In the summer of 1787, the nascent American experiment reached a point of crisis. Meeting inside Independence Hall amid the stifling Philadelphia heat, delegates to the Constitutional Convention could not agree on a scheme of representation for a new national government, among other contentious issues. "The fate of America," recalled Gouverneur Morris, a New York delegate, "was suspended by a hair."
Benjamin Franklin, then 81, sat quietly during most of the convention. But when the elder statesman spoke out, he commanded the room's attention. It was at this point of crisis, on June 28, that Franklin addressed George Washington in the speaker's chair and the rest of the delegates, calling for daily prayers at the convention and appeals for divine aid. The stalemate in negotiations provided "a melancholy Proof of the Imperfection of the Human Understanding," Franklin observed, and he wondered why the delegates had not "thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?":
In the Beginning of the Contest with Britain, when we were sensible of Danger, we had daily Prayers in this Room for the Divine Protection. Our Prayers, Sir, were heard;—and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engag'd in the Struggle, must have observed frequent Instances of a superintending Providence in our Favour. 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 we no longer need its 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.
Franklin's speech, replete with historical and biblical references ("GOD governs in the Affairs of Men" echoes Daniel 4:17—"the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men"), did not succeed. His motion for prayers failed due to practical considerations. There was no money to pay a chaplain; the delegates feared that reports of prayers could raise alarm among the public about the fractious deliberations; prayers could also provoke dissension among convention members of different religious sects. Washington and the delegates did, however, attend a church service in Philadelphia on July 4, where they prayed for divine favor and heard a patriotic sermon from a Baptist minister.
The exact nature of Franklin's faith remains unclear. Many of his writings suggest that, contrary to his speech at the convention, he held the deistic belief in a non-interventionist Creator and did not consider the Bible to be the revealed word of God. But he understood that the Bible contained eternal truths about human nature and that appeals to a Supreme Being could inspire humility, gratitude, and a commitment to transcending "little, partial, local Interests" for the common good.
Franklin's mastery of the Bible was not unique among the Founding Fathers. The founders "knew the Bible from cover to cover," writes Daniel Dreisbach in his superb new book, Reading the Bible With the Founding Fathers. Taking an expansive view of the term "founders" by including state lawmakers and patriot preachers with the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Dreisbach asserts that the founders' religious beliefs and biblical knowledge shaped their political thought. Most believed that "there was a Supreme Being who intervened in the affairs of men and nations," that God-given rights should not be rescinded by man, and that a government led by fallen creatures should have its power curbed by the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.
Most importantly, the founders believed that education and religion were essential to promoting the knowledge, morality, discipline, and social order necessary for self-government. As Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration and defender of biblical instruction in schools, put it, "…this divine book, above all others, favours that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism." John Adams assented in a letter to Rush, calling the Bible "the most republican book in the world" for its ability to inculcate "the most perfect morality."
To be sure, not all the founders believed in the divine origins of the Bible and Jesus Christ. Yet even deists like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine praised Jesus' moral teachings, the former calling them "the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught."
Dreisbach writes that "the shelves of a small library could be filled with all the scholarship written on [John] Locke's and Montesquieu's intellectual contributions to the founding." Yet amazingly, academics have mostly neglected the founders' study and use of the Bible—the most accessible and culturally influential book in eighteenth-century America. The late political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams went so far as to suggest that the founders "rejected or deemphasized the Bible and biblical rhetoric." The Bible was so pervasive during the founding era that it was often quoted by the founders without citations, Dreisbach notes, making it difficult for some scholars not well-versed in biblical language to detect references. Moreover, the modern academy is often dismissive or even hostile toward the study of religious influence. Dreisbach sets out to refute the notion that the Bible did not influence the founders' political discourse, and he largely succeeds.
With its short, simple, and elegant prose, the King James Bible was the most widely read and influential book in the overwhelmingly Protestant culture of early America; it became a staple for literacy education in schools, where its use was vigorously debated by the founders, as it still is today. The founders were educated at colleges that promoted a Christian mission, which, quoting another scholar, Dreisbach describes as, "The production of morally earnest Christian gentlemen, well versed in liberal learning and in the classics of Greco-Roman and Biblical high culture, who would be able to assume leadership positions in American society." The Bible was thus a source of unity for elite and common man alike, in a way that is almost inconceivable in today's fragmented culture.
This biblical education manifested itself in the founders' rhetoric. In Washington's Circular Letter to the States (1783), written as he resigned his post as commander in chief of the Continental Army, he extolled the "pure and benign light of Revelation" in the Bible as the greatest blessing to society. Washington's writings teem with biblical allusions; his favorite biblical phrase "every man under his vine and under his fig tree" (Micah 4:4) is interpreted by Dreisbach as a metaphor for self-sufficiency, property rights, and religious liberty in the new American nation. Other biblical passages frequently quoted by the founders include Proverbs 14:34—"Righteousness exalteth a nation"—and Proverbs 29:2—"When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice." Character is destiny, the founders believed, so the virtues and vices of the nations' citizens and leaders have consequences.
Dreisbach's argument is weakened somewhat by his admission that "[t]he Bible's influence … did not necessarily supersede or crowd out other influences on the founders' political thought and rhetoric," and it is sometimes unclear where the Bible ranked among other classical, Enlightenment, and English common law sources. Notwithstanding this uncertainty, he marshals more than enough evidence to support his claim that the Bible was a prominent source for the founders' political rhetoric. Indeed, he is right to assert that neglecting the role of the Bible in the founding "impoverishes our understanding of the American experiment in self-government."
America is a more diverse and pluralistic country today than it was during the founding era, and in many ways for the better. But Americans should also heed Dreisbach's contention that a nation cannot understand itself without studying its past and the ideas that motivated it. If it seems today that the liberal order is crumbling, perhaps it's worth revisiting the foundations of that order—liberal learning, biblical morality, and a notion of ordered liberty that embraces obligations toward a Creator and all human beings.