May 25, 2017, marked the 230th anniversary of the opening of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The text of the unamended Constitution is notably secular, save for references like the “Year of our Lord” 1787. But the lack of religion in the document does not mean the topic went unmentioned.
Several weeks into the proceedings, the octogenarian Benjamin Franklin proposed that the meetings open with prayer. “How has it happened,” he pondered, according to a copy of the speech in Franklin’s papers, “that we have not, hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?”
This was a poignant but peculiar suggestion coming from Franklin, the great printer, scientist and diplomat. He described himself in his autobiography as a “thorough deist” who as a teenager had rejected the Puritan faith of his parents. Why would Franklin ask the Philadelphia delegates to begin their daily deliberations with prayer?
Even stranger, few convention attendees supported the proposal. A couple of devout delegates seconded his motion, but it fizzled among the other participants. Franklin scribbled a note at the bottom of his prayer speech lamenting, “The Convention except three or four Persons, thought Prayers unnecessary!”
If Franklin truly was a deist, he wasn’t a very good one. Doctrinaire deists believed in a distant Creator, one who did not intervene in human history, and certainly not one who would respond to prayers. Yes, Franklin questioned basic points of Christianity, including Jesus’ divine nature. Yet his childhood immersion in the Puritan faith, and his relationships with traditional Christians through his adult life, kept him tethered to his parents’ religion. If he was not a Christian, he often sounded and acted like one.
The King James Bible, for example, had a significant influence on Franklin. From his first writings as “Silence Dogood”—the pseudonym he adopted when writing essays for his brother’s newspaper, the New- England Courant—to his speeches at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was constantly referencing the Bible. He knew it backward and forward, recalling even the most obscure sections of it from memory.
When he was a child, his family went at least a couple of times a week to a Congregationalist church in Boston, where the heavily doctrinal sermons could last for two hours. The bookish boy claimed he had read the whole Bible by the time he was 5. Although his parents were of modest means, they once thought of sending him to Harvard to become a pastor. Concern about his growing teenage skepticism derailed those plans.
As a young man Ben did indulge some strident views and scurrilous behavior, especially on an extended trip to London. But he was certain that personal responsibility and industry were the keys to worldly success. He wrote of deism in his autobiography: “I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.” So he devoted himself to a personal “plan of conduct,” through which he tracked his practice of godly virtues.
He kept in steady contact with his sister Jane Mecom of Boston, an evangelical Christian and his closest sibling. He established a business relationship and longstanding friendship with George Whitefield, a celebrated evangelist during the Great Awakening of the 18th century. The preacher grilled him occasionally about the state of his soul, yet Franklin admired Whitefield and even fleetingly proposed that they start a colony together in the Ohio territory, one that would model the best principles of Christianity.
Then came the Revolutionary War. Its weight, along with the shock of victory and independence, made Franklin think that God, in some mysterious way, must be moving in American history. “The longer I live,” he told the delegates in Philadelphia, “the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth, That God governs in the affairs of men.”
He repeatedly cited verses from the Bible to make his case, quoting Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Without God’s aid, Franklin contended, the Founding Fathers would “succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel.” At the Revolutionary War’s outset, as he reminded delegates, they had prayed daily, often in that same Philadelphia hall, for divine protection. “And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?”
In today’s polarized political and religious environment, some pundits seek to remake the Founding Fathers in their own image. Benjamin Franklin’s example reveals that the historical truth is often more complicated.
Dr. Thomas S. Kidd is Baylor Distinguished Professor of History and associate director, Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017). This essay first appeared in the May 26, 2017, print edition of the Wall Street Journal.