The Faith of the Framers
"For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver;
the Lord is our king; he will save us
" (Isaiah 33:22, ESV).
In Isaiah 33:22, the prophet makes clear that God, not man, is the source of strength and salvation.
This verse also provides a parallel to the three branches of government found in the U.S. Constitution. What we know about the Founding Fathers suggests that could well have been intentional on the Founders' part.
In Philadelphia at what we now call Independence Hall, 55 delegates from 12 states assembled on May 25, 1787, to revise the Articles of Confederation, which the delegates believed were inadequate. The delegates ended up scrapping the articles entirely and drafting a new governing document: the U.S. Constitution, which was approved 233 years ago, on September 17, 1787. Their efforts provided the framework for what is now the longest-lasting, most-successful Constitutional republic in history.
Every single one of the 55 men involved in drafting the Constitution had an orthodox Christian background. Some later adopted a Unitarian bent, most notably Benjamin Franklin. But Franklin attended every kind of Christian worship, contributed to all denominations, and had especially loved and donated to the Great Awakening Preacher George Whitefield. He rented a pew in an Anglican church in Philadelphia and started the fund drive for the new steeple. The Founders who were Unitarian still publicly supported Christianity, had Christian funerals and are buried in Christian churchyards.
George Washington was elected as President of the Convention. Washington was not quiet about his advocacy for the Christian faith. For example, on May 2, 1778, he had charged his soldiers at Valley Forge: “To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian.” When he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief in 1783, he wrote a letter to all 13 governors of the states, reminding them that “without a humble imitation” of “the Divine Author of our blessed Religion [Heb. 12:2]” we “can never hope to be a happy nation.”
As the Convention got underway, a Founding Father named Gouverneur Morris recalled how Washington urged the delegates to lift up and look up: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.”
The delegates agreed to keep the proceedings secret so that they would not feel compelled to yield to public pressure. To insure secrecy, they nailed the windows shut, which made for an uncomfortable environment during the long, hot summer. With the meetings under way, it soon became apparent that instead of revising the Articles of Confederation, the real need was for a new form of government – a Federal Constitution.
Initially, common ground was difficult to find when it came to the form that the new government should take. With the Convention going badly and some delegates on the verge of leaving in disgust, the elder statesman Ben Franklin rose to address the remaining delegates on June 28th.
Franklin made a plea that they petition God for help. He said in part:
“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, & 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? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? 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 [Dan. 4:17; 2 Chron. 20:6]. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice [Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:6], is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid [Dan. 2:21]?
“We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” [Psalm 127:1a] 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....
“I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven [Neh. 2:4], and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.”
Here was probably the least theologically orthodox of the Framers calling for prayer and alluding to Scripture. After Franklin spoke, Roger Sherman of Connecticut seconded his motion for prayer.
Franklin’s passionate plea for prayer and a recess for Independence Day seemed to break the impasse. George Washington and a number of delegates went to Reformed Calvinist Church in Philadelphia on the Fourth and heard a patriotic speech and a prayer for their deliberations led by Rev. William Rogers. Afterward, there was a change in the atmosphere of the Convention that led to a breakthrough in the debates.
It is an exaggeration to say that our Constitutional government was the result of a prayer meeting in Philadelphia, but Dr. Franklin’s call for prayer did play a critical role in reminding the delegates at a vital point that without God's help, all their efforts would be in vain.
After the worship service on Independence Day, Roger Sherman of Connecticut’s compromise was reconsidered. His plan provided for a three-branch government:
- The Legislative Branch would make laws, treaties, and collect taxes and have the power to override an executive veto with a 2/3 majority and if necessary impeach the executive or the judiciary. It would include a two-chambered legislature, with the House of Representatives having proportional representation based on a state’s population and elected by the people and the Senate containing an equal number of Senators from each state and chosen by the respective state legislature. Thus the large states would benefit from the House, and the small states from the Senate.
- The Executive Branch would include a President who would serve as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, nominate Judges, and have the power to veto legislation. The President would be chosen by an electoral college composed of men chosen by the voters of each state. The candidate with the second highest vote total would become Vice-President. If no one received a majority of votes, the House of Representatives would declare the next President.
- The Judicial Branch would be nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. The Court would have the power to decide whether a law is constitutional. Supreme Court members were appointed for life, but Congress could vote to impeach and remove them.
This three-branch government with its system of checks and balances promised to avoid the tyrannical type of government the colonies had suffered under the monarchy of King George and his puppets in Parliament. The Articles of Confederation had demanded unanimity, and getting the states to agree on anything was nearly an impossible proposition. However, the Constitution required a 2/3 majority of the states to approve it and also to change it.
Many critics of Christianity’s influence in the birth and development of America like to point out the fact that the Constitution does not mention the words “God” or the “Bible.” In fact, one recent work is actually titled: The Godless Constitution. While this work is fatally flawed, it still begs the question: Why does the Constitution not mention God prominently, as the Declaration of Independence does?
Our conviction is that it was not necessary to mention “God” numerous times in the Constitution because the Declaration of Independence, with its multiple references to God, had already laid the foundation. In fact, the Constitution is dated in relation to the Declaration, demonstrating its place as the founding document of America. So the Constitution adds to that founding document the rules by which the new nation would be governed. It could be said that the Declaration of Independence is the "why" of American government, while the Constitution is the "how."
The Declaration lays the foundation for the Constitution, and the liberties set forth in that Declaration flow from belief in and dependence upon the Creator God described in the Bible, who operates the universe according to law, grants the inherent and self-evident rights of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness, functions as the Supreme Judge of the World, and who rules over his creation and creatures with a benevolent Providence.
Every Framer of the Constitution would agree to at least that much, as they all had a Christian background, displayed varying evidence of a biblical worldview, and most expressed their faith publicly.
Not surprisingly, several provisions in the Constitution have parallels in biblical principle, even though chapters and verses are not cited.
Perhaps the overriding biblical principle that seems to permeate the Constitution is the sinfulness of humankind: “The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9).” Thus, the need for checks and balances among the three branches of government.
Finally, the document is signed “…in the year of our Lord,” an overt reference to Jesus Christ. So much for a “godless” Constitution! The framers of the Constitution created a document that at the very least has several provisions that have parallels with biblical principles and those who signed it acknowledged Jesus Christ as “our Lord.”
Consequently, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had no intention of establishing an atheistic or secular state. President George Washington later stated to a group of Baptists: “If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed by the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it.”
Maryland delegate James McHenry tells of an encounter Ben Franklin had with a Mrs. Powel, a grand lady of Philadelphia, as the Constitutional Convention ended in 1787. “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” she asked the oldest of the Founding Fathers.
With a twinkle in his eye, he peered over his spectacles and quipped: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Wise old Ben Franklin knew that republics were not easy to keep. We have been through bloody battles to keep it, even a devastating Civil War, where brother fought against brother.
Now we are as deeply divided as ever in our lifetimes, so how can we keep it? How can we keep this Constitutional Republic handed to us by the Founding Fathers and preserved for us by brave souls who have given their very lives? Four suggestions:
- Keep it by Praying for it. Dr. Franklin knew the importance of prayer, declaring to the Convention: “In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain… we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered… I … move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business...” If they needed prayer then, we need to pray for our nation now (see 1 Tim. 2:1-4). We can enlist God to keep this republic by praying for it.
- Keep it by Preparing to Defend it. The only way to do that is to know it and understand it. If we want to keep this republic, we need to be prepared to defend it.
- Keep it by Participating in the Political Process: Start by registering to vote, voting your values, and voicing your constitutional convictions to elected officials. You may even decide to run for public office someday. We need some Josephs and Deborahs, some Daniels and some Esthers in places of public influence. Keep this republic by participating in the political process.
- Keep it by Passing it on to the Next Generation: We have an obligation to teach our children and their children, handing our heritage down to them without loss (Ps. 78:3-4). We must pass on our spiritual and civil liberties to the next generation of patriots. They too need to learn about our constitutional freedoms.
Passage of the U.S. Constitution was a remarkable achievement. Looking back 231 years, seeing the many ways God has prospered and protected this nation, even with all our flaws, America is still the most prosperous, most compassionate, most free, and the greatest mission sending, Gospel sharing nation on the face of the earth. So under God, let’s do everything we can to keep it! And all God’s people said: Amen!
This article is adapted from materials provided by the Family Research Council
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