Whenever people begin to talk about the Founding Fathers of our nation, they generally think in terms of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other such important figures of the Revolution. Of course, all of these deserve their place in our Parthenon of freedom, but two figures are all but forgotten by all but a relatively few academics.
Jonathan Edwards was as unlikely a forbearer to the cause of a new nation as one can imagine. However, it was his stalwart preaching in New England that, along with George Whitefield, ushered in the First Great Awakening and all but saved the colonies from going the way of anarchists France. With America’s spiritual foundations strengthened, the stage was set for men and women with strength of character to lead the way in the decades to come.
As powerful a figure as Edwards proved to be, there was a force back in England who had laid earlier foundations for him. Edwards, like many others in New England, read deeply both from Scripture and the writings of John Locke. Born in 1632, Locke was an educator, philosopher, theologian, and government official. By the time of his death in 1704, his influence on American thinking was firmly established.
Some go so far as to say that without his influence on the minds of the movers and shakers of the thirteen colonies, there would have been no United States of America. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, there can be doubt we would not know the stability of government and quality of life we enjoy apart from the influence that Locke’s philosophies still have on this country.
The Founding Fathers certainly believed this of John Locke. Consider how they alluded to his teachings:
- John Adams – “Mr. Locke… has steered his course into the unenlightened regions of the human mind, and like Columbus, has discovered a new world.”
- Benjamin Rush (Declaration signer) – Locke was not only “an oracle as to the principles… of government” but in philosophy, he was also a “justly celebrated oracle, who first unfolded to us a map of the intellectual world … having “cleared this sublime science of its technical rubbish and rendered it both intelligible and useful.”
- Benjamin Franklin – Locke was one of “the best English authors (for the study of… history, rhetoric, logic, moral and natural philosophy.”
- Noah Webster – Said Locke’s influence was undeniable in establishing sound principles of education.
- James Wilson (Original Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court) – “The doctrine of toleration in matters of religion . . . has not been long known or acknowledged. For its reception and establishment (where it has been received and established), the world has been thought to owe much to the inestimable writings of the celebrated Locke…”
- James Monroe – Attributed much of our constitutional philosophy to Locke, including our belief that “the division of the powers of a government . . . into three branches (the legislative, executive, and judiciary) is absolutely necessary for the preservation of liberty.”
- Thomas Jefferson – Said that Locke was among “my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced.”
- Alexander Hamilton – Said that anyone seeking to understand the thinking in favor of American independence should “apply yourself without delay to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal . . . Locke.”
In spite of the fact that Locke directly influenced everything from the American idea of separation of powers to the Bill of Rights, he is seldom taught in modern universities. That might be because his classic work, Two Treatises, alludes to Biblical scripture over 1,300 times. John Adams spoke of Locke’s dependence on the Bible when he observed:
The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence. . . . were the general principles of Christianity. . . . Now I will avow that I then believed (and now believe) that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God. . . . In favor of these general principles in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from . . . philosophers including Locke – not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.
Locke is now often labeled a Deist or more often than not ignored completely, all the while ignoring the sheer weight of Biblical thinking in all that he said and wrote. If Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson were the Founding Fathers of this county, Jonathan Edwards was the grandfather, and John Locke the great-grandfather. No wonder many deconstructionists want to eliminate their names and ideas from the minds of tomorrow’s leaders.
A Quick Primer of the Writings of John Locke:
Two Treatises of Government – Locke served under some of England’s worst monarchs, including Charles I, Charles II, and James II and argued vehemently against the “Divine Right of Kings.” He also was able to see many of his principles enacted into policy during the rule of Lord Cromwell and then William and Mary.
Questions Concerning the Law of Nature – sought to reconcile human reason and Divine revelation as fully compatible as opposed to being enemies. Jonathan Edwards built on this in several of his theological writings.
A Letter Concerning Toleration –objected to the government establishing specific church doctrines by law, argued for a separation of the state from the church, and urged religious toleration for those who did not adhere to Anglican doctrines.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding – earned him the title the “Father of Empiricism,” or the doctrine that knowledge is derived primarily from experience. Rationalism placed reason above experience; and while Locke definitely did not oppose reason, his approach to learning was more focused on the practical, whereas rationalism was more focused on the theoretical.
Some Thoughts Concerning Education – proposed a three-pronged holistic approach to education that included (1) a regimen of bodily exercise and maintenance of physical health—that there should be “a sound mind in a sound body”; (2) the development of a virtuous character—which he considered to be the most important element of education; and (3) the training of the mind through practical and useful academic curriculum—also encouraging students to learn a practical trade.
Reasonableness of Christianity – urged the Church of England to reform itself so as to allow inclusion of members from other Christian denominations. He recommended that the Church place its emphasis on the major things of Christianity (such as an individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ) rather than on lesser things (such as liturgy, church hierarchy and structure, and form of discipline). That work also defended Christianity against the attacks of skeptics and secularists, who had argued that Divine revelation must be rejected because truth could be established only through reason. Locke’s defense evoked strong criticism from rationalists, thus causing him to pen two additional works defending the reasonableness of Christianity.
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