Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) (and death mask)
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 held its meetings in secret, and its members were expected to keep the details of their discussions and debates confidential. The official papers of the Convention sat in the State Department offices, untouched, until 1818. When finally released to the public, it was clear that tempers flared often in the intense debates as the structure of the new nation was being decided upon.
It was during one of the most divisive of these debates that the elder statesman, eighty-one year old Benjamin Franklin, offered his famous appeal for harmony and conciliation, including the suggestion to pray for God’s intervention. The authoritative source concerning the convention is the notes of James Madison. Included in his notes was a copy of the speech Franklin made, written in Franklin’s own handwriting. This is that speech Franklin gave on July 28, 1787:
Mr. President: The small progress we have made after four or five weeks of close attendance and continual reasonings with each other, with our different sentiments on almost every question… is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, so 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 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 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. 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 the City be requested to officiate in that service.
Where are the politicians, or the pastors, who can speak like that today?
Psalm 127:1 — Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Matthew 10:29 — (Jesus said), “ Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.”
Matthew 12:25 — Knowing their thoughts, (Jesus) said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”
O thou eternal God, who dost rule the affairs of men even as thou rulest nature, inspire the hearts of all citizens of our beloved country by the memory of the blessed heritage of a freedom won through the devotion and loyalty of our forefathers. We are humbled by the knowledge that thou hast protected us in this freedom throughout the years of our national history. Grant us grace to acknowledge the responsibility these blessings place upon us to be zealous for righteousness, justice, and equity among men of every nation, that free people may honor and obey thee forever. AMEN.
–General Synod’s Committee on Liturgics, Evangelical and Reformed Church