Although the name of John Calvin may be less of a household name than that of Martin Luther or John Wesley, yet he is second to none in influence among Protestant orders.
While studying law in Paris, Calvin experienced what he called a "conversion" which placed him in the class of a heretic when Francis I began his persecutions. Calvin then fled to Switzerland where he had the liberty to follow and develop his religious beliefs. Here he set forth a system that is considered a masterpiece of logical reasoning. This work The Institutes of the Christian Religion which was first published in 1536, is considered one of the greatest books on systematic theology ever written.
Calvin's form of church government is Presbyterian. His doctrine of salvation has man being born into this world a "totally depraved" sinner that has been predestined (or elected), either to eternal life or to eternal damnation, that Christ died only for those predestined to eternal life, who in turn will find the Holy Spirit, as the irresistible grace of God, acting directly upon him assuring him of salvation which cannot be revoked. The influence of this doctrine and Calvin's power over the Protestant world can hardly be over-estimated.
Protestant refugees came to 'Geneva from all parts of Europe and were indoctrinated with the teachings of Calvin. In many cases these disciples would return to their homelands, often at the risk of their lives, to spread Calvin's doctrine. Schaff observed that "Calvin's moral power "tended over all the Reformed Churches and over several nationalities – Swiss, French, German, Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Dutch, English, Scotch and American. His religious influence upon the Anglo-Saxon race in both continents is greater than that of any native Englishman and continues to this day."(1)
However, the day for casting off this power was to come to some. The journey out of error is often a slow and arduous one and so it was for the pioneer restorers. It demanded change, and change man tends to resist. But change did come and perhaps as can be expected, the greatest opposition came from within the ranks of the heavily Calvinistic Baptist and Presbyterian churches.
The lives of the restorers often followed similar patterns. First came their own personal struggles for their salvation dealing with the basic teachings that affected them as individuals. Then, after throwing off this yoke, they would often continue to retain some form of the "Calvinian" type of church government only to finally conclude that it, too, was of human origin.
Barton W. Stone
Barton W. Stone, as a young man, found himself vacillating in religion between the Baptist and the Methodist. The result almost killed his religious interest so that religion became distasteful to him. By 1790, he had his plans for the future mapped in the direction of the legal profession. In order to follow this route he entered the academy at Guilford, North Carolina, which was conducted by the able David Caldwell, an ordained Presbyterian minister. While there, a friend persuaded him to hear James McGready, a well known Presbyterian preacher. McGready was able to convince Stone of sin, but, as is the case of Calvinism, not one word of encouragement was offered. For the next year, young Stone prayed and labored trying to obtain saving faith but fearing he would never receive it. Finally, a discourse on "God Is Love," by William Hodge helped to bring to him the long sought peace of mind. But this was short-lived.
Stone applied for and eventually was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian church. However, he had difficulty in accepting all of the Westminster Confession, the creed of the church. When asked, "Do you receive and adopt the Confession of faith, as containing the system of doctrine as taught in the Bible?" He replied, "I do, as far as I see it consistent with the Word of God." In speaking of the turmoil that he went through, he said, "I at that time believed and taught that mankind were so totally depraved that they could do nothing acceptable to God till his Spirit, by physical, almighty and mysterious power, had quickened, enlightened and regenerated the heart, and thus prepared the sinner to believe in Jesus for salvation. . . . Often when I was addressing the listening multitudes on the doctrine of total depravity, on their inability to believe and on the physical power of God to produce faith, and then persuading the helpless to repent and believe the gospel, my zeal in a moment would be chilled by the contradiction. How can they believe? How can they repent? How can they do the impossibilities? How can they be guilty in not doing them? Such thoughts would almost stifle utterance, and were as mountains pressing me down to the shades of death. I tried to rest in the common salvo of that day – i.e., the distinction between natural and moral ability and inability. The pulpits were continually ringing with this doctrine; but to my mind it ceased to be a relief. . ."(2) Such mental turmoil was not uncommon of those who had honest, enquiring hearts. By making the Bible his constant companion, Stone found that those things written were written that "ye may believe" so that "whosoever will may come."
As expected, this change in Stone would not go unchallenged. Stone had five strong co-laborers in John Dunlavy, Robert Marshall, Richard McNemar, David Purviance, and John Thompson. The Washington Presbytery (Calvinistic organization), charged McNemar with heresy when he taught contrary to the Confession. The charges were then sent to the Kentucky Synod, which in turn sustained them. Realizing that McNemar's fate was a prelude to what was to follow for the rest of them, the six met and submitted objections to the treatment of McNemar, reporting that the Confession of Faith was an impediment to revival.
As of this time Stone had not completely left Calvinism, for he and his five cohorts established the Springfield Presbytery (Calvinistic oversight). Things seemed to go well with them, for in less than a year fifteen churches were established, seven in Ohio and eight in Kentucky, but within the year also finds the composition of the "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. " This document recognizes this Calvinistic form of church government for what it is human in origin, and a hinderance to the gospel.
In the meanwhile, Stone reported his changes to the Presbyterian churches with whom he had been working, relieving them of their financial commitment to him. He continued his work among them laboring on his own farm to support himself. This change not only cost Stone a large salary but also the friendship of two large congregations. But, no longer would Calvinism be a millstone about his neck – he was free!
