A Deeper Look
Reflections From History And Faith
Jeff Olson, June 30, 2022
As America’s Independence Day anniversary approaches, many of us have made plans for that day and perhaps the entire weekend. As we look ahead to all the festivities for celebrating our nation’s 246th birthday, I hope those plans will include at least a little time to reflect on the reason for the season: The Declaration of Independence.
The document adopted on our nation’s birthday is typically seen as a one of revolution, but in reality it was as much or more an instrument of preservation; to preserve the civil/social order and culture of self-government and freedom which the American colonies had developed and experienced for over 150 years. It is a document unique in the annals of human history – one which speaks with a voice far beyond our forefathers and the particular circumstances of 1776. I would love to elaborate so much more on this, but for now please allow me to focus in and expound on one particular phrase in the Declaration – a phrase which lends much to its voice.
One of the phrases in the Declaration which can be overlooked or perhaps even taken too lightly is: “and with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” The casual reader, as well as some historians, may misinterpret this phrase to be no more than a religious embellishment or afterthought. And some may even believe that “Divine Providence” is a generic term that buttresses the popular myth that our nation’s founders were mostly atheists, agnostics, and deists. Actually, a small number of them were deists but the historical record reveals that many of our founders were Christians, and the vast majority adhered to Biblical/Christian moral postulates as foundational to all aspects of life.
While it is true that the Declaration’s chief author, Thomas Jefferson, drew from Lockean philosophy (primarily from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government), Jefferson nevertheless recognized and believed in a biblical God who intervenes in the lives, events, and affairs of men and cares for and guides people by His wisdom and love and for His divine purpose. He also understood the fact that the evolving American polity was rooted in the Hebrew/Jewish biblical metaphysic and moral order. Even before Locke and his contemporaries came of age, colonial America had already fashioned fundamental political doctrine from elements of Biblical, Greek, and Roman history. Such concepts as de-centralization of government, checks and balances, consent of the governed, the dignity of every human being, and political equality were not all original ideas, but they were applied in original forms in what was the beginnings of a grand experiment in ordered liberty. This was historically unparalleled as it played out in various forms of self-government in communities such as at Jamestown, Plymouth Plantation, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and others.
Incidentally, Jefferson’s understanding of this can be seen also through his suggested design for the Seal of the United States, “a representation of the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” He later concluded his second inaugural address with this same image: “I shall need….the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” This comparison of America with Israel was not uncommon. In 1799, the Reverend Abiel Abbot stated in his Thanksgiving sermon, “It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe. Hence OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL is a term frequently used, and common consent allows it apt and proper.”
This biblical foundation was the major pillar of American culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was commonly believed that history had a beginning and was guided by Providence for a purpose and that purpose was the unfolding of human liberty and progress through the ideals God sets before men: justice, equality, self-government, and brotherhood. History, in this sense, is genuinely Hebraic and points to progress which serves to honor God and showcase His own work through His ultimate creation: Mankind. This progress is not automatic nor inevitable; it is by way of trial and suffering which have often provided humans with the humility and impetus to seek and secure God’s spiritual guidance and strength in their personal lives and thus into progress and history. This was exemplified in 1630 by John Winthrop in his vision of America, referencing Matthew 5:14. “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, “The Lord make it like that of New England. “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill.”
Divine Providence was by no means a new phrase in 1776. In fact, it was an expression of solid faith and the experienced reality of earlier generations which had already taken root primarily through the Church and had given them purpose, heart, and resolve for America’s War of Independence. This doctrine was most influential and timely expounded by Dr. John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration and president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). In his May 1776 sermon The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, Witherspoon spoke of Providence as a wise and direct presence in human lives. He [God] overrules all his creatures and all their actions. …It is the duty of every good man to place the most unlimited confidence in divine wisdom, and to believe that those measures of providence that are most unintelligible to him, are yet planned with the same skill, and directed to the same great purposes as others.・He went on to say: “Divine Providence extends not only to things which we may think of great moment, and therefore worthy of notice, but to things the most indifferent and inconsiderable. Even things that seem harmful and destructive may be turned to our advantage (Romans 8:28). Providence does not manipulate people like puppets on a string or move things and events like machines. Rather, the hazards and contingencies of nature work their natural effects, as if in a pattern favorable to His purposes.” In other words, God uses his natural laws to create supernatural results to favor those obedient to His principles and serving His great purpose. This was seen throughout the War of Independence and in wars and other events before and hence throughout our nation’s life.
Divine Providence was so much more than a phrase invoking God’s blessing. It has served as a sacred expression of the personal faith, cultural bond, and biblical worldview held by many of America’s leaders during her early years and others since then. It was a fact of life; a historical precedent reflected in such documents as the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639).
Divine providence also implicitly invokes and speaks to the transcendent and timeless nature of its author. The Declaration opens by speaking of universal principles. It does not portray the Founding era as unique or portray the Founding generation as special or grand. “When in the Course of human events” means any time. “It becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” means any people. In other words, America’s founding principles are both universal and eternal. This in a sense made the Declaration an act of obedience—obedience to a law that has its source above and beyond the English law and for that matter beyond any law that the Founders or any other people could make. The Declaration’s underlying truth is a call to obedience to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and to certain self-evident principles, above all – the principle “that all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable Rights.” In doing so, the Declaration appeals to both reason and revelation as the foundation of its own claims and for the legitimacy of the new nation it was birthing. Fundamentally, the Declaration is a timeless example of man’s purpose, destiny, and commitment to freedom; freedom from tyranny and bondage that continues to threaten us in more ways in 2022 than ever anticipated in 1776.
Today, does America still hold to a firm reliance on Divine Providence and all that it entails? Only to the degree that we do and follow through with responsible citizenship, will our freedom remain secure; a freedom which was not given as license but as a legacy and stewardship to be treasured, exercised and perpetuated through deliberation and choice reflecting personal virtue, character, and biblical principles. As Thomas Jefferson reminds us, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. 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 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 forever.”
Wishing everyone a happy and safe “4th of July” weekend. Let freedom ring!