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March 1999

This one’s based on Michael Walzer’s excellent book ‘Revolution of the Saints’. It gives a good account of Puritan mentality, especially the mentality behind the English Civil War. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print and therefore almost impossible to get. But there’s always a good library. LEE


What role is assigned by Walzer to Calvinism in the development of political modernity?

Michael Walzer considered the role that Calvinism played in the development of political modernity in his book The Revolution of the Saints. He focused upon the English Calvinists, defined as "those ministers and laymen who adopted some form of Calvinist ideology".(1) The beliefs, motivations and actions of Calvinists between the years 1530 and 1660 were gradually developed and their influence upon society grew during this period. Walzer’s account covers a broad scope of information in great depth, to an extent that an essay of this length cannot fully justify. I have therefore taken elements of Walzer’s account and regrettably discarded much of it. The Huguenots and the Marian exiles have both been omitted from below, as have Walzer’s views on the gentry and the ‘body politic.’

Calvinism was developed rapidly in Geneva and also in parts of Europe and in Scotland, but this was not the case for Calvinists in England or, as they are more commonly known, Puritans. The Genevan Calvinists, while in a relatively safe position of some power and acceptance, were able to turn their thoughts and actions to the practical glorification of God. Calvin believed that this was best accomplished through political power and "pursued power in Geneva with all the artfulness of a Machiavellian adventurer."(2) In England however, the spreading of the Word was a long process with only a small number of dedicated preachers, each attempting to recruit through their own powers of persuasion. Unable to have any immediate effect upon the politics of the nation, they turned their attention inwards to their own experiences and reassured their faith theological analysis. Puritans provided detailed accounts of their own conversion and their own vocations in private journals and diaries which were later incorporated into sermons, preached from the pulpits to anyone who would listen. Aspiring to be saints, they frequently published autobiographical and semi-biographical accounts of their lives, publicly outlining their struggles and advising fellow saints as to how to proceed. According to William Haller, the Puritan publications covered the range of experiences that the soul of those in the invisible church, those pre-destined for salvation, were to have. These were produced as a ‘perfect formula’ of "election, vocation, justification, sanctification, glorification",(3) although they could only personally relate to the ‘election’ and ‘vocation’ elements. Taking the advice of Calvin, the Puritans strongly encouraged the personal reading and understanding of the Bible, rather than have the teachings of bishops and the priesthood thrust upon them. From their largely self-taught Biblical knowledge, they partook in theological debates and produced a flood of books containing Biblical analysis of various quality. William Perkins suggested that particular attention should be paid to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the gospel of St. John, as these doctrines contained "the key to the whole."(4)

The Puritans, whilst refining their Biblical knowledge, were acutely aware of the traditional nature of English society with its rigid social hierarchy. Calvinist ideology directly confronted and broke away from the traditional theory of the great chain of being that held the hierarchy in place. The great chain was the idea that God, as the divine creator, had assigned every possible form of existence to fill a particular place within the cosmos. Each form of existence, from the smallest inanimate stone to the nine distinct angelic orders, had their place and, more importantly, their specific hierarchical position within the cosmos, base primarily on their closeness to God. The animal kingdom represented a link in the great chain that, although of a higher status than plants, was lower than that of man. However, the great chain theory did not only establish "angel, man, animal, plant and stone"(5) as the descending order of status. Each link in the chain was also thought to have had its own internal hierarchy. In the animal kingdom, lions and eagles were thought to have been of superior value to shrews and sparrows, whereas amongst men this same way of thinking was reflected in the hierarchical organisation of society. The position of bishops was therefore believed to have been of a higher status and importance than that of the common serf. This form of mentality had also justified the arbitrary rule of the king as a ‘divine right’.

Calvinism accepted the belief that God was omnipresent and had created the social hierarchy, although not in accordance with the theory of the great chain, but for reasons which remained unknown to man. Each man was therefore not born into his status, but awaited a ‘calling’, or command, directly from God. All men were thus simply viewed as God’s instruments that could be used, discarded or replaced at His will. It followed that if man was simply an instrument of God, as indeed all creatures were, then a man had no claim to his position of power, either through personal achievement or from his hereditary lineage. This effectively undermined the traditional idea that bishops were superior to other men, as well as justifying the severance of popish rule that had occurred during the reformation.

If Calvinism justified the rejection of the old hierarchical order, it would need to provide an alternative that inspired men to actively participate in the reconstruction of a new order. This was an inherent problem in Calvinist ideology, for men, under the command of an omnipotent God with the power to directly command and to change things, would have no need to fear wickedness. This, together with the Calvinist idea of pre-destination, encouraged a resigned passivity amongst the faithful. This mistaken interpretation was a definite danger, as Calvinist preachers were all too aware. The seventeenth century was an uncertain and turbulent period in English history, as radical political and religious ideas, either home-grown or imported from the continent, emerged to question the status quo and, in a number of cases, prophesised the imminent rise of the Anti-Christ. Puritan writings reflected the uncertainties of the time and described the potential threat of chaos in much the same manner as Hobbes’ fearful descriptions of a ‘state of nature’, where men lived in "continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short."(6) Calvin had earlier warned of the destructive possibilities of human wickedness and had taken an active and very successful role in Genevese politics, claiming political office to be a vocation in itself. He encouraged others to do likewise, thus ensuring that Calvinism, as an ideology(7), had an effect upon both the religious and the secular (political) spheres of society.

In order to avoid passivity and the potential of wickedness, Calvinists were required and instructed to consciously and deliberately become an instrument of God. This entailed more than a simple submission to God’s commands, for men had to make themselves both willing and serviceable to God. "God’s command sought out not only pious acquiescence, but a kind of eager consent."(8) To be a saint, one needed to volunteer to be commanded as God’s instrument; to actively consent both in spirit and action. Volunteering did not, however, guarantee salvation. The invisible church always remained so. However, failing to volunteer for saintly duties was a sure sign of not being a member. Universal voluntarism destroyed the great chain, in that willing obedience to God overrode any other traditional source of command.

The Puritan contempt for hereditary forms of power and expectation enabled them to confidently enter the political arena. Their fear of the surrounding wickedness and sin, that appeared to be on the increase, gave them a purpose and the political success of Calvin could be used as an example of how Godly duty operated within the secular sphere. Combined, this was the saints’ call to arms; their chance to actively volunteer as an instrument of God. The destruction of the old order was never to be an end in itself. It was only the beginning of an imaginative process of construction requiring far more than reform, which merely suggests an improvement upon the traditional. The saints called for the construction of a Christian Commonwealth. In the seventeenth century, this was not even a call for radical reform; this was revolution.

The Puritan vision of heaven on Earth had to be fought for, although the call to arms did not necessarily require armed insurrection. The first battle that the saints faced was an immediate personal battle within themselves. A strict disciplined approach to life, including home, family and work, was an essential preparation for the battles that may lay ahead. They consistently delivered sermons and produced countless books on how to strengthen self-discipline. This advice was intended to encompass every aspect and moment in the normal life of a saint. A popular book, A Garden of Spirituall Flowers, was frequently reprinted and instructed the saint that upon waking, he should immediately pray. "And let this bee done solemnely upon thy knees (and not as many doe, lazing upon their beds) that it may bee done with a humble, pure, and sincere devotion."(9) These books of instruction and duty ranged from the very detailed, lengthy academic books that were discussed and debated in Cambridge University, to the short journals that were specific, to the point, and set out in plain English. The latter could be easily adapted into the sermons of preachers. This wilful self-discipline was consistently encouraged and entered into nearly all aspects of Puritan thought.

As important as Puritan self-discipline, was the closely linked concept of idleness. The gradual disintegration of the old order had inadvertently created a growing number of ‘masterless men’. These were often "rogues, vagabonds and beggars, roaming the countryside, sometimes in search of employment, too often mere unemployable rejects of society".(10) Whilst in rural surroundings the masterless men, acting individually or in small groups, were largely ignored; in large towns and cities, where casual labour was relatively abundant, they became visible, less easy to overlook and of greater concern. A government inquiry in 1602 calculated the number of masterless men at thirty thousand in London alone.(11) The Puritans were completely intolerant to idleness and maintained a continual vigilance against its appearance in any form. They had an equal contempt for both urban and rural masterless men and condemned them as idle vagabonds "which cause sedition and tumults."(12) Seen as further evidence of the growing sin and wickedness surrounding them, the saints once again began their battle against idleness internally. They found grace and avoided succumbing to the surrounding wickedness by subjecting themselves to a rigorous schedule of self-discipline. They also produced literature describing in detail how every moment in the day of a saint should be spent serving God. Right down to the number of hours that should be spent sleeping.

