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The Almighty and Ben Franklin

Editor’s note: This book was slated to be reviewed by Leslie G. Rubin (1954-2017). I took over the assignment and dedicate this review to her memory. Leslie’s book, America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class, will be published in March.  

What was the state of Benjamin Franklin’s soul? Thomas S. Kidd attempts to address this question.

Franklin was the most performative of the Founders, so the Baylor University historian has his work cut out for him. A title such as Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father could suggest a famous skeptic turning out to be a more fervent believer than we thought. That isn’t really Kidd’s bottom line, though. This round-up of everything the great journalist, politician, benefactor, diplomat, constitutional delegate, scientist, and inventor ever said about the Almighty leaves us with as complicated and elusive a Franklin as we had before. But it does put into sharp relief that this man of affairs, the pragmatist par excellence, paid constant attention to the spiritual and moral aspects of life.

As discussed previously in this space, being a practical idealist may seem paradoxical but it is uniquely American. One of the earliest, most striking, and most important examples of the combination is Benjamin Franklin—which explains how he could be styled “the first American” in H.W. Brands’s bestselling biography of a few years ago. Franklin was fascinated throughout his life with “applied Christianity,” to use Kidd’s phrase. The best Christian, by Franklin’s lights, was one who found ways to do good for others.

As an editor and printer, Franklin loved controversy and got involved in many theological disputes. But the various personae through which he delivered his musings about God and faith (among them Silence Dogood, Poor Richard, Philoclerus, even the Franklin who narrates the Autobiography) leave many ambiguities. The “Letter of the Drum,” for example, was published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730. Kidd says that it “satirized people’s gullibility about the supernatural,” and that it is attributed to Franklin—who also wrote a pseudonymous letter in response to the original letter. The Gazette was his newspaper, after all, and he was in charge of boosting its readership with compelling content centered on the issues of the day.

Kidd caps the episode with this parenthetical comment: “(It is difficult to follow the logic because Franklin is the author of both letters, one satire, and the other a criticism of satire. Neither is written in Franklin’s own voice. What position, we wonder, does Franklin actually take?)”

In other places in the book, he is more definitive. “Franklin’s Christianity was the religion of the enlightened individual,” he writes. He also says Franklin reacted against the stern orthodoxy of his Calvinist parents, which turned him toward deism, though not as radical a version as that embraced by his revolutionary ally Thomas Paine.

Kidd also happens to have written a life of George Whitefield, the wildly popular English evangelist who visited the colonies frequently, and who was instrumental in the Great Awakening. The friendship between Whitefield and Franklin is brought up a lot, and is said to have “tempered Franklin’s outspokenness against traditional faith.” There was “something about Whitefield’s preaching” that “helped Franklin stay tethered to the faith of his youth, even if he resisted embracing all of Whitefield’s doctrines.”

Franklin was one of Whitefield’s major promoters on this side of the Atlantic. “The new evangelical movement, to which Franklin was one of the prime suppliers of books,” helped him become the colonial version of a media mogul. Indeed Kidd does not shy from acknowledging the personal advantages to Franklin from forming an alliance with a revivalist with whom he disagreed about the main point of being a Christian. Evangelicals and reformers like Whitefield criticized “works-righteousness” as detracting from the importance of salvation through faith, whereas Franklin—the unrelenting author of works of various kinds that benefitted, and continue to benefit, humanity—tended to downplay the divinity of Christ and the infallibility of revelation. The two men did agree in being wary of organized religion as potentially breeding corruption, but that was about it.

Not just Whitefield but one of Franklin’s siblings, his evangelical sister Jane Mecom, his protégé in electrical experimentation, the Unitarian pastor Joseph Priestley, and Richard Price, a dissenting minister whom Franklin met in London while serving as the colonial agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly—all four worried about the fact that Franklin was not saved, and showed few signs of wanting to be. Price wished that Franklin shared with him “the animating hopes of a resurrection” to a life everlasting.

