- recognize the need for a public religion, as Franklin did
- recognize Christianity as the true religion, as
- Secular Humanists argue that Benjamin Franklin's plea for
public prayer in the Constitutional Convention is no
evidence against the Constitutional prohibition against
public prayer. (!)
- Everything about Franklin's request shows that the modern
concept of "separation of church and state" is a
Background on Franklin
Franklin proposed a Day of Fasting in Pennsylvania, which a
true separationist would never do. He proclaimed:
and he prayed that
It is the duty of mankind on all
suitable occasions to acknowledge their dependence on the
Divine Being. . . .
The public nature of Franklin's prayer runs counter to the
ACLU's version of "separation of church and state,"
and no Deist believes that God "interposes" and
"confounds" and "defeats" any human
undertaking. This is not the act of a Deist (as the word is
Almighty God would mercifully interpose and still the rage
of war among the nations and would put a stop to the effusion
of Christian blood . . . [that] He would take this province
under His protection, confound the designs and defeat the
attempts of its enemies, and unite our hearts and strengthen
our hands in every undertaking that may be for the public
good, and for our defense and security in this time of danger.
(1748, quoted by Van Doren in Benjamin Franklin, NY:
Viking, 1938, p. 188)
In 1749, he wrote:
History will also afford frequent opportunities of showing
the necessity of a public religion. . . and the excellency of
the Christian religion above all others, ancient or
Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania,
Jerry Falwell is panting for a "deistic"
theocracy like Franklin's.
Thursday, June 28th, 1787
James Madison recorded the proceedings in his Journal of
the Federal Convention, Vol. I, p.259. Here are Franklin's words,
directed to George Washington, with our comments:
Doctor FRANKLIN. Mr. President, The
small progress we have made after four or five weeks
close attendance and 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
|Franklin finds "proof of the
imperfection of the Human Understanding"
and wants the Convention to pray? This
is "French Enlightenment" thinking??
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 seeds of
their own dissolution, now no longer exists And we
have viewed modern states all round Europe, but find
none of their constitutions suitable to our
|Some secularists have
suggested that America was based on Greco-Roman models
of government rather than Biblical models. Franklin
here expressly repudiates that myth.
The prosperity of a nation depends on much more than a
piece of paper. However great the Republic of Rome
sounds in the writings of the classical Latin authors,
it fell and is dead to this day.
|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 lights, to illuminate our understandings
- An unmistakable reference to James 1:17
- Every good gift and
every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down
from the Father of lights, with Whom is no
variableness, neither shadow of turning.
- The writings of the Founding Fathers are
smothered in Biblical references, which those
untrained "in the sacred writings" do
|—In the beginning
of the contest with Great Britain, when we were
sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room
for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were
heard, and 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 that we no longer need his
assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the
longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of
this truth—that God governs
in the affairs of men. [emphasis in Elliot's
edition - kc]. 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 labour in vain those
that build it." 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
little 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 chance,
war and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth
prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings 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 a "deist" would ask the
Clockmaker-Landlord God to intervene in the drafting
of a Constitution and the creation of a nation.
Franklin's reference to Providence in the
conflict between America and Britain is a story in
itself, and the link to "Providence"
should be consulted. And Franklin is widely regarded
as being the least religious of the
Founding Fathers. What Franklin felt about religion
might be deduced from his extraordinarily religious
plea for prayer. If he was hypocritical in his
frequent citation of Scripture, then we may still
deduce his attitude toward the separation of Scripture
James Madison records the following
immediately after Dr. Franklin's motion:
SHERMAN seconded the motion.
and several others expressed their apprehensions,
that, however proper such a resolution might have been
at the beginning of the Convention, it might at this
late day, in the first place, bring on it some
disagreeable animadversions; and in the second, lead
the public to believe that the embarrassments and
dissensions within the Convention had suggested this
measure. It was answered, by Doctor FRANKLIN,
Mr. SHERMAN, and others, that the past
Omission of a duty could not
justify a further omission; that the rejection of such
a proposition would expose the Convention to more
unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it; and
that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for
the state of things within would at least be as likely
to do good as ill.
observed, that the true cause of the Omission could
not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.
proposed, in order to give a favorable aspect to the
measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of
the Convention on the Fourth of July, the anniversary
of Independence; and thenceforward prayers, &c.,
to be read in the Convention every morning. Doctor FRANKLIN
seconded this motion. After several unsuccessful
attempts for silently postponing this matter by
adjourning, the adjournment was at length carried,
without any vote on the motion.
Separationists would have us believe that a motion for
officially-endorsed public prayer is inappropriate. Hamilton and
others said it was "proper" but at this late date
might suggest disunity. Franklin and Sherman said it was not only "proper," but a duty.
Alas, all present were bound by archaic and sub-Christian
notions concerning the requirement of ordained clergy for public
prayer, and the Convention had no funds to hire a clergy. This
is a bumbling tragedy, but the "separation of church and
state" had nothing to do with it. There is no evidence of a
self-conscious legal mandate to avoid endorsement of religion.
