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Calvinism (also called the Reformed tradition or the Reformed faith) is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians. Calvinists broke with the Roman Catholic church but differed with Lutherans on the real presence of Christ in the Lord's supper, theories of worship, and the use of God's law for believers, among other things.
Calvinism can be a misleading term because the religious tradition it denotes is and has always been diverse, with a wide range of influences rather than a single founder. The movement was first called "Calvinism" by Lutherans who opposed it, and many within the tradition would prefer to use the word Reformed. Since the Arminian controversy, the Reformed (as a branch of Protestantism distinguished from Lutheranism) are divided into Arminians and Calvinists, however it is now rare to call Arminians Reformed, as many see these two schools of thought as opposed, making the terms Calvinist and Reformed synonymous.
While the Reformed theological tradition addresses all of the traditional topics of Christian theology, the word Calvinism is sometimes used to refer to particular Calvinist views on soteriology and predestination, which are summarized in part by the five points of Calvinism. Some have also argued that Calvinism as a whole stresses the sovereignty or rule of God in all things – in salvation but also in all of life.
Early influential Reformed theologians include John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Theodor Beza, and John Knox. In the twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield, Karl Barth, and Cornelius Van Til were influential, while contemporary Reformed theologians include J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, N.T. Wright, Timothy J. Keller, Alister McGrath, and Michael Horton.
The biggest Reformed association is the World Communion of Reformed Churches with more than 80 million members in 211 member denominations around the World. There are more conservative Reformed federations like the World Reformed Fellowship and the International Conference of Reformed Churches.
First-generation Reformed theologians include Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), John Oecolampadius (1482–1531), and Guillaume Farel (1489–1565). These reformers came from diverse academic backgrounds, but later distinctives of Reformed theology can already be detected in their thought, especially the priority of scripture as a source of authority. Scripture was also viewed as a unified whole, which led to a covenantal theology of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper as visible signs of the covenant of grace. Another Reformed distinctive present in these theologians was their denial of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord's supper. Each of these theologians also understood salvation to be by grace alone, and affirmed a doctrine of particular election (the teaching that some people are chosen by God for salvation). Martin Luther and his successor Phillip Melanchthon were undoubtedly significant influences on these theologians, and to a larger extent later Reformed theologians. The doctrine of justification by faith alone was a direct inheritance from Luther.
John Calvin (1509–64), Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563), Peter Martyr Vermigli (1500–1562), and Andreas Hyperius (1511–1564) belong to the second generation of Reformed theologians. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536–59) was one of the most influential theologies of the era. Toward the middle of the 16th century, the Reformed began to commit their beliefs to confessions of faith, which would shape the future definition of the Reformed faith. The 1549 Consensus Tigurinus brought together those who followed Zwingli and Bullinger's memorialist theology of the Lord's supper, which taught that the supper simply serves as a reminder of Christ's death, and Calvin's view that the supper serves as a means of grace with Christ actually present, though spiritually rather than bodily. The document demonstrates the diversity as well as unity in early Reformed theology. The remainder of the 16th century saw an explosion of confessional activity. The stability and breadth of Reformed theology during this period stand in marked contrast to the bitter controversy experienced by Lutherans prior to the 1579 Formula of Concord.
Due to Calvin's missionary work in France, his programme of reform eventually reached the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands. Calvinism was adopted in the Electorate of the Palatinate under Frederick III, which led to the formulation of the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563. This and the Belgic Confession were adopted as confessional standards in the first synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1571. Leading divines, either Calvinist or those sympathetic to Calvinism, settled in England (Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr, and Jan Laski) and Scotland (John Knox). During the English Civil War, the Calvinistic Puritans produced the Westminster Confession, which became the confessional standard for Presbyterians in the English-speaking world. Having established itself in Europe, the movement continued to spread to other parts of the world including North America, South Africa, and Korea.
Calvin did not live to see the foundation of his work grow into an international movement; but his death allowed his ideas to break out of their city of origin, to succeed far beyond their borders, and to establish their own distinct character.
