Righteousness Exalteth A Nation
Ezra Taft Benson
Provo Freedom Festival
Sunday, June 29, 1986, 7:30 pm
[Jacob’s note: As far as I can tell, the text of this speech is not on the internet anywhere in its entirety. I have only been able to find a few quotes from it. I used an OCR app to pull the text off some of my documents and then edited the speech to clean it up. Let me know if you find any errors! Enjoy!]
My fellow Americans. I would like to use as a text for my address this day a verse from the Old Testament. The book of Proverbs says: “Righteousness exalteth a nation" (Proverbs 14:34). This is the key to understanding our heritage and this is the key to maintaining it. The foundations of America are spiritual. That must never be forgotten nor doubted. Lest we forget, let us review those beginnings, looking for the spiritual moorings which underpin our nation.
This nation began with the founding of Plymouth Colony in 1620. You are all familiar with the pilgrimage which brought the Puritans to this land.
They had come to these shores under financial sponsorship of the Virginia Company of London and of Plymouth, England. Their intent was to settle in the Virginia Colony, but they landed far to the North where the King of England had no authority. Since England had no government for them, they decided to form a government of their own! Assembled in the cabin of the Mayflower, 41 adult males formed a compact as the source of their authority.
That compact was drafted in “the name of God.” Their reasons for a government were also asserted: “For the Glory of God” and “the advancement of the Christian faith." These are the twin pillars of our religious freedom in this nation. One hundred and two pilgrims had left England for the promised land. Fifty-one, just half the colony, survived the ﬁrst winter. Not one of the survivors returned to England. They formed a commonwealth based on the principle of religious liberty — faith in an omnipotent God.
Aye, call it holy ground,
The soil where they ﬁrst trod,
They have left unstained what they found—
Freedom to worship God.
Hardly had the new nation had its beginning than oppression came from the mother country. Injustice, oppressive taxation, the despised navigation acts—led the colonists to deliberate on their rights and liberties under the crown. A petition to the King failed. Then the “shot heard ’round the world” was ﬁred at Lexington.
A short time later, in the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and declared independence from England. The main doctrine of that crowning document—the Declaration of Independence—is this: That the Creator (God) endowed all men with basic rights, and that governments derived their powers from the consent of the governed. Until the American Revolution, a millennium of political tradition vested powers only in monarchs and dictators. The framers of our Republic simply declared the truth—that God gave all men the right to life, liberty, and property. Man, therefore, was master over government rather than the other way around.
That is what the American Revolution was all about—not just a separation from England, but a separation from the historical tradition that made one man another’s chattel and denied all men liberty and property. While some vacillated on whether to separate from England and adopt the Declaration of Independence, the sentiments of John Adams were described by Daniel Webster as follows:
Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote. It is indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence. But there’s a divinity which shapes our ends….Why then, should we defer the Declaration?
You and I, indeed, may rue it. We may not live to the time when this Declaration shall be made good…but whatever may be our fate, be assured,…that this Declaration will stand. It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood: but it will stand, and it will richly compensate for both….
My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment. Independence now, and independence forever! (The Works ofDaniel Webster, 4lh ed., 1851, 12133-136)
From the standpoint of numbers, equipment, training, and resources, the rag-tag army of the Colonists should never have won the war for independence. But America’s destiny was not to be determined by overwhelming numbers, or better military weapons or strategy. As Adams declared: “There’s a divinity which shapes our ends.” (Shakespear) God took a direct hand in the events that led to the defeat of the British. When the war was over, here is how Washington ascribed the victory:
The success, which has hitherto attended our united efforts, we owe to the gracious interposition of heaven, and to that interposition let us gratefully ascribe the praise of victory, and the blessings of peace. (Letter to the Executives of New Hampshire, November 3, 1789)
It seems fashionable today for historians to “secularize” our history. Many modern scholars seem uncomfortable with the idea that a divine power had a hand in the beginning of our nation. They seek to explain away what the colonists themselves saw as divine intervention in their behalf. They credit even those remarkable events to “natural causes" or “rational” explanations.
All events are explained from a “humanistic” frame of reference. This removes the need for faith in God or a belief that He is interested in the affairs of men.
But the founding fathers had no problems seeing the hand of the Lord in the birth of the nation. As we have noted, George Washington gave direct credit to God for the victory over the British in the Revolutionary War. But that did not end the need for inspiration and Divine help. The newly formed nation was hardly a united commonwealth. At best it could be described as a federation of colonies loosely held together by the Articles of Confederation. Under this instrument, the nation had no head — no president, and no supreme court — only a congress devoid of any power! In addition, rebellions and potential anarchy threatened the victory won by war.
Providentially, a Constitutional Convention was called in 1787. We celebrate that 200th anniversary next year. The delegates met from May 25‘11 to September 17th with George Washington president. A central issue was whether they were to merely revise the Articles of Confederation or write a new constitution. Debates were earnest and at times it appeared that the convention was deadlocked. On one of those occasions, the elder statesman of the group, Benjamin Franklin, appealed to the delegates. He declared:
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 probable 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 Babe1;…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. (Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1837, pp. 155-56)
The deadlock was broken. Compromises were made. A constitution was drafted. And 39 of 55 delegates signed it. Again, I would ask: Why is it that the references to God’s inﬂuence in the noble efforts of the founders of our Republic are not mentioned by modern historians? Listen to the convictions of two of these delegates to the Constitutional Convention. First, Charles Pinckney:
When the great work was done and published, I was…struck with amazement. Nothing less than the superintending Hand of Providence, that so miraculously carried us through the war…could have brought it about so complete, upon the whole.