To accommodate the proposal of delegate Edmund Jennings
Randolph of Virginia, on Monday, July 2, the Convention
adjourned until Thursday, July 5, so that, as James Madison
explained, "time might be given ... to such as chose to
attend to the celebrations on the anniversary of
independence." On July 4, many delegates attended that
special service. For example, George Washington noted in his
[W]ent to hear [at the Calvinist Church] an oration on the
anniversary of independence.
After the oration (delivered by a young law student), the
Rev. William Rogers, minister of the Calvinist Church, concluded
with this prayer:
[W]e fervently recommend to thy fatherly notice . . . our
federal convention... . [F] avor them, from day to day, with
thy inspiring presence; be their wisdom and strength; enable
them to devise such measures as may prove happy instruments in
healing all divisions and prove the good of the great
whole;... that the United States of America may form one
example of a free and virtuous government... May we...
continue, under the influence of republican virtue, to partake
of all the blessings of cultivated and Christian society.
However, not only did religious activities accompany the
drafting of the federal Constitution, they also accompanied its
ratification. This was evident throughout the various State
conventions which gathered to approve that document. For
example, consider the proceedings in MASSACHUSETTS:
Voted, That a committee of five be appointed to wait
upon his Excellency, John Hancock, and acquaint him that this
Convention have made choice of him for their president, and to
request his Excellency's acceptance of that appointment.
On motion of the Hon. Mr. Adams, Voted, That the
Convention will attend morning prayers, daily, and that the
gentlemen of the clergy, of every denomination, be requested
to officiate in turn.
The members from Boston were appointed to wait upon them, and
acquaint them thereof.
A vote of the church in Brattle Street, in Boston, offering
the use of their meeting-house to the Convention, being
communicated by the Hon. Mr. Bowdoin, Voted, That a
committee of nine be appointed, to view the accommodations of
the said meeting-house, and report.
Mr. Sedgwick, Mr. Lincoln, Dr. Taylor, Gen. Brooks of Lincoln,
Dr. Jarvis, Dr. Holton, Mr. Strong, Mr. Nason, and Mr.
Thatcher, were then appointed on said committee.
Motions for daily prayer and the meeting of the state
ratifying convention in a church (where many of the most
significant events of the Revolution [such as the planning of
the Boston Tea-Party] had occurred) were not attended by any
debates about "separation of church and state" or any
threatened lawsuits by the ACLU. Similarly in NORTH
CAROLINA, the record of the ratification debates
At a Convention, begun and held at Hillsborough, the 21st
day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven
hundred and eighty-eight, and of the Independence of America
the 13th, in pursuance of a resolution of the last General
Assembly, for the purpose of deliberating and determining on
the proposed Plan of Federal Government,—
A majority of those who were duly elected as members of this
Convention being met at the church, they proceeded to the
election of a president, when his excellency, Samuel Johnston,
Esq., was unanimously chosen, and conducted to the chair
In NEW YORK:
The Convention, having accordingly assembled on the 17th of
June, unanimously elected his excellency, GEORGE
CLINTON, president. After appointing the proper
subordinate officers, and having ordered that the doors should
be kept open, and the business of the Convention opened every
morning with prayer, Mr. Duane, Mr. Jones, Mr. R. Morris, Mr.
Lansing, and Mr. Harris, were chosen a committee to report
rules for conducting the business.
On the recommendation of Mr. Paul Carrington, the Rev.
Abner Waugh was unanimously elected chaplain, to attend every
morning to read prayers immediately after the bell shall be
rung for calling the Convention.
Clearly, the proceedings of both the Constitutional
Convention and the ratification conventions provide further
evidence that the Framers not only supported, but even
participated in both public religious activities and public
endorsements of religion.
Appeal for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention -- an
analysis of Benjamin Franklin's appeal to have the clergy offer
prayer at the convention of 1787.
Notes adapted from David Barton, Original
Intent, pp. 110ff.
148. James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, Henry
D. Gilpin, editor (Washington: Langtree and O'Sullivan, 1840),
Vol. II, PP. 1023-1024, July 4, 1787.
149. George Washington, The Diaries of George Washington,
John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.,
1925), Vol. III, p. 226, July 4, 1787.
150. Morris, pp.253-254.
151. Washington, Writings (1932), Vol. XXX, p. 321 n.,
May 10, 1789.
152. The Debates in the Several Conventions, on the
Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Jonathan Elliot,
editor (Washington: Printed for the Editor, 1836), Vol. II, p.
2, Massachusetts Convention, January 9, 1788.
153. Elliot, Debates, Vol. IV, p.1, North Carolina
Convention, July 21, 1788. See also Vol. II, p. 2, Massachusetts
Convention, January 9, 1788.
154. Elliot, Debates, Vol. II, p. 207, New York
Convention, June 17, 1788.
155. Elliot, Debates, Vol. III, p.1, Virginia
Convention, June 2, 1788.
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