Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ben Franklin's Religion

Depending on whom you read, our Founding Fathers were either Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting, God-fearing Christian men bent on establishing a government a little short of a theocracy or they were nigh-athiestic deists. Of course, you can't make such broad generalizations about "the founding fathers" since they were individual men from vastly different colonies and families. Of some of these men we know much of the religious opinions. Of others, we know little.

Now, after reading Walter Isaacson's wonderful biography of Benjamin Franklin, I know more of his ideas.

On page eight, we see that Franklin's father, Josiah, was "not zealous about his faith. He was close to his father and older brother John, both of whom remained Anglican." Isaacason quotes another source that says Josiah's spirit of independence and intellectual liveliness led him to become Puritans.

For reason of faith and finances, Josiah moved his family to America in 1683 after the fall of Cromwell's Puritan rule in England and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The trip took nine weeks and cost the equivalent of six month's salary. Franklin was born in American on January 17, 1706 in Boston.

Franklin was an excellent student and was set to go to Harvard, a training ground for ministers of the gospel at that time. His father decided against it, saying that Franklin was "not suited for the clergy" as he was skeptical, puckish, curious, irreverent (19).

Franklin had an interesting relationship with the famous evangelist George Whitefield and admitted to being stirred by his oratory skills. Franklin also helped print Whitefield's sermons, which made the preacher famous and the printer rich (111). Later, Franklin recalled that Whitefield "used, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard" (113).

Frankin completely abandoned the Calvinistic tenets of his father's religion and leaned closer to the deism that was the "creed of choice during the Enlightenment" (26). While living in London in 1724, Franklin printed Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated. This tract argued that religious truths were to be gleaned through the study of science and nature rather than through divine revelation (45). Frankling decided that Wollaston was right in general but wrong in parts (45). He set out his own ideas in A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. It was so bad that he later was embarrassed by its existence, burning as many as he could purchase.

As he wrote in his Autobiography, "The arguments of the deists which were quoted to be refuted appeared to me much stronger than the refutation" (46). However, Franklin's overriding concern over spiritual isses was its practicality and he thought that deism, "though it may be true, was not very useful" (46). The most useful was Christianity, though he admitted that the Bible "had no weight with me" (46). Because Christianity was so useful, Franklin "paid his annual subscription to support the town's Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Jedediah Andrews" (84).

Eventually, Isaacson writes that Franklin began to "embrace a morally fortified brand of deism that held God was best served by doing good works and helping other people" (46). To Franklin, the idea that people are saved by grace alone is "unintelligble" and "not beneficial" (46). Isaacson writes that Franklin believed that a faith in God was beneficial but his faith was devoid of "sectarian dogma, burning spirituality, deep soul-searching or a personal relationship to Christ" (85).

Franklin had "little interest in organized religion and even less in attending Sunday services" (84). However, he was a spiritual being. He opened his November 1728 essay Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion with the confession that "I believe there is one Supreme most perfect being" (85). As a deist of some sorts, he also stated that "I imagine it great vanity in me to suppose that the Supremely Perfect does in the least regard such an inconsiderable nothing as man" (85).

This "Supreme Being" was far above wanting our praise and worship. However, since humans want to worship something, Franklin wrote that his Supreme Being caused "there to be lesser and more personal gods for mortal men to worship" (85).

As he grew older and prepared to die, his "amorphous faith in a benevolent God seemd to become more firm" (467). He wrote after the war that "If it had not been for the justice of our cause and the consequent interposition of Providence, in which we had faith, we must have been ruined" (467). He convinced Thomas Paine to not publish an essay that ridiculed public worship (Paine withheld publishing the essay for another seven years.

Franklin's tolerance led him to contribute to the building funds of every single sect in Philadelphia, including the Jewish synagogue. At the July 4 celebration in 1788, at Franklin's direction, "the clergy of different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews, walked arm in arm" (468).

One month before he died, Franklin wrote a response to Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale University (still a religious school at the time). Franklin restated his creed: "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render him is doing good to his other children" (468).

Stiles had earlier asked Franklin if he believed in Jesus. Franklin said that was the first time he had ever been asked that question directly. WHAT AN INCREDIBLY TRAGIC STATEMENT!

Franklin responded by saying that "the system of morals that Jesus provided was "the best the world ever saw or is likely to see" (468-9). However, regarding the issue of Jesus' divinity, Frankling answered candidly, saying, "I have some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble" (469).

He was right in this statement. Frankling died at 11:00 PM on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. Twenty thousand mourners gathered in Philadelphia as his funeral procession travelled the route to Christ Church. In front of the casket marched the clergymen of the city - ALL OF THEM of EVERY FAITH.

Sadly, Franklin now knows the truth.

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