The revolution that the saints were working towards was not a religious one, or even a political one, but was a complete revolution incorporating every aspect of social life. They began with the individual, freeing him from the traditional hierarchical bonds and installing a strict self-disciplined approach to his thought and action. The saints would then turn their attention towards the family unit with the same objective, to construct it in order to compliment their utopian vision of a Christian Commonwealth. The Puritan objection to tradition had led the attack upon the great chain theory and the social hierarchy. This objection was mirrored in their rejection of the traditional running and order of the family. Seventeenth century families were of a considerable size, incorporating "a wide range of kin and a large number of servants, apprentices and even hired workers".(13) The Puritans instigated the transformation of the family institution, from the large patriarchal unit saturated with the traditional family loyalties, obligations and corporate bonds, to the conjugal family unit focused upon the married couple. This gradual transformation continued "for the next two hundred years"(14) resulting in the modern nuclear family, that the individualist theory of Mrs. Thatcher, was thought to have surpassed the necessity of society.(15)

The Puritan concern with family translated into a wealth of literature, as most Puritan concerns did, although the emotional aspects of family and marriage were rarely mentioned. Love was generally overlooked in favour of pragmatic advice regarding the order of ‘government’ of the family. The family, like the state, was seen as a divine institution which was entered into by contract. Their desire to be free from the traditional corporate bonds of the family relied primarily on secular authority. Hence, in Calvinist Holland and later in Cromwell’s England, individuals entered voluntarily into the marriage contract which was then "made a matter of public record and secular regulation."(16) Enforcing secular regulation upon the family freed the individual from traditional family bonds, allowing them to enter voluntarily into a marriage contract: It also helped to move away from the larger extended family, the sheer size of which had been relatively unmanageable, either internally or externally. The Puritan writings on family enhanced their arguments against tradition and provided a glimpse of their ideal political society with its new forms of contractual association. Inherited ideals and values were dismissed along with the traditional arguments on family, which had "rested on a system of historical connection, which was summed up in paternity and generation."(17) Walzer claimed that this shift in the nature of family connection paralleled and supported the rise of secular political sovereignty.

Within the family, the father was assigned the role of authoritative head of the household. This role was not based upon emotion, which was discouraged and even repressed, but was to be taken very seriously, as any position of authority for Puritans needed to be. "The father was prince and schoolmaster, minister and judge in his house."(18) The home was seen as an equivalent to a small state with fatherhood as a political office. However, despite the arbitrary power assigned to the father, his sovereignty was strictly confined to the household and was not recognised outside the home. The father did not rule the home for himself, nor even in the interests of his family, but purely as an instrument of God. Fatherhood, therefore, had certain responsibilities that compared favourably towards political office and just as political office was a calling and therefore a religious duty, fatherhood too became a calling and a religious duty. This duty ensured that from birth, the child of the family was installed with the religious discipline and political obedience required to be a saint and a citizen.

Puritans effectively turned fatherhood into a form of political sovereignty and family into a ‘little commonwealth’. The radical construction of the family, its organisation and function provides a model and clear indication of how they envisioned a future Christian Commonwealth. However, there was never full consensus for the radicalism that the Puritans were actively working towards. Their ideas were developed, debated, altered or rejected according to circumstance. The revolutionary decades (1640-1660) were the most unpredictable of the seventeenth century, fully testing the pragmatic approach of the Puritans. Walzer lists the dramatic episodes that unfolded during this period: The impersonal judicial trial and execution of King Charles I; the appearance of the New Model Army; the attempts to impose a written constitution for the nation and the reorganisation of the church, state and government are but a few. He refrains from detail on any of these issues, concentrating instead upon the early foundations and development of Calvinist ideology leading up to this period.

