Biblically Assessing the Declaration of Independence

A well-known pastor and theologian once said: “Over the past several centuries, people have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That’s why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Divinely endowed rights. Therefore those believers say such rights are part of a Christian worldview, worth attaining and defending at all cost including military insurrection at times. But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1–7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers.”

In contrast, many of our nation’s early leaders claimed that the American Revolution was entirely consistent with Biblical principles: “We have this day restored the Sovereignty to Whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come” (Samuel Adams said this as the Declaration of Independence was being signed). John Adams declared: “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; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.” John Quincy Adams stated: “The highest glory of the American Revolution was that it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.” In fact, the motto of the American Revolution was “No king but King Jesus!”

Was the American Revolution Biblically justified? The answer can be found by assessing the philosophical and theological foundation of the American Revolution – The Declaration of Independence – in order to determine if it is, in fact, consistent with the teachings of Scripture.

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.

Both divine revelation and the natural universe inform mankind of God’s law and therefore leave every person without excuse (Romans 1:20). That is why these truths are “self-evident.” The phrase “all men are created equal” stems from traditional American
philosophy’s fundamental belief that man is created by God, and his spiritual nature is of supreme value and importance compared with the material world. This philosophy teaches that belief in God as our Creator is the fundamental link that unites individuals as equals into a society and means equal responsibility to God and His law, rather than equal
possessions or abilities. Therefore, in order to fulfill this responsibility to God, men have been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

The assertion that rights come from a Creator God is vital because it establishes that civil government is not the source of all things necessary for men. It also secures the
longevity of these rights because as God is the Creator, He is also the Supreme Lawgiver; man (and therefore civil government) not only lacks the authority to abolish these rights but is in fact accountable to the Supreme Lawgiver to ensure that they are protected. Godless government, on the other hand, cannot be eternally limited (i.e., limited by an unchanging standard), for it recognizes no authority other than itself and the changing whims of the people and no rights other than those it bestows.

This understanding of the source of our rights is reflected in the writings of several of the Founding Fathers. John Dickinson (Constitution signer) defined an unalienable right as one “which God gave to you and which no inferior power has a right to take away.” John Adams said that unalienable rights are “rights…antecedent to all earthly government; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great
Legislator of the Universe.” Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The Sacred Rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

The Report of Conventions of Towns, Essex County, Massachusetts 1778 said, “Those rights which are unalienable, and of that importance, are called the rights of conscience. We have duties, for the discharge of which we are accountable to our Creator and benefactor, which no human power can cancel.” Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, said, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” The three unalienable rights listed in the Declaration are specifically mentioned in Scripture: life (Genesis 2:7; 9:6); liberty (Galatians 5:1, 13; 1 Peter 2:16; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Genesis 1:26–30); and the pursuit of happiness (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13). Note that the pursuit of happiness is not a condition; it is an ideal of self-development and growth. The pursuit of happiness involves the freedom of each and every individual to respond voluntarily in any associative or cooperative activity socially, economically, religiously, or politically. Each individual has the right, from their Creator, to live life and “pursue happiness” (i.e., have the freedom of opportunity to strive to realize to the full his own highest potential with regard to all aspects of life) from the beginning of life to its end.

Many who criticize the claim that our nation was founded on Biblical principles point to the existence and legal protection of the practice of slavery as being inconsistent with the Scriptures and the idea of being created equal (e.g., Exodus 21:16). However, if we look at the writings and lives of the Founders, we discover that many were actually quite opposed to the institution of slavery. For example, John Adams wrote, “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” George Washington said, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” Many colonies passed antislavery laws in the early 1770s, but King George III and his British governors vetoed them. Because of this, many anti-slavery Founders viewed independence as the best hope for fighting and abolishing slavery. Benjamin Franklin called slavery “an atrocious debasement of human nature” and “a source of serious evils.” He and Benjamin Rush founded the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in 1774. John Jay, who was the president of a similar society in New York, believed that “the honour of the states, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.” John Adams called slavery a “foul contagion in the human character” and “an evil of colossal magnitude.” James Madison called it “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

Thomas Jefferson initially composed a paragraph for the Declaration of Independence in which he condemned the British crown for protecting the slave trade. Unfortunately, it was deleted due to objections from South Carolina and Georgia. It stated:

He [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people [the slaves living in the South] to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Regardless of the obvious inconsistency, the Declaration’s claim that all men are created equal remained a clear rebuke to slavery. The calls for independence were understood to have clear implications for slavery; though it failed to go far enough in clearly condemning and abolishing slavery, its intent and result were antislavery. James Otis wrote in 1761, “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white and black, does it follow that it is the right to enslave a man because he is black?” Following independence, many states passed legislation restricting or banning the institution.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

