Just before his inauguration as Speaker of the House, Rep. Newt Gingrich, a former college professor, gave his fellow lawmakers a reading list that included four books by futurists and management consultants, three historical books, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the Declaration of Independence.

Gingrich did so, he said, “not just for effect, not just because I used to teach. I think ideas really matter.”

The Declaration’s ideas certainly mattered in recent congressional debates. In the past few months, congressmen and advocacy groups have employed the Declaration as ammunition for pet causes such as federal school-lunch programs, affirmative action and homosexual rights.

Meanwhile, liberal journalists have wielded the Declaration against politically active conservative Christians. Time magazine essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, a frequent critic of the pro-family movement, likes to point out that the Declaration mentions a supreme being “only in the most generic terms-‘nature’s God/ the ‘Creator,’ ‘Providence’-calculated not to offend the doubters and deists (who believed that God had designed the universe, then left it to nature to run).” Many history books agree with the idea that the founding fathers were all deists and that their principles were not Christian.

But what tradition did Thomas Jefferson draw upon when he wrote the Declaration? The key phrases he used offer clues to his sources.

“…The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God…”

This phrase was heavily influenced by Sir William Blackstone and John Locke.’ Blackstone was England’s best-known expert on the common law and authored the Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765). Locke was a highly influential British political philosopher. For years, a number of leading historical scholars have linked Locke and Jefferson.

Both Blackstone and Locke were widely read in the American colonies,2 and both were carefully studied by Jefferson. Both Blackstone and Locke used the term “laws of nature” in its historic
Christian sense, entirely in keeping with their Christian faith.

Locke clearly believed in Christ’s deity and miracles: “Not that any to whom the gospel hath been preached shall be saved, without believing Jesus to be the Messiah,” Locke wrote in The Reasonableness of Christianity, “for all being sinners . . are all liable to condemnation … unless they believe, and so through grace are justified by God for this faith, which shall be accounted
to them for righteousness.”‘

Locke also wrote that he put faith in the Bible over human reason.

“The holy Scripture is to me, and always will be, the constant guide of my belief…. And I wish I could say there are no mysteries in it: I acknowledge there are to me, and I fear always will be. But where I lack the evidence of things, there yet is ground enough for me to believe, because God has said it: and I shall immediately condemn and quit any opinion of mine, as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in the holy Scripture.”‘

In writing about law, Locke used two crucial terms: the “law of God and nature” and “the laws of nature and of God”-terms he derived from the writings of an Anglican clergyman, Richard Hooker.’ Locke understood that these terms were supported by Romans 1-2.6 There the apostle Paul denounced the mistake of certain legalists who claimed that the only valid “law of God” was the Mosaic
legislation in the Pentateuch. Paul pointed out that to say this was not to protect God’s law, but to deny it, because God Himself gives general revelation in nature and in men’s hearts.

Locke also cited Judges 11-the account of Jephthah and the Ammonites-as evidence that God intervenes and governs in the daily affairs of men and nations. God was not a deistic watchmaker who had created the universe to run like a clock, and then walked away from it.

Christians such as John Witherspoon knew that the phrase “the laws of nature and of God” belonged to the church, and that is why he had no reservations about signing the Declaration. By referring to the Bible in two distinct ways, the phrase “laws of Nature and Nature’s God” incorporates by reference the moral law of the Bible into the founding document of our country.’

“…we hold these truths to be self evident…”

The term “self-evident” was not coined by anti-Christian Enlightenment rationalists, as many historians suppose, but by medieval theologians.’ In fact, the term grew out of Christian teaching on Romans 1-2.’ In those chapters, Paul used two Greek phrases that correspond to the words and meaning of the Latin concept per se notum,10 or “self-evident.” The words phaneros enautos (“evident in themselves”) in Romans 1:19 are the biblical counterpart of the Latin term per se notum and the English “self-evident.”

