Saturday, December 5, 2009

God and the Declaration of Independence

Here are some more thoughts on the Declaration of Independence , many of which will appear in one form or another in my book manuscript, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Primer." (If all goes well, it should be available in January 2o11).

What should we make of the references to God in the Declaration?

As I have written before ,the Declaration of Independence was never meant to be a formal statement of American values, of universal human rights, or of the relationship between God and American independence. Yet by the nineteenth century it had certainly become all of these things.

Unlike the United States Constitution, the Declaration makes reference to God. There are four of them. A close examination of these references tell us something about the religious world view of its writers.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins:

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 and Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Here Jefferson is affirming that the idea of independence is grounded in natural law and the God who gave us that law. “Nature’s God” was a term used often by eighteenth-century deists. These deists believed that God created the world, instilled it with natural laws of science, morality, and politics, and did not interfere with it any further. Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, was not a deist. He believed that God sustained the universe and, at times, even intervened in human affairs. But Jefferson's choice of the phrase “Nature’s God” is so vague that it would have been accepted by nearly all of the colonists. Deists, free-thinkers, and Enlightenment liberals (such as Jefferson) would have no problem affirming the idea that natural rights come from God. Eighteenth-century Christians might have preferred a more explicitly Christian reference to God, but they too could affirm this belief.

The next reference to God in the Declaration of Independence occurs in the second paragraph: “

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.

Actually, the reference to the idea that self-evident truths are “endowed by their Creator” was not part of Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration. It was added later by Benjamin Franklin, a member of the writing committee. Jefferson’s original wording was: “that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” Franklin’s change to the text makes it clear that he and the Continental Congress wanted to affirm the belief that the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” came from God. Yet, like Jefferson’s use of the phrase “Nature’s God” in the first paragraph, Franklin never elaborates any further on the attributes of this “Creator.” Once again, this vague reference to God could have been embraced not only be Christians, but by deists, Unitarians, and freethinkers as well.

References to God do not appear again in the Declaration until the final paragraph. Here we find the phrase:

We…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name and 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.

Once again, these words were not included in Jefferson’s original draft, but added during the discussion of the document on the floor of the Second Continental Congress. Unlike the references to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator,” the phrase “Supreme Judge of the World” is a bit more specific. Unlike the vague God of the first two paragraphs, the use of the words “Supreme Judge of the World” suggests that the God to whom the Congress appealed will one day judge humankind. The judgment of God is an important dimension of Christian theology. But one could reject some of the other central tenets of orthodox Christianity (such as the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead) and still believe that God would judge humans in the next life based upon their behavior in this one. Indeed, nearly all of the signers of the Declaration believed in a God who judges humankind, either in this world or the next.

The last reference to God in the Declaration:

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 Honor.

The God of the Declaration of Independence is not only the author of natural rights and the judge of the world, but He also governs the world by His "Providence." The term "providence," as it was used in the eighteenth-century, was usually used to describe an active God who sustains the world through His sovereign power. This is not the distant God of the deist, but a God who is always active in ordering His creation. He performs miracles and answers prayers. By referencing "Providence," the members of Congress were affirming their belief that God would watch over them and protect them in this time of uncertainty, trial, and war. Whether they embraced all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity or not, most of the signers could affirm a belief in the providence of God.

In the end, some may be disappointed with the way in which Jefferson, his committee, and the Second Continental Congress did not produce a Declaration of Independence that was overtly Christian. The Declaration never mentions Jesus Christ, does not quote the New Testament, and fails to move beyond vague descriptions of God.

While we would be hard pressed to describe the Declaration as a uniquely “Christian” document, it certainly does reflects the theistic world view prevalent in the eighteenth-century British-American colonies.


MikeUtzinger said...


I just finished reading with my class Horace Bushnell's 1861 sermon reflecting on the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. You would be pleased to know that he not concurs with you but claimed that the unchristian Constitution and vague Declaration were the reason for the Civil War.


John Fea said...

Mike: Thanks for this reference. I am going to need to look at it.

Brantley Gasaway said...

