It is understandable for American Christians to be curious about Christianity’s influence on the founding of the United States and its framework of government, but all kinds of historical snares await us when we explore the question. Even with the best of intentions, we will be tempted, subconsciously at least, to distort what we see in order to find what we are looking for. Like human beings generally, we naturally want to harmonize the various facets of our identity, in this case, to think of our loyalty to Christ as reconcilable with the other attachments that are important to us. For many American Christians, to be specific, this has translated into the 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. With this end in mind, numerous well-meaning Christian writers have been quick to re-tell the story of Benjamin Franklin’s plea for prayer in the midst of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787.
In his just-released book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas becomes the latest in a long line of amateur Christian historians unable to resist its allure. In a chapter titled “The Almost Chosen People,” Metaxas makes the story the centerpiece of his argument that the United States has a unique, divinely ordained mission to the world. The anecdote, Metaxas tells us, reflects the belief among “many of our founders . . . that they were being guided by an unseen hand” and that their success at Philadelphia was nothing less than a divine miracle.
If you don’t know the story, here is the gist of it:
It was the summer of 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 in jeopardy, however, as the clashing interests of northern and southern states and of large and small states were repeatedly thwarting efforts at compromise.
On June 28th, according to the detailed notes of the convention kept by Virginia delegate James Madison, Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin rose late in the afternoon to address the contentious gathering. The 81-year-old scientist, statesman, writer, printer, inventor, and businessman 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.
Let me interrupt the story a moment for a comment: There is incontrovertible evidence that this happened. It is not the invention of Tim LaHaye or Gary LeMar or David Barton or any other “Christian America” propagandist. We not only have Madison’s meticulous notes to corroborate it, but also evidence from Franklin himself. The aged patriot spoke rarely during the convention’s four long months, and knowing that he wanted to address the assembly on June 28th, he apparently wrote out the substance of what he wanted to say in advance, and the text, in Franklin’s own hand, survives to this day. This was an extraordinary moment that is also extraordinarily well documented.
But the story didn’t end with Franklin’s brief speech, and this is where we start getting into trouble. In the mid-1820s—nearly four decades later—a legend began to form that Franklin’s proposal was met with near universal approval. Soon Americans were reading that, with but one dissenting vote, the delegates immediately embraced Franklin’s proposal and voted 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.
Historians who have meticulously traced the origins of this part of the story attribute it to a man named William Steele, who in 1825 claimed in a newspaper article 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. In other words, the story comes indirectly from a supposed eyewitness who waited nearly three decades to relate his experience to someone who waited another decade to write down what he was told.
By the time Steele got around to circulating the story, Drayton had died, along with almost all of the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention–but not James Madison. When approached by a Methodist minister who was writing a history of the convention, Madison categorically denied that the delegates had adopted Franklin’s recommendation. Madison’s notes of the convention (not published until after his death), make clear that the proposal was rejected. After several delegates raised objections on a variety of grounds (they didn’t want to appear desperate, they lacked the funds to pay a clergyman), the convention tabled the measure and adjourned for the day. On the 29th they didn’t pray and fast but resumed their deliberations as usual. They never subsequently hired a chaplain. They never subsequently began any of their proceedings with prayer. And Franklin, who had written out his recommendation in advance, tersely acknowledged the defeat of his proposal on the manuscript before setting it aside. At the bottom of the document, you can still read Franklin’s summary: “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”
You wouldn’t know this from reading If You Can Keep It, however. Metaxas reprints Franklin’s speech in its entirety, and then without sharing anything about the delegates’ actual response, he breezily notes that, “As we know, in the end all impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found.” (What is the reader supposed to infer except that Franklin’s proposal was both adopted and decisive?) Citing no evidence, he then adds that “there was what all felt to be a truly remarkable—almost odd—willingness for each side to set aside its concerns for the good of the whole.”
What are we to make of this? Regarding If You Can Keep It specifically, it’s hard to say. If Eric Metaxas knows the whole story, then his truncated retelling of it must go down as intentionally deceptive, and I don’t want to think that is true. Alternatively, he may have no idea of what actually happened and is simply relying on secondary works by other amateur historians who tell the story in the same misleading way. (He offers neither footnotes nor a bibliography, so it is almost impossible to say.)
If the latter is true–that is, if he’s simply repeatedly a good story that he has come across without verifying it–then Metaxas is simply guilty of an offense that we’re all prone to. The most common temptation that we 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. (To his credit, Metaxas does not do this.) Perhaps the most important moral of the story is that Christians can be “revisionist historians” just like secularists can.