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America’s Declaration of Independence:
The Christian Legacy
by Herbert W. Titus
Next: Declaration of Independence: Christian World View & Legacy
Is the United States of America a Christian nation? For over one hundred years after America’s founding, opinion leaders throughout the western world believed that it was.
America’s great 19th century historian, George Bancroft, for example, believed that Christian theologian John Calvin had a profound influence on the origin of American independence. N.S. McFetridge, Calvinism in History 99 (1882).
Nineteenth century Spanish statesman, Emilio Castelar, traced America’s source to one book, the Bible. Harper’s, Vol. 45, p. 220 (July 1872). As late as 1892, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, after an extensive review of America’s history, concluded without qualification that “this is a Christian nation.” Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 471 (1892).
Yet, on November 17, 1992, just a little over one hundred years later, Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice ran into a buzz saw of opposition when he voiced the same opinion. Titus, “This Is A Christian Nation,” SCP Journal, Vol. 17:4, p. 12 (1993).
Today, Americans have been led to believe that America is not, and never was, a Christian nation. See, e.g., Christianity Today, Vol. 25, p. 14 (July 17, 1981). The popular assumption is that the U.S. is a “pluralist” nation, inspired, by the best human reason rooted in the 18th century Enlightenment, not by the political ideas of the Bible anchored in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Those who claim that America is not Christian rest their case upon the proposition that the nation’s founders were deists. One of the most influential proponents of this view was Carl L. Becker, author of a widely-read book on the Declaration of Independence. Becker claimed that, beginning with the latter part of the 17th century:
God had been withdrawing from immediate contact with men, and had become, in proportion as he receded into the dim distance, no more than the Final Cause, or Great Contriver, or Prime Mover of the universe; and as such was conceived as exerting his power and revealing his will indirectly through his creation rather than directly by miraculous manifestation or through inspired books. C. Becker, The Declaration of Independence 36-37 (Vintage 1959) (hereinafter Becker’s Declaration).
Many Christians have endorsed this view. Some have come to this conclusion because they believe that America’s revolutionary past is irreconcilable with the apostolic teachings of Paul and Peter in Romans 13:1-2 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.
These passages certainly command all people to obey the civil government authorities, but they also command those civil authorities to rule as God’s servants, to punish evil and reward good. As servants or ministers of God, civil rulers are accountable not only to God, but to the people whom they rule.
This principle of accountability was expressed by Jesus Christ, Himself, when he laid down the rules for the leaders of the church:
Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all (Mark 10:42-44).
It was this Christian principle of servanthood that the American patriots claimed had been breached by England’s King George III. After specifying 26 grievances against the king, the declarants concluded:
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
How can one be sure that this claim rested upon Christian principles of servanthood and accountability? First, the very language of the Declaration is Christian. Second, the legal and political principles of the Declaration are Christian. Finally, the underlying worldview of the Declaration is Christian.
Thomas Jefferson’s initial draft of the Declaration began with a foundational appeal to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” as the cornerstone upon which America’s claim for independence rested. This phrase remained unaltered in the final text. Becker’s Declaration at 142, 186.
Professor Becker maintained that Jefferson’s appeal to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” was an 18th century appeal to natural law, that is, to a system of law discovered by man’s reason unaided by any special revelation from God. Becker’s case was an elaborate one, based upon the scientific works of Newton and Descartes and upon the philosophical works of Locke.
Becker concluded that America’s founding statesmen believed that “there was an exact correspondence between human reason and the objective world” and that the phrase, “laws of nature and nature’s God” meant man’s “rational explanation of the relation and operation of all that is” based solely upon his empirical observations and experience. Id. at 53-79.
Becker’s view is simply wrong.
The Law of God
First, the term, “laws of nature,” was equivalent to the well-known common law term, the “law of nature.” The “law of nature” was the “will” of God revealed in nature and was composed of all of the “immutable laws of human nature, … the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms.” 1 Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 39-40 (lntro., Section 2, 1765) (hereinafter Blackstone’s Commentaries).
