Divine Providence and Deism in the Declaration of Independence

"The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth," frontispiece to "Europe a Prophecy" by William Blake, 1794, copy E. (Library of Congress)

Clemson University Professor C. Bradley Thompson is a nationally recognized historian and Revolutionary Era scholar whose most recent book, America’s Revolutionary Mind, has earned copious praise and widespread acclaim. It is well-deserved. Nevertheless, Professor Thompson’s work is not without flaws as it renews, unnecessarily, the erroneous and ahistorical argument that God, as referenced in the Declaration of Independence, is a deist God. Thompson’s assertion is generally consistent with deist claims of this type, and he mostly depends upon the expression “Nature’s God” and its inferences to support the position. He writes:

This much can be said with confidence: when Jefferson wrote of “Nature’s God” he almost certainly meant the impersonal, far-removed, deist God that set the world in motion according to the laws that were meant to govern in his absence. The Declaration’s God is not the God of the Old Testament (nor is it even the God of the New Testament) but is Nature’s God.[1]

Professor Thompson’s definition of deism’s God as “impersonal, far-removed, and absent” is archetypal, accurate, and precise. Additionally, if the definition of the Declaration’s God is limited to and interpreted strictly within the meaning of the term “Nature’s God,” Thompson’s argument is plausible. The Declaration, however, adverts to God in several instances, including the expression “Divine Providence.” And it is this reference in specific that vitiates and ultimately refutes Thompson’s deist claim. To be sure, the language, logic, and historical context of the Declaration all thoroughly repudiate the idea of a deist God in that celebrated charter.

The Second Continental Congress and the Resolution of March 16

Allowing the expression “Nature’s God” is sufficiently ambiguous that it is potentially compatible with the idea of either a deist or Biblical God, that appellation alone does not conclusively define the Declaration’s God. When the Second Continental Congress unequivocally called upon God to protect the cause of American Independence through the doctrine of Divine Providence, the Abrahamic God of the Old and New Testament was then, to their explicit understanding, necessarily, immediately, and uniquely present in the Declaration.

The Biblical doctrine of Divine Providence is not merely a euphuistic coinage that elegantly and subtly refers to God. Instead, and whether conceptually Catholic or Protestant, it specifically recognizes and honors the profound omniscience, active omnipresence, and superintending omnipotence of God in and over all things.[2] Antithetically, the deist God is, again, “impersonal, far-removed, and absent.” Definitionally then, the Declaration’s God is most assuredly not deist as the protection of Divine Providence cannot be secured from a God who is not there to grant it. Therefore, even the minimalist act of asking for the protection of a deist God would be contradictory and illogical. To go further and firmly rely on the protection of such a God, as the Second Continental Congress plainly did, would be utterly incoherent.

Moreover, the Second Continental Congress unquestionably understood the Declaration’s doctrine of Divine Providence to be derivative of the Abrahamic Bible because they had publicly and earnestly invoked it even before it was urged in the Declaration. Indubitably, the Declaration’s conjuring of Divine Providence repeated a public act the Continental Congress had performed only three and a half months earlier.

The Journals of the Second Continental Congress record that on March 16, 1776, Congress, the same Congress that would unanimously vote to adopt the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, passed a resolution designating May 17, 1776, as a day of public fasting and prayer. The resolution read, in part:

In times of impending calamity and distress . . . it becomes the indispensible duty of these hitherto free and happy Colonies . . . publickly to acknowledge theover ruling providence of God . . .  Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees, duly impressed with a solemn sense of God’s superintending providence . . . The Congress therefore . . . do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said Colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer . . . and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness . . . And it is recommended to Christians of all denominations to assemble for Public Worship, and abstain from servile Labour on the said Day.[3]

This resolution, adopted as an official legislative act of the Second Continental Congress, is a clear, powerful, and unambiguous expression of Biblical ideals in general and Divine Providence in particular. The God referenced is apodictically and undeniably the Abrahamic God of the Old and New Testament. To suggest that this same Congress would, a mere three and a half months later, perpetrate a radical religious revolution by abandoning the emphatically Biblical sentiment it publicly and solemnly expressed, abruptly rejecting its God, and then adopting a foundational document which honored a deist God it had never recognized, is insensible. And there is no historical evidence indicating Congress did any such thing.