Although much of Calvin's work was in Geneva, his publications spread his ideas of a "correctly" reformed church to many parts of Europe. Calvinism became the theological system of the majority in Scotland (see John Knox), the Netherlands, with men such as William Ames, T. J. Frelinghuysen and Wilhelmus à Brakel and parts of Germany (especially those adjacent to the Netherlands) with the likes of Olevianus and his colleague Zacharias Ursinus. In Hungary and then independent Transylvania Calvinism was a significant religion. In the 16th century the Reformation gained many supporters especially in Eastern Hungary and Transylvania. In these parts the Reformed nobles protected the faith. Today more than 3,5 million Hungarian Reformed people live worldwide from the Carpathian Basin to Australia. It was influential in France, Lithuania and Poland. Calvinism gained some popularity in Scandinavia, especially Sweden, but was rejected in favor of Lutheranism after the Synod of Uppsala in 1593.
Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the English Puritans, the French Huguenot and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York), and the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of the Appalachian back country. Dutch Calvinist settlers were also the first successful European colonizers of South Africa, beginning in the 17th century, who became known as Boers or Afrikaners.
Sierra Leone was largely colonized by Calvinist settlers from Nova Scotia, who were largely Black Loyalists, blacks who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence. John Marrant had organized a congregation there under the auspices of the Huntingdon Connection. Some of the largest Calvinist communions were started by 19th and 20th century missionaries. Especially large are those in Indonesia, Korea and Nigeria. In South Korea there are 20,000 Presbyterian congregations in about 9–10 million church members, scattered in more than 100 Presbyterian denominations. In Korea Presbyterianism is far the biggest Christian denomination.
A 2011 report of the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life estimated that members of Presbyterian or Reformed churches make up 7% of the 801 million Protestants globally, or approximately 56 million people. Today, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, which includes some United Churches, has 80 million believers.
Calvinists believe that the Bible (not including the Deuterocanonicals) is the infallible Word of God, and contains all the revelations of God which he designed to be a rule of faith and practice for his Church. The Calvinist doctrine of perspicuity teaches that everything necessary for salvation is taught in the Scriptures plainly enough that special training is not required for interpretation. Church officers are given the authority to preach what is contained within the Scriptures, but this does not permit them to bind Christians to their own interpretation. Christians are to compare interpretations with one another, and even give deference to other Christians and especially the officers ordained above them, but they are always free to personally interpret Scripture.
Following Lutheran theologians, the Reformed sharply contrast the law and gospel as "the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures." The law contains the moral requirements of God, and is equated with the decalogue, while the gospel is the free offer of forgiveness of sin. As one author nicely put it, being under Law amounts to approaching God through Mount Sinai, whereas being under grace amounts to approaching God through Mount Calvary. (John 1:17) While there may be subtle differences between the Reformed and Lutheran presentations of this doctrine, it has a prominent place in Reformed theology.
The law is given three uses: the political or civil use which is a restraint on sin and stands apart from the work of salvation, the elenctical or pedagogical use which confronts sin and points one to Christ for forgiveness of sin, and the didactic use which teaches believers the way of righteousness, but does not have any power to condemn. Lutheran and Reformed theologians differed primarily on the way in which the third use functions for believers. The Reformed emphasized the third use (tertius usus legis) because the redeemed are expected to bear good works. Some Lutherans saw here the danger of works-righteousness, and argued that the third use should always return believers to the second use and again to Christ rather than being the ultimate norm.
Although the doctrines of grace have generally received the greater focus in contemporary Calvinism, covenant theology is the historic superstructure that unifies the entire system of doctrine.
Calvinists take God's transcendence to mean that the relationship between God and his creation must be by voluntary condescension on God's part. This relationship he establishes is covenantal: the terms of the relationship are unchangeably decreed by God alone.
Reformed writings commonly refer to an intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption. The greater focus is the relationship between God and man, which in historic Calvinism is seen as bi-covenantal, reflecting the early Reformation distinction between Law and Gospel. The covenant of works encompasses the moral and natural law, dictating the terms of creation. By its terms, man would enjoy eternal life and blessedness based on his continued personal and perfect righteousness. With the fall of man, this covenant continues to operate, but only to condemn sinful man. The covenant of grace is instituted at the fall, and administered through successive historic covenants seen in Scripture for the purpose of redemption. By its terms, salvation comes not by any personal performance, but by promise. Peace with God comes only through a mediator, the fulfillment of which is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ is seen as the federal head of his elect people, and thus the covenant is the basis of the doctrines of the substitutionary atonement and the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.