Second, the term,”law(s) of nature,” was not equivalent to “natural law.” The former was established and stated by God, the latter was derived from God’s original and stated by men. Sir William Blackstone, the great teacher of the English common law, put the distinction this way:
[T]he law of nature [is] expressly declared so to be by God himself; the other is only what by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together. Id. at 42.
Third, the “laws of nature,” being the exact expression of God’s “will” for all of creation (including mankind) were “binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this ….” 1 Blackstone’s Commentaries at 39-41.
With this proposition, Blackstone echoed John Locke who wrote almost a century earlier:
… [T]he law of nature stands as an eternal rule of all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men s actions must … be conformable to the law of nature- i.e., to the will of God ... J. Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, 77 (C. XI, Sec. 135, Liberal Arts Press 1952) (hereinafter Locke’s 2d Treatise).
Fourth, the phrase, “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” was equivalent to Blackstone’s phrase, “the law of nature and the law of God.” The two terms were placed in tandem by Blackstone and the Declaration, because they were equivalents, coming from the same source, God, but in different ways and at different times.
The law of nature came at the time of creation. God revealed his will in the created order, itself, and empowered man to discover that will through his reason. 1 Blackstone’s Commentaries at 39-40. But man fell. Thereby, his reason became “corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.” Id. at 41. So God, “in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason,” revealed His will in “the holy scriptures.” This written “revealed or divine law” is what Blackstone called the “law of God” and what America’s founder’s called the “laws of nature’s God.”
As Gary Amos has pointed out in his book, Defending the Declaration (1989), the Declaration’s reference to both categories of God’s law “grew out of the church’s reading of…Romans 1 and 2:”
According to the Apostle (Paul), God’s creation law is not in conflict with His Scriptural law …. The phrase “laws of nature and of God,” which was in settled use by the time of medieval Christianity, grew out of this desire to affirm the validity both of the natural, pre-Mosaic law as well as the written law of Scripture (pp. 44-45).
In summary, the phrase “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” was a most convenient 18th century term to refer to the laws of God as revealed in the created order and as revealed in the Bible. Those who claim otherwise have the burden of proof that the Declaration utilized the phrase in a novel way.
Even Becker has acknowledged that it would have been foolhardy to have called the American people to a revolution “on principles that no one had ever heard of before. Becker’s Declaration at 25. Blackstone’s Commentaries were widely read in America by her lawyers and statesmen. Locke’s 2d Treatise was equally popular. It would have been convenient, therefore, for America’s founders to have rested their case for independence on such widely-accepted and well-known authorities.
It would also have been very strategic. The law of nature and of nature’s God was the very cornerstone of England’s common law and constitutional monarchy. Blackstone and Locke were accepted legal and political authorities in the Mother country. The foundation of America’s Declaration of Independence, therefore, would not only have appealed to America’s friends, but would have disarmed her enemies.
The Creation of God
While designed to meet the immediate political needs of the American colonies, the Declaration was also written for posterity. By appealing to the very laws of God, not to man’s understanding of that law, the drafters rested their case on the eternal and unchanging decrees of the Almighty. And Who was that Almighty One? Unmistakably, it was the Creator God introduced in the Book of Genesis. Thus, the Declaration reads:
… [A]ll men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In both the Old and the New Testaments, God is identified as the Creator (Is. 40:28; I Pet. 4:19). In Genesis, God is introduced as the Creator of the whole universe, including mankind:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Gen. 1:27).
As Creator, God is the one who gave mankind all of the unalienable rights listed in the Declaration. He is the Giver of life:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Gen. 2:7).
God is also the Giver of liberty:
Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Corin. 3:17).
Finally, God has given to mankind the “pursuit of happiness:”
And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God (Eccles. 3:13).
Indeed, God is the Giver of all good things:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning (James 1:17).
The Declaration’s authors used Biblical terms to describe man’s origin, because they believed that the book of Genesis was historically true. They rejected ancient evolutionary speculations about the origin of the world and of mankind. They came well before the resurgence of the evolutionary hypothesis that burst upon the scene after 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
Moreover, it was the creation account of the Book of Genesis that undergirded the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” the very fountain of the Declaration’s claim of right. That, too, was traced back to Blackstone who wrote in his Commentaries:
Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily to subject to the laws of his creator, for he is an entirely dependent being … And consequently as man absolutely depends upon his maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker’s will.
