Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Separation of Church and State Myth: Part 3 – Devine Providence and the Great Seal of the United States


On September 6, 1774, a motion was made for the first Continental Congress to begin the next day’s meeting with a prayer.  A handle full of objections were made.  Samuel Adams arose and said according to John Adams’ diaries,  “I am no bigot, and could hear a Prayer from any gentleman of Piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his Country.”

As John Adams further noted in his diaries, the objections to the prayer were made not for belief that religion had no place in government, but because not all in attendance were of the same faith.  “[W]e were so divided in religious sentiments -- some were Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists.”

As a result of Sam Adams’ declaration the motion carried. “Resolved, that the Rev. Mr. Duché be desired to open Congress tomorrow morning with prayer, at Carpenter's hall, at nine o'clock.”

On September 7, 1774, the first Continental Congress opened with the follow devotion:

"O Lord! our  heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth, and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all kingdoms, empires, and governments. Look down in mercy, we beseech thee, on these our American States who have fled to thee from the rod of the oppressor, and thrown themselves on thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on thee … All this we ask in the name, and through the merits of Jesus Christ thy Son and our Savior. Amen"

It would take nearly two years for that same Congress to declare our independence from Britain. “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States [emphasis added].”

The founding fathers believed that they had been called to a higher purpose by God, that Devine providence guided their labors in creating this new country.  Benjamin Franklin spoke of this before the Continental Congress.

"We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that 'except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who 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"

While serving on the first committee, Benjamin Franklin suggested in August 1776, a scene from Exodus be used for the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States:

Pharaoh sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his head and a Sword in his hand, passing through the divided Waters of the Red Sea in Pursuit of the Israelites: Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Cloud, expressive of the divine Presence and Command, beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the Sea causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.

Along with the imagery from Exodus (pictured above), Franklin suggested the motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God,” be inscribed with it.  Even though Franklin’s suggestion was recommended by the committee it was not used on the final version.  However, Thomas Jefferson became so enamored with it that he took the motto for his own private seal (pictured below).


It is believed that Franklin’s motto inspired the motto that ultimately became selected for the Great Seal, “Annuit Coeptis,” or God has favored our undertakings.

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