Constructing Neo-Calvinism

How do you go from the Puritans who had laws on the books for the execution of disobedient and recalcitrant male adolescents and who refused to let Presbyterians set up shop in Massachusetts, to Calvinism as the glue that makes Americans think the U.S.A. is exceptional?

Damon Linker explained way back on the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birthday:

Early in the eighteenth century, the vision of America as a new Israel specially chosen by God to perform a divine mission was primarily limited to the Puritan and post-Puritan elite of New England. But by the middle of the century, the more modest views of providence that until that time had dominated throughout the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies had been supplanted by the stringent Calvinism of Massachusetts and Connecticut. America was New Englandized. According to historian John F. Berens, the motor behind this extraordinary transformation was the Great Awakening of the 1740s, which helped to spread theological concepts throughout the colonies. In the electrifying sermons of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, and many other preachers, colonists from New York to South Carolina encountered for the first time the potent providential ideas that had previously transfixed the minds of the Puritan settlers of New England.

Not that these ideas were identical to the ones that originally inspired John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and other seventeenth-century writers. On the contrary, American providential thinking evolved dramatically as it circulated throughout the colonies. As Berens notes, the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which followed immediately on the heels of the Great Awakening, contributed decisively to the transformation. For the first time, Americans began to define themselves in contrast to a vision of tyranny — namely, the (political and religious) absolutism of Catholic France. Unlike France, they concluded, the American colonies were a bastion of political and religious freedom. This freedom had been won, moreover, with the help of God’s providence, which would continue to protect the colonies in times of danger, provided the colonists proved themselves worthy of it by maintaining their divinely favored civil and religious institutions. In Berens’s words, by 1763 — a full thirteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of war with Great Britain over the supposedly tyrannical usurpations of King George III — the “ever-increasing intercolonial conviction that America was the New Israel” had come to mean that the colonies “had been assigned a providential mission somehow connected to the advancement of civil and religious freedom.”

Through the Revolutionary War, the years surrounding the ratification of the federal Constitution, and the early national period, pastors and presidents repeatedly praised the “great design of providence” that had led to the creation of a country dedicated to protecting and preserving political and religious liberty. Call it the consolidation of America’s Calvinist consensus. What were once the rather extreme theological convictions dominating a handful of rustic outposts on the edge of a wholly undeveloped continent were now the unifying and motivating ideology of a rapidly expanding and industrializing nation. Whatever difficulties the new nation faced — from the traumas of the War of 1812 to the gradual escalation of regional hostilities that ultimately issued in the Civil War — Americans remained remarkably confident that God was committed to the survival and success of its experiment in free government and would continue to intervene providentially in its affairs to ensure that outcome.

Lo and behold, Americans were on the ground floor of turning Calvin into a political theologian of national greatness, but the French also beat the Dutch to the punch, as Bruce Gordon explains in his biography of Calvin’s Institutes. Emile Doumergue’s biography first published in 1899 included this:

Far from being a man who seeks retirement or turns from the world and from the present life, the Calvinist is one who takes possession of the world; who more than any other, dominates the world; who makes use of it for all his needs; he is the man of commerce, of industry, of all inventions and all progress, even material.

(Did someone say, “stay thirsty, my friend”?)

12 thoughts on “Constructing Neo-Calvinism

  1. Much of what is contained in this post would never have made much sense to me had I not been reading “A Secular Faith” (graciously given to me over the holidays, a “used” copy that was ordered via Amazon and apparently came from a DeVry university library in Phoenix). Interesting how all of the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place when a careful reflection of how we all got to this point becomes clear. Thanks, DGH.


  2. ” …he is the man of commerce, of industry, of all inventions and all progress, even material.”

    He certainly isn’t Amish then. Sounds more like Sauromon. Perhaps the Calvinist in the picture is the guy on the right in a ball cap and t-shirt. He probably brought the aluminum ladder too.


  3. George, don’t be too concerned about making DGH’s publisher happy. When I purchased the book in April, 2014, it was $14.82 on Amazon. Today, it is $26.95. They must think they are a pharmaceutical company. I doubt they have raised his royalties.

    It is an excellent book, very tightly argued, the best IMO of the five or so books that I have read of the Hart oeuvre. Anne Rice also likes it.


  4. Why don’t you take the main objectors of 2K head on like you do the union with Christ issue? That probably has taken place at oldlife but I never followed those posts as much as I followed the union with Christ posts. What posts in the past have honestly tried to clarify the main assumptions of 2K with the main assumptions of those who object to the 2K social theology?


  5. Psalm 119:60- The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.

    Psalm 25: 4-9- 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. 6 Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

    Psalm 43:3- 3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!

    1John 2:21- 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.


  6. I’m waiting with great anticipation and expectation. Unfortunately, that never usually pans out in this life.


  7. Donny Friederichsen–“The dispensational view of the end times suggests that the US and the modern nation-state of Israel are the principal players in God’s great redemptive plan of history…. When the church begins to wed itself to one particular nation-state, then it begins to prioritize and emphasize its nationality as greater than God’s holiness and his global plan for the spread of the gospel.

    D G Hart—“Church life in the newly established United States presented an unusual set of circumstances for most Protestants….Unlike previous arrangements where churches received subsidies from the state as part of the official apparatus of the nation, disestablishment in principle leveled all churches, made them dependent on their own followers for financial support, and freed each denomination to regulate its own affairs independent from the oversight of government…At the state level ecclesiastical establishments remained in place after 1789, and those legal arrangements lasted the longest in New England thanks to the Standing Order among Congregationalists in Connecticut and Massachusetts.


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