In short, this was a pragmatist who used religion pragmatically, as when, in the late 1740s, he wrote what Kidd calls a “Puritanesque” warning to his fellow Pennsylvanians. He was trying to persuade them to set aside Quaker pacifism and form a militia to fend off the aggressions of the French and their Indian allies. Kidd objects to Franklin’s “playing on colonists’ religious and racial trepidations.” (The campaign to recruit the militia was, however, a smashing success.)

Throughout the book, the facts are reported in a way that suggests self-interest on Franklin’s part, and I mean the quintessentially American kind, which is to say self-interest rightly understood. Kidd seems averse to tackling this subject head on but it is implicit in the narrative, as when he observes: “Franklin did not support Christ Church’s steeple merely to enhance the church’s visibility. It would make the church one of the highest structures in the city [of Philadelphia]—and a promising site for more electrical experiments.”

What the author seems to want to do, at least at certain points, is argue for an ever-more-religiously-convinced Franklin, one who showed a “growing openness to God’s active Providence” as his life went on. Excerpts from Franklin’s correspondence during the Revolutionary War suggest a desire to at least entertain the possibility of heaven and hell, with condign punishment for those who committed cruel acts of violence during that conflict. There are just too many stumbling blocks, however, to fully establishing this idea. Kidd refrains from pushing too hard on it. Late in the book he continues to describe Franklin as a deist.

To be sure, Franklin was arguably the most morally earnest deist ever, with his checklist of 13 virtues—the “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” that he was unable to complete, but that he summarized in the Autobiography. What Kidd calls his “continuing desire for an action-oriented, up-to-date version of Christianity” led Franklin to propose his own version of the Bible. He hoped it might calm the sectarian conflicts of his time and encourage good behavior in all who read it. The well-meaning quality of Franklinian Christianity comes through clearly even if this Founding Father’s religious life, in the spiritual sense, is only notionally sketched out.

Reader Discussion

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on January 03, 2018 at 07:57:44 am

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The Almighty and Ben Franklin | Top 100 Blog Review
on January 03, 2018 at 10:45:40 am

For what it's worth, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and Madison are easily recognized as what were called Puritan Independents between about 1620 and 1700. The Independents, called Congregationalists in New England, were the politically radical wing of the Parliamentarians who opposed Charles I after1628 and ultimately executed him on January 30, 1649. The other wing, the Presbyterians, were consistently much more conservative both politically and religiously. The Levellers were predictably Independents and the Grandees were predictably Presbyterians. Later, after 1660, the Independents were predictably republicans (called "radical Whigs" by some) and the Presbyterians were predictably Whigs.

In the beginning, the Independents in Parliament differed from their Presbyterians colleagues only on the point of church governance. In matters of church governance, the Independents rejected both a presbytery and an episcopacy. They rejected an established church and believed each congregation should be autonomous. They favored gathered congregations and had a very high tolerance for lay or mechanic preachers and teachers. It is a commonplace observation amongst theologians that rationalist and biblical literalist Puritan Independents who had read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius exhibited a marked tendency towards Sociniansim and Unitarianism. In England and the American colonies all of the radically non-conformist sects; Fifth Monarchist, Baptist, Quaker, Unitarian and Anabaptist congregations all grew out of Puritan Independent congregations. The tendency of Independency to spin off sects led Presbyterian polemicists like Thomas Edwards to label Independency the mother of heresy in 1646. In return, the "well affected" Independents who controlled the New Model Army purged the "malignant" Presbyterians from Parliament in Pride's Purge.

The story of how New England, particularly the Bay Colony, was ultimately captured by Presbyterians in the 1640s is interesting but far to long to go into here. It is sufficient to know that John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Wheelwright, John Winthrop, Thomas and William Rainborowe, Sir Henry Vane, the Younger, Hugh Peter, Henry Marten, Oliver Cromwell, John Lilburne, William Walwyn, John Milton, Isaak Newton and many others were all Independents.

