According to James Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention, on June 28, 1787, the Constitutional Congress was struggling to move forward in developing the United States Constitution. Small states wanted “One State-One Vote,” while larger states wanted “Representation Appropriated by Population.” The 82-year old Benjamin Franklin stood to plead for compromise. He asked why it was that “this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark…(has) not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?” He reminded them that during the war, these leaders had daily prayed “in this room for daily protection.” He then said, “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see to this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.” He moved that the assembly institute “prayers imploring for the assistance of heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, (to) be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business.” Roger Sherman seconded the motion.
Mark Noll, in his essay, “Evangelicals in the American Founding and Today,” (in the book Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America, edited by James H. Hutson, 2000, pp. 137-139), explains how Peter Marshall, one of the leading evangelical advocates for “restoring America’s Christian heritage,” moves beyond James Madison’s account of the historical events of the Constitutional Convention.
“Now, however, the story takes on an interesting twist as recorded in two books by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, which in various editions have sold over 850,000 copies in the past twenty years and which have become mainstays in the historical consciences of many evangelical protestants. Their titles are The Light and the Glory: God’s Plan for America, 1492-1793 and From Sea to Shining Sea: God’s Plan for America, 1787-1837.
Franklin’s appeal for prayer “marked the turning point.” It was “clearly the most extraordinary speech anyone had delivered in the entire three months the delegates had been meeting… They immediately declared three days of prayer and fasting, to seek God’s help in breaking the deadlock among them. At the end of that time, all the resentment and wrangling were gone. …Why does [the Constitution] work so well? One reason is that it was divinely inspired. A second is that it was the completion of nearly two hundred years of Puritan political thought. Those early church covenants recognized the sinfulness of man. They anticipated the possibility of human wrong. The Constitution does exactly the same thing. In effect, it documents the Covenant Way on national paper." (From Sea to Shining Sea, pp. 18-19, The Light and the Glory, p. 156).
Much of the force as well as much of the (contemporary) confusion in and about evangelical political mobilization in the United States… is illustrated by the farrago of fact and fantasy surrounding Franklin’s appeal for prayer at the 1787 convention. The facts, as provided by the manuscript resources closest to the incident and clarified by careful historians, are these:
—First, Franklin did make such a motion.
—Second, this same Franklin only a short time later wrote at some length to the Rev. Ezra Stiles about his own religion. Franklin believed in God but concerning “Jesus of Nazareth,” he had, “with most of the present Dissenters in England…some Doubts to his Divinity.”
—Third, Franklin’s motion was not approved but tabled; there was no three-day recess; and the Convention never did begin it sessions with prayer.
—Fourth, the story that the Convention acted positively on Franklin’s motion, that it recessed to fast, and that it was miraculously guided in writing the Constitution was first published in the mid 1820s. Only in 1833, in a tract by Thomas S. Grimké, did this account begin to figure in broader assessments of the American founding. But that tract was explicitly repudiated by James Madison, by then one of the few surviving members of the Constitutional Convention, who told Grimké with great assurance that Franklin’s motion had never been enacted.
It does nobody any good to propagate a mythological history of the founding of our nation, even if the story seems to be for our benefit (and especially so!). If Christians are to have any credibility in political discourse, then we had better steadfastly seek the truth about the history of the founding of our nation. As Mark Noll wrote in a book co-authored with two other top-respected evangelical historians,
“Does it really matter if people hold to this mistaken view that America is, or was, or could become a truly Christian nation? Yes, it does matter. It matters because, if we are going to respond effectively to relativistic secularism, then we need to base our response upon reality rather than error. This is not to deny the positive influence that Christianity has indeed had upon the American way of life. Rather, it is to take it all the more seriously so that we may respond to it all the more effectively.” (Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, The Search for Christian America, p. 131).