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America’s Founding: “With a Firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence”

September 26, 2019

The First Prayer in Congress by T. H. Matheson, 1848.   Rev. Jacob Duché led the opening prayer on September 7, 1774, at the First Continental Congress held at Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia.

During the American Revolution, when the American Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence to form the new nation of the United States, they included principles in the document that characterized America’s founding philosophy.  One of these principles was the idea of God as “Divine Providence.”  The Founders concluded the Declaration by stating, “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor [emphasis mine].”  Their description shows that they acknowledged and upheld a Judeo-Christian, Bible-based view of God as actively involved in the lives of human beings.  Such were the views of many early Americans, which greatly impacted their thoughts and actions at that time.

Veering from the Enlightenment’s deistic view of God as uninvolved in the world, many early Americans’ recognized a biblical God or “Divine Providence” who intervenes in the lives, events, and affairs of men.  In the midst of a fallen world corrupted by sin, this God cares for and guides people by His wisdom and love and for His divine purpose.  This perspective comes from the Bible which describes God as “wonderful in counsel and excellent in guidance” [Isaiah 28:29], “’my refuge and my fortress’” [Psalm 91:2], and someone who “cares for you” [1 Peter 5:7].  It was understood by Jews and Christians through history.  It was acknowledged by the early church, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, and the colonial American Puritans and Awakeners.

This Judeo-Christian view of a providential God was widely recognized by and impacted early Americans of the revolutionary and founding eras, including many founders and congressmembers.  For example, in his 1776 political sermon The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, Declaration signer and Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon spoke of Providence as many colonists generally understood it, as a wise and directing presence in their lives.  He preached, “He [God] overrules all his creatures, and all their actions.  …  …It is the duty of every good man to place the most unlimited confidence in divine wisdom, and to believe that those measures of providence that are most unintelligible to him, are yet planned with the same skill, and directed to the same great purposes as others….[i]

It was with this belief that the First and Second Continental Congresses sought God’s guidance and favor and encouraged the people to do the same during the Revolutionary War.  The First Continental Congress of 1774 appointed congressional chaplains and began the practice of opening sessions with prayer.  The first opening prayer was led on September 7, 1774, by Rev. Jacob Duché who also read from Psalm 35, the scripture of the day in the Book of Common Prayer.  Duché’s prayer, as it were, also reflected a biblical view of a providential God.  He prayed, …

Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart c1800-1815

As Declaration signer John Adams noted in a letter to his wife, Abigail, this devotional greatly encouraged the delegates facing war.  He observes, “You must remember this was the next morning after we heard the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston.  I never saw a greater effect upon an audience.  It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning.  After this, Mr. Duché, unexpected to everybody, struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present.”[iii]  Believing that their cause was just and that God would help and guide them, the colonists were encouraged and emboldened to fight for their freedom.

In addition to maintaining chaplains and congressional prayer, the Second Continental Congress of 1775-1781 frequently proclaimed national days of public fasting and prayer to beseech God’s favor during the war; proclaimed days of public praise and thanksgiving to God for His blessings, every year from 1777 through 1784; appointed military chaplains; exhorted the Continental Army to practice godly behavior; and attributed successes to God.  They also affirmed God’s providence on numerous occasions.  In their first day of “public humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1775, for instance, they acknowledged that “the great Governor of the World, by his supreme and universal Providence, not only conducts the course of nature with unerring wisdom and rectitude, but frequently influences the minds of men to serve the wise and gracious purposes of his providential government” and “our indispensable duty devoutly to acknowledge his superintending providence…, to revere and adore his immutable justice as well as to implore his merciful interposition for our deliverance.”[iv]  In a 1781 Congressional Proclamation during the war, they expressed, “Through the whole of the contest [revolution], from its first rise to this time, the influence of divine Providence may be clearly perceived in many signal instances.”[v] Indeed, Congress played a large role in promoting in the colonies a reliance on Divine Providence throughout the revolution.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, 1791.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, c1785

