John Calvin was a sixteenth century French Protestant who went into exile in Switzerland after he left the Catholic Church. His particular form of Protestant thought is sometimes called Calvinism, though he is but one of its initiators and the movement is not a single unified and monolithic group. In the Netherlands, they are the Dutch Calvinists. In France, the followers of Calvin’s thought are known as Huguenots. In Switzerland, they call themselves the Reformed Church. Some of the followers of Calvin who imported his thought to Britain were called Puritans. In Scotland and here in the American south, his followers correspond to the various Presbyterian denominations. While splintered into many factions, these various Calvinistic groups made up a substantial part of the early settlers of the thirteen original colonies of our country.
John Calvin, in Geneva and later in Strasbourg, laid down the law for these new Protestant denominations with regards to how they were to be organized and how they would worship. As a trained lawyer, the polemical Calvin emphasized apologetics in his preaching. An essential idea to emerge from his teachings is the doctrine of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God with regards to whom would be saved. Calvinist thought is sometimes reduced to five points called by the mnemonic TULIP. Calvinism teaches that man is Totally depraved by the fall of Adam, but that the merciful God elects to save certain souls Unconditionally before they have even lived to show any proclivity towards virtue or vice. Calvinists teach that Christ died for the atonement of the predestined saved, not for all, and thus His atonement is Limited to those predestined souls. They believe that to those elect who are chosen to be saved, God’s grace is thus Irresistible, and as such, that they will Persevere in that grace.
Calvinism was hostile to the richness of Catholicism, eschewing icons as graven and, at least at the beginning, even musical instruments. Whereas in the past their worship would have been characterized as rather sober and perhaps even somber, today it can be lively with contemporary instruments. The feast days of Catholicism were of course suppressed, and Christmas was even here and there outlawed by some followers of Calvin. Like other Protestants, the Calvinists recognize only two sacraments (baptism and what they call the Lord’s Supper). Their notions of Congregationalist self-governance had implications on a broader scale, moving the world towards democracy. Oliver Cromwell (who was most brutal towards all things even remotely Catholic) and his Calvinist followers beheaded the not-quite-Protestant-enough-to-his-liking King Charles I of England, and began their short-lived Republic in 1649. At that time, many Puritans had already relocated to New England where they famously signed the Mayflower Compact, infamously fought the devil in Salem, and founded Harvard University. Calvinists have been very supportive of higher education in their history (though Catholic students were not always welcomed).
Today, the largest branch of Calvinism in our country is the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA), which is headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. Probably the largest Presbyterian congregation in the country is Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta. With less than two million people nationwide, their denomination is about twice as large as the unofficial estimate of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta alone. The denomination has been in decline in recent decades and could be well on its way to extinction, by some of their own accounts.
Presbyterian moral thought has evolved over their history. When they began, they preserved the Catholic teaching against contraception and abortion. Their view of morality might even have been considered overly stern and even puritanical at times. Now Presbyterians are pro-choice as a denomination (though individual Presbyterians could, in theory, remain staunchly pro-life).
Apparently, the big issue of late has surrounded marriage, i.e., whether to allow a cleric living with someone without benefit of marriage, or an actively gay cleric, to be part of their church leadership. The PCUSA now allows individual governing bodies to decide how to deal with these situations. While Presbyterians still hold that marriage is a civil covenant (not a sacrament) between a man and a woman, by leaving open the door for gay or lesbian clerics in a world where civil marriage is no longer seen as exclusive to heterosexual couples, the denomination (some have argued) is becoming more and more co-opted by these moral issues.
When reaching out to our Presbyterian friends, we may remind them that their ancestors and ours share a Catholic heritage, which can become a place where genuine reconciliation may begin.