Calvinism teaches that people are totally depraved or totally inadequate in their ethical nature, necessitating the sovereign grace of God for salvation. It states that fallen people are morally and spiritually incapable of following God or redeeming themselves. They see redemption as the work of God; God changes their unwilling hearts from rebellion to eager obedience.
In this view, people are at the complete and total mercy of God, who would be just in condemning all people for their sins, though God has chosen to show mercy to some, not all. In Calvinism some are saved while others are condemned, not because of inclination, foreseen faith, or any virtue in people but because God chooses to have mercy on them (Romans 9:16–17) according to his own purpose which is, ultimately, to glorify Himself (Ephesians 1:11–12). A person must believe the gospel and repent to be saved, but this compliance of faith is a gift from God (Philippians 1:29; Ephesians 2:8), and thus God completely and sovereignly achieves the salvation of sinners, including the chief (1 Timothy 1:15). In other words, faith is a fruit of regeneration, not the cause of it. God saves sinners so that they will believe, not because they believe out of their own resources. Many Reformed theologians teach that people are predestinated to damnation (as the doctrine of reprobation). There is less agreement among the Reformed regarding reprobation than predestination to salvation (the doctrine of election).
Calvinism is distinct from other similar Protestant theologies such as Molinism, Lutheranism, and Classical Arminianism in this area, but they share much common ground with each other. For instance, the Calvinist doctrine that God saves some but not all is agreed upon by Molinists, Classical Arminians, and Lutherans. Only Universalists would dispute the limitation of the atonement. The issue disagreed upon is how and why the atonement is limited. There is also agreement that faith is not meritorious, nor does faith initiate God's salvation, because faith in God is itself a gift from God, received "as a beggar receives a gift," a description used by both Calvinists and Arminians. These branches of Protestant theology agree a person cannot exercise faith in God without God first choosing to work spiritually in that person (as semi-Pelagianism asserted). The history of Calvinist-Arminian debate here does not revolve around the five solae or the [limited] number of men saved, or whether people 'merit' salvation through faith or virtue, but it centers on other issues surrounding the reason why some are saved while others are not in the interplay of God's sovereign will and man's will.
In practice, Calvinists teach sovereign grace mostly for encouragement of the church because Calvinists believe the doctrine validates the extent of God's love for saving those who are not able to follow him, or choose not to do so, as well as defeating pride and self-reliance and stressing Christians' total need for and dependence on the grace of God. In a similar way, sanctification in the Calvinist view involves a frequent dependence on God to gain victory over sin, and experience the joy of the Lord.
|The Five Points|
|Perseverance of the saints|
Most objections to and attacks on Calvinism focus on the "five points of Calvinism," also called the doctrines of grace, and remembered by the mnemonic "TULIP." The five points are popularly said to summarize the Canons of Dort, however there is no historical relationship between them, and some scholars argue that their language distorts the meaning of the Canons, Calvin's theology, and the theology of 17th-century Calvinistic orthodoxy, particularly in the language of total depravity and limited atonement. The five points were popularized in the 1963 booklet The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, Documented by David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas. The origin of the five points and the acronym is unknown, but the earliest printed appearance of the T-U-L-I-P acronym is in Loraine Boettner’s 1932 book, “The Reformed Doctrine Of Predestination”. The acronym was very cautiously if ever used by Calvinist apologists and theologians before the booklet by Steele and Thomas.
The central assertion of these points is that God saves every person upon whom he has mercy, and that his efforts are not frustrated by the unrighteousness or inability of humans.
An additional point of disagreement with Arminianism implicit in the five points is the Calvinist understanding of the doctrine of Jesus's substitutionary atonement as a punishment for the sins of the elect, which was developed by St. Augustine and especially St. Anselm and Calvin himself. Calvinists argue that if Christ takes the punishment in the place of a particular sinner, that person must be saved since it would be unjust for him then to be condemned for the same sins. The definitive and binding nature of this satisfaction model has strong implications for each of the five TULIP points, and it has led some Arminians to subscribe instead to the governmental theory of atonement. Under that theory, no particular sins or sinners are in view, but all of humanity are included in those whose sins have been taken away. The atonement was not the penalty of the law, but a substitute for the penalty, which allows God to remit the penalty by his grace when any sinner repents and believes in Jesus as the Christ.