For Locke, a self-evident truth was one so basic and fundamental that it may be accepted as true without rational proof.” He wrote that God causes all men to have a knowledge of their Maker and their duties to Him, which corresponds to Romans 1-2. Locke’s other writings on human understanding further confirm his reliance on the Bible. “The Candle that is set up in us shines bright
enough for all our purposes,”‘ an allusion to Proverbs 20:27: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.”

Because of Locke’s influence over Jefferson and the founding fathers, it is reasonable to believe that they used a Christian idea when they wrote “self-evident” into the Declaration.

“…certain unalienable rights…”

1776 the colonists finally realized that it was useless to depend on their “rights as Englishmen” before the king and Parliament. So, in the Declaration, they appealed to a higher standard-a higher King than King George, a higher law than Parliament’s.

Catholic law scholars were the first to articulate the ground for what we now call unalienable rights. They used the word dominium (property) to signify “any right which could be defended against all other men, and which could be transferred or alienated by its possessor.”” Theologians later concluded that because all men have a duty to live their lives for God, the right to life is unalienable (even for unbelievers). They viewed liberty as a property right and therefore unalienable.” And theologians believed that the “pursuit of happiness,” erroneously construed by historians to be an anti-Christian Enlightenment idea,” is based on a New Testament idea of “happy”-“the distinctive religious joy which accrues to man from his share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.”” Earthly happiness is a gift of God to man (I Timothy 4:4, 6:17) and therefore unalienable.

“…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world …with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence…”

Why did the founders use these names for God, but not the names God or Jesus Christ, in the Declaration?

Locke drew the idea of calling upon the “Supreme Judge” from the account of Jephthah in Judges 11. 17

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the words Divine Providence in colonial religion. The earliest settlers were Calvinists and Anglicans. For both groups, divine providence rep resented the heart of their belief in God, namely, that God was the ever-active, moment-by-moment Governor of the universe. When the founders used “Supreme Judge” and “Divine Providence” as names for God in the Declaration, they were squarely within the Christian mainstream. One cannot study the history of New England without learning of Providence, R.I., or of Providence Plantations.”

To say the ideals of the American Revolution as embodied in the Declaration were “Christian” does not mean that all who took part were Christians. As the Declaration’s author, Jefferson doubted the deity and miracles of Christ; but he drew heavily from sources who saw Christ as the Son of God, and who saw God as central to government. These Christian roots are historically evident,
logically compelling and easily researchable.


1 . See Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind., An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 26. See also, Adrienne Koch, The American Enlightenment (New York: George Braziller, 1965), 41.

2. See e.g., Vernon L. Parrington, The Colonial Mind 1620- 1800 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1954), 241-45.

3. John Locke, The Reasonableness,of Christianity, with A Discourse on Miracles and part of A Third Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. I.T. Ramsey (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958).

4. Quoted in Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), prolegornena at 1. Also cited in Orr, English Deism, 99. 1 have modernized the original word assent to belief and want to lack.

5. Locke, Essay, 1:475.

6. Locke, Reasonableness, 29, sec. 19. See also, Second Treatise, 8. chap. 2, sec. 1 1. Cf., The Westminster Larger Catechism (1 647), Q 2, and notes 1-2, in The Confession of Faith: The Larger and Shorter Catechisms 1647 (London: Wycliffe Press, 1962), 129.

7. Does this conclusion apply even to Jefferson? Yes, it does. Jefferson had a high regard for the moral law in Scripture in spite of his unorthodox view of Scripture. In 1803 third year as president, Jefferson personally assembled a collection of all the moral sayings of Jesus from the New Testament. In a letter to Joseph Priestly, dated 29 January 1804, Jefferson explains what he did: “I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments of Greek of the same edition, & two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book. . . .”

