As yet, the historical relationship between Adventism and Calvin and Calvinism has received neither proper attention nor extended analysis. It may be informative, then, to describe and analyze the place and value of direct references to Calvin and Calvinism in the major writings of four major Seventh‑day Adventist pioneers: John N. Andrews, Alonzo T. Jones, Uriah Smith, and Ellen G. White.
John N. Andrews
John Nevins Andrews was the leading thinker and scholar among the earliest Seventh‑day Adventist pioneers. His intellect and balanced judgment commanded wide respect in the church. He was also the church’s first official missionary outside of North America. At his departure to Switzerland, Ellen White remarked that he was “the ablest man in all our ranks.”2
Among the numerous books that he wrote for the advancement of the Adventist cause, Andrews referred to Calvin and Calvinism in three of his books: History of the Sabbath and First Day of the Week, The Judgment: Its Events and Their Order, and The Three Messages of Revelation XIV, 6–12. As Andrews referred to Calvin only once in passing in the latter two works, History of the Sabbath is of primary concern here.
Elsewhere in the same book, Andrews refers to Calvin as a theological authority on points other than the doctrine of the Sabbath. In one of these instances, he quotes another author who has called Calvin “great” and as possessing “sagacity.”5 Calvin’s greatness is further recognized in Andrews’s The Judgment. In his discussion of the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:2, Andrews makes use of a quote of another writer who lists “modern divines” such as “Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Beza . . . .”6
Such a deferential reference to Calvin is counterbalanced in The Three Messages of Revelation XIV, 6–12, where Andrews criticizes Calvin’s persecution of Michael Servetus, an anti‑Trinitarian agitator of the 16th century. He uses this episode in Calvin’s work as an example of how easily the power of the church, if absolute, becomes corrupt.
He writes: “When the papal church possessed power, it destroyed a vast multitude of the saints of God. Nor has the Protestant Church, since its rise, been free from acts of persecution whenever it has possessed the power to perform them. The Protestants of Geneva, with John Calvin at their head, burned Michael Servetus, a man who had barely escaped the same fate at the hands of the popish inquisition. They did this for the same reason that the papists do the like; that is, they did it for a difference of opinion, and because they had the power to do it.”7
The criticism is even more damning in that Andrews draws a direct parallel between Calvin and the papacy, which Calvin opposed vehemently.
Andrews’ view of Calvin is at best mixed. Without a doubt, he viewed Calvin as a figure to be reckoned with in church history and recognized his theological contributions, though through the words of others. When it comes to the issue of the Sabbath, however, Andrews uses Calvin’s writings against Calvin himself and against those Sunday‑keeping Christians who claim that there are scriptural grounds for change in the day of worship. Calvin then becomes the object of a scathing attack by Andrews over the execution of Servetus—an act that Andrews likens to “the popish inquisition.”8 Such an assessment of Calvin—as a theological force and an ecclesiastical despot—is a recurring picture painted by Adventists of the 19th century.
Alonzo T. Jones
Alonzo Trevier Jones was among Adventism’s first historians. As “the denomination’s most prominent speaker for religious freedom,”9 he tended to view history from the perspective of the continuing controversy between the oppressive civil‑ecclesiastical majority and the persecuted religious minority. All his historical works fall in line with such a perspective, and it is in this context that Calvin and Calvinism are viewed. Two of Jones’s works include meaningful references to Calvin and Calvinism. They are Civil Government and Religion and The Two Republics.
Presaging Andrews’s analysis, Jones here makes a sharp criticism of Calvin’s role in exercising civil authority for a religious end. Clearly, the Servetus affair is on his mind as he portrays Calvin as a persecuting power who acted just like the Roman Catholics. Furthermore, Jones seems to be reacting to two things: (1) the “popish” dogmatism of Calvin; and (2) Calvinism as a domineering force not only during the Reformation but also in the ensuing times.
Though the denominational affiliations of Jones’s opponents are not clearly identified, his citation of Presbyterian persecution throughout history seems to be a not‑so‑subtle reference to the Calvinist background of many behind the Sunday law movement. In Jones’s mind, not only the historical papacy, but also Calvinism of his time are potential persecutors of God’s true religion.
