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America’s Founding Philosophy in the Declaration: God as Supreme Judge, Lawgiver, & King

September 13, 2019

Prior to and during the American founding era, many early Americans notably adhered to a distinct, God-oriented worldview that greatly impacted their lives, actions, and histories.  One intrinsic principle of their worldview was their recognition that God is highest authority in the world—that He is supreme judge, lawgiver, and king over all mankind and nations.  Thus all people and nations, including earthly authorities, are responsible and subject to God.  This belief was largely drawn from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition.  It was also expressed and supported by the American Founders, the Continental Congress, revolutionaries like Samuel Adams, and Western thinkers including John Locke and Thomas Paine.  This philosophy impacted American colonists’ political thought, pursuit of freedom, actions in the revolution, and founding of the United States.

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.

The American view of God’s sovereignty was likely influenced by the Bible and British philosopher John Locke’s political application of the idea.  For example, in Isaiah 33:22, Isaiah the prophet speaks of God’s rule over His people, proclaiming, “For the Lord is our Judge, The Lord is our Lawgiver, The Lord is our King.  He will save us.”  Also, in Judges 11:27-32, when the ancient Israelites had no earthly authority to whom they could appeal against their opposers in battle, they appealed to God as the judge of all men to decide the outcome—to give victory to the army in the right and defeat to the army in the wrong.  Consequently, God decided the outcome of the battle between the armies of Israel, led by Jephtha (or Jephthah), and the armies of Ammon, giving victory to Israel.  In his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government–a work highly influential to the Founders–Locke cited Judges 11 to support the idea that God acts as supreme judge over all men and nations.  He explains, …

Locke asserted that if no earthly, authoritative judge exists to decide a conflict, God in Heaven still serves as judge, and men may appeal to Him in such circumstances as their consciences dictate.

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1932.

Subsequently, during the American Revolution, when the American Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence of 1776 to proclaim their independence from Britain and to form of a new nation, they concluded their document by “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions [bold emphasis mine].”  In doing so, they closely aligned with the Bible and Locke, acknowledging that a just God exists and that He cares for, rules over, and judges His creation.  As such, without an earthly judge to preside over their conflict with Britain, the Founders appealed to God for their cause of freedom.  For they believed that their cause was just.  As Gary Amos expresses in his 1989 Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence, “If the drafters of the Declaration were aware of that passage in Locke and meant to follow it, this means they were asking God to miraculously deliver the Continental Army from the British if the British were in the wrong.”[ii]  The Founders’ appeal to God in the Declaration shows that they espoused a Western moral, philosophical, and political worldview largely based on the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A Depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States Declaration of Independence by Robert Edge Pine c1784-1801

The Second Continental Congress also expressed the American view of God as supreme judge who could, at will, determine the outcome of the revolutionary war.  Following the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill, Congress publicly appealed to God for protection and justice.  In their 1775 report, “Declaration on Taking Arms,” Congress states,

With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the universe, we most devoutly implore His divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war. [bold emphases mine][iii]

Later, in a 1778 Address of the Congress to the Inhabitants of the United States of America and a 1781 Congressional Resolution respectively, after many attempts to reconcile with Britain, Congress again made appeals “to the tribunal of unerring wisdom and justice, to that Almighty Ruler of Princes, whose kingdom is over all” and to “that God who searcheth the hearts of men, for the rectitude of our intentions [bold emphases mine].”[iv]  Such public acknowledgements of God as sovereign ruler in the world were expressed repeatedly by Congress throughout the war.

Portrait of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos, c1792.

Many other American revolutionary thinkers and writings also reflected and promoted the view of God as a king and lawgiver in America.  In his 1776 Common Sense, a widely-circulated political pamphlet that helped to pave the way for America’s independence, English-born political thinker Thomas Paine reinforced this conviction held by many colonists.  He brought it fresh to their minds and articulated it in political terms.  Paine asserted that Americans, like the ancient Israelites, are not destined to be ruled and oppressed by an absolute monarch.  Rather, God is their king, and His moral law in the Bible is their guide.  Paine expounds, … 

Though Paine became critical of Christianity later in life, his Common Sense resonated with Bible-loving Americans and provided the impetus for their path toward independence.

Portrait of Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1772.

Like Paine, revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, just as the Continental Congress, affirmed the biblical idea of God as king.  In his 1776 Oration at the State House, Adams states,

We have this day restored the Sovereign to Whom alone Men ought to be obedient.  He reigns in Heaven, and with a propitious Eye beholds his Subjects assuming that freedom of thought, and dignity of self-direction, which he bestowed on them.  From the rising to the setting Sun, may his Kingdom come. [bold emphases mine][vi]

Adams alluded here to biblical illustrations, as found in Psalm 113, that describe God’s kingship and majesty, shining as the sun.  Psalm 113:3-4 says, “From the rising of the sun to its going down, the Lord’s name is to be praised.  The Lord is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens.”  This verse is just one of many that describe God’s sovereign rule in the universe.

Clearly, a key aspect of America’s founding philosophy recognized God as a just, supreme authority over men and nations.  This idea was largely derived from a Bible-based, Judeo-Christian worldview and understanding of God.  And it was expressed and supported by God-oriented representatives, revolutionaries, and thinkers.  Indeed, the Founders’ reference to God as Supreme Judge in the Declaration, explains Steven Waldman in his 2008 Founding Faith:  Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, revealed “a classically biblical vision of God’s stature, disposition, and involvement” in the lives of men.[vii]

The Americans’ widely-held worldview of a sovereign God affected their actions prior to, during, and after the revolution.  For one, it added to their reasons for their rebellion against King George III’s imposed, non-consensual authority.  They held that they were subjects to God and His moral law, and had certain God-given rights.  In addition, their beliefs gave them the moral conviction, courage, and strength to stand up to the most powerful nation in the world at that time—a feat they likely would never have undertaken or achieved otherwise.  Finally, their philosophy gave them a rationale to justify their departure from absolute monarchy in favor of a new civil order, a self-governing republic, for their new nation’s civil government.  Thus, without their understanding of God as a supreme judge, lawgiver, and king over men and nations; it is fair to say that the United States as we know it, as a free nation, might never have existed.

[i]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, in Two Treatises on Government, 2 Books, bk. 2 (London:  Printed for R. Butler, W. Reid, W. Sharpe, and John Bumpus, 1821), 204-205.

[ii]  Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN:  Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), 56.

[iii]  United States Continental Congress, Declaration on Taking Arms, July 6, 1775, in United States Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 2/May 10-Sept 20, 1775, ed. Worthington C. Ford (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1905), 156-157.

[iv]  United States Continental Congress, An Address of the Congress to the Inhabitants of the United States of America, May 8, 1778, in United States Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 11/May 2-Sept 1, 1778, ed. Worthington C. Ford (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1908), 475; United States Continental Congress, A Manifesto, September 27, 1781, A Manifesto, October 30, 1778, in United States Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. 4/Jan 1778-Jan 1779 (Philadelphia, PA:  U. S. Library of Congress, Printed by David C. Claypoole), 629.

[v]  Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776, in Tracts of the American Revolution, 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Indianapolis, IN:  Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1966), 434.

[vi]  Samuel Adams, An Oration Delivered At the State-House, in Philadelphia, To A Very Numerous Audience, 1 August 1776 (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed for J. Johnson, 1776), 3-4.

[vii]  Steven Waldman, Founding Faith:  Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New York:  Random House, 2008), 88.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  What is the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings?
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
4.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
5.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War

6.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
7.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
8.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
9.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
10.  The Principle of Rule of Law
11.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
12.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
13.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
14.  The Purpose of American Civil Government
15.  The American Social Contract
16.  The American Right of Revolution
17.  The Influence of Locke and Sidney on the American Revolution

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 10:  Concepts in the Declaration of Independence, p. 254.  MS-HS.

Concepts in the Declaration of Independence….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Supreme Judge and Divine Providence, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty and Consent of the Governed, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract.  Students will consider the definition/meaning, explanation, and context of each principle.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related articles/videos (see above).

Activity:  Declaration Principle Chart
Have students consider the Bible-based and philosophical concepts incorporated in the Declaration of Independence.  In the appropriate columns on charts, students (in pairs or small groups) research and write down the source(s) from which each concept was derived and the concept’s meaning, explanation, and/or context in their own words.  See the “Concepts in the Declaration of Independence” principle chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this Miracle of American HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 388.  This activity may also be found in chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 241.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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