Reverend Jonathan Witherspoon and the Second Continental Congress

On May 17, 1776, Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon, a protestant minister, theologian, and president of the College of New Jersey who would soon be elected to the Continental Congress, delivered a sermon in Princeton, New Jersey. It was given in direct response to the congressional resolution of March 16 and was entitled Dominion of Providence over the Passion of Men. In his speech, Reverend Witherspoon provided a compelling and illuminating description of Divine Providence:

The doctrine of divine providence is very full and complete in the sacred oracles. It 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; “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing,” says our Lord, “and one of them falleth not to the ground without your heavenly Father”; nay, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” It extends not only to things beneficial and salutary, or to the direction and assistance of those who are the servants of the living God; but to things seemingly most hurtful and destructive, and to persons the most refractory and disobedient. He overrules all his creatures, and all their actions.[4]

Reverend Witherspoon’s Dominion of Providence was poignant and profound, and it communicated the concept of Divine Providence to the community of believers superbly. The sermon was more than a tribute to Divine Providence, however, and in a broader sense was primarily intended to provide the moral and theological justification for the colonial rebellion.[5] To that end it was enormously influential and successful, as Dominion of Providence was printed, distributed, and read widely throughout the colonies.

Ultimately, Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon was a highly esteemed Christian minister, a dedicated public servant, and an accomplished statesman. And to assert that the Declaration’s God is deist, it is also necessary to assume that by signing the Declaration, Reverend Witherspoon consciously perpetrated a damnable act of blasphemy by pledging his sacred honor to a God who he did not recognize and in whom he did not believe.

While Reverend Witherspoon’s election to the Continental Congress most likely strengthened the intimately close civic relationship between Congress and the faithful, Congress, as a public body, was already in the steady practice of demonstrating a deep respect for believers, and in ways that it most certainly never demonstrated towards deists and deism. Indeed, to the extent that the Second Continental Congress was ever aware of deism, it was assiduously ignored, as the Journals of the Continental Congress record no public act performed on behalf or in consideration of deists or deism. Again, the very opposite is the case with the faithful.

If the resolution of March 16 was the most palpable and unrestrained congressional affirmation of Biblical faith traditions, there were many others, as the Second Continental Congress routinely accommodated, gave deference to, and advanced the interests of believers. Accordingly, in December 1775, Congress met on Saturday December 23, and when the business of the day was concluded, it adjourned until Tuesday, December 26. It did not convene on Monday, December 25; that was Christmas Day.[6] The following April, Easter fell on Sunday, April 7, 1776. The Continental Congress met on Thursday, April 4, and when it finished its business for the day, it adjourned until Saturday, April 6. It did not assemble on Friday, April 5; that was Good Friday.[7] And on the 9th of July, 1776, a mere five days after the Declaration was issued, Congress appointed Protestant Minister Jacob Duche as Congressional Chaplain.[8] And to repeat, at no time did Congress acknowledge or make allowances for deist traditions.

It would be superfluous and beyond the scope of the discussion to include a lengthy recital of the many public pronouncements which cited Scripture and appealed to God’s grace during the British imperial crisis. It is enough to realize that as far as the Second Continental Congress was concerned, no deist God ever existed.

Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress

Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and doubtless a religious skeptic. The Declaration, however, was not written as an instrument to promulgate Jefferson’s personal views on religion and theology. To the contrary, it was written, in the words of Jefferson himself, as “an expression of the American mind.”[9] His personal views, whatever they may have been, were entirely irrelevant, and indeed, Jefferson did not include the phrase “protection of Divine Providence” in his original draft of the Declaration. Instead, it was introduced and incorporated at the insistence of the Second Continental Congress.[10] And its deliberate addition served to elucidate and contextualize the expression “Nature’s God,” thereby removing any doubt as to whom it referred.

In August 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr. In it, Jefferson offered avuncular advice on several topics, including religion. Without question, Jefferson advised his nephew to exercise his own reason and “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”[11] But he also told him, “You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then.”[12]

It is noteworthy that Jefferson did not direct his nephew towards, for example, Lord Herbert’s deist treatise De Veritate. While Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly a religious skeptic, he nevertheless knew the religions of his countrymen. And he knew it was not deism.

