Calvin As A Friend Of Civil Liberty

The Rev. Dr. Wisner, in his late discourse at Plymouth, on the

anniversary of the landing of the pilgrims, makes the following

assertion:--"Much as the name of Calvin has been scoffed at and loaded

with reproach by many sons of freedom, there is not an historical

proposition more susceptible of complete demonstration than this, that

no man has lived to whom the world is under greater obligations for the

freedom it now
njoys, than John Calvin." In a note appended to the

sermon, Dr. Wisner gives the following testimonies, from history, of the

truth of this proposition--testimonies which deserve the more attention,

as they come from Calvin's opposers. We copy the note from the Boston


"It may not be unacceptable to the reader, to add a few particulars in

confirmation of the statement in reference to the influence of Calvin in

forming the opinions and character of the Puritans, and thus

contributing to the discovery and establishment of the principles of

religious and civil liberty.

"The peculiarities of the religious doctrines of the Puritans had an

important influence in producing in them determined and persevering

resistance to arbitrary power, and a successful vindication of their

religious and political rights. The fact is sufficiently illustrated in

the quotation in the sermon from the Edinburg Review. It is admitted by

Hume, and by all, whatever their religious opinions, who have thoroughly

investigated the springs of action in those discoverers, and founders of

religious and civil freedom. But the doctrinal views of the Puritans

were derived from Calvin.

"Their disapprobation of the rites and ceremonies enjoined by the

English government was a prominent means of leading them to the

discovery, and stimulating to the successful vindication of the

principles of religious and civil liberty. And that disapprobation may

be directly traced to the influence of Calvin. With him many of the

leading Puritan divines studied theology, and were taught the importance

of laying aside the whole mass of popish additions to the simplicity of

apostolic worship. When the difficulties arose among the exiles at

Frankfort, in Mary's reign, about the use of King Edward's Liturgy, they

asked advice of Calvin, "who having perused the English Liturgy, took

notice, 'that there were many tolerable weaknesses in it, which, because

at first they could not be amended, were to be suffered; but that it

behooved the learned, grave, and godly ministers of Christ to enterprise

farther, and to set up something more filed from rust, and purer.' 'If

religion,' says he 'had flourished till this day in England, many of

these things would have been corrected. But since the reformation is

overthrown and a church is to be set up in another place where you are

at liberty to establish what order is most for edification, I cannot

tell what they mean, who are so fond of the leavings of popish dregs.'"

When the conformist party had triumphed at Frankfort, they "wrote to Mr.

Calvin to countenance their proceedings; which that great divine could

not do; but after a modest excuse for intermeddling in their affairs,

told them, that, 'in his opinion, they were too much addicted to the

English ceremonies; nor could he see to what purpose it was to burden

the church with such hurtful and offensive things, when there was

liberty to have simple and more pure order.'" The puritan part of the

exiles retired to Geneva, and there prepared and published a service

book, in the dedication of which they say, that "they had set up such an

order as, in the judgment of Mr. Calvin and other learned divines, was

most agreeable to scripture, and the best reformed churches. And when,

subsequently, the important step was taken, by several puritans in and

about London, of breaking off from the established churches and setting

up a separate congregation, they adopted for use, (as they say in their

'agreement' thus to separate) a book and order of preaching,

administration of sacraments and discipline, that the great Mr. Calvin

had approved of, and which was free from the superstitions of the

English service."--Neal, i. 152, 153, 154, 155, 252.

But most important of all, in its influence on religious and civil

liberty, was the attachment of the puritans to a popular church

government. And of the origin of this system, we have the following

account from 'the judicious Hooker,' prefixed to his famous work on

Ecclesiastical Polity, written expressly against it. "A founder it had,

whom, for mine own part, I think incomparably the wisest man that ever

the French (protestant) church, did enjoy, since the hour it enjoyed

him. His bringing up was in the civil law. Divine knowledge he gathered,

not by hearing or reading, so much as by teaching others. For thousands

were debtors to him, as touching knowledge in that kind, yet he to none,

but only to God, the author of that most blessed fountain the Book of

Life, and of the admirable dexterity of wit, together with the helps of

other learning, which were his guides. Two things of principal moment

there are, which have deservedly procured him honour throughout the

world; the one, his exceeding pains in composing the institutions of the

christian religion; this other, his no less industrious travels for the

exposition of holy scripture, according to the same institutions. In

which two things, whosoever they were that after him bestowed their

labour, he gained the advantage, of prejudice against them if they

gainsayed, and of glory above them if they consented. Of what account

the Master of Sentences was in the church of Rome, the same, and more,

among the preachers of the reformed churches, Calvin had purchased; so

that the perfectest divines were judged they who were skilfulest in

Calvin's writings; his books being almost the very canon to judge both

doctrine and discipline by."