Jones continues this line of argument in his 1891 work, The Two Republics. In this book, he includes a section entitled “Calvinism in Geneva.” He begins by stating that “the views of Calvin on the subject of Church and State, were as thoroughly theocratic as the papal system itself.”12 Pointing out Calvin’s efforts to secure the oath of each citizen of Geneva to profess and swear to the confession drawn up by Calvin himself, Jones observes that “this was at once to make the Church and the State one and the same thing with the Church above the State. Yea, more than this, it was wholly to swallow up the civil in the ecclesiastical power.”13
Clearly, Jones’s criticism of Calvin’s theocracy is based on the distinctly American understanding of the separation of church and state. But when it comes to his treatment of Luther in the same chapter, Jones turns much more generous—and wrong about history: “It is not without cause that Luther stands at the head of all men in the great Reformation and in the history of Protestantism: for he alone of all the leaders in the history of Reformation times held himself and his cause aloof from the powers of this world, and declined all connection of the State with the work of the gospel, even to support it.”14 Given Luther’s nationalism in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” his association with the German princes, the Wartburg period, and his position vis‑à‑vis the Peasants’ Revolt, Jones’s statement that Luther did not even have any “connection of the State” appears hardly tenable.
Historically, both Luther and Calvin were active supporters of the idea of cooperation and even collusion between the church and the state. Yet it is only Calvin who receives Jones’s condemnation in this chapter, probably because Calvin went much beyond Luther in taking an active part in governing Geneva and wielded a great amount of power. Apparently, for Jones, this made all the difference, as he called Calvin the Protestant counterpart to the pope and Calvinism “so close a counterpart” to “the papacy itself.”15 Commenting on the efforts of the National Reform Association, Jones wrote, “It is a revival of the original scheme of John Calvin, and is the very image of the papal scheme of the fourth century.”16
Jones consistently treated Calvin as a “popish” tyrant and his movement as a persecuting authority that fused religious and temporal powers to oppress minority religious groups. Seeing the rise of the National Reform Association in his time, Jones considered it as a continuation of the dangerously theocratic system as practiced two centuries earlier in Geneva. As to Calvin’s positive contributions to the Protestant Reformation and its theology, Jones was completely silent, leaving his readers with a decidedly negative impression about the Reformer.
Uriah Smith made his contribution to the Adventist Church most prominently through his pen. The Seventh‑day Adventist Encyclopedia article on Smith begins with this summative introduction: “Editor and author, who gave 50 years of service to the Seventh-day Adventist cause.”17 The Encyclopedia goes on to state that Smith’s famous works on Daniel and Revelation were the first of the “doctrinal subscription books in the colporteur work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”18 Indeed, Smith was the first among the church’s theologians, and his influence has been profound and far‑reaching.
Uriah Smith’s writings betray the same negative view that Andrews and Jones held toward Calvin’s persecution of certain minority groups of his day. Once again, the burning of Servetus is cited as an evidence of the spirit of oppression and intolerance that Smith saw in the Calvinism of his time. In Smith’s Daniel and the Revelation, an updated and consolidated version of his earlier separate works on the two prophetic books of the Bible, the Servetus incident is brought out not only to show the potential for persecution in the 19th century, but also to point out that Protestantism has always held the spirit of Babylon, as seen in Revelation 14:8.19 Smith does not elaborate further; thus, readers are left with a clear connection between Calvin and the eschatological Babylon. Smith asserts that not only Calvinism, but also all the other churches of the Reformation were headed toward the apostasy of forming “the universal worldly church” that would oppress the people of God through the union of church and state.20
In Looking Unto Jesus, published also in 1897, Smith goes beyond the Servetus incident to critique certain features of the theology of Calvin and Calvinism. While discussing the Adventist teaching on Christ’s post‑1844 ministry in the heavenly Most Holy Place, Smith stresses that Christ is working in heaven now to bring humanity to a literal “at‑one‑ment” with Him. In so doing, Smith found himself at odds with the dominant Calvinist thinking of his day, which taught that the atonement was completed at the Cross. There does not seem to have been any doubt in Smith’s mind that Christ’s death was salvific and all‑sufficient. Yet it was by the virtue of His blood that the only conditions of the atonement were met, and not that the atonement was completed. He would agree that Christ’s life and death are redemptive but never atoning: “The death of Christ and the atonement are not the same thing.”21
For Smith, true atonement (i.e., antitypical “at‑one‑ment” with God) could begin only on the antitypical Day of Atonement that commenced in 1844. Once the Cross was recognized as the completion of the atonement, he reasoned, the only logical conclusion could be either “ultra Calvinism, fore‑ordination and predestination in their most forbidding and unscriptural aspect”22 (that since completion can only mean the sealing of everyone’s fate—in this case, for the salvation of the elect) or Universalism (that all humanity will ultimately be saved). Fiercely Arminian in his theology of salvation, he rejected the Calvinist understanding on the grounds that it robs free will from the individual and that it either limits salvation to the predestined elect or broadens it to all of humanity. Therefore, his uniquely Adventist understanding of the atonement led Smith to view the Calvinist teachings of the atonement as full of “errors”23 and representing “an insurmountable problem.”24
Smith’s criticism of Calvin and Calvinism were twofold. Like Andrews and Jones, he viewed Calvin’s persecution of Servetus and other instances of persecution in the history of Calvinism as signs of the oppressive spirit of the end‑time apostate religion. He also found the Calvinist theology of predestination clearly objectionable and totally incompatible with the Adventist teaching on the atonement. Since he, like many other Adventists, thought of the atonement as the heavenly work of Christ that commenced in 1844, Smith could not see the atonement as having occurred and completed at the Cross as Calvinists had understood it to be.
