Recent years have witnessed a new birth of interest in the theological aspects of the American Revolution. People of diverse theological positions have claimed the Declaration of Independence for their respective camps. Evangelicals have rejoiced to identify the origins of the nation with the historic Christian faith, while Unitarians and champions of even more radical positions claim the document as their own. Before a positive claim is laid by either group, it is important to assess the position of Jefferson and his associates in terms of the theological and philosophical outlook of the eighteenth century in the light of the twentieth century. Such an evaluation offers embarrassments to both parties. On the one hand, it is quite obvious that the Unitarianism of the eighteenth century, with its strong reverence for Jesus Christ and its devotion to the Christian ethic, is not that of our day, but on the other hand, it is also quite true that most of the leaders of the Revolutionary movement were not evangelicals.
Although nearly all of them were deeply indebted to the biblical heritage for their ethical and political philosophy, the long-cherished belief that the leaders of the American Revolution were evangelical Christians is open to serious question in the light of the theological and intellectual developments which had been taking place in the colonies after 1700. Deism and Unitarianism had been slowly but steadily gaining influence in the colonial mind since 1720, or so, and by 1776 they could claim a considerable following among the intellectual classes in most of the colonies. The identification of the Natural Rights philosophy with the cause of American independence gave to both Deism and Unitarianism a respectability in the eyes of many who would not necessarily agree with the basic theology of the more radical leaders of the Revolution. For this reason, in part at least, the more evangelical members of the Continental Congress of 1776 made common cause with those who desired separation from the mother country, although they had lost control of the movement for independence, for by 1776 the Deists and political radicals were firmly in control of the Continental Congress.
Thomas Jefferson, an avowed Unitarian, was one of the most outspoken critics of the historic faith, and opponent of the church of his day. His presumptuous attempt to edit the Gospel according to his own notions was equalled only by his contemptuous attitude toward Christian ministers, whom he accused of falsifying the simple teachings of Jesus by adding their own theological conceptions. His position, in general, was shared to varying degrees by such other leaders of the American Revolution as Benjamin Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen and, for a time, John Adams. The extent to which Deism and Unitarianism gained the ascendancy among the intellectuals is open to question, but there is increasing agreement among students of the period that this intellectual revolt against historic Christian theology lay at the heart of the movement for political separation from England. The Declaration of Independence with its political, social, and economic implications could not become a reality and guiding force in American life until this religious and philosophical revolt had first taken place. Bernard Mosier is profoundly correct when he insists that the sovereign God of Calvinism was no less objectionable to the Deists and Unitarian architects of a new America than was the sovereign George III of England. But their revolt was not merely against Calvinism; evangelical Christianity in any form was distasteful to them.
The Revolt Against Christianity
The Deists rejected as untenable such vital doctrines as the infallibility of the Scriptures, original sin and total depravity, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the atonement and the resurrection. Following Hume, they banished the possibility of miracles in a world ruled by natural law, and looked to it as the final source and guarantee of truth. They were willing to grant to the Scriptures a relative authority to the extent to which they agreed with the laws of nature and conformed to the dictates of right reason. But they reserved the right to judge Scripture in the light of human reason.
Deism, with its religious corollaries, furnished the inspiration for the Revolutionary program. For the radicals, separation from England was not an end, but a means to an end. It was a necessary prerequisite for the realization of the true revolution which was a reconstruction of colonial life in a manner not possible so long as the colonies remained under English rule. It was their purpose to erect in the colonies not only a new nation, but a new society, democratic in its nature, which would reflect in its political, social, and economic life their basic assumptions.
The radicals desired a society dedicated to the sovereignty and goodness of man, for in it man would realize his native capacities. By the light of reason and with the aid of education, he will seek to do that good which he knows he must do. The Deists not only believed in the perfectability of human nature, but they were also quite optimistic concerning society at large, and were convinced that progress was not only possible, but inevitable. It was possible for mankind to achieve a millennial society on earth; Jefferson, and other architects of the American Revolution, were dedicated to this proposition.
It was not their intention to banish Christianity from the American scene, for, as we have seen, they actually held its ethical teachings in very high esteem, but it was their purpose to break the hold of the historic Christian theology on the political and social life of the American people. Jefferson was deeply convinced that only a liberal religion could offer the most favorable atmosphere for the realization of the democratic millennium. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson ventured to voice the wish that every young American then alive would die a Unitarian.
