Why Ben Franklin Called for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention

In observance of Constitution Day, I am posting an editorial I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in May. It draws from my recent religious biography of Franklin, published by Yale University Press. The text of the unamended Constitution is notably secular, save for references like the “Year of our Lord” 1787. But the lack of religion in the document does not mean the topic went unmentioned at the Constitutional Convention. Several weeks into the proceedings, the octogenarian Benjamin Franklin proposed that the meetings open with prayer. “How has it happened,” he pondered, according to a copy of the speech in Franklin’s papers, “that we have not, hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?” This was a poignant but peculiar suggestion coming from Franklin, the great printer, scientist and diplomat. He described himself in his autobiography as a “thorough deist” who as a teenager had rejected the Puritan faith of his parents. Why would Franklin ask the Philadelphia delegates to begin their daily deliberations with prayer? Even stranger, few convention attendees supported the proposal. A couple of devout delegates seconded his motion, but it fizzled among the other participants. Franklin scribbled a note at the bottom of his prayer speech lamenting, “The Convention except three or four Persons, thought Prayers unnecessary!” If Franklin truly was a deist, he wasn’t a very good one. Doctrinaire deists believed in a distant Creator, one who did not intervene in human history, and certainly not one who would respond to prayers. Yes, Franklin questioned basic points of Christianity, including Jesus’ divine nature. Yet his childhood immersion in the Puritan faith, and his relationships with traditional Christians through his adult life, kept him tethered to his parents’ religion. If he was not a Christian, he often sounded and acted like… Read More

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No Law! Yes, Really

David Gay has issued, and very quickly published, in pdf and audio-sermon form, a critique of my comment in the New Covenant Grace group. Sadly, every single one of his criticisms is flawed and invalid. He quotes me: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control against such things there is no law (Galatians 5 vs23 ESV). This verse is indisputable. It cannot be implied that Paul only intends to say that the law of Moses alone is not in play – he plainly says ‘NO LAW OF ANY KIND And this indicates that when he says, so many times, elsewhere, that the believer is not ‘under law , he also means ‘ not under any law Not merely ‘no longer under the law of Moses , as some would like to have it, although the Gentile never was anyway. Comments on DG’s pdf. His words in bold: 1. I freely admit that the phrase ‘the law of Christ is not used in any of those passages, but what else can they be referring to? (Quoting various passages) Note: So this is a presupposed conclusion, from elsewhere, which has been imposed on these texts. I, and others, have commented on the passages he mentions elsewhere, and shown how they do not indicate or imply that they belong in a collated ‘law of Christ’. 2. 1. If these two believers are right, this can only mean that believers, not being under any law, are not under the law of the land in which they live, and they do not have to obey it. Note: This is quite evidently not what the original statement is about. The ‘no law’ statement in Galatians 5 is concerned with God’s law, not man’s law. This is a… Read More

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The Chance of Salvation: An Interview with Lincoln Mullen

In today’s post I am interviewing Lincoln A. Mullen about his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press). Mullen is assistant professor of history and art history at George Mason University. [TK] You note that “religious identity in the United States is profoundly a matter of individual choice,” and that it has been that way since at least the era of the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s). How does this focus on individual choice set America apart from much of the rest of the world? Lincoln Mullen [LM] That idea that religion is a choice more than an inheritance developed in a set of circumstances particular to the United States. The disestablishment of religion freed different religious groups not just to hold religious beliefs but, as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom says, “by argument to maintain” them. Protestant and Catholic missionaries made persistent efforts to proselytize, while members of other religions such as American Jews tried (often successfully) to resist them. New religious groups—whether the Methodists who had next to no adherents in the United States in the 1780s, or the Mormons who grew from nothing following Joseph Smith’s revelations in the 1830s—brought even more religious options to the table. Over time, more and more Americans felt the pressure to convert between religions. The result is that today Americans switch religions more frequently than people in any other country. You say that as conversion became more central to American religion, America became both more religious, and more secular. How can that be simultaneously true? Most people probably understand secular in the sense of lacking a religious affiliation. For a long time scholars of religion batted around the (now discredited) idea that as societies become more modern, they become less religious. But in the United States,… Read More

