EVERY reader of the AMERICAN SENTINEL is doubtless familiar with the fact that on July 4, 1776, the representatives of the English colonies of America formally declared to the world their independence of all foreign rule, and in justification of their action asserted the doctrine that all men have the same unalienable rights, and that to secure these rights is the proper purpose of civil government.
The situation as it was in 1776, and that which exists to-day in the American nation, cannot however be properly appreciated without looking beyond the action which has made the fourth of July a national day, to the antecedent conditions out of which that action was evolved.
The Declaration of Independence was not simply the result of a determination on the part of the American colonies to separate themselves from British rule, for the sake of being independent. At the time when that Declaration went forth, the civilized world was just emerging from the long reign of civil and religious despotism which had characterized the Middle Ages. One by one, as the spirit of liberty developed and asserted itself in the minds of the people, the chains of that despotism had been broken; until in the Declaration of Independence the world heard a bold assertion of the doctrine of the right of all mankind to complete individual freedom.
This was not an accident of the times. It was a providence. It has been well said that “History is the progressive disclosure of the self-government of man as the providential design.” The Declaration of Independence appealed to the established decrees of Providence for its justification. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it says, “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of  happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It asserts this as the order of government which God himself has established.
It was by a religious power that this order of government was perverted. There was never a despotism on earth until men had established false religions. The religion of love which God set up is in perfect harmony with free government. It must be so, for otherwise He who endowed men with the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would antagonize Himself. And anything which antagonizes that religion—which is Christianity—antagonizes free government.
It was a religious despotism which antagonized free government in the Middle Ages. The papal church dominated the States of Europe, and the civil power was employed to enforce her decrees. By her the Inquisition was established, and the power of the civil arm was made to invade conscience, the most sacred temple of human liberty. Under the tutorship of the church, the civil powers learned to disregard one and all of those unalienable rights with which the Creator had endowed the humblest being who bears His image.
The Declaration of Independence asserted again these rights before the world. It asserted not the rights of governments, or of organizations, but of the individual. And against nothing did it strike more directly or forcibly than against that ecclesiastical despotism which had so long claimed the right to control the conscience, and put fetters on the wings of the mind. It asserted the eternal truth of God against the error which had long enslaved mankind.
The value of the Declaration of Independence lies not in the fact that it accomplished our separation from the empire of Great Britain and our independence as a nation. Indeed, it was only by hard fighting that these things were accomplished, and if these be the things to be commemorated, the anniversary of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown would be a more fitting date than the fourth of July; for it was only then that our national independence had become, practically, an accomplished fact. But national independence means nothing to the slave. Personal liberty, the enjoyment of the unalienable rights of the individual, is the thing of value, and it is the assertion of these that gives its value to the immortal Declaration.
No one can justly appreciate this great document who views it merely in the light of its national significance. Whether this Government be a better one to live under than the government of Great Britain, or what benefits have resulted from our national independence, are questions to which we can find no definite answer. Concerning these there may exist must difference of opinion. But all know, from their own experience, the individual blessings which are secured by a free government. And these blessings are as valuable to the inhabitants of one country as to those of another. The providential design in the Declaration of Independence was not that this nation should be made the greatest nation on the earth, by being different from all the others; but that all the others should become like it, in securing to the people of other lands the enjoyment of their God-given, unalienable rights.
As the Charter of individual liberty, the Declaration of Independence is as appropriate to our own time as the year 1776. To-day, more fully perhaps than at any time in the past, it needs to be borne in mind that the proper purpose of civil governments is to secure to the individuals under them, the enjoyment of the unalienable rights bestowed upon them by the Creator. The crisis of 1776 was not greater than that which confronts the American people in 1897. The rights which were threatened then were not more sacred and valuable than those which are in jeopardy to-day. The Declaration of Independence asserts those rights, but it does not secure them against invasion, even in the very name of liberty.
As Independence day is celebrated, then, let it be with an appreciation of the blessing of individual independence—individual freedom from all despotic control, and a lively sense of the perils by which that independence is now threatened. Let it be remembered that religious apostosy [sic.], which has become a feature and sign of the the [sic.] times, will breed despotism in government to-day as surely as it did in the past; that already this evil work is far advanced, as seen in an ever-widening stream of religious legislation. And may there be many who, with these facts and reflections in mind, shall gather from the day new inspiration and zeal to do faithful duty as sentinels around the camp of freedom.
EVERY religion except the religion taught by Jesus Christ, is a despotism. There is no despotism in the gospel invitation.