James Simpson blames Calvinism for the rise of liberalism.
“To understand Liberalism, we need to understand early modern Calvinism.” This is the central claim made by Harvard professor James Simpson in his idiosyncratic but challenging new book, Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism. As its dust jacket proclaims, Simpson means to rewrite the history of liberalism by uncovering “its unexpected debt to evangelical religion.” His aim is to show how the English Reformation, so authoritarian in its beginnings, culminated in the “proto-liberal” Glorious Revolution settlement of 1688–89 and led to the English Enlightenment.
The key feature of that settlement, Simpson argues, was the Toleration Act, which gave “ease to scrupulous consciences in the exercise of religion” by allowing Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England freedom of worship and exemption from the penalties previously attached to nonattendance at Anglican services. This exemption was not extended to Roman Catholics, Unitarians, or Jews, and public office continued to be confined to those who worshipped in the Church of England. Many of the legislators saw toleration less as a matter of principle than as an unpleasant necessity, a pragmatic way of avoiding further strife. Nevertheless, Simpson insists that this was a “foundational” moment for “the English liberal tradition.” The Toleration Act was accompanied by a Bill of Rights declaring “the rights and liberties of the subject” and was followed by statutory provision for the annual meeting of Parliament, the independence of the judiciary, and qualified freedom of the press.
Whether or not this was the foundational moment of English liberalism, one might also ask in what sense this was all a consequence of Calvinism. …”
There is definitely something to this. It is not the whole story though.
The roots of liberalism can be traced back to 17th century England and the Netherlands. By the end of the 17th century, we have John Locke and the Glorious Revolution and the ancestor of modern liberalism. This period around the beginning of the 18th century under William and Mary was the turning point when the shift began to gain unstoppable momentum.
There were a number of things going on though at this time. England and the Netherlands were in the process of creating seaborne global empires. Both nations were heavily involved in international trade. Both nations were breaking away from the rest of Western Europe in agriculture. Both nations were developing a literate middle class fueled by international commerce. Both nations were creating trans-Atlantic colonies based on pure capitalism. Both nations were characterized by religious pluralism due to the inability of Calvinism to establish its dominance. London and Amsterdam were becoming the first large modern cities.
In my view, the single most important factor was the Scientific Revolution. Francis Bacon was active in the England of Elizabeth I and James I. Galileo dealt a fatal blow to the physics and cosmology of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Royal Society was founded in London in 1660. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza. The Western intelligentsia in the 17th century was beginning to think in terms of rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, naturalism and especially materialism. The theological turn away from Augustinianism and toward Pelagianism takes place and gathers momentum in the 17th century. It owned nothing to Luther and Calvin and everything to the intellectual climate of the 17th century.
It was not just religious turmoil stirred up by Calvinism in Europe that spawned liberalism. It was the revolution going on in cosmology and economics that brought it about. After the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War, religious passions subsided and it increasingly came to be perceived by the Western intelligentsia as a tiresome anachronism and a poor foundation for knowledge which should be based on reason and experience. The appetite for material gain and the growing wealth and power of the commercial middle class also put an end to it.
The England and the Netherlands of 1550 had been completely transformed by 1650. If you could be transported back in time, the former would have struck you as more Medieval than modern while the latter were more modern than Medieval.