Calvin and the Protestant Reformation

            Scholars have devoted thought and ink to John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation, which led to a new branch of Christianity—Protestantism—and a new understanding of how Protestants This is a bit awkward – do you mean a new understanding of how Christians would view themselves? would view themselves. Though the United States would not become a sovereign nation until several hundred years after the Protestant Reformation gripped Europe, the religion would nevertheless have a profound impact on the country. Certainly, one of Calvin’s largest influences concerns the Protestant work ethic This is a post Calvin concern.

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Calvin’s followers developed the work ethic.  and, in particular, the value that Americans place on hard work, a value that has arguably led the United States to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Run on sentence. I would divide it. Perhaps one sentence explaining how Calvinists would develop the concent of the Calvinsint work ethc. Then, a sentence on how that led to American wealth.  Calvin, for his part, understood the importance of hard work and, interestingly enough, capitalism, even if his views of capitalism do not necessarily reflect those evident today. (citation here – that is a big claim that requires a source) Also important is the influence that Calvin has exerted on politics, evident both in how the Founding Fathers viewed their role during America’s independence movement as well as in decisions like the separation of church and state. Finally, Calvin heavily influenced American exceptionalism, or the idea that the United States is unique in the world body. In the end, examining how Calvin influenced America’s work ethic, politics, and foundational beliefs will demonstrate just how finely intertwined this religious belief system and the United States are.

            America is one the wealthiest nations in the world, a country that prides itself on its underlying prosperity and ability to provide its citizens a high standard-of-living. Central to this prosperity, of course, is a strong work ethic, which many scholars have tied back to Calvin and his own beliefs on working hard (Feuerherd 2017). In “John Calvin: The Religious Reformer Who Influenced Capitalism,” for instance, scholar Peter Feuerherd writes, “Sociologist Max Weber gave Calvin credit for sanctifying the Protestant work ethic that drove capitalist success” (4), credit that some do not belief that Calvin rightfully deserves. Although this academic debate is worth noting, not least because it can help enlighten why Americans work so hard (Cover 2018), it is interesting to note that Calvin never supported capitalism, at least not completely (Feuerherd 2017). More specifically, while Calvin believed that one could charge interest on money, a radical proposition at the time that violated the Catholic Church’s ideas on usury, he also believed that money should “never be used to exploit the poor” (Feuerherd 5). What exactly Calvin meant with regards to not exploiting the poor is difficult to say, but the United States, at the moment, remains a nation in which socioeconomic inequality is rampant (Fu 2017), a fact that could very well lead some to believe that those at the top are exploiting those at the bottom. Regardless, the truth is that Calvin has influenced the American ethic, which has in turn led to a prosperous country, even if the religious reformer would likely find fault with some of the current economic trends.

            Beyond his influence on economic affairs, Calvin also had a profound influence on American politics, especially in relation to how the Founding Fathers saw themselves. Academic Donald Macleod of “The Influence of Calvinism on Politics” writes to this point, contending that Calvin believed in civil disobedience, but only if magistrates, and not private citizens, led this disobedience (Macleod 2009). For this reason, Macleod argues, the Congress of the United Colonies, not private citizens, issued the Declaration of Independence, ensuring that “the lower magistrates took responsibility as guardians of their people’s freedoms” (7). Had Calvinism not played as strong a role as it did in the early formation of the United States, then it is conceivable that private citizens may have launched emancipatory efforts, though this was clearly not the case. The Calvinist belief that one’s duty to government should not interfere with one’s religious obligations also arguably influenced the Founding Fathers, who insisted on separation between church and state (Van der Vyver 2001). In short, the separation of church and state, the result of the Establishment Clause, reflects Calvin’s belief that one’s relation to government should not hinder one’s obedience to God, a significant idea that is forever enshrined in the American Constitution.

            Lastly, Calvin influenced the idea of American exceptionalism, which states that the United States is unique relative to other nations, particularly with respect to personal freedom and democracy. Columnist Damon Linker of The New Republic discusses the historical dimensions of American exceptionalism, noting how the Pilgrims established colonies allegedly “with God’s aid and assistance,” an idea that later spread during the Second Great Awakening and, still later, during “Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical evocations of Americas as a ‘city on the hill’” (2, 6). The idea of American exceptionalism, in other words, was rooted in the Pilgrims, who saw themselves as unique, though this idea has since spread well beyond the Pilgrims, taking hold throughout the nation and influence affairs both domestic and foreign. Of course, the idea of American exceptionalism has met with fierce critics, who believe that it has instilled the nation with unfounded pride and arrogance, as well as led to global problems that have hurt people throughout the world (Frum 2017). These opinions aside, American exceptionalism remains a part of the American consciousness, shaping how Americans behave socially, politically, and in the international context. As such, when examining American exceptionalism, along with how it has shaped American thinking, it is important to remember that Calvin is the figure largely responsible for this idea.

            As demonstrated, John Calvin and the Christian denomination named in his honor, Calvinism, have strongly influenced the United States. Not only has Calvinism molded the American work ethic, leading to unbridled prosperity even if some criticize how much Americans do work, but the belief system also played an instrumental role when the Founding Fathers declared independence and, later, began to form the government. As for American exceptionalism, one could also attribute this idea to Calvinism, as the Pilgrims, after fleeing England for the United States, came to believe that their journey was divinely inspired, an idea that spread throughout the rest of the country over subsequent centuries. All in all, given the profound influence that Calvinism has had on the United States, it is difficult to imagine the course that the country might have taken had it been free of this influence.

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