Ben Franklin’s Call for Prayer in the Constitutional Convention

Written by on March 21, 2013 in Ben Franklin, Founding Fathers, Slider, The Constitution

Many say the founding fathers were not Christian but were Agnostics and Deists.  Ben Franklin is usually sighted as a chief example. But take a look at this lost Episode in American History.  We call it the “Miracle in Philadelphia.”

With the convention going badly and some delegates leaving in disgust, the elder statesman Ben Franklin, rose to address the remaining delegates on June 28th. He began by talking about the fact that they had studied ancient history for models of government, and of those Republics that have gone the way of the bone yard of history for various reasons, and finally of the modern governments in Europe, but that nothing was suitable and they couldn’t find any common ground. So Franklin made a plea that they petition God for help:

Mr, President: The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of  political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of fights to illuminate our understanding?

In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity.

And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I Eve, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” [Psalm 127:1a]  I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.

And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to I chance, war and conquest. I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Ben Franklin - DuplessisHere was probably the least religious of the Founding Fathers calling for prayer and quoting Scripture. It was the turning point of the Constitutional Convention.

Immediately after Franklin spoke, Roger Sherman of Connecticut seconded his motion for prayer. Many were deeply moved. New Jersey delegate Jonathan Dayton reported:

“The Doctor sat down; and never did I behold a countenance at once so dignified and delighted as was that of Washington at the dose of the address; nor were the members of the convention generally less affected. The words of the venerable Franklin fell upon our ears with a weight and authority, even greater that we may suppose an oracle to have had in a Roman senate!”

Yet there were some who opposed to the motion to appoint chaplains to begin each day with prayer. The motion was not acted on because of a lack of faith and the presence of pride. The Convention didn*t believe it had the funds to pay a chaplain and some delegates were afraid that the news of their need for chaplains would start rumors that dissension was breaking out in the Convention.

Edmund Jennings Randolph of Virginia proposed a compromise measure:

“That a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on the 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence; & thenceforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning. Ben Franklin himself seconded this substitute motion. So while Franklin*s initial request was not officially acted upon, neither was it officially rejected, and ultimately it became a reality. Now Congress begins each day with prayer by a paid chaplain.”

What is important to note is that Ben Franklin’s passionate plea served to break the impasse. The delegates were dismissed for three days, and some attended Old First Reformed Church, where Rev. William Rogers held a special time of prayer for the proceedings. Representative Dayton of New Jersey reported that when the delegates met again on July 2, much of the acrimony was gone:

“We assembled again; and … every unfriendly feeling had been expelled, and a spirit of conciliation had been cultivated.”

While some difficulties continued to arise before the conclusion of the Convention*s business in September, the delegates apparently never returned to the fruitless bickering that had existed prior to June 28th. It is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that our Constitutional government began as the result of a prayer meeting in Philadelphia, but Dr. Franklin*s call for prayer did play a critical role in reminding the delegates at avital point that without God’s help, all their efforts would be in vain.

Now you the real story behind Ben Franklin’s Prayer at the First Continental Congress.  And yet another Lost Episode in American History.

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  1. Will show in my church July 7 th ,
    I found the video on U-TUBE
    FRANKLINS PRAYER AT THE FIRST CONGRESS

  2. Russ Davis says:

    “In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of fights to illuminate our understanding?”
    I believe this is an error for “Father of LIGHTS,” perhaps a scanner glitch. Thanks.
    PS
    Also “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I Eve,”
    should be “the longer I live,”
    I firmly disagree that “It is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that our Constitutional government began as the result of a prayer meeting in Philadelphia”
    The question is, which prayer meeting, that of the delegates assembled, or that of the delegates personally, humbled by God unto the abandoning of foolish pride and seeking Him for sufficiency, Jeremiah 2:11 “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, The Fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”

  3. lyjj says:

    Thank for this article. I am preparing a presentation for a meeting of Oathkeepers to dispel the idea that Benjamin Franklin was an atheist or deist. This, along with the article in David Barton’s Founder’s Bible, is very helpful to my preparation. As I study, I continue to feel more reverence and respect for the Founding Fathers.

  4. Dick Knutsach says:

    It’s ‘cited’ – not ‘sighted’

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