America just marked the anniversary when courageous men said, they did “...pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence ... ” Embedded in that vital document were several references to that divine Providence. One such reference is to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Controversy now rages over the meaning of that statement. Secularists attribute to Thomas Jefferson a secular meaning. The best way to understand it is to consider Jefferson’s source. Jefferson was a student of Henry St John Lord Bolingbroke of England. He first began studying Lord Bolingbroke’s writings at the age of 14, and he read them again at the age of 23 as he was preparing for a career as a lawyer. Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book contains more quotations from Bolingbroke than from any other author, Lord Bolingbroke provided a very specific definition for this phrase.

In a letter to Alexander Pope, Lord Bolingbroke wrote the following words which were to become the basis for Jefferson’s opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “You will find that it is the modest, not the presumptuous enquirer, who makes a real, and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths. One follows nature, and nature’s God; that is, he follows God in his works, and in his word.”

According to Lord Bolingbroke, the law of nature’s God is the Law which is found in God’s Word. This was the definition which was intended by Jefferson, and this was the manner in which his words were understood by our forefathers. The law of nature’s God upon which our nation was founded is nothing less than the Bible itself.

For years that was the meaning given the phrase. However, in the recent words of Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith H. Jones, our country has plunged into a profound moral crisis “because we have lost the sense of a God who takes interest in what we do.” As a result, she says, we have come to tolerate violence, immorality, and the disintegration of our families — and “are only now beginning to reap the whirlwind consequences” of these evils. We are reminded of this sober admonition from the Old Testament: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.... My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, ... seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.” (Hosea 4:1, 6)

Our Declaration of Independence was at once a declaration of independence from England, and a declaration of dependence upon God.

We have drifted a dramatic distance from the well understood eighteenth century meaning of dependence upon God. We have so hotly pursued happiness we have neglected quality of life and an understanding of true liberty. We have sold our birthright for a “mess of pottage,” and are now beginning to taste the bitter menu afforded by such neglect.

There is yet hope for renewal if we will respond as George Washington admonished the people of his day: “If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear them from heaven, and will forgive their sins and heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7: 14)

The Rev. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta.