Finding God in the Constitutional Convention

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, February 7, 2017 1 comments

by Bill Fortenberry

There are many who argue that there was no significant reference to the Bible during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Christian historian Gregg Frazer of The Master’s University, for example, wrote that:

“There was precious little reference to God or the Bible in the Constitutional debates. There were a few casual references to Scripture, but they were offered only to illustrate points already made, not as a basis for principle – despite the Bible’s supposed role as the foundation for the whole document and all its parts.”

Claims such as this one are more than a little deceptive for the simple reason that we do not have a complete record of the debates of the Constitutional Convention. All that we have are a few collections of abbreviated notes and a random sampling of pre-written speeches. The most comprehensive record available comes from the notes of James Madison, but even this account is filled with short summarizations of lengthy speeches and debates. In fact, there is one place in which Madison wrote a single paragraph about a speech given by Mr. Martin and then said, “This was the substance of a speech which was continued more than three hours.”

The deception of this claim is further emphasized by the fact that there is also no mention of Locke, Montesquieu, Sydney, or Harrington and only two passing references to Blackstone in Madison’s notes, and yet it is common to hear the same historians claim that the Constitution was founded on the works of these men. In reality, Madison made few references to any of the sources which may have been cited in the various debates. His purpose appears to have been to keep a record of the bare essence of each day’s proceedings for his own personal benefit. He made no attempt to preserve an accurate account for posterity.

In light of these facts, it is very significant to note that Madison recorded Franklin’s quotation of Exodus 18:21. In direct contradiction to Frazer’s claim, this reference to Scripture played a major role in the debates regarding the Constitution. Franklin quoted this passage in response to a proposal by Mr. Pinckney that the ownership of a significant amount of property be one of the requirements for those seeking to represent their state in the House of Representatives. This proposal had been debated unsuccessfully for several days when Franklin finally stood up and presented his Biblical argument against it. Madison records that after Franklin finished speaking, “The motion of Mr. Pinckney was rejected by so general a no, that the states were not called.”

Franklin’s reference to the teachings of Scripture was the deciding factor in the decision to reject a property requirement for Representatives.

Here are a few of the other references to Scripture found in Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention:

“Mr. Read … was agst. patching up the old federal System: he hoped the idea wd. be dismissed. It would be like putting new cloth on an old garment.” (Matthew 9:16)

“Docr. Franklin … remarked the tendency of abuses in every case, to grow of themselves when once begun, and related very pleasantly the progression in ecclesiastical benefices, from the first departure from the gratuitous provision for the Apostles, to the establishment of the papal system.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

“Genl. Pinkney … It wd. seem from the ideas of some that we are erecting a Kingdom to be divided agst. itself, he disapproved such a fetter on the Legislature.” (Matthew 12:25)

“Docr. Franklin … In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, 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 G. Britain, 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 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 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 labour 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. I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings 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.” (Matthew 10:29; Psalm 127:1; Genesis 11:9)

“Mr. Govr. Morris … such is the nature of man, formed by his benevolent author no doubt for wise ends, that altho’ he knows his existence to be limited to a span, he takes his measures as if he were to live for ever.” (Luke 12:20)

“Mr. Govr. Morris. It was a precept of great antiquity as well as of high authority that we should not be righteous overmuch.” (Ecclesiastes 7:16)

“Mr Govr Morris … There was a moderation in all things.” (Philippians 4:5)

“Mr Read, thought the words, if not struck out, would be as alarming as the mark of the Beast in Revelations.” (Revelation 13:17)

“Mr. Gerry thought this the last point remaining to be surrendered. If it be agreed to by the Convention, the plan will have as black a mark as was set on Cain.” (Genesis 4:15)

As you can see from this list, many Scripture passages were referenced during the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, and there could be more that weren’t recorded in notes as well.

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David Odegard said...

I heartily enjoy your blogs. Keep up the writing.