Religion in the Declaration

“Declaration of Independence” – John Trumbull (1817)

Unlike the United States Constitution, the Declaration makes reference to God. However, that’s about it. The Declaration never mentions Jesus Christ, does not quote the New Testament, and fails to move beyond vague descriptions of God. It is more indicative of a 18th century world view.  

There are four references to God either directly or indirectly. A close examination of these references tell us something about the religious world view of its writers. 

1. ” 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.”

So what is “Nature’s God? David Voelker wrote the following in 1993 before he became a history professor 

“Nature’s God” was clearly the God of deism in all important ways. That Jefferson included God in the “Declaration of Independence” is very significant because it helped lay the foundation for a civil religion in America. Paul Johnson addressed the civil religion begun by the founders in his article, “The Almost-Chosen People,” saying that the United States was unique because all religious beliefs were respected. People were more concerned with “moral conduct rather than dogma.” So Jefferson helped create a society in which different religions could coexist peacefully because of the emphasis on morality over specific belief.”  

The Deists saw God as a great geometer who created and set the world in motion. God was distant. Jefferson was a believer in God whose existence could be proved but his nature not known as well.  He remained a Deist in also rejecting the rituals and sacraments of modern religion 

Voelker further identifies the deists – “Deists were characterized by a belief in God as a creator and “believed only those Christian doctrines that could meet the test of reason.” Deists did not believe in miracles, revealed religion, the authority of the clergy, or the divinity of Jesus. Like Jefferson they “regarded ethics, not faith, as the essence of religion.” All in all religion was private for Jefferson. Religion was practical, a source of moral values derived from God.  

Deism was popular since oppressive European states were associated with faiths whether Catholicism in France or Anglicanism in England.  If you  question the government’s policies then you should question those of religion. They criticized organized religion for fostering divisive sectarianism, for encouraging persecution, and for stifling freedom of thought and speech throughout history.

It is probably safe to say, however, that the Founding Fathers did not hold all Deist thought as sacrosanct. Several Deists like Franklin believed that God could intervene in the affairs of human beings. Gregg Fraser in Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, characterizes Jefferson as not a Deist but a “theistic rationalist”, because Jefferson believed in God’s continuing activity in human affairs. 

2. “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.  

It recognizes that unalienable rights are defined by God, not by the civil government.  Jefferson believed that no government had the authority to mandate religious conformity, and his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) helped guarantee the right to freedom of conscience.  

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 or man or government 

Civil recognition of the idea that unalienable rights come from God is a fundamental element of the laws of nature. 

3. “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.  

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. 

4. “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. It refers to God’s hand in history, working His will through man’s interaction with God, his fellow man, and with nature in conjunction with man’s free will.  

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.

Steven Waldman in his seminal work Founding Faith wrote this about the delegates view of Divine Providence

“John Hancock, the first to sign, had served as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress when it declared that “it becomes us, as Men and Christians,” to rely on “that GOD who rules in the Armies of Heaven.”‘ George Read, one of Delaware’s delegates, had written the Delaware constitution, which required legislators to take an oath to “God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.” New Jersey’s delegate was the Reverend John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton, which trained young men to become evangelical ministers. It was Witherspoon who had authored a resolution the year before, on July 20,1775,calling for a continentwide day of fasting and prayer, and he was hardly a Deist: “I entreat you in the most earnest manner to believe in Jesus Christ, for there is no salvation in any other [Acts 4:12],” he had written. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who offered the resolution on independence, would a year later propose one creating a national day of prayer in which the people “may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.”

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