|Human will||Total depravity without free will permanently due to divine sovereignty||Total depravity without free will until spiritual regeneration||Depravity does not prevent free will|
|Election||Unconditional election to salvation with those outside the elect foreordained to damnation (double-predestination)||Unconditional predestination to salvation for the elect||Conditional election in view of foreseen faith or unbelief|
|Justification||Justification is limited to those predestined to salvation, completed at Christ's death||Justification by faith alone, completed at Christ's death.||Justification made possible for all through Christ's death, but only completed upon choosing faith in Jesus|
|Conversion||Monergistic, through the inner calling of the Holy Spirit, irresistible||Monergistic, through the means of grace, resistible||Synergistic, resistible due to the common grace of free will|
|Preservation and apostasy||Perseverance of the saints: the eternally elect in Christ will necessarily persevere in faith||Falling away is possible, but God gives assurance of preservation.||Preservation is conditional upon continued faith in Christ; with the possibility of a final apostasy.|
The regulative principle of worship is a teaching shared by some Calvinists and Anabaptists on how the Bible orders public worship. The substance of the doctrine regarding worship is that God institutes in the Scriptures everything he requires for worship in the Church and that everything else is prohibited. As the regulative principle is reflected in Calvin's own thought, it is driven by his evident antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church and its worship practices, and it associates musical instruments with icons, which he considered violations of the Ten Commandments' prohibition of graven images.
On this basis, many early Calvinists also eschewed musical instruments and advocated a capella exclusive psalmody in worship, though Calvin himself allowed other scriptural songs as well as psalms, and this practice typified presbyterian worship and the worship of other Reformed churches for some time. The original Lord's Day service designed by John Calvin was a highly liturgical service with the Creed, Alms, Confession and Absolution, the Lord's supper, Doxologies, prayers, Psalms being sung, the Lords prayer being sung, Benedictions.
Since the 19th century, however, some of the Reformed churches have modified their understanding of the regulative principle and make use of musical instruments, believing that Calvin and his early followers went beyond the biblical requirements and that such things are circumstances of worship requiring biblically-rooted wisdom, rather than an explicit command. Despite the protestations of those who hold to a strict view of the regulative principle, today hymns and musical instruments are in common use, as are contemporary worship music styles and worship bands.
The Westminster Confession of Faith limits the sacraments to baptism and the Lord's Supper. Sacraments are denoted "signs and seals of the covenant of grace." Westminster speaks of "a sacramental relation, or a sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other." Baptism is for infant children of believers as well as believers, as it is for all the Reformed except Baptists and some Congregationalists. Baptism admits the baptized into the visible church, and in it all the benefits of Christ are offered to the baptized. On the Lord's supper, Westminster takes a position between Lutheran sacramental union and Zwinglian memorialism: "the Lord's supper really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."
The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith does not use the term sacrament, but describes baptism and the Lord's supper as ordinances, as do most Baptists Calvinist or otherwise. Baptism is only for those who "actually profess repentance towards God," and not for the children of believers. Baptists also insist on immersion or dipping, in contradistinction to other Reformed Christians. The Baptist Confession, describes the Lord's supper as "the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance," similarly to the Westminster Confession. There is significant latitude in Baptist congregations regarding the Lord's supper, and many hold the Zwinglian view.
There are two schools of thought regarding the logical order of God's decree to ordain the fall of man: supralapsarianism (from the Latin: supra, "above", here meaning "before" + lapsus, "fall") and infralapsarianism (from the Latin: infra, "beneath", here meaning "after" + lapsus, "fall"). The former view, sometimes called "high Calvinism", argues that the Fall occurred partly to facilitate God's purpose to choose some individuals for salvation and some for damnation. Infralapsarianism, sometimes called "low Calvinism", is the position that, while the Fall was indeed planned, it was not planned with reference to who would be saved.
Supralapsarians believe that God chose which individuals to save logically prior to the decision to allow the race to fall and that the Fall serves as the means of realization of that prior decision to send some individuals to hell and others to heaven (that is, it provides the grounds of condemnation in the reprobate and the need for salvation in the elect). In contrast, infralapsarians hold that God planned the race to fall logically prior to the decision to save or damn any individuals because, it is argued, in order to be "saved", one must first need to be saved from something and therefore the decree of the Fall must precede predestination to salvation or damnation.
