Tag Archives: Benjamin Franklin

ERIC METAXAS ON CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION

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.

MetaxasIn 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.”

Benjamin Franklin circa 1778

Benjamin Franklin circa 1778

“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.

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(To see my fuller review of If You Can Keep It, click here.  To read my analysis of the book’s faulty use of the metaphor of a “City on a Hill,” click here.)

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE AWFUL: ERIC METAXAS’ NEW BOOK “IF YOU CAN KEEP IT”

Independence Day is almost here, so I thought I would share a few thoughts about the latest book from Eric Metaxas, just out this month: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  If you’re not familiar with him, Metaxas is a “cultural commentator” or public intellectual, a best-selling author, and the host of a daily radio program, “The Eric Metaxas Show.”  The book’s title comes from a (possibly apocryphal) observation from Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the 1787 Constitutional convention in Philadelphia.  As the story goes, an interested citizen approached the aged Franklin and inquired, “Well, doctor, what have we got?  A republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin is supposed to have answered, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.”  Metexas builds on Franklin’s words to underscore the fragility of liberty and to make a case for how Americans might best nurture it today.  The book offers some timely reminders, but its grasp of American history is weak, and the theological implications of its argument are frightening.  Read on, if you want to learn more.

Metaxas

The inside flap of the book jacket of If You Can Keep It describes the work as “an extraordinary book that is part history and part rousing call to arms, steeped in a critical analysis of our founding fathers’ original intentions for America.”   This is partially true.  It certainly makes a semi-historically-informed argument about what America should be in 2016 and how that might be accomplished.  And so yes, it is “part history and part rousing” exhortation to its readers.  (The “call to arms” phrase is misleading, as Metaxas consistently, and appropriately, avoids appeals to “take back America” and similar phrases borrowed from the culture wars.)  But the claim that the book offers “critical analysis” of the values and worldview of the Founders overstates the case, and by more than a little.  The book is sprinkled with valuable food for thought and more than a few important historical truths, but these are offset by egregious flaws, including both serious misunderstandings of colonial and Revolutionary America and a dangerous conflation of the nation and the Church.  In the end, I cannot recommend If You Can Keep It, although it contains elements that are worthy of our attention.

Let’s start with what is good.  Metaxas asks undeniably important questions.  (What did “America” mean at the founding?  What did the Founders believe in and hope for?  How might the promise of America be furthered by our own generation?)  He writes for a broad audience, rather than for other cultural elites.  He dares to bring a faith perspective to bear, not hesitating to acknowledge his own Christian commitments.  He values the insights of history and wants to bring the present into conversation with the past.  None of this is surprising given his previous books, most notably his popular biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce.

Boiled down, Metaxas has two main points to make, and each is worth making.  First, liberty is fragile, and we must perpetually dedicate and rededicate ourselves to nurture and preserve it.  This was essentially Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 message to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, an address that I blogged about extensively at the beginning of the summer.  (See, in particular, here and here.)  The survival of American democracy is not inevitable.  We cannot take it for granted.  And should it ever collapse, we Americans will be far more responsible for that tragedy than any external foe.

Second, the Founding Fathers knew exactly what was necessary for government of the people, by the people, and for the people to survive and flourish.  (For some unknown reason, Metaxas repeatedly refers to the Founders’ “secret formula,” although the Founders were not remotely coy about what their experiment in liberty would require to succeed.)  Here Metaxas basically reiterates what Os Guinness calls the “golden triangle of freedom.”  Like a three-legged stool, it has three equally essential components.  The Founders believed that (1) freedom requires virtue, (2) virtue requires religious faith, and (3) religious faith requires freedom.  We could complicate these generalizations greatly, but the basic pattern is historically sound.  Guinness made the case well in A Free People’s Suicide (which I reviewed here) and although Metaxas does little more than restate it, I suppose you could say that we can’t hear such a crucial reminder too often.

Beyond these two important truths, Metaxas makes several suggestions that 21st-century Americans need to consider.  In one chapter, for example, he argues that societies need heroes in order to promote virtue, and he offers some interesting speculation as to why contemporary Americans tend to sneer not only at heroes but at the very idea of the heroic.  Another entire chapter focuses on the critical importance of moral leaders to any society laboring to preserve the fragile blessings of liberty.  (The relevance for the current presidential campaign goes without saying.)

Metaxas also makes a compelling case for the importance of civic ceremonies, especially at the local community level.  Perhaps reflecting his background as an English major at Yale, Metaxas also offers some intriguing suggestions about the importance of literature for building civic-mindedness, and he remembers fondly the old days when schoolchildren memorized historical odes like Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  (There are echoes here of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues.)  Tying all these suggestions together is Metaxas’ belief that Americans need to fall in love again with America.  As I said, there is much food for thought here, and there would be worse ways to celebrate American independence than pondering Metaxas’ exhortations.

And yet the book’s flaws are huge.  I could go on at some length, but instead I’ll zero in on the two most glaring problems: (1) Metaxas repeatedly misrepresents the values of colonial and Revolutionary Americans which he looks to for wisdom, and (2) he consistently blurs the line between sacred and secular, conflating Christianity and democracy and confusing the role of the Church with the purported “mission” of the United States.

Let’s start with Metaxas’ understanding of colonial and Revolutionary America.  Metaxas repeatedly imputes to key figures of the 17th and 18th centuries values that were foreign to that era.  Here are two key examples:

* Metaxas insists that a commitment to religious liberty was not only nearly universal by the time of the creation of the Constitution, but that it had prevailed since the first arrival of European settlers.  “Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620,” he writes, “religious freedom and religious tolerance [not the same thing, by the way] have been the single most important principle of American life.”