Walzer claimed that Puritanism had gradually undermined the old world order from 1530 to 1640, whilst preparing the saints with the righteous determination and zeal to construct the new. This preparation involved a willing self-disciplined approach to all areas of life; social, political and religious. Radical new definitions of institutes such as the family were embraced and their transformation begun. The revolutionary decades followed, characterised by frantic confrontation which saw the old order finally collapse. This should have been the saints’ finest moment; a vindication for the rigorous preparation and training that they had endured for over a century. However, the Puritan utopia did not materialise and there are numerous reasons for this final failure. Walzer neglects these reasons, concentrating instead upon the comparisons between Puritanism and modernity.

He rightly states that "Virtually all the modern world has been read into Calvinism"(19), but claims that the connection is not as direct, nor as clear, as generally assumed. The ‘modern’ elements of Calvinist theory and practice were incorporated into modernity, only after a "long and complex process involving selection, corruption, and transformation".(20) The liberalism of Locke, for example, based upon the ideas of contract and democracy, relied upon "voluntary subjection and self-control".(21) It is easy to relate these ideas, and even the terminology used, to Calvinist ideology. However, Locke’s political theory was only practical under the assumption that men naturally behave reasonably. It lacked the Calvinist suspicion, almost paranoia, that men would lapse into wickedness and sin, unless tightly controlled by saintly self-discipline or secular institutional repression. Calvinism was a long way from modern liberalism.

The transition from traditional society into the modern form was not possible whilst the static bonds of the old order still remained. Calvinism, armed with an ideological vision of a new order, self-righteous belief and a zealous ambition was able to attack and exploit the inadequacies of tradition. Their success inadvertently created a potentially chaotic society of roaming vagabonds, civil wars and a growing fear of disorder. Calvinism offered security in the form of pre-destination and discipline, settling the fears of those who joined the cause. However, once some form of order had returned in society, the fear subsided. Ordinary men deserted the saintly life to pursue a moderate lifestyle in relative security. Left abandoned, the saints were once more in a powerless position, although now, without a traditional order to attack. They had to stand back and observe the restoration of Charles II, the publication of Locke’s Two Treaties of Government, and the development of political modernity.

Walzer assigned Calvinism, particularly Puritanism, to the role of providing an ideology of transition that enabled society to discard the shackles of the traditional order and embrace modernity. His detailed analysis of Puritan motivation and action during the seventeenth century is informative and supports this theory. However, the omission of detail concerning the revolutionary decades is unfortunate and suggests, that rather than compliment his theory, Puritan action during this period may have contradicted it. Personally, I believe that The Revolution of the Saints would only have benefited if Walzer had continued his analysis consistently.



  1. Walzer set the parameters of this definition as "the range of opinion (that) extends from ‘Scottish’ Presbyterians to some of the more independent of the Independents, but not beyond." Michael Walzer – THE REVOLUTION OF THE SAINTS p.115 footnote 3.
  2. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p.10
  3. William Haller – THE RISE OF PURITANISM p.90 & p. 93
  4. William Haller – op. cit. p. 87
  5. Michael Walzer – op.cit. p.153
  6. Thomas Hobbes – LEVIATHAN p. 89
  7. Ideology is used to suggest "Its practical effect…to generate organization and cooperative activity." See Michael Walzer – op. cit. p.27
  8. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p.167
  9. Rogers, Greenham, Perkins et al.A Garden of Spirituall Flowers Quoted in William Haller – op. cit. p.118
  10. Christopher Hill – THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN p.40
  11. See Christopher Hill – op. cit. p.39
  12. Geneva Bible marginal note quoted in Christopher Hill – op. cit. p.39
  13. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 188
  14. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 188
  15. In an interview during the late 1980’s Mrs. Thatcher remarked of "there being ‘no such thing as society’…There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first." Margaret Thatcher – THE DOWNING STREET YEARS p. 626
  16. Michael Walzer – op. cit. pp. 188-9
  17. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 187
  18. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 190
  19. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 300
  20. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 300
  21. Michael Walzer – op. cit. p. 302




William Haller


(Harper Torchbooks, 1957)

Christopher Hill


(Penguin Books, 1991)


(Penguin Books, 1993)

Margaret Thatcher


(Harper Collins, 1993)

David Underdown


(George Allen & Unwin, 1985)

Michael Walzer


(Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1966)

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