It was 1777. The Second Continental Congress had successfully passed the Declaration of Independence a year ago, and the War for Independence was still ongoing. Unity was critical; it had made the passage of the aforementioned document possible, even while many within the different states objected to its approval.
But now that unity was needed more than ever. A select committee had been assigned a year earlier to determine the form of government the colonies would adopt. Now their proposal lay before Congress; indeed, this was the key moment which would determine the fate of the Articles of Confederation.
It passed. By 1781, many across the nation, no doubt, let out sighs of relief after the last state, Maryland, ratified the document, legitimizing the new government, and giving the new Congress the leeway it needed to focus efforts on the impending end of the current war.
It wasn’t long however before delegates began to find the newly-installed system almost completely unworkable. Among other problems, with no source of revenue besides the rare graciousness of individual colonies, Congress was left with little to nothing to work with in addressing over $40 million dollars in accumulated war debt.
Finally the proposition was made to assemble with the sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation to resolve such problems. Almost every colony agreed, and, soon after the Annapolis Convention, a rather extensive meeting was held at Independence Hall.
The process did not go as many had envisioned or planned. Proposals and subsequent debates of these proposals were so long and arduous that it wasn’t long at all before the idea of revising the Articles was essentially scrapped. Edmond Randolph, in fact, is widely credited with making the proposal to “rebuild” the governing document.
This was agreed to. But along with this came the predictable questions, such as, “What design of government will we adopt? What representational system will we use? What will the powers of this new government be? And, can the diverse colonies acclimate themselves to work within this new institution?”
As a result of these trying questions, the conflict between opposing sides became, not surprisingly, divisive and heated. It didn’t get better over time; weeks into the Convention, the presiding officer, George Washington himself, wrote to Alexander Hamilton in despair, saying, “I almost despair of seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent of having had any agency in the business.”
A month went by, and still the monotony of discussion continued. The tempers of some of the finest statesmen in our Founding Era continued to simmer and flare. Some, fed up with the seemingly endless discourse getting nowhere, left. Even the very few who were working overtime to arrive at a solution realized the futility of their situation.
But then, something happened. Right when it seemed to many delegates as if they would fruitlessly adjourn, the respected orator, Benjamin Franklin, gave an ardent speech which touched the heart of almost every individual within the room.
In his speech, he recognized that the efforts those assembled had made in achieving the “…small progress we have made after…close attendance & continual reasonings with each other…” were evident of the “…melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding.”
He went on to ask, “In this situation of this Assembly…how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings…when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection – Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & 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. To that 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 his assistance?”
He continued, “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?
“We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.
“And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.”
Proposing a solution, he concluded, “I therefore beg leave to move – that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.”
The motion was almost at once supported, yet ultimately struck down, albeit for practical reasons. Soon thereafter, Mr. Randolph, in compromise fashion, proposed, “That a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on the 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence; & thereforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning.” This measure was readily approved, and upon that July 4th, all worshipped together at the Reformed Calvinistic Lutheran Church in Philadelphia.
Did this act bring about that much needed unity to bring the Constitution into being? George Washington is recorded as thinking so, writing, “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States (which States you know are different from each other in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices), should unite in forming a system of nation Government, so little liable to well founded objections.”
Dr. David Gibbs of the Christian Law Association agreed with this assessment as well. In his book Understanding The Constitution, he writes, “While some difficulties continued to arise before the conclusion of the Convention’s business in September, the delegates apparently never returned to the fruitless acrimony that had existed prior to June 28th.”
Just think about that! That the invocation of the name of God in the process of the Constitutional Convention was smiled down upon by our Heavenly Father above! Without such favor shown us during the creation of our governing document, it is highly doubtful that the many different delegates would have been able to craft such an adoptable, working Constitution that survives to this very day!
It should be only natural and with great confidence that we can say as George Washington did, “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle…”