Benjamin Franklin’s Religion

A month or two ago I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. It took quite a long time, it is a hefty book, but if you have been bitten by the history bug it is worth it. I wasted so much of my life avoiding knowing anything about history that now I am making up lost time, but this is not a book review. This is about Benjamin Franklin’s religious views in so far as I understand them from this one book; I did read Franklin’s autobiography but so long ago it hardly counts.

Franklin was raised in a devoutly Puritan home, taught good Calvinist theology, and turned away from it. I spent part of my life rather enamored of the Puritans, and to some extent I still find admirable qualities in their thinking and their lives. I was curious why, of the two great geniuses of mid-eighteenth century America, one – Benjamin Franklin – ran away from it and never looked back, while the other – Jonathan Edwards – became the greatest American theologian of his century. These two men form the north and south poles of the American spirituality that developed afterwards and it seems worthwhile to think about it.

Franklin was at first a Deist. Now Deism is a theological view for which I can find nothing respectable. Franklin, while attracted to its rationalist character, soon realized that Deism was lacking a fundamental quality that he desired in religion: a moral standard. The Deists may have been rational (I’ll withhold my opinion on that one as too big a can of worms), but they had no foundation on which to build an ethical code.  Franklin did not last many years as an enthusiastic Deist and had soon drifted back toward a slightly more biblical framework. Slightly. Franklin was most essentially a pragmatist; what he wanted from a religion was some guidance on the best way to live, and the Deists had nothing helpful on that score.

Franklin was in the center of the religious storm that was raging in that century. It was the time of the Great Awakening, the first charismatic renewal to hit America, and one of the great evangelists of the day, George Whitefield, was a close acquaintance and correspondent with Franklin until his death. Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house, Franklin attended many of Whitefield’s tent meetings, and Franklin thought so highly of Whitefield’s sermons that he occasionally published the entire text on the front page of his newspaper. Whitefield is what today would be called an evangelical. He was his century’s Billy Graham.

But he had little effect on Franklin’s faith. Franklin cast around through his whole youth for what was viable spiritually and did not find it in traditional Christianity. The evangelists, the denominations ranging from Puritan to Congregationalist to Presbyterian to Anglican to Quaker to Deist left him unsatisfied and he filled in the vacancy according to his own abilities.

The result was summarized shortly before he died. Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale, wrote to Franklin asking him to summarize his religious views. His response was brief and to the point. He believed in one God, that God was benevolent, that men ought to worship God, and that the service God expected was that we do good to our fellow man. Franklin’s ethical code put service to mankind at the pinnacle of righteousness and he endeavored to live by his code.

The weakness in a “self-made religion” in Franklin’s case was that it was notably lax in personal morality. I don’t just mean sexual morality; I mean simple kindness toward others. Franklin treated his wife incredibly cruelly, all but abandoning her, leaving her alone for the last decade of her life while she grew old and lonely and died. He had found other more intelligent and interesting women in France and in England that over shadowed his commitment to Deborah. He was cold to his devoted daughter Sally, who always tried to win his approval and never got it. He was positively cruel to his illegitimate son, William, whose wedding he would not attend, whose son he turned against him, for whom he refused to intercede when he languished in a patriot prison for being loyal to the British government and during which imprisonment his wife died, and whom he abandoned in England after the war with no kind word whatsoever. Franklin went so far in his unkindness to William as to insist that the peace treaty ending the Revolution had provisions that would ensure William would get no compensation for losing everything in the war. The practice of taking revenge, of holding a grudge, of refusing to forgive, these are all things Franklin could have been cautioned to avoid in church, as the most basic of Christian ethics, but somehow never heard.

Ezra Stiles did ask him one other revealing question: did he believe in Jesus? Franklin’s response is the revealing part: he told Stiles that no one had ever asked him that question. In the middle of what must be the eighteenth century Bible belt, all through being in the center of the Great Awakening and hobnobbing with the greatest evangelist of his day, no one had ever asked if he believed in Jesus, or what he believed about Jesus. Perhaps it is an indication of my own prejudices here, but isn’t what Christians believe about Jesus the center of everything Christians believe? Isn’t the character and person of Jesus the foundation of all Christian belief and life and thinking and speaking, or shouldn’t it be? The only adequate way to describe my reaction to this bit of information is that I was flummoxed. Franklin went on to respond that at that late point in his life he didn’t think it was worthwhile thinking about the question since he would know the answer soon enough by direct experience.

But now that I think about it, I am not surprised. I grew up in the so-called Bible Belt. Down there everyone was a professing Christian. It only occurred to me recently to wonder why that part of the country was never called, was never in danger of being called, “the Jesus Belt”. Perhaps it is simply a long standing part of the American tradition to emphasize commitment to the Bible and as far as possible leave Jesus out of it. That explains a lot that might otherwise be puzzling about American history. We have invented a “Christianity without Christ”, fundamentalist Christian no less than the more up-front liberal Christian. How else could we get away with calling ourselves a Christian nation while behaving as un-Christ-like as we have? The question as to whether Benjamin Franklin was a Christian or not (which is an absurd question for a Christian to ask anyway) is unanswerable anyway. He had never heard the gospel, the essence of what is most important and basic to the faith. He had neither accepted nor rejected faith, he simply had no idea what it was about. It suggests to me that we have always been a nation of people who didn’t know what was going on, who didn’t know what the questions were. We have never been a Christian nation. At best we have been a Christianish nation.

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2 Comments on “Benjamin Franklin’s Religion”

  1. Eric Alagan Says:

    Good read and thank you.

    When I engage a plumber, I form an opnion based on his punctuality, charges, competence as a plumber and how well and clean he leaves my place after performing his task.

    So it is in life – for me. I believe we all come here to accomplish certain tasks – whatever and however big or small these might be.

    To me it matters not whether the plumber is a devout Christian (or any other denomination) but only that he is an excellent plumber.

    • I agree in the hiring of plumbers. I write about the religion of this particular man because I think it is interesting to see a bit of how their religious views affect their choices as they live. His spiritual life was interesting both because he played such a prominent part in the American revolution but also because he lived in a transitional time in which the West as a whole was turning a spiritual corner. He would probably have made a good plumber if he had wanted to and if indoor plumbing had been common.
      I try to make it a habit to not judge a person’s spiritual condition by their religious views. It is treacherous ground. But the spiritual choices we make are the most important ones. It is worth considering the choices others make and how it worked out for them, sometimes to follow their example and sometimes to be warned away from it.
      It is good to have you back Eric.

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