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God Governs in the Affairs of Men: The Story of the Constitutional Convention

God Governs in the Affairs of Men: The Story of the Constitutional Convention

“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of Providential agency.” George Washington

In times of trouble, leaders must choose whether they will fall on their knees before God’s throne, depending on His providence and wisdom, or whether they will rely on themselves. As a country struggling for wisdom in so many areas, we would do well to remember and obey the admonition of Benjamin Franklin who once begged his compatriots to cry out to God in their distress, pleading for His help and guidance.


 The Story of The Constitutional Convention

The creation of a new government hung in the balance.  After almost five weeks of intense study and debate, of yeas and nays, of discord and acrimony, the Convention was at a standstill.  Faced with the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were charged with drafting a workable document that would frame the government – the future – of the new nation. Tensions were running high.  In addition to the heat and the bugs, causing misery from without, the delegates struggled with misery from within, battling divisive self interest, distrust and a lack of knowledge of how to accomplish such an overwhelming, pioneering task.  Though most were Christians, they had forgotten God’s admonition, “Call on Me and I will answer thee and tell you great and mighty things which you have not known.”  They needed to “acknowledge Him” so that “He could direct their paths,” but they were not praying. Big states against small, they were fighting for their rights.

Our fledgling nation was in danger of losing what it had fought so hard to obtain. But, just when there seemed to be no hope of finding an effective human solution, God worked. From the pit of frustration and despair, Benjamin Franklin rose to speak:

“The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, 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. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His 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. 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 be become a reproach and a bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may, after this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg 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.”

Although there is conflicting evidence of the Convention’s response to this plea, a number of amazing events followed:

1.  In response, Virginia’s delegate, Mr. Randolph, recommended that a sermon be preached six days later, on the 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence, and that thence forward prayers be used in the Convention every morning.  This was done.

2.  Amazingly, despite the long previous history of discord, on July 5th, the day after this sermon, the Great Compromise plan was embraced. This effectively settled the delegates’ major struggles, allowing them to work together and complete the Constitution, a political document of unparalleled insight and success.

3.  On April 9, 1789, the Constitutional Convention implemented Franklin’s recommendation and appointed two paid chaplains – one to the Senate and one to the House. This practice continues to this day.

As we search for wisdom today to address the seemingly insurmountable problems which face our country from without and within, we would do well to heed Franklin’s insights both on man’s helplessness and, more importantly, on our need for the Providential hand of God. He correctly discerned that his generation was groping in the dark to find political truth while not applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate their understanding.  Will we?