Thomas Campbell, a preacher for the Anti-Burgher Seceder branch of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), came to America in 1807. His preaching circuit of Washington, Pennsylvania suffered much the same bitter divisions that had existed among his brethren that he had left in Scotland. His efforts to bring peace among them caused him to be marked as a heretic by the Presbyterians, within six months of his arrival in America. Thomas Anderson, in the February meeting of the Chartiers Presbytery, accused Thomas Campbell of teaching that there was only human authority for confessions of faith and creeds of men. The Presbytery in turn took away his preaching appointments and the Synod of the Associated Churches upheld the action, which finally led to Thomas Campbell denouncing the authority of the Presbytery, the Synod, and their courts. He now was an independent preacher with no denominational ties to human creeds.
It was at the home of Abraham Alters eleven months later that Campbell coined the phrase, "Where the scriptures speak, we speak, and where the scriptures are silent, we are silent."(3) Andrew Munro responded, "Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, then there is an end of infant baptism. . . . " Campbell replied, "Of course, if infant baptism be not found in the scripture, we can have nothing to do with it."(4)
Alexander Campbell was reared under the strong Calvinistic influence of his father's Presbyterian faith. It might be noted that the Calvinistic influence came also from the strong faith of his mother Jane who was of French Huguenot extraction. As the Presbyterians, so the French Huguenots also received their creed and form of church government from Calvin.
About four years after the aforementioned exchange between Alters, Thomas Campbell, and Munro, the Campbells were forced into an application of this bold position. Thomas Campbell's family is now in America with him. Alexander, who subscribes to the same positions as his father, has become a father himself. Now, should the new baby Jane be a recipient of infant baptism or not? Studying everything available to him, Alexander eventually concluded that not only should she not be baptized (sprinkled), but that sprinkling was not even baptism, in which case he had never been baptized himself. This conclusion was hard to accept for sprinkling and infant baptism had been the practice of the Seceder church for generations. However, within three months of the birth of Jane (March 13, 1812), Thomas Campbell and his wife Jane, Alexander and his wife Margaret, Alexander's sister and Mr. and Mrs. James Hanen were immersed in Buffalo Creek.
In the fall of 1813, the Brush Run church, which had been established by the Campbells May 4, 1811, applied for and was accepted in the Redstone Baptist Association. This short, shaky relationship was doomed from the beginning for some of the basic beliefs of the Association were not only Calvinistic, but held by the Brush Run church as being completely without scriptural authority.
The Baptists subscribed to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith which is a Calvinistic document; the Campbells did not. It, however, was not until Alexander's famous sermon on "The Law" before a meeting of the Association, that efforts were made to try him as a heretic. Before this could be done, the Brush Run church withdrew from the Redstone Association and joined the less radical Mahoning Association. By 1830, the Mahoning Association was dissolved as being without Bible authority. During his life, Alexander participated in five debates, three of which dealt with Calvinism.
"Racoon" John Smith
"Racoon " John Smith was reared in a Baptist home under the guidance of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. As a young man he began thinking about his own salvation, knowing by Calvinistic faith that he must receive a sign from God showing him that he was among the elect. He tried to convince himself that he was totally depraved which created turmoil within him. He waited anxiously for the revelation, suffering much intense emotion. After one such battle he began to relax and a calm came over him. Maybe this was the sign. At least the church accepted it as such and he was voted into the Baptist church and baptized.
John went through the same type of struggle in seeking a sign that he should preach. This sign seemed as elusive as did the sign of salvation. Finally, in a life and death struggle with an ox, he vowed that if God would spare him he would give his life in preaching the gospel. Smith was spared and he accepted this as a divine call to preach. And preach he did. He became one of the ablest preachers the Baptists had – able to defend the doctrine of Calvin.
Smith, however, had a chink in his armor in the form of a keen wit, an honest heart and an inquiring mind, for he recognized the inconsistencies of the Calvinistic faith. Questions like, "What if the elect do not believe, will they still be saved? What if the non-elect believe, will they be lost?" kept coming back to haunt him. This happened in Spencer's Creek while John was urging the sinners to repent and believe the gospel. These questions so badgered him that he said, "Brethren, something is wrong — I am in the dark, — we are all in the dark, but how to lead you to the light, or to find the way myself, before God, I know not." "Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you," and this is what John did. With the help of Campbell and his Christian Baptist periodical, Smith came to know the truth and stood firmly against Calvinism.
Perhaps the impact of Calvinism on the "Christian" world can be stated no better than Barton Stone did himself. "Let me here speak when I shall be lying under the clods of the grave. Calvinism is among the heaviest clogs on Christianity in the world. It is a dark mountain between heaven and earth, and is amongst the most discouraging hindrances to sinners from seeking the kingdom of God, and engenders bondage and gloominess in the saints. Its influence is felt throughout the Christian world, even where it is least suspected. Its first link is total depravity."(5)
The restorers herein mentioned are by no means all of them but these do typify the general situations that were brought on by Calvinism. Calvinism has perhaps put on a new coat now, but it still rides the same horse.
1. Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, p. 806.
2. Richardson, Robert, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. 11, pp. 190-191.
3. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 237.
4. Ibid., Vol. I, p. 238.
5. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 192.