Ellen G. White
Among the four early Adventist leaders whose writings are the subjects of this study, Ellen G. White provided the most detailed and surprisingly positive picture of the life, teachings, and work of Calvin. In fact, nowhere in her writings can explicit criticism of Calvin’s actions or theology be found.
The first reference to Calvin by White is found in The Spirit of Prophecy, published in 1884. In a section where she addresses the line of biblical truth throughout Christian history, she writes: “Across the gulf of a hundred years, men stretched their hands to grasp the hands of the Lollards of the time of Wycliffe. Under Luther began the Reformation in Germany; Calvin preached the gospel in France, Zwingle [sic] in Switzerland. The world was awakened from the slumber of ages, as from land to land were sounded the magic words, ‘Religious Liberty.’”25
This brief statement is the only reference to Calvin in the book. Whereas Luther receives an extensive treatment by White over four chapters and British reformers such as William Tyndale, John Knox, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer collectively receive a chapter, Calvin is not mentioned again. This is, nonetheless, a noteworthy “improvement” on Spiritual Gifts, the predecessor to the The Spirit of Prophecy series, in which only a single chapter is devoted to the Reformation and Luther is the sole Reformer mentioned.26
White’s uncommonly positive statement on Calvin stands in clear contrast to the way her Adventist contemporaries viewed the Genevan reformer. Whereas others saw Calvin as the prime example of religious oppression by Protestantism, White lifted him up as a torchbearer of God’s truth and the champion of religious liberty.
When it comes to the historical followers of Calvin, however, White is not kind in her evaluation. She laments that the spirit of reform has declined in the Presbyterian churches. “It is a sad thing,” she writes, “when a people claiming to be reformers cease to reform.”27 Such a bifurcated assessment—extolling Calvin but criticizing Calvinists—is fully fleshed out when White gives a fuller treatment in The Great Controversy, the fifth book in the Conflict of the Ages series.
When she updated volume 4 of The Spirit of Prophecy series and re‑published it as The Great Controversy in 1888, White added a half‑chapter-long account of the life and ministry of Calvin as part of the larger Reformation narrative. This was retained essentially in the same format in the 1911 re-publication of the book. Once again, White shows great preference for Luther by allotting four chapters to him. Nonetheless, her treatment of Calvin is quite significant in that it provides a depiction of Calvin that is not found elsewhere in early Adventist literature.
Midway into the chapter entitled “The French Reformation,” White introduces young Calvin as “a thoughtful, quiet youth, already giving evidence of a powerful and penetrating mind, and no less marked for the blamelessness of his life than for intellectual ardor and religious devotion.”28 Over the course of the next 18 pages, White narrates some of the highlights of Calvin’s life from Paris to Bourges, then back to Paris and finally to Geneva. Drawn heavily from the historical writings of J. H. Merle d’Aubigné,29 James A. Wylie,30 and W. Carlos Martyn,31 White’s account reflects the glowingly positive assessment of Calvin as pronounced by these authors. Throughout the chapter, Calvin is portrayed as being continuously led by God not only into safety from persecutors, but also toward greater light of divine truth.
