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The Christian Roots of the Declaration of Independence

The right of revolution is metaphysical, not existential (and none may logically claim such a right who have not a metaphysics on which to found their case).
—Clarence B. Carson, The Rebirth of Liberty (1976)

The War for Independence

The American Revolution was a war over taxation, human rights, and most importantly, lawful authority. When the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act (1765), it sought to impose on the American colonies an authority they refused to recognize. Parliament was the legislature of Great Britain and the people living on the English Isle were represented in it. The colonists, however, weren’t. The colonies had their own legislatures. The colonists believed they should only be taxed by their own elected representatives and that “[t]axation without representation is tyranny.” In their minds, they were fighting for the traditional rights of all Englishmen and of course, for the rights that God gave to every man.

The Move Toward Independence

The War began in April of 1775:  Paul Revere, Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill. For a good while the colonists had no thought of independence. They saw the affair as civil conflict, one they hoped would end in reconciliation. But ten months of war, a great many election sermons, and Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, all began to change the colonists’ thinking. Then, on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia brought a motion to the floor of the Second Continental Congress:

Resolved:  That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

The motion was debated and temporarily tabled. Meanwhile, Congress appointed a committee to write a document that would explain to the American people, potential foreign allies and especially to God, the justifications for and goal of this independence. Lee departed because of a sick wife, leaving Jefferson with three books (The Second Treatise of Civil Government by John Locke; Lex Rex by Samuel Rutherford; and Thomas Hooker’s Commentary on Judges) and the task of writing the first draft of what George Mason called a “covenantal lawsuit.”  Franklin, Adams, and Congress made changes. On July 2nd Congress passed Lee’s resolution; two days later, on the 4th of July, Congress adopted The Declaration of Independence.

The Text of the Declaration

The first paragraph of the Declaration is one sentence. It says that when one people believe itself compelled to break politically (covenantally) with another, that people ought to present its case to the rest of the world:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The second paragraph is longer. First, the Declaration summarizes some philosophical common ground, including the nature of God-given rights and the nature of civil government. The Declaration does not argue; it takes for granted. The truths it cites are “self-evident.” The real argument comes later.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all 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. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Second, there is an expression of conservative caution. The Declaration recognizes that revolution or secession is a grave and dangerous matter, one that might well create many more problems than it solves:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Third, there is application to the colonies’ current situation. The Declaration charges the king with repeated and grievous breaches of the covenant. He has violated his feudal contract (or social compact) with the colonies and so, forfeited his right to rule. The specific accusations follow in the next section.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. —Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Before we go on, some of the more familiar phrases in the Declaration deserve our particular attention.

“The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”

These words already had a lengthy history in Western civilization when Jefferson wrote them. To many, these words spoke of the very obvious revelation of God in both nature and in Scripture. To a few others, it referred to an absolute ethical standard impressed by God on the fabric of nature which was easily discovered by moral intuition or rational analysis. By the late 18th century, the words were common coinage among men of letters and could as easily be used by an orthodox Calvinist as a proto-Unitarian. Patrick Henry, a devout believer, spoke of “the God of nature” without any sense of compromise or infidelity. Though Jefferson had Unitarian rhythms and was at times in his life an enemy of special revelation, he knew that these words would not be offensive to either group.

“All Men Are Created Equal”

Without historical and philosophical context, these words are hopelessly vague or patently false. Equality is a mathematical concept, right? Two quantities are only equal if each can properly replace the other in a proposition or equation. In this sense, no two men are equal in any way. But Jefferson and the Congress were thinking in different terms. Americans were the equals of Englishmen, meaning they had the same rights. If Jefferson and others saw a broader application, not everyone did. The representatives of South Carolina and Georgia, who objected vehemently to a proposed paragraph condemning black slavery, had no problem with “all men are created equal.”

But again Jefferson’s choice of words were hardly his own. In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, published earlier in June, George Mason had written:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Or you can look back to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689):

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions….

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

The traditional formulation found in Locke and elsewhere was life, liberty, and property. The phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” comes most immediately from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, part of that state’s new constitution. It appeared much earlier in Blackstone:  God has “reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, ‘that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.’”

Again, Jefferson’s wording is vague and open to interpretation. Certainly from a Christian point of view, these rights are not in any strict sense “unalienable.” Here’s what I mean: The murder forfeits his life; the thief forfeits his property in order to make restitution. Both forfeit an absolute right to seek their own happiness in this world. The words require context. For the Christian, the proper theological context is the law of God, especially the xixth and eighth Commandments:  “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.” But however we take them, the words presuppose a Creator, an absolute morality, and a judgment to come.

