The 800th Anniversary of Magna Charta
The signing of the Magna Charta on the 15th of June, 1215, was an attempt to begin to restore the ancient Christian liberties of the British Isles. The 1775 Seal of Massachusetts during the American Revolution (left) illustrates the significance of this document to our own independence. A colonist stands with a sword in one hand and the Magna Charta in the other. This individual, representing the colonists, is willing to defend his God-given liberties based on the ancient written Charter of English liberty called Magna Charta.
During what is known as the Constitutional Debate period between the colonies and Great Britain (1765-1775), Sam Adams, writing in the Boston Gazette in 1769, said “our writer… tells us that formerly the right of taxation was in the King only. I should have been glad if he had pointed us to that time. We know that kings – even English kings – have lost their crowns and their heads for assuming such a right. ‘Tis true this strange claim has occasioned much contention, and it always will as long as the people understand the great charter of nature upon which Magna Charta itself is founded, - No man can take another’s property from him without his consent. This is the law of nature; and a violation of it is the same thing, whether it be done by one man who is called a king, or by five hundred of another denomination.”
We learn several things from this quote. First, Magna Charta was an attempt at restoring ancient liberty, not taking rights from the King. In other words, pre-dating the Magna Charta was a period in English history when Kings had no such “prerogative” as claimed by George III. Second, it rested on a higher law, the “great charter of nature”, which in the words of William Blackstone (in 1755) is “the will of his Maker.” Finally, the idea that “no man can take another’s property from him without his consent” arises from this law of nature resting on the Bible itself. As Blackstone put it, “upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation (the Bible), depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”
What time was Sam Adams referring to when Kings did not claim such life, liberty and property rights in the Crown? It was prior to the Norman (French) invasion of England in 1066. In 890 King Alfred had written his Doom Book (book of the law) which was a compilation of the Ten Commandments and their application to society, along with the Beatitudes of Jesus. This was the apex of English liberty for the individual and the protection of his life and property. At that time, the King was elected. Alfred copied the government of Israel prior to its choice of a King – the Hebrew Republic. This comprised the “ancient liberties” and was the foundation for what is known as the English Common Law.
Magna Charta represents the “fountain” of English liberty being restored from its underground well preserved in custody of the Saxons by the providential Hand of God. The layered English society, with the liberty-loving Saxons underground, the Nobility of the French in power, and the persecuted Jews who held much of the gold provides the back-drop for the amazing miracle of 1215. The story of Stephen Langton, dividing the Bible into chapters for easier study, as well as researching the forgotten history of his own nation of England in the University of Paris, and then providentially becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1213, is truly remarkable. Langton, as the author of Magna Charta, was also the negotiator of interposition between the Barons and the King prior to the June event at Runneymede.
Magna Charta was a giant stop sign to the King. Unlike the Charter of Henry I in 1100 which attempted to stop the King from his arbitrary acts without diminishing his power, this document limited the King directly and that is why it is considered the “first step” toward a restoration of self-government under God. King John was forced to sign it but never intended to keep it, going into a fit of rage only hours after the signing on the 15th of June, 1215. Even Pope Innocent III, who had asserted his power to get Langton to Canterbury, now repudiated the document! Magna Charta is not a constitution of due process, it is a listing of grievances and a demand that the King abide by the law – a tradition that Kings were not used to following. Tyrants in church and state don’t give up power easily!
Magna Charta was quoted and referenced in Colonial America as well as in the State papers written during our Revolution. From the Charter of 1606 asserting the rights of Englishmen to the various colonial documents that established self-government, Magna Charta was either directly or indirectly referenced. However, now free from the control of English Kings who ignored the law, those coming to colonial America also looked to the root of their liberty asserted by King Alfred – the law of God. By the time of the Revolution, the pastors now looked to God as the source of their rights. The Framers, instructed by these pastors, went further than Magna Charta. They appreciated its step in limiting the King but had no intention of ever having kings again. Our rights came from God, not government. We weren’t simply limiting civil government, we were placing it in the hands of the people who would consent to give express permission for government to act! The degree to which the people followed God would be seen in the nature and structure of their civil government.
Our Bill of Rights ratified in 1791 contains phrases that can be traced to clauses of Magna Charta. They now rest on a more sure footing, however. Magna Charta was a first step in overcoming tyranny and returning to Government under God, but it was the end-all in that process. Magna Charta does not delineate the source of our rights, but was a step in restraining tyrants who claim to have all power. American liberty is the child of English liberty. But when American liberty came of age, the English colonists were more English than the mother country! The child went further than the parent.
In America, we no longer viewed Kings as getting their power from God and then distributing it to “subjects.” With the Bible in our hand, we understood that the people are the “kings” and the source of civil authority just as they are also the source of ecclesiastical authority (“priests” - see Revelation 1:5). Let us begin our resistance to tyranny today on our knees, recognizing that God is our source, and Christ our redeemer is our pathway to justice for all. Let us pray that for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we can restore our ancient liberties as “one nation under God” before it is too late.
We appreciate permission to reprint these newsletters from Dr. Paul Jehle, President of the Plymouth Rock Foundation. Wonderful materials on Pilgrim and Puritan history are available from the foundation websites: www.plymrock.org as well as www.usathanksgiving.com.
The annual November conference is a great event and we urge our readers to consider attending it. Dr. John Eidsmoe of Montgomery is a member of the Board of Trustees.
See The Declaration and Magna Charta on page 5A