In part 1 of this series, we examined America’s dependence on God in the Pilgrim era. Now, jumping forward to 1776, we see that the Founders reaffirmed this dependence, confessing in the Declaration of Independence their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

As was true of the Pilgrims, the Founders’ nods to Providence were not merely rhetorical. Although they were, perhaps, not as ardently Christian as the Puritans before them, they unquestionably lived out their firm reliance on God and extolled the “indispensable” religion of Jesus Christ. Indeed, many argued that independence would not have been possible if not for that religion.

“The general principles on which the Fathers achieved Independence were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young gentlemen could unite,” wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. “And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity…. Now I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”

“It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Patrick Henry agreed. However, he noted that this did not mandate religion, but rather, established our conviction in freedom of religion. “For this very reason,” he continued, “peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”

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If God did not force His creation to worship Him but gave them free will, government dare not coerce religious worship either. Thomas Jefferson concurred in Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom: “Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others…. We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Clearly, Jefferson did not hesitate to invoke God even in his government capacity. As Patrick Henry argued, even religious freedom was derived from—and, therefore, dependent on—God.

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By 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, however, Benjamin Franklin feared the young nation had already strayed from that foundation. Even as the Convention stalled and failure seemed imminent, the doctor—admittedly a very non-religious Founder—extemporaneously declared:

“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, 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. 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? 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.”

With that, the nation’s eyes were once again turned to the God who had made them great in the first place. Franklin’s words served as a stirring reminder—not just to that generation, but for all Americans of every time—of the nation’s proper place under God. If ever America forgot “that powerful friend,” Franklin was certain, her future success would be insecure. And as we will see next week, that conviction continued for decades to come.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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