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What is really meant by "... that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator ..."?

Updated on January 8, 2017
My Esoteric profile image

ME has spent most of his retirement from service to the United States studying, thinking, and writing about the country he served.

Declaration of Independence


What is Really Meant by the Term Creator?

THOMAS JEFFERSON WROTE "We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.--" Notice he didn't say " ... endowed by God ...." or "... endowed by Jesus ...", he says " ... their Creator ..." Why did Thomas Jefferson, who was an extremely careful wordsmith, choose those particular words instead of the ones that are more direct references to the Christian God.

In most of the colonial and state founding documents, it was made very clear that it was God, and more specifically the Christian God that was being referred to and that the guiding document was the Bible. Most states required you to be a Christian to hold office; a couple of states pursecuted you if you weren't Christian; a couple of states pursecuted you even if you were Christian but the wrong kind, i.e., Catholic. Only one state, Rhode Island, I believe, wasn't having any of that and kept religion out of the their government.

So, why did Thomas Jefferson use such a strange phrase as "their Creator", a much more ambiguous phrase than "by God". "Their Creator" allows for different interpretations, doesn't it? To me, "their Creator" lets me have my Creator and lets you have your Creator without those Creators necessarily being the same Creator. If he had used the phrase "by God", their would have been no doubt whose God was being referred to.

I am not Christian, yet I believe in a creator. My idea of a Creator does not have hardly any of the attributes Christians assign to their creator; yet we both call our creator, God. Isn't this what Thomas Jefferson, also not a Christian but a strong believer in a creator, really had in mind when he penned the Declaration of Independence? He fought very hard for religious freedom in Virginia and to diminish the domination of the Christian church in the Virginia government; wasn't he encapsulating this idea of religious freedom in the phrase "their Creator"?

Further, as I said, most political documents of the era contained clear references to the Christian church and Christianity yet Thomas Jefferson left out any reference to faith, any faith, in this siminal document. How come? Could it be that he didn't see the future America being just a Christian theocracy which the colonies currently were?

In the last debate of the 2012 Florida Republican primary, both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney referred to phrase "their Creator" as specifically meaning that America was founded on the Judeo-Christian faith, that "their Creator" was the same thing as saying "by God", the Christian one. This is a popular refrain for virtually everyone to the right of center and one they wear on their sleeve. Yet, when you actually think deeply about it, It is hard to see, at least for me, how they can come to this conclusion.

The Man Behind the Declaration of Independence

1632 - 1704
1632 - 1704 | Source


THE EXCELLENT COMMENTS MADE BY CMERRIT prompted me to write a little bit more about this subject.

John Locke, 1632 - 1704, originating the philosophy of Liberalism, is behind much of the Declaration of Independence; some of the Declaration was lifted verbatim out of Locke's writings. The idea of the "natural right to Life, Liberty, and Happiness" comes directly for John Locke's statement that ”The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions…“; Jefferson and others combined "health and possessions" into "Pursuit of Happiness" while keeping, "Life" and "Liberty" as is. (I didn't realize Locke included health in his natural rights, which leads us to a different discussion concerning the role of government in that area.)

In developing his ideas on the natural law, there is no doubt where the law came from ... God, not a Creator, but God, the Christian kind. He belonged to the Church of England (if you didn't in those days, you ran the risk of being hung alongside the Catholics) and was a believer. So, and here we get back to CMerritt's and my point, we come to the question of why was the word "Creator" used in the Declaration of Independence and later in the U.S. Constitution? What was the motive of the authors of the Declaration to make this change or, as CMerritt notes, not even include the reference at all in the initial drafts.

It is also interesting to know that Locke is also Jefferson's inspiration, and I suspect the U.S. Supreme Court's for the idea of "Separation of Church and State". Locke wrote in his letters, Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–92), produced in the aftermath of the European wars of religion, formulated a classic reasoning for religious tolerance.

Three arguments are central: (1) Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; (2) Even if they could, enforcing a single "true religion" would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence; (3) Coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.[15]

Locke also believed that according to his principle of the social contract, he argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control and therefore must remain protected from any government authority.

In addition, John Locke was a proponent of separation of powers between the branches of government, although it did not originate with him; the Greeks thought of that a couple thousand years before.

What Do You Think?

Do you think "their Creator" in the Declaration of Independence is specifically referring to the Christian God?