Just another reference, this time from a Southerner's perspective: Benjamin Palmer's "National Responsibility Before God" (see Conrad Cherry's "God's New Israel") criticizes the Constitution for failing to acknowledge God--a "mistake" that Palmer proudly declares that the Confederate States of America did not repeat.

John Fea said...

Brantley: Thanks for this. I just got done reading Harry Stout's *On the Altar of the Nation* and it is filled with these kinds of quotes. He argues that the Confederacy really saw themselves as a "Christian nation." The North was heathen, as evidenced from the Declaration and Constitution.

Larry Allen Brown said...


You state this: " criticizes the Constitution for failing to acknowledge God--a "mistake" that Palmer proudly declares that the Confederate States of America did not repeat."

I take it that you agree with those sentiments. Can you tell me why it would be a mistake not to acknowledge God in the constitution, when the intentions of the constitution were to provide freedom of conscience in that area? What business does the civil magistrate have in areas having to do with belief or non-belief in something that can't be proven in the first place? It's none of their business. Explain that to me please.

And Mike,
If Bushnell felt that the unchristian Constitution and vague Declaration were the reason for the Civil War, are you saying that Christians are so demanding that their religion be observed under the authority of the state, that they were willing to go to war over it? Doesn't that smack of the worst kind of authoritarianism? And is Bushnells opinion; given in a sermon no less, any reason to accept his claim as authoritative? If he's giving a sermon, then hes preaching a belief is he not? I think it's safe to say that beliefs must be justified by an appeal to an authority of some kind (usually the source of the belief in question) and this justification by an appropriate authority ( being a sermon, I suppose the authority is God )makes the belief either rational, or if not rational, at least valid for the person who holds it. However this is a requirement that can never be adequetly met due to the problem of validation or the dilemma of infinite regress vs. dogmatism. He's attempting to justify the Civil War on dogmatic religious grounds. But what then does he base his justification on? What justifies his justification?He sounds like a jihadist. Your Horace Bushnell has much in common with Osama bin Laden.

Larry Allen Brown said...


This statement: "While we would be hard pressed to describe the Declaration as a uniquely “Christian” document, it certainly does reflects the theistic world view prevalent in the eighteenth-century British-American colonies."

I think it's somewhat true. There certainly is no reference to Christianity in the two documents. No mention of Jesus or New Testement scripture. I seriously doubt that Jefferson would have taken part in anything of that nature. He was not a Christian by anybody's standards, so he wouldn't write something that he didn't believe in. But to suggest that there was a "theistic world view" prevelent in the 18th century either in Europe or America is a bit of a stretch. This was after all the Age of the Enlightenment and the documents certainly reflect the times that the founders were living in. Deism was prevelent as a world view at the time, and if theism was holding any ground it was in the form of Pantheism. The references to Natures God bear that out. That is the Pantheistic world view. God as nature itself. Washington himself was not a Christian. He was a Free Mason, and there is a monument to his Free Masonry in Alexandria Va. Look at Washingtons writings and you'll never see a reference to Jesus, but always to Providence. Jeffersons religious views were far more Pantheistic in view of his writings, although he would never discuss them with anyone. In his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists he said, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for is faith or his worship". He meant what he said. He was no Christian for sure, and he was called an atheist by many. He would never take part in anything that promoted religion. His Statutes for Religious Freedom in Virginia predate the DI and were the model for the 1st Amendment. His views on religious freedom are well known, as are Madisons.

Lary9 said...

So the 4 references in The Declaration are:
1. Nature's God
2. Creator
3. Providence
4. Supreme Judge of the World

Not exactly a mandate for the claim that the founding documents were a Judeo-Christian manifesto. No matter what the composition of the Supreme Court and no matter how much evangelicals wish it to be true, the religiously sectarian branding of America remains moot.

Chris said...

The references to:
(1) “Nature’s God” is based on Deism and Deism is not a religion.
(2) “Creator” is referenced in the Qur'an and the Torah.
(3) “Providence” also means (1) Care or preparation in advance; foresight. (2) Prudent management; economy.
(4) “Supreme Judge of the World” is also a reference to Deism or whoever you bow or pray to.