The Soul of Republicanism
Review: Daniel Dreisbach, 'Reading the Bible With the Founding Fathers'
by Daniel Wiser
In the summer of 1787, the nascent American experiment reached a point of crisis. Meeting inside Independence Hall amid the stifling Philadelphia heat, delegates to the Constitutional Convention could not agree on a scheme of representation for a new national government, among other contentious issues. "The fate of America," recalled Gouverneur Morris, a New York delegate, "was suspended by a hair."
Benjamin Franklin, then 81, sat quietly during most of the convention. But when the elder statesman spoke out, he commanded the room's attention. It was at this point of crisis, on June 28, that Franklin addressed George Washington in the speaker's chair and the rest of the delegates, calling for daily prayers at the convention and appeals for divine aid. The stalemate in negotiations provided "a melancholy Proof of the Imperfection of the Human Understanding," Franklin observed, and he wondered why the delegates had not "thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?":
In the Beginning of the Contest with Britain, when we were sensible of Danger, we had daily Prayers in this Room for the Divine Protection. Our Prayers, Sir, were heard;—and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engag'd in the Struggle, must have observed frequent Instances of a superintending Providence in our Favour. 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 its 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.Franklin's speech, replete with historical and biblical references ("GOD governs in the Affairs of Men" echoes Daniel 4:17—"the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men"), did not succeed. His motion for prayers failed due to practical considerations. There was no money to pay a chaplain; the delegates feared that reports of prayers could raise alarm among the public about the fractious deliberations; prayers could also provoke dissension among convention members of different religious sects. Washington and the delegates did, however, attend a church service in Philadelphia on July 4, where they prayed for divine favor and heard a patriotic sermon from a Baptist minister.
The exact nature of Franklin's faith remains unclear. Many of his writings suggest that, contrary to his speech at the convention, he held the deistic belief in a non-interventionist Creator and did not consider the Bible to be the revealed word of God. But he understood that the Bible contained eternal truths about human nature and that appeals to a Supreme Being could inspire humility, gratitude, and a commitment to transcending "little, partial, local Interests" for the common good.
Franklin's mastery of the Bible was not unique among the Founding Fathers.