By Dr. D. James Kennedy
Christian Action League
The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, was the bloom of a tree that had grown for centuries. In one sense, you can trace its roots as far back as 1215, when the archbishop of Canterbury first penned the Magna Carta, the historic document demanding liberties from the King for the citizens. In another sense the Declaration was a uniquely American document, produced after decades of growing independence in the colonies, particularly in New England.
John Fiske, in The Beginnings of New England, said that as early as 1639, Bostonians were complaining about the magistrate having too much power. So Reverend Nathanial Ward of Ipswich wrote up “The Body of Liberties,” which were adopted in 1641. The very opening of the Body of Liberties describes itself as “The free fruition of such liberties, immunities and privileges as humanity, civility, and Christanity call for… John Palfrey, in his History of New England, states, “Ward was capable of the great business to which he was set….When…he announced the principle that life, liberty, or property was not to be invaded except by virtue of express law…it was almost a Declaration of Independence. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties contained “ninety eight separate protections of individual rights, including: ‘no taxation without representation,’ ‘due process of law,’ ‘trial by jury of peers,’ and prohibitions against ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”
John Winthrop, the great Puritan leader, gave a speech on liberty in 1645, in which he discussed spiritual liberty and civil liberty:
The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal; it may also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law, and the political covenants and constitutions, amongst men themselves. This liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your goods, but) of your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority but a distemper thereof. This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority; it is the same kind of liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.
The liberty the founders of America knew was not the same as licentiousness; it was liberty under law.
In the first legislative act in the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn also made clear the link between Christianity and civil liberties:
Whereas the glory of Almighty God and the good of mankind is the reason and end of government, and therefore government itself is a venerable ordinance of God, and foreasmuch as it is principally devised and intended by the Propriety and Governor and freemen of Pennsylvania and territories thereunto belonging, to make and establish such laws as best preserve true Christian and civil liberty, in opposition to all unchristian, licentious, and unjust practices, whereby God may have his due, Caesar his due, and the people their due.
American liberty, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, owes its very existence in large part to Christianity. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchmen who visited America in 1830 and later wrote Democracy in America, made a very important observation about freedom: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” Dissolve the bonds that faith creates and the state will create the control.
The Founding Fathers didn’t run to revolutionary writers like Rousseau or Voltaire, but to Christian writers like John Locke who said that “the Christian Religion, as delivered in the Scriptures, and free from all corrupt mixtures, is the most reasonable institution in the world,” and to Blackstone, or Algernon Sidney who said, “The Liberty of a people is the Gift of God and nature.”
When the thirteen colonies united and announced their separation from England, they articulated a carefully thought-out Christian philosophy of government: a coherent set of convictions rooted in the biblical understanding of God as Creator, of man’s God-given rights and responsibilities, and of the true purposes of a righteous civil government. John Locke said, “As men, we have God for our King, and are under the Law of Reason; as Christians, we have Jesus the Messiah for our King, and are under the law revealed by him in the Gospel.”
If the Bible had never been written, it is highly unlikely that so sublime and liberating a document as the Declaration of Independence would have been written. Gary DeMar, president of American Vision, points out, “The Declaration of Independence is a religious document, basing its argument for rights on theological grounds. Rights, the Declaration maintains, are a gift from the Creator: ‘We are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.’ The logic is simple. No Creator, no rights.”
This article was taken directly from What if the Bible Had Never Been Written, by Dr. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tn. 1998, pgs. 90-92.