In his new book, Eric Metaxas features the June 28, 1787 motion for daily prayer made by Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention. Earlier today, he tweeted out this message with a link to an excerpt of his book, If You Can Keep It.
Based on the way Metaxas tells the story, I can’t tell if he knows that the Constitution Convention didn’t follow through on Ben Franklin’s exhortation to pray to God. The way he tells the story, it appears that he wants people to believe the delegates went along with Franklin’s motion and then everything went well. In fact, after Franklin chided the delegates for not praying, a motion was made to start daily prayers. However, the meeting was adjourned without a vote being taken. In other words, nothing happened on Franklin’s exhortation.
Here is how Metaxas portrays it.
Drawing up the U.S. Constitution was a massive and unprecedented work of political prudence, and by all accounts, their efforts in that room were failing dramatically.
In fact, there came a day when most of the Founders present believed they had in fact failed — that their meeting must break up without any agreement, and the country would be forced to limp along as it was already doing, until it tore itself apart.
But it was just then, when the disagreements and arguments had mounted to an impossible height, that the eldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin, surprised the room. The man history often remembers — along with Jefferson — as among the more secular of the Founders actually gave a speech to the assembly in which he implored them to turn to God. The fact that Franklin should be the one to beseech the assembly to turn to God in prayer for an answer to their problems is evidence of their desperation, and for those of us who have forgotten how seriously all the Founders took God, it is startling. Here is his remarkable speech:
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 and 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 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 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?
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 by- 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 the City be requested to officiate in that service.
As we have known for over two centuries, their prayers were answered. All impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found. There arose what all felt to be a truly remarkable — almost odd — willingness for each side to set aside its concerns for the good of the whole. The spirit of selflessness and compromise that came over this body of opinionated, brilliant, and principled men was in the end sufficient for them to ratify the great document called the Constitution.
The problem with Metaxas’ narrative is that no formal prayers were offered. He makes it seem like the Convention acted favorably on Franklin’s motion which led to “compromises on all issues struck.” Not so. James Madison recorded what happened next.
Mr. SHARMAN seconded the motion.
Mr. 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, 1.64 bring on it some disagreeable animadversions. & 2.65 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 66 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence; & thenceforward prayers be used 67 in yr Convention every morning. Dr. FRANKn. 2nd this motion. After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the 68matter by adjourn; the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.
[Note 15: 15 In the Franklin MS. the following note is added:–“The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”
In short order, two motions hit the floor. Franklin moved for daily prayers with a second by Roger Sherman. Then Edmund Randolph suggested a sermon followed by prayers. Franklin seconded that motion. Neither motion was voted on and the Convention adjourned. In fact, Franklin later noted that “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.” I am sure many of the founders took God seriously, but this story isn’t a good one to offer as evidence.
If the Convention delegates thought prayers unnecessary, then what is Metaxas referring to?
Furthermore, the Convention didn’t come back after the July 4th recess all prayed up and ready to compromise. On July 10, George Washington wrote Alexander Hamilton (who left the convention after the recess) and said:
I thank you for your Communication of the 3d. When I refer you to the State of the Councils which prevailed at the period you left this City—and add, that they are now, if possible, in a worse train than ever; you will find but little ground on which the hope of a good establishment, can be formed. In a word, I almost dispair of seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.
The disputations continued even after Franklin’s motion. It was not until mid-July, with the threat of dissolution hanging over their heads, that the delegates reached a compromise. Even then, four delegates left the convention in protest (John Mercer, Caleb Strong, John Lansing, Luther Marton) and three delegates didn’t sign the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights (George Mason, Edmund Randolph, Elbridge Gerry). In the end, only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the document. The more parsimonious explanation for the consensus is that those with strong disagreement left the Convention.*
The quotes from Washington and Madison Metaxas used in his book about the miracle of the Constitution were written after the end of the Convention and did not reference Franklin’s call to prayer.
If the events were taught accurately, would Eric Metaxas really want this taught in school? It certainly doesn’t support the Christian foundation narrative Metaxas develops in his book.
Clearly, Metaxas wants us to believe that God was involved in the Constitution. If you believe in providence, you believe God is involved with every government (read Augustine). However, in his book, Metaxas flirts with the idea that America has a special relationship with God, in the sense of being a chosen people like Israel was chosen. Metaxas quotes Abraham Lincoln calling Americans “an almost chosen people” and then later puts words in Lincoln’s mouth:
He [Lincoln] understood that to be chosen by God— as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God— was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation. Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (p. 213). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
America is chosen like the Messiah? I’m not a theologian but that sounds like a problem to me (see Wheaton College historian Tracy McKenzie’s thoughts on this topic). Again about Lincoln from the Stream excerpt of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas writes
Why is it too much for us to suppose — as Franklin, Washington, Adams, and so many others did — that the finger of the Almighty might indeed have been involved? This was an idea that did not die with the founders but lived and was kindled afresh by Abraham Lincoln, who faced obstacles every bit as difficult as what the founders faced, and who came to the same conclusions about how they must be surmounted.
And it is an idea that must not die with this generation. May God help us to keep it alive, not just for our sake, but for the sake of all those beyond our shores who hope to taste the freedoms we enjoy, and for all those yet to be born, too.
May God help us not to perpetuate myths and instead tell the whole story.**
UPDATE: After I posted this article, an editor at the Stream added a sentence disclosing that no action was taken on Franklin’s motion.
While I am glad the editor provided this fact, I believe doing so raises questions that are not answered here. Metaxas used the story to draw a straight line of causation from Franklin’s call to prayer to the harmonious completion of the Constitution. With the revelation that the Convention delegates didn’t believe prayer was necessary, the whole narrative is thrown into question. Why even talk about Franklin’s speech since what he called for didn’t happen?
For more historical problems in Metaxas’ book, If You Can Keep It, see here, here, here, and here.
*Others left for business or personal reasons but may have also disagreed with one aspect or another of the Constitution.
**I added an additional quote from the book to demonstrate what is apparent to anyone who reads it that Metaxas uses his citations of Lincoln and the founders to support his view that America is on a mission from God.