One of the Biblical purposes of civil government is to protect the God-given rights of the people who have entrusted their leaders with that responsibility (see What is the Biblical Role of Civil Government? The idea of “just powers” implies that the Founders believed that God designed government to be limited in order to preserve liberty. This is affirmed in 1 Samuel 8:10–18, where the
nation of Israel is warned of the dangers to liberty posed by expanding the powers of
government. The reference to “just powers” are those that the people grant to their government that they deem necessary to secure their unalienable rights. The concept of “the consent of the governed” mentioned here refers to the fact that nations are responsible to God for the governing authorities that they support and therefore have the right to establish their own system of government and rulers. As Patrick Henry put it, “Rulers are the servants and agents of the people; the people are their masters.” This principle is consistent with Jesus’ words in Luke 22:25–26 in which he says that “he that is chief, as he that doth serve.”

That whenever any Form of Government
becomes destructive of these ends…

There are instances when civil government becomes corrupted by Satan’s lies to the point where it is actually operating in opposition to its divinely ordained purpose. In his interactions with the American colonies, King George III repeatedly violated the Charter of 1606, which guaranteed the colonists their rights as Englishmen and also declared them outside of his sphere of protection, effectively kicking them out of the British Empire. His blatant and repeated violation of his oath before God made him a tyrant in the colonists’ eyes rather than a king. While appealing to 1 Samuel 15:23 as his authority, the influential minister Jonathan Mayhew said of King George III’s Stamp Act: “The king is as much bound by his oath not to infringe the legal rights of the people, as the people are bound to yield subjection to him. From whence it follows that as soon as the prince sets himself above the law, he loses the king in the tyrant. He does, to all intents and purposes, un-king himself.” Samuel Adams concurred with Minister Mayhew in his statement “I scruple not to affirm it as my opinion that his [King George III’s] heart is more obdurate [stubborn], and his disposition towards the people of America is more unrelenting and malignant than was that of Pharaoh towards the Israelites in Egypt.

…it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new
Government… Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established
should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while
evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms
to which they are accustomed. 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… In every
stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the
most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered
only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked
by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler
of a free people. Nor have We been wanting in attention to our
British brethren. We have warned them…We have reminded
them…We have appealed…we have conjured them…They too
have been deaf to the voice of justice and to consanguinity. We
must, therefore…hold them…Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

In light of the claims by some that the American Revolution was in violation of Romans 13:1–7, was the Declaration of Independence a document condoning a rebellion against God-ordained authority, or was it a rightful overthrow of tyrannical government? The answer depends on which of the two approaches to the meaning of “ordained of God” in Romans 13 is accepted. Timothy and Chuck Baldwin in their book Romans 13: The True Meaning of Submission present a logical argument, explained in this way: (1) God’s ordination of government is limited and conditional, and therefore the citizen has an inherent duty to engage and correct government to ensure that it operates within its covenant limitations; or (2) God’s ordination of government is unlimited and unconditional, and therefore the citizen should willingly submit to whatever the government does. The key to determining which approach is correct lies in the answer to the question “Is someone superior to government?” Scripture makes it clear that God is (Psalm 22:28). Government is therefore limited, and obedience and submission to it is conditional—the government must be promoting righteousness and justice (Romans 13; Proverbs 16:12). If God says that He loathes unjust governments and will judge them, how can they be His ordained ministers? True, they were granted that position, but once they have proven to fail at it, they must be replaced or incur God’s judgment on the nation. To support the second approach is to (1) ignore the conditions and purposes God placed on government; (2) accept the fact that no person living on this earth has any absolute, secured rights, as given by God; (3) accept that no one has any right to resist, change, petition, or participate in governmental change or action; (4) accept that might makes right — whoever wins power obtains the ordination of God; and (5) voluntarily put oneself into slavery.

Christians are forbidden by Romans 13 to overthrow the institution of government and live in anarchy, but they are not required to blindly submit to every human claim to sovereignty. The institution of government is ordained by God, but this does not mean that God has approved every specific organization/person claiming to be a civil government/ruler. God is disgusted by and will judge oppressive rulers (Isaiah 10:1–4; 14:5–6). Likewise, God has also ordained church and family governments, but not everything that men call a “church” or “family” is approved by Him. Only if an institution meets His definition does it have His authority. Since good government is to safeguard the unalienable rights of the people, if it fails to do so the people have a right to modify the government and, if necessary, replace it. In so doing, they must never be without government and must work through their lower-level leaders. (John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Knox promoted this idea, and this is the course that the American colonists took.)

