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John Calvinís Influence on Democracy


    John Calvinís 500th birthday was on July 10, 2009.  In some Christian circles this was a momentous occasion.  After all, if not for Calvin there would be no Presbyterians.  But that is a story for another day.  The point here is that Calvin is important to everyone who loves democracy.  The case could be made (and I will try to make it) that Calvin had a direct influence on how our government was shaped and even for the existence of the USA and democracy.  That is a tall claim, so here we go.

    John Calvin lived in the middle of the 1500s in Europe during a time of kings and princes and emperors.  But he also lived during the time of the Protestant Reformation.  This movement was initiated by Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and others, as they broke from the Catholic Church to form separate Christian groups. 

    Luther and Zwingli are two good examples in making the point of this summary.  Luther lived in Germany, which had many princes.  Luther initiated the reform in his area of Germany, and his prince, Frederick the Wise, joined the movement.  This is important:  if Frederick had remained Catholic, Lutherís reform would have been stopped early on.  As long as Luther had one person on his side, then his movement could grow.

    On the other hand, Zwingli lived in Switzerland which had a different political system:  the canton.  In thinking of a canton, think of a county; that is not exactly right but close.  Switzerland was ruled not by princes or kings but by the councils of leaders in the cantons.  So when Zwingli wanted to get a reform movement started, he did not have to gain the support of one person (like Luther) but a group of civic leaders. 

    Now we come to our man Calvin.  Calvin was born and grew up in France, which had a king.  Calvin became involved in the Reformation; unlike Luther and Frederick, though, the king of France remained Catholic.  This meant that Calvin had to flee.  He ended up in Switzerland in the canton of Geneva which had embraced the Reformation. 

    Eventually Calvin became the leader of the Reformation in Geneva.  Calvin thrived in this environment of councils, basically a representative government.  But remember that this system was only available in Switzerland.  The form of church government Calvin established mirrored this more-democratic style of leadership. 

    Then Calvin decided to start a school:  the Academy it was called.  It attracted a large number of reform-minded students from throughout Europe.  One of those was John Knox from Scotland.  Knox and Calvin became fast friends, and Knox even stayed in Geneva as a minister.  Eventually Knox returned to Scotland where he had a hand in developing the Presbyterian system.  Among other unique qualities, the Presbyterians believed in a representative leadership style rather than that practiced in most other Christian groups, which used bishops.

    Many Presbyterians came to the developing American colonies.  By the 1750s the Presbyterians formed one of the largest church groups in the colonies.  These colonial Presbyterians were mistrustful of leadership by one person, whether a form of church government which involved a bishop, or a form of government which included a king.  And so the colonial Presbyterians were ripe for a change in government from the monarchy of England to the representative government of the new United States of America and helped make it happen.  Thus John Calvin influenced the form of government which many countries enjoy today and which other countries are struggling to develop.

©2009 Mark Nickens

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