Martin Luther, a German priest and theologian, is generally credited with triggering the Protestant Reformation in 1517, when he openly disputed the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly became clear, though, that Luther’s challenge was only part of a burgeoning Protestant movement. The Reformation would spin out in a number of ways as other theologians, clergy and ordinary people tried their hand at creating an alternative to the Catholic Church. Since Church and State were two sides of the same coin in early modern Europe, these religious experiments included re-thinking the role of the state in regulating religious observances and practices.
Calvinism is among the most well-known and influential of these early Reformation movements. Named for the French pastor and theologian Jean (John) Calvin, Calvinism is grounded in specific religious tenets. Calvinist doctrine reflects assumptions about human nature and God’s relationship to humankind, including the possibility of salvation. These tenets are often summed up as "The Five Points of Calvinism":
Total depravity: All humans are born totally depraved and the souls of those who are not spiritually saved will be damned for eternity.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen the "elect" (those He will save). People are powerless to affect their spiritual fate, as God determined this before they were born.
Limited atonement: God will not save everyone.
Irresistible grace: No one can resist or refuse grace (salvation) bestowed by God.
Perseverance of the Saints: Once a person is saved, they are in a permanent state of grace and cannot reject or lose salvation.
Calvinism flourished in Geneva, the Swiss city state where Calvin fled to escape religious persecution in France. He and his followers established a “godly polity” in Geneva based on the tenets of Calvinism and expressed in Calvin’s magisterial work, Institutio Christianae Religionis, or Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Calvinism exercised enormous influence during the Reformation as newly converted men and women fled persecution in their home countries to Protestant city states. Many refugees came to Geneva, where they came directly under Calvin’s influence. It was in Geneva that English Puritanism was born, including the publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560. This Calvinist text is most strongly associated with the Puritans, especially the edition of 1599, which they preferred to other English Bibles, although by the 18th century, they ultimately would come to accept and use the King James Bible completed in 1611.
In the later 1500s and early 1600s, many of the French and English Protestants who had fled to Geneva to escape persecution returned to their home countries where they established “reformed” churches. French Huguenots and English Puritans were both feared and hated by those who did not subscribe to their beliefs. Religious tolerance was anathema to early modern Europeans, most of whom believed that church, state and the authority of the monarch were inseparable. There could only be, as French monarchs expressed it, “une roi, une loi, un foi”-- “one king, one law, one faith." Wars of religion erupted on the continent between Catholics and Protestants.
Protestant countries were not immune to internal religious turmoil. Conflicts over Calvinism, or Puritanism, lay at the heart of the struggle in England. Calvinism’s strict and uncompromising theology created conflict throughout society as English monarchs, clergy and parishioners clashed over the rituals of the Protestant Anglican Church and the state-mandated Book of Common Prayer. As head of the Anglican Church, King James I (1566-1625) saw the Puritans as a threat to his religious and political authority. He actively harassed Puritan preachers and adherents. Those who fled abroad included a small band of Separatists who repudiated the Anglican Church of England entirely, moving first to Leyden in the Netherlands and later to found a colony at Plymouth in New England in 1620.
Most Calvinists, however, continued trying to reform the English Church from within. The Puritans who sponsored and established Massachusetts Bay in 1630 saw their colony as a Calvinist vanguard action in the struggle to reform the English Church. Early settlers encountered a number of challenges but in the flush of the early enthusiasm, it is easy to see the utopian aspects of this “Errand into the Wilderness.” The colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, exhorted families en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to embrace this mission. God, he declared, “shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'the Lord make it like that of New England.' For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are upon us.”
As the situation in England deteriorated and the country moved from unrest to civil war, it looked to the Calvinists like their reform moment had come at last. A number of immigrants to New England returned to England to support the new Puritan Commonwealth established under Oliver Cromwell following the execution of King Charles I in 1649. But, it was not to last. The mother country restored the monarchy and a more moderate Anglican Church in the process. No longer part of the struggle to reform the English Church, the 1660s were something of an identity crisis for New England churches. John Winthrop’s City on a Hill seemed less relevant and the orthodox congregational churches a remnant of an elapsed vision, although Calvinist doctrines and beliefs persisted among the original settlers' descendants.
By the 19th century, Unitarians, Methodists and Baptists populated an increasingly diverse Protestant landscape once dominated by Calvinists. Many orthodox churches, including the Congregational Church in Deerfield, Massachusetts, divided over whether or not to continue to remain Calvinist. In Deerfield, Massachusetts, the congregation voted to hire a Unitarian minister in 1807 even though many members, including Edward Hitchcock's family, were staunchly orthodox. Although the Hitchcock family chose to support the new minister, others did not. Some decided to establish a new orthodox church in South Deerfield rather then embrace the new liberal theology. In Deerfield as in other communities, Calvinism's tenets of total depravity and predestined, unconditional salvation or damnation thus competed with an alternative theology of redemption for all who actively embraced God’s promise of salvation. In the process, New England’s churches reflected a more pluralistic society both in and out of the meetinghouse.