A Man True to His Principles: John Joachim Zubly and Calvinism

Journal of Church and State, Vol. 43, pp. 297-317, Spring 2001

Posted: 8 Aug 2006

See all articles by Joel A. Nichols

Joel A. Nichols

University of St. Thomas School of Law (MN)


John Joachim Zubly was the pastor of the Independent Presbytrian Church in Savannah, Georgia and the most influential minister in Georgia in pre-revolutionary America. As a staunch Calvinist, Zubly believed firmly in both the rule of law and the democratic process. He served as a voice of reason and moderation both to the British and to his fellow Georgians. He urged the British to uphold the constitution and afford adequate representation to the colonists, while counseling the colonists toward reconciliation rather than rebellion. When neither the British Parliament nor the colonists heeded his message, Zubly refused to alter his political and theological principles - and it ended up costing him his land, his liberty, and his reputation. This Article examines the ways in which Zubly's political views were deeply connected to his Calvinist theology, and asserts that the inseparability of his theological and political views largely explains his inability ultimately to support the Revolutionary cause.

Zubly was a Swiss Calvinist immigrant, who began preaching in Georgia by 1746 and pastored the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah beginning in 1760. That congregation soon became the largest and most popular in Georgia. Zubly attained a position on the Continental Congress in 1775 - but when he began to urge perpetual connection with Britain even while acknowledging the rightness of Continental Congress's cause, and then later refused to swear allegiance to the States, he was branded a Tory and banished from Georgia. He died in 1781, a bitter and broken man.

Zubly's depth cannot be appreciated without looking at the Calvinist theology that informed his political ideas. For example, John Calvin taught that ministers should be accountable to the people through an election process. This conception of accountability made its way into political thought and theories of political representation in later Calvinism. These understandings led Zubly to protest Parliament's overreaching when it denied representation to the colonists and bound them to laws to which they had not consented. Zubly resisted the idea of rebellion, however, because Calvin also taught that the sovereign was the minister and representative of God, and was to be obeyed even when evil and oppressive. An oppressive leader often was a judgment from God, and the just response was prayer and petition, not rebellion. In contrast to his contemporary John Witherspoon, Zubly never articulated a point at which rebellion would be justified in America. This led him to fall on the wrong side of an historical divide, and history has accordingly been unkind to Zubly. But when viewed through the lens of adherence to Calvinism rather than through the lenses of loyalty to England or patriotism toward the revolutionary cause, Zubly looks not so much like a traitor, nor a man of moderation, but rather a man of principle.

Keywords: Democracy, Calvinism, Calvinist, Rule of law, Zubly, Democratic process

Suggested Citation

Nichols, Joel A., A Man True to His Principles: John Joachim Zubly and Calvinism. Journal of Church and State, Vol. 43, pp. 297-317, Spring 2001, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=762466

Joel A. Nichols (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (MN) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4827 (Phone)

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