These two views vied with each other at the Synod of Dort, an international body representing Calvinist Christian churches from around Europe, and the judgments that came out of that council sided with infralapsarianism (Canons of Dort, First Point of Doctrine, Article 7). The Westminster Confession of Faith also teaches (in Hodge's words "clearly impl[ies]") the infralapsarian view, but is sensitive to those holding to supralapsarianism. The Lapsarian controversy has a few vocal proponents on each side today, but overall it does not receive much attention among modern Calvinists.
Amyraldism (or sometimes Amyraldianism, also known as the School of Saumur, hypothetical universalism, post redemptionism, moderate Calvinism, or four-point Calvinism) is the belief that God, prior to his decree of election, decreed Christ's atonement for all alike if they believe, but seeing that none would believe on their own, he then elected those whom he will bring to faith in Christ, thereby preserving the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. The efficacy of the atonement remains limited to those who believe.
Named after its formulator Moses Amyraut, this doctrine is still viewed as a variety of Calvinism in that it maintains the particularity of sovereign grace in the application of the atonement. However, detractors like B. B. Warfield have termed it "an inconsistent and therefore unstable form of Calvinism."
Hyper-Calvinism first referred to a view that appeared among the early English Particular Baptists in the 18th century. Their system denied that the call of the gospel to "repent and believe" is directed to every single person and that it is the duty of every person to trust in Christ for salvation. The term also occasionally appears in both theological and secular controversial contexts, where it usually connotes a negative opinion about some variety of theological determinism, predestination, or a version of Evangelical Christianity or Calvinism that is deemed by the critic to be unenlightened, harsh, or extreme.
Neo-Calvinism, a form of Dutch Calvinism, is the movement initiated by the theologian and former Dutch prime minister Abraham Kuyper. James Bratt has identified a number of different types of Dutch Calvinism: The Seceders—split into the Reformed Church "West" and the Confessionalists; and the Neo-Calvinists—the Positives and the Antithetical Calvinists. The Seceders were largely infralapsarian and the Neo-Calvinists usually supralapsarian.
Kuyper wanted to awaken the church from what he viewed as its pietistic slumber. He declared:
No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'
This refrain has become something of a rallying call for Neo-Calvinists.
Christian Reconstructionism is an obscure fundamentalist Calvinist theonomic movement, founded by R.J. Rushdoony, that has had an important influence on the Christian Right in the United States. The movement declined in the 1990s and was declared dead in a 2008 Church History journal article. Christian Reconstructionists are usually postmillennialists and followers of the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. They tend to support a decentralized political order resulting in laissez-faire capitalism.
The New Calvinism is a growing perspective within conservative Evangelicalism that embraces the fundamentals of 16th century Calvinism while also trying to be relevant in the present day world. In March 2009, TIME magazine described the New Calvinism as one of the "10 ideas changing the world". Some of the major figures in this area are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, and Tim Keller. New Calvinists have been criticized for blending Calvinist soteriology with popular Evangelical positions on the sacraments and continuationism.
One school of thought attributes Calvinism with setting the stage for the later development of capitalism in northern Europe. In this view, elements of Calvinism represented a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury and, implicitly, of profit in general. Such a connection was advanced in influential works by R. H. Tawney (1880–1962) and by Max Weber (1864–1920).
Calvin expressed himself on usury in a 1545 letter to a friend, Claude de Sachin, in which he criticized the use of certain passages of scripture invoked by people opposed to the charging of interest. He reinterpreted some of these passages, and suggested that others of them had been rendered irrelevant by changed conditions. He also dismissed the argument (based upon the writings of Aristotle) that it is wrong to charge interest for money because money itself is barren. He said that the walls and the roof of a house are barren, too, but it is permissible to charge someone for allowing him to use them. In the same way, money can be made fruitful.
He qualified his view, however, by saying that money should be lent to people in dire need without hope of interest, while a modest interest rate of 5% should be permitted in relation to other borrowers.
