In “1865: The True American Revolution” (Views, April) Claude Polin asserts that Calvinism somehow led to the division between North and South. Such an assertion is unsupportable. The main flaw lies in his defining Calvinism as built upon self-confidence that leads men “to rely exclusively on themselves to steer their lives.” The key tenet of Reformed theology, which is often associated with Calvin, is the sovereignty of God. It is theocentric rather than anthropocentric. This, coupled with the teaching that Original Sin corrupts our whole nature, breeds an attitude of humility rather than of confidence.
Based on his erroneous definition, Polin then argues that “It was natural for [Calvinist] man to treat nature as he saw best.” This, in turn, he asserts, leads to industrialism and centralized government. Polin would have done well to read Calvin’s commentary on Genesis: “Let him who possesses a field so partake of its yearly fruits that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits it to be marred or ruined by neglect.” Calvin and the Reformers had a high view of God’s creation and our duty, as image bearers, to be good stewards. Polin is simply wrong that being rooted in the soil induces “opposition to the Puritan mentality.”
Polin ignores that Calvinism in the South was not a marginal religious tradition, but one that commanded the allegiance of a significant number of Southerners. Much of the South was populated by Scots-Irish Presbyterians—i.e., Calvinists. Stonewall Jackson was probably the most famous Presbyterian in the Confederate Army, but he was only one of many who embraced the Reformed teaching found in such documents as the Westminster Confession of Faith—that beautiful work of the English Puritan divines.
Finally, Polin should remember that the propriety of rebellion against corrupt regimes (such as Lincoln’s Union) was endorsed by many of Calvin’s pupils. Theodore Beza and John Knox, for example, taught that Christians are not only permitted to oppose a tyrannical regime but, in some cases, obliged to. Although Jefferson was a deist, his personal motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” is a good summary of Calvinist teaching on this matter.
—William J. Watkins, Jr.
Professor Polin Replies:
I was expecting this objection, which I would have made mine some years ago, before I realized something was amiss.
Indeed, no doubt Calvin castigated men as obsessively greedy for fame and glory, power and wealth—forgetting they were utterly unworthy creatures, “crippled, vicious, corruptible, short-lived, and doomed to putrefaction” (Institutio, chapter 17). But no doubt Governor Winthrop also proclaimed the eyes of the world to be upon him and his companions, the new elect about to build a city upon a hill. And no doubt Madison described 18th-century American society, without criticizing the fact, as a compound of legitimate interests: landed, manufacturing, mercantile, moneyed, and many other lesser ones (Federalist 10). So there is obviously a dilemma, which admits of only two solutions. Either there never was any true Calvinist besides Calvin, or Calvin generated an attitude that was not his, but was logically derived from his writings.
On the one hand, it was obvious that in this world—bereft of any understanding of God, and so thoroughly visited by sin that by any practical standards there were no landmarks for men to steer by, and so few divine precepts—men had to create their own standards. On the other hand, it took exceptional men to believe in God, trust His justice, and obey His commands, though they could not pretend to understand them. So it was only logical for them to see themselves both as role models and as architects of an entirely new city, an artificial one in which each was an island (hence a mercantile society) and all were infused with a spirit of innovation (hence an industrial society), a spirit contrary to the innate conservatism of an agrarian society. As for a significant number of Southerners being Calvinists, or Jackson being a Presbyterian, the obvious fact is they sided with people who were definitely not: That can only mean they disagreed with the Northern way of life, which remains to be shown as not inspired by the heirs of Calvin. Finally, assessing the North as tyrannical only confirms what I said about the Calvinist good conscience.
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