This will of his maker is called the law of nature …. Blackstone’s Commentaries at 39.
The Government of God
Not only did the Declaration’s drafters affirm the Creator as the Author of Law and the Giver of Unalienable Rights, but as the active Governor of the Universe:
We … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.
In this concluding paragraph, America’s founders appealed first to God, as “the Supreme Judge of the World.” This appeal is like that made by Jephthah, captain of the army of Israel, before he led his nation’s army into battle with the Ammonites: “(1)he Lord the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon” (Judges 11:27).
The parallel was not coincidental. John Locke referred to this Biblical account to support the proposition that only God could judge man when in the state of war. Locke’s 2d Treatise, supra, at 14, Ch. 3, Sec. 21.
An appeal to God as judge could not have been made had America’s founders subscribed to deism. For as Gary Amos has pointed out:
To believe that God intervenes as judge in the affairs of men is incompatible with the deistic view of God that holds Him to be aloof to human affairs. Amos, Defending the Declaration, supra, at 153.
But America’s founders knew God, not only as judge, but as a merciful Father. Hence, they concluded their final appeal to God as “Divine Providence.” Without doubt, this reference is to the God of the Christian faith.
Again, Gary Amos has provided good and sufficient documentation that “Divine Providence” was “one of the oldest cornerstones of Christian teaching” and “represented the heart of their belief in God, namely, that God was the ever-active, moment-by-moment governor of the universe.” Id. at 153-58.
Indeed, God is introduced as “Jehovah-jireh,” God the Provider, in Genesis 22: 14, to explain the action that God took to provide for Abraham a substitute sacrifice for his son, Isaac. This event is the unmistakable forerunner of God’s providing His own Son, Jesus Christ, to die a substitutionary death upon the cross for all mankind.
What better evidence than this that the Declaration is a Christian document! Jefferson and his fellow patriots, having first affirmed their faith in God as Creator, were inevitably drawn to rely finally on God as Providence. For as Noah Webster put it in his 1828 Dictionary:
He that acknowledges a creation and denies a providence, involves himself in a palpable contradiction; for the same power which caused a thing to exist is necessary to continue its existence.
Four principles anchor the Declaration of Independence. First, the rights of mankind are God-given and unalienable. Second, the purpose of civil government is to secure those rights. Third, the power of civil government is given by the consent of the governed, each of whom is equally entitled to rule. And, fourth, the right to govern is forfeited by a tyrant to lower civil magistrates in older to restore the rule of law. All four of these principles are Christian.
Rights – Endowed By God And Unalienable
In Jefferson’s early draft of the Declaration, he stated that man’s “inherent and unalienable” rights were “derived” from the fact that “all men are created equal and independent.” After submitting this draft to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the wold “derived” was dropped in favor of the phrase “endowed by their Creator.” Later, Congress inserted the adjective “certain” in the place of “inherent,” so that the final document read: “that they (all men) are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights.” Becker’s Declaration, supra, at 139-75.
These changes were neither stylistic nor literary, but substantive. “Derived” means “drawn, as from a source,” or “deduced.” Jefferson’s draft rested upon the proposition that man by his reason could glean from the created order the rights given by God. But Jefferson’s colleagues sought a more sure footing than man’s reason.
By replacing “derived” with “endowed by their Creator,” the Declaration rested upon rights as God had given them, not as man understood them to be. Thus, America’s founders chose to establish the new nation upon the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” not upon “natural law.” For as Blackstone had already written in his 1765 Commentaries:
the law of nature [is that] expressly declared so by God Himself and the … [natural law] is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. Blackstone’s Commentaries, supra, at 42.
The word, “inherent,” means “existing in something else, so as to be inseparable from it” The word was appropriate if man was certain about the existence of the rights being relied upon, but uncertain of their exact content. Once God was identified as the Giver of those rights, however, then the word, “certain,” became appropriate, because whatever God had given to mankind was “sure, true, undoubted, unquestionable … existing in fact and truth.”