Calvin's concept of God and man contained strong elements of freedom that were gradually put into practice after his death, in particular in the fields of politics and society. After the successful fight for independence from Spain (1579), the Netherlands, under Calvinist leadership, became, besides England, the freest country in Europe. It granted asylum to persecuted religious minorities, e.g. French Huguenots, English Independents (Congregationalists), and Jews from Spain and Portugal. The ancestors of philosopher Baruch Spinoza were Portuguese Jews. Aware of the trial against Galileo, René Descartes lived in the Netherlands, out of reach of the Inquisition. Pierre Bayle, a Reformed Frenchman, also felt safer in the Netherlands than in his home country. He was the first prominent philosopher who demanded tolerance for atheists. Hugo Grotius was able to publish a rather liberal interpretation of the Bible and his ideas about natural law. Moreover, the Calvinist Dutch authorities allowed the printing of books that could not be published elsewhere, e.g. Galileo’s Discorsi.
Even more important than the liberal development of the Netherlands was the rise of modern democracy in England and North America. In the Middle Ages state and church had been closely connected. Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms separated state and church in principle. His doctrine of the priesthood of all believers raised the laity to the same level as the clergy. Going one step further, Calvin included elected laymen (church elders, presbyters) in his concept of church government. The Huguenots added synods whose members were also elected by the congregations. The other Reformed churches took over this system of church self-government which was essentially a representative democracy. Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists are organized in a similar way. These denominations and the Anglican Church were influenced by Calvin’s theology in varying degrees.
Another precondition for the rise of democracy in the Anglo-American world was the fact that Calvin favored a mixture of democracy and aristocracy as the best form of government (mixed government). He appreciated the advantages of democracy. The aim of his political thought was to safeguard the rights and freedoms of ordinary men and women. In order to minimize the misuse of political power he suggested dividing it among several institutions in a system of checks and balances (separation of powers). Finally, Calvin taught that if worldly rulers rise up against God they should be put down. In this way, he and his followers stood in the vanguard of resistance to political absolutism and furthered the cause of democracy. The Congregationalists who founded Plymouth Colony (1620) and Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628) were convinced that the democratic form of government was the will of God. Enjoying self-rule they practiced separation of powers. Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, founded by Roger Williams, Thomas Hooker, and William Penn, respectively, combined democratic government with freedom of religion. These colonies became safe havens for persecuted religious minorities, including Jews.
In England, Baptists Thomas Helwys and John Smyth influenced the liberal political thought of Presbyterian poet and politician John Milton and philosopher John Locke, who in turn had both a strong impact on the political development in their home country (English Civil War, Glorious Revolution) as well as in North America. The ideological basis of the American Revolution was largely provided by the radical Whigs, who had been inspired by Milton, Locke, James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and other thinkers. The Whigs’ "perceptions of politics attracted widespread support in America because they revived the traditional concerns of a Protestantism that had always verged on Puritanism." The United States Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and (American) Bill of Rights initiated a tradition of human and civil rights that was continued in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the constitutions of numerous countries around the world, e. g. Latin America, Japan, Germany, and other European countries. It is also echoed in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the nineteenth century, the churches that were based on Calvin’s theology or influenced by it were deeply involved in social reforms, e.g. the abolition of slavery (William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, and others), women suffrage, and prison reforms. Members of these churches formed co-operatives to help the impoverished masses. Henry Dunant, a Reformed pietist, founded the Red Cross and initiated the Geneva Conventions.
Some sources would view Calvinist influence as not always being solely positive. The Boers and so-called Afrikaner Calvinists allegedly used a twisted form of Calvinism and Kuyperian theology to justify apartheid in South Africa (see Afrikaner Calvinism). As late as 1974, the majority of the Dutch Reformed Church in south Africa was convinced that their theological stances (including the story of the Tower of Babel) could justify apartheid. In 1990, the Dutch Reformed Church document Church and Society maintained that although they were changing their stance on apartheid, they believed that within apartheid and under God's sovereign guidance, "...everything was not without significance, but was of service to the Kingdom of God."  It should be noted that these views were not universal and were condemned by many Calvinists outside South Africa. It was pressure from both outside and inside the Dutch Reformed Calvinist church which helped reverse apartheid in South Africa. Even Calvin was not always above his own time, and as a influential leader in Geneva he helped ensure that people were kept under close watch and that crimes and sins (such as failure to attend church or laughing in church) were punished more severely than before his leadership.
Throughout the world, the Reformed churches operate hospitals, homes for handicapped or elderly people, and educational institutions on all levels. For example, American Congregationalists founded Harvard (1636), Yale (1701), and about a dozen other colleges. Princeton was a Presbyterian foundation.
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