II. John Calvin’s Beliefs about the Relationship of Church and State, His Influence in the Colonies upon the Issue and the Impact in America; John Knox’s Beliefs on the Subject

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Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 23, 2018

John Calvin had the greatest influence of any continental reformer on the relationship of church and state in the American colonies.[1] The founders of the Massachusetts Bay Company modeled the Massachusetts church-state after the church-state constructed by Calvin.

Calvin taught a perversion of Biblical predestination; he taught that God predestined men to heaven or hell effectively denying choice, at least for the lost person. The Bible teaches that God “predestinated” those who choose to repent toward God and put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ “to be conformed to the image of his son” (See Romans 8.29-30 in the context of Romans 1-8 and in context of the entire Bible). Calvin further taught that the Prince (as well as the religious leader), to whom God grants his power and who is responsible directly to God, is God’s leader on earth, and men had a duty to absolutely honor and obey him. Those who rebel against the ruler rebels against God, even if the ruler rules contrary to the Word of God.

The state, according to Calvin, must enforce God’s spiritual and moral laws. That is, the state is responsible for enforcing all of the commandments, including the first four. Therefore, the state must suppress, for example, “idolatry, blasphemy, and other scandals to religion.” Church and state must work together although the church is “competent to declare what is the godly life.” Calvin believed that “there is but one possible correct interpretation of the Word of God, and it is the only interpretation possible for an honest man of sound intelligence to reach.”[2]

At the same time, “we should obey God rather than men;” when the law of the ruler contradicts the law of God, according to Calvin, man should obey God, but only passively. The Calvinistic ideal, the superiority of an aristocratic republic form of civil government, led naturally to election of both pastors and civil rulers and was implemented in the Mayflower Compact the night before the Pilgrims first came onto shore in America. Subsequent leaders of Calvinistic thought “added the right of rebellion against the wicked Prince to their spiritual arsenal. The United States of America was born when that right was exercised, and none exercised it with greater enthusiasm that the Calvinists of Boston.”[3]

One inheritor of Calvinism, John Knox, most forcefully added:

“the one conviction at which the legalistic mind of Calvin quailed…. If the Prince does not perform [his God given duty] said Knox, the people have the duty to put him to the sword of vengeance. In Calvinism the Church is the State, but in Knox far more than in Calvin the State and the Church both are the People. In neither man is there the faintest glimmer that even suggests to the backward-looking eye the distant dawn of tolerance. But in Knox the sword of the Almighty’s vengeance in the hands of an outraged People is the first strange symbol of what some day will be democracy.”[4]

Thankfully, Calvin’s theology did not prevail in America. Due to the stand of the Baptists against the colonial church state establishments, the atmosphere in the colonies gradually changed until by the adoption of the First Amendment in 1791 most states and the new federal government rejected forced establishment. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last state to reject state mandated union of church and state.


[1] For more information on the colonial and comtemporary impact of Calvinism in America see The Trail of Blood of the Martyrs of Jesus.

[2]John Callender, The Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island (Providence: Knowles, Vose & Company, 1838), pp. 21-28; see also, Verduin, Anatomy of a Hybrid, pp. 198-211 for insight into Calvin’s church-state theology.

[3] William H. Marnell, The First Amendment: Religious Freedom in America from Colonial Days to the School Prayer Controversy (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), pp. 21-28.

[4] Ibid., pp. 28-30.

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