“Consent of the Governed”

In Romans 13 the Apostle Paul says, “the powers that be are ordained of God.”  He was speaking of civil government. But scripture certainly recognizes that the people may play a proper role in structuring their own governments and appointing its rulers. For example, David, though anointed of God, only became Israel’s king when her elders recognized him as such (2 Sam. 2:4; 5:3). And closer to home, within Congregational and Presbyterian churches, the congregations (the people) elected their own elders and called their own pastors. While the Calvinist covenant theology of the early colonists recognized that all authority originates in God, “the consent of the governed” played a major role in their formation of civil government. Of course, Locke and the later Enlightenment thinkers ran this one way past the end zone and into the stands.

“The Right of the People to Alter or to Abolish It”

The idea of lawful resistance to tyranny also has its roots in scripture (e.g., 2 Kings 11). Calvin hinted at it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), but the doctrine received a much fuller treatment in the Huguenot treatise, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (1579) and in Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex (1644). The doctrine is simply this:  All human authority comes from God and ought to operate in terms of His law. When a ruler, even a king, opposes God’s law and perverts his authority, other rulers ought to remove him. When the tyrant is a king, he ought to be challenged in God’s name by lesser magistrates. We find a somewhat secularized version of this in Locke’s Second Treatise.

The Failure of the King

And now the list of grievances. The Declaration lays its charges at the feet of the king. Here are a few:

  • He has… sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies…
  • He has combined with others [Parliament] to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
    • For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
    • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
    • For taking away our Charters…
    • For suspending our own Legislatures …
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Parliament is mentioned indirectly, because the colonists never recognized the legitimacy of Parliament’s legislation over them. Their quarrel was now with the king who allowed and encouraged Parliament to exercise this illegal authority. The colonists needed to prove to the world that their king was a political criminal, a covenant-breaker, and that they were honorable men, not revolutionaries.

Free and Independent States

The Declaration of Independence was more than a piece of wartime propaganda; it was an originating and incorporating document. It announced the birth of a new republic, the United States of America. Shortly, the Articles of Confederation would become the by-laws of that new nation. In the meantime, the Union, however undefined, was a reality.

The Declaration in a Post-Modern Age

In Matthew 25 Jesus compares history to a field sown with wheat and tares (weeds). When the two crops first appear, only an expert can tell the one from the other. But when harvest comes, everyone can tell them apart. In other words, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness mature over time. They become more clearly “themselves” as the millennia pass. As they do, men and nations become more consistent with their own presuppositions. In his novel, That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse:  the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.

It would be a mistake to think that our Founding Fathers, even the best of them, were self-consciously Christian in everything they thought and wrote. It would be an equally grave mistake to think that the non-Christians among them were self-consciously consistent in their unbelief. Reading Thomas Jefferson is a great example of this. Life and people are not that simple. Because of this, there are ambiguities and wiggle-room in the Declaration. Orthodox Christian pastors and Unitarian rationalists (who borrowed their worldview from the Christians) both could champion the document, and the largely Christian populace of the new states could welcome it without reservation. Sam Adams could even say:

We have this day restored the Sovereign, to whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven, and… from the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come.

But in the midst of ambiguity, some things should be very clear:  If there is no Creator, there are no rights. There is no right or wrong. Ethics, morality, human rights, and personal “sacred honor” all hinge on some standard and the reality of a personal, self-revealing Creator who will judge the world. Post-Darwin secularism and neo-pagan evolution have no such God and can’t reasonably speak of rights or of right and wrong. After all, maybe “rights” evolve. Humanism today has moved well beyond the fuzzy Deism of this early period. In doing so, it no longer has any legitimate, philosophical claim on the Declaration of Independence. Self-conscious Christians still do. Perhaps we should act like it and live in terms of it. Enjoy the 4th… a truly Christian Holiday!

For Further Reading:

Clarence B. Carson, The Rebirth of Liberty, The Founding of the American Republic 1760-1800 (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1976).

Gary North, “The Declaration of Independence as a Conservative Document,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, vol. III, no. 2 (1976), 94-115.

Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration, How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN:  Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989.

Franklin P. Cole, They Preached Liberty (Indianapolis:  Liberty Press, n.d.).

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