Sunday, March 6, 2011

American and French Revolutions Compared

How do we compare the histories of countries that embraced Calvinism and Protestantism, such as England, Scotland, and America, with those that did not, such as France?  What connection is there between the religious Reformation of the 16th century and the political revolutions of the 18th century?

The impact of Protestant and Reformed thinking on nations in history and the differences between the American and French Revolutions are incredibly interesting questions for students of American and world history. Quite a few of the books listed on my book blog of September 2009 include references to differences between the American and French Revolutions. Others emphasize the historical impact of Calvinism on the maritime powers of Britain (England and Scotland), the Netherlands, and the United States in contrast with the beliefs and events in France. Out of my previous list, Rushdoony's This Independent Republic devotes several chapters to contrasting the French experience with that of America. Abraham Kuyper made quite a few remarks in Lectures on Calvinism on the cultural and political impact of Calvinism on particular countries, especially the U.S. and the Netherlands. Kuyper delivered those lectures in 1898, so the French Revolution was not all that far in the distant past. He would have known people who had lived during the French Revolution (which began in 1789) and the age of Napoleon. I cannot remember exactly, but I think Dallimore credits (and rightly so) George Whitefield and the Wesleys with having staved off revolution in England through their preaching. Also, Paul Johnson's short biography of Napoleon contrasts the Emperor with George Washington. That comparison of results--Napoleon and Washington--is quite a study in contrasts.

Let me list and briefly comment on a few other books:

One of Abraham Kuyper's predecessors, Groen van Prinsterer gave a series of lectures in his home that were later published under the title Revolution and Unbelief. This is a classic work detailing the impact of unbelief which then spawned the French Revolution.

An outstanding book that describes the changes and challenges in America, France, and Russia during the late 1700s is The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World by Jay Winik. America won its independence and developed a republican form of government while France was experiencing the horrors of a bloody revolution. At the same time, revolutionary impulses in Russia, under the control of Catherine the Great, were squenched.

With a healthy dose of discernment, you might read God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead
This is an amazing analysis of how Britain and America, the maritime powers (which historically includes the Netherlands) have dominated history and defeated their rivals militarily, culturally, and economically. Discernment is called for because Mead gets so much so right, but he totally botches his discussion of Calvinism.

Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British. French, and American Enlightenment is also a wonderful coverage of these issues. She does not focus all that much on Protestantism, but does credit the Methodist Revival with preventing revolution in Britain.


  1. Ben,

    Visiting your blog(s) can be dangerous. I often walk away wanting to purchase anywhere between 2 - 10 new books. How is the Justo Gonzalez book? I just heard Steven Wedgeworth give a 3 part lecture on E Orthodoxy. He mentioned several books as resources to help understand the maze of orthodoxy. He mentions the Gonzalez book favorably more than once.


  2. Justo Gonzalez's history is a fine work. It consists of two volumes bound together in an inexpensive hardback. The book may not be the best for a simple survey of church history and may be a bit much for younger students; nevertheless, it is a great resource. I really like the idea of using it along with Bruce Shelley's more episodic church history.