Conclusion

It is abundantly evident that the Second Continental Congress never acknowledged a deist God and that neither deism nor its God is referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Conversely, it is equally clear that the Abrahamic God of the Old and New Testament is in the Declaration. Arguing to the contrary, it is necessary, at the very least, to fully account for the dramatic religious revolution that would have occurred in Congress and the colonies between March 16 and July 4, 1776, because it is truly inconceivable to suppose that without cause or explanation, Congress would, in a moment of severe crisis, suddenly reject its hallowed Abrahamic God and decide to invoke the aid and protection of an alien and unknown deist God who is, again by definition, unavailable and unable to provide any such help. It is a Sisyphean task.

Despite these cogitations, it should be thoroughly understood that by invoking God in the Declaration, the Continental Congress did not seek to establish a state religion. Instead, God’s supreme sovereignty was called upon to sanctify the rebellion by incorporating a transcendent moral imperative that would organically vindicate the colonists and their cause. More specifically, the colonists maintained they were opposing a flagitious civil authority that systematically degraded the rights which God granted and that only he could rightfully abrogate. The colonial rebellion, therefore, was perfectly justified because it was simultaneously resistance to tyranny and obedience to God.

Finally, it is worth observing that candidly and factually describing the historical context of God in the Declaration of Independence does not constitute an insidious attack upon the relative merits of deism. It is one thing to say that the deist God is not present in the Declaration. It is quite another to say that deism, as a religion or philosophy, is fallacious and invalid. The former is unquestionably true. The latter was not under consideration here.

 

[1]C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2019), 59.

[2]From the Catholic perspective, perhaps the most perspicacious commentary on Divine Providence is from St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) and St. Augustine (City of God). From the Protestant perspective, it may be John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion) and Martin Luther (The Small Catechism).

[3]Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 4: 208-209 (emphasis added).

[4]Jonathan Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men (Princeton, NJ, 1776; Ann Arbor Text Creation Partnership, 2011), 2 (emphasis added).

[5]Ibid., 6.

[6]Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 3: 456.

[7]Ibid., Vol. 4: 257.

[8]Ibid., Vol. 5: 530.

[9]Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson, Writings; Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters (New York, NY: Library of America 1984), 1501.

[10]Ibid., 18, 24.

[11]Ibid., 902.

[12]Ibid.

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6 Comments

  • Even just looking at the context of “Nature’s God” deals a major blow to the argument this article sets out to rebut:

    “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”

    By reading the entire phrase you can see that they used the term Nature’s God, in part, for a poetic connection with nature. It’s the rights guaranteed by the laws of nature, and the laws of the God that created nature.

    • I’ve always interpreted it like that as well. It could also be that Nature and God were both used in order to touch both the atheists and the faithful – Natural Rights = God Given Rights; if you believe in God, it follows that Natural Rights are given by God, because God created Nature, otherwise they (Natural Rights) simply refer to the rights everybody is entitled to at the moment of their birth, in a state of anarchy (nature).

      That being said, Jefferson was an incredible mind, he amazes me every time I study his philosophical thought.

    • *Actually, Deism rejects atheism, so it definitely wasn’t meant to appeal to atheists, just religious people in general – deism embraces religious tolerance. Pardon me!

  • Over five hundred years before the Second Continental Congress used the expression “Nature’s God” in the Declaration, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “God is the author of nature” (Summa Theologica). So agreed, “Nature’s God” is not, by any means, inherently understood to be deism’s God.

  • Great article! The idea that the Declaration or the Founders generally expressed a belief in an impersonal or far-removed deity seems just so robustly disproven by the history that its always surprising to me to see it still argued or expressed. Even Franklin expressed a belief in the efficacy of prayer and the continued involvement of God in the affairs of man (see his speech at the Constitutional Convention among other proofs). Again, really enjoyed the article!

  • Thank you, Jonathan, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. And, of course, I agree that the deist argument is without merit. Indeed, if the expression “Nature’s God” can be read to mean a deist God, then it can just as easily be read to mean Helios, Poseidon, or Zeus. It’s just silly.

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