The Founding Fathers of the United States (in varying degrees) understood very well the relationship between one’s world view and government.
John Witherspoon (1723-1794), a Presbyterian minister and president of what is now Princeton University, was the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was a very important man during the founding of the country. He linked the Christian thinking represented by the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) with the work he did both on the Declaration of Independence and on countless very important committees in the founding of the country. This linkage of Christian thinking and the concepts of government were not incidental but fundamental.
John Witherspoon knew and stood consciously in the stream of Samuel Rutherford, a Scotsman who lived from 1600-1661 and who wrote Lex Rex in 1644. Lex rex means law is king—a phrase that was absolutely earthshaking. Prior to that it had been rex lex, the king is law. In Lex Rex he wrote that the law, and no one else, is king. Therefore, the heads of government are under the law, not a law unto themselves.
Jefferson, who was a deist, and others, knew they stood in the stream of John Locke (1632-1704), and while Locke had secularized Lex Rex he had drawn heavily from it. These men really knew what they were doing. We are not reading back into history what was not there. We cannot say too strongly that they really understood the basis of the government which they were founding.
Think of this great flaming phrase: “certain inalienable rights.” Who gives the rights? The state? Then they are not inalienable because the state can change them and take them away. Where do the rights come from? They understood that they were founding the country upon the concept that goes back into the Judeo-Christian thinking that there is Someone there who gave the inalienable rights.
Another phrase also stood there: “In God we trust.” With this there is no confusion of what they were talking about. They publicly recognized that law could be king because there was a Law Giver, a Person to give the inalienable rights.
The Founding Fathers knew they were building on the Supreme Being who was the Creator, the final reality.
Most people do not realize that there was a paid chaplain in Congress even before the Revolutionary War ended. Also we find that prior to the founding of the national congress all the early provincial congresses in all thirteen colonies always opened with prayer. And from the very beginning, prayer opened the national congress. These men truly understood what they were doing. They knew they were building on the Supreme Being who was the Creator, the final reality. And they knew that without that foundation everything in the Declaration of Independence and all that followed would be sheer unadulterated nonsense. These were brilliant men who understood exactly what was involved.
As soon as the [Revolutionary War] was over they called the first Thanksgiving Day. Do you realize that the first Thanksgiving Day to thank God in this country was called immediately by the Congress at the end of the war? Witherspoon’s sermon on that day shows their perspective: “A republic once equally poised must either preserve its virtue or lose its [sic] liberty.” Don’t you wish that everybody in America would recite that, and truly understand it, every morning? “A republic once equally poised must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty. ”
Earlier in a speech Witherspoon had stressed: “He is the best friend of American liberty who is most sincere and active in promoting pure and undefiled religion.” And for Witherspoon, and the cultural consensus of that day, that meant Christianity as it had come to them through the Reformation. This was the consensus which then gave religious freedom to all—-including the “free thinkers” of that day and the humanists of our day.
This concept was the same as William Penn (1644-1718) had expressed earlier: “If we are not governed by God, then we will be ruled by tyrants.” This consensus was as natural as breathing in the United States at that time. We must not forget that many of those who came to America from Europe came for religious purposes. As they arrived, most of them established their own individual civil governments based upon the Bible. It is, therefore, totally foreign to the basic nature of America at the time of the writing of the Constitution to argue a separation doctrine that implies a secular state.
The Foundation for Law
William Blackstone (1723-1780) was an English jurist who in the 1760s wrote a very famous work called Commentaries on the Law of England. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, there were probably more copies of his Commentaries in America than in Britain. His Commentaries shaped the perspective of American law at that time, and when you read them it is very clear exactly upon what that law was based.
To William Blackstone there were only two foundations for law, nature and revelation, and he stated clearly that he was speaking of the “holy Scripture.” That was William Blackstone. And up to the recent past not to have been a master of William Blackstone’s Commentaries would have meant that you would not have graduated from law school.
There were other well-known lawyers who spelled these things out with total clarity. Joseph Story in his 1829 inaugural address as Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University said, “There never has been a period in which Common Law did not recognize Christianity as laying at its foundation.”1 Concerning John Adams (1735-1826) Terry Eastland says:
. . . most people agreed that our law was rooted, as John Adams had said, in a common moral and religious tradition, one that stretched back to the time Moses went up on Mount Sinai. Similarly almost everyone agreed that our liberties were God-given and should be exercised responsibly. There was a distinction between liberty and license.2
What we find then as we look back is that the men who founded the United States of America really understood that upon which they were building their concepts of law and the concepts of government. And until the takeover of our government and law by this other entity, the materialistic, humanistic, chance world view, these things remained the base of government and law.
1. Quoted in Perry Miller, editor, The Legal Mind in America (New York: Doubleday, 1962), p. 178.
2. Terry Eastland, “In Defense of Religious America,” Commentary (June 1981), p. 39.
This article is adapted from A Christian Manifesto by Francis Schaeffer.
- The Dying Away of Cultural Christianity (Brett McCracken)
- Relativism: A Moral Morass (James Montgomery Boice)
- 10 Things You Should Know about Francis Schaeffer (William Edgar)