After a narration of the trials of the Huguenots, White quickly brings Calvin to Geneva to that fateful meeting with William Farel, who urged Calvin to stay and work to reform the city. White then describes the situation in Geneva and the evangelical need of the city as following: “Though Geneva had accepted the reformed faith, yet a great work remained to be accomplished here. It is not as communities but as individuals that men are converted to God; the work of regeneration must be wrought in the heart and conscience by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the decrees of councils.”33 White characterizes Calvin as the very man to lead that work of reform and regeneration in Geneva. As did Farel, she sees “the hand of God” and “Providence” in the arrival of Calvin to Geneva.34
However, White makes the interesting decision to abbreviate Calvin’s work in Geneva—the most significant features of his life from the perspective of the theme of Great Controversy—into one short, sweeping paragraph: “For nearly thirty years Calvin labored at Geneva, first to establish there a church adhering to the morality of the Bible, and then for the advancement of the Reformation throughout Europe. His course as a public leader was not faultless, nor were his doctrines free from error. But he was instrumental in promulgating truths that were of special importance in his time, in maintaining the principles of Protestantism against the fast-returning tide of popery, and in promoting in the reformed churches simplicity and purity of life, in place of the pride and corruption fostered under the Romish teaching.”35
In recognizing that Calvin “was not faultless” and that his theology was not “free from error,” White clearly is acknowledging to her readers that she is aware of the sharp objections that her Adventist and other Protestant contemporaries were making to Calvin. But just as she does with Luther, White focuses on the positive contributions of Calvin and extols the virtues of his work in Geneva instead of criticizing him for his political and theological problems. This approach, of course, is in stark contrast to the assessments of Calvin by other Adventist writers of her time. Her treatment of the Reformer, in effect, goes against the sharply critical, one‑sided portrayal of Calvin as a politico‑theological despot that others make and provides a much‑needed balance in assessing the legacy of Calvin.
In the closing paragraph of her narrative on the enigmatic Reformer, she takes care to point out that Calvin’s Geneva was primarily a “refuge for the hunted Reformers of all Western Europe,” and that the “starving, wounded, bereft of home and kindred, . . . were warmly welcomed and tenderly cared for.”36 To the end, Ellen White seems to be intent on putting Calvin in the best light possible by showing that, in spite of his failings, he was a true reformer used by God.
When it comes to Calvin’s theological heirs, however, White takes a considerably more critical stance, as she did in The Spirit of Prophecy. Several chapters later in Great Controversy, she provides assessment of the Protestant churches of her time by quoting from Daniel Neal’s history of the Puritans: “‘For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go no farther than the instruments of their reformation. The . . . Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented; for though they were burning and shining lights in their time, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God, but were they now living, would be as willing to embrace further light as that which they first received.’”37
In another section, White exposes what she perceives as yet another dangerous problem of the Reformed churches—their increasingly “conciliatory course” toward Catholicism. She warns that this move will ultimately cost them “the liberty of conscience which had been so dearly purchased.”38
These criticisms notwithstanding, it is important to note that White does not make a wholesale condemnation of the modern heirs of Calvin. Her criticisms are no sharper than some of the counsels that she gives to fellow Adventists. There is always an underlying concern and appeal for reform. In this way, White’s attitude was markedly different from other Adventist writers who seemed to be occupied with polemics.
White was different from her contemporaries—Andrews, Jones, and Smith—in that she made an overall positive assessment of Calvin and represented his work in Geneva as a divinely led reform that occupied an important place in the continuing line of God’s truth. She was eager to acknowledge Adventism’s debt to Calvin and to recognized his rightful place in the noble line of Reformers—a far cry from Jones’s charge that Calvin and his movement were part of the eschatological Babylon. Meanwhile, she was critical of the loss of the reform impulse among the modern followers of Calvin and the rapprochement between Protestantism and Catholicism. But her criticisms included hopeful appeals and warnings—calling for genuine, biblical reform among the heirs of Calvin.
