On Thursday, June 28, 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Congress found themselves at an impasse over the makeup of a projected bicameral legislature. The large states hoped for representation based on population; the small states argued for equal legislative footing in both houses.
A recent visit to Philadelphia reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s response to these legislative loggerheads and its relevance for contemporary politicians. If not, the relationship between problem-solving and prayer in the private and public sphere — be it in our families, workplace, or community organizations — still bears our consideration.
Franklin acknowledged that the delegates had exhausted logical arguments, contemporary examples of legislative bodies in Europe, and precedents from history, in resolving their problem. This quandary, indeed, had chewed up valuable time. “The small progress we have made after four or five weeks,” he noted more precisely, “is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding.”
Implicitly, he was commending his fellow delegates for being what model public servants should be — gathered together to make concessions to solve problems that transcend parochial interests. He voiced his confidence that they all intended to find a workable solution so as not to have spent the entire summer in vain.
He, the secular sage of America’s Enlightenment, invited them to consider how prayer had illumined solutions to greater problems in their recent war with Great Britain.
He knew — as he believed all present knew — that proof of that assistance had been made plain over time. “Our prayers, Sir,” he said, directing his words towards George Washington’s chair raised upon the dais at the front of the hall, “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.”
He then delivered the gist of his peroration: “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?”
Now that they were considering the question of governing the new nation, why would they not invoke the help of heaven as they had during the tempestuous revolution?
While Franklin’s arm’s length deism had softened over time, he had, since the time he was a young man, looked heavenward for knowledge and guidance that would pave the path to success in his own endeavors.
He had similarly written in his autobiography:
“Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme! O teach me what is good; teach me Thyself! Save me from folly, vanity, and vice, From every low pursuit; and fill my soul with knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure; sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!”
In both instances, prayer and problem-solving worked together.
In closing, he warned his fellow delegates back in Philadelphia that if they failed to call upon heaven in their deliberations, their efforts would meet a fate similar to the tower of Babel: dashed upon the rocks of partisan interests — dooming Americans to the caprices of catastrophe, cunning and contingency.
James Madison recorded this extraordinary passage from his privileged perch near the front of Independence Hall, the same edifice where the Declaration of Independence and the ill-fated Articles of Confederation had been approved as well.
An intellectual with impeccable Enlightenment credentials, Franklin chose to weigh the evidence gathered over a lifetime of God’s interest in “the affairs of men,” and especially in solving the problems that frustrated self-government.
While prayer retains a place in Congress today, the same rules apply to finding answers to problems that confront our families, communities, businesses and private civic organizations.
Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. He is currently the faculty-director in residence at Brigham Young University’s Washington, D.C.-based Barlow Center.