The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a judge to hold a Louisiana school board in contempt because someone said a prayer over the PA system before a high-school baseball game.[1]  During the critical days with tempers flaring in the July heat, Benjamin Franklin asked to be recognized and presented this memorable speech. Directing his words to George Washington, Franklin made the following plea:

In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when 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 Great 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? 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 Godgoverns 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 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 byword down to future age. 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.

You might recognize a number of biblical references cited by Franklin—Psalm 127:1; Matthew 10:29; Genesis 11:9; Deuteronomy 28:37; Psalm 44:13–14—and the repeated use of “Providence.” Franklin’s recommendations were not embraced immediately, but a paid chaplain system was instituted by Congress in 1789. The first Congress declared that “two Chaplains of different denominations … shall interchange weekly.” The House chose William Lynn, a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia, as its first chaplain, and the Senate picked Samuel Provoost, Episcopal bishop from New York. The chaplain system is still in effect. So it’s OK for the House and Senate to pay chaplains to open sessions with prayer, but it’s unconstitutional to say a prayer at a high school baseball game. If the ACLU had been present when Franklin addressed the Convention, representatives from the organization would have recommended that the elder statesman be taken away in irons and flogged.


[1] “ACLU: Punish officials for “un-American” prayer” (April 7, 2005):