Religiously doctrinaire Independents are indistinguishable from Presbyterians but the Independents' insistence on the autonomy of all congregations insured that heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy would be the rule amongst Independents. This was demonstrated in Massachusetts. After the political power of the doctrinaire Independents in Boston, Salem and Cambridge was broken in 1700, about 1/3 of Congregational congregations in Massachusetts became either Baptist or Unitarian congregations. The upper class tended towards the Unitarianism of the Harvard Divinity School and the working class tended towards the Baptist model.

It think that historians who call Franklin, Jefferson and Adams deists are either ignorant of church history or are trying to dress them in the robes of the French Enlightenment.

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EK
on January 03, 2018 at 16:39:40 pm

Lauren Weiner wrote, "Franklin was arguably the most morally earnest deist ever."

EK wrote, "It think that historians who call Franklin, Jefferson and Adams deists are either ignorant of church history or are trying to dress them in the robes of the French Enlightenment."

I'll follow Gregg Frazer on this one. Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison, etc. weren't deists but rather what he terms "theistic rationalists." Part of the problem is sloppy or disingenuous use of the word "deist," going back to Jefferson who tried to deflect criticism of his religious beliefs by referring to Jews as "deists." (Jews are theists, not deists.)

Matthew Stewart wrote an interesting but uneven book entitled "Nature's God" where he connected deism with Spinozistic pantheism. Unfortunately, Stewart cherry-picked his scholarship to back up his broad-brush claim that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were deists.

More generally, the "natural law" legal orthodoxy of his age posited that God was all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent. If Franklin was a deist, then he would have rejected this view of the Almighty.

Regarding the orthodox legal theology of the American Founding era, the 1778 Essex Result stated, “The reason why the supreme governor of the world is a rightful and just governor, and entitled to the allegiance of the universe is, because he is infinitely good, wise, and powerful. His goodness prompts him to the best measures, his wisdom qualifies him to discern them, and his power to effect them.” (Essex Result 1778/1966, 332) The Rev. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, used similar language in 1797, referring to “a Ruler all present, all powerful, and unchangeable and infinitely opposed to every iniquity.” (Quoted in Stewart 2014, 374)

James Wilson enunciated a more fulsome variant of the same legal theology: "His [God’s] infinite power enforces his laws, and carries them into full and effectual execution. His infinite wisdom knows and chooses the fittest means for accomplishing the ends which he proposes. His infinite goodness proposes such ends only as promote our felicity. By his power, he is able to remove whatever may possibly injure us, and to provide whatever is conducive to our happiness. By his wisdom, he knows our nature, our faculties, and our interests: he cannot be mistaken in the designs, which he proposes, nor in the means, which he employs to accomplish them. By his goodness, he proposes our happiness, and to that end directs the operations of his power and wisdom. Indeed, to his goodness alone we may trace the principle of his laws. Being infinitely and eternally happy in himself, his goodness alone could move him to create us, and give us the means of happiness. The same principle, that moved his creating moves his governing power. The rule of his government we shall find to be reduced to this one paternal command – Let man pursue his own PERFECTION and HAPPINESS." (Wilson 2007, 1:503)

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John Schmeeckle
on January 04, 2018 at 00:09:19 am

l would respectfully disagree. Franklin was a known Freemason, as were a third of the Constitution signatories. Freemasonry is notoriously syncretistic; it is quite doubtful that either he or Jefferson believed any of the NT miracle claims. But as the sad example of Thomas Paine proves, none of the Framers would have been at liberty to express that doubt openly.

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Alana
on January 04, 2018 at 12:07:14 pm

I think, perhaps, you don't fully understand English Independent sects. They, too, are notoriously syncretistic, much more so than English Presbyterianism which was pure Geneva Calvinism imported to England by way of Scotland and John Knox.

