He was one of the most influential voices in the minds of our Founding Fathers. His writings significantly impacted the Framers of our Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Nearly every cherished America value can be traced to him.

Ironically, this man lived and died a generation before our Founders were even born. And yet Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Madison all revered him. John Quincy Adams penned, “The Declaration of Independence [was]…founded upon one and the same theory of government…[as] expounded in [this man’s] writings.”

What man could guide our Founding Fathers from the grave?

It was none other than the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), one of the most influential thinkers in the Enlightenment period. As the “father of liberalism,” Locke helped develop social contract theory—an idea our Founders later fashioned into a Constitutional principle known as “the consent of the governed.” His writings influenced Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Bacon, Locke and Newton… I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences.”[1]

Undoubtedly, John Locke was one of history’s greatest men.

But what’s overlooked in Locke’s connection to America’s founding is his influence as a theologian. And although some historians classify him as a deist, the evidence points in a different direction. The fact that many of Locke’s religious works occurred at the end of his life (in the 1690s) are particularly helpful, because his theological positions evolved and, in Locke’s case, eventually returned to a Protestant (Calvinist) Christian perspective. Consequently, his latter writings are theologically orthodox and biblically conservative.

The good news is John Locke left plenty of religious writings to ponder. He penned an expository commentary on Paul’s epistles (published post-death, 1705-1707). He also compiled one of the earliest topical Bibles: Common Place: Book to the Holy Bible. (1697). Similar to today, Locke lived in a culture with anti-religious “enlightenment” sentiments. To combat the attacks on Christianity he wrote an apologetic text: The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695). He later wrote a sequel: Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and a sequel to the sequel A Second Vindication (1697). In these theological writings, Locke argued the Bible was verbally inspired by God and miracles were authoritative Divine stamps to the biblical message. He claimed the entire Bible was true and “reasonable” to the “enlightened” mind. He also encouraged a tolerance of all variant views except one. Locke felt that atheism (because it denied and rejected God) naturally invited social decay and civic chaos.

And yet even these great works weren’t what captivated our Founding Fathers.

They were influenced by one of Locke’s earlier works: Two Treatises of Government (1689). In its 400 pages, Locke outlined the mechanisms for how a civil government operated, something our Founders found rather useful in penning various charter documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They channeled Locke’s Two Treatises into new writings that forged a novel type of nation on the earth: a democratic republic. This innovative nation featured a “social contract” where “we the people” elected leaders to represent and lead by our consent. Consequently, America needed no king or pope to lord over us. It’s why dissolved our ties with England.

This political idea was novel, and our Founders got it from Locke. But where did John Locke get this idea? What source influenced his thinking about human government?

Would you believe the Bible?

It’s true. In John Locke’s book on government—the same one that our Founding Fathers used to shape the design of American government—he referenced biblical characters, ideas and passages over 1500 times! John Locke, in the First Treatise, systematically attacked the work of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (which argued for the divine right of kings) and theologically dismantled his thesis using Holy Scripture. In the Second Treatise, Locke outlined the natural rights of all people and a social contract rooted to charity, duty and tolerance. Again, using biblical principles and Scripture, he laid the foundation for some of America’s most cherished social values, including representational government, private property rights, freedom of religion, the right to protest and revolt, and the “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.”

Essentially, America was built on the back of biblical doctrine forged in the writings of John Locke. And Locke conceived a government to function like the people of God did in the Holy Scriptures. If you want to see good government, he wrote, look at Old Testament Israel or the New Testament church.

This idea, as radical as it might seem in an increasingly secularized America, was actually fairly preferred in the Colonial Era of America. The majority of our Founding Fathers were churchmen and vocal Christians (over two dozen were preachers with theology degrees). The fact they relied upon a conservative Protestant theologian-philosopher who wrote about a civil society that looked more like the “church” in the book of Acts than a king oppressing them from England shouldn’t surprise anyone.

It’s why many of the unique features of our Constitution–including separation of powers, religious freedom and, again, the consent of the people–are actually BIBLICAL concepts.

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).

It’s no wonder John Adams, in a June 28, 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson, penned:

The general Principles, on which the Fathers [achieved] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity,…Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God: and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System…[2]

It’s no wonder that Adam’s eldest son, John Quincy Adams, said:

In the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior. The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.[3]

Or that Elias Boudinot, as its presiding officer, admonished Congress:

Let us enter on this important business under the idea that we are Christians on whom the eyes of the world are now turned…Let us earnestly call and beseech Him, for Christ’s sake, to preside in our councils….We can only depend on the all powerful influence of the Spirit of God, Whose Divine aid and assistance it becomes us as a Christian people most devoutly to implore.[4]

Or that the patriot Patrick Henry advocated:

The great pillars of all government and of social life [are] virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible.[5]

Or that Jedidiah Morse confessed:

To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. All efforts made to destroy the foundations of our Holy Religion ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation… in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom… 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.[6]

This was all John Locke’s idea. A nation founded upon biblical principle.

It’s still a novel concept for those who ponder it.

[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): 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] Elias Boudinot, The Life, Public Services, Addresses, and Letters of Elias Boudinot, J. J. Boudinot, editor (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896), Vol. I, pp. 19, 21, speech in the First Provincial Congress of New Jersey.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.