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Dr. Franklin's Plea for Prayer
No Separation of Faith and State


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Here's what it says:

  • Secular Humanists argue that Benjamin Franklin's plea for public prayer in the Constitutional Convention is no evidence against the Constitutional prohibition against public prayer. (!)
  • Everything about Franklin's request shows that the modern concept of "separation of church and state" is a myth.


Franklin's Appeal for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention -- an analysis of Benjamin Franklin's appeal to have the clergy offer prayer at the convention of 1787.

Background on Franklin

Franklin proposed a Day of Fasting in Pennsylvania, which a true separationist would never do. He proclaimed:

It is the duty of mankind on all suitable occasions to acknowledge their dependence on the Divine Being. . . .

and he prayed that

Almighty God would mercifully interpose and still the rage of war among the nations and would put a stop to the effusion of Christian blood . . . [that] He would take this province under His protection, confound the designs and defeat the attempts of its enemies, and unite our hearts and strengthen our hands in every undertaking that may be for the public good, and for our defense and security in this time of danger.
(1748, quoted by Van Doren in Benjamin Franklin, NY: Viking, 1938, p. 188)

The public nature of Franklin's prayer runs counter to the ACLU's version of "separation of church and state," and no Deist believes that God "interposes" and "confounds" and "defeats" any human undertaking. This is not the act of a Deist (as the word is popularly understood).

In 1749, he wrote:

History will also afford frequent opportunities of showing the necessity of a public religion. . . and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern. 
Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania
, 1749, p.22

Jerry Falwell is panting for a "deistic" theocracy like Franklin's.

Thursday, June 28th, 1787

James Madison recorded the proceedings in his Journal of the Federal Convention, Vol. I, p.259. Here are Franklin's words, directed to George Washington, with our comments:

Doctor FRANKLIN. Mr. President, The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other—our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes—is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding 

Franklin finds "proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding" and wants the Convention to pray? This is "French Enlightenment" thinking??

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 seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exists And we have viewed modern states all round Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

Some secularists have suggested that America was based on Greco-Roman models of government rather than Biblical models. Franklin here expressly repudiates that myth.
The prosperity of a nation depends on much more than a piece of paper. However great the Republic of Rome sounds in the writings of the classical Latin authors, it fell and is dead to this day.
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
An unmistakable reference to James 1:17
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with Whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning
The writings of the Founding Fathers are smothered in Biblical references, which those untrained in the Bible do not see.
—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? Or do we imagine that 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. [emphasis in Elliot's edition - kc]. 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 those 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 this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Fascinating, that a "deist" would ask the Clockmaker-Landlord God to intervene in the drafting of a Constitution and the creation of a nation. Franklin's reference to Providence in the conflict between America and Britain is a story in itself, and the link to "Providence" should be consulted. And Franklin is widely regarded as being the least religious of the Founding Fathers. What Franklin felt about religion might be deduced from his extraordinarily religious plea for prayer. If he was hypocritical in his frequent citation of Scripture, then we may still deduce his attitude toward the separation of Scripture and State.

 James Madison records the following immediately after Dr. Franklin's motion:

     Mr. SHERMAN seconded the motion.
     Mr. HAMILTON and 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, in the first place, bring on it some disagreeable animadversions; and in the second, lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure. It was answered, by Doctor FRANKLIN, Mr. SHERMAN, and 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 the measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the Convention on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of Independence; and thenceforward prayers, &c., to be read in the Convention every morning. Doctor FRANKLIN seconded this motion. After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing this matter by adjourning, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.

Separationists would have us believe that a motion for officially-endorsed public prayer is inappropriate. Hamilton and others said it was "proper" but at this late date might suggest disunity. Franklin and Sherman said it was not only "proper," but a duty. Alas, all present were bound by archaic and sub-Christian notions concerning the requirement of ordained clergy for public prayer, and the Convention had no funds to hire a clergy. This is a bumbling tragedy, but the "separation of church and state" had nothing to do with it. There is no evidence of a self-conscious legal mandate to avoid endorsement of religion.

To accommodate the proposal of delegate Edmund Jennings Randolph of Virginia, on Monday, July 2, the Convention adjourned until Thursday, July 5, so that, as James Madison explained, "time might be given ... to such as chose to attend to the celebrations on the anniversary of independence."[148] On July 4, many delegates attended that special service. For example, George Washington noted in his diary:

[W]ent to hear [at the Calvinist Church] an oration on the anniversary of independence.[149]

After the oration (delivered by a young law student), the Rev. William Rogers, minister of the Calvinist Church, concluded with this prayer:

[W]e fervently recommend to thy fatherly notice . . . our federal convention... . [F] avor them, from day to day, with thy inspiring presence; be their wisdom and strength; enable them to devise such measures as may prove happy instruments in healing all divisions and prove the good of the great whole;... that the United States of America may form one example of a free and virtuous government... May we... continue, under the influence of republican virtue, to partake of all the blessings of cultivated and Christian society.[150]

However, not only did religious activities accompany the drafting of the federal Constitution, they also accompanied its ratification. This was evident throughout the various State conventions which gathered to approve that document. For example, consider the proceedings in MASSACHUSETTS:

Voted, That a committee of five be appointed to wait upon his Excellency, John Hancock, and acquaint him that this Convention have made choice of him for their president, and to request his Excellency's acceptance of that appointment.
On motion of the Hon. Mr. Adams, Voted, That the Convention will attend morning prayers, daily, and that the gentlemen of the clergy, of every denomination, be requested to officiate in turn.
The members from Boston were appointed to wait upon them, and acquaint them thereof.
A vote of the church in Brattle Street, in Boston, offering the use of their meeting-house to the Convention, being communicated by the Hon. Mr. Bowdoin, Voted, That a committee of nine be appointed, to view the accommodations of the said meeting-house, and report.
Mr. Sedgwick, Mr. Lincoln, Dr. Taylor, Gen. Brooks of Lincoln, Dr. Jarvis, Dr. Holton, Mr. Strong, Mr. Nason, and Mr. Thatcher, were then appointed on said committee.[152] 

Motions for daily prayer and the meeting of the state ratifying convention in a church (where many of the most significant events of the Revolution [such as the planning of the Boston Tea-Party] had occurred) were not attended by any debates about "separation of church and state" or any threatened lawsuits by the ACLU. Similarly in NORTH CAROLINA, the record of the ratification debates begins:

At a Convention, begun and held at Hillsborough, the 21st day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, and of the Independence of America the 13th, in pursuance of a resolution of the last General Assembly, for the purpose of deliberating and determining on the proposed Plan of Federal Government,—
A majority of those who were duly elected as members of this Convention being met at the church, they proceeded to the election of a president, when his excellency, Samuel Johnston, Esq., was unanimously chosen, and conducted to the chair accordingly.[153]


The Convention, having accordingly assembled on the 17th of June, unanimously elected his excellency, GEORGE CLINTON, president. After appointing the proper subordinate officers, and having ordered that the doors should be kept open, and the business of the Convention opened every morning with prayer, Mr. Duane, Mr. Jones, Mr. R. Morris, Mr. Lansing, and Mr. Harris, were chosen a committee to report rules for conducting the business.[154]


On the recommendation of Mr. Paul Carrington, the Rev. Abner Waugh was unanimously elected chaplain, to attend every morning to read prayers immediately after the bell shall be rung for calling the Convention.[155] 

Clearly, the proceedings of both the Constitutional Convention and the ratification conventions provide further evidence that the Framers not only supported, but even participated in both public religious activities and public endorsements of religion.

Notes adapted from David Barton, Original Intent, pp. 110ff.

148. James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, Henry D. Gilpin, editor (Washington: Langtree and O'Sullivan, 1840), Vol. II, PP. 1023-1024, July 4, 1787.

149. George Washington, The Diaries of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1925), Vol. III, p. 226, July 4, 1787.

150. Morris, pp.253-254.

151. Washington, Writings (1932), Vol. XXX, p. 321 n., May 10, 1789.

152. The Debates in the Several Conventions, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Jonathan Elliot, editor (Washington: Printed for the Editor, 1836), Vol. II, p. 2, Massachusetts Convention, January 9, 1788.

153. Elliot, Debates, Vol. IV, p.1, North Carolina Convention, July 21, 1788. See also Vol. II, p. 2, Massachusetts Convention, January 9, 1788.

154. Elliot, Debates, Vol. II, p. 207, New York Convention, June 17, 1788.

155. Elliot, Debates, Vol. III, p.1, Virginia Convention, June 2, 1788.

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