“The Blessings of Liberty” and the Decline of American Protestantism

by Brad K. Gsell

“Protestants Not a Majority in U.S., Study Says,” read a large front-page headline in the October 10, 2012, issue of The Charlotte Observer. True Protestantism has long been in the minority in America, as the mainline denominations fell into apostasy in the twentieth century. However, this headline represents a defining moment in the history of the United States, and it is not at all for the nation’s good.

When the Declaration of Independence was written, it was clearly articulated that our freedoms are not given to us by rulers, and are not a benefit granted by the State or the Church, but they are bestowed by God alone. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were “among” these “unalienable rights.”

When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, the Preamble declared that one of the main purposes of the government was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The Liberty Bell, cast in 1752, was emblazoned with the words of Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

The Protestant Heritage of Liberty

This great heritage of liberty did not just happen. It came largely from the Calvinists and other Protestants who were overwhelmingly predominant in the new nation. Roman Catholicism had its pope, and a long history of political tyranny. Islam believed in killing all “infidels” or converting them by force. Hinduism had its caste system where some were privileged merely by accident of birth. Other religions and political philosophies also had such beliefs.

The Medieval concept of “the divine right of kings,” which held sway for centuries in England and most of Europe, was still jealously guarded by the British royalty at the time of the American Revolution. One example of this philosophy can be seen in a speech to Parliament on March 21, 1609, by King James I: “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods. . . . In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the divine power.rdquo;[] With the King officially declared to be the “Defender of the Faith” and “the Supreme Head of the Church,” any disagreement was apt to bring persecution and instantly made one a disobedient Christian in the eyes of both the Anglican church and the civil government.

But the seeds of liberty and justice were growing vigorously with the rise of Puritanism and Presbyterianism. During the historic Hampton Court Conference[2], held 167 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an exasperated King James I declared: “Presbytery agreeth with monarchy like God with the Devil!”[3]

Just a few decades later, the historic Westminster Confession of Faith was produced in London. In stark contrast to the prevailing beliefs, these Calvinistic Protestants proclaimed that each person was individually responsible before God.

Chapter XX:2 stated: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of [as a matter of] conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.” The Westminster Confession and catechisms were so widely studied and esteemed, that it has been oft repeated that many in America were “raised on oatmeal and the [Westminster] Shorter Catechism.”

The Coming of Protestantism to America

All across Europe, Protestants continued to suffer and to be killed for their faith. But, the news coming from the New World increasingly brought hope to many.

On April 30, 1562, Jean Ribaut, a French Calvinist Protestant (Huguenot), sailed across the Atlantic and entered what is now the St. Johns River, near Jacksonville, Florida. Upon landfall, under the leadership of a Huguenot minister, Ribaut wrote that: “…we fell to the grownd a littell waye from them [Indians], to call upon the name of God, and to beseche him to contynewe [continue] still his goodnes towardes us, and to bring to the knowledg of our Savior Jesus Christ this pooer people.”4

This, reputedly, is the first recorded Protestant worship service in the New World, although there were other Protestants who were involved in expeditions at even earlier dates. Ribaut and company had sailed to America under the sponsorship of Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, himself a Huguenot, for the specific purpose of establishing a place where these French Protestants could come to escape persecution and live with freedom of conscience before God.

Over the next two centuries, thousands more fled to America to obtain religious freedom. Just a few of the groups which came, or developed after arriving in the New World, were: the Pilgrims (Separatists) of Plymouth Plantation; the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; the Scots-Irish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, Swiss Anabaptists, and English Quakers of Pennsylvania and the lower colonies; the Dutch Reformed of New York; Baptists of Rhode Island; and Congregationalists of Connecticut.

This flood of immigrants was so overwhelmingly Protestant that, by the time of the American Revolution, all non-Protestants combined comprised a mere two percent of the population!5 Of the Protestants, a very large majority of these were “Reformed” — members of the denominations influenced by John Calvin.

Certainly, there were many who did not live a godly Christian life. Clearly there were other competing worldviews and philosophies. Yet it was largely the Protestant — and, more specifically, the Calvinist — influence which brought us republican government and the greatest and freest nation in the history of the world.6

The “Presbyterian Rebellion”

During the American Revolution, this love of liberty by Protestants was not lost on the British government. King George III is widely reputed to have referred to the Revolution as “a Presbyterian Rebellion,” and similar sentiments were expressed by many others. Johann Heinrichs, a captain in the Hessian Jager Corps, wrote from Philadelphia on January 18, 1778: “Call this war, my dearest friend, by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.”7 Horace Walpole, the Fourth Earl of Oxford, told his fellow members of Parliament that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson,”8 referring to Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

American Rebellion, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.”7 Horace Walpole, the Fourth Earl of Oxford, told his fellow members of Parliament that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson,”8 referring to Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

A year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Edmund Burke tried to warn the Parliament that “the people [of America] are Protestants, and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”9 And, indeed, some of these early Protestant American patriots took as their motto: “No king but King Jesus!” — obviously in opposition to the concept of “the divine right of kings.”