Here is another testimony, this from James Madison, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Constitution:
It is impossible for the man of pious reﬂection not to perceive in it a ﬁnger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution. (The Federalist Papers, No. 37)
The fact that our founding fathers looked to God for help and inspiration should not surprise us, for they were men of great faith. These men had been raised up speciﬁcally by the Lord so they could participate in the great political drama unfolding in America. President Wilford Woodruff, while serving as an apostle and also president of the St. George Temple, said:
I am going to bear my testimony to this assembly, if I never do it again in my life, that those men who laid the foundation of this American Government…were the best spirits the God of Heaven could ﬁnd on the face of the Earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord. (Journal of Discourses, Sept. 16, 1898, p. 89)
Yes, our nation’s foundation is spiritual. Without spirituality, we are no better than any of the other nations which have sunk into oblivion. Our founding fathers, with solemn and reverent expression, voiced their allegiance to the sovereignty of God, knowing that they were accountable to Him in the day of judgment. Are we less accountable today? I think not. I urge you to keep the commandments and to pray for our nation and its leaders.
The founding fathers understood the principle that “righteousness exalteth a nation,” and helped to bring about one of the greatest systems ever used to govern men. But unless we continue to seek righteousness and preserve the liberties entrusted us, we shall lose the blessings of heaven. Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” The price of freedom is also to live in accordance with the commandments of God. The early founding fathers thanked the Lord for His intervention in their behalf. They saw His hand in their victories in battle and believed strongly that He watched over them.
The battles are not over yet, and there will yet be times when this great nation will need the overshadowing help of Deity. Will we as a nation be worthy to call upon Him for help? President Brigham Young said:
We all believe that the Lord will ﬁght our battles; but how? Will he do it while we are unconcerned and make no effort whatever for our own safety when the enemy is upon us?…The Lord requires us to be quite as willing to ﬁght our own battles as to have Him ﬁght them for us. If we are not ready for the enemy when he comes upon us, we have not lived up to the requirements of Him who guides the ship of Zion, or who dictates the affairs of the Kingdom. (Ibid.)
How do we prepare ourselves so God will intervene in our behalf in the days ahead? I would like to suggest four important things we can do.
1. We must both as individuals and as a nation, look to God as our maker and as the source of our freedoms and blessings.
Our nation has faced many crises since its founding. One of the most grave was the Civil War. Once again the Lord had raised up a great leader to be the man of the hour. Abraham Lincoln understood the spiritual foundations of America and the need for Divine help and guidance. He called upon the people to have a day of national fasting and prayer. His proclamation contains wisdom and counsel of great worth to us today:
“It is the duty of nations as well as men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
2. We must make the creation of quality family life a high priority in our lives.
Families are the foundation blocks of any society. When the majority of families are strong and self-reliant, the nation prospers and dwells safely. But today there are many forces pulling at the fabric of family life.
One of the primary goals of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter—day Saints is to support strong family life. We teach and emphasize that the key to family stability is a happy marriage based on family worship. Divorce is deplored. We are actively engaged in teaching fathers to be compassionate fathers, and mothers to be full-time mothers in the home. Fathers are commanded to take the lead in all spiritual matters.
We encourage parents to teach their children fundamental spiritual principles that will instill faith in God, faith in their family, and faith in their country. We plead with parents to spend time with their children, both in teaching them and in building positive relationships. These are the things that create and foster strong family units and a stable society.
3. We must become informed and knowledgeable citizens.
The prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” We must not let that happen here. There are two important things we must do:
a. We must study and learn for ourselves the principles laid down in the Constitution which have reserved our freedoms for the last two hundred years. If we do not understand the role of government and how our rights are protected by the Constitution, we may accept programs or organizations that help erode our freedoms. An informed citizenry is the ﬁrst line of defense against anarchy and tyranny.
b. We must teach our children about the spiritual roots of this great nation. We must become actively involved in supporting programs and textbooks in the public schools that teach the greatness of the early patriots who helped forge our liberties. We must teach our children that it is part of our faith that the Constitution of the United States was inspired by God (see D&C 101 :77, 80). We reverence it akin to the revelations that have come from His hand. The great heritage of freedom bequeathed to us by our forebears must be handed down to each succeeding generation with great care.
4. We must become actively involved in supporting good, wise and honest people for public ofﬁce and assume an active part in improving our communities.
Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is not enough that we wring our hands and moan about conditions in America. We must become responsible citizens and carry out our civic duty. We should be “anxiously engaged” in good causes and leave the world a better place for having lived in it (D&C 58:27).
My fellow Americans. We live in a great and glorious land. We have been the beneﬁciaries of great blessings from heaven. We must not ever forget the blessings that have been bestowed upon us. Our nation is still in deep need of the help of the Almighty. We need His inspiration. We need His guidance. We need His protection. When we as people not only desire to do His will, but determine we will do it, then we can expect that help from God.
I testify to you that the foundations of our country are spiritual. I testify that God has watched over us and blessed us greatly. I witness to you that those who keep the commandments of God will continue to be blessed in this land, for “righteousness exalteth a nation.” God bless us all to be faithful. And may our Heavenly Father bless this land and preserve our divine Constitution and the Republic which it established, I humbly pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.