Library

The Bible-Inspired Influences on the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights

December 20, 2019

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940.

Following the American Revolution and the birthing of the United States, the American Founders undertook the task of creating a new body of laws and a new civil government for the new nation.  This agreed-upon set of laws became the United States’ Constitution of 1787.  Russell Kirk elaborates in his 1991 The Roots of American Order, on the meaning of a constitution:  “The true constitution of any political state is not merely a piece of parchment but rather a body of fundamental laws and customs that join together the various regions and classes and interests of a country, in a political pattern that is just.”[1]  While the Declaration of Independence is an expression and agreement among Americans of the philosophical values and principles to which they adhere—the “who” and “why”—as a people and nation, the U. S. Constitution lays out a just, workable form of government and laws—the “how”—to practically order and govern the new nation according to its values and principles.  The Constitution frames the United States government, provides for the country’s national security and defense, upholds justice, and protects the civil and religious liberties of the people.  The Constitution is an important founding document of the American people.

While the U. S. Constitution is a practical legal document, it is based on a consensus of long-held moral, philosophical, and political beliefs, principles, and customs recognized and practiced by the American people.  Some important philosophical influences on the Constitution include the colonial and state constitutions, the Great Awakening, modern Enlightenment thinkers, and the Declaration of Independence.  Notably, all of these particular influences were shaped by a God-oriented worldview based on and/or consistent with the Bible.  This worldview was held by colonial and founding-era Americans as well as by the political philosophers they read.  In fact, the Bible itself was also a very strong, direct influence on founding-era Americans who drafted and ratified the Constitution.

The Puritans in the American colony of Connecticut drafted what is considered to be the first written constitution in the world, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut of 1639.

The American colonial constitutions and the state constitutions in the new nation were a strong influence on the governing principles and laws of the U. S. Constitution.  Drafted from 1776 to 1783, the state constitutions were themselves shaped by the colonial constitutions that preceded them.  They were, as Donald Lutz explains in his 1980 essay From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought, the culmination of two centuries of governance and law in the American colonies and of selected European and American ideas.  Particularly impactful on the state and federal constitutions were the Puritan constitutions of colonial Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the religiously tolerant colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.  Many of these colonies’ laws and practices were inspired by and/or defended from the Bible.  In fact, the American practice of constitutions began with the Puritans’ Bible-inspired covenantal constitutions in New England in the 1600s.[2]  As Alexis de Tocqueville observes in his 1831-1832 Democracy in America, …

Clearly, the Puritan constitutions, in their form and content, had a conspicuous impact on America’s modern constitutions.  The state constitutions which drew from the colonial constitutions, as Founder John Adams indicates in his 1778 Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, were the first modern constitutions and became models for the U. S. Constitution.[4]  As such, the colonial constitutions and laws became a precedent through which the state and federal constitutions gleaned long-held American, Bible-inspired governing principles and customs.

Some important governing principles found in the Puritan colonial constitutions—the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut of 1639 and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641—that were taken up in America’s modern state and federal constitutions include popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, self-governmentcivil covenants, federalism, rule of law, constitutionalism, and limited government.  The modern constitutions also took up religious freedom which was first attempted by religious non-conformists in the colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

Though not distinctly political, traveling evangelist Rev. George Whitefield’s preaching during the Great Awakening had democratic elements in its style and message.

Another influence on founding-era Americans and the Constitution was the Great Awakening—the Christian evangelical revival that swept through the American colonies in the early to mid-1700s just prior to the American Revolution.  Traveling evangelist George Whitefield and theologian Jonathan Edwards were the most prominent figures of this revival.  Traveling evangelists’ teachings and preachings on the Bible during this period focused on spiritual life and devotion, and on spreading the Christian Gospel to all.  While the revival was a religious movement, not a political one, it greatly affected American culture, society, and politics.  For example, in teaching about Christ’s love and redemption for all mankind and about the individual’s choice in “born again” religious conversion, it advanced ideas of human dignity, equality, and religious tolerance.  As Mark A. Noll notes in his 1992 A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, it also had a democratic element in encouraging individuals to take an active role in their religious duties, relying less on the clergy.  These ideas consequently affected Americans’ political views of democracy, freedom, and individual rights.  Noll explains that this spirit of the Awakening that incorporated “a frank expression of popular democracy…had much to do with the rise of a similar spirit in politics later on.”[5]  What is more, as historians observe, the revival helped to unify colonists under a common set of basic moral and civil values, and thus to develop a stronger national identity.

Portrait of French Enlightenment philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu.  Montesquieu was the most frequently cited secular writer of the American founding era.

Founding-era Americans also drew from the best ideas of the European Enlightenment to help develop and defend the U. S. Constitution.  According to Lutz in his Origins, Americans most frequently cited French philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, English jurist William Blackstone, and British philosopher John Locke in their political writings during the American founding era from 1760 to 1805, with Montesquieu topping that list.[6]  These particular thinkers resonated with early Americans who shared their moral and political values.  Early Americans cited them to defend and justify the self-government they had practiced in their colonies, and to further inform and sharpen their political views and practices as they fought for and formed a new, independent nation.  According to Donald Lutz in his 1988 The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Americans applied the works of these philosophers in order to “transform preferences into coherent theory, and thus to undergird familiar institutions.  At the same time, these foreign-bred ideas were pressing Americans to think more deeply, reconsider their commitments and institutions, and seek a more secure political grounding for the future.”[7]  Americans drew, for example, from Locke’s articulation of natural rights and Blackstone’s understanding of the Law of Nature to strengthen the basis for man’s unalienable rights and a moral standard for law and justice.  Americans also drew from Montesquieu’s theory of separation of powers—with three governing branches including a separate judiciary—when considering constitutional design.  Montesquieu’s separation of powers for fallible mankind informed the Founders’ system of checks and balances in the American government.  Notably, all of these writers recognized a Creator of the universe, with a moral law for fallible mankind, and they applied this perspective to shape their political theories.  Indeed, they often referenced the Bible and biblical ideas in their writings.  As such, their political ideas easily aligned with the views and values of founding-era Americans.

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

Perhaps the most immediate and direct philosophical influence on the Constitution was the Declaration of Independence of 1776.  Without the Declaration and its expression of the people’s philosophical values and principles, the Founders would have had no solid, formative basis or framework for constructing the Constitution and its laws.  The Declaration necessarily established the moral, philosophical, rational, political, and legal ground of governance upon the Law of Nature and Nature’s God, the God-given equality and unalienable rights of man, popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, and social contract.  Affirming this point, Ellis Sandoz in his 2006 Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America observes, “The philosophical foundation of the Bill of Rights [contained in the Constitution] is set forth in the Declaration of Independence’s first sentences, especially the announcement of ‘certain unalienable rights’ grounded in the ‘laws of nature and nature’s God.’”[8]  Lutz similarly explains in his Origins, “If the social compact represented by the Declaration of Independence had not still been in effect, there would have been no basis for a new national constitution.”[9]  The Declaration thus grounded the Constitution in certain Bible-aligned moral and social beliefs and understandings.

The Bible was the most frequently cited book in the political literature of the American founding era.

Ultimately, the Bible itself had a strong influence on early Americans in the development of the U. S. Constitution.  For one, the aforementioned secular sources that influenced the Constitution aligned with biblical ideas of moral truth and law, and of mankind’s dignity and fallen condition.  Through the moral and political principles in these secular historical sources, the Bible indirectly impacted Americans’ constitutional laws and design.  In addition, the Bible also directly impacted the views of early Americans in being frequently cited by American founders and statesman, Whigs and revolutionaries, and clergymen and ministers during the founding era.  In fact, according to Lutz’s research findings as presented in his Origins, the Bible was the most frequently cited book in the political literature of the American founding era from 1760 to 1805, surpassing all the secular writers.[10]  Lutz further points out that the “prominence of ministers in the political literature of the period attests to the continuing influence of religion during the founding era.”[11]  These findings reveal that the Bible was a very strong moral, philosophical, religious, and political influence on founding-era Americans and their political ideas.  Lutz concludes, …

James Madison, President of the United States by David Edwin and Thomas Sully, c1809-1817. Considered the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison drafted and promoted the U. S. Constitution and U. S. Bill of Rights.

Drawing from these sources, the Constitution applies a number of governing principles including popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, self-government, republicanism, federalism, social contract, rule of law, common law, constitutionalism, separation of powers, limited government, unalienable rights, and religious freedom.  Some of these principles were legally expressed and implemented in the U. S. Constitution through, for example, constitutional law, checks and balances with three governing branches, elected or appointed representatives, the right to vote, habeas corpus, due process of law, and later through the Civil War Amendments abolition of slavery and equal protection of the laws.  Further, the U. S. Bill of Rights of 1791—which comprises the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution—explicitly reinforces citizens’ rights to: … 

These listed rights aim to reinforce the individual’s dignity and civil rights as well as the people’s free and just self-government.

The U. S. Constitution begins with “We the People” and creates a self-governing republic based on the moral and social beliefs and understandings of the people.

In conclusion, the U. S. Constitution, drafted by the American Founders and ratified by the American people, outlines a self-governing republic by and for the American people.  Though a practical document of human governance and law, it embodies and implements in its content and design Americans’ long-held moral, philosophical, and political principles and values.  These principles and values stem from, among other sources, the colonial and state constitutions, the Great Awakening, select Enlightenment-era thought, the Declaration, and the Bible.  In these particular sources, colonial and founding-era Americans, as well as the political philosophers they read, adhered to a Creator-oriented, Bible-based worldview with certain understandings of truth, morality, and humanity. As such, their views ultimately shaped the laws, practices, and design of their Constitution.  As Kirk observes, …

Adhering to timeless truths, the Constitution still endures after 230 years and serves as an inspiration and model for nations around the world.

[1]  Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, Third Edition (Washington, DC:  Regnery Gateway, 1991), 416.

[2]  Donald S. Lutz, “From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought,” in Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism:  Publius:  The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 1980, eds. Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid (New York:  U Press of America, 1980), 102.

[3]  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1831-1832, ed. Richard D. Heffner (New York:  Penguin Books, 1956), 45-6.

[4]  John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1778, Vol. 3 cont., in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Vol. 6, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston, MA:  Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 219.

[5]  Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1992), 112.

[6]  Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 139-147.

[7]  Lutz, Origins, 139-140.

[8]  Ellis Sandoz, Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (Columbia, MO:  U of Missouri Press, 2006), 68.

[9]  Lutz, Origins, 112.

[10]  Lutz, Origins, 140-142.

[11]  Lutz, Origins, 140.

[12]  Lutz, Origins, 142.

[13]  Kirk, Roots, 416-7.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

——–
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
2.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
3.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as Covenant
4.  The Puritans in America Created the First Written Constitutions of Law
5.  Early American Puritan Thomas Hooker as the “Father of American Democracy”
6.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
7.  Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
8.  Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
9.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America
10.  Roger Williams:  First Call for Separation of Church and State in America
11.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
12.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
13.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
14.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
15.  The American Quest for Self-Government
16.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
17.  The American Revolution was sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
18.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
19.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
20.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
21.  The American Social Contract

22.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
23.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
24.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
25.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
26.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
27.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
28.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Religious Freedom
29.  The Purpose of American Civil Government
30.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

Lesson 1:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 3, Part 2, Activity 8:  The Massachusetts Body of Liberties and Our Rights Today, p. 119-120.  MS-HS.  See also pp. 95-96 in The Miracle of America reference book.

The Massachusetts Body of Liberties and Our Rights Today….  



Lesson 2:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 8, Part 1, Activity 3:  Principles of the United States Constitution, p. 270.  MS-HS.

Principles of the United States Constitution….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the United States Constitution including constitutional republic, rule of law, separation of powers, elected representatives, and federalism; and how influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 8 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 8.3-8.8, 8.11, 8.14-8.16, 8.20, & pp. 288-296.

Activity:  Reading and Questions
Have students read the “Principles of the United States Constitution” and “Principles of the U. S. Bill of Rights” handouts and, as desired, relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handouts.  After the reading, students complete the questions and activities on the handouts.  Discuss.  See handouts in the “Supporting Resources” section of the HS course guide, pp. 392-402.  The essays are also available in the member resources section of the AHEF website at americanheritage.org under “Miracle of America Snapshots.”

—–

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.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

Receive Blog Updates