In my last post I introduced the topic of Christianity and the Constitution by sharing an acknowledgment and a warning. On the one hand, it is right and proper for American Christians to be curious about Christianity’s influence on the nation’s founding and its framework of government in particular. On the other hand, all kinds of historical snares await us when we explore the question. Even with the best of intentions, we will be tempted, subconsciously if not consciously, to distort what we see in order to find what we are looking for. As I noted, we naturally want to harmonize the various facets of our identity–we want to think of our loyalty to Christ as perfectly reconcilable with the other attachments that are important to us. For many American Christians, this has translated into an insistence that the United States be viewed as a Christian nation built on Christian principles embodied in fundamentally Christian founding documents.
When it comes to the Constitution, a common strategy has been to insist that the overwhelming preponderance of the Framers were Bible-believing Christians and that they actively sought divine guidance as they deliberated about the form that the new government should take. The latter is epitomized in the moving story below–see if you recognize it:
It was June 28th, 1787, and 55 men had gathered behind closed doors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to try to create a new framework of government that might deliver the infant United States from a morass of difficulties: governmental impotence, contemptible military weakness, commercial anarchy, and financial disarray. Their quest “to form a more perfect union” was foundering, however, as the clashing interests of northern and southern states and of large and small states had repeatedly thwarted efforts at compromise.
Then, according to the detailed notes of the convention kept by Virginia delegate James Madison, late in the afternoon Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin rose to address the contentious gathering. The 81-year-old scientist, statesman, writer, printer, inventor, businessman, and patriot acknowledged that the convention had reached an impasse, “groping as it were in the dark to find political truth.”
“How has it happened,” Franklin asked, “that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? . . . I have lived a long time,” the convention’s oldest delegate shared, “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 fall without his aid?” Franklin went on to make a motion that, from that point forward, each day’s proceedings begin with prayer led by some local clergyman.
A modern work by a popular Christian historian picks up the story at this point and explains that Franklin’s speech was a turning point in the convention. With but one dissenting vote, the delegates immediately acknowledged the wisdom of Franklin’s proposal and agreed to take a three-day recess. For seventy-two hours they devoted themselves to prayer and fasting, and when they returned to their labors they discovered that all wrangling had ceased. Thanks to a new spirit of compromise and selflessness, the logjam was broken and the delegates readily crafted the remarkable document that forms the foundation of our political system to this day.
It is an inspiring story with only one serious defect: much of it likely isn’t true.
As best we can tell, Franklin did make the motion, although his motives are not entirely clear. It is worth remembering that, by his own admission, he was not a Christian. Only a month before his death, Franklin brushed away the earnest plea of a friend that he look to Christ for salvation. “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he observed in one of the last letters he ever wrote, “I have . . . doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it is needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”
And though he did make the motion, the reaction was far from universal ascent followed by prayer and fasting. In his detailed notes, Madison recorded that several delegates objected on a variety of grounds (they didn’t want to appear desperate, they lacked the funds to pay a clergyman), and then the convention tabled the measure and adjourned for the day. On the 29th they resumed their deliberations as usual, never subsequently hiring a chaplain or beginning any of their proceedings with prayer. Franklin, who had sketched out in writing what he wanted to say before addressing the assembly, tersely recorded the outcome of his proposal on the back of his notes. “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”
So how did such a story originate? Modern Christian writers have not made it up, for there is a reference to it in the historical record. In contrast to Madison’s notes, which he recorded daily as the Constitutional convention unfolded, this testimony first appeared in print nearly four decades later and was decidedly second hand. Thirty-eight years after the convention, a newspaper printed a letter from a man named William Steele, who claimed that he had heard the story ten years earlier in conversation with one of the lesser-known delegates to the convention, a politician from New Jersey named Jonathan Drayton.
Or to put it the other way around, the supposed eyewitness waited nearly three decades to relate his experience to someone who waited another decade to write down what he was told. Significantly, by the time Steele got around to circulating the story, Drayton had died, along with almost all of the other delegates–but not James Madison, who pointedly rejected the story when approached by a Methodist minister who was writing a history of the convention. It appears that either Drayton, or Steele, or both had added quite a bit of jam to the bread, making Franklin’s call for prayer much more of a turning point than it actually was.
So what can we learn from this? I think the most important moral of the story is that Christians can be “revisionist historians” just like secularists can. (For more on this point, see my post on “revisionist history.”) I have no idea what might have motivated Drayton and/or Steele to embellish their accounts. It might have been simply faulty memory, or wishful thinking, or an innocent desire to tell a more entertaining story. What is more interesting to me is how the story became popular. What was it that led editors to recycle the story so frequently that, according to Christian historian Keith Beuttler, “the vignette became a stock tale in evangelical publications” during the 1820s and 1830s?
When evangelical newspapers like New York’s Christian Advocate and Journal and Zion’s Herald reprinted Steele’s letter, I am confident that they were not intentionally circulating a story that they knew to be false. If they were guilty of wrongdoing, I suspect that their crime was not premeditated deception but a much more subtle offense that we are all prone to. Like the evangelical editors who chose to endorse the vignette, the temptation that most of us will face when investigating America’s Christian past is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility–the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.
All too often, popular Christian writers exploring the role of faith in the American founding write as if only secularists are susceptible to bias. Authors like Tim LaHaye, Gary DeMar, and above all, David Barton (who reprinted the Drayton/Steele account as fact in his book The Myth of Separation) present themselves as uniquely zealous in the search for truth. They suggest not too subtly that those who reject their interpretation of the American past are ignorant or unethical–“ill-informed or ill-intentioned,” in Barton’s words.
What is lacking in much of the debate over the nature of the American founding is the kind of Christian virtues that are vital to effective historical thinking: a respect for the scope and complexity of the past, a humble sense of our own limited abilities to recapture it, a determination to love rather than use the figures from the past whom we encounter, and a willingness to think charitably toward those who might arrive at conclusions different from our own.
For my part, I would advise that we abandon as hopelessly problematic the whole attempt to identify the percentage of Framers of the Constitution who were Christian or the role that prayer played in their deliberations. Rather than trying to prove that the authors of the document were Christian, I think it is more fruitful by far to think Christianly about the document that they created.
I will explain what I mean in my next post.