Opinion

The man who inspired the Declaration of Independence

Photo of Kenyn Cureton
Kenyn Cureton
Contributor

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, but few know that the foundational concepts of freedom from which Jefferson drew came from the pulpit and pen of a pastor who served decades before the War of Independence: the Rev. John Wise.

Wise (1652-1725) served a Congregational church in Chebacco Parish in the southeastern part of Ipswich, Massachusetts for most of his ministry. He was the first son of an indentured servant to graduate from Harvard, and was an impressive preacher and a forceful writer.

Wise was also tall, muscular and a formidable wrestler. The story is told that later in life he was challenged to a wrestling match by Andover’s champion wrestler, Captain John Chandler. Wise tried to beg off, pleading that he was too old and infirm, but he was finally goaded into it for sport. So in the makeshift ring, Captain Chandler grappled with the elderly Wise. The preacher promptly threw the reigning wrestling champion completely over his front wall. Chandler got up, shook himself off and announced he would be on his way as soon as the preacher threw his horse over after him.

But Wise was even more tough and tenacious as an opponent of governmental overreach. In 1687, he grappled with the royal governor of New England, Sir Edmund Andros, because of a tax Andros had levied at the command of King James II. This tax was levied without the consent of the legislative body. In pulpit and town council, Wise sounded the alarm and blasted this scheme, warning of encroaching British tyranny. Two contemporaries wrote commending his efforts: “All our Watchmen were not asleep, nor the camp of Christ surprised and taken, before they had Warning.”

Wise stirred up his fellow townspeople in revolt against the tax. As a result, Governor Andros had Wise arrested because Wise refused to submit on biblical grounds to what he considered to be the unjust demands of the government. Governor Andros brought Wise before royalist judges and a crown-friendly jury. Wise so infuriated them with his defense that they threatened to sell him as a slave. The pastor was suspended from his ministry and fined. But that did not stop him from preaching against tyranny and in favor of liberty.

One year later, Governor Andros was deposed and Wise was vindicated. In 1710, Wise wrote The Churches Quarrel Espoused. He followed that with his masterwork in 1717, A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches, in which he dealt with the basis of both religious and civil government.

What Wise said was so forward-thinking and so appropriate to the time leading up to the Revolution that when his books were reprinted in 1772, they quickly sold out and were reprinted again. In these works, Wise demonstrated from the Bible that:

  • God created all men equal and every man must be acknowledged by the state as equal to every man.
  • The end of all good government is to promote the happiness of all and the good of every man in all his rights: his life, liberty, estate, honor, etc.
  • The consent of the governed is the only legitimate basis for government.
  • Taxation without representation is tyranny.

What is significant is that many of Wise’s Bible-based concepts and some of the phrasing was picked up by leading patriots and is even found in our Declaration of Independence.

Indeed, in his book Seedtime of the Republic, Cornell University historian Clinton Rossiter traces six individuals that he considers the most influential thought leaders of the American Revolution. Interestingly, two were political leaders but four were ministers of the Gospel. Among those, Rossiter lists Wise, whose pulpit and pen provided some of the soaring thoughts in America’s founding document, thoughts that compose the very foundation of our republic.

Kenyn Cureton, Ph.D., is vice president for church ministries at the Family Research Council.

  • marissab

    It’s good to know that Thomas Jefferson’s ideas were inspired by someone else. I’m also concerned that TJ is being hippocritical when, as a slave owner, he wrote “all men are created equal.” He always believed that, but never lived by it. It’s also comforting that a Reverend had a say in the Declaration because Jefferson was a Deist. Waitta go Wise – it’s a great document you inspired, there.

  • MerryJ1

    Not to disparage the Rev. John Wise, but it was more — much more — than one man “who inspired the Declaration of Independence.” Some credit seems due, for example, to the Corsican Pascal Paoli, who created the first modern republic — written constitution and all, in mid-18th century.

    Although the Republic of Corsica survived only 14 years (Louis XV was a bit testy about it, forcing Paoli into exile), it was Paoli who first wrote about “free citizens willing to accept ‘only liberty or death’” (John Ralston Saul, “Voltaire’s Bastards,” 1992).

  • nolotrippen

    Sorry MJHBAMA, they can’t:

    Romans 1: 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

  • MJHBAMA

    Maybe today’s Harvard U. should look hard at this and remember the times when they were relevant.