When the words “endowed” and “certain” are coupled with “unalienable,” then the Declaration makes a most remarkable claim. What God has given and defined for the benefit of all mankind cannot be given away by the recipient or taken away by the Donor. As for God, His character gives full and sufficient assurance that He will never renege what He has promised:
God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said it, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? (Numbers 23:19).
Nor will His character allow Him to take back what He has given:
(F)or there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor the taking of gifts (II Chron. 19:7).
As for man, that is quite another matter. First of all, many men are quick to give up that which God has given to them. Under the rights theory of the Declaration, however, that is not morally or legally possible. For if a man gives up a right given to him by God, then he has violated his duty to his Creator, namely, to receive the gift that God has given. James Madison illustrated this point in his famous Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments:
The Religion … of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable; because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also; because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.
Thus, Madison, concluded that every man “who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society” must “do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign”
But there was also another problem with men. Many seek to take away the rights of their fellow men. How dare they do so, wrote Thomas Jefferson in his Preamble to the 1786 Act Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia. For if “the Holy Author of our religion … chose not to propagate it by coercions” on mind or body, it is an “impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men” to “have assumed dominion over the faith of others.”
In summary, what God, Himself, has given and has no “right” to take away, a fortiori, no man can deny to or take from another man
Civil Government- Instituted by Men to Secure Their Rights
Not only has God guaranteed the rights that He granted to man, He has authorized men to establish civil governments for the purpose of protecting those rights. Thus, the Declaration states:
That to secure these rights (rights endowed by God), governments are instituted among men.
It is most instructive that the Declaration’s authors did not make the same claim about “governments” as they had about “unalienable rights.” God endowed mankind with rights, but governments are “instituted” among men The Bible is the source of this distinction.
Before the flood there was no civil ruler authorized to wield the sword against evildoers (Gen. 4:15). After the flood, God authorized through the Noahic covenant the creation of civil society with authority to punish evildoing, even to impose the death penalty (Gen 9:6). But how was this civil rule to be constituted? No guidelines were expressly given until the establishment of the constitutional monarchy of Israel.
Before Saul became king of Israel, God sovereignly ruled His chosen people through judges whom He selected. This mode of civil rule was exceptional, designed to separate God’s holy nation from the rest of the nations (See Ex. 19:4-6). Thus, Moses and the judges who followed him were God’s judicial oracles (Ex. 19: 16), God’s law bearers (Ex. 20), and God’s sword (Judges 2:18). In other words, the judges of Israel acted as an exact substitute for the Lord who is judge, legislator, and king (Is. 33:22). This was so because the nation of Israel served both the creation and redemptive purposes of God.
When the elders of Israel rejected this mode of government by asking for a king “to judge us like all the nations” (I Sam. 8:5), God told Samuel, Israel’s judge at that time, that they had not rejected Samuel, but God (I Sam. 8: 7). God then instructed Samuel to warn the elders of Israel that the kind of king that they had requested would exercise total power over the nation. In effect, God said that such a king would take away the people’s lives, liberties, and property (I Sam. 8:11-17).
Nevertheless, the elders persisted. God relented: “Hearken to their voice, and make them a king” (I Sam. 8:22). From then on, the civil kingdom of Israel was not a gift from God, but was instituted among men who could not live under the direct sovereign rule of Almighty God.
Still God had a plan for this civil order that would, if obeyed, secure the people’s lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. This plan had been forecast generations earlier through Moses:
When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee … and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me; Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: …. And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book … that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them (Deut.17:14, 15, 18-19).
So it came to pass when Saul became king, Samuel “told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it in a book” (I Sam. 10:25). And so Saul became king under the law, not above the law (See I Sam. 13 and 15), in accordance with God’s law for all nations, as the apostle Paul would write generations later in Romans 13:
For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God .. For he [a civil ruler] is the minister of God to thee for good … [and] the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (vs. 1, 4).
In 1644, Presbyterian pastor, Samuel Rutherford applied these very scriptures to an analysis of the authority of the king of England. And American lawyer and law teacher, David Hoffman, wrote in 1824 that any study of constitutional law in the United States of America should begin with the study of the polity of Israel as set out in the Old Testament D. Hoffman, A Course of Legal Study (1824).
Next: Declaration of Independence: Christian World View & Legacy