How Calvinism Became a Global Faith

David C. Noe

“In a bold act of defiance, comparable to flag burning today, the assembled ate the sausages served by the host.” This is how D. G. Hart begins Calvinism: A History, his comprehensive social history of the branch of Protestantism most familiar to Orthodox Presbyterians, namely the Reformed faith, which takes the biblical teachings of John Calvin and others like him as its guide. The story recounts an act of Lenten rebellion that broke out in Zurich in 1522. The priest Ulrich Zwingli attended this table of discord, and a month later he preached a sermon with the title “On the Choice and Freedom of Foods.”

Flowing from the same source as Martin Luther’s first act of soul-searching devotion to the principle of sola Scriptura, Calvinism developed several different emphases. It is therefore significant that Hart begins with Zwingli, in addition to Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. Although these men and later the Genevans—Farel, Viret, Beza, and Calvin himself—shared with Luther an unwavering commitment to justification by faith alone, they went on to shape teaching for the Swiss, French, English, Scottish, and American families of Protestantism that Luther would not recognize—and indeed some of whose doctrines he opposed in his own lifetime.

Before describing the contents of this 350-page work, it will be helpful to explain what the book is not. First, it is not a systematic theology or a theological tour of Calvinism. Although any book like this must by its nature contain doctrinal discussion, Hart’s brief is not to explain dogma. For that, readers will better consult Calvin’s Institutes or a more modern work like Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Nor is this a biography of Calvin. Indeed, he is last mentioned in a historical context on page 80. Bruce Gordon’s recent biography entitled Calvin, also from Yale, serves this purpose very well, as does Alexandre Ganoczy’s classic The Young Calvin.

Rather, Hart is concerned with highlighting not how Calvinism played a “role in the forces of globalization” so much as the “unlikely ways by which it became a global faith” (p. xii). Touching on one of Hart’s favorite themes, and of our communion in general, Calvinism seeks to explain how the Reformed faith “circumnavigate[d] the planet … not by underwriting the political and economic forces of the modern West or by preaching humanitarian ideals, but [due] to the ordinary—and often accidental—efforts of average pastors and laypeople” (p. xii). In other words, this is a story of divine providence—and in telling it, Hart succeeds admirably.

The volume contains thirteen chapters, beginning with the episode in Zurich and ending in the late twentieth century with an analysis of the legacy of Karl Barth. As a representative of neoorthodoxy (Calvinism can be a big tent), Barth is compared to three separatist leaders in Scotland, the Netherlands, and the United States: Thomas Chalmers, Abraham Kuyper, and J. Gresham Machen, respectively. Along the way, Hart carefully details most of the unexpected twists and turns in Calvinism’s surprising story. In chapter 1, for example, he discusses not just the political and social changes that the Reformation wrought in Switzerland, but also the experience of worshippers in the churches. He tells the familiar anecdote of Farel inducing Calvin to stay in Geneva with threats of God’s condemnation (p. 17). Yet he also explains the reformation in worship that Calvin inaugurated with his insistence on psalm singing in 1537 (p. 19).

As the story leaves Geneva and Zurich, Hart moves rapidly back and forth between developments on the continent and those in Britain (chs. 3–4), eventually arriving in New England (chs. 5–6). Some of these transitions are not entirely comfortable or natural, but they are obviously necessary because of the nature of the subject. Writing a history of a system of thought is no easy task, especially one driven by many prominent political and theological figures on multiple continents. The churches of the Dutch West Indies, South Africa, the American South, and everything in between must at least be mentioned and made to fit into a coherent whole.

