Calvinism, A History


John Calvin was the son of a lawyer from Noyon, France. Foremost among the second wave of sixteenth-century Protestant reformers, Calvin took the ideas of Martin Luther to a new conclusion. According to Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, human beings could do nothing to affect their own salvation. It was the free gift of God’s grace, and neither the reception of the Sacraments nor good works had any merit in terms of eternal salvation. The work of redemption belonged exclusively to God.

But Calvin, trained in law and classical literature, applied the rigor of his education to Luther’s theological formulation. If salvation was accomplished only by God’s election, and God was all-knowing, then God must have known whom he would choose to save and whom he would choose to damn before he created them. Therefore, God created some people with the intention of damning them—though no person could ever know whether they were saved or damned. This conclusion became a fundamental part of a new theological movement: Calvinism.

Calvin advised his flock to let go of anxiety over salvation. If one can do nothing to affect one’s eternal fate, then why worry about it? Despite Calvin’s exhortations, Calvinists have become popularly associated with a severe, almost pathological, religiosity. But many nineteenth-century historians—such as Max Weber—believed that Calvin’s ideas were a natural step in the rise of modernity. This view posited that the rise of Protestantism generally, and Calvinism particularly, heralded a new age of individual conscience, capitalistic enterprise, and democratic liberty.

In Calvinism: A History, D.G. Hart presents his own narrative, one where Calvinism is not a cause of modernity, but a reactionary movement that benefitted from major transitions in European political structures. Hart argues that Calvinism was shaped by three political phenomena: the rise of the European nation-state, the spread of Western colonialism, and the emergence of secular liberalism. He focuses on the personalities and political circumstances that gave rise to Calvinist sects, rather than on any ideological dynamism within Calvinism itself.

Hart’s narrative begins in the sixteenth century, with Calvinism’s spread from Switzerland—first into France and eventually to the Netherlands, select German cities, and northern Britain. Calvinists had their greatest successes among urbanites and aristocrats—social groups invested in struggles for political independence. Those who were successful in such endeavors were able to rebuild their communities on the model of Calvinist Geneva: godly societies, defined by the pious and decorous behavior of a reformed population. In other words, Calvinism and state-building went hand in hand, and European Calvinism flourished best in contexts where political elites were free to establish Reformed Protestant states.

From Europe, Calvinism spread to the rest of the world. The first wave of New World Calvinism accompanied the migration of vast numbers of Europeans to the Americas and parts of Africa between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. On the American frontier, Christians could reassemble, reform, and redefine their religious communities, and it was in this context that a Calvinist version of evangelicalism began to appear. Eventually, Calvinism was also carried to indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, but not until the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As governments adopted liberal agendas and sought to incorporate religious dissenters as citizens, established Calvinist churches had to decide whether to compromise on doctrine so they might accommodate religious moderates, or to abolish entirely the conceptual relationship between citizenship and church membership. The major cause of Calvinism’s initial success—its alliance with governments—ultimately became the biggest threat to its survival. As men and women began to compartmentalize their religious and political identities, alliances with the government ultimately choked Calvinism. Hart suggests that Calvinism remained most orthodox and energetic in areas where it never had an established relationship with the state, such as the American Appalachians and areas of the American South, central Africa, and South East Asia.

The great weakness of Calvinism: A History comes in its focus: Hart only recognizes the voices of ministers, reformers, and founders. We learn very little about the billions of men and women who have adopted Calvinism since the sixteenth century. Certainly Hart recognizes the theological impact of those who forged their own paths by founding new churches, but there is little comment on the reception of doctrine among the faithful, as if practice and belief relied primarily on the fiat of theologians rather than on the willingness of the congregation to participate. The ways in which men and women appropriated ideas and integrated them into their broader world-views also receives little attention from Hart throughout the book.

Hence, while his commentary on the state–religion binary is insightful throughout, Hart does not address the ways in which social relationships and popular cultural constructs shaped the perception of religious doctrine or the course of Calvinism’s history. Additionally, Hart does not discuss the impact of political and social institutions other than the state on Calvinism. In the past twenty years, there have been many studies on the ways in which merchant networks, guilds, and extended kinship groups promoted or inhibited the spread of Reformed ideas in early modern Europe, but we hear next to nothing about these associations. Nor do we hear anything about the Calvinist family. To be sure, Hart’s purpose was to write a political history of Calvinism. But any study that seeks to gauge of the broad impact of a religion on Western society must do more than explain the evolution of doctrines in a political context; it must also investigate how men and women interacted with doctrine, and how doctrine, in turn, changed the ways in which they lived.

Still, Hart’s work thoroughly explicates the complicated relationship between politics and religion in the history of Calvinism. Its greatest value lies in its ambitious scope, and Hart’s detailed empirical methodology is impressive. It is an excellent resource for graduate students of religion, especially those interested in intellectual history, and it is extremely useful for anyone interested in gaining a broad overview of the major events, personalities, and political arenas that shaped Calvinism. Hart’s thesis is important, especially given that study of the topic is too often defined by abstract theoretical frameworks, which assign too much agency to the untraceable elements of Calvinism. Hart is right to remind us that the history of Calvinism is a human story and that, as such, it is inevitably a messy and unpredictable one.

Jonathan Woods

Jonathan Woods is a PhD candidate in early modern British and Irish history at Fordham University.