The Spread and Significance of Calvinism

Lutheranism had been most successful in northern Germany and Scandinavia because it had suited the rulers of these areas to tolerate or sponsor it for political and economic reasons. Calvinism, by contrast, spread itself more widely and thinly across Europe, particularly in the regions outside the Lutheran-dominated Baltic coast and the purely Catholic Italian and Iberian Peninsulas. It might take root in states which provided government support, or become a vigorous opposition to the existing political and religious establishment.

From its original centre in Geneva Calvinism became the official religion of the northern Netherlands and the German states of the Palatinate, Nassau, Hesse and Anhalt. The Heidelberg Catechism, an adaptation of Calvin's ideas, was the main source of doctrinal orthodoxy, and the Rhenish area became the most radical and consistent opponent of the Catholic Church, Spain and the Emperor (for example, the northern Netherlands rebelled against Philip II of Spain and the Palatinate supported the revolt of Bohemia against the Habsburgs and the Empire). The position of Calvinism in France and Scotland was altogether different; both countries possessed Catholic monarchies which were vigorously attacked, in France by the Huguenots and in Scotland by the Presbyterians, under inspiration from Languet, Knox and Buchanan. Both countries experienced political violence, which in France spread into civil war. On the whole, however, conditions proved more favourable in Scotland; Calvinism gradually took over from Catholicism as the major re ligion, whereas it never achieved more than minority status in France. In England Calvinism attracted less numerical support but it had a powerful political impact on Parliament and successfully attacked the Stuart ‘despotism’ of the first half of the seventeenth century. It failed, however, to reform the Anglican Church, which it sometimes regarded with almost as much suspicion as Catholicism. Finally, there were three areas in Europe where Calvinism became associated with anti–German as well as anti-Catholic movements: Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. Poland remained largely Catholic, but some members of the nobility adopted Calvinism as a more desirable form of dissent than Lutheranism, since the latter was associated with the expanding frontier of Brandenburg. Bohemia and Hungary possessed a wider variety of religions than any other part of Europe. In Bohemia, Calvinism competed with Catholics, Lutherans and the Bohemian sects, while it shared Hungary with Catholicism, Lutheranism and Islam. In each case, however, Calvinism became a catalyst for the growing resentment of the strongly pro-German policies of the Holy Roman Emperors.

The basic factor contributing to the spread and survival of Calvinism was its resilience. Lutheranism grew in the rich soil of political protection; Calvinism usually flourished in the stony ground of opposition and persecution. The twin pillars of Calvinism were its effective organization and its clearly defined doctrine of predestination. Its system of Church government could operate effectively either in conjunction with the secular authority or as a self–contained unit. As an illustration of the latter, Calvinism in France was organized into local assemblies, and Provincial and National Synods, all of which operated in defiance of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church. (This contrasted with Lutheran organization, which was based on the Visitation, normally under the control of the state ruler.) Calvinist doctrine reinforced the structure of Church government and provided a considerable capacity to resist persecution. The concept of predestination was not initiated by Calvin—it can be traced back to St Augustine and beyond. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church had always treated it with great caution and it was Calvin who gave it renewed emphasis. Briefly, Calvin's version of predestination was based on the premise that ‘all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others’. This occurs ‘without any respect of human merit’, and salvation is a gift bestowed by the Grace of the Creator, who has ‘the right to distribute this treasure to whom He pleases’.1 The ‘Elect’ (for most Calvinists being among the ‘Elect’ was an inner conviction) were to combine asceticism and rigid self–discipline with involvement in the world around them. Thus armed, Calvinists became formidable competitors in politics and finance wherever they operated.

