A Declaration Grace
By Neil C. Olsen.
“We gather here to solemnly bless the bounties of Nature that we are about to receive. We thank the Creator for the universe he has endowed to us, and for the food that sustains our life. We appeal for the continued protection of Divine Providence that guided our ancestors, and on whom we ever rely on to protect ourselves, our nation, and our children, and preserve all our liberties, so that all the powers of the earth may not prevail against us. And we pray that when we come before the Supreme Judge of the world that our intentions be judged as right, and our actions as good. Amen.”
I attended recently a meeting of the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence in New Haven, Connecticut. After entering the Graduate Club at Yale for their opening night dinner, I was asked if I wanted to give the grace before dinner. Apparently, they were desperate and would take anyone who would volunteer. I said, half in jest, I could give one based on “Natural Religion” – a idea that forms the basis behind the common morality of the founders. I received a horrified look, and was told that they usually used an Episcopalian prayer. I offered to find a Book of Common Prayer, and then quickly suggested that the President, a marvelous speaker, give his usual grace. He did, and it was elegant and moving. I was quite relieved they did not take me up on their offer.
However, I also felt a twinge of regret that I didn’t give the prayer.
The Declaration is a fine gem, and a well cut gem has many facets. If you look at the Declaration from the facet of religion, you find it rich, colorful, and complex; you see the hopes and conflicts of the men who contributed to it. My recent book, Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress, looked into the religion and morality of the men who contributed to its development. A great deal of nonsense has been written about whether the founders were religious, or if the declaration is. In fact all the men 106 men I looked at were adherents to some sort of Protestant Christian denomination, except Benjamin Franklin – who nevertheless occasionally went to church and advocated some form of what he called a “public religion”.
Let me make an argument for the religious nature of the founders based on three sets of data, which are discussed at some length in chapter 7 of my book Pursuing Happiness: the Organizational Culture of the Declaration of Independence.
1. Versions: There are seven extant drafts of the Declaration from Jefferson’s version 0 to the engrossed copy. Jefferson wrote of “Nature and Nature’s God”, “creation”, and “sacred” truths and “sacred” honor. While many considered him a Deist, as I did in the book, I would instead now call him an Anglican who embraced a Natural Religion based theology – defined by Rev. William Wollaston to be “the pursuit of Happiness by the practice of Reason and Truth”, and by the American Dr. Samuel Johnson as “pursuing your true Happiness by the universal practice of Virtue”. The Committee of Five contained two Congregationalists : Adams who was almost a Unitarian, and Roger Sherman, a New Light Evangelical Congregationalist. It has two Anglicans (i.e. Church of England): New York Anglican (Livingston), and Natural Religion Jefferson. It had one almost Deist, Franklin, who was not affiliated with a single denomination, but believed in divine providence and a public religion. Jefferson’s rather lawyerly first draft avoided religion as was the normal habit of even devout lawyers when crafting such political documents. The Committee of Five, in editing, replaced his lower case “creation” for a capitalized “Creator”, and dropped one “sacred” in the text but kept the other. The Committee of the Whole in editing the revised work added two new religious phrases: “Divine Providence” and “The Supreme Judge of the World”.
2. Trilogy God. The Natural Religion phrases “Nature and Nature’s God” and “the pursuit of Happiness” both suggest that Jefferson’s original draft embraced a non-denominational but tolerant abstract God based on the Religion of Nature. So did all men of the American Enlightenment, including Reformed Puritans, Deists, Social-Anglicans, and the more edgy northern Anglicans. But the two Committees added three more constructs: a Creator, a concept beloved of Deists. Divine Providence, beloved of Anglicans and their history-based church that believes God watches and governs the world through history. And a Supreme Judge beloved of Puritans. The God of the Declaration is a Trilogy God, not so much non-denominational or secular, as ecumenical. The Declaration’s God of Nature has three parts: Creator, Governor, and Judge.
3. Biography. In my book, I analyzed the religion and morality of 106 men who contributed the Declaration. All believed there should be a “public religion”, including Franklin and Jefferson. All believed in God the Creator. All believed in a God of Providence. All believed in the God of Nature, and all but the Calvinists and possibly the Quakers believed in Natural Religion and “the pursuit of Happiness” as a moral right if not obligation – this would be about three quarters of the contributors.
So if you wanted a table grace based on the ideas in the Declaration, it might go like this.
A National Table Grace
“We gather here to solemnly bless the bounties of Nature that we are about to receive. We thank the Creator for the universe he has endowed to us, and for the food that sustains our life. We appeal for the continued protection of Divine Providence that preserved our ancestors, and on whom we ever rely to protect ourselves, our nation, and our children, so that all the powers of the earth may not prevail against us. And we pray that when we come before the Supreme Judge of the world that the rectitude of our intentions be judged as right, and our actions as good. Amen.”
Or perhaps more simply:
“Bless this food the in the Name of Nature and Nature’s God, who endows us with life, preserves our liberty, and ever leads us in the pursuit of Happiness, amen.”
Note: the image is taken from a window at Christ Church in Philadelphia; it depicts the opening prayer in the first Continental Congress.
Courtesy of Christ Church Philadelphia,
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