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How Religious Reformers Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible

April 6, 2017

Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521, by Anton von Werner, 1877

The principle of popular sovereignty, or the people’s rule, was indirectly supported by some of the Protestant reformers of the Reformation era in the 1500s and 1600s—including Martin Luther and John Calvin. These reformers essentially supported popular sovereignty with their interpretations of the Bible.

Luther and Calvin supported popular sovereignty by defending the equal standing of believers in the Bible and church. Luther, in particular, challenged the nearly absolute, unlimited power of church authority/pope. In his 1520 Appeal to the Ruling Class, he argues that all believers, though exercising different functions in the church or occupations in the world, are priests, intercessors, and ministers of God. This idea is often referred to as the “priesthood of all believers.” Luther derives this idea from 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 5:9-10. In Peter, the Apostle Peter tells believers,

In his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin similarly addressed the equal standing among believers by alluding to Acts 11, 1 Peter 5, and Galatians 2 among other verses. He says the early apostles practiced servant-leadership as equals, not as absolute superiors, who were accountable for their actions. For example, he notes in 1 Peter 5:1 that the Apostle Peter describes himself as a “fellow elder.” In Galatians 2:9, both Apostles Peter and Paul acknowledge Paul’s equal standing in the ministry and having the “right hand of fellowship.” Also, in Acts 11:2-4 and Galatians 2:11-16, Peter is held accountable to his co-workers for his actions of eating and then not eating with non-Jews.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul by Jusepe de Ribera, c1616

Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas of the priesthood of all believers, equal standing before God, and a Bible that all could read and interpret had not only religious but also political implications for both church and civil state. They undoubtedly contributed to many political reformers’ favor of and argument for popular sovereignty over absolute rule in civil government. As such, these religious views led to more democratic ideas of church, society, and government in Europe and America, though the application took time.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source: Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015. 1.2

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
2.  How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty From the Bible
3.  How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
5.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
6.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
7.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era
8.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation

Activity: Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 7: Biblical Basis of Popular Sovereignty, p. 57, 329. HS.

See also Miracle of America text p. 47.

To download the whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the member resources page on americanheritage.org.

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Published by: The Founding

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