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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – July, 2011
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director

The Origion of the Declaration

This year Americans will celebrate the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It is popular today to assert that the premises, or main ideas of the Declaration, especially those listed in the first two paragraphs, were derived from the Enlightenment, or the “age of reason.” Thus, they had no godly or Bibical origin. Since the phrases used are not familiar to us today, and especially not familiar to Christians, the fallacy of equivocation (changing the meaning of words and phrases often by taking them out of their historic context) has been all too successful. But if we are to celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration, shouldn’t we commemorate the origin and meaning of some of the more famous phrases in the Declaration?

When President Calvin Coolidge gave a speech in 1926 on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, he attributed the meaning of the key phrases in the document to two books from a colonial Pastor in Massachusetts published in 1710 and 1717. He called these books, and their strategic republication in 1772 by the town of Boston, a “textbook of liberty for our Revolutionary fathers.” The Pastor’s name was John Wise of Ipswich. Was Coolidge right?

In his letter to Timothy Pickering in 1822, John Adams said “as you justly observe, there is not an idea in it (the Declaration) but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the delcaration of rights and the violation of those rights, in the Journals of Congress, in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met.” And what was the pamphlet Adams was referring to that contained the “essence” of the ideas of the Declaration, published prior to 1774? It was John Wise’s Vindication of the Government of New England Churches, republished in 1772.

If the main ideas in the Declaration were not new at the time of its ratification, but could be traced to a book written by a Pastor on church government, they could not be “enlightenment” ideas, and neither could they have been “invented” by the framers or Thomas Jefferson. How could ideas such as the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God; all men are created equal; governments secure rights but don’t provide them; and they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed come from a book on church government printed in 1717? Could it be that these ideas in the Declaration came from the colonial pulpit and thus from the Bible? After all, Wise’s book was republished by a unanimous vote of the town of Boston in 1772 in order to inspire the other colonies to unite behind the cause of the Revolution!

It is important for American Christians to understand that civil freedom, or our Independence, was birthed from the womb of the Church. Religious liberty begets civil liberty. This is the lesson of our heritage and should convict and inspire today’s believer to once again be salt and light in their communities, living out their faith so that those who behold their good works “would glorify their Father which is in heaven.” It was been well documented that the real inspiration for the American Revolution was the “black-robed regiment”, the colonial clergy that preached fiery sermons from the Bible on the just cause of a defensive war and why our rights come from God and not from government.

John Wise, in his two books from 1710 and 1717, delineated some of these key ideas for the believers of his day, and believers ought to learn them again today. Wise wrote that God was the author of both reason and revelation, or the light of nature and the law of God. Both the Bible (the perfect revelation) and a man’s conscience (natural revelation; Romans 1:20 and 2:15) convict man of sin. Thus the phrase law of nature and of nature’s God – or the law of God seen in nature and the law of God in the Bible, leave all without excuse. That is why the truths are “self-evident.” Wise also wrote that God created all men equally free as well. This was not external equality, but equal position before God and the law. The meaning of equality was clearly articulated to mean equal rights, not equal possessions or abilities.

Wise wrote that the individual is directly under the government of God, and thus church and civil government can only secure or protect these rights, they can’t provide them. The primary form of government for both church and state is self-government, because, as Wise put it, each individual is a free born subject. Though Wise was writing to believers to preserve their religious liberty, he made it clear that “democracy is Christ’s government in church and state.” Though no church (or state) should function as a pure democracy (and Wise did not advocate such), the self-government of the individual is the heart of Christ’s government. Finally, Wise also articulated that government is by free compact or covenant. Only by the voluntary consent of believers can a government have authority, since it must be delegated from the individual who in Christ operates as a “king and priest” (Revelation 1:5) before God. Thus, ecclesiastical or civil government must function by the consent of the governed!

So who was this John Wise of Ipswich? Wise resisted the autocratic despotism of Governor Andros who attempted to force the Anglican church hierarchy on New England’s colonial churches. He was imprisoned for it but was successful in lawfully inspiring a “citizen’s arrest” of Andros and having him shipped back to England in chains! This was New England’s first Independence day! That is why the town of Ipswich, on its seal, states “The Birthplace of American Independence 1687.” Historian Henry Martyn Dexter, writing in 1880, said of Wise “he did not himself see, nor did his generation comprehend, either the exact bearing, or the entire force, of the principles which he enunciated.

What are the lessons to be learned? Why should we commemorate our Independence as a nation? We must remember that the culture will reflect the true condition of the Church! Whatever ideas are embraced within the believing community get eventually practiced in society. Our ideas have consequences, whether good or bad, and if we don’t understand the source and origin of our rights as Americans, and particularly within the Declaration of Independence, we will be unable to preserve them. If we can’t maintain religious liberty, we will not secure civil liberty. May God help us to restore these Biblical ideas within the church so they might be preserved for our children in society.