At a 1999 commencement speech at Bob Jones University, Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft said this phrase was a slogan of the founding fathers. He also said this sentiment is found in the Declaration of Independence in the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Was this the motivating cry of the Revolution, and was Thomas Jefferson alluding to it in the Declaration?
While people in the colonies used the expression, it was not a central rallying cry, nor is it implied in the Declaration of Independence. Members of radical sects first used the phrase in a revolutionary context in England in the mid-17th century during the British Civil War. Groups such as the Diggers and the Levellers believed that after the execution of Charles I, a biblical monarchy was nigh and that Jesus would be the king. (Note to the future attorney general: The Diggers advocated the abolition of private property, and the Levellers were for the separation of church and state.) The phrase was particularly incendiary because it attacked the authority of both king and clergy. In the American colonies, there are some historical references to it being said by Presbyterians who were agitating against the authority of the British king and harkening back to the earlier revolution.
But it was the Enlightenment, not Revelation, which was the underlying philosophy of the founders. While Jefferson was a member of the Anglican Church, he, like Washington, Adams, Madison, and Franklin, was a Deist. That is, he believed in a rational God who created the world but that it was up to men, through reason and science, to shape it. Jefferson believed Jesus was a historical figure and a sublime moral philosopher, but he, like his fellow founders, was skeptical about the divinity of Jesus.
Explainer thanks Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, Jack Rakove of Stanford University, and Herbert Sloan of Barnard College.