Was the Constitution's Political Vision Formed by the Bible?

a570af34_optIn the July 3 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, American University historian Daniel Dreisbach said the Constitution’s political vision was in part formed by the Bible. Dreisbach wrote that “The Constitution gives evidence of a political vision informed, in part, by the Bible, and it includes features that were familiar to a Bible-reading people.” He added that “the founders’ devotion to the separation of powers and checks and balances reflected a biblical understanding of original sin and a reluctance to vest unchecked government power in the hands of fallen human beings.”
If the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had Bible doctrine in mind when they framed the Constitution, they had a strange way of showing it.  I am in the middle of a summer long project to read James Madison’s daily notes on the debates during the Convention and I am not finding evidence of the Bible’s influence. The Convention got underway in earnest in late May of 1787 and proceeded six days a week until mid-September. Thus far, the delegates rejected a direct call to prayer made by Benjamin Franklin and rarely referred to religion in their remarks.
When Ben Franklin implored the delegates to seek the assistance of heaven, the delegates adjourned without voting on Franklin’s motion. Franklin later invoked the Scripture in a debate over qualifications for the presidency. In his Inquirer article, Dreisbach said “the delegates occasionally invoked the Bible in surprising and interesting ways.” Based on my reading, I think it would be more accurate to say the delegates rarely invoked the Bible.
Franklin’s reference to the Bible was supplemented by another persuasive appeal. Franklin’s comments were in response to a motion by Charles Pinkney to require “that the President of the U. S. the Judges, and members of the Legislature should be required to swear that they were respectively possessed of a cleared unincumbered Estate to the amount of —– in the case of the President &c &c.” Pinkney wanted to limit these offices to land owners with an undetermined level of wealth. First, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth spoke against the motion followed by Franklin.

Mr. ELSEWORTH [Oliver Ellsworth]. The different circumstances of different parts of the U. S. and the probable difference between the present and future circumstances of the whole, render it improper to have either uniform or fixed qualifications. Make them so high as to be useful in the S. States, and they will be inapplicable to the E. States. Suit them to the latter, and they will serve no purpose in the former. In like manner what may be accomodated to the existing State of things among us, may be very inconvenient in some future state of them. He thought for these reasons that it was better to leave this matter to the Legislative discretion than to attempt a provision for it in the Constitution.
Doctr. FRANKLIN expressed his dislike of every thing that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. If honesty was often the companion of wealth, and if poverty was exposed to peculiar temptation, it was not less true that the possession of property increased the desire of more property. Some of the greatest rogues he was ever acquainted with, were the richest rogues. We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers, that they should be men hating covetousness. This Constitution will be much read and attended to in Europe, and if it should betray a great partiality to the rich, will not only hurt us in the esteem of the most liberal and enlightened men there, but discourage the common people from removing into this Country.

Franklin’s use of Scripture was one aspect of his argument but he wanted to discourage a perception of partiality to the rich for other reasons. Specifically, Franklin thought Pinkney’s proposal would lower the reputation of the new nation among the enlightened as well as discourage immigration of common folk.
As I read the debates, religious references were used sparingly and as supplements to historical and political arguments. The delegates frequently refer to Greece and Rome, European governments, and Britain. Sometimes they explicitly refer to Montesquieu, whereas they frequently invoke his The Spirit of Laws without mentioning a direct source.
Having addressed Dreisbach’s overreach, I want to add that he is surely correct that the Christianity of the founders was one part of the mix of influences. For instance, Dreisbach is on more solid ground when he writes:

The founding generation drew on and synthesized diverse intellectual traditions in forming their political thought. Among them were British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.
To this list of intellectual influences, one must add the Bible…

On the whole, however, I think Dreisbach skews his evidence to create an incomplete and ultimately inaccurate narrative. He says the Bible was the most frequently cited source over Locke and Montesquieu but doesn’t mention that a large number of these citations were in sermons from pastors and not by the founders. He doesn’t balance his presentation by noting that the federalists did not mention the Bible in their defense of the Constitution (the anti-federalists did reference the Bible, but they didn’t prevail). Dreisbach notes that the 1774 Continental Congress opened with prayer and Bible reading but failed to disclose that Ben Franklin’s  call for the Constitutional Convention to do the same thing was rejected by a sizable majority of delegates. Then, as explained above, Dreisbach invoked Franklin’s reference to Scripture in isolation without including the context of his other remarks and the rarity of their occurrence. Finally, during the Constitutional Convention, when separation of powers was brought up, the source of influence was more often Montesquieu than theology.
Some may object to my critique of a distinguished American historian. However, I say read the debates of the Constitutional Convention before you dismiss my response.  On the whole, I can’t find sufficient evidence that the Constitution’s political vision had much to do with the Bible. I realize that religion was very important at various points in the American experience and many of the founders expressed thanks to God. Some of the founders wanted the new republic to privilege religion and particularly Christianity. To me, the real miracle is that the consensus of the framers was to eliminate religious tests and to include language in the First Amendment enshrining freedom of conscience for all, even those who hold no religion.

