Benjamin Franklin Requests Prayer in the Constitutional Convention
June 28, 1787
Mr. President [to George Washington]
The small progress we have made after 4 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 ays, 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 round 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 lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the 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 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. 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 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 Service-
Mr. [Roger] SHERMAN seconded the motion.
Mr. [Alexander] HAMILTON & 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, I bring on it some disagreeable animadversions. & lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention, had suggested this measure. It was answered by Docr. F. Mr. SHERMAN & 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.
Mr. WILLIAMSON, observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.
Mr. RANDOLPH proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye. measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence; & thenceforward prayers be used in ye. Convention every morning. Dr. FRANKn. 2ded. this motion After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourng. the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.
Though your -reply — seems somewhat out of place in todays post (for Aug.21) it is an important commentary —one I consider several times each year. I am in debt to Wm. J.Federer fro his America’s God and Country for coloring in those parts of the tapestry I found lacking in my public school memory(perhaps I was leaning against the wall) I relate it to what I intended to reply today in that the Convention did discuss the efficacy of Constitutional recognition of power of Congress in the area of settling debt. ... but seemed to ignore the same Constitutional consideration with regard to Chaplains—and prayer.... an
area or lack noted by both sides. My point being Congress does what it will -and our written Constitution a thing of wax in the hands of men of zeal /small comfort it is when the written contract/law is not reflected in the actions of those chosen to govern.Nevertheless we are assured Sir, in the sacred writings that ,’Except the Lord build the house,they labor in vain 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.” Dr.Franklin cited the authority of Scripture no less than a half dozen times in accepted literary form in this single address. Not bad for one known as a Deist.And I note no political complaint from his fellow Delegates over any purported abuse of the Soviet Communist doctrine separation of church and State.T’anks.