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A Crucial Question

Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23 “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the question asked by the enquirer we have come to refer to as ‘the rich, young ruler’. Who was he? Mark just calls him ‘a man’. Matthew tells us he was a ‘young man’. Luke tells us he was a ruler. And all three gospels identify that he went away sad at Jesus’ answer ‘because he had great wealth’. How did he address Jesus? Mark, with his normal attention to important eye-witness details, tells us that he ‘ran up to Jesus’. Two gospels say that he addressed Jesus as ‘good teacher’. The third, that he asked about ‘what good thing must I do’. What did he ask? Two gospels say he asked what he must do to ‘inherit’ eternal life. Matthew just says ‘get eternal life’. How did Jesus answer? Jesus questioned the question. He queried the young man’s use of the word ‘good’. Whether ‘good teacher’ was polite and respectful, or ‘good thing’ was a generalisation, Jesus evidently wanted to make plain that ‘goodness’ is not a relative thing – it is absolute. And only God Himself is ‘all good’. Everything and everyone else which or whom we might consider eligible for that description is flawed in some way. I think Jesus was getting the young man to think “Why am I asking this Jesus about this? Why do I think He is qualified to answer?” Thus the Lord turns the focus of the question from ‘the thing to do’ to ‘the person to ask’. Himself. And implicit in the consideration of this is the stunning conclusion that Jesus Himself is God! Jesus then points to what the man already knows (“You know the commandments”). Pleasing God, in the old covenant, was about keeping… Read More

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The Law Was Given Through Moses

Because some are asserting that God’s law is expansive – even eternal – so that all men everywhere and at all times are always under some version or other of that law, I want to spend some time examining what the Bible knows about these various ‘Laws’. The insistence, as far as I can see it, is threefold: That law and law-keeping is a fundamental and essential attribute of man’s relationship with God, in whatever covenant, or even no covenant, he happens to be. That certain of God’s moral requirements, expressed as commandments (laws), overarch the whole of human history, and that they have always been ‘issued’ for mankind to obey in some form or other. That the breaking of God’s law is always the definition of ‘sin’, and ‘sin’ is always that. I want to suggest that God’s word only knows of one, complete, God-given Law – the Law of Moses – whatever other commands and communications there were to others at various times. That the designation of that as God’s Law was unique and never repeated. And that the heart of the new covenant – Christ’s covenant – is completely contrasted to it, not paralleled. ‘THE’ Law My first argument is simple. It is seen, for example in this verse from John’s gospel prologue:“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. …Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the… Read More

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Is the Term ‘Evangelical’ Redeemable?

Before the 2016 election, I was comfortable with using the term “evangelical” for people like me, in spite of the problems with it. Now I am not so sure. The reason is that, whatever its historic value, the word “evangelical” in America has become inextricably tied to Republican politics. This is because the dominant media is far more interested in the political expressions of religion than in religion itself. But it is also because strong majorities of white evangelicals support Republican candidates, including Donald Trump. Because it has become inextricably politicized, “evangelical” has become an essentially divisive term among Bible-believing Christians, as many African Americans, Hispanics, and others cannot identify with the political ramifications of being an “evangelical,” especially after the election of President Trump. Kevin DeYoung, Mika Edmondson, and Russell Moore had an excellent discussion at TGC about the problems and use of the term: [embedded content] In a previous post at this blog, I addressed how politics and polled killed the term “evangelical.” In American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican. George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by this development. These early evangelicals were fighting specifically against cultural Christianity, which was politicized in state churches. In their day, if you lived in Britain or its colonies, and had been baptized as an infant, you were regarded as a Christian. No questions asked. Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening preached against nominalism and national faith, declaring that you must be born again. The born-again believer would find a radically different, kingdom-minded way of life in the community of the redeemed. Much has changed since the 1700s, and the change seems to have accelerated since the 1980s. I would point to… Read More

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An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today

​Like many Americans, we are grieved by recent events in Charlottesville. The white supremacist rally there showed that overt racism is alive and well in America, and that it can turn violent and murderous. As Christian scholars of American history, politics, and law, we condemn white supremacy and encourage frank dialogue about racism today. ​As Americans, we love our country. As Christians, we know that no individual, people, or nation is perfect. Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not. Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes. And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination. What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years. ​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do. ​Even as we condemn racism, we recognize that the First Amendment legally protects even very offensive speech. Rather than trying to silence those with whom we disagree, or to meet violence with more violence,… Read More

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How to Survive Graduate School

As a new semester begins, it is a good time to reflect on the practices that students—particularly graduate students and seminarians—need to survive and even thrive. Graduate programs are designed to make you part of a guild of practitioners or professionals, and require an enormous amount of reading and writing in order to prepare you for those professional credentials. The rigors of a graduate program are tough. Graduate students’ relationships, and mental and physical health often suffer. Many students never really adjust to the proper mentality of a graduate student—they’re still in the cycles of procrastination and all-nighters that they adopted as undergrads. This will not cut it any more. Though I took some bumps and bruises, I did manage to survive graduate school. Partly this was because I had a wonderful doctoral adviser who cared about his students as people. Partly it was because I was part of a supportive cohort of students. I also had helpful, understanding parents, and the University of Notre Dame offered me financial support on which I could reasonably live and eat. Prospective students will want to gauge such factors when they’re making decisions about where to go—or even IF to go to a humanities or social sciences graduate program, given the dismal state of the job market. There are three key practices that will help graduate students survive their programs and end up as healthy as possible on the other end. First is learning to read like a graduate student. I once estimated that during doctoral coursework at Notre Dame, I needed to be reading about seven books a week. A book a week for each of my classes, plus books I needed to read for research papers or other responsibilities, added up to about seven a week. “Reading” in this context cannot mean reading each… Read More