It is thus obvious that this American dream was inspired by principles which were humanistic and even naturalistic. The society which the Deists envisaged was a far cry from the biblical view of the triumph of the kingdom of God. It was to be achieved by education and cultural progress rather than by regeneration and a final appearance of Jesus Christ. It looked to an earthly Utopia for the realization of human happiness and not a heavenly kingdom for the glory of God. Christianity was interpreted in terms of the democratic philosophy: what is Christian is democratic, and what is democratic must necessarily be Christian. This is tenable only if the Gospel is first shorn of all those elements which deny the basic assumptions of the democratic philosophy. This most dangerous premise has underscored the American dream from 1776 until now.
The Debt To Christianity
But the question remains to be answered: Are there any Christian elements in the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, or might it be assigned, in toto, to the Deist camp? Does it owe its greatness to non-Christian sources, or may some of its continuing influence be traced to a biblical background? These are questions of great importance for all Christians who would seek to understand, and have the proper biblical attitude toward, the society of which they are a part. Devout Christians of that day were not unaware of these issues which confront us today, and some of them, like John Jay, consciously sought to curb the radical tendencies of the Revolutionary movement. Some leaders, like John Adams, later repudiated the earlier Deism and recoiled from the excesses of the Revolution itself.
Nature Or God?
In its assertion that human rights are derived from nature, and that government is of human origin, the Declaration of Independence was in serious error. It is quite obvious to the convinced Christian that men do not receive their rights from nature, but from God; and that all government is divinely ordained for the government of man and that it derives its just powers from God. It is equally clear that the belief in the right to revolution as it was set forth in 1776 is quite contrary to the Scriptures; also, Jefferson’s inclusion of happiness as a human right is much more compatible with pagan philosophy than with the Gospel. It may well be questioned whether happiness in this sense is a biblical concept. In respect to these points the Declaration of Independence can hardly be called Christian.
The Christian Tradition
Yet, after all of this has been admitted, it is equally clear that such a document could only have been drafted by those who were thoroughly at home in the Christian tradition. In its basic contention the Declaration of Independence stands squarely on a biblical foundation, for the Scriptures clearly set forth a doctrine of human rights—to life, liberty, property, and marriage. Such a conception of human personality is only tenable within a Christian frame of reference and flows naturally from the fact that God created man in his own image and laid on him certain basic creaturely obligations. Possessing the divine image and standing at the very head of creation as God’s vice-regent, man was given duties and responsibilities to his Creator which will call forth equivalent rights which God ordained to be the means by which man would fulfill his obligations as a creature.
Equally valid is Jefferson’s contention that government exists to defend these inalienable rights. When Jefferson penned the majestic phrases of this document, he was thundering forth to the twentieth, as well as to the eighteenth, century eternal truths which man rejects at his peril; for these propositions are derived from the Scriptures, and are a part of that infallible rule of faith and practice which He was pleased to give to his creatures.
The Failure Of The Deists
The Deists tried to maintain the ethical fruits of the Gospel while they divorced them from their metaphysical and theological foundations. At this point they committed their most serious errors. Convinced that the great scientific discoveries of their day had rendered any belief in the infallibility of the Scriptures impossible, they sought to separate the practical Christian life from its setting in the Scriptures as the only infallible revelation of God, and to find for it a more sure foundation in natural law and the dictates of human reason. They failed to realize that this natural law philosophy would, in turn, crumble in the face of the new scientific theories of the nineteenth century, and that those very human rights which they sought to strengthen would, in turn, fall victim to the naturalism, utilitarianism, and hedonism which would replace the Deistic conception of right reason. Still less could they foresee the philosophic nihilism of the twentieth century and the rise of those political despotisms which would make a mockery of all those values which they held dear.
Evangelicals And Government
One additional question presents itself. To what extent has the Declaration of Independence become the guiding influence in the life of the American people? The answer is found in the fact that very soon after the close of the war there was a growing conviction that the Revolutionary movement must be brought to a halt. As a result the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 met to draw up a constitution which, in many ways, was the direct antithesis to the Declaration of Independence. The calling of this convention was not only a triumph for those political conservatives who had lost power as a result of the Revolution, but it also marked a resurgence of evangelical convictions in the realm of government. Only a few of those who had been members of the Congress of 1776 were elected to the Philadelphia Convention; the only radical was the now mellowed Benjamin Franklin.
The Founding Fathers of 1787 represent not only a shift in political opinion, but a decided change in theological tone as well. Many of its leaders were evangelical in their convictions and the resulting Constitution clearly reflects the biblical tone in the thinking of the members of the Convention of 1787. Deism was no longer in the saddle but was under suspicion in many quarters. It is worthy of note that the modern cult of the Declaration of Independence had its origin in the days of Andrew Jackson and the rise of the modern democratic movement in this country.
C. Gregg Singer is Professor of History at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Formerly he taught in Wheaton College, Illinois, and Belhaven College, Mississippi. He has earned the A.B. degree from Haverford College, and the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from University of Pennsylvania.
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