See results

While I am obviously one of the 'No' votes, I am rather surprised about how much company I have, especially given the relatively even split between political leanings. In fact, now that there are 29 votes, and the Demographic Survey # 1 is split evenly at 33%, 33%, 33%, there is, among males anyway, almost a statistically significant difference between those who think the Creator in the Declaration of Independence is the Christian God, and those who think it is referring to some more general higher being. The margin of error at a 95% confidence level is 31.5%.

That means due to chance alone, those voting YES,, could actually be has high as 55% while those voting NO could be as low as 34%. So long as there is that overlap, you can't quite say the results ARE statistically significant, but only getting close. If the number of votes were 65, however, then we would be at a point where we could say the difference is significant; so we will just have to wait and see.

Demographic Survey #1

Do you more closely identify with the -

See results

Demographic Survey #2

Are you -

See results

© 2012 Scott Belford


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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      2 years ago

      The word Men can be used to refer to gender, or it can be used to refer to mankind. The use of the word men in both the bible and the references and in the constitution can clearly be shown to mean gender.

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      6 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      BM - "Today, it is hard to tell the difference ... and the purpose of the Constitution which once again was never intended to create a strong central government."

      ME - Of course I strongly disagree, and point to James Madison's Notes from the Constitutional Convention as proof.

      On May 30, 1787, Gerry Morris (PA) made three propositions, one of which read:

      -- "3. that the national Government to be established should consist of a supreme Judiciary, Executive, and Legislative."

      There were questions by Charles Pinckney (SC) whether the words "national" and "supreme" "meant to abolish of State Governts altogether".

      Gov. Morris replied ""the distinction between a federal and national, supreme, Govt.; the former being a mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties; the latter having a compleat and compulsive operation. He [Morris] contended that in all Communities there must be one supreme power, and one only".

      George Mason (VA) said: "that the present confederation was not only deficient in not providing for coercion & punishment agst. delinquent States; but argued very cogently that punishment could not in the nature of things be executed on the States collectively, and therefore that such a Govt. was necessary as could directly operate on individuals, and would punish those only whose guilt required it." (Mason went on to oppose the ratification of the Constitution because it created too strong a central government.)

      And Roger Sherman (CT) thought "that "the Confederation had not given sufficient power to Congs. and that additional powers were necessary; particularly that of raising money which he [Sherman] said would involve many other powers. He admitted also that the General & particular jurisdictions ought in no case to be concurrent."

      These opinions were not mitigated very much in the final product; I don't see how you can draw any other conclusion than those who wrote the Constitution intended the central government to be strong.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      6 years ago

      My Esoteric

      Today, it is hard to tell the difference between the philosophy of the DOI, and the purpose of the Constitution which once again was never intended to create a strong central government.

      When the SCOTUS in the started to rule in favor of federal government expansion in scope, this was the greasy pole that got us to where we are today. No, it is not a good time for the US or its people today.

      We have two imbecilic divergent parties playing tug of war, while the country continues to decline. Neither one of them have the solutions, and they are so far apart they can never be joined again. It would take the sheeple loyal party voters to change their voting away from the party clones and demand better choices from both parties.

      We don't need another Clinton or Bush in 2016. but that is all the voters will recognize. The republicans will use the same rope a dope that the democrats used against McCain. They will say that Hillary is the sword carrier of Obama.

      Searching for the guilty has gone on for too many decades, and it hasn't produced any solutions. It doesn't matter who lost the game, what matters is the game is lost. And if the players stay in the game, the games will continue to be lost.

      This is a system that the founders didn't anticipate creating problems, but it sure did create them. When the winning candidate is from party X, the voters of party y, no longer have adequate representation in the government.

      I will write my own hubs.

      Thanks for the hospitality

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      6 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      I think you quoted one of my hubs.

      There is quite a bit of "wind" in the rhetoric. While all those things you say about the basic "hypocrisy" of the Declaration are true, they are true only from our vantage point in history; not from theirs. From their vantage point, it was a great leap forward to declare "All men are created equal" (even if they only meant the gender) back then as a justification to part ways from the King as an act of heresy, of traitorism.

      As to the word "equality" not being in the Constitution, the only place where it made sense to put it is in the Preamble. The rest of the document are the rules needed to implement the Preamble. The Preamble itself was a statement of purpose for the Constitution, not a philosophical discussion like the Declaration was.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      6 years ago

      My Esoteric

      More important than the reference to a creator, the phrase is an empty meaningless statement.

      It joins another saying that this country was formed under God.

      Yet, we specifically have the 1st Amendment to prevent the government from governing under God.