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The One Must-Read Book for Reformation 500

I was recently asked about the one book I would recommend for churchgoers to learn about the history and ongoing relevance of the Reformation. As the actual 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation approaches in October, many churches and pastors may be interested in recommending such a book. So I approached several experts for their answers. Scott Manetsch, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon, 1950). “This classic biography of Martin Luther remains unsurpassed as the best popular introduction to late medieval religion and the complex mental and religious world of the great German reformer.” John D. Wilsey, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Stephen J. Nichols’s The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Crossway, 2007). “This is an accessible read for folks who have a basic knowledge of the timeline and big names of the Reformation, but struggle to see how it remains pertinent 500 years later. Nichols’s writing style is absorbing and persuasive in this helpful read, and the book is a good starter for anyone interested in going further in Reformation history.” Beth Allison Barr, Baylor University: Peter Marshall, The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009) “at $6, this provides a solid historical overview that is also easy to read”; Lucy Wooding, Henry VIII 2d ed. (Routledge, 2015), slightly more expensive but “a solid overview of the man who, in many ways, has come to epitomize the English Reformation”; and Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England (Fortress, 1973), “an introduction to notable figures such as Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, as well as less well known folk such as Charlotte de Bourbon and Catherine Parr.” Tal Howard, Valparaiso University: “For Luther’s life, I would recommend Roland Bainton’s old classic Here I Stand. For Reformation theology, I would recommend Alastair McGrath’s… Read More

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Martin Luther King, Conformity, and the ‘Age of Jumboism’

In late 1954, Martin Luther King had just been installed as the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He preached a sermon on Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of Go.” (KJV). In the sermon, he addressed the spirit of conformity that marked the 1950s, but his words seem immediately relevant to the church today. Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Public Domain. Instead of making history we are made by history. The philosopher Nietzche once said that every man is a hammer or an anvil, that is to say every man either molds society or is molded by society. Who can doubt that most men today are anvils, continually being molded by the patterns of the majority? Along with this has grown a deep worship of bigness. Especially in this country many people are impressed by nothing that is not big—big cities, big churches, big corporations. We all are tempted to worship size. We live in an age of “Jumboism” whose men find security in that which is large in number and extensive in size. Men are afraid to stand alone for their convictions. There are those who have high and noble ideals, but they never reveal them because they are afraid of being nonconformist. I have seen many white people who sincerely oppose segregation and discrimination, but they never took a real stand against it because of fear of standing alone. I have seen many young people and older people alike develop undesirable habits not because they wanted to do it in the beginning, not even because they enjoyed it, but because they were ashamed of saying “no” when the rest of the group was… Read More

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A Brief History of the Altar Call

By the mid-20th century, altar calls had become a staple of evangelical and Baptist life in America, especially in the South. Many evangelical and Reformed-leaning churches in recent years have stopped doing altar calls, for a variety of reasons. Critics of altar calls have pointed out that they have no strong biblical basis, and that they were part of the “New Measures” introduced by Charles Finney in the later stages of the Second Great Awakening. In his anti-revivalist tract The Anxious Bench (1843), theologian John Williamson Nevin admitted that Finney’s “anxious bench” tactic was sometimes associated with real revivals. (Finney invited the unconverted to come to this bench at front of the room to pray, and to be prayed for, often resulting in an emotional breakthrough for the person.) But, Nevin wrote, Spurious revivals are common, and as the fruit of them, false conversions lamentably abound. An anxious bench may be crowded, where no divine influence whatever is felt. . . . Hundreds may be carried through the process of anxious bench conversion, and yet their last state may be worse than the first. Evangelists such as Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday also employed invitations to come to the front of the preaching hall. For Sunday, the journey to the front in response to a gospel invitation became known as “hitting the sawdust trail,” as recently explained by Justin Taylor. Billy Graham issued the most famous invitations of all, telling people “your friends will wait for you” as the choir sang “Just as I Am.” Although some have made a sharp distinction between the era of Finney’s “New Measures” and the theologically pristine revivalism of the First Great Awakening, there were signs of calls for an immediate response to the gospel from First Great Awakening evangelists, including George Whitefield. Whitefield at the 1742… Read More

