“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, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.”
The Declaration of Independence has only one operative paragraph—the last one. All that precedes it is an explanation of the actions taken in that bold final paragraph.
Yet, even in the midst of declaring the United States to be a new, independent nation as a matter of right, in this concluding paragraph there are two important references to God.
The first is an appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions.”
This is a remarkable thing for a bunch of “rebels” to proclaim. It is common for a rebel to begin with the rejection of human authority and quickly follow with the rejection of divine authority. This was not the attitude of America’s founders. They believed in the higher law that comes from God, and by this appeal they acknowledge their duty of obedience to God both in word, action, and even in their intentions.
In the midst of declaring their independence from England, they declared their dependence on God.
The reason for this attitude of faith flowed directly from their view of both society and government.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson made the case that freedom was dependent on the right view of God and man:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.
In a similar vein, George Washington reminded the nation of these truths in his Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.
In light of the common canard that most of the Founders were deists, it is important to note that this phraseology is utterly inconsistent with deism—a philosophy which contends that God created the world and then walked away and is unconcerned with present human actions.
God is described as the “Supreme Judge of the World.” This acknowledges that God has universal standards and that He will hold all men accountable for their actions. This is not a disconnected, indifferent God.
Indeed, Jefferson’s great-grandson acknowledged his forebear’s unorthodox views on most matters but noted “but he was a firm believer in Divine Providence, in the efficacy of prayer, [and] in a future state of rewards and punishment.”
The founding generation widely believed that there were eternal consequences for improper actions during life. Thus, the signers of the Declaration were not merely willingly accepting the temporal consequences of their bold action, but they were effectively saying that they were willing to stand before the throne of God and accept His judgment of these actions.
They believed they were doing right in the eyes of a holy God.
The second reference to God in this paragraph comes in the last sentence:
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.
This again echoes the theme of dependence on God. In the first instance they proclaimed that their hearts were right before God; this proclaims that the success of their efforts depended entirely on God’s intervening protection.
This was not a mere figure of speech or a rhetorical gesture. They actually believed that God would intervene on their behalf in these dangerous efforts.
George Washington’s letter to Landon Carter on March 27, 1776, describing his capture of Boston clearly demonstrates his belief in God’s intervention:
Upon their discovery of the works next morning, great preparations were made for attacking them; but not being ready before afternoon, and the weather getting very tempestuous, much blood was saved, and a very important blow, to one side or the other, was prevented. That this most remarkable interposition of Providence is for some a wise purpose, I have not a doubt.
Less than a month after the Declaration was signed, Samuel Adams said:
There are instances of, I would say, an almost astonishing providence in our favor; our success has staggered our enemies, and almost given faith to infidels; so we may truly say it is not our own arm which has saved us.
These two passages reflect both parts of the promise that we see in John 15:5:
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
Their appeal to the rectitude of their intentions reflects those willing to abide in Christ. And their acknowledgement of their dependence on God for their success shows that they knew that without Christ, they could do nothing.
These are humble men who lived by profound truths.
Michael P. Farris is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom. As the second CEO of ADF, he brings to the role a diverse background as an effective litigator, educator, public advocate, and communicator, and is widely recognized for his successful work on both the national and international stage.
Farris was founding president of both the Home School Legal Defense Association (1983) and Patrick Henry College (2000) and continues to serve as chairman of the board of HSLDA and chancellor emeritus of PHC.
He graduated from Western Washington State College magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science, followed by a Juris Doctor from Gonzaga University (with honors). He also earned an LL.M. in public international law (with honors) from the University of London.
Farris has specialized in constitutional appellate litigation. In that capacity, he has argued before the appellate courts of 13 states, eight federal circuit courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 2018 he successfully argued NIFLA v. Becerra, resulting in a free speech victory for California’s pro-life pregnancy centers.
Farris has testified many times before both the House and Senate. He was an executive committee member of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion that successfully lobbied Congress for the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. He also has substantial experience in international religious freedom advocacy.
Farris is the author of over 15 books, as well as law review and other scholarly and popular articles. He and his wife, Vickie, have 10 children and many grandchildren.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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