"These statements are confirmed by abundant testimony from writers of

authority who had no good opinion of Calvin or his principles. Says

Hume, (History of England, iii. 57,) "These disputes [about ceremonies,

&c.] which had been started during the reign of Edward, were carried

abroad by the protestants who fled from the persecutions of Mary; and as

the zeal of these men had received an increase from the pious zeal of

their enemies, they were generally inclined to carry their opposition to

the utmost extremity against the practices of the church of Rome. Their

communication with Calvin, and the other reformers who followed the

discipline and worship of Geneva, confirmed them in this obstinate

reluctance; and though some of the refugees, particularly those who were

established at Frankfort, still adhered to king Edward's Liturgy, the

prevailing spirit carried these confessors to seek a still further


"The celebrated Dean Swift, in a sermon preached on what tories and high

churchmen in England, have styled, "the martyrdom of king Charles I."

makes the following statements:--Upon the cruel persecution raised

against the protestants under queen Mary, among great numbers who fled

the kingdom to seek for shelter, several went and resided at Geneva,

which is a commonwealth, governed without a king, where the religion

contrived by Calvin is without the order of bishops. When the protestant

faith was restored by queen Elizabeth, those who fled to Geneva

returned, among the rest, home to England, and were grown so fond of the

government and religion of the place they had left, that they used all

possible endeavours to introduce both into their own country; at the

same time continually preaching and railing against ceremonies and

distinct habits of the clergy, taxing whatever they disliked as a

remnant of popery; and continued exceedingly troublesome to the church

and state, under that great queen, as well as her successor, king James

I. These people called themselves puritans, as pretending to a purer

faith than those of the established church. And these were the founders

of our dissenters. They did not think it sufficient to leave all the

errors of popery; but threw off many laudable and edifying institutions

of the primitive church, and at last even the government of bishops,

which, having been ordained by the apostles themselves, had continued

without interruption, in all christian churches, for above fifteen

hundred years. And all this they did, not because those things were

evil, but because they were kept by the papists. From hence they

proceeded, by degrees, to quarrel with the kingly government, because,

as I have already said, the city of Geneva, to which their fathers had

flown for refuge, was a commonwealth, or government of the people."

Having thus stated the foundation and principles of puritanism, the Dean

proceeds with an account of its growth till the breaking out of the

civil war, and concludes the narrative as follows: "That odious

parliament had early turned the bishops out of the House of Lords, in a

few years after they murdered their king; then immediately abolished the

whole House of Lords; and so, at last obtained their wishes of having a

government of the people, and a new religion, both after the manner of

Geneva, without a king, a bishop, or a nobleman; and this they

blasphemously called, 'The kingdom of Christ and His Saints.'"

"In the same way, Dryden traced the origin of republicanism in England,

as appears from his political poem called the Hind and the Panther; in

which he characterizes the Romish church under the name of the Hind, the

English church under that of the Panther, and the Presbyterian under

that of the Wolf. In the following extract, the 'kennel' means the city

of Geneva; the 'puddle' its lake, and the 'wall' its rampart.

"The last of all the litter scap'd by chance,

And from Geneva first invested France.

Some authors thus his pedigree will trace;

But others write him of an upstart race,

Because of Wickliffe's brood no mark he brings

But his innate antipathy to kings.

* * * * *

What though your native kennel still be small,

Bounded betwixt a puddle and a wall?

Yet your victorious colonies are sent,

Where the north ocean girds the continent.

Quicken'd with fire below, your monster's breed,

In fenny Holland, and in fruitful Tweed;

And like the first, the last effects to be

Drawn to the dregs of a democracy.

* * * * *

But as the poisons of the deadliest kind

Are to their own unhappy coasts confined,

So Presbyt'ry and pestilential zeal,

Can only flourish in a COMMONWEAL."