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The Banner of Truth Trust Turns 60 Years Old

Iain Murray is 86 years old. Sixty years ago today, along with Jack Cullum and Sidney Norton, officially founded Banner of Truth, the Reformed-evangelical publisher that began out of Westminster Chapel in London in 1957. It is headquartered today in Edinburgh, Scotland, with distribution offices in Carlyle, Pennsylvania. Here is a 15-minute overview of the non-profit publisher’s history and distinctives: [embedded content] The Banner’s website recounts some of the historical background: By late 1956, Iain Murray was in London as an assistant to Dr Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel. One of his duties was to take a Wednesday night meeting. Initially this meeting was to be a biblical exposition, but Lloyd-Jones changed this, and under his direction, Iain Murray was tasked with giving addresses on church history. One of those who regularly attended these Wednesday night meetings was a businessman, Jack Cullum. In his forties, dark haired, and standing 6ft 4ins tall (1.93m), he was a distinguished-looking character. As he listened to the addresses on church history and heard of the way that God had worked in times past, learned of the people God had used and what they believed, he was prompted to meet with the speaker and ask how it was that this thrilling history of the church was so little known to contemporary Christians. Iain Murray’s answer was that quite simply it was because the books that told of these things, that were so rich in information and teaching, were almost all long out-of-print and consequently known to very few. When in the recent past second-hand Puritan books had been available, no one had wanted them and therefore British publishers generally took the view that such old titles were unsaleable and not worth reprinting. To most publishers of the day, the emphasis of that literature was not congenial to much… Read More

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What Andrew Jackson Could Teach Donald Trump about Religion

We are pleased to run this guest post by Dr. Miles Smith IV, assistant professor of history at Regent University and a historian of the South and Atlantic world, specializing in the Nineteenth Century United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles. Certain Evangelical leaders friendly to Donald Trump recently prayed over the president. Photographs of the event emerged, and the image presented a visceral image of the presidency being cloaked in the mantle of certain sectors of Evangelical Christianity friendly to the President’s ideals and image. Dubbed “Court Evangelicals” by Messiah College professor John Fea, these religious leaders argue that Trump is—or is becoming—a Christian man worthy of emulation. Hanging over the praying ministers was a portrait of the president Trump claims to admire most: Andrew Jackson. Perhaps unbeknownst to those in the room, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) had been offered a similar religious blessing by Christian leaders. Jackson, however, consciously refused to claim God’s protection on his presidency. He believed that it was presumptuous and inappropriate to claim any special favor from God in his presidency, a caution not shared by his successor in 2017. Similarities between Presidents Jackson and Trump Historians have noted a few similarities shared by the seventh and forty-fifth presidents. (Professor Thomas Kidd of Baylor University wrote an excellent primer at this blog on how Evangelicals might begin to conceptualize comparisons of Jackson and Trump.) Jackson saw his election as raising the voice of the common man to its rightful place in politics. President Trump’s constant invocation of representing the forgotten common man played well with working-class white Americans, especially working-class Evangelicals from revivalist traditions. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, believes “Mr. Trump is America’s blue-collar billionaire,” claiming Trump was “down-to-earth. He loves America and the American people. He is a true patriot and a champion of the… Read More

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The Elusive Gay Gene

I write this as a response to various discussions in which I have been involved. As a professing Bible-believing Christian, I hold the view that God intended and created marriage as the vehicle in which sexual union is licenced between one man and one woman. And that the Bible quite plainly teaches that sexual activity outside of marriage is not in accord with His intentions – His ‘blueprint’ for mankind. Inevitably, in our current social climate, this exposes me to accusations of ‘homophobia’, bigotry – and many other appellations which accompany the outrage which is stirred when someone declares a belief that goes against the ‘PC’ ruling. I refuse to be ‘speech-policed’ or ‘thought-policed’ by bullying attitudes and reactions which will not tolerate disagreement. But I do wish to lay out, so that it can be clearly seen and understood, some of the thinking behind the view I hold. First let me say that my personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ has imbued my old, stubborn, selfish heart with new life and new love. That happened over fifty years ago. I can honestly say that I bear no hatred whatsoever for any other mortal man or woman. Indeed, God’s Spirit within me presses me to do good indiscriminately to all, even to those with whom I disagree on any count. So the accusation that because of what I believe about sexuality, and the fact that I hold that homosexual activity goes against the moral directives of God to man, as explained in the Bible – the accusation that this causes me to ‘hate’ gays is totally false and unfounded. Indeed, those who have made that accusation online have no grounds or basis to do so; they know relatively nothing about me, and thus their attitude is judgmental in… Read More

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