Reformed Protestantism
February 1972

“Reformed Protestantism,” Ensign, Feb. 1972, 29

Reformed Protestantism

Reformed Protestantism is the name given to that branch of Christianity which sprang from the teachings of John Calvin. Jean Cauvin, as this great French reformer was originally christened, was born near Paris in the village of Noyon on July 10, 1509. His father enjoyed a position of influence with the local church officials and nobility and therefore was able to give his son many material advantages.

It is interesting to note that in a sense both John Calvin and Joseph Smith began preparing for their great missions at the age of fourteen; the nature of the preparations, of course, was quite different. While Joseph was largely deprived of the advantages of a formal education and was tutored by divine messengers, Calvin received his instruction in some of the finest universities of his day. At the age of eighteen he completed his undergraduate work in philosophy at the University of Paris. He then pursued more advanced studies in law and in the classics.

Calvin became a member of a group of reform-minded humanists, but it was not until he was about twenty-five years old that he experienced a dramatic conversion to religion, although the exact circumstances are not known. He believed that God had spoken to him through the scriptures, and that henceforth obedience to God’s will was his first duty. He felt that God had “elected” him, or in other words that God had saved him through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Exactly when Calvin realized that he must break from the prevailing church is not known, but by 1535 he found it necessary to flee from his native France and seek refuge in Protestant Switzerland, settling first in the city of Basel. It was here that he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was at once a defense of his Protestant friends as well as a complete exposition of his theology. The publication of this work in 1536 immediately earned for Calvin a leading place in the whole Reformation movement. During that same year he was invited to move to Geneva, where he was to develop a model Christian commonwealth and center of learning whose influence was to extend throughout Europe.

Calvin’s emphasis on God’s glory and sovereignty agrees with Latter-day Saint concepts, although his particular views are at variance with them. Like most other Protestant and Catholic theologians, Calvin spoke of three persons in only one divine essence. Unlike Joseph Smith, who saw the Father and the Son and described them as distinct glorious “Personages,” Calvin taught that God is indescribable and that “as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted. …”1

Calvin also believed that knowledge of God is essential and comes adequately only from the scriptures. Speaking of the holy scriptures, he said: “The full authority which they ought to possess with the faithful is not recognized, unless they are believed to have come from heaven, as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.”2 He concluded that such a recognition could come only through the witness of the Holy Ghost. An almost identical concept was revealed to Joseph Smith; speaking of a revelation he had just given, the Lord testified:

“These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; …

“For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them one to another; …

“Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words.” (D&C 18:34–36.)

Because of the importance he attached to the written scriptures, Calvin also stressed the necessity of studying them. This emphasis on education has characterized most of the reformed or Calvinist churches ever since. Presbyterians and Congregationalists, for example, have to their credit the founding of numerous important colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere.

Calvin further taught that man was originally created, that he bore the stamp of God’s image, and that he was fully capable of obeying God’s will. In Adam’s fall, however, Calvin believed that man lost his potential for doing good and became totally depraved or evil. According to Calvin’s doctrine of “original sin,” all of Adam’s posterity inherited his curse.

“Original sin,” he said, may be defined as “a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed the works of the flesh.” In such condition, man of himself can earn neither merit nor salvation. Calvin continues by saying that man can be only “deservedly condemned by God to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity.”3

Latter-day Saints also believe in the fall of Adam but with a great difference. Even though Adam “became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation” and his transgression introduced the spiritual and physical deaths into the world (see D&C 29:39–42; 2 Ne. 2:22–25; Moses 5:10–11), still his fall did not totally destroy man’s capacity to do good.

Although the scriptures properly describe the fallen man as “carnal, sensual, and devilish” and as an “enemy to God” unless he yields to the promptings of the Holy Ghost (seeMosiah 3:19), still men are encouraged to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:27–28). Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints acknowledge that they must rely on the merits of Christ if they are to be saved.

John Calvin defined predestination as “the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man … some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation. …”4 As already observed, he believed that all men are depraved and worthy only of damnation. The fact that some are saved, he argued, is exclusively due to the “good pleasure of God.” According to this doctrine, God himself chooses to elect some and condemn others. He admonished that “the efficient cause of election is the free mercy of God which we ought to acknowledge with humility and thanksgiving.”5

Calvin denied that God bases his choice on any individual’s good works, either past or future; he specifically rejected the notion that God’s foreknowledge had anything to do with election. In Calvin’s view, Christ has been the only person sufficiently holy or pure to be justified or saved by works. Even though one is not saved because of works, the elected believer will live a life of good works as a proof of his saved condition. Thus, “We are justified not without, and yet not by works.”6

Latter-day Saints reject the notion of predestination, because it would destroy what they regard as the heart of man’s purpose for being on earth. In announcing the creation of this earth, the Lord declared concerning his spirit children: “… we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:25.)

