The Reformation and the Calvinist roots of “Social Contract Theory” and the Founding of America

The Protestant Reformation and its tremendous influence on the political order of today barely gets mentioned by most contemporary (secular) and anti-christian historians.  The very related ideas like; limited Government, the Rule of Law, and the Social Contract Theory all have their origins and developed from the Reformation and more specifically from Calvinism. Instead, contemporary historians (often purposely) omit the influence of the Reformation and point to men like  Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), John Locke (Two Treatises of Government, 1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau ( The Social Contract, 1762) as the architects of the modern political order whom they consider much more friendly to their bias worldview.
A  friend on facebook posted that he was reading John Locke ‘s Two Treatises of Government. I mentioned Locke  inherited the ideas of “social contract theory” from men like Samuel Rutherford (Lex, Rex, 1644) (whose book Lex Rex by the way means the “Law is King” as opposed to Rex Lex the “King is the Law”).
What many fail to realize is Locke’s “social contract theory” theory was really nothing new at the time. Social contract theory as well as the closely related resistance theology are direct ideological decedents of the Reformation and specifically of Calvinism.  What many say Locke did in order to make it more palatable to an ever increasing enlightenment skepticism was to remove the biblical aspects of it (unlike Rutherford). Jean Jacques Rousseau did the same.
What is often overlooked is that men like Rutherford, Hobbes, Locke, and later Rousseau picked up their ideas on the  “social contract theory” from early Calvinists thinkers like, George Buchanan (A Dialogue Concerning the Rights of the Crown in Scotland, 1579) , John Ponet (A short treatise of political power, 1556), Christopher Goodman (How Superior Powers Ought to Be Obeyed by Their Subjects, 1558) and Theodore Beza (The Right of Magistrates Over Their Subjects, 1572) Many of these were  contemporaries of the great Scottish Calvinist reformer  John Knox who wrote his own book titled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1556 which argued for “limits” on the authority of the then queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots).

Arguments for “limits” on the authority, and the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of tyrannical men) developed into a biblically based type of “resistance theology” which was even seen in translations of the Bible at the time. For example  King James I of England who was a ardent believer in the “divine right of kings” had the Authorized King James Version, 1611 commissioned because the very popular Geneva Bible, 1560 (created with the involvement of Knox and Calvin) had marginal notes that were considered subversive  to his authority. For example in Exodus 1:19 where the Hebrew midwives disobey the Pharaoh by refusing to kill male Hebrew children states; “Their disobedience in this was lawful, but their deception is evil”  in Exodus 1:22 when Pharaoh gives the decree, the notes say “When tyrants cannot prevail by deceit, they burst into open rage”.

Very popular books at the time like the French Calvinist (Huguenot) tract (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, 1579) (translated A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) and Politica 1603 by the Dutch Calvinist Johannes Althusius espoused this same biblical resistance theology. Ultimately, ideologically you can trace this theology back to the influence of John Calvin‘ the theological giant of the Reformation, in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion 1536 where you have the ideological seeds for it, see  Institutes see Book 4: Chapter 20: Section 31 & 32.

Calvinist thinkers developed social contract theory arguing that the ultimate locus of authority (and all law) was derived from God, who then grants and delegates His authority to the people, who in turn delegate authority to the King to execute true justice in the land as defined by God for the people (the King is an executor) .  If the King turned this around believed and behaved as if the final authority resided in him, turned on the people and God, became a tyrant, the people had the right “under God” to resist his tyrannical authority when he decreed laws that were contrary to God and His revealed will found in in the scripture. This “resistance theology” was derived directly from the scriptures especially from Romans 13 and the Old Testament which gave legitimacy to the people to oppose tyrannical authority and abuses that were so common in that era.

The very related ideas of Social contract theory, resistance theology, the rule of law, and limited government, all come to a full head in 17th century England when King Charles I lost his head in the Cromwellian era after the English civil war . Also, in the American revolutionary era resistance theology was alive and well, you can see it in the clergy’s sermons of the day found here – Also as a side; according to US President John Adams, John Ponet’s work (mentioned above) “A short treatise of political power” contained “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke

You see resistance theology in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the American Declaration of Independence:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…                                                                                                                                   But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”

Thomas Jefferson then goes into a long laundry list of abuses of King George…

Here is the first US seal that Jefferson proposed (notice the caption “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”).

Anyway, for a better explanation on the Reformation’s role in the development of the social contract theory see this article:

As a side note Calvinistic resistance theology is spreading like wildfire in China today, here is a link to an article which says:

So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s “They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, ‘not him’. So they read Calvin, and they said ‘him, because he has a theology of resistance.’ Luther can’t teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition.”