It is this background that made the First Amendent to the U.S. Constitution so crucial, and it is the direct historical antecedent (an official state-sanctioned denomination) to which the words of the Establishment Clause were directed. Sadly, what was intended to protect the RIGHTS of the people, has today been turned on its head to RESTRICT those precious rights.

A Republic With Limited Representative Government

These American Protestants believed that “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers #51, stated: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” This led them to the wonderful system of checks and balances which is embedded in our Constitution. Since both the governed and those governing are all sinners, the Founders gave us a government where no one person or group was to have too much power. Limited government, which protected the rights and safety of the people, was what was stipulated.

This was based largely on the Presbyterian system of government and the principles espoused by John Calvin in Geneva. Indeed, John Calvin had written: “Yet civil government has as its appointed end, so long as we live among men, to cherish and protect the outward worship of God … to form our social behaviour to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.”10

Historian George Bancroft, of Harvard University, states emphatically that “He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”11 Alexis de Tocqueville, the Roman Catholic French historian, visited America in the 1830s, and marveled at what he found. America at that time was still overwhelmingly Protestant. He wrote: “There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation on earth.”12 Proverbs 14:3 tells us that “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.”

The “Protestant Work Ethic”

The very first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Learned by multiplied thousands of American children, who had it reinforced in reading the Scriptures and by observing its implications in the lives of their parents, the United States became the most prosperous and inventive nation in the history of mankind.

In 1904 and 1905, German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. By no means a Calvinist, Weber thought it a “mystery” and “strange” that these beliefs could produce such a flourishing society. However, he recognized the obvious reason: “[To the Calvinist] The world exists to serve the glorification of God and for that purpose alone. The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability.”13

Man’s carnal nature makes him attempt to get as much for himself as he can for the least amount of effort — and no effort at all if he can accomplish it! However, the true child of God makes 1 Corinthians 10:31 his central motto for living: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” That’s why atheistic Communism and other totalitarian systems in the 20th century produced vastly inferior products and resulted in men working out of fear of punishment, rather than joyfully doing the best job they could do for God’s glory. Conversely, that’s why a Capitalism constrained by the Ten Commandments and other moral teachings of Scripture is the best system, resulting in the widest prosperity ever seen.

The Protestant way of life was characterized by these Scriptural principles: diligent, hard labor; unswerving honesty and integrity in all dealings, including business; constant motivation to improve and offer a greater product for less money — and all to the end that God might be glorified. Perry Miller, of Harvard University, wrote concerning this that those who came to America: “… often followed spiritual dictates in comparative disregard of ulterior considerations.”14 E. Digby Baltzell, of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that in America, positions of leadership were largely held by Protestants, and that their influence “governs the aspirations and values of the masses.”15 Think of the expense and frustration we all experience today with shoddy workmanship and materials, overcharging, low productivity, etc., caused by those who do not have the glory of God as their motivation!

Richard Green, of Oxford University, wrote concerning this in the 19th century: “It is in Calvinism that the modern world strikes its root; for it was Calvinism that first revealed the worth and dignity of man. Called of God, and heir of heaven, the trader at his counter and the digger in his field suddenly rose into equality with the noble and the king.”16 Even in Europe, centuries before the American Revolution, it was often the Protestants who were by far the most productive citizens. A case in point is the French Huguenots, who were the tradesmen, shopkeepers and laborers in 16th century France. With approximately 500,000 Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, France never fully recovered, as some of its brightest and most innovative citizens were no longer there to invigorate the social fabric and economy of the French nation.


The great effect of Protestantism — of Biblical Christianity — on the United States has largely waned. Not only has the official percentage dipped below 50%, but a headline in the New York Times, October 9, 2012, declares: “Percentage of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds.” The true Protestantism of the Reformation is actually a very tiny percentage. The effects are being seen as our nation has become alarmingly awash in debt from, among other things, the massive welfare programs in what has become an entitlement society. Without the Biblical framework, more and more people have reverted to covetousness, jealousy, a desire to steal from one segment of society to enrich another, and a vote for the government officials who will give them the most “stuff.” Liberty has taken a back seat as trust in God has largely been replaced with trust in the government. Some Christians may be quick to say that we should make it our life’s goal to bring Biblical principles into the arts, business, science, government, etc. Many who have put all their energies into such a supposed “cultural mandate” have been distracted and are now disillusioned. Certainly we should be good patriots. Certainly we should be diligent and honest in every area of our labors. Certainly we can have influence for good in the way we conduct our lives before others. Certainly we must “Strengthen the things which remain” (Revelation 3:2). However, all of this is to no avail if we ignore the real problem — the age-old problem. Men and women are in sin and are in need of a Saviour! Our commission is to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Only the Gospel of Christ can change our society. Only the change brought about in each heart, one by one, will have any real effect on our nation. We grieve at the wickedness we see around us — growing stronger and bolder by the day. Proverbs 29:2 tells us: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” However, we are not defeated! We must take courage and remember that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal,” (2 Corinthians 10:4) and that “… we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Romans 8:37).