      "All men are created equal" is in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution

      The word "equality" does not appear anywhere in the Constitution

      14th Amendment guarantees "equal protection of the laws"

      The word Men can be used to refer to gender, or it can be used to refer to mankind. The use of the word men in both the bible and the references and in the constitution can clearly be shown to mean gender.

      It took the 15th amendment to give the newly freed black slaves, the right for black men to vote. Surely, the government meant that the people should include the Black Men.

      That was in 1868, but it took until 1920 for the women to be given the right to vote. It was also done by an amendment to the constitution, not the original none amendment constitution.

      Quoting the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address may be uplifting, there is no real wind under it, just impressive rhetoric.

      As is the conundrum of the phrase, one nation under God.

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      7 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Our founding fathers were politicians who understood the hearts of the people and why they were entering the New World, i.e. for a better life. Fact is when you're building a brand new nation out of virgin territory occupied by “savages” that have to either get with the program or be removed, you have to be able to invoke a Power higher than yourself in order to bring about agreement on many sensitive and touchy political and social matters, so that you will be able move things right along. No matter how you slice it or dice it, T.J. and the other guys knew exactly what they were doing! America is the proof! :)

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Very interesting insight, Jake, thank you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      It may be that Thomas Jefferson used the more generic term "Creator" over God to preclude any appearance of religious establishment or government sanction thereof while at the same time providing the ontological basis for the concept of "inalienable rights."

      Without a Creator (or God), any declaration of natural rights is man-made and arbitrary, lacking an ultimate foundation. I suspect the Founding Fathers realized this and added the word "Creator" to ground the revolutionary concept of inalienable rights in something transcendent.

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Hi Jo, thanks for your very insightful comments. Yes, I think it fits in, and, as I think I said, or at least hinted at earlier, most other colonial organizational documents of the day made specific reference to God, and often to Christianity itself; I think Jefferson, et. al. were trying to make a distiction while remaining politically correct.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 

      9 years ago from Tennessee

      God is just a word--as is Creator. Both are used as a term to signify a concept of which we mortals really have little understanding. I see little difference in these terms and certainly don't see God or Creator referring only to the Christian God. I'm fairly sure that was not Jefferson's intent either, regardless of what the right wing Christians might say. (I believe, by the way, they are giving Christianity a bad name--much like Islamic extremists are giving Islam a bad name. It is my religion and I dislike the way they portray it.)

      Perhaps Jefferson used this term because in addition to being a good statesman he was also a good writer and in the context of that sentence Creator just fits, don't you think?

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thanks for visiting Credence. While you are certainly right about not really buying into other religions other than Christian, I might leave the Jedeo off given what they felt about the Jews, but I hesitate to say they weren't aware of others; as a group, they were much more learned than their contemporaries are today. Jefferson, as I understand it, accepted the God of Abraham after a fashion, but rejected Christ as the Savior.

    • Credence2 profile image


      9 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Hello, ME

      ME, in view of the time in which Jefferson lived it would seem outside of his experience to think that the American society would be anything other than Judeo-Christian. The concern at the time was just over which Christian religion was to have dominance, if any. In this it is quite clear that he intended that no one aspect of Christianity would dominate. But taking in the spirit of his words would leave us with what we have today. Expressive religious liberty across all spectrums, which I think would have been his legacy even though it would been hard for even a man of his talents to foresee where it would go. It is clear that he meant no state sanctioned religions, nor establishment of same. But from a 18th century perspective, the possibility of anything outside of Judeo-Christian was pretty remote.

    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      I think we do Chris. BTW, your comments motivated me to add a bit to the hub, enjoy.

    • CMerritt profile image

      Chris Merritt 

      9 years ago from Pendleton, Indiana

      Hey ME, I think we both line up perfect on this one. lol

      I agree we should NOT be a Christian Nation, but I think we are (or were)a Nation of Christians, and at one time we was bestowed Blessings from our creator...(I know this is just my personal view)...and for me, I believe that our faith has wandered far from the coarse that our forefathers first set sail on.

      Hence, the turmoil and turbulent times we are now seeing as a Nation.....A government that is at 8% approval rating, trillions of $$$$ debt....the division of Americans.....that is all broght forth by a nation of self-centered and egotistical Americans...who deem themselves more important than keeping their eye upon our Lord.


      that one really just came outta me on a rant!!!


    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      There is very little I can disagree with what you say, Chris. Rather than "many", I would probably use the word "most" regarding the belief in not only God, but Jesus, and the Christian Church. And, as you point out, it is this latter element, the influence of the church, which Jefferson and Adams and many others were so concerned with.