14 Responses

  1. Oh my God! You Rock!!!! I’m a hardcore conservative fundamentalist (Catholicish) 😉

    You rock! I knew this all along but really needed this article to solidify it! Atheists and their mantra that it was they who saved the day! Vexes me to no end!

  2. Lar,

    I think you have some excellent points and ones that many need to remember when the trot out Romans 13 as if obedience to tyrants is a virtue. Which is the tenor that many leading evangelicals are following in their writings. Though I wonder what you think of RC Sproul jr.’s recent take on the census and his distinction between government action that is an “annoyance” and that which tyrannical. How do we decide which it is? I know that Samuel Rutherford counsel in Lex Rex that it was the Christian duty to oppose tyrants, but how do we define a tyrant?

  3. Ron,

    Thank you for your words of encouragement.


  4. Dave,

    Are you familiar with “the doctrine of Interposition” (I believe this is the doctrine that was used to define lawful means by which we resist tyrants.) The way I understand it, it was what the Reformers developed in order to answer your question.

    Dr. Paul Jehle of the Plymouth Rock Foundation spoke in depth on this topic last year at Liberty Day (which is coming up again this weekend!) He is an expert on this doctrine.

    I eventually will soon get around to doing a short little post on the whole doctrine of Interposition which I believe helps to clarify this whole issue.

  5. I’ll have to read RC Jr’s article and get back to you further…

  6. I read it and I agree whole hardheartedly with RC Jr. His last statement really puts the census thing in perspective.

    “Fussing over such things to a state that sanctions and protects nearly 4000 murders each day seems to demonstrate a rather odd set or priorities. If we would take all the energy we spend on this issue and instead pray for liberty and justice for all, then we might one day again live in the land of the free.”

    Actually I did our census last night and I was surprised that it wasn’t more intrusive. Of the 10 questions, asking for birth-dates was about as uncomfortable as it got.

  7. Healthcare for all, education for all, and welfare for all were preceeded by salvation for all. South America is “third world” because it was established on the theology of semi-pelagianism (aka Arminianism which is a baptixed humanism). America was founded on Calvinism (aka Agustinianism). As America has adopted an Arminian theology (200 years), America has moved steadly toward socialism. Wanting your neighbor to take care of you is always the product of humanism.

  8. I’m Presbyterian, didn’t like the figure of Calvin, but he is the teacher of modern world.

  9. Hello Sir, I stumbled upon your article because a friend of mine told me to look at some theonomic stuff. I haven’t read the theonomy things yet, but I certainy appreciated your presentation on resistance theology and the calvinist origins of social contract. I am currently writing/translating a dissertation on this subject with more variated references. I will send it to a couple of folks, maybe post an article on my blog and perhaps use some elments in a journal I will produce in my history program the session in university.

    As a French evengalical in Quebec, it means a lot to me. Here the nomber of christian schools can be counted on the fingers of my hand, and the government imposes syncretist new-age religious courses in ALL the public AND private schools of the province (from grade 1 to grade 11).

    Did you know New France was largely fonded by Huguenots ? The “catholic fate” of the French-Canadian peuple was only de when Protestants were banned from the colony by the Cardinal de Richelieu decided in 1627. If La Rochelle had not fallen, I say Quebec would have become a French Protestant power. Huguenots could have massively emigrated here after de Edict of Nantes was repudiated (1685), instead of going to Germany and New England.

    Philippe de Mornay, sieur de Plessis, even tried to emigrate to Quebec around 1620. Imagine. The “pope” of the Huguenots in his stronghold in Canada.

    Now, we are less than 1 % of the francophone population here, and I can tell you the last thing Quebec Evangelicals thinks about is resistance to tyranny (even though we live in the and most secularised, the most taxed and the most goverment-controlled state on the continent).

    God bless,

    Tant plus a me frapper on s’amuse, tant plus de marteaux on y use !

    The more amusement is made by hitting me, the more hammers you wear down !

    — Huguenot resistance motto

  10. Durandal,

    Thanks, I didn’t know about “New France” – very interesting to say the least ,do you know of any good books on the subject?

    I have done a few posts on theonomy and some related topics:

    Thanks for stopping by,


    • Hi Larry,

      I know plenty of documentation exists on the Huguenots in New England in both languages, but I doupt any book exists on the Hugenots in New France. The historiography is quite recent on this subject. From 1632 to 1960, it was pretty much a Ultramontain Catholic realm here, and since de Tranquil Revolution, every thing religious is viewed taboo. The research in this field had been made mostly in the last 15 years, and is not complete yet.

      In English I know this exists :

      But new research have already made the numbers of this genealogist (Mr Barbeau) outmoded.

      There was an exhibition at the French America Museum in Quebec City not long ago :

      At present, as far as we know, about 800 Huguenots came to New France (estimates go as far as one thousand). 10 100 Frenchmen came, so it means about 1/12 of the colonists were of Huguenot origin (but most of them abjured or concealed their faith).

      Since they were in a situation of total clandestinity, they could hardly perpetuate themselves and affirm their presence, so they were almost all eventually assimilated to the Catholic majority, as far as I know. Some were tolerated in Montreal if they were “hommes de métier” (craftsmen) and also merchants in Quebec City if because the economy of the colony was so bad, but they had to keep a low profile. We can imagine, however, that “illegal” prayer meetings and Bible studies DID take place (juste as they DID happen in France during the “Desert Period”, 1685-1795), and perhaps even “illegal” communions and baptisms, but probably not often.

      Nonetheless, French Protestants played a central role in the founding of the colony, and I am ready to say that without them New France would have never existed. To be brief :

      — Jean-Francois de Roberval, who was the second European explorer of the St. Lawrence River (after Jacques Cartier) and the first Lientenant-General of Canada, was a Calvinist from Carcassone.

      — Samuel the Champlain, who founded of Quebec City in 1608 (and mapped the New England coasts), came from a Calvinist family and remained protestant until his politically-motivated marriage with a Calvinist girl in 1610 who remained Calvinist until 1612.

      — Pierre Dugua de Monts, who founded Port-Royal in Acadia (now Annapolis, Nova Scotia, the first European settlement in the Maritimes and the second oldest continuous settlement in North America) was was a Calvinist from Royan. He was also Champlain’s financer. Without Dugua’s help, Champlain could never have founded Quebec.

      — Pierre Chauvin de Tonnetuit, who founded Tadoussac in 1600 (the first French establishment in Canada), and who was later the temporary commander of Quebec City, was a Calvinist from Dieppe.

      — Francois Dupont-Grave, who co-fondated Quebec City with Champlain, was was a Calvinist from Saint-Malo. He had a great influence on Champlain who treated him like an equal because he was his guide in the begenning. Champlain wrote he did not take a decision without consulting him. He is probably the one who chose the emplacement of Quebec City and of Trois-Rivieres, (the 3rd European estabishment in Quebec).

      — Emery de Caen, the second Governor of New France (1624-1626), was a Franch Calvinist. His brother Guillaume de Caen was a sea trader and remained in France. They both tried to stop the Jesuits from entering New France. They did not succed, and we know the rest of the story : papists appropriated themselves the colony Huguenots had founded.

      It is worthy to note that all the men listed above participated in the French Wars of Religion in the Reformed camp.

  11. Erratum : it’s Samuel *de* Champlain.

    And I’v just found this book in English :
    “The Huguenots in France and the Atlantic Diaspora”, University of South Carolina Press, 2004, 256 pages.

    Product Description :

    The Huguenot Diaspora is one of the most important and most spectacular dispersions of a religious minority in early modern Europe. Traditionally known as le Refuge, this migration led to the exodus of nearly 200,000 Protestants out of France in 1685 at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Memory and Identity offers a comparative perspective on this event and its repercussions by an international group of seventeen specialists of early modern France, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands and historians of British and French Colonial America and Dutch South Africa. This collection is the first look at the Huguenot Diaspora in a broad Atlantic context rather than as a narrowly European or Colonial American phenomenon. It sheds new light on the Protestant experience both in and outside of France.

    The Huguenot experience of seventeenth-century France and in the Diaspora is examined through the lens of minority status and assimilation. This volume explains why some Huguenots chose to emigrate instead of being assimilated by the dominant Catholic group, while others recanted their faith and remained in France. Revealing how minority status at home affected the creation of refugee communities outside France, scholars trace the Huguenots’ eventual integration into the different host societies that the exiles encountered. Comparing Huguenot diasporic experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, essays focus on Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, British North America (particularly South Carolina and New York), the French Caribbean, New France, and Dutch South Africa. Finally, beyond the issues of persecution, dispersion, and assimilation, several essays study the long-term impact of the Revocation and of le Refuge in examining nineteenth-century Huguenot memory in France and in the Diaspora and the maintenance of a Huguenot identity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: