In 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave a now-famous speech to the Illinois Republican Party as he accepted their nomination for the U.S. Senate. In this speech he referenced Matthew 12:25, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Indeed, the nation would quite literally split in half a little over two years later. But less than 100 years prior, we nearly ceased to be a nation.
The United States was a mere six years old and was on the brink of collapse. Our first form of government, the Articles of Confederation, proved to be an abysmal failure due to a weak central government that failed to keep the young nation united. In May of 1787, the states decided to send delegates to Philadelphia to draft a new governing document—what is today known as the Constitutional Convention.
The convention dragged on for weeks amid the stifling heat and humidity of the Philadelphia summer. There was fierce debate among the delegates regarding representation in the new Congress. Delegates from the small states favored equal representation, known as the New Jersey Plan. Delegates from larger states, on the other hand, favored a more proportional representation based on population, known as the Virginia Plan. Apparently, there was such vigorous debate that it sometimes descended into a shouting match. Some delegates left and never returned. By late June, it was an open question whether an agreement could be reached to save the young nation.
It was at this point that the aged delegate from Pennsylvania offered his sage advice. Benjamin Franklin, now 81 years old, was a frail figure compared to his younger self who spent years frolicking in France as the U.S. ambassador. In fact, he was now so weak and feeble that he often had to be carried into the convention on a sedan chair. Additionally, he would write out his speeches and have a fellow Pennsylvania delegate deliver them in his stead. What makes this speech unique is that Franklin actually rose from his chair and delivered the speech himself.
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 ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. 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 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 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. 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 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 be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. 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.
As a result of Franklin’s speech, the rest of the Convention proceeded smoothly. Although a chaplain was never appointed, likely because the Convention couldn’t afford to pay one, the delegates gathered a few days later on the anniversary of our independence at the Reformed Calvinist Lutheran Church for a sermon and prayer. A few weeks later, the delegates reached a compromise, known as the Connecticut Compromise, that gave birth to the House and Senate prescribed in our Constitution today. On September 17, 1787, the U.S Constitution was signed by 39 of the 55 delegates. While there were still great disagreements among the delegates, they chose to put aside those differences for the greater good. The “miracle at Philadelphia” was birthed through prayer. The new Constitution also honored Franklin’s request—a chaplain was appointed for both the House and Senate. To this day, both houses of Congress are opened in prayer by a chaplain before they proceed to business.
While Franklin was publicly a professed Christian, privately he did not believe in Christ’s saving work on the cross. Franklin believed he could live a virtuous life and perform enough good works to gain Heaven. Again, this makes his call to prayer at the Constitutional Convention even more unique.
Over 240 years later, Benjamin Franklin’s call to prayer is just as relevant today. Perhaps we are even more divided today than we were in 1787. Have we forgotten “that powerful Friend” who gave this nation our independence? Have we thought of “humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings”?
James 5:16 says that “the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” We need Christians to offer up prayers for our nation, that our leaders would set aside their differences for the common good. Prayer literally saved our nation, and it can do so again today.