Principles of Calvinism in the 18th Century

Calvinism—A theological system developed by John Calvin (1509-1564) based on the complete sovereignty of God and the ultimate inability of man to comprehend His true nature. There are five distinct principles of Calvinism:

1. Total depravity of man. This is the utter inability of man to work out his own salvation—God is all, man is nothing.
2. Unconditional election. God is under no obligation to save anyone, and saves or “elects” whom he will with no reference to faith or good works.
3. Limited atonement. Christ did not die for all, but only for those who are to be saved. (If he had not died on the cross, none could be saved.)
4. Irresistible grace. God’s grace is freely given, and can neither be earned or refused.
5. Perseverance of the Saints. Those chosen by God have the power to do his will and will live uprightly to the end—they are infallible.

Though not a principle of Calvinism, many within the faith tradition believed in a literalist interpretation of the scriptures. Because of this, many thought that there was no contradiction between being a Christian and being a slave holder (as sections of the Bible seemed to suggest slavery was okay—for Example, the 21st chapter of Exodus, the Book of Philemon, etc.).

• Where might we discover the principles of Calvinism written into the works of Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley? Where do their writings allude to an acceptance of these principles?
• Are there places where they explicitly depart from these principles? Where?

Some of the ideas presented here are drawn from Horton and Edwards’Backgrounds of American Literary thought, 2nd edition (1967)