For the most part, the pioneers of the Seventh‑day Adventist Church held a negative view of John Calvin and Calvinist churches. Adventist pioneers came mostly from the Arminian‑Methodist tradition and held strongly to the principle of separation of church and state. Having witnessed the exclusivist tendencies of the New England Puritan culture and having experienced harsh treatment by Calvinist‑Puritans for their theological peculiarities, early Adventist leaders viewed Calvin’s theocratic initiatives in Geneva and harsh discipline of dissidents as signs of moral failure and spiritual apostasy and the root cause of their 19th‑century contemporaries’ persecutory tendencies. They held that no true reform has a place for the unity of civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Thus, they condemned Calvin to the point of accusing him of becoming “popish” figure and a part of the Babylon of Revelation 14. When they saw a movement to legislate religion in the Calvinist churches of their day, they were eager to point out that contemporary Calvinists were only following the tragic footsteps of their founder. Notable among those who held to these views were Andrews, Jones, and Smith.
Smith added a theological dimension to the Adventist criticism of Calvinism. In his discussion of the atonement, he argued that the Calvinist teaching that the atonement was completed at the Cross can be valid only if one accepted the Calvinist concept of predestination. Since Adventists and the rest of the Arminian world do not subscribe to the doctrine of predestination as taught in Calvinism, Smith asserted that it is wrong to say that the atonement was completed at the Cross. Then he connected the Arminian doctrine of free will and atonement with the Adventist teaching of the investigative judgment. He argued that the Cross was only a prerequisite of the post‑1844, antitypical atonement taking place in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary. Therefore, it would be erroneous to state, as the Calvinists do, that the atonement was completed at the Cross.
Ellen White was a notable exception among early Adventists in her portrayal of Calvin and Calvinism. In what must have been a startling revelation, she portrayed Calvin as a genuine and caring reformer. Her description of Calvin in The Great Controversy is filled with praise and admiration for the Reformer. By acknowledging the hand of God in the life and ministry of Calvin, White provided an important balance to the standard Adventist view of Calvin. Even when making criticisms of the Calvinists of her day, White never used disparaging words but only lamented their decline and appealed to them to take up the reform that Calvin began.
In spite of the balance that White has brought to the Adventist view of Calvin and Calvinism, it appears that some in contemporary Adventism still have reservations about approaching the French Swiss reformer appreciatively. Calvinism is still viewed with suspicion by many, and some even seem to believe that there is a Calvinist conspiracy to contaminate the historic Adventist faith.
Though Adventists should be ever vigilant in their protection of the integrity of their faith and beliefs, an overly negative attitude toward Calvin and Calvinism, or any other individual theologian or movement, does not seem fair, healthy, or necessary. White, in this regard, provides contemporary Adventism with an example of thoughtful appreciation of and qualified agreement with those of different theological persuasions and priorities.
Julius Nam, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University School of Religion, Loma Linda, California.
1. Leroy Froom, et al., Seventh‑day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1957), p. 9.
2. Ellen G. White to Brethren in Switzerland, August 29, 1878, as quoted in George R. Knight, The Fat Lady and the Kingdom: Confronting the Challenge of Change and Secularization (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1995), p. 66.
4. Ibid., pp. 436-446.
5. Ibid., p. 239.
6. __________, The Judgment: Its Events and Their Order (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1890), p. 122.
7. __________, The Three Messages of Revelation XIV, 6–12 (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1892), p. 44.
9. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 1996 ed., s.v. “Jones, Alonzo T.”
10. Alonzo T. Jones, Civil Government and Religion, or Christianity and the American Constitution (Chicago: American Sentinel, 1889), p. 106.
12. Alonzo T. Jones, The Two Republics; or, Rome and the United States of America (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1891), p. 586.
14. Ibid., p. 569.
15. Ibid., p. 590.
16. Ibid., p. 708.
17. Seventh day Adventist Encyclopedia, ibid., s.v. “Smith, Uriah.”
19. Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation: The Response of History to the Voice of Prophecy (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1897), p. 605.
20. Ibid., p. 604.
21. Ibid., p. 237, italics in the original.
23. Ibid., p. 240.
24. Ibid., p. 269.
25. The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 93.
26. Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, pp. 119-122.
27. The Spirit of Prophecy, p. 185.
28. The Great Controversy, p. 219.
29. J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin (New York: Carter, 1866, 1879), 8 vols.
30. J. A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, n.d.).
31. W. Carlos Martyn, A History of the Huguenots (New York: American Tract Society, 1866).
32. The Great Controversy, p. 221.
33. Ibid., p. 233.
35. Ibid., p. 236, italics supplied.
37. Ibid., pp. 291, 292.
38. Ibid., p. 563.