America’s Founding and Christianity (Part I): Luther and the Puritan Influence
2012. It’s an election year. Invariably it seems, discussions of American politics lead to discussions of America’s founding. And often tempers flare: “America’s founders were Christians,” some claim. “No they weren’t; they were anti-religious Deists,” retort others.
Amidst such clamor and polarization, what’s the right answer? Is there one? Did Christianity influence America’s founding or not? Yes, John Locke influenced the founders on doctrines such as social contract, Montesquieu on the separation of powers, and Sir William Blackstone on natural law. But did the founding begin here, or did it go back further? To answer this question, we must consider Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
What Has Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation to Do with America and Its Founding?
Believe it or not, the Protestant Reformation contributed greatly to America’s founding. Let’s begin with the basic facts: On October 31, 1517, Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on a church door in Wittenburg. What ensued is commonly referred to as the Protestant Reformation. And as great a change as Luther’s writings wrought upon religious structures, they also wrought great change on political structures.
We see this especially in Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine, articulated in Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523) and Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved (1526). In short, this doctrine teaches that God rules the world in two ways: through the spiritual kingdom and the earthly kingdom. In consideration of how far the earthly kingdom’s authority extends, Luther writes, “[W]here the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them” . In short, temporal or civil authority, while a divine institution, nevertheless has its limits.
We can see that Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine has had great impact upon Western civilization’s development. For instance, Thomas Helwys (c. 1575 – c. 1616) echoes this two-kingdoms distinction in Mystery of Iniquity (1612), John Milton (1608-74) in A Treatise of Civil Power (1659), John Locke (1632-1704) in On the Difference Between Civil and Ecclesiastical Power (1673-74), United States founder James Madison (1751-1836) in The Federalist #51 (1788), and many more.
To illustrate, Helwys writes that the king, “although a king, [i]s but a mortal man and as a mortal man, though a king, ha[s] no authority whatever over the consciences of his subjects” . Similarly, Madison writes, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” . No doubt, this trajectory influenced jurists and philosophers such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone, through whom the founders were influenced directly and indirectly.
Madison explicitly states as much. Writing in an 1821 letter to F. L. Schaeffer, Madison credits Luther with the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical spheres:
[America’s government] illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity .
Undoubtedly, Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine illustrates the Protestant Reformation’s impact upon Western civilization’s development and America’s founding. Yet, the Reformation’s impact is also seen in the Puritans’ writings.
From Puritan Reformers to Political Revolutionaries
Who were these Puritans? To answer this, we must note the Reformation’s historical development. As history unfolded, reformation swept through Germany, then continental Europe, and then England. Shortly after reaching England, King Henry VIII established the Church of England. The Puritans arose within this church in hopes of reforming (or purifying) it. The next century witnessed an English civil war and much persecution upon the Puritans, resulting in martyrdom in many cases. As a result, a small band of Puritans set sail in 1620 on the Mayflower seeking religious liberty. This ship would famously shore at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. It is this Puritan legacy that would bear great influence upon America’s founding approximately 150 years later .
The Puritans were primarily Calvinists who were concerned about religious liberty, and they were prolific writers. David Hall considers this topic in The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (2005). In it, he states, “Calvinism is, even by critics, still credited with immense political impact” . The Puritans’ impact upon America’s founding is seen especially in the writings of George Buchanan (1506-1582), John Knox (c. 1514-1572), and Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600-1661). In De Jure Regni apud Scotos (1579), Buchanan argues that political power should be situated with the people. He argues further that kings are not above a land’s laws, and that citizens may resist and even punish tyrants. Here, Buchanan echoes Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine.
Knox similarly preached against tyranny. J. W. Allen cites him as “one of the chief personal factors in the history of political thought in the sixteenth century” . Knox had written, “Kings then have not an absolute power in their regiment to do what pleases them; but their power is limited by God’s word” . Then, Locke in Two Treatises of Government (1689), Thomas Jefferson in “The Declaration of Independence” (1776), and James Madison in “The Constitution of the United States” (1789) would further echo these doctrinal developments.
When Jefferson states that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” or that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,” he shows his debt, not only to Locke, but also to Knox and these and other Puritan writers. Hall agrees: “Thomas Jefferson would later crystallize [Knox’s] thought in virtually identical Knoxian accents: Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God,” which “appeared not only as Thomas Jefferson’s motto but was also proposed as the official seal of the United States on the afternoon of July 4, 1776” .
