On June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin, a leader of the America Enlightenment, as well as a successful businessman, scientist and diplomat, made a most remarkable speech to the assembled delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Franklin called for prayer. He urged that the delegates humbly call “to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings.”
The men who had gathered in Philadelphia to craft a constitution for a young republic that had recently won its independence from Great Britain found themselves mired in controversy, unable to find solutions to intractable debates between large states and small states, between slave states and free states, and between those who called for a bill of individual rights and those who opposed one.
Franklin, the oldest of the 55 men who served at the convention, 81 years-old and so infirmed that he had to be carried to the gatherings in a sedan chair, pointed to his years of service to the emerging nation and his advancing age. “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of the truth that God governs in the affairs of men.”
These were surprising words from someone we have all been taught was an American deist, a believer in a distant Creator who remains apart from his creation, unwilling or uninterested in intervening in the life of humanity.
Yet perhaps Franklin’s speech to the convention is surprising only because we have been provided with a sense of Franklin that does not capture the nuance of the man. If so, we may be missing the message he can share with us in our own time of division and intractable debate.
To label Franklin a secularist, or even a deist, is to miss his Christianity. Franklin’s Christianity was one without specific doctrine. He was an avid reader of the Bible who quoted passages at will from memory in his speeches.
Franklin told the convention delegates that without God’s aid they would “succeed in their political building no better than the builders of Babel.” He had moved away from the strict Puritan faith of his upbringing to a Christian morality, a life lived according to the Bible’s precepts and his faith, which included a belief in the power of prayer and the adherence to a code of personal responsibility, hard work and a deep concern for the welfare of others.
Franklin had no doubt that daily prayer had helped in the contest with Britain. “Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.”
The picture does not fit with the Franklin we thought we knew. Yet it is this very real Franklin who has so much to say to us now.
When Franklin made his motion for daily prayer, it was seconded by Connecticut’s Roger Sherman but it was never given a vote. At the bottom of his speech, scribbled in his aging hand, Franklin wrote “The Convention except for three or four persons thought prayers unnecessary!”
As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth and our redemption, it is time to rethink Franklin’s call for prayer. As issues besiege us and lead to a rending of our body politic, it is time to remember “our powerful friend” and not “imagine that we no longer need assistance.”