Even the few American Founders who some claim were deist, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, specifically expressed the belief that God is active in the world.  Jefferson, after all, was the primary author of the Declaration with its “Divine Providence.”  Later, in a 1815 letter to Baptist minister and abolitionist David Barrow, former President Jefferson again acknowledged Providence.  He writes, “We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a superior agent.  Our efforts are in His hand, and directed by it; and He will give them their effect in his own time.”[vi]  Similarly, when the 1787 Constitutional Convention almost fell apart, during a long and difficult deadlock among representatives in their drafting of the United States Constitution, Declaration and Constitution signer Franklin stood up and gave an impassioned speech advising delegates to remember God’s aid during the revolution and to pray again for God’s direction in constructing their government.  In this speech, Franklin expressed with striking biblical illustrations his view of a providential God.  In doing so, he alluded to Bible verses including Job 12:25, James 1:17, Matthew 10:29-31, Luke 12:6-7, Psalm 127:1, Genesis 11:1-9, Deuteronomy 28:37, and others.  He exhorts, … 

Since God had answered their prayers during the revolution, Franklin offered, the Founders could rely on God to help them construct the new nation and its laws.  Soon after, the convention deadlock was broken, and the discussions continued successfully.  Such expressions of God’s intervention in human affairs clearly departed from the deist view of a distant, passive God in favor of a near, loving God as conveyed in the Bible.

Portrait of James Madison by James Vanderlyn, 1816.

Indeed, the ultimate formation of the new nation and adoption of the U. S. Constitution was, to the Founders, a miraculous accomplishment.  That the states overcame so many differences and came together in unity was, in their minds, the work of God.  Constitution architect James Madison expressed in Federalist Paper 37 his belief that the success of the Constitution was due to God’s assistance.  He writes,

The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected.  …  It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.[viii]

Franklin was also convinced that God was instrumental in the founding of the nation.  Alluding to Acts 17:26-28, he expresses,

…I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance to the welfare of millions now existing, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior spirits live, and move, and have their being [Acts 17:26-28].[ix]

Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, c1818

Declaration signer Benjamin Rush likewise expressed God’s role in the formation of the New Republic:

I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of [divine] inspiration, but I am perfectly satisfied, that the union of the states, in its form and adoption, is as much the work of divine providence, as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament were the effects of a divine power.  ‘Tis done!  We have become a nation.[x]

In making countless references to Divine Providence in their prayers, speeches, writings, and actions during the revolutionary and founding eras, many early Americans clearly upheld and frequently expressed a philosophical worldview that recognized a providential God as known from the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition.  This God, they believed, has a divine plan and provides guidance and care for mankind.  Notably, early Americans’ faith in and reliance on the protection of Divine Providence—as indicated, among other places, in the Declaration—gave them courage to fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War.  Without such faith, the revolution would never have occurred.  What is more, this faith instilled in them and their diverse thirteen colonies a desire and capacity to come together and unite under a new civil order and an agreed-upon body of laws.  In both feats of revolution and national construction, Americans believed that Divine Providence could and did help their cause—granting them the blessing of a free constitutional republic.

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[i]  John Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” 17 May 1776, in The Works of John Witherspoon, in Three Volumes, vol. 2, ed. John Rodgers (Philadelphia, PA:  William W. Woodward, 1800), 408, 410.

[ii]  Benson John Lossing, ed., Harper’s Encyclopaedia of United States History from 458 A.D. to 1906:  Based Upon the Plan of Benson John Lossing, volume 3 (New York:  Harper & Bros., 1906), 158;  United States Congressional Record:  Proceedings and Debates of the 85th Congress, First Session, vol. 103, Part 2, Aug 9-21, 1957 (Washington DC, Government Printing Office, 1957), 14805.

[iii]  John Adams to Abigail Adams, Philadelphia, 16 September 1774, Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams During the Revolution, ed. Charles F. Adams (New York:  Hurd and Houghton, 1876), 37, 38.

