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The Reformation of Rights


  • 7 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 406 pages
  • Size: 222 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.64 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521521611)

John Calvin developed arresting new teachings on rights and liberties, church and state, and religion and politics that shaped the law of Protestant lands. Calvin's original teachings were periodically challenged by major crises - the French Wars of Religion, Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War, American colonization, and American Revolution. In each such crisis moment, a major Calvinist figure emerged - Theodore Beza, Johannes Althusius, John Milton, John Winthrop, John Adams, and others - who modernized Calvin's teachings and translated them into dramatic new legal and political reforms. This rendered early modern Calvinism one of the driving engines of Western constitutionalism. A number of basic Western laws on religious and political rights, social and confessional pluralism, federalism and constitutionalism, and more owe a great deal to this religious movement. This book is essential reading for scholars and students of history, law, religion, politics, ethics, human rights, and the Protestant Reformation.

• Contains detailed analysis of the connections between Calvinist political and legal theories and the French wars of religion, Dutch Revolt and English Civil War • Features close case studies of several titans in the Calvinist tradition including Theodore Beza, Johannes Althusius and John Milton • Argues that there was a 1500 year tradition of rights talk before the Western Enlightenment and that Calvinism deserves greater recognition within it


Introduction; 1. Moderate (religious) liberty in the theology of John Calvin: the original Genevan experiment; 2. The duties of conscience and the free exercise of Christian liberty: Theodore Beza and the rise of Calvinist rights and resistance theory; 3. Natural rights, popular sovereignty, and covenant politics: Johannes Althusius and the Dutch Revolt and republic; 4. Prophets, priests, and kings of liberty: John Milton and the rights and liberties of all Englishmen; 5. How to govern a city on a hill: covenant liberty in Puritan New England; 6. Concluding reflections: the biology and biography of liberty.


'Historians, not to mention philosophers and theologians, have too long overlooked the Calvinist contribution to the human rights tradition. John Witte's superlative study definitively corrects that shortcoming and thereby makes an indispensable contribution to our changing understanding of that tradition.' David Little, Harvard Divinity School

'John Witte has written a magistral survey of ideas about law, religion and human rights as developed by John Calvin in sixteenth-century Geneva and then developed and adapted by selected intellectual descendants of his in France, the Netherlands, England, and colonial America. These ideas are analyzed with all the clarity and bite one expects of a great historian of thought. They should make a useful and thought-provoking contribution to modern attempts to cope with concepts that are still of fundamental importance.' Robert M. Kingdon, University of Wisconsin, Madison

'The Reformation of Rights will come as a revelatory jolt to those who embrace the standard history of natural rights, which holds that the idea of such rights was introduced into Western thought by the political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Witte's argument, developed with meticulous attention to the sources, and always judicious in its conclusions, is that centuries before the Enlightenment, Calvinists were arguing for natural rights, especially natural religious rights: freedom of conscience, freedom of exercise, freedom of the church. The Reformation of Rights is a magisterial contribution to a new narrative of rights.' Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University

'Witte's [The] Reformation of Rights is … [a] cohesive and ambitious book. … Amid the growing number of recent books about the history of religious coexistence in early modern Europe, this one should not be overlooked.' Journal of Ecclesiastical History

'… essential reading for scholars and students of history, law, religion and politics, ethics and human rights, and the Reformation.' Journal of Reformed Theology

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