It was July 4, 1776, and for the past two days the Second Continental Congress had debated the wording of a proposal for legal separation from Great Britain. Finally on the Fourth, after approving the final wording of the document the Declaration of Independence was read publically for the first time. Then a few hours later the Congress took their next step to demonstrate independence by appointing a select committee to create the Great Seal of the United States.
The creation of a seal for the new country was regarded as so critical to the Congress that it was made the next item on the agenda. The seal would not only be a symbol to the world of the new nation’s sovereignty, but also a symbol of the nation’s promises made in treaties, trade agreements, and other documents. Along with the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress wanted the nation’s seal to proclaim to the world and to posterity the beliefs they cherished. They wanted the seal to be the nation’s coat of arms expressing their vision to the world and the future.
In the official minutes of that momentous day’s proceedings we read:
“Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.”
And for the purpose of bringing in a device for a seal, the Congress looked to three of the five men who had drafted the Declaration of Independence. Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, were respected and trusted by the other delegates and thus appointed with this important task. Surprisingly, after working independently for several weeks, two of the three men came back with similar designs. Both Franklin’s and Jefferson’s design depicted the Children of Israel being led by the Lord God out of the bondage of Egypt. Benjamin Franklin’s proposal comes down to us in his own handwriting:
Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.
Jefferson proposed a similar Biblical image showing the Children of Israel being led by the Lord God through the wilderness with the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The committee of three presented the proposals to the Congress on August 20 but the designs were deemed too complicated to be put onto a seal. Although another design for the Great Seal of the United States was eventually adopted (see back of the dollar bill) these first proposals by Franklin and Jefferson reflect the founding generation’s conviction that this was a nation that had been led and blessed by God. God was going before them and leading them from bondage into liberty.
The image of being led by God on the exodus journey to freedom ran deep in the American grain. The idea of the exodus journey had long been a part of the American consciousness. The Pilgrims at Plymouth imagined themselves on an exodus journey in which they had been led and cared for by God. They offered up thanks to the Lord for delivering them out of the house of bondage in Europe, bringing them through the Atlantic Red Sea and opening up before them a rich promised land. They were bolstered by believing that they were led and watched over by God. They were not alone in their venture.
Eleven years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitutional Convention had broken down from bitter, rancorous debate over many issues. Some delegates had given up any hope for resolution and angrily walked out. The remaining delegates could see no way through the morass of problems and feared that the fledgling nation would collapse in bitter dispute.
It was then that Benjamin Franklin took to his feet to address the discouraged delegates. At 81 years of age Franklin commanded the respect of everyone in the room. The man who had once proposed the image of the Lord leading his people on an exodus journey to be the Great Seal was still looking to the Lord God for His guidance and blessing. James Madison kept meticulous notes of the Constitutional Convention and recorded for posterity Franklin’s sober appeal in the hour of crisis:
How has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understanding? 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…And now we have forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine 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 God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without His aid?
We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the house, 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.
Not unlike the discouraged delegates at Philadelphia, or the anxious Pilgrims at Plymouth, the way ahead for us today seems hard. Many are fearful about the future and especially our children’s future. We cannot see a way out of our moral and economic mess. We are threatened on all sides by an eroding dollar, unemployment, terrorism, pensions drying up, and increasing lawlessness. We wonder what to do.
But from our nation’s earliest days, the people of God have regularly resorted to prayer in time of need, and as Franklin observed, their prayers have been graciously answered. Time and again the God who governs in the affairs of nations has made a way through the wilderness.
Yes, Dr. Franklin, you are right: “Without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel.” What better way to observe the birthday of our nation; that after first giving thanks, to then humbly apply ourselves “to the Father of lights” for His assistance and blessing. It is ever the purpose and will of God to lead people out of bondage and oppression into liberty. So let us pray!
A Blessed Independence Day!–Tim Smith
P. S. For an insightful reflection on our Founders and the Declaration of Independence, go to our Website and click on “Tim’s Thinking”, then go to “Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence”.
Photo by drbueller