English Independents were influenced by earlier 14th C. reform movements such as Wycliff's Lollards and Jan Hus's Hussites. In the 16th C., the English reformation was also noticeably influenced by views other than Calvin's from the Continent. These influences included, among others, Nicholis's Anabaptist Family of Love in Münster the churches Zwingli established Zurich, Luther established in Germany, John Laski established in Emden. Some of these theologians were non-trinitarian and seriously questioned the divinity of Christ as well as the authority of popes and bishops.

The Scottish Presbyterian Church, the Kirk, was not as influenced by these other opinions as were the English because there was much less direct contact between the Scots and the reform movements in the Low Countries and the Rhine Valley. The Strangers' churches were open during the reign of Elizabeth I and were freely attended by English Puritans, particularly those in London and East Anglia.

The impulse towards trinitarian and nicene orthodoxy in 17th C. England stemmed chiefly from the need to accommodate the longstanding practices of the partially reformed church Henry VIII established and, after 1640, the need of the Parliamentarians to keep the Scots on their side rather than on the King's. The ideas of liberty of conscience, the opposition to the ex officio oath and autonomous congregations developed in response to the longstanding practice of the prerogative courts to question people about their recusancy and the exact nature of their religious beliefs. A wrong answer could get one burned at the stake or mutilated at a pillory as a heretic. Further, John Adams was openly a member of the Unitarian congregation in Braintree and everyone knew Unitarians believed Christ was a divinely inspired prophet, not a deity.

Further, the Independents were not usually biblical literalists. While they all believed God's Word can be found in the Bible, they did not believe that every word in the Bible was the Word of God. They recognized that over the centuries and over many translations from Greek, Hebrew and Latin to English errors had likely been incorporated. While most, if not all, would agree that Christ worked miracles they would also deny that anyone else, except perhaps Moses, ever did. They were quite equivocal on the virgin birth and flatly denied that the sacrament of communion was anything more than symbolic.

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EK
on January 04, 2018 at 16:16:05 pm

l appreciate your obvious expertise, EK. lt was my understanding that the "deist heresy" had infected the Church, but wasn't aware how broad its influence was. l'm surprised that Adams was a Unitarian (a Christian in name only). Without a virgin birth, you don't have a sinless sacrifice, and without a literal Adam and Eve, you don't have original sin, or a need for salvation.

What you are telling me is that the Framers' Christianity WAS Deism.

But still, it was hazardous (politically and socially) to voice one's dissent too openly.

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Alana
on January 04, 2018 at 16:34:54 pm

Alana, perhaps you didn't see my post of Jan. 3. Labeling some of the Founders' religious beliefs "deism," in my opinion, is painting with too broad a brush -- in particular, ignoring the difference between deism and theism (a distinction prominently marked by Shaftesbury, who was widely read at the time). Gregg Frazer, whom I mentioned before, is good at delineating the distinctions among Christian orthodoxy, theistic rationalism (or "natural religion"), and deism.

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John Schmeeckle
on January 04, 2018 at 16:41:23 pm

"But still, it was hazardous (politically and socially) to voice one’s dissent too openly."

After 1649 in both England and the American colonies the rule was very much "don't ask, don't tell."

Someone questioning and then criticizing another's religious beliefs was as hazardous as revealing them. That was the modus vivendi that emerged from the English civil wars of the 1640s. The ideal was Cromwellian latitudinarianism; as long as the religion in question was not aimed at overthrowing the government or disturbing the peace it should be tolerated. The Quakers ran afoul of this rule in England and Massachusetts between about 1630 and 1660. The Catholic counter-reformation ran afoul of this rule from 1558 until well into the 1670s.

As for deism, see Schmeekle's post below. I think he gets it about right although the difference between a deist and theist is terribly slippery. I describe them as simply non-trinitarian, non-nicene christians.

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EK
on January 04, 2018 at 16:42:31 pm

One more point Alana, Adams repeatedly conflated the "general principles of Christianity" with Ciceronian natural law, which was an axiomatic part of the Founders' legal education, rooted in the English legal classics, especially St. Germain's "Doctor and Student."

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John Schmeeckle

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