Ben Franklin on the Psalter Hymnal

I wasn’t expecting to find a commentary on the URC Psalter Hymnal any more than you were expecting to read this strange title line as I studied The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates for my world-views course a few weeks ago.  But what caught my attention, surprisingly, was a speech by Benjamin Franklin.

The Constitutional Convention of the United States had convened from May to September, 1787, plagued with a host of disagreements and an unrelenting barrage of debates on the proper structure of American government.  Now, on September 17th, a final draft of the Constitution had been presented to the weary delegates, yet objections to its contents had not subsided.  Franklin composed this speech as a plea for his fellow Americans to unite in support of the young nation as it made its first steps toward constitutional government.  The address was recorded in the notes of the tireless James Madison.

While his speech doesn’t actually mention hymnals, or anything related to Christian worship for that matter, Franklin’s comments on the need for federal unity are too applicable to omit.  I was particularly struck by the similarities between the delegates’ deliberations on the Constitution and the URCNA’s deliberations on the proposed Psalter Hymnal.  As you consider this speech, imagine replacing each instance of the words “government” with “URCNA,” “convention” with “synod,” and “constitution” with “Psalter Hymnal.”  Try to think of “foreign nations” as “sister denominations” and “constituents” as “home churches.”  You may be surprised at how well Franklin’s speech fits in both cases.

Mr. President: I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.  For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.  It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.  Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.…But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said ‘I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right—Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.’

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.  I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution.  For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.  From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?  It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.  Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.  The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.  I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad.  Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.  If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

(Available online from Yale Law School; emphasis added.)

What might we be able to learn from Ben Franklin’s address?  At this point in the URCNA’s history, discussion and debate about the proposed Psalter Hymnal are healthy ways for us to work out as many of the kinks as possible prior to publishing the book.  But if and when the hymnal is finalized, how willing will our churches be to support it?  Will we be able to humbly lay aside personal preferences and minor quibbles and work together for the good of our federation?  Will we be able to acknowledge that God is glorified through sincere Biblical worship, even if we don’t sing out of the blue Psalter Hymnal?  Will we be united Reformed churches or untied Reformed churches?

Overall, Ben Franklin’s plea was successful.  Although a few delegates still refused to put their names to the Constitution, the document was approved and eventually ratified by every one of the states.  As his notes on the Constitutional Convention wound to a close, James Madison mentioned Franklin’s final comments:

Whilst the last members were signing [the Constitution], Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.

May God allow the same to be true of the United Reformed Churches of North America.

–MRK

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2 Responses to “Ben Franklin on the Psalter Hymnal”


  1. 1 Leonard Lodder June 15, 2012 at 12:18 am

    read your comments on Ben Franklin. Interesting. A couple weeks ago, reading a some pieces in a christian history text, I ran across a quote attributed to Franklin early in constitutional congress debate where tempers ran high and productivity low. Seems he recommended that each session be started in earnest prayer to almighty God and that following his advice, the effect led to greater productivity and the debates became friendlier. Humility achieved through prayer seemed to have a good effect.

    Not sure how true this was, but your comments seem to lend credence to the account.

    • 2 Michael Kearney June 15, 2012 at 9:31 am

      I’ve heard some differing accounts of the quote you mentioned. Sadly, I’m not sure the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were very Christ-centered in their approach. But Franklin’s advice was still good, and I’m thankful that synod opens and closes each session with prayer.

      This also leads to the pesky question: Was Ben Franklin a Christian? Ultimately, only God knows…and besides, that’s a topic for another blog…

      Thanks for commenting!

      –Michael


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