In addition to dealing with the big names, Hart also endeavors to keep the experiences of lesser-known pastors and laypeople front and center. In chapter 6, for example, “New Communities in the Land of the Free,” he recounts the career of Francis Makemie (1658–1707). His story is a fascinating one, which Hart makes emblematic of the intersection of religion and culture in the New and Old Worlds: “The Presbytery of Laggan ordained Makemie, either in 1861 or 1862, and … [he] boarded a ship for North America. He took with him a commission from the Presbytery to plant churches among the British colonists. Beyond that mandate, he had the freedom to channel the energies of a twenty-five-year-old into a productive pastorate; he also had no financial provisions beyond his own ingenuity” (p. 121). This tale of the devotion and commitment of faithful and unheralded saints is told under many different names and in many different settings. But Hart does not neglect the more familiar and historically dramatic episodes either. Adequate coverage is given to all of the major confessions and assemblies (Augsburg, Dort, Westminster), and even some lesser ones (Tetrapolitan) receive attention.

Chapter 9, “Missionary Zeal,” gives significant weight to the thesis presented in the introduction about the unlikely spread of Calvinism. Detailing the nineteenth-century efforts of such trailblazers as Theodorus van der Kemp (d. 1811), Joseph Kam (d. 1833), and Alexander Duff (d. 1878), the author shows the painful tensions that arose from differing and sometimes conflicting views of the church and her mission. Hart deals with the issues particularly well in the section of that same chapter entitled “To Civilize or Christianize?” The imperial and commercial expansion of Western society and norms (i.e., colonialism) carried the Protestant faith, including Calvinism, around the globe. In the process, the heirs of the Reformation sought to decide whether the church was “chiefly a vehicle of evangelism” or an “institution that nurtured and instructed the faithful” (p. 194). At the same time, seeking to disentangle the faith from the indifferent and nonessential trappings of a particular culture proved hazardous. The contrast between Duff’s program of Western inculturation in India, which was sometimes a prerequisite for the preaching of the gospel (pp. 194ff.), and the approach of missionary to China John Nevius (d. 1893), is powerfully instructive.

Hart clearly hits his stride in chs. 12 (“American Fundamentalists”) and 13 (“The Confessing Church”), where his expertise and long résumé in American church history are fully on display. This reader found it particularly interesting to hear Hart interpret these events (e.g., the Old Side/New Side controversy, the careers of Hodge and Warfield and their interactions with Darwinism, the Presbyterian reunions of 1867 and 1869, and Machen’s career) for a much wider audience than when he tells them in OPC-sanctioned publications or in books from evangelical publishers.

The story of our own communion, the OPC, is told with appropriate brevity, given the larger history of which we are a small part. Hart himself, along with others, has told our story before. But in Calvinism the OPC resides in the context of Machen’s life, who is himself, as mentioned before, part of a larger narrative that includes other advocates of the ordinary means of grace. Men like Chalmers, Kuyper (despite his political engagements), Van Raalte, and Machen opted for the church’s spirituality, and so are presented as genuine heirs of the churchly spirit of Zwingli and Calvin, seeking to restore to the people the spiritual benefits denied to them by broader historical forces.

Other Calvinists of previous generations, like Frelinghuysen, Edwards, and Tennent (pp. 164ff.), do not fare as well in Hart’s treatment. But his hand is lighter here than in other works where he criticizes the theory, proponents, and practice of revivalism and worldview thinking. On page 247, for example, he writes: “For all of the problems that attended the Neo-Calvinist movement, it was a testimony to the genius of Kuyper and his organizational abilities.”

The work ends with a thoughtful conclusion, a succinct four-page time line, a compact and yet extensive bibliography, and a comprehensive index. Hart’s writing is generally winsome and brisk, and, as is appropriate for a work of this type, he relies considerably on the research of Philip Benedict, Bruce Gordon, Richard Muller, Steven Ozment, and many other fine scholars. There is also some decent work in primary sources. While the author cannot be held responsible for the not infrequent small editorial blemishes, they are somewhat of a nuisance. In conclusion, this is an outstanding and ambitious book, and highly recommended for scholars and the nonacademic alike.

Dr. Noe teaches classics at Calvin College. Calvinism: A History, by D. G. Hart, was published by Yale University Press in 2013. Dr. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College. New Horizons, October 2016.

New Horizons: October 2016

Choosing the Good Portion

Also in this issue

Choosing the Good Portion: An Interview with Patricia E. Clawson and Diane L. Olinger

The Reformation: Then and Now

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