Hall remarks similarly concerning the Puritans’ influence upon the founder John Witherspoon (1723-1794): “Witherspoon’s thought indicates not merely the continuation of the ideas of [John] Calvin, [Pierre] Viret, [Theodore] Beza, and Knox, but their refinement in America” . As a matter of fact, Witherspoon’s mother was Knox’s descendant. For sure, the founders had endured monarchs who believed themselves above the law and usurped their rights. Thus they built protections into the Constitution to ensure respect for the rule of law, such as the Bill of Rights. Hence, some even regard Knox as the “father of the American Revolution” .
However, perhaps most famous among the Puritans is Rutherford, the author of Lex Rex (“Law Is King”) (1644). In this work, Rutherford presents theories of limited government, constitutionalism, and separation of powers . Rutherford himself had stated, “[A] power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent, than a license to sin” . Again, Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Madison would echo Rutherford, as they had Luther, Buchanan, and Knox.
Here, I have only considered the influence of three Puritans. Still, many more examples remain . Suffice it to say, those principles set forth by Luther and the Puritans were born out in America’s founding.
By no means have I provided an exhaustive study of America’s founding. In fact, volumes could be (and have been) filled concerning America’s founding and the historical lineage of ideas that led to it. In simply considering Christianity’s cultural, political, and even religious influences upon America’s founding, I have not considered her founders’ faith per se. For sure, the founders’ ideology stretches back to Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, and others. Yet, it also stretches back further—to the Puritans’ notion of religious liberty and even unto Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine.
Did Christianity impact America’s founding? Absolutely. Undeniably. As Hall remarks, “Religion played a leading role in the American Revolution” . Yet having considered and illustrated this question, we must ask yet another: “So what? So what if Christianity bore upon our founding? What does this mean for us today? And how, if at all, does it bear upon our Christian witness today?” I will consider these questions in next week’s essay.
 Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), in Selected Writings of Martin Luther: Volume 2 (1520-1523), Theodore G. Tappert (ed.), J. J. Schindel (trans.), Walther I. Brandt (rev.) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 295.
Luther points to Psalm 7:8-9, Jeremiah 17:9-10, Acts 1:28, and 15:8. He also considers the examples of Moses (Gen. 1:26), David (Ps. 115:16), and Peter (Acts 5:29). Humorously, Luther illustrates the absurdity of governments that overstep their authority, comparing them to madmen who believe they have authority over matters that they clearly do not: “Would you not judge the person insane who commanded the moon to shine whenever he wanted it to?” asks Luther (295).
 William R. Estep, Jr., “Thomas Helwys: Bold Architect of Baptist Policy on Church-State Relations,” Baptist History and Heritage, Vol. XX, No. 3 (July 1985): 31.
 James Madison, The Federalist #51, 1788.
 James Madison, “Letter to F. L. Schaeffer” (Dec. 3, 1821), printed in Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (Vol. III: 1816-1828) (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 242-43. Justice Hugo Black echoed this same theme just 50 years ago: “[A] union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion” (Justice Hugo Black, Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 ).
 To be sure, another group of Europeans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 with more economical motivations. Nevertheless, this does not exclude the Puritans’ influence upon America’s founding.
 David W. Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (New York: Lexington Books, 2003), 92.
 W. Stanford Reid, “John Knox’s Theology of Political Government,” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 19, no. 4 (1998), 530.
 Knox, cited in Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1981), 98.
 Hall, 232, 252.
 Ibid., p. 373. Similarly, Schaeffer wrote, “Witherspoon certainly knew Samuel Rutherford’s writing well. The other Founding Fathers may have known him” (Schaeffer, 106).
 Ibid., 230.
 Francis Schaeffer suggests that Jefferson derived at least four basic points from Rutherford: (1) inalienable rights; (2) government by consent; (3) separation of powers; and (4) the right of revolution (Schaeffer, 105).
 Schaeffer, 100; quoting Rutherford. Again, Hall writes: “A systematic review of Lex Rex can help moderns understand the Calvinistic mindset at the time of the founding of colonial America” (255).
 Other examples include, but are not limited to, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Lambert Daneau (c. 1535 – c. 1590), Johannes Althusius (1563-1638), John Cotton (1585-1652), John Winthrop (1587-1649), William Bradford (1590-1657), Cotton Mather (1663-1728), and others.
 Hall, 386.