The nature and extent of this political and economic influence has been the subject of considerable speculation and is worth a brief survey. The doctrines of Calvin placed little direct emphasis on the concept of the individual, on parliamentarianism or on political liberty. Nor was Geneva in any sense an example of a liberal society. Initially this Calvinist dominated government was authoritarian rather than libertarian, imposing doctrinal orthodoxy and morality as rigidly as any state in Europe. By a curious sequence of events and ideas, however, Calvinism gradually assumed a more progressive and sometimes revolutionary attitude to politics, although the precise nature and effect of this radicalism varied from country to country and involved extensive reinterpretation of Calvin's original ideas. England and France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can be used as examples.

In England Calvinism developed as an important influence in a minority movement, Puritanism. The main target of its criticism, the Anglican Church, possessed something of a dual nature. It embraced both advanced Protestant doctrinal concepts (during the reign of Edward VI), and a substantial degree of neo–Catholicism which could be thoroughly hostile to Protestantism; this reached its peak during the reign of Charles I. Nevertheless, the one consistent factor was the accomplishment of all doctrinal changes and Church administrative reorganization by statute at the behest of the monarch, and this influenced the method by which Calvinism took root. Since Anglicanism was directly linked to the English constitution by, for example, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559), any fundamental religious change would have to be accomplished by political means. During the reign of Elizabeth (1558– 1603) Puritans attacked the Crown and the Anglican Church for their lack of Protestant ardour at home and abroad, and mounted a campaign in the most influential quarter open to them— Parliament. This opposition intensified during the reign of James I (1603– 25) and was reinforced by theoretical denunciations of absolutism. The climax occurred when Charles I (1625–49) defined Parliament and attempted to assert the right of the Crown as supreme in Church and State. The Parliament which, for constitutional and economic reasons, resisted the monarchy to the point of civil war and beyond, was dominated increasingly by Puritanism, in terms not of numerical superiority but of clarity of aim, leadership and discipline. Cromwell's Commonwealth and Protectorate abolished some of the instruments of despotism, for example the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission, and introduced a considerable quantity of Puritan social legislation. But the political supremacy of Puritanism was shortlived. With the accession of Charles II in 1660 it was again subject to restrictive legislation, along with other forms of dissent. Once more, however, it emerged in Parliament and contributed to the development of the Whig Party, which became increasingly hostile to the extensive use of the royal prerogative. By the end of the seventeenth century the Whigs had adopted a largely non-religious platform and were inspired mainly by the writings of John Locke. The connection between the Revolution Settlement of 1689 and the ideas of Calvin must therefore appear very remote. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that Calvinism in its English form, though hardly Calvin himself, contributed much to the concept of parliamentary sovereignty.

In France the spread of Calvinism was more extensive and rapidly resulted in civil war. During the Wars of Religion the Huguenot side had definite political motives and powerful support. Some of these motives were opportunist; for example the Bourbon princes, who dominated the southern and western areas of France, supported the Huguenots because of their own intense rivalry with the Catholic Ducs de Guise. Other motives were ideological, and assumed a more revolutionary emphasis than any Puritan ideas of the sixteenth century. Languet provided justification for the Huguenot rebellion in his Defence of Liberty against Tyrants (1579), arguing that royal authority was acceptable only so long as it observed certain constraints and that in extreme cases tyrannicide could be justified. Since France not only experienced civil war but also developed arguments for disposing of despotism before England, it might be assumed that France would be a better breeding ground for radicalism than England. But this was not so; while the Puritans were becoming increasingly aggressive in England, the Huguenots were being reconciled with Catholicism. The main reason for this was the conversion of their leader, Henry of Navarre, to Catholicism in 1593 (a decision based on expediency rather than on religious conviction). As Henry IV, he pursued a deliberate policy of healing the religious rift by issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Until the last two decades of the seventeenth century the Huguenots remained relatively quiet, although there were occasional revolts. The next period of ideological opposition to the administration began in 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and initiated another era of persecution. The Huguenots were by that time politically helpless. Unlike the Puritans in the first half of the seventeenth century, they had no institutional means of opposing the arbitrary policies of absolutism; the Paris Parlement could in no way be compared with the English Parliament, and the Estates General never met between 1614 and 1789. The French monarchy during the seventeenth century raised itself to new heights of power which, for a time, were beyond the reach of any opposition, religious or secular. The pen was all that was left for the Huguenots, but this was used to some effect to renew the attacks on tyranny. The most famous of the dissident writers was Jurieu, whose Soupirs de la France esclave qui aspire apres la liberte (1689) drew contrasts between French absolutism and the development of limited monarchy in England. This and other expressions of discontent naturally had little impact on the Régime, but they did publicize arguments for representative institutions and helped to make the French bourgeoisie more receptive to the completely secular political theories of eighteenth-century writers like Montesquieu. The convulsion which eventually destroyed the French monarchy and created a new type of radicalism was due to the frustration of all previous opposition and demands for reform, but by no stretch of the imagination could the nature of this revolution be associated with either Calvinism or Calvin.