Public officials who exceed the limits of the powers delegated to them by the law violate the people’s God-given, unalienable rights and make themselves defaulting trustees, usurpers, oppressors, and tyrants. They replace Rule-by-Law (God) with Rule-by-Man. By acting lawlessly, they free the people from any duty of submission to them because legally and morally, under Rule-by-Law, submission by the people is required only to law and not to law-defying public servants (Proverbs 16:12) who are a snare to the people (Job 34:24). The people are therefore obligated to oppose all violators of these rights, and to fail to do so is to defy duty to God as the giver of these rights and invites His judgment upon the nation (Micah 3:9–12; 2 Kings 24:3–4; 2 Chronicles 19:2; Jeremiah 25:12–32; Isaiah 3:1-3, 6, 7, 11; 13:11; 14:21–25). Since they operate in opposition to the God-ordained purpose for civil government, tyrannical governments are actually the violators of Romans 13, and those who resist them in a lawful manner are actually supporting God’s ordination. Reverend Jacob Duché (first chaplain of the Continental Congress) argued in favor of the American position, explaining: “Inasmuch as all rulers are in fact the servants of the public and appointed for no other purpose than to be “a terror to evil-doers and a praise to them that do well”(c.f., Rom. 13:3), whenever this Divine order is inverted whenever these rulers abuse their sacred trust by unrighteous attempts to injure, oppress, and enslave those very persons from whom alone, under God, their power is derived does not humanity, does not reason, does not Scripture, call upon the man, the citizen, the Christian of such a community to “stand fast in that liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free” (Galatians 5:1). The Apostle enjoins us to “submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake,” but surely a submission to the unrighteous ordinances of unrighteous men, cannot be “for the Lord’s sake,” for “He loveth righteousness and His countenance beholds the things that are just.””

The Scriptures provide several examples of leaders who rebelled against tyranny in obedience to God: Moses, Gideon, Ehud, Jepthah, David (against Absalom), Jehoiada the priest (against Athaliah, 2 Kings 11), Samson, and Deborah (praised in Hebrews 11). The familiarity of the Founding Fathers with this Scriptural precedent is evidenced by Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for the Seal of the United States of America: “Moses lifting up his wand and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters. This motto: ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.'” Thomas Jefferson proposed: “The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” The seal as finally approved by the committee was: Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites; rays from a Pillar of Fire in the cloud, expressive of the Divine presence and command, beaming on Moses, who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.

As referenced in the Declaration, the American colonists diligently pursued reconciliation from 1765 to 1776 in an attempt to restore their current governing authorities to fulfilling their God-ordained role (Appeal of 1775, May 1776 “Olive Branch Petition”—each submitted in a submissive, conciliatory tone). John Witherspoon (a theologian and signer of the Declaration of Independence) testified to this desire for restoration: “On the part of America, there was not the most distant thought of subverting the government or of hurting the interest of the people of Great Britain, but of defending their own privileges from unjust encroachment; there was not the least desire of withdrawing their allegiance from the common sovereign [King George III] till it became absolutely necessary—and indeed, it was his own choice.” William Pitt (in the House of Lords, 1775) admitted: “When your lordships look at the papers transmitted us from America, when you consider their decency, firmness, and wisdom, you cannot but respect their cause, and wish to make it your own…all attempts to impose servitude on such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation—must be vain—must be futile.”

Sadly, the British Crown responded to these appeals with military actions, and the Americans took up arms in self-defense. In the minds of the Colonies, Great Britain was seen as a foreign power invading America. David Barton suggests that the colonists defended their homeland, making their cause a conservative counterrevolution against the British Crown’s attempt to overthrow the legitimate colonial governments. In that sense, then, it is more accurate to name the conflict that gave birth to the United States of America the “American War for Independence” rather than the “American Revolution.”

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by 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; 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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to…do all…Acts and Things which
Independent States may of right do…

Because the colonists were resisting tyranny under the authority of their governing representatives in an attempt to restore their government to God’s ordained design, they believed that their actions were justified before God. They also believed that though God would not bless an offensive war, He would bless the efforts of self-defense (2 Samuel 10:12; Nehemiah 4:13–14, 20-21; Zechariah 9:8): “Tis immortality to sacrifice ourselves for the salvation of our country. We fear not death” (John Hancock). The Founders rated their economic interests and security as secondary to liberty and independence. The sacrifices of the Continental troops at Valley Forge and throughout the war further evidenced this conviction. William Pitt observed of the colonists: “[They] prefer poverty with liberty, to golden chains and sordid affluence…. It is the alliance of God and nature — immutable, eternal, fixed as the firmament of Heaven!”

Indeed, God has blessed us with a heritage of godly and wise forefathers who risked everything and exercised great care in order to establish a government based on Biblical principles through Biblical means for their posterity to enjoy. Let us work in our day to spread this message and restore the nation that God gave us through the labors of our founding fathers. Happy Fourth of July!

In Christ – Samuel and Lydia Smith