Later, in a letter to his friend Charles Thomson, the founding father who translated the first American edition of the Greek Old Testament, Jefferson called the four gospels the “fountain of pure morals.” Jefferson then went on to say, 1, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigm of his doctrines.” Historians today emphasize that Jefferson cut the miracles out of the Bible. But Jefferson told his friends that the purpose was to have a handy collection, topically arranged, of moral principles taught by “our Savior.” See Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, I 0 vols. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892, text-fiche), 8:282 LAC 22701 (letter to Priestly); and 10:5 LAC 22702 (Letter to Charles Thomson, 9 January 1816). Some object to speaking of the Declaration as a founding document having present-day legal effect. In the minds of the founders, however, the Declaration and the Constitution were clearly linked. For example, in 1793, Judge Tucker of the Virginia General Court (who later published an American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries in 1802 and who taught constitutional law at William and Mary) wrote: “The declaration of independence, and the constitution, as the ACTS OF THE PEOPLE, must therefore stand or fall
together,” because they are “in form and effect, only different clauses of the same act, and necessary consequences of each other.” Kamper v. Hawkins, Virginia General Court, 23 May 1793, p. 73.

B. “God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature. This creation, too, and its maintenance, and its government, proclaim the majesty of the divine nature…. [T]he knowledge of the existence of God is implanted in us by nature.” St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, trans., S.D. F. Salmond, in vol. 9, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 1-2, bk. 1, chap 1, par. 2, and chap. 3, par. 1.

9. Dominican Fathers, Surnma Theologica, 1:1 1-12, Pt. 1, 0 1, Art 6, answer; and P 1, Q 88, Art 3, answer, p. 451.

10. For the Greek text, see Kurt Aland, et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, 3d ed. (Munster: United Bible Societies, 1975), 531. Keep in mind that the correspondence is in terms of moral self-evidence only. Paul’s words do not parallel the whole range of philosophical meaning that came to be associated with the term “self-evident.”

11. Locke, Essay, 2:276, bk. 4, chap. 7, sec. 1 0. Fraser’s edition has been severely criticized for its inaccuracies. The best edition is that of Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). 1 have used Fraser’s because its language is modernized for the ordinary English reader.

12. Locke, Essay, 1:30.

13. Not being a medieval expert, I have relied heavily on Richard Tuck’s Natural Rights Theories (Cambridge, 1979),16.

14. Libertas came to be viewed as a ius (liberty became a right) between the time of Richard Fitzralph (1350s) and Jean Gerson (1402). Historian Brian Tierney believes Gerson was simply”summarizing a way of thinking that had been developing ever since the twelfth century.” See Tierney, ‘Tuck On Rights: Some Medieval Problems,” History of Political Thought, vol. 4, no. 3 (Winter, 1983), 439. Also see Tierney, “Villey, Ockham and the Origin of Individual Rights,” The Weightier Matters of the Law., Essays on Law and Religion, ed. John Witte Jr. and Frank S. Alexander (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

15. Henry Steele Commager, Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment (New York: George Braziller, 1976), 88.

16. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wrn.B. Eerdmans, 1974), sm., “Makarios,” by Friedrich Hauck and George Bertram, 367.

17. Locke, Second Treatise, 14, chap. 3, sec. 21.”To avoid this state of war-wherein there is no appeal but to Heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders-is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society and quitting the state of nature; for where there is an authority, a power of Earth from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power. Had there been any such court, any superior jurisdiction on earth, to determine the right between Jephthah and the Ammonites, they had never come to a state of war; but we see he was forced to appeal to Heaven: “The Lord the Judge,” says he, “be judged this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon” (Judges xi. 27.), and then prosecuting and relying on his appeal, he leads out his army to battle. And, therefore, in such controversies where the question is put, “Who shall be Judge?” it cannot be meant, “Who shall decide the controversy,” everyone knows what Jephthah tells us, that “the Lord the Judge” shall judge. Where there is no judge on Earth, the appeal lies to God in Heaven.”

18. ‘[T]he colony of Providence Plantations … that they, pursuing,. . . their sober, serious and religious intentions, of godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the holy Christian faith and worship … where, by the good Providence of God, from whom the Plantations have taken their name … there may, in due time, by the blessing of God upon theirs endeavors, be laid a sure foundation of happiness to all America: . . . “Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, July 8, 1663, quoted in Richard L. Perry, Sources of our Liberties (Chicago: American Bar Foundation,
1978), 169-170.