city set on a hill” for the rest of the world to see.[7]

There would be no more fighting over priestly vestments, gaudy cathedrals, or compromising bishops. The regulative principle of worship would no longer be a battleground doctrine, but the commonly accepted rule. The economic hard times left behind in England could be remedied with honest hard work, the political structure placed entirely in the hands of the godly, and the liberty ensured by common law, biblical law, and representative local governments would all contribute to a reformed Zion unobtainable in England. While still loyal to the Crown, the Puritans would find that 2,500 miles of separation would prove a barrier to intrusive controls from the royal busybodies, yet also keep them mollified with profitable trade and raw materials.

The Puritans migrated in families, unlike every other large immigration of the times. Many were prosperous merchants, tradesmen, or farmers. Few were unskilled labor or “masterless men.” David Hackett Fisher has observed that “revisionist historians notwithstanding, these people were staunch Calvinists. Their spiritual leader John Cotton declared ‘I have read the fathers and the schoolmen, and Calvin too; but I find that he that has Calvin has them all.”[8]

The New England Calvinist settlers, which included the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation, and many of the settlers in Connecticut as well as the Presbyterians and Baptists outside the Congregationalist establishment, did not call themselves Calvinists. Historian Perry Miller made an interesting observation on the Puritan hermeneutics, however, in Errand into the Wilderness: “The New Englanders were correct in claiming that they were not followers of John Calvin, because they honestly believed that they were reading the Bible with their own eyes. Yet in the historical perspective, their way of interpreting the Bible must be called Calvinist.”[9]

They settled in towns, with the church building as the central gathering place. They established local governments which, though having independent jurisdiction, cooperated with the ministers and faced criticism from the pulpits if they strayed from biblical principle. The people themselves were a colorful lot and recent research has uncovered the records of a vibrant and prosperous society seeking to accomplish the will of God through the concept of “calling”. They also understood the depravity of man and the effects of sin, as well as the applications of biblical law to maintain social order. (Massachusetts had ten capital crimes, in keeping with Deuteronomy, at a time when England had over a hundred violations which could get you dangling from the hemp.)

In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer says the Calvinist beliefs that became so important to the culture can be summarized in five words: depravity, covenant [perhaps taken more from the reformer Henry Bullinger than John Calvin], election, grace, and love.[10] Contrary to some stereotypes that the Puritan New Englanders , with their gloomy introspection and ironclad theological system, created an undesirable and limiting life for the inhabitants, the Calvinism of the Puritans “was not a rigid and static system . . . they did not hesitate to seek with Calvin, the truth wherever it led.”[11] It was a dynamic society without illusions concerning man’s sinfulness but happy in the grace of God and their duty to love one another.

Within a century, the vital godliness and zeal of that first generation of Puritan immigrants had virtually disappeared as the colony grew in population, much of it non-Puritan, and became an economic powerhouse in fishing, trade, and colonial manufacturing. Theological compromise became commonplace, although the great spiritual awakening of the 1740s, associated with the ministry of Jonathan Edwards (who was not afraid to call himself a Calvinist) and others, revived the orthodoxy and spiritual vitality of their fathers for a few years.

Still prosperous and retaining much of the independent and rebellious streak that brought their ancestors to those rocky shores in the 1630s, the generation of the 1770s triggered the movement that resulted in American independence from Britain. Much of what the Puritans rooted in their Calvinist beliefs and applied in their lives and churches, and reflected in their local and colonial government structures with their unwavering love of liberty, laid the intellectual groundwork that culminated in their great grandchildren’s creation of the United States — a matter beyond the scope of this article, yet well worth further study by the reader.

1. As noted in: The Oxford Book of Quotations, eds., Elizabeth Knowles, Angela Partington (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1999), p. 504.

2. David Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin: His Influence in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), p. 111.

3. John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1954), p. 335.

4. William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), p. 8.

5. Ibid.

6. Francis J. Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father (New York: Oxford University Press US, 2003), p. 34.

7. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630 sermon.

8. David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press US, 1989) p.22.

9. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1956), p. 49.

10. Fischer, p. 23.

11. McNeill, p. 338.