More controversial is the relationship between Calvinism and European economic development; there are two main sides in the debate between historians as to whether Calvinism was associated with emergent capitalism. It is possible here to give only a brief and composite outline of each.

M.Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and E.Troeltsch (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches) argued that there was a definite relationship. Ascetic Protestantism, with its emphasis on ‘calling’, self-discipline and hard work for its own sake, fostered a ‘spirit of modern capitalism’. Money– making was no longer regarded with opprobrium, as it had been in the Middle Ages, but was seen by Calvinists as a method of fulfilling the ‘work ethic’ and carrying out a sacred trust, at the same time caring for and increasing wealth, not for self-indulgence but as an act of ‘stewardship’ for God, all profits being used for the relief of the poor and other social works. The spread of capitalism was most rapid in those countries which adopted Calvinism, or in which Calvinism flourished as a minority religion, and it affected primarily the bourgeoisie. R.H.Tawney (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism), although not convinced about the existence of a ‘spirit of capitalism’ and doubtful whether Calvin would ever have wished to associate his teachings in any way with capitalism, asserted, nevertheless, that Puritanism in the seventeenth century stimulated capitalism and encouraged writers like Baxter to provide support and rules for capitalist activities.

The connection has been criticized on various grounds. W.Sombart (The Quintessence of Capitalism) maintained that Calvinism, far from fostering capitalism, was a better enemy and that, wherever they were established, the Calvinist Churches were hostile to capitalist activities; Catholicism, on the other hand, was more conducive to it, and ‘the Papacy did much to foster the spread of capitalism through its financial policies’.2 Several historians have claimed that the rise of capitalism had nothing to do with religion at all and that it existed throughout the Middle Ages in Byzantium and Italy. An example of a purely secular interpretation is P.Gordon Walker's belief that the acceleration of capitalism was due to the Price Rise which ‘hastened the arrival of the Industrial Revolution’.3

Both sides can be supported by factual examples and by contemporary texts. Whichever view is adopted, however, there appear to be two main methods by which Calvinism can undoubtedly be said to have influenced directly the development of finance, industry and commerce. First, Calvinists, as a minority group, frequently found themselves discriminated against by the law of the land or by social attitudes. As a result, they were sometimes prevented from entering the professions and were therefore forced into private enterprise, a position comparable to that of the Jews throughout European history. The most successful form of private enterprise was commerce and there may well have been an interplay between this and the further dissemination of Calvinism; trade routes have always been the most effective form of communication before the age of the mass media. Second, minority Calvinist groups were sometimes actively persecuted and therefore took their skills elsewhere, thus spreading the net of their activities. The major example of this was the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Huguenot refugees were welcomed into Brandenburg–Prussia and greatly enhanced that country's economic growth. They also fled to the Netherlands and England and contributed to the development of frontier societies abroad, especially in South Africa. Again, a parallel can be drawn with the Jews. In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella forced large numbers of Spanish Jews to emigrate, mainly to Eastern Europe, one of many examples of the persecutions and purges which are a feature of many civilizations.

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