Despite Erroneous Material, Family Research Council Features David Barton at Event for Pastors

Once upon a time, Family Research Council promoted a video which featured a tour of the U.S. Capitol led by self-styled historian David Barton (see the original here). This Capitol tour video was filled with historical errors. Four years ago, 33 Christian historians and social scientists detailed those errors to FRC in a letter:

April 23, 2013
Dear Tony Perkins, Kenyn Cureton, & J.P. Duffy:
Knowing of your desire to offer truthful and accurate information to the public, we the undersigned Christian historians and social scientists request that you remove the video titled “U.S. Capitol Tour with David Barton” at this URL (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlfEdJNn15E) from YouTube.
There are many factual errors on this video which we detail in the attached summary. Given that the video has been viewed over 4 million times, it seems that the errors have been compounded among Christians who trust FRC for accurate information. Furthermore, it is apparent that pastors who go on the tour are learning false and misleading information.
We can provide complete documentation for everything we present here. Given that these claims are highlighted in the video but easily disproved, we believe these errors are enough to warrant the removal of the video with appropriate explanation.
We would be happy to discuss this matter further and hope that we can count on you to represent historical facts accurately.

Since the video was actually posted to the account of FRC VP Kenyn Cureton, he replied by saying Barton had agreed to correct the errors with new content. While this was not ideal, we waited to see what would happen.
In May 2013, after a follow up request from the historians to remove the video, Rev. Cureton made the video private thus removing it from public view. He told our spokesman Michael Coulter that FRC decided to make the video private so that no one could see “the erroneous material.” However, FRC declined to inform the public or provide an explanation for the removal. Eventually, Barton posted an altered version on his YouTube account without comment. I say altered and not corrected because the video was only a partial correction, the video still contains factual errors. The alteration was done in such a way as to make it seem like the video was never changed.
In summary, FRC acknowledged that David Barton was aware of his historical fiction and tried to alter the video without public acknowledgement of the errors and effort at correction. FRC leaders were aware of the many errors and did not alert their constituents to the false information.

Family Research Council Has Invited David Barton to Do It Again

Despite this history, FRC will again feature Barton as a Capitol tour leader and speaker at their Watchmen on the Wall event in May.

WotW 2017
From FRC website

If anything, the situation has worsened since 2013. Since then, David Barton has falsely claimed to have an earned PhD, only to go silent about the claim when it was revealed that the degree in question came from diploma mill Life Christian University. Barton never attended the school and was simply given the degree in the way an honorary degree is given. In academia, falsely claiming an earned doctorate is considered fraud. When I asked FRC’s Cureton if he was aware of this fraudulent claim, he referred me to media relations. I have heard nothing back from that department.
In the Capitol tour video, pastors who attended the event commented on what they had heard. I will never forget a pastor who looked into the camera and said he was angry because: “We’ve been lied to.” Watch:

Sadly, that pastor was right. He had been lied to. What he didn’t know is that the falsehoods were coming from his hosts and their featured speaker. That pastor might still think Congress printed the first English Bible in America for the use of schools. He might still think 29 out of 56 signers of the Declaration had Bible school degrees or that Thomas Jefferson ordered the marine band to play for worship services in the Capitol. If ever he learns the truth, I wonder if he will be even more angry at those who misled him. FRC should think about this before they host more historical fiction for a new group of pastors.
 
 

The Franklin Prayer Myth that Refuses to Die: The Liberty Counsel Edition

photo-1469081790383-8a72f16ecb98_optI have come to believe that some historical myths will never die.
In this Liberty Counsel edition, Mat Staver and Matt Barber reinforce their mutual misunderstanding of this story, making the delegates to the Constitutional Convention prayer warriors. As I have documented previously, Franklin proposed daily prayers but the Convention delegates did not vote favorably on his motion. In fact, daily prayers were not thought necessary by most of the delegates.
Staver and Barber began by celebrating a recent federal appeals court decision allowing a Texas school board to open in student-led prayer. Then at 3:43, a female speaker said:

You know America was founded on prayer and prayer has been a common practice since the very beginning and I guess yo know Mat it reinforces what we do at Liberty Counsel to stand for these rights and stand for that privilege of prayer.
Mat Staver: Prayer, like I said, predated the First Amendment. How did it begin in our country as it results in these kind of meetings? It began with Benjamin Franklin during the early Constitutional Conventions. During those Constitutional Conventions where they were debating after the revolution what to do, what kind of form of government are we going to have. We had one view, we had another view, different states had, you know, the Virginia proposal, or this proposal or that proposal and they had as many opinions yes as they did no, so it started to fall apart. At that point in time, Franklin stood up and he has this famous speech where he talks about, ‘unless God builds the house, we’re not going to be any better off than the builders at Babel and that God governs in the affairs of men and have we now forgotten our most powerful friend or do we think we no longer need him. And he implored everyone from that point on to every time they deliberate, to begin their deliberations with prayer. They did. They had a long prayer, not just a short little 60 second, two minute prayer, but a long prayer meeting that was a turning point that ultimately brought America’s founding together and ultimately the United States Constitution and later the Bill of Rights which is the First Amendment and that’s why the Supreme Court said prayer’s been with us since the very beginning, the foundation of who we are. It cannot be unconstitutional, it was people who started prayer who later drafted the First Amendment and then continued to pray.

Matt Barber then quoted Franklin’s speech at the Convention. He then asked Staver, “How long did they pray Mat?” Staver said, “It took up several hours. It wasn’t just a little prayer, bless this meal and walk away.” Barber then said what happened doesn’t fit the narrative of the left.
What Really Happened?
In fact, what happened doesn’t fit Mat Staver’s narrative. Franklin did in fact make a motion asking for prayers before meetings, but his motion was never voted on. The Convention adjourned without any prayers. Only a few delegates wanted to vote in favor of Franklin’s motion. To address the facts, I am going to reproduce a portion of a prior post on this subject. In essence, Staver and Barber are calling James Madison a liar.
Madison recorded what happened next.

Mr. SHERMAN 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.”] (emphasis added)

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.” While I am sure at least some of the founders took God seriously, this story isn’t a good one to offer as evidence.
Staver and Barber also push the idea that the prayers turned the Convention toward compromise.
Well, first there were no prayer meetings so that is a problem for that narrative.
Second, 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.
Prayers before government meetings is a tradition and may continue to survive court challenges. However, the Franklin prayer myth isn’t necessary to defend such prayers. Staver and Barber should correct the record with their listeners so that error isn’t multiplied.
 
See also this post on Franklin’s prayer proposal.
 
 

Some Myths Refuse to Die: AFA and Ben Franklin's Prayer Request at the Constitutional Convention

The myth of a prayer meeting at the Constitutional Convention just refuses to die.
Earlier this week, the American Family Association’s Reason and Company show opined favorably on Melania Trump’s reading of the Lord’s Prayer. In the process, Abraham Hamilton III said starting at 40 seconds in that Franklin’s effort “led to a three day prayer meeting at the Constitutional Convention.” He added, “So we have a long history of recognizing the God of the Bible in our country.” Watch
[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/205085355[/vimeo]
No. Franklin made a motion to have daily prayers but the Convention never acted on it and daily prayers were not held. In fact, Franklin later recorded that only three or four delegates thought prayers were needed. Even if Franklin’s request had been acted on favorably, it doesn’t follow that the delegates all prayed to the God of the Bible. Among the delegates, there was significant disagreement about God and the Bible. Some hardly believed, some scoffed at the Bible’s miracles while accepting the moral teachings of Jesus and still others were more orthodox.
For a detailed account of the Franklin proposal and how it grew to be an oft-repeated myth, see this article by Louis Sirico on the website of the Association of Legal Writing Directors. The last paragraph of his article is a fitting end to this post:

With respect to Franklin’s proposal, advocates have invoked it both as a solvent for specific disputes and as support for a general accommodationist policy. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the incompleteness of the historical record led many to accept the false history that Franklin had rescued the Constitutional Convention from collapse. Since then, although some writers have clung to that story, legitimate historians have endorsed an accurate story that most respected advocates have accepted and used to fashion their arguments. True history, then, has prevailed over false history. But false history continues to linger. In any event, the Franklin proposal demonstrates how history can prove a powerful force in effective advocacy. Whether accurate or mystical, stories of the past will continue to shape the present and the future.

In the case of the AFA and many religious right organization who use David Barton’s history, “false history continues to linger.”

 

Open Letter to the Bartons from a Christian Historian

Writing at the Pietist Schoolman blog, Grace College history professor Jared Burkholder penned an open letter to Tim and David Barton in response to the Bartons’ claim that Christian historians don’t rely on primary sources (see these links for more on the Bartons’ claim). The letter begins:

Dear David (and now Tim) Barton,
Maybe you can clarify something for me. Why do you continue to insist that because you read primary sources you have a unique voice when compared to professional Christian historians like me, who you say fail to make use of original sources?
I am hardly the first to be annoyed by this, but suffice it to say this is utterly incomprehensible to me. Primary sources are to historians what hammers are to carpenters; what keyboards are to composers; what language is to writers. They are the tools of our trade, the most basic implements we learn to use.

Go read the entire letter, it is a hammer. Burkholder concludes:

Whatever the reason, stop lying. Stop using this absurd line that citing primary sources and original documents somehow means you are unique or magically makes you an authority. We all use original documents. It is so routine that it’s difficult to believe this requires being said at all. It is literally what we do for a living.

Jared’s letter is important business. Barton’s work has been used by Eric Metaxas and is reportedly consulted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Not only is he reaching millions with false stories, he trashes legitimate historical work done by actual historians, including many Christians. His defamation of academic historians has caused widespread confusion (read the comments) about who people can trust to tell them the truth about American history.

Eric Metaxas Blows Off Historical Errors in His New Book

With Ann Coulter on his Monday radio show, Eric Metaxas seemed stunned that historians would critique his new book, If You Can Keep It. Coulter warned people that her new book would likely contain errors and Metaxas jumped off of that comment to complain that people have written essays about the errors in his book. Listen:

He acknowledges that he got religious liberty in the colonial period wrong but implies he could change a sentence around to make it accurate. He glosses over his error by implying he only got it wrong in one sentence (not so, see this post). He also claims he is correct in his interpretation of John Winthrop’s “City of a Hill” speech. I think historians John Fea and Tracy McKenzie would enjoy hearing his defense.
Without naming him, Metaxas mentioned Fea’s six-part series critiquing the book. He seems amazed that his errors deserve scrutiny.
I am amazed that he is amazed.
The sorry state of books by Christian celebrities is illustrated by this exchange. Coulter and her publisher are going into print without sufficient fact-checking. Metaxas jumps right in and seems bewildered that Christian readers would expect that a book using history to make a case should be historically accurate.
Metaxas is happy to take the adulation of his readers who don’t know any better, but he is dismissive of those who point out reasonable critiques. On twitter, he has blocked me and several others who have brought these things to his attention. From this response, it seems to me that he doesn’t care that thousands of readers will need to unlearn the factual errors they have trusted in his book.
For more on the controversy surrounding Metaxas’ new book, see the following sources:
John Fea’s series
Tracy McKensie’s blog
Gregg Frazer’s review
My article in the Daily Caller
My blog posts addressing the errors

Eric Metaxas Says His History of Religious Liberty Has Been Misrepresented

Responding to Rachel Held Evans on Twitter, Eric Metaxas claimed his position on religious liberty during colonial times has been misrepresented.


I’d like to know how his position has been misrepresented. Please, Mr. Metaxas enlighten us with passages from your book.  John Fea from Messiah College, Tracy McKenzie from Wheaton College and Greg Frazer from The Master’s College all represented you via passages from your book. Here are the passages we relied on.

For another, because of the religious disparity among them they had a deep and abiding respect for religious freedom and were well practiced in living with those who held different beliefs from their own.  (p. 10)
The founders, however, had quite another idea, based on their experience in the colonies over the decades before, where the idea of total religious freedom was paramount. They had already experienced this religious freedom as part of life in the American colonies. The very first settlers on American shores had left their lives behind precisely for this freedom. So the founders had observed something entirely different in America, something that had successfully operated for nearly a century: a complete tolerance of all denominations and religions, such that the people were not coerced to believe but could believe and worship precisely as they wished. (pp. 34-35)
Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life. This was the genius at the heart of it all. But tragically this linchpin of American liberty has been more misunderstood in recent years than at any time in our existence. (p. 70)
So 124 years before the Constitution and 139 years before Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, an American document was establishing this idea of religious liberty as sacrosanct, so to speak, as a central component of American freedom. (p. 72)
One of the main reasons the United States came into being was because people had left Europe, where this ‘establishment’ of religion was going on all the time and was manifestly monstrous and destructive to individual freedom. People’s lives were ruined if they didn’t choose the ‘right’ religion. The founders knew that the country they were hoping to live in must be nothing like that. Everyone must be free to decide what religion he would choose— and the government would not choose any religion. It would be impartial toward all of them. Indeed, because America was the place to which so many who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs in Europe repaired, it became a place where many Christian denominations lived cheek by jowl. The main thing was not that one belong to the right church but that all churches live in a way that upheld the common good. Simply put, the differences among the denominations were practically less important than their similarities. (pp.74-75)
Metaxas, Eric (2016-06-14). If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When Metaxas spoke about Roger Williams, he did not include the fact that Williams was booted out of the Massachusetts colony due to Williams’ religious preaching. Yes, an American document established religious freedom, but Metaxas fails to explain that Williams had to run from the very people Metaxas claims championed religious freedom.
 

A Critical Review of Eric Metaxas' Book If You Can Keep It

The Daily Caller posted my review of the book. Regular readers will see that I draw on my prior work for much of it. In any case, go over and check it out.
Daily Caller…
I conclude:

Although the frequency of errors does not match David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies which was withdrawn from publication by Thomas Nelson in 2012, I can’t recommend the book and believe Metaxas and the publisher should publicly address the problems identified here and by other reviewers such as evangelical history professors John FeaTracy McKenzie, and Greg Frazer.

Eric Metaxas, You Know the Constitutional Convention Didn't Have Daily Prayers, Right?

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:

Mr. President,

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 ItMetaxas 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.
Metaxas franklin article paragraph
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.

On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Died – Happy Independence Day!

With slight editing, this post is reprinted from prior posts on Independence Day. Last year it was the culmination of my Daily Jefferson series.
Happy Independence Day!
john adamsIn addition to being Independence Day, this is the day that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826.

On this day in 1826, former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were once fellow Patriots and then adversaries, die on the same day within five hours of each other.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were friends who together served on the committee that constructed the Declaration of Independence, but later became political rivals during the 1800 election. Jefferson felt Adams had made serious blunders during his term and Jefferson ran against Adams in a bitter campaign. As a consequence, the two patriots and former friends had fallen out of touch. Mutual friend and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush wanted to encourage them to reconcile. Rush was on good terms with both Adams and Jefferson and after the end of Jefferson’s second term, endeavored to help them bridge the distance. In his letter to Adams on October 17, 1809, Rush used the device of a dream to express his wish for Adams and Jefferson to resume communications. This letter is part of a remarkable sequence of letters which can be read here. In this portion, Rush suggests his “dream” of a Jefferson-Adams reunion to Adams.

“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.
“1809. Among the most extraordinary events of this year was the renewal of the friendship and intercourse between Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, the two ex-Presidents of the United States. They met for the first time in the Congress of 1775. Their principles of liberty, their ardent attachment to their country, and their views of the importance and probable issue of the struggle with Great Britain in which they were engaged being exactly the same, they were strongly attracted to each other and became personal as well as political friends.  They met in England during the war while each of them held commissions of honor and trust at two of the first courts of Europe, and spent many happy hours together in reviewing the difficulties and success of their respective negotiations.  A difference of opinion upon the objects and issue of the French Revolution separated them during the years in which that great event interested and divided the American people. The predominance of the party which favored the French cause threw Mr. Adams out of the Chair of the United States in the year 1800 and placed Mr. Jefferson there in his stead. The former retired with resignation and dignity to his seat at Quincy, where he spent the evening of his life in literary and philosophical pursuits, surrounded by an amiable family and a few old and affectionate friends. The latter resigned the Chair of the United States in the year 1808, sick of the cares and disgusted with the intrigues of public life, and retired to his seat at Monticello, in Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his days in the cultivation of a large farm agreeably to the new system of husbandry. In the month of November 1809, Mr. Adams addressed a short letter to his friend Mr. Jefferson in which he congratulated him upon his escape to the shades of retirement and domestic happiness, and concluded it with assurances of his regard and good wishes for his welfare. This letter did great honor to Mr. Adams. It discovered a magnanimity known only to great minds. Mr. Jefferson replied to this letter and reciprocated expressions of regard and esteem. These letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country. Many precious aphorisms, the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection, it is said, are contained in these letters. It is to be hoped the world will be favored with a sight of them. These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country (for they outlived the heterogeneous parties that were opposed to them), and to their numerous merits and honors posterity has added that they were rival friends.
With affectionate regard to your fireside, in which all my family join, I am, dear sir, your sincere old friend,
BENJN: RUSH

I don’t think Rush had an actual dream. He may have used the dream narrative as a clever device to prod his friend into reconciliation with Jefferson. On more than one prior occasion, Rush communicated his views to Adams via writing about them as dreams. For instance,  Rush responded to a political question from Adams in a February 20, 1809 letter via a dream narrative.  Adams responded on March 4, 1809 (the same day Jefferson’s second term ended) praising Rush’s wit and asked for a dream about Jefferson:

Rush,—If I could dream as much wit as you, I think I should wish to go to sleep for the rest of my Life, retaining however one of Swifts Flappers to awake me once in 24 hours to dinner, for you know without a dinner one can neither dream nor sleep. Your Dreams descend from Jove, according to Homer.
Though I enjoy your sleeping wit and acknowledge your unequalled Ingenuity in your dreams, I can not agree to your Moral. I will not yet allow that the Cause of “Wisdom, Justice, order and stability in human Governments” is quite desperate. The old Maxim Nil desperandum de Republica is founded in eternal Truth and indispensable obligation.
Jefferson expired and Madison came to Life, last night at twelve o’clock. Will you be so good as to take a Nap, and dream for my Instruction and edification a Character of Jefferson and his Administration?

More substantial evidence for questioning whether Rush reported an actual dream is the existence of a draft of this letter which demonstrates that Rush considered another literary device for his prophecy. A footnote in Lyman Butterfield’s  compilation of Rush’s letter explains:

In the passage that follows, BR [Benjamin Rush] made his principal plea to Adams to make an effort toward reconciliation with Jefferson. That pains were taken in composing the plea is shown by an autograph draft of the letter, dated 16 Oct. in Hist. Soc. Penna., Gratz Coll. In the draft BR originally wrote, and then crossed out, the following introduction to his dream history: “What would [you omitted] think of some future historian of the United States concluding one of his chapters with the following paragraph?” The greater verisimilitude of the revision adds much to the effectiveness of this remarkable letter. (Butterfield, L.H., The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. II, 1793-1813, Princeton Univ. Press, 1951, p. 1023)

Rush had at least two options to get across his message of reconciliation: a dream or an appeal to a future history book. He first wrote about the history book, then he chose a more creative device, one which he had already used in letters to Adams and which Adams had actually requested in March of that year.
In any case, real dream or not, Adams liked the proposition and replied to Rush on October 25, 1809, about the “dream” saying,

A Dream again! I wish you would dream all day and all Night, for one of your Dreams puts me in spirits for a Month. I have no other objection to your Dream, but that it is not History. It may be Prophecy. There has never been the smallest Interruption of the Personal Friendship between me and Mr. Jefferson that I know of. You should remember that Jefferson was but a Boy to me. I was at least ten years older than him in age and more than twenty years older than him in Politicks. I am bold to say I was his Preceptor in Politicks and taught him every Thing that has been good and solid in his whole Political Conduct. I served with him on many Committees in Congress in which we established some of the most important Regulations of the Army &c, &c, &c
Jefferson and Franklin were united with me in a Commission to the King of France and fifteen other Commissions to treat with all the Powers of Europe and Africa. I resided with him in France above a year in 1784 and 1785 and met him every day at my House in Auteuil at Franklins House at Passy or at his House in Paris. In short we lived together in the most perfect Friendship and Harmony.

Although in a less poetic manner, Rush also wrote Jefferson to suggest a resumption of friendship with Adams. It took awhile (1812), but Adams and Jefferson did resume contact. As predicted by Rush, they carried on a vigorous correspondence until late in their lives regarding their personal and political views. Then 50 years after July 4, 1776, Jefferson and Adams “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country…”*
 
*Much of this post was adapted from a prior post on John Adams and the Holy Ghost letter and published on this blog May 31, 2011.  Read more about Jefferson in Getting Jefferson Right by Michael Coulter and me.