By Dr. Rick Chromey
He was an influential voice in the minds of our Founding Fathers. His writings significantly impacted the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and other charter documents. Nearly every cherished America value can be traced to him.
Ironically, this man lived a full generation before most of our Founders were even born. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Madison revered him. James Monroe attributed our constitutional philosophy, including the three branches of government, to his works. Noah Webster cited him as foundational to American educational principles.
Who could possibly guide our Founding Fathers from the grave? It was none other than the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).
As the “father of liberalism,” Locke developed social contract theory – an idea our Founders readily fashioned into a Constitutional principle known as “the consent of the governed.” Thomas Jefferson later concluded that “Bacon, Locke and Newton…[were] the three greatest men that have ever lived.”(1)
Indeed, he was. America as we know it might not have existed without John Locke’s insight.
And yet what’s overlooked is Locke’s influence as a theologian. And while some historians classify him as a Deist, that rendering is inaccurate. Many of Locke’s religious works were penned at the end of his life (in the 1690s) when his theological positions clearly gelled. In Locke’s case, he embraced a Protestant (Calvinist) Christian perspective.
From his later writings, we can deduce a theologically orthodox and biblically conservative faith. Locke penned an expository commentary on Paul’s epistles (published post-humous, 1705-1707). He also compiled Common Place: Book to the Holy Bible (1697), an early topical Bible.
John Locke battled intellectual and cultural attacks on Christianity in The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695), which included two sequels: Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and A Second Vindication (1697). In these apologetic writings, Locke argued the Bible was verbally inspired by God and miracles were His authoritative Divine stamps. Locke claimed the entire Bible was true and “reasonable” to the “enlightened” mind. Nevertheless, he encouraged tolerance to all views save one. Locke felt atheism (because it denied and rejected God) naturally invited social decay and civic chaos.
Our Founding Fathers were particularly captivated by Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689). In its 400 pages, Locke outlined the mechanisms for how civil government operated. Our Founders channeled Locke in both the Declaration and Constitution to forge a democratic republic. This novel politic featured a “social contract” where “we the people” elected leaders to represent with our consent. Consequently, America required no king or pope to lord over us. It’s why we dissolved ties with England.
But what’s fascinating is where John Locke got his own inspiration and ideas.
In John Locke’s two “treatises” on government, he referenced biblical characters, ideas and passages over 1,500 times. In his First Treatise, he systematically attacked arguments for the divine right of kings using Holy Scripture. In his Second Treatise, Locke outlined the natural rights of humans and a social contract rooted to charity, duty and tolerance. Again, using biblical principles and Scripture, he laid the foundation for America’s most cherished social values, including representational government, private property rights, freedom of religion, the right to protest, and the “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.”
Essentially, America was built on a foundation of biblical doctrine, using the writings of philosopher John Locke. But there’s still one more thing. Locke felt his novel government functioned best through God’s people. If you want to see good government, he wrote, just look to Old Testament Israel or the New Testament church.
It’s why many unique features of our Constitution – including separation of powers, religious freedom and, again, the consent of the people – are biblical concepts for a religious nation.
Forty years ago a group of political scientists studied over 15,000 Founding Era writings to determine “sources” for the establishment of American government. The number one source by a wide margin was the Bible. Nearly one-third of the quotes in our Founding Fathers’ writings were directly connected to biblical themes, persons or Scripture verses (four times more than any other individual, including John Locke).
This is why John Adams noted, “The general Principles, on which the Fathers [achieved] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity.”(2) Similarly, his son John Quincy Adams concluded, “The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”(3)
It’s why the patriot Patrick Henry advocated, “The great pillars of all government and of social life [are] virtue, morality, and religion.”(4) Or that clergyman and geographer Jedidiah Morse warned: “To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys…Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government – and all the blessings which flow from them – must fall with them.”(5)
America was essentially fabricated by John Locke’s ideas to be a nation rooted in biblical principle.
It remains a novel concept for those who ponder and embrace it.
Dr. Rick Chromey is an author, historian and theologian who speaks and writes on matters of religion, culture, history, technology and leadership. He’s the founder and president of MANNA! Educational Services International (www.mannasolutions.org). Rick and his wife Linda live in Star, ID.
(1) From a 1789 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Trumbull commissioning portraits of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tr11a.html#obj11
(2) The Adams-Jefferson Letters, edited by Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1959): p. 340.
(3) John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport at Their Request on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1837 (Newburyport: Charles Whipple, 1837), pp. 5-6.
(4) Patrick Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches, William Wirt Henry, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), Vol. II, p. 592, to Archibald Blair on January 8, 1799.
(5) Jedidiah Morse, A Sermon, Exhibiting the Present Dangers and Consequent Duties of the Citizens of the United States of America, Delivered at Charlestown, April 25, 1799, The Day of the National Fast (MA: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, 1799), p. 9.