      There is no question all believed in God, even Jefferson''s version appears to very close to the one in the Bible, and most accepted Jesus, which I don't believe Jefferson did, not as the Son of God, anyway, and all read the Bible and tried to follow the moral code it contained and yes, it was very intertwined with America's success.

      But, that, in my opinion, doesn't make America a Christian nation. Instead, America is a nation with an awful lot of Christians in it, but is so constructed as to accept any religion into its governmental leadership. We are clearly moving in that direction; we nearly had a Jewish Vice President and it is expected a Mormon, whiich many Christians do not accept as Christian, will win the Republican nod to run for President - both impossible 15 years ago.

      To me, this is what I think Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were hoping the outcome might be.

    • CMerritt profile image

      Chris Merritt 

      9 years ago from Pendleton, Indiana

      Good points ME,

      Here is more of my "thoughts" regarding this topic.

      I fully believe that our forefathers wrote those documents with the Holy Bible as its moral compass, and many of these men prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for guidence.

      I also believe many were being extemely careful so that they NOT authorize any powers to the church...especially Jefferson who realized that religon is a very personal matter, one which the government had no business getting involved in....that is was between Man and God.

      Which is why Jefferson used the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" his response to the Danbury letter....who wanted wanted religious liberties to be indisputable rights to be carried out by the legislators. I think he feared that if we were not careful that we could end up like England with the Church governing the land.

      But, on a personal level, I believe that it was that sound faith in God that our forefathers had in utilizing the Word of God, the faith they displayed in building this nation is why we was the Blessed Nation we were and why we became such an Exceptional Nation for so many years.....which also leads me to as why we are declining in the fashion we are now....because of the lack of God in the way we conduct our legislative body.

      at least that's my quick take on it.


    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thank you for your insights Chris, valuable as always. To me, it says something that the first drafts ommited the reference to Creator, but given the times, it is no surprise some reference wasn't made. My point, of course, is, why wasn't the reference direct, clear, and concise as it was in virtually all other contemporaneous documents. To me, while the term Creator certainly gives a nod toward an ultimate Creator, which the three you mentioned very much believed in, it afforded personal choice rather than a specific way of thinking or believing which is the Christian churches take on the meaning.

      There is no doubt in my mind, the Continental Congress passed such a resolution in 1782, the members were made of men who "had" to be Christian, sometimes of only one variation, to even hold the office and largely came from theocratic states. I don't know if anyone tried to pass the same resolution in the U.S. Congress 10 years later, I suspect the new Supreme Court would have found it unconstitutional.

      On a final note, there were two provisions in the Constitution that came under heavy fire from the anti-Federalist crowd during ratification: 1) the lack of reference to God in the oath of office and 2) the prohibition against a religious test in order to hold federal office.

    • CMerritt profile image

      Chris Merritt 

      9 years ago from Pendleton, Indiana

      Hi ME,

      My take is this; the first couple of the original drafts did NOT even mention “Creator”. Both Jefferson and Adams had versions without it. Sometime between the draft stages of the document until the final draft was done…….the word Creator was added. Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were the key men in the writing of it.

      This much I do know that even Jefferson WAS very much a fan of scripture, even though he modified it, but written in the front of his Holy Bible was

      “I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our Creator."

      I find it interesting too, that our congress in 1782, voted a resolution:

      "The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools."

      So my take is this, Creator, was in the mindset of the men who created the DOI, knew our creator as the God referred to in the Holy Bible.

      Though there is NO proof that Jefferson added the words or exactly who did, but he was one of the main authors who would eventually and the least approve it.

      I do find this hub to be very useful and interesting and voted that way.


    • My Esoteric profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Belford 

      9 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thank you very much for following me JacobsGlobe, I certainly appreciate it. I doubt the papacy had much influence at all since one principal reason England finally found interest to colonize America was to counter the influence the Catholic French; anti-Catholic feelings among early Americans were close to being deadly.

      I don't think there many variations of religious practice in America then. You had a few variations of Protestantism, mainly Calvinist, some Church of England, a few Catholics in hiding, and then people like Thomas Jefferson who was more of a Deist more than any thing else.

      That said, even very devout Christians like John Adams, warned strongly against letting the Christian church gain a foothold in the new U.S. government; he worried very much about America becoming a theocracy like a few of the states had become.

    • JacobsGlobe profile image


      9 years ago from worldwide

      An interesting implies that there were other variations of religious practice available even in earliest New World politics..I wonder how much influence the papacy had on that process? hmmm great post. Keep us informed as your research continues. Im a fan!


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