[iv]  United States Continental Congress, Congressional Resolution, Monday, June 12, 1775, in United States Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 2/May 10-Sept 20, 1775, ed. Worthington C. Ford (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1905), 87-88.

[v]  United States Continental Congress, Congressional Resolution, Treasury Office, October 26, 1781, in United States Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 21/July23-Dec 31, 1781, ed. Gaillard Hunt (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1912), 1075.

[vi]  Thomas Jefferson to David Barrow, Monticello, 1 May 1815, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Definitive ed., vol. 13-14, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, DC:  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 297.

[vii]  James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, vol. 3/1787:  The Journal of the Constitutional Convention, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902), 310-311; Dreisbach, “Bible in the Political Rhetoric,” 17-18.  Job 12:24-25:  “He [God] takes away the understanding of the chiefs of the people of the earth, And makes them wander in a pathless wilderness.  They grope in the dark without light, And He makes them stagger like a drunken man.”  James 1:17:  “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”  Daniel 4:17:  “‘The Most High rules in the kingdom of men.’”  Matthew 10:29-31 (Luke 12:6-7):  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside of your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows [NIV].”  Psalm 127:1:  “Unless the Lord builds the house, They labor in vain who build it….”  Genesis 11:1-9:  “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.  …  And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.  And the Lord said, ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.  Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  Deuteronomy 28:15, 37:  “‘If you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes…all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.  … You shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where the Lord will drive you.’”  1 Kings 9:6-7:  “If you or your sons at all turn from following Me…, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight.  Israel will be a proverb and a byword among all peoples.”  Psalm 44:13-14:  “You make us a reproach to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to those all around us.  You make us a byword among the nations….”

[viii]  James Madison, Federalist Paper #37, The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 230-31.

[ix]  Benjamin Franklin, “A Comparison of the Conduct of the Ancient Jews and of the Anti-Federalists in the United States of America,” in The Works of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5, ed. Jared Sparks (New York:  Hillard, Gray, and Co., 1837), 162.  Franklin alluded to Acts 17:26-28 in which the Apostle Paul states, “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’”

[x]  Benjamin Rush, Observations on the Fourth of July Procession in Philadelphia, in Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, vol. 18, eds. John P. Kaminski, Richard Leffler, and Gaspare J. Saladino (Madison, WI:  State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976), 266; Benjamin Rush, Observations on the Federal Procession of the Fourth of July, 1788, in the City of Philadelphia, in a Letter From a Gentleman in This City to His Friend in a Neighboring State, in Sarah Alcock, A Brief History of the Revolution (Philadelphia, PA:  Published by Sarah Alcock, 1843), 109-110.  See also Pennsylvania Mercury, 15 July 1788, reprinted in American Museum, July 1788.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
3.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
4.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation
5.  Who Were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
6.  The Pilgrim’s Mayflower Compact as Covenant
7.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
8.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
9.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans came to America
10.  How the American Puritans were like the Bible’s Israelites
11.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
12.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War

13.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
14.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
15.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
16.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
17.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
18.  The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness
19.  The American Social Contract
20.  The American Right of Revolution
21.  America’s Founding Philosophy:  God as Supreme Judge, Lawgiver, and King

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 10:  Concepts in the Declaration of Independence, p. 254.  MS-HS.

Concepts in the Declaration of Independence….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Supreme Judge and Divine Providence, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty and Consent of the Governed, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract.  Students will consider the definition/meaning, explanation, and context of each principle.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related articles/videos (see above).

Activity:  Declaration Principle Chart
Have students consider the Bible-based and philosophical concepts incorporated in the Declaration of Independence.  In the appropriate columns on charts, students (in pairs or small groups) research and write down the source(s) from which each concept was derived and the concept’s meaning, explanation, and/or context in their own words.  See the “Concepts in the Declaration of Independence” principle chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this Miracle of American HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 388.  This activity may also be found in chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 241.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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