This is astoundingly incorrect.  The Pilgrims did not come to America “because they were being persecuted for their faith,” nor were they remotely committed to religious freedom in the colony that they established.  The laws of Plymouth Colony prescribed fines or corporal punishment for neglecting public worship, for swearing or cursing by the name of God, for “vilifying” any church ministry or ordinance, for denying “the Scriptures to be a rule of life,” and for hosting or entertaining Quakers, whose heterodox beliefs would get them banished.

Although the trend over the next century and a half would be toward ever greater religious toleration, as late as 1776 most of the thirteen colonies still had government-recognized, legally established denominations, and long after the creation of the Constitution most states barred atheists (and sometimes Jews) from holding office.  This was not hypocrisy or inconsistency on their part, but rather reflects the reality that they understood religious liberty very differently than we do.

* Second, the author also exaggerates the Founders’ commitment to democracy and faith in popular virtue.  He is right that the Founders believed that “in the wrong hands [freedom] can be positively dangerous,” but it is misleading to claim simply that “the founders knew and trusted that the citizens . . . were prepared for what they had been given.”  As James Madison noted in Federalist no. 55, republican government (i.e., government grounded in the consent of the governed) intrinsically presupposes a greater confidence in the people than monarchy does, but the Founders’ understanding of human nature is best described as skeptical: hoping for the best, but keenly aware of humans’ fallenness and foibles.  The Constitution’s framers went to great lengths to limit the popular influence of the governed, and then they instituted elaborate checks and balances to mitigate the abuse of power by the government itself.

In addition to misrepresenting the world of colonial and Revolutionary America, Metaxas also dangerously conflates the role of the church and the mission of the state, effectively describing the United States in near messianic terms.  The pattern emerges in the book’s earliest pages, when Metaxas badly misreads Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s famous exhortation in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”

I have noted before that Winthrop’s statement to his congregation that “we shall be as a city on a hill” is one of the most misunderstood phrases in American literature, and Metaxas, like so many before him, gets it wrong.  To begin with, he alters the quote, repeatedly suggesting that Winthrop referred to his colony as “a shining city on a hill.” The adjective was added by Ronald Reagan three and a half centuries later, and it wholly changed Winthrop’s meaning.  The Massachusetts Bay governor was not declaring that the colony would be a model to the world, but rather that however it behaved—whether nobly or meanly—its success or failure could not be hidden.  What is worse, Metaxas entirely passes over the reality that Winthrop was not remotely talking about the mission of a future nation-state but about the particular Christian community that he led.

This conflation of the church and the nation characterizes the rest of the book.  In defining (and I would say, exaggerating) the cultural influence of evangelist George Whitefield, Metaxas says that Whitefield’s preaching had the effect of turning colonists into Americans.  To be an American (not a Christian, but an American), was to accept certain religious truths about one’s status in God’s eyes.  As Metaxas concludes in summing up Whitefield’s significance, “the Gospel of Christ . . . created an American people.”  Strange, I somehow thought that Jesus promised to build his Church on that foundation, but I guess he meant the United States.

Although Metaxas focuses on the colonial and Revolutionary eras, he does allow Abraham Lincoln to join the conversation as well.  As it turns out, Lincoln agreed with John Winthrop that the United States has a “holy calling” to be an example to the world.  Minimally encumbered by evidence, Metaxas notes that Lincoln understood that “America had been called by God,” and that “to be chosen by God—as the Jews had been chosen by God, . . . and as the messiah had been chosen by God,” was a “profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”  I’m not sure which is scarier: the analogy of the United States to Israel—God’s new chosen people—or the analogy of the United States to Christ.

The latter reminds me of a trenchant observation in Hugh Heclo’s fine book Christianity and American Democracy:  “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes.  “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.”

WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS TWEET?

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  The essay below was inspired by the whimsical cover of Parade magazine three years ago.]

As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the cover of Parade magazine back in 2013  featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.”  The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress.  The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version.  Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece was altered for laughs.  Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment.  For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.”  The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin.  What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”

The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it.  But then I began to think about it and I got depressed.  What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd.  The captions don’t fit the time and place.  What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age.  We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments.  [And in 2016, the presumptive Republican nominee for president tweets constantly.]

The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.

Founders and the ClassicsA book that drives home this point is The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it.  In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day.  After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.

Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.”  He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”

Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments.  Nor did the pattern end with American independence.  When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.

The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point.  Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece.  It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.

If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged.  But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word.  If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.”  After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  (That’s only 57 characters!)

And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait.  Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and  labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day.  His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.

Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.”  What a convicting truth.  I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.

CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION–PART II

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.

 

WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS TWEET?

Did you see this past Sunday’s Parade magazine?  As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the magazine’s cover featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.”  The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress.  The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version.  Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece is altered for laughs.  Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment.  For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.”  The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin.  What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence," from Parade Magazine, June 30, 2013

John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence,” from Parade Magazine, June 30, 2013

The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it.  But then I began to think about it and I got depressed.  What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd.  The captions don’t fit the time and place.  What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age.  We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments.

The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.

Founders and the ClassicsOne of my “summer bench books” this year has been The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it.  In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day.  After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.

Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.”  He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”

Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments.  Nor did the pattern end with American independence.  When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.

The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point.  Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece.  It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.

If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged.  But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word.  If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.”  After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  (That’s only 57 characters!)

And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait.  Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and  labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day.  His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.

Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.”  What a convicting truth.  I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.