Samuel the Lamanite taught that only when men are free can there be a righteous judgment; “… he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death.” (Hel. 14:31.) Were this concept to be taken away, the whole idea of man’s responsibility for his actions would be undermined.

Calvin believed that the two “sacraments” of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were more than mere signs. These external acts are means by which the “Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us,”7 and by which we covenant our obedience to him. These ordinances are of no efficacy unless accompanied by inward workings of the Holy Ghost.

Baptism is “the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church.”8 It is a sign by which we confess our holiness of life, and at the same time it is God’s attestation of his having forgiven our sins. Even though baptism does not wipe out the depravity of original sin, Calvin believed that at least this ordinance does assure man that God will regard him as innocent and guiltless. According to Calvin, the individual receives forgiveness of sins not by acts of penance, but through the blood of Christ, of which baptism is the sign.

Latter-day Saints agree with Calvin’s emphasis on forgiveness through the atoning sacrifice of Christ and that baptism is ineffective without an inward change, but they would insist that baptism is a definite requirement for admission into the kingdom of heaven. (See John 3:3–5.)

Calvin differed with his Catholic contemporaries when he denied that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. He would, however, have emphasized the concept of communion, asserting that in a very real sense Christ is present spiritually in the ordinance. He would have insisted that the sacrament is more than mere “remembrance of the Son,” but would have concurred with the Latter-day Saint concept of renewing one’s covenants with the Lord through receiving this ordinance worthily.

After Calvin had consolidated his political power in Geneva, he pressed forward his efforts to transform that city into a model commonwealth. Furthermore, in 1559 he founded the Genevan academy, Collège de Genève (later the University of Geneva), which soon became the leading seminary of learning for ministers of the “Reformed” faith, as the Calvinists were being called to distinguish them from the Lutherans. From this center, his influence spread throughout Europe.

The spread of Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular was closely identified with the struggles for nationalism. In France, for example, the Huguenots or French Calvinists emerged as an influential minority during the 1560s. During the next several decades their persecution was encouraged by Catholic Spaniards who exerted influence in France. French resentment of Spanish interference may have accounted for whatever advantages the Huguenots gained.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, opponents to Spanish domination accepted Calvinism, so Protestantism became allied with the struggle for nationalism in the Netherlands. One outgrowth of Calvinism’s introduction into the Netherlands was the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church, later known in the United States as the Christian Reformed Church.

In the Netherlands there emerged at the beginning of the seventeenth century a system of belief called Arminianism that challenged Calvinism’s monopoly among Reformed churches. Named for the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, Arminianism revised Calvin’s Five Fundamentals this way: (1) Instead of absolute predestination based solely on God’s pleasure, Arminians believed God chose whom to save according to his foreknowledge of their worthiness. (2) The doctrine of “limited atonement” (Christ dying only for the elect) was replaced by the teaching that Christ died for all, but only the righteous benefit from his sacrifice. (3) They denied that grace is irresistible, holding that men could reject it. (4) They also questioned the doctrine of perseverance according to which those receiving grace could never fall from it. (5) The Arminians shifted the emphasis away from total depravity and placed more stress on man’s freedom, yet they agreed with the Calvinists that man of himself could do nothing really good.

Meanwhile, Protestantism was spreading to still another land; by the 1540s John Knox had become the leader of Scottish Protestants. During this period Scotland was strongly under the domination of the French, and soon Knox was forced into exile. At length he went to Geneva, where he became an ardent disciple of Calvin. He was not to remain away from his Scottish homeland, however, for in Scotland the struggle to overthrow French Catholic influence became identified with the Protestant cause.

By 1560, Scottish Protestants, with Knox at their head, had won a significant victory. In December of that year Knox and his followers held what became recognized as the first general assembly of their church. During the following month he issued the First Book of Discipline, which set forth the beginnings of the presbyterian form of church government.

The term presbyterian comes from the Greek presbyteros, meaning elder. In each congregation the minister and lay elders, who held office with consent of the membership, constituted the disciplinary board, later known as the session. District presbyteries and regional synods, as well as a nationwide general assembly, developed from the foundations laid by Knox.

Calvin’s influence also spread to England. Influenced by patterns set in Geneva, English Puritans worked for reform while remaining members of the established Anglican Church. Most of them felt that the New Testament sanctioned the presbyterian rather than the episcopal (government by bishops) form of church organization.

As time went on, a Separatist movement grew out of Puritanism; these people, who had given up hope that reform was possible within the existing church, withdrew from the Church of England and tended to favor the congregational form of organization in which each local unit is autonomous from control either by bishops or regional organizations of any type.

For a time the dominant Anglican church allowed Puritans and Presbyterians relative freedom of worship. In 1637, however, the king sought to impose an Anglican form of worship on all groups; this action precipitated a Scottish revolt and civil war within England itself.

By 1643 the English parliament was challenging the king’s authority; it called for an assembly to meet at Westminster to advise in matters of creed and church government. The most important product of this assembly was the Westminster Confession issued in 1646. It ranks among the foremost expositions of the Calvinist faith and is still the fundamental creed of many Presbyterians today. The creed’s first section reflected Calvin’s reverence for the scriptures:

“… The authority of the Holy Scripture … dependeth not on the testimony of any man or church; but wholly upon God … the author thereof. … Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness, by and with the Word, in our hearts.”

In contrast to the faith of the Latter-day Saints, the Confession held: “Nothing is at any time to be added … by new revelations of the Spirit. …” It also embodied Calvin’s concept of predestination:

“… by the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated [sic] unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death. …

“Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good. … When God converts a sinner … by His grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good. …

“Works done by unregenerate men—although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands … are sinful and cannot please God. … And yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.”9

While these developments were taking place in Europe, the first Calvinists had already carried Reformed Protestantism to America. During the early 1600s a group of English Separatists had fled to Holland in search of religious liberty. As the years passed, however, these refugees grew fearful that their English identity would be impossible to maintain in the Dutch environment. Thus, in 1620 part of the group made arrangements to sail on the Mayflower to America, where they could start life anew. These first Pilgrims established their colony at Plymouth.

About a decade later, there began the great wave of Puritan migration from England to the Massachusetts Bay colony just north of Plymouth. Although this latter group remained nominally loyal to the Church of England, they, in common with their Separatist neighbors, adopted a congregational form of polity or church government that was well suited to life in New England.

Often new towns were established by an entire congregation moving to the frontier as a group. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that the Puritans’ ecclesiastical and secular rule became almost one and the same, with measures enacted to assure strict adherence to their Calvinist doctrines and practices.

In the New World, the old distinction between Separatist and non-Separatist Puritans became unimportant, and these two groups merged into one. This was the beginning of Congregationalism in America, which represents a major branch of Reformed Protestantism.

Other English Puritans, especially those settling in Connecticut, leaned more toward the presbyterian form of Church government. The large influx of Presbyterians, however, came with the Scottish-Irish immigration to America in the early 1700s; most of these new settlers located in interior portions of the South and in the middle-Atlantic colonies. Following the War for Independence, American Presbyterians met in Philadelphia in 1789 and organized the first general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. The newly formed church originally claimed a membership of 18,000.

This church grew rapidly in the revival climate of the early nineteenth century, and by the 1830s it had reached a membership of over 200,000. With the coming of the American Civil War, Presbyterians also divided along regional lines, the southern group forming the separate Presbyterian Church in the U.S. in 1865.

The third and smallest group of Calvinists in North America traces its origins among Calvinists on the European continent, especially in Holland and Germany. Many of these groups still carry the name Reformed as part of their church names. In the United States, the Dutch Reformed Church and later the Christian Reformed Church have been numerically most important.

Theologically, most of these groups have moved away from the strict or pure aspects of Calvin’s teachings. Over the years the Congregationalists have become known as among the most liberal, theologically speaking, members of this Christian tradition.

American Calvinists have taken a leading part in the ecumenical movement within Protestantism. Smaller groups have concluded that they can be more effective in their ministry by uniting forces with others. Some groups with a German Reformed background, for example, took part in a merger resulting in the formation of the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1934. Meanwhile the Congregationalists and Christians united in 1931. The Evangelical and Reformed Church and Congregational Christian churches came together to form the United Church of Christ in 1957. In 1958 the dominant northern Presbyterian Church and a group tracing its roots back to Scottish seceders joined to organize the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. Even larger merger schemes were considered during the 1960s, when the presiding officer of the Presbyterian Church proposed a union of his church with the United Church of Christ, Methodists, Episcopalians, Evangelical United Brethren, Disciples of Christ, and others.

In 1971 there were 4,353,800 Presbyterians in the United States, of whom 3,172,760 belong to the United Presbyterian Church in the USA and 957,569 to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. At the same time the United Church of Christ claimed 1,997,898 members. Other Reformed groups numbered 531,288.


  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1957), vol. 1, p. 91.

  2. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 68.

  3. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 217.

  4. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 206.

  5. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 685.

  6. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), p. 351.

  7. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, pp. 491–500.

  8. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 513.

  9. Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 347–49.

  • Dr. Cowan, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, serves as second counselor in the BYU Sixth Stake presidency. Although blind, he has filled both stake and full-time missions for the Church. He and Sister Cowan are parents of five children.

John Calvin (1509–1564)

Church in Delfshaven, Holland, where English Separatists are believed to have worshiped before departure to the New World

John Knox, leader of the Reformation in Scotland

Statue of John Calvin on stone facade at the University of Geneva, founded by Calvin in 1559 as the Geneva Academy

Wigwam-type homes similar to those used by early New Englanders