Help in understanding the meaning of some terms in the Declaration can be gained from a source in use then and now by our Supreme Court regarding issues of the time of our founding: “Blackstone’s Commentaries.”
Many of the founders were educated by clergy and schooled in Scripture. This coupled with Blackstone helps interpret the source and meaning of many phrases in the Declaration.
In recent years one phrase frequently attacked by secularists in times of selecting Supreme Court Jurists is “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Blackstone had defined it as “... the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator himself in all his dispositions, conforms.”
Blackstone further clarified this by noting “the law of nature” as being the expression of God’s will for all of creation.
This statement in the Declaration, “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” is rooted in Scripture passages in Isaiah 40: 28; I Peter 4:19; Genesis 1: 1, 27.
Jefferson in an early draft used the word “derived,” but Benjamin Franklin and John Adams replaced it with “endowed by their Creator,” thus stressing our rights are God given, not accorded by government. Careful observation shows rights are “endowed” by God and government is “instituted among men.” The institution was intended to perpetuate the endowment.
The framers of the Declaration incorporated evidence in the document they were seeking God’s favor in these terms. “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 ... And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Had a majority of the signers been deists, they could not and would not have referred to God as “the Supreme Judge.” Deists believe there is a god, but he has been indifferent and inactive in the world since creation.
Other internal evidence the predominant belief among the framers was not deism is their reference to “Divine Providence.” At the time of its use the term was a linchpin of Christian teaching meaning God was the ever-active, moment-by-moment governor of the universe, the exact opposite of deism. They knew what they were saying when they used the expression.
Three documents are considered foundational to the emergence of America: The Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1781), and the Constitution (1789). There were 118 different signers accounting for 143 signatures. Of them, 54 percent were Episcopalian/Anglican, 18 percent Presbyterian, 17 percent Congregationalist, 4.3 percent Quaker and seven other denominations counted for the rest.
Their Declaration of Independence was a declaration of dependence. They knew what Franklin meant when he said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” It meant we must remain united and stand by one another or be executed independently. They needed a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, otherwise known as the Supreme Judge, Natures God, the Creator.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.