A Book Review: Calvinism in History by Nathaniel S. McFetridge (1882)

I get absolutely giddy over a used bookstore with books stacked floor to ceiling in every nook and cranny complete with an overflow of boxes of books in the narrow aisles. Its musty atmosphere beacons my bookish treasure hunting. New bookstores generally only stock the sorts of books that are new, popular classics, or best sellers. While I value keeping up to date with the latest good reads, I want to dig through the old books and find the books I would not know to search for on Amazon or would not see on a shelf at my local Barnes & Noble.

This past Thanksgiving, I treasure hunted in two used bookstores while I was out of town. I found this thin book entitled Calvinism in History: A Political, Moral, and Evangelizing Force by Nathaniel S. McFetridge. Little did I know how impactful this little book would be. Upon embarking on this read, I learned that the author, McFetridge, was an Irish born Pennsylvanian Presbyterian Pastor writing in 1882. His words carried the weight and force of true history and theology. Some of the history I had a vague knowledge of, but some of it I found to be previously unknown to me and exciting.

Beyond 5-Point Calvinism

David Hall

He wrote of Calvinism not as an ecclesial five-point doctrine, but as a historical nation building force from which we all benefit. The outworking of Calvinism did not stay cloistered into religious space but had a large civil impact on the liberties of men and the downfall of tyrants. McFetridge writes that “while Calvinism can live and do its divine work under any form of government, its natural affinities are not with a monarchy, but with a republic. This is the reason that it has made so splendid a record in the history of human freedom. Where it flourishes despotism cannot abide.”

In fact, quoting from another little book I read this year on Calvin, The Legacy of John Calvin by David Hall, “Many ideas that began with Calvin’s reformation in Geneva and later became part of the fabric of America were cultivated and crossbred in the seventeenth-century. Customs now taken for granted, like freedom of speech, assembly, and dissent, were extended as Calvin’s Dutch, British, and Scottish disciples refined these ideas” (Hall p. 27).  

 Writing about the Scottish clergy led by John Knox a student of Calvin, McFetridge writes,

“They were the guardians of Scotch freedom, and they stood to their post. Where danger was, they were foremost. By their sermons, by their conduct, both public and private, by the proceedings of their assemblies . . . they stirred up the minds of men, woke them from their lethargy, formed them to habits of discussion, and excited that inquisitive and democratic spirit which is the only effectual guarantee the people can ever possess against the tyranny of those set over them. This was the work of the Scotch clergy; and hail to them who did it! To these men England and Scotland owe a debt they can never repay.”

Writing about the Calvinists of Great Britain he writes quoting another author:

“And H.A. Taine, referring to the Calvinists of Great Britain, says: ‘These men are the true heroes of England; they display, in high relief the original characteristics and noblest features of England—practical piety, the role of conscience, manly resolution, indomitable energy. They founded England, in spite of the corruption of the Stuarts and relaxation of modern manners, by the exercise of duty, by the practice of justice, by obstinate toil, by vindication of right, by resistance to oppression, by the conquest of liberty, by the repression of vice. They founded Scotland; they founded the United States; at this day they are, by their descendants, founding Australia and colonizing the world.’”

McFetridge also argues, a fact I already knew, that the American government borrows heavily from the leadership model of the Presbyterian Church.

Calvinism: A Civic Revolt

I cannot go into the level of detail McFetridge provided in this brief review, but the political tension and ensuing battles between the Scotch and Irish (Calvinists) and their foe King James (Anglican but seen as an offshoot of Popery) fascinated me. When I have heard of the religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics or Church of England, I learned them as solely religious battles giving testimony to the disunity in the Church throughout history. Reading McFetridge, I am realizing that these wars were due to the fact that the doctrine of the Calvinists undermined the power of the throne. It was a political struggle of liberty (popular sovereignty) versus tyranny (monarchy) not a violent disagreement of church doctrines which mattered only in the pulpit and pew.

Doctrine of Liberty

McFetridge is an extremely loyal Calvinist. Throughout the book he considers all other expressions of Christianity that do not derive from Calvinism to be born of Arminianism, a doctrine that is a critique of Calvinism’s soteriology. Despite it being a doctrine that came after Calvinism, the author regards all non-Calvinist Christians as part of this “debilitating” doctrine which he advocates does not create or steward liberty.

I do not see the theological reason that the blanket label of Arminianism explains. However, I did find it fascinating that there was an extreme contrast between the established Church of England in the colonies and the dissenting churches which were largely Calvinists whether Puritan, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Congregationalist.

Revolutionary War – Calvinists v. Church of England

This is the part of the book that truly excited me to learn. McFetridge argues that the causes of the Revolutionary War were not merely the economic reasons of taxation without representation, but by and large an issue of freedom of religion. The colonists were being taxed not only on the goods, like tea and sugar, but also a church-tax to support the Church of England. The dissenting churches in Virginia and New York where the Church of England (Anglican/Episcopal) was the established Church, were not permitted to own land for their churches or church cemeteries.

The dissenting churches were all on the side of liberty, but the established church was on the side of Great Britain as its allegiance was to the State. A Whig Club formed with its members being all from dissenting Calvinist churches (mainly Presbyterian churches). From the Whig Club came the Sons of Liberty and came the request for a delegation from the colonies that formed the Continental Congress. The dissenting churches were fleeing religious persecution in Europe as they were equipped with the thinking of liberty. Now the author equates the established church with Arminianism, but that is not accurate. However, I do accept the premise that the Church of England was wedded to the State and its members were not equipped with the thinking of liberty.

George Washington Exception

The author argues that George Washington, a member of the Church of England, would not have been selected as General of the Revolutionary Army had it not been for the support of John and Samuel Adams, deacons in dissenting churches and their wives being daughters of dissenting clergymen. McFetridge goes on to write about an occasion where General Washington arrived in New York City to only be greeted by the dissenting churches and civil city officials whereas on the same day a notable official of the British Army arrived in town to be received by the Anglican churches.

We are all Calvinists

While McFetridge is arguing for the merits of Calvinism above all other options, I did not come away from the book desiring to become a Calvinist. Although I did grow up Southern Baptist, albeit, charismatic and now consider myself more aligned with the Pentecostal non-denominational movement. I learned in this book that Baptists are essentially Calvinists who baptize by immersion. I did not draw the conclusion that we should all become Calvinists. But I did find it quite interesting that this reformed movement provided the theology of liberty where the Church of England did and could not.

Calvin taught the separate spheres of State and Church, but that God’s truth applied to both. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Calvinist doctrines that shaped the American Experiment. When Martin Luther realized that his way of thinking harkened back to Jon Huss who was burned at the stake for translating Scriptures into the common tongue, he famously said, “We are all Hussites.” We may not have ever considered ourselves Calvinists, or Lutherans for that matter, but in many ways, we are all Calvinists (and Lutherans). We have all benefited from the theology of the reformation in ways we take for granted. Even the Anglicans and Catholics in America benefit daily from these reformers. In fact, every religion represented in our land thus benefits from freedom of religion – a Christian doctrine worked out and fought for by reformers.

Will we continue as reformers of liberty?

The question is will we let their labor cease in our day? Will we become a people who do not know liberty? Or will be the dissenters who do not give in to the thinking of tyranny as